At the risk of sounding glib, we might suggest that you skip Los Cabos altogether. The highlights of your visit to the far southern tip of the Baja peninsula may include two very un-Cabo-like destinations. One is objectively a small community; the other is actually the region’s largest city, but will always be an overgrown small town at heart.
Their tranquil, reverent names—Todos Santos ("all saints") and La Paz ("peace")—are the first hint that you have left the glitz of Los Cabos behind, and that it’s time to shift gears and enjoy the enchantment of Mexico. As an added bonus, both are positioned in such a way on the peninsula that you can enjoy beautiful sunsets over the sea. (Los Cabos gives you only ocean sunrises.)
The appeal of Todos Santos is becoming more well known, as a growing number of expats—American and European alike—move to the area. There's a lot to love here: the surf on the Pacific, just a couple of miles west of town, is good; weather is always a bit cooler than in Los Cabos; and the lush, leisurely feel of this artsy colonial town—think a smaller version of central Mexico’s San Miguel de Allende—is relatively undisturbed by the many tourists who venture up from Los Cabos for the day. Todos Santos has always been the quintessential Los Cabos day trip, especially for the myriad cruise passengers who call there. As the town’s tourism offerings grow, it's becoming a destination in its own right. Break the typical pattern of day-tripping to Todos Santos and spend at least one night here amid the palms, at one of the pleasant, small inns.
La Paz plants itself firmly on the Sea of Cortez side of the Baja peninsula. A couple of hours north of Los Cabos, it remains slightly outside the Cabo orbit, and it has always attracted visitors (and an expanding expat population) who make La Paz their exclusive Baja destination. Of course, 200,000-plus Paceños view their city as being the center of the universe, thank you very much. (La Paz is the capital of the state of Baja California Sur and Los Cabos is in their orbit.) In addition to many urban trappings, La Paz offers a growing number of outdoor-travel options. This city on the water has become all about what’s in the water. Sportfishing and scuba diving are big here, and La Paz is now a major launching point for whale-watching excursions.
EXPLORE LOS CABOS SIDE TRIPS
Tidy, prosperous La Paz may be the capital of the state of Baja California Sur and home to about 220,000 residents, but it still feels like a small town in a time warp. This east-coast development could easily be the most traditional Mexican city in Baja Sur, the antithe, sis of the "gringolandia" developments to the south. Granted, there are plenty of foreigners in La Paz, particularly during snowbird season. But in the slowest part of the off-season, during the oppressive late-summer heat, you can easily see how La Paz aptly translates to "peace," and how its residents can be called Paceños (peaceful ones).
Travelers use La Paz as both a destination in itself and a stopping-off point en route to Los Cabos. There's always excellent scuba diving and sportfishing in the Sea of Cortez. La Paz is the base for divers and fishermen headed for Cerralvo, La Partida, and the Espíritu Santo islands, where parrot fish, manta rays, neons, and angels blur the clear waters by the shore, and marlin, dorado, and yellowtail leap from the sea. Cruise ships are more and more often spotted sailing toward the bay as La Paz emerges as an attractive port. (Only small ships can berth at La Paz itself; most cruise liners dock at its port of Pichilingue, about 16 km [10 miles] north of town.)
La Paz officially became the state capital in 1974, and is its largest settlement (though the combined Los Cabos agglomeration is quickly catching up). All bureaucracy holds court here, and it’s the site of the ferry port to Mazatlán and Topolobampo, the port of Los Mochis, on the mainland. There are few chain hotels or restaurants, but that's sure to change as resort developments come to fruition around the area.
La Paz region, including parts of the coastline south of the city, is slated as the future building site of several large-scale, high-end resort developments with golf courses, marinas, and vacation homes. Economic doldrums of recent years put brakes on those projects, but as Mexico’s tourism finally, slowly, cautiously begins to rebound, plans have moved to the front burner again.
POINTS OF INTEREST
A rocky point shelters a clear, warm bay at Playa Balandra, 21 km (13 miles) north of La Paz. Several small coves and pristine beaches appear and disappear with the tides, but there's always a calm area where you can wade and swim. Snorkeling is fair around Balandra's south end where there's a coral reef. You may spot clams, starfish, and anemones. Kayaking and snorkeling tours usually set out from around here. If not on a tour, bring your own gear, as rentals aren't normally available. Camping is permitted but there are no hookups. The smallish beach gets crowded on weekends, but on a weekday morning you may have the place to yourself. Sand flies can be a nuisance here between July and October. Amenities: toilets, food concession, parking lot, camping. Best for: swimming, walking, snorkeling.
