By Will McGough
There’s something happening in La Paz.
You might not notice it if you pass through briefly, and you certainly won’t see it if you simply research online.
But, spend a long weekend in this seaside, Baja California city, and you’ll see – there’s a lot to like.
Although it’s only a two-hour drive north of Cabo, La Paz has always played second-fiddle to the spring-break festivities found in San Lucas, thanks, in part, to the abundance of money and marketing that has gone into developing and promoting the latter.
But, that lack of spotlight is probably what enabled La Paz to grow up and be itself (instead of what the international traveler wanted it to be, as is the case in parts of Cabo). The plan has been far from perfect physically – there are abandoned, failed projects lurking about.
Mentally, though, La Paz has succeeded in developing its own, unique personality, where when you visit, you feel like you’re in a place people actually live and work and study, which, believe it or not, here on the last day of 2019, is really something not all places can say. In this case, the bubbling of the town doesn’t come from tourism. It comes from the destination itself.
The Kids Are All Right
You can travel around to many of Mexico’s beach towns – Cabo, Cancun, Playa del Carmen, Puerto Vallarta – and none of them quite have the feel of La Paz.
For me, a lot of that is tied to one fact: La Paz’s strongest population segment is its student residents, who come from all over the country (and world) to study at the Autonomous University of Baja California Sur, considered to be a top choice for students studying marine biology.
This young, educated, ambitious population sets the tone for the vibe of La Paz, one that favors daily outdoor activities over late-night shenanigans. They are united by a strong commonality, a fascination with the place that surrounds them.
“La Paz is not just a vacation destination,” said Karla Baledon, local resident and Marketing Manager at Puerta Cortes Resort. “We have the best marine biology university in the whole country, surrounded by the Pacific Ocean and the Sea of Cortez. It’s a natural laboratory for students, who come from all around the world – that’s why we have a lot of younger citizens.”
Lots of Love for Nature
There’s a reason the country’s best marine biology program is located here. On the shores of the Sea of Cortez and close by to the mountains, La Paz offers easy access to nature. Snorkeling, swimming with whale sharks and sea lions, whale watching, sailing to offshore islands, scuba diving, fishing, isolated beach coves – it has it all on the water, and the peaks of the Sierra de la Laguna range will pique the interest of land rovers.
Tourism has a different feel because of it. People in La Paz care deeply about the environment, for both enjoyment and education, and so their businesses tend to reflect that. Baja Adventure Co’s tours, for example, include snorkeling with whale sharks and sea lions, but also how the latest conservation efforts are helping La Paz stay balanced. GoBajaSailing doesn’t just rent sailboats to visitors; it’s also a certified ASA sailing school that teaches students from all over the world (including live-aboard trips out to Espiritu Santo). These entanglements show how education, adventure, and travel/tourism are coexisting in La Paz.
When night falls, you can find students and young professionals at neighborhood bars, like the La Miserable Mezcaleria. The recently remodeled malecon along the bay harbors some hotels and foreign-focused restaurants, but its simple, meandering design, littered with small public parks, reflects the relaxed nature of its waterfront.
A perfect fit for now.
Right now everything in La Paz seems to fit together perfectly. You have students from all over the world studying marine biology, and the majority of the tourism industry revolves around the water. Tour companies who provide these services are a nice fit to empower these students, who have marine biology, ecology, and conservation top of mind, who see tourism as a tool for teaching, a way to apply their skills. So don’t be surprised if your scuba diving instructor is also a marine biologist.
“La Paz is a place for young people looking for a multicultural town, with geographical variety and many options for outdoor activities, like mountain biking, hiking, kiteboarding, scuba diving, and free diving,” Baledon said.
Though I can’t speak to the trials and tribulations of the past, the local government seems focused on keeping a tight grip on things going forward: the city limits and controls beach vendors, enforces strict regulations to protect its wildlife (especially the whale sharks), remodeled its waterfront with the local population in mind, and upholds certification requirements for tour companies.
In a country where many areas have gone the direction of mass tourism, it’s fun to find a different, measured approach taking place in La Paz, where, at least for now, everything is growing in harmony. What will the future hold? We’ll wait and see, but right now, it’s a place I want to explore more.
Check out my website.
I have been a full-time travel writer since 2010, a nomad-at-large and travel columnist, penning profiles, features, and dispatches from afar. My “wake and wander” travel philosophy embraces a curiosity about the way people live their lives in different parts of the world. I enjoy the idea of waking up every day to new opportunities, new landscapes, and the new feelings that the former inevitably evoke. I enjoy being outside. I have written stories for major travel publications around the globe, including Forbes Travel Guide, Conde Nast, Outside Magazine, Men’s Journal, the Travel Channel, AFAR, Backpacker Magazine, Travel Pulse, the Brewer’s Association, and many others. I am a graduate of Virginia Tech and will publish my first book, Swim, Bike, Bonk, in November with Globe Pequot.
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