Baja California is the edge of the world: one of the western-most stretches of land before the endless Pacific Ocean. Orange and pink rock formations overlook azure waters from beneath a searing sky. La Paz, a beach town in Baja California Sur in Mexico, is popular with visitors due to its year-round summer and proximity to the Sea of Cortez.
The Sea of Cortez is famous for being home to a staggering third of the world’s marine animals: whales, dolphins and sea lions thrive in the sheltered stretch of water between Baja California and mainland Mexico. To add to the appeal, otherworldly rock formations such as Isla Espiritu Santo, hide a thousand seldom-visited beaches and coves.
Five Best Things To Do in La Paz, Baja California
- Swim with sea lions at Isla Espiritu Santo
- Scuba dive and snorkel with manta rays, hammerhead sharks and whale sharks
- Take an expedition in search of whales, including gray whales, killer whales, humpback whales, pilot whales, blue whales, sperm whales… yep, lots of whales!
- Spend the day on the beach splashing in the aquamarine waters
- Watch the glorious sunset while strolling along the boulevard
1. Swimming with Sea Lions at Isla Espiritu Santo
Espiritu Santo is the jewel in the Sea of Cortez’ crown. The uniquely shaped island is both a Unesco World Heritage site and part of two marine reserves. A colony of sea lions live here and many local tour operators will take you out to swim with them. We went with SunRider Tours, who were one of the few tour operators running trips during January. The excursion involved a stop at a number of interesting bays and beaches.
The sea lions themselves are a good few hours from La Paz and the journey can be both choppy and surprisingly cold if the sea breeze picks up. We made the mistake of wearing shorts and no jumpers. But the wind is cold when you’re on the speed boat and the water that far away from the land is also chilly. Take warm clothes and some sea-sickness tablets!
Once we arrived at Espiritu Santo, we immediately caught sight of the sea lions. They’re simply fascinating creatures, clownish on land but acrobats in the water. Sea lions make an awful lot of noise, but amusingly when they cough and sneeze they sound just like we do!
Lifejacket on, I jumped into the water and headed toward the island. Charlie dipped her toe in the water, screamed at the cold and decided she couldn’t bear the icy cold water. The chill literally took my breath away and I was shivering the whole time. If you have a wetsuit, you’ll be much better of.
I swam over to the rock face with the rest of the group. There we found a couple of juvenile sea lions playing tag beneath our feet. Watching the sea lions play, twirling effortlessly through the water, was one of my favourite experiences in the whole nine-month backpacking trip in Mexico.
When to watch Sea Lions in La Paz
You can swim with sea lions all year round, but the more playful youngsters are most often seen in August and September.
2. Scuba Diving and Snorkelling in La Paz
When’s the best time to dive or snorkel in La Paz, Baja California? The best time to snorkel in La Paz is July to December when visibility is clearest (up to twenty-five metres). The water is warmest in the summer months. The whales, known locally as las amistosas (the friendly ones), make trips of up to five-thousand miles to mate and give birth in these warm and shallow waters.
We, unfortunately, weren’t in La Paz during the right season for scuba diving or snorkelling and decided the visibility would be too poor to make a trip worthwhile. If you do make it in the right season, you should be lucky enough to see manta rays, hammerhead sharks and even whale sharks.
Here are the best times of year to see marine life in La Paz:
When to watch whale sharks in La Paz
You can see whale sharks all year round, with late September to late November being the best season to see juveniles.
When to watch hammerhead sharks in the Sea of Cortez
Hammerhead sharks used to be seen in vast numbers year-round, but the stock has been decimated thanks to fishing. Your best chance to see hammerheads is at El Bajo from November to January.
When to watch mobula rays in the Sea of Cortez
If you are lucky enough to be in the Sea of Cortez in May, you’re in for one of the greatest spectacles in the natural world. Hundreds of mobula rays literally come somersaulting out of the water before flopping back into the sea. The behaviour is a beautiful unsolved mystery: perhaps a mating ritual or perhaps just a way for the rays to pass the time.
3. Whale Watching in La Paz
La Paz in Mexico is well-known for its whale watching. Here are the times of year when you will have the best chance to see whales in La Paz:
When to watch blue whales in the Sea of Cortez
You can see the largest animal on planet earth all year round! March to July are supposed to be slightly better months.