PLAYA EL TECOLOTE
Spend a Sunday at Playa El Tecolote, 25 km (15 miles) north of La Paz, and you'll feel like you've experienced the Mexico of old. Families set up house on the soft sand, kids race after seagulls and each other, and abuelas (grandmothers) daintily lift their skirts to wade in the water. Vendors rent out beach chairs, umbrellas, kayaks, and small, motorized boats; a couple of restaurants serve up simple fare such as ceviche and almejas (chocolate clams). These eateries are usually open throughout the week, though they sometimes close on chilly days. Facilities include public restrooms and trash cans. Camping is permitted, but there are no hookups. Amenities: toilets, food concession, playground, parking lot, camping. Best for: sunsets, swimming, walking.
Starting in the time of Spanish invaders, Pichilingue, 16 km (10 miles) north of La Paz, was known for its preponderance of oysters bearing black pearls. In 1940 a disease killed them off, leaving the beach deserted. Today it's a pleasant place to sunbathe and watch sportfishing boats haul in their daily catches. Locals set up picnics here on weekend afternoons and linger until the blazing sun settles into the bay. Restaurants consisting of little more than a palapa over plastic tables and chairs serve oysters diablo, fresh clams, and plenty of cold beer. Pichilingue curves northeast along the bay to the terminals where the ferries from Mazatlán and Topolobampo arrive and many of the sportfishing boats depart. If La Paz is on your cruise itinerary, you'll likely dock at Pichilingue, too. One downside to this beach: traffic buzzes by on the nearby freeway. The water here, though not particularly clear, is calm enough for swimming. Amenities: toilets, food concession, parking lot. Best for: sunset, walking.
Situated just beyond La Concha Beach Club Resort, 5 km (3 miles) north of La Paz, Caimoncito is home to a scenic stretch of sand and some sun-shading palapas. Locals swim laps here, as the water is almost always calm and salty enough for easy buoyancy. There aren't any public facilities here, but if you wander over to the hotel for lunch or a drink you can use its restrooms and rent water toys. Amenities: parking lot. Best for: sunsets, swimming, walking.
CATEDRAL DE NUESTRA SEÑORA DE LA PAZ
The downtown church, Catedral de Nuestra Señora de la Paz, is a simple, unassuming stone building with a modest gilded altar but beautiful stained-glass windows. The church was built in 1861 near the site of La Paz's first mission, which no longer exists. The two towers of the present cathedral were added a half-century later.
MUSEO DE ANTROPOLOGÍA
La Paz's culture and heritage are well represented at the Museo de Antropología, which has re-creations of indigenous Comondu and Las Palmas villages, photos of cave paintings found in Baja, and copies of Cortés's writings on first sighting La Paz. All exhibit descriptions are labeled in Spanish only, but the museum's staff will help you translate as best they can. If you're a true Baja aficionado and want to delve into the region's history, this museum is a must; otherwise, a quick visit is all you need, if even that.
Offically the Malecón Alvaro Obregón, this seaside promenade is La Paz's seawall, tourist zone, and social center all rolled into one. It runs for 5 km (3 mi) along Paseo Álvaro Obregón and has a sidewalk as well as several park areas in the sand just off it. Paceños are fond of strolling the malecón at sunset when the heat of the day finally begins to subside. Teenagers slowly cruise the street in their spiffed-up cars, couples nuzzle on park benches, and grandmothers meander along while keeping an eye on the kids. (You will see people swimming here, and the water is cleaner than it used to be, but the beaches outside town are a far surer bet in that regard.)
A two-story white gazebo is the focus of Malecón Plaza, a small concrete square where musicians sometimes appear on weekend nights. An adjacent street, Calle 16 de Septiembre, leads inland to the city.
Plaza Constitución, the true center of La Paz, is a traditional zócalo that also goes by the name Jardín Velazco. Concerts are held in the park's gazebo and locals gather here for art shows and fairs. Day-to-day life here entails shoeshines and local bingo games.
GETTING HERE AND AROUND
Aeropuerto General Manuel Márquez de León (LAP) is 11 km (7 miles) northwest of La Paz. Alaska Air partner Horizon Air flies daily from Los Angeles. Aereo Calafia connects La Paz with Los Cabos. Several airlines connect La Paz with Mexico City and various domestic airports in Mexico. Flying into the Aeropuerto Internacional de Los Cabos, two hours away near San José del Cabo, offers a far better selection of fares and itineraries. Ecobaja Tours operates shuttles five times daily between Los Cabos Airport and La Paz for $33 one-way. In La Paz, taxis are readily available and inexpensive. Taxis between La Paz airport and towns are inexpensive (about $15) and convenient. A ride within town costs under $5; a trip to Pichilingue costs around $15. In La Paz the main Terminal de Autobus is on the malecón at Independencia. Bus companies offer service to Todos Santos (one hour), Los Cabos (two hours).
