We sent our Texas Traveling Mom south of the border to La Paz Baja California Sur to check out this charming city as a potential family vacation spot. She’s got the scoop on everything from where it is to what to eat when you get there in this complete travel guide.
La Paz Baja California Sur: A Complete Travel Guide
La Paz is a charming city located on the southern tip of the Baja peninsula. Until I had the opportunity to visit, I’d never heard of it. I felt like I was vacationing in a secret destination not too many people know about and the thought of “I can’t believe I’m here” flitted through my head about every hour of my five-day trip.
I’d always thought La Paz was in Bolivia, which it is, but it’s also a city in Baja California. The Baja Peninsula is that little skinny tip on the atlas below the California-Mexico border. About 225,000,000 people live in La Paz, so it’s not a tiny speck on the map, although definitely not a bustling metropolis. This makes it the ideal place for a vacation.
La Paz is definitely not remote but it’s not a place where you’re going to encounter masses of other tourists, either…although tourism to this area (particularly eco-tourism) is definitely booming and as you read this guide, you’ll know why.
A Little Geography Lesson
The Pacific Ocean is on the west side of the Baja Peninsula (just a short jump across from La Paz) but La Paz itself sits right on the Sea of Cortez, which I think is pretty much the coolest body of water on this planet. Once you see it, you will think so, too. The Sea of Cortez is warm and shallow and visited by a bevy of marine life. There’s a permanent sea lion habitat and mariners frequently see whale sharks, blue whales, dolphins and orcas at various points in the year. La Paz is a mecca for anyone obsessed with marine biology. If you’re not obsessed with marine biology, a trip to La Paz just might change that.
How to Get to La Paz
One of the most common ways travelers from the U.S. get to La Paz is through Cabo San Lucas. Southwest Airlines offers a direct flight (with stops) from where I live in San Antonio. The major U.S. carriers (American, Delta, United) all offer flights to Cabo.
However, La Paz is about 90 miles from the Cabo airport. The roads are great (and scenic!) and it’s not a difficult route to follow if you’re interested in renting a car and driving. If that’s outside your comfort zone, there are shuttle options as well. I recommend booking through your hotel or tour company or start your inquiries there. Most places in La Paz that cater to tourists have some type of setup to get guests from Cabo to La Paz.
The Cross Border Xpress
Another option is to use the Cross Border Xpress, also known as CBX. For travelers on the West Coast, this appears to be the easiest option to get to La Paz without going through Cabo. CBX is an enclosed pedestrian skybridge that spans the U.S./Mexico border, connecting a state-of-the-art passenger building in San Diego directly to the Tijuana Airport (TIJ). Since first opening in December 2015, CBX now services more than two million passengers per year, allowing international travelers to cross the border with ease to access more direct flights to Mexico than any other U.S. airport.
This one-of-a-kind facility offers a $30 round-trip ticket or $16 single-trip ticket for access through CBX terminal (your airfare is separate), accelerated transportation across the U.S./Mexico border, and easy check-in for all TIJ airport flights. You’ll also find bilingual terminal attendants and on-site parking starting at $15 per day.
Mexico City Direct
Still another option is to fly from your home airport into Mexico City and then take a connecting flight into La Paz. Mexico City is a huge hub, so lots of U.S. airports offer direct flights. This choice might involve switching airlines once you reach Mexico City but if you travel light, this might be a workable solution for you.
Getting to La Paz might take a little more planning than you’re used to. Trust me…you will be glad you spent the effort once you see those turquoise waters.
When to go to La Paz
Short answer: any time at all.
Summer and spring break are typically busy times because that’s when families with children usually travel. The whale sharks are in the Sea of Cortez from October to February, which makes winter a popular time to visit. Winters are mild in La Paz and that also makes it an attractive destination for people who live in colder climates. I mean…if you have to use a shovel to find your car, warm water and sunshine probably sound mighty good.
I went to La Paz in mid-October and I thought it was about perfect. It was still warm and sunny but it wasn’t blazing hot. I went swimming in the Sea of Cortez on three different occasions and was very comfortable in just a bathing suit, although I wore a wetsuit on my swim with the whale sharks (yep, I did that) because we were in deeper, colder water.
La Paz Hotels
Costa Baja Resort
I have two recommendations for lodging in La Paz, although there are most certainly other places worth checking out. These are just the two I know well enough to feel confident recommending.
