I’ve been in La Paz, Mexico, for three days and the most dangerous thing I’ve done is snorkel with sea lions.

Right now, I’m sitting in the shaded section of the open-air Bimarkcito restaurant at a long communal table that’s cluttered with seafood — grilled yellowtail fish and fried shrimp tacos served with lime and tomatoes on flour tortillas, baby octopus cooked in butter and garlic, seviche made of white fish. The calm, sun-dappled waters of the Sea of Cortez glitter to my left as Paceños — La Paz locals — wander along the Malecon, or boardwalk, soaking in the warm midday sun of late spring.

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.

Nature’s aquarium

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.

What La Paz does have is an average of 340 days of sunshine per year, its coast buffered by steady, mellow 10-to-15-knot winds that draw legions of sea kayakers, stand-up paddlers, snorkelers and divers.

The population hovers at around 252,000, including about 6,000 from the United States and Canada — every expat I met had come to La Paz for a vacation and never left. The city also draws legions of “mainland” Mexicans; La Paz currently boasts the highest concentration of Mexicans with PhDs. And they’re all drawn by the city’s island vibe.

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.

Some elements, like the 18-hole golf course, struck me as excessive. The fairway grass, imported from South Africa, practically glowed neon against the surrounding arid landscape when I toured the property. And irrigation of the course seemed like a woeful indulgence, especially considering that La Paz had endured a three-year drought until last August.

But all the water used by CostaBaja originates from within the property. An on-site desalination plant pulls water from the Pacific and treats it to provide drinking water for the hotel and the houses and condos. Reclaimed sewage water from the resort keeps the fairways their brilliant green.

Thankfully, CostaBaja’s sustainability isn’t atypical; the city’s dearth of natural resources means that, unlike the case in Cabo and other high-end tourist magnets, any new developments must have a viable sustainability plan.

It was almost enough to persuade me to try golf. But my abbreviated schedule afforded only one full day in town, and I was determined to spend that exploring the Sea of Cortez.

Water play

On a bright, sunny morning, I met up with Fun Baja, the tour operator based in the CostaBaja marina, for a six-hour trip out to Espiritu Santo, a small archipelago composed of five smaller islands that serve as bird rookeries and the 60-square-mile main island, a playground of cliffs, mangrove-fringed lagoons and small sandy beaches.

The ride out passed in a blur of whitewater caps breaking in front of the boat, the ridge of the mainland gliding off to the right in concentric sine and cosine waves. As we broke from the mainland and headed toward Espiritu Santo, the sun started to warm my skin.

We glided into a small cove sheltered from the unruly sea. In the distance lay Ensenada Grande, an unpopulated stretch of beachfront. We unlatched open-water kayaks from the boat’s front deck and took them to the beach, along with the chef, a robust Paceño with a warm smile.

We returned to the open water, motoring for 10 minutes to Isla Partida, a small isle that’s home to a huge population of sea lions. They were everywhere, basking in the midday sun, swirling in the breakers, eyeing us with mild curiosity. The sound of their barking was sonorous and deep, surprisingly loud.

Our guide, Lorenzo, jumped into the water first, and we all followed. The cold water was bracing — at first I regretted not wearing one of the provided wetsuits. But soon all else was forgotten as we swam into groups of playful sea lions, keeping a smart distance from the massive bulls.

Lorenzo executed long, agile dives, coaxing the pups to twirl around him in a playful dance. I attempted the same, and stayed down until my lungs started to scream.

The pups paid me considerably less attention, so I headed toward a narrow arch carved into the towering rock. As I swam beneath it, the clear water became a brilliant blue. It felt as if I was swimming under the vaulted ceiling of an aquatic cathedral.

Then we returned to the postcard beach, where the chef had prepared a simple meal of white fish tacos with a sour cream cilantro sauce served with rice and lime. Ice-cold Sol Beer went down far too easily.

The remaining two hours were ours. I plied the waters on a stand-up paddleboard, then hopped into a sea kayak and explored the cove’s porous walls, spotting puffer fish and candy-red sally lightfoot crabs.

On our way back, a pod of dolphins spotted our boat and played in the surf at the ship’s prow, surfing in the whitewater before diving back into the deep.

As we turned toward the harbor and left the dolphins to more natural distractions, I turned my face into the sun, closed my eyes, and thought about the day that had passed, and about what John Steinbeck had written about La Paz in his nonfiction book, “The Log From the Sea of Cortez”:

“It would be good to live in a perpetual state of leave-taking, never to go nor to stay, but to remain suspended in that golden emotion of love and longing; to be loved without satiety.”

The book was published in 1951, but those words still reflect today’s La Paz, from the calm waters off its shores to the mellow parade of locals on the Malecon each evening to the brilliant taste of the chocolate clams that I’d experience just hours before flying home.

Details, La Paz, Mexico

Borchelt is a Washington-based travel writer and photographer.