Monday, November 11, 2013

Tradition thrives on sunny La Paz coast

I still remember the first bowl of “shrimp soup” (caldo de camarón) that I had at Bismarck Restaurant in La Paz, a laid-back small Mexican city on the Sea of Cortez in Baja California, some 25 years ago.

Expecting thin broth with a few specks of shrimp, I was astounded when presented with a huge bowl filled with the biggest shrimp I had ever seen, jammed into a steaming hearty consommé. Now this was seafood.

Many tourists just think of La Paz as a stopoff point on the way to Cabo San Lucas and San Jose to Cabo, but they are missing a delightful destination in itself, one of my own Mexican favourites.

Bismarck is still alive and well in La Paz, serving up astonishingly good food, and the town remains blissfully Mexican. If you long for the “real” Mexico, far from the posh palaces down at the Baja tip or elsewhere in the country, you just might find your heaven in La Paz, 190 kilometres north of the heavily touristed area of Los Cabos.

Home to some 250,000 and capital of the state of Baja California Sur since 1974, this is a traditional city with old-fashioned charm. While there are many “snowbirds” in the winter from colder climes to the north, La Paz always lives up to its translation, “The Peace.” There are plans to develop the area, especially its coastline, with golf courses, marinas and upscale resorts, so if you seek “the peace,” now is the time to visit.

All of Baja California has long been a hub for deep sea fishing, but I was surprised to see the considerable number of private yachts docked at La Paz’ three marinas. Most hotels can arrange charter trips, or you can contact the Fishermen’s Fleet to book an expedition at Fishing tournaments are held in August, September and October.

La Paz’s malecón, or boardwalk, lines the blue Bahía (Bay) of La Paz, while the city sprawls to the east. You will not find stellar beaches right in town (those are up to 25 kilometres away) — but you will find a lovely place to enjoy the sea view.

Strolling down the five-kilometre malecón and Paseo Alvaro Obregon in the early evening, it’s easy to blend in with the slow pace of the locals.
Bars and cafés offer seating with great ocean views, where you can sip on margaritas, sop up some shrimp in garlic butter and feast your eyes and tastebuds at the same time.

There’s plenty to do, or not do, in La Paz. Yes, diving and sport fishing are huge in the area, and aficionados of both sports use the city as a base to take off for Cerralvo, Isla La Partida (with a large sea lion colony on its rocks) and the Espirito Santo islands, chock-filled with tropical fish in turquoise waters surrounding a coral reef to rival the Caribbean.

North of town, especially up from Playa Pichilingue lie undeveloped beaches (playas) with clear blue water, excellent snorkelling and silky sand to compete with any you can find down in Los Cabos.

The area of Playa Balandra (20 kilometres north of La Paz) has a beautifully protected bay with several cosy coves, tranquil water, a coral reef, a few palapas for shade and no development. Playa Tecolote features a couple of authentic restaurants and bars lining a beach with water that’s just waist-high for many yards out.

Playa Tecolote is 25 kilometres north of La Paz, and does rent out beach chairs and umbrellas, small boats and kayaks.

Kayaking is very popular in the area, and the placid waters of La Paz are just right for paddling to some of the nearby islands. Various companies offer daylong and overnight trips, some of which include whale watching.

Grey whales spend the summer feeding and fattening up in Alaska, then begin their long yearly migration south to spend their winters in Baja California Sur.
They travel for two to three months to reach the Mexican waters, where they will mate and birth from mid-January to the end of March.

Large numbers of greys congregate in three Baja bays, including Laguna Ojo de Liebre, Laguna San Ignacio and Bahia Magdalena (the southernmost bay, three hours drive across the peninsula from La Paz.) Here, grey whales will sometimes swim near small boats and occasionally allow themselves to be touched.

La Paz is a good base point for whale-watching expeditions that depart from Bahía Magdalena (Magdalena Bay,) about 265 kilometres from La Paz, or about six hours total for the trip. This is where the visitors can see mother whales and their calves playing.

These trips usually entail spending one night in the small town of San Carlos rather than making it a one-day trip. The best time to view whales is from December to April.

There are also whale watching trips in the Sea of Cortez which leave from La Paz. These trips will not allow for as proximity to the whales as the trips to the Bahía, but will still provide fantastic whale sightings, including breeching and spouting.

The Museo Acuario de los Californias in La Paz, housed in the former governor’s mansion, showcases marine life in the Sea of Cortez. It is continually under expansion, and features both indoor tanks and outdoor ponds and waterfalls.

The aquarium is open from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. daily, and is on the road toward the beaches north of town
Baja California’s history and heritage is quite unique from the rest of Mexico, and the Museo de Antropología, open 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. daily, houses copies of Hernán de Cortes’s manuscripts from his first sighting of the area, as well as photos of Baja cave paintings, recreations of native villages and some artifacts — all signage is only in Spanish, but the museum staffers are happy to help translate.

The museum is steps away from the traditional zócalo, or main plaza, of La Paz, Plaza Constitución, where you might catch a concert in the gazebo, or a local art show.

The city’s Historic District features neoclassical architecture, with buildings dating from the early 20th century. The Antigua Casa de Gobierno del Territorio is now the Center for Popular Culture, housing exhibitions of art and traditions of the state, as well as of the rest of Mexico. La Paz’s City Hall and the Juarez Theater are also worth a look.

Baja California is famed for its seafood and most of all, for fish tacos. A visit to afore-mentioned Bismark can provide a taco fix, as well as a feast of Caldo de Camarón — grilled lobsters hanging over the sides of the plate — and overflowing seafood ceviches. The restaurant is a bit of a drive, but has a smaller site on the boardwalk as well.


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