The first is the Costa Baja Resort, about five miles from the center of La Paz. It’s an amazing resort hotel and spa with a stunning golf course that sits on the marina. I mean…right? How much better could it get?
Costa Baja offers two restaurants: Steinback’s, named after the author himself, and Mosaic. Steinback’s is an upscale, fine dining venue that manages not to be anything close to pretentious and Mosaic is a buffet-style breakfast and lunch spot. Both have incredible ambiance and views, although I might hesitate to take younger children to Steinbeck’s if they don’t have somewhat of an adventurous palate AND are used to fine dining.
Mosaic has a great selection of American(ish) and Mexican breakfast dishes, including an omelet bar. I cannot recommend their green juice enough. Our server told us it was a blend of orange, pineapple, cactus, and celery juices and it is seriously out of this world. It doesn’t taste super grassy like some green juices do, and I couldn’t taste the celery at all. I want to go back just for this juice. Well…other reasons too.
Costa Baja resort has a lovely pool area and also has its own private beach area, just a short walk from the main lobby. La Paz and the surrounding area have better beaches than this one and I recommend using your resort time to get your pool fix, golf fix, or spa fix between beach days. It’s not a bad beach but you are short-changing yourself if this is the only beach in La Paz you visit.
The second place I recommend staying is Hotel Cathedral in the heart of downtown La Paz, next to the Cathedral (as you’d expect.) The lobby is very nice and inviting, with a restaurant, bar, and meeting areas. The rooftop pool and bar is peaceful and relaxing and offers a spectacular city view. Even if you don’t stay at Hotel Cathedral, I recommend popping by for a drink when you’re exploring downtown La Paz. The view is worth the stop.
Hotel Cathedral is a little more basic than the Costa Baja Resort, which is reflected in the price. Expect to pay about $80+ per night at Hotel Cathedral compared to about $150+ per night at Costa Baja. Always check with the resort or your travel planner for current pricing for your desired travel time and current party size but yeah…how about those rates?
You can’t go wrong with either venue. If you want to be close to the action, the Hotel Cathedral is probably where you want to be. You’ll have a bigger selection of walkable restaurants, nightlife and shopping than you’ll have at Costa Baja. If you want more of a “lounge around the pool resort vibe,” I’d select Costa Baja Resort. I’d also say Costa Baja Resort is probably slightly more family friendly although I’d be comfortable bringing kids to either location and saw kids at both locations.
Things to Do in La Paz
I mentioned the marine life in the Sea of Cortez earlier, so my recommended activities center around that…although La Paz has that relaxed vibe, and with the beautiful scenery and ocean views, you could probably be very content doing a lot of nothing.
Espiritu Santo Island
Espiritu Santo Island is a haven for sea lions in the Sea of Cortez. It’s a UNESCO World Heritage Site and National Protected Area, which means human presence is strictly controlled.
I recommend the day-long excursion by Tuna Tuna Tours, an eco tour company out of La Paz. Your trip to Espiritu Santo Island includes a certified guide and captain, national park permits, snorkel gear, and lunch served on the most beautiful beach I’ve ever seen.
Swimming with the sea lions is one of the most incredible and humbling experiences I’ve ever had. The respect our tour operators have for these animals and the environment is pretty awesome.
Whale Shark Experience
If your bucket list contains “swim with whale sharks,” then you can cross this one off your list from October to April, when whale sharks come to the Sea of Cortez to feed on plankton and krill. (Relax, people aren’t on their list of preferred foods.). Whale sharks produce no threat to humans, although it was a little surreal to jump in to water where you see those shark-like dorsal fins on the surface. Destiny from Finding Dory was a whale shark, if you need a frame of reference, and we all know how friendly and harmless she is, right?
Being in the water thisclose to these massive fish is pretty intimidating. However, it’s a once-in-a-lifetime experience I can’t recommend enough. Our group was pretty adventurous, but I did ask our guide about swimming in the Sea of Cortez with kids. Carlos has taken kids as young as 3 into the whale shark area. He stays right beside them and holds their hand until they establish their comfort level. He also told me they end up not wanting to get out at the end of their swim time.
The human presence in the whale shark habitat is closely monitored. Everyone agrees eco-tourism is a great thing but the people of La Paz put the animals first.
