Details, La Paz, Mexico
A plate of chocolate clams appears — their name derived from the light cocoa color of their shells — and a La Paz resident shows me how to eat the local delicacy: Squeeze lime juice onto the pulpy meat; if the clams squirm under the acid, they’re safe to eat. Then add soy and Salsa Huichol Picante sauce and slurp the whole thing in one sensuous bite. The flavor is spectacular: dense and fresh, the soy, lime juice and habanero hot sauce adding the perfect mix of tang and spice to the inherent brininess.
I wash everything down with a tall glass of Corona mixed with a half-cup of fresh lime juice served over ice, salt lining the rim, and get lost in the simple joys of simple food and the memories of the last 24 hours, time spent wandering the mellow streets of La Paz, paddleboarding on the calm waters of the sea, watching a pod of dolphins frolic in the wake of our speeding motorboat, and swimming with that playful sea lion colony.
Around that same time, 49 decapitated bodies were found in northern Mexico on a highway between the industrial hub of Monterrey and the U.S. border.
I reflect on these polarizing events not to trivialize the deaths of those unfortunate enough to get caught in the Mexican drug war, nor to play down its horrors. But those two extremes — feasting on freshly caught seafood in southern Baja while a gruesome tableau unfolds elsewhere — help illustrate the identity crisis that’s ensnaring Mexico.
On the one hand, there’s the Mexico that dominates the news and typically populates travelers’ perceptions. And on the other, there’s the Mexico that I experienced, one that exists beyond the headlines, a subdued, sun-soaked landscape of azure waters, frolicking wildlife and rolling mountains, with generous residents, spectacular cuisine and an easygoing lifestyle. This is the Mexico that La Paz typifies.
The city is fortuitously situated at the southern end of the Baja Peninsula, tucked into a protective cove off the Sea of Cortez a few miles north of the Tropic of Cancer, more than 18 hours by car and ferry from where those bodies were discovered. In La Paz, crime is astonishingly low. According to Mexico’s National Institute of Statistics and Geography, there were 15 murders there in 2011. The FBI crime database reports that San Diego had 38 murders that same year, San Francisco had 50 and Los Angeles clocked in with 297.