When to watch gray whales in the Sea of Cortez
Gray whales come to the Sea of Cortez to give birth from January to March.
When to watch humpback whales in the Sea of Cortez
Humpback whales are one of the best whales to watch. You can see them from February to June.
4. Best Beaches in La Paz
Best beach in La Paz? You’ve got two to choose from: Playa Balandra and Playa Tecolote.
Balandra beach was our favourite beach in La Paz. The sand is golden and soft. The water here is shallow and extremely clear. It’s perfect for walking through, paddling, kayaking or paddleboarding. You can also go round to see the famous mushroom-shaped rock. Even better though, there are very few vendors or amenities here which leaves Balandra beach feeling more ‘wild.’ We hiked up the rocky path that overlooks the beach and sea. The view from the top is stunning.
Tecolote beach is further up from Balandra beach and is about 25km from the centre of La Paz town. The water here is better for swimming, but the general consensus is that the beach isn’t quite as good as Balandra. There are a few small restaurants here and some shacks selling beer.
Both Playa Balandra and Playa Tecolote can be reached by bus from La Paz. We caught the bus from the bus station. The buses leave every hour or so. It’s about a 25-minute drive to Playa Balandra and a 40-minute drive to Playa Tecolote.
5. Watch the Sunset in La Paz
La Paz had some of the best sunsets we saw in Mexico. Simply head down to the seafront around sunset time – usually near to 6pm. We mostly strolled along the boulevard watching the warm glow settle across the water, though you can also grab a cold cerveza at one of the waterfront bars and watch the sunset from there.
Best Places to Eat in La Paz, Baja California
Nomada Organics – organic, vegetarian-friendly food
Get your fill of veggies with a buddha bowl at Nomada Organics. This organic cafe was the first place we ate in La Paz and our favourite. All of their food is organic and most of the menu is vegetarian. They also serve smoothie bowls at breakfast which is a rarity in Mexico!
Dulce Romero – vegetarian-friendly restaurant and bakery
Enjoy sweet potato fries and a quinoa burger at Dulce Romero. Or – if you’re like Charlie – opt for the green apple and avocado. The food here was quite good, but don’t expect to be blown away. Lots of healthy choices, though vegan options were limited. There’s a small bakery inside for bread and pastry lovers.
Big Sur Cafe Organico – the best coffee in La Paz
Get the best coffee (and atmosphere) in town at Big Sur Cafe Organico. The cafe is slap bang in the middle of the main town, where there are very few good options. Follow the road that’s covered in street art and you’ll see the cafe on your left. We came here to warm up over a cup of organic coffee after a cold day on the boat swimming with sea lions.
Pan D’Les Bakery – tasty bakery with sourdough loaves
Grab a wholemeal sourdough loaf at Pan D’Les Bakery. This was our favourite way to start the day when we were staying in La Paz. I used to run out for a crusty loaf in the morning and come back to our Airbnb apartment for avocado and black pepper on toast. This bakery has some of the best bread in Mexico – I kid you not!
Doce Cuarenta – another great bakery, but with better coffee
But don’t miss notable runner-up and hipster haven, Doce Cuarenta. Though we loved the freshly baked bread at Pan D’Les Bakery, just a few doors up Doce Cuarenta has the best coffee this side of town. Their courtyard is the perfect place to unwind with a coffee.
Getting In and Out of La Paz
We flew from Guadalajara to La Paz. After a couple of weeks of sun and sand, we then took the ferry to Topolabambo to catch El Chepe, the famous train journey across Northern Mexico into the Copper Canyon.
Airport – Flights into La Paz are considerably quicker than ferries and usually about the same price, though not fantastic for the environment. We flew in from Guadalajara and the flight was less than 2 hours.
Ferry – The ferries leave for Mazatlan (thirteen hours) and Topolabambo (seven hours). We took the ferry from La Paz to Topolabambo. It was comfortable though basic. There’s a canteen on board with average food.
Bus – Buses in La Paz head south to Los Cabos and north to Tijuana.
Where to Stay in La Paz, Baja California
We stayed in this Airbnb apartment in La Paz and it was great. We had a lovely, clean apartment with a small kitchen. It was near to the cafes we recommended above, and about a 20-minute walk from town. If you’re thinking of using Airbnb, you can get £30 off your first stay with this link.