You are required to wear either a wet suit or a life jacket when taking part in these activities in the Sea of Cortez. You’ll probably want to wear a wet suit in the whale shark feeding area if you go much past October because of the cold.
Tuna Tuna Tours (which I can’t recommend highly enough) also offers whale watching and sport fishing expeditions. Our group went out with their guides on two different occasions. They are knowledgeable, respectful of the environment and they speak great English, in case your Spanish is not so great. They’re also a lot of fun.
Other Things to Do in La Paz
Other activities include paddle boarding, sand boarding, kayaking, scuba diving and snorkeling. If you’d rather just look at the water versus get in it, that’s fine, too. There’s nightlife, fine dining, city tours, and golf. Go La Paz has a ton of information on their website, so the problem is definitely not finding something to do, it’s choosing something to do.
Where to Eat in La Paz
That’s the most important thing, right? I always want to know where my next meal is going to come from…hope that’s not just me. You probably imagine La Paz and the surrounding area to be a great place to get fresh seafood and tacos. You wouldn’t be wrong but there’s so much more to cuisine in this area. Here are my picks:
Nim serves mostly seafood, along with a few poultry, lamb and beef dishes in a trendy yet casual environment. The seafood is very fresh, often caught by the chef herself, and the restaurant is committed to serving sustainable food. The outdoor seating is lovely and the guacamole is slap-your-mama good. Sorry, mom. It’s true.
If your kids are used to sit-down dining, they’ll be fine. The vibe is elegant but not stuffy…but definitely not the kind of place your kids can run around in.
Rancho Viejo is more in line with what you’d expect in terms of traditional Mexican food. It’s open air with a great view of the city’s hustle and bustle (such as it is) and super casual. There’s a huge variety of food, from tacos to ceviche, to fresh seafood. I had two different varieties of fish tacos and they were sublime.
One of our hosts told me that fish tacos are traditionally a breakfast food in La Paz. Most restaurants don’t serve them for lunch and dinner.
I gave Steinbeck’s (the onsite restaurant at Costa Baja Resort, named for author John Steinbeck) a brief mention above. It’s an open air restaurant with stunning ocean views and a lovely patio that’s perfect for enjoying an after-dinner drink. It offers steaks, chicken, fresh seafood (does that really surprise you?) as well as creative salads and luscious desserts.
Steinbeck’s has an extensive wine list and your server can recommend some excellent pairings. However, what’s really impressive is the tequila collection, which is part of the decor and ambiance. If you’re a literary buff, I recommend a meal here. John Steinbeck wrote two of his novels in La Paz.
Sortis is a Mediterranean restaurant with a lovely, rustic flair. It offers huge, juicy steaks, seafood, and pizzas as well as some amazing, savory vegetarian dishes.
The food in La Paz is definitely not what I expected. I expected the kind of Mexican food I enjoy here in the U.S. — tacos, enchiladas, empanadas, all that good stuff. La Paz is truly a foodie’s paradise.
What surprised me most about the tacos in this region is that Mexicans don’t load up their tacos with stuff like we do on this side of the border but you won’t miss the toppings.
Nearby and Worth a Mention
If you’re visiting La Paz, I highly recommend squeezing in a side trip (or even just a day trip) to nearby Todos Santos. Todos Santos is on the Pacific Ocean side of the Baja peninsula and takes about an hour and a half to reach by car from La Paz.
Todos Santos is a quaint, charming artsy town with lovely views as well as unique shopping and dining. If you’re into surfing, this is a great place to do it. If you are even a little bit of a foodie, you can’t miss La Casita Todos Santos. It offers unique, locally-sourced, sustainable cuisine and a tranquil atmosphere. I love the vibe of this place. The food is awesome, too.
If you drive from Cabo to La Paz, you MUST stop at La Garita for lunch. The empanadas, burritos and fresh cheese are all delicious. Your tacos and empanadas will come with an assortment of sauces, most of them quite spicy.
La Garita doesn’t look like much from the road. It’s a little cantina with open air seating that looks like it’s in the middle of nowhere. The food is hearty and delicious and I ate more than I should have with no regrets.
I hope you consider La Paz Baja California Sur as an outside-the-box vacation destination for your family. You’ll spend time together enjoying the outdoors and making incredible memories. The only regrets that I have about La Paz is that I left my Go-Pro sitting on the kitchen table. Guess that’s a sign I need to plan a return trip, right?