Baja Ferries connects La Paz with Topolobampo, the port at Los Mochis, on the mainland, with daily high-speed ferries. The trip takes seven hours and costs $72 per person. Baja Ferries also connects La Paz and Mazatlán; it's a 16-hour trip and costs $88 per person. You can buy tickets for ferries at La Paz Pichilingue terminal. The ferries carry passengers with and without vehicles. If you're taking a car to the mainland, you must obtain a vehicle permit before boarding. Ferry officials will ask to see your Mexican auto-insurance papers and tourist card, which are obtained when crossing the U.S. border into Baja.
Aereo Calafia (612/123–2643. www.aereocalafia.com.mx.)
Horizon Air (800/252–7522. www.alaskaair.com.)
Aeropuerto Manuel Márquez de León (612/124-6307. www.aeropuertosgap.com.mx.)
Autotransportes Aguila (Av. Álvaro Obregón #125, between Independencia and 5 de Mayo, Malecón, La Paz, Baja California Sur, 23060. 800/824–8452. www.autotransportesaguila.net.)
Ecobaja Tours (5 de Mayo, Malecón, La Paz, Baja California Sur, 23000. 612/123–0000. www.ecobajatours.com.)
Banamex (Esquerro 110, Zona Comercial, La Paz, Baja California Sur, 23006. 612/122–1011. www.banamex.com.mx.)
Dial 065, 060, or 066.
Highway Patrol (612/122–0369.)
Baja Ferries (La Paz Pichilingue Terminal, La Paz, Baja California Sur, 23208. 612/123–0508 or 612/125–6324. www.bajaferries.com.)
Centro de Especialidades Médicas (Calle Delfines 110, La Paz, Baja California Sur, 23090. 612/124–0400.)
From the hodgepodge of signs and local businesses you see on the drive into Todos Santos, south on Highway 19, it appears that you're heading to the outskirts of a typical Baja town. But climb the hill to its old colonial center with its mission church and blocks of restored buildings, and the Todos Santos that is gaining rave reviews in tourism circles is revealed.
Todos Santos was designated one of the country's Pueblos Mágicos (Magical Towns) in 2006, joining 82 other towns around Mexico chosen for their religious or cultural significance. Pueblos Mágicos receive important financial support from the federal government for development of tourism and historical preservation. Architects and entrepreneurs have restored early-19th-century adobe-and-brick buildings around the main plaza of this former sugar town and have turned them into charming inns, whose hallmark is attentive service at prices far more reasonable than a night in Los Cabos. A good number of restaurateurs provide sophisticated, globally inspired food at hip eateries.
Todos Santos has always meant shopping, at least since about three decades ago when the first U.S. and Mexican artists began to relocate their galleries here. Day-trippers head up here from Los Cabos, enjoying lunch and a morning of shopping. The growing number of visitors who buck that trend and spend a night or two here leave feeling very satisfied indeed.
Los Cabos visitors typically take day trips here, though several small inns provide a peaceful antidote to Cabo's noise and crowds. El Pescadero, the largest settlement before Todos Santos, is home to ranchers and farmers who grow herbs and vegetables. Business hours are erratic, especially in September and October.
POINTS OF INTEREST
TEATRO CINE GENERAL MANUEL MÁRQUEZ DE LEÓN
The mouthful of a name denotes Todos Santos's 1944 movie theater, which was quite a grand movie palace back in the day for remote, small-town Mexico. A few cultural events take place here, including the annual Todos Santos Film Festival each February.
NUESTRA SEÑORA DEL PILAR
Todos Santos was the second-furthest south of Baja California's 30 mission churches, a system the Spanish instituted to convert (and subdue) the peninsula's indigenous peoples. Jesuit priests established an outpost here in 1723 as a visita (circuit branch) of the mission in La Paz, a day's journey away on horseback. The original church north of town was sacked and pillaged twice during its existence, before being relocated in 1825 to this site in the center of town. Additions in the past two centuries have resulted in a hodgepodge of architectural styles, but the overall effect is still pleasing, and the structure serves to this day as the community's bustling parish church.