La Paz means “peace” in Spanish, and the city’s Malecon offers the best glimpse into its mellow heartbeat. Renovated in 1997, this wide concrete boardwalk separates La Paz from the sea. My first evening there, as the sun bled into the water in shades of orange, yellow, and gold, I was joined on the Malecon by legions of La Paz locals. Young couples strolled arm in arm, kids played soccer in the sand, teens rode skateboards, and tourists posed in the golden light in front of the Malecon’s aquatic-themed statues: mermaids chasing dolphins, abstract sculptures that echo the fluttering canvas of the sailboats bobbing in the bay.
Look out across the water from the Malecon and you discover La Paz’s true allure: the Sea of Cortez — a body of water that Jacques Cousteau dubbed the largest aquarium in the world. More than 85 percent of the marine mammals in the Pacific and 35 percent of the marine mammals in the world call these waters home. From October to March, you can watch migrating whales from the Malecon, and between December and February, massive whale sharks make their seasonal cameo appearance.
The Sea of Cortez also has more than 900 islands, 244 bearing UNESCO World Heritage bio-reserve status, home to migratory birds and sea lions. Over the centuries, the wind and water have cleaved dramatic, 30-to-40-foot-tall cliffs into the islands’ volcanic strata. On the larger islands, you find small beachfronts with calm waters and fine-grain sand tucked into small coves. The region is heaven for sea kayaking, scuba diving, snorkeling and all manner of water play, enough to swallow weeks in heady aquatic exploration.
All about sustainability
As you’d expect, tourism is La Paz’s main economic engine, second only to government (the city is the capital of Baja California). Thankfully, La Paz stands in stark contrast to the development-at-any-cost mentality that has transformed Cabo San Lucas, 125 miles to the south, into a gaudy collage of skyscrapers and all-inclusives.
Take CostaBaja, the resort where I stayed, 15 minutes north of La Paz. It hardly felt genuinely Mexican: Renovation on the property started in November 2010, and today the resort boasts a 250-boat marina with shops, a tour operator, restaurants and a shell museum. A 115-room oceanfront hotel and spa offers access to three remote beaches and a country club, where you can order grilled shrimp tacos in soft tortillas and scallop crudo with olives, capers, citrus and olive oil and dine on a balcony that overlooks the 550-acre property.