An Island of Peace

By Bob Cooper

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Photos by Bob Cooper; Sea Lion Rock, a popular spot for snorkeling and sea lion encounters in the Sea of Cortez near La Paz.

The first clue I was in a different kind of place came moments after the plane landed. When I stepped inside the tiny La Paz (Mexico) Airport, I noticed there were no clocks. Time stands still here, so even if your flight is late, there is no evidence.

I soon discovered time doesn’t fly in the town named Peace (Paz) either. This city of 220,000 feels much smaller and safer — the latter perception supported by low crime statistics. It’s a place where offices and shops close from 2 to 4 p.m. daily, so families can come together for comida, the traditional largest meal of the day.

The slow pace is most evident while walking the malecon, a palm-lined, beachside promenade that runs for about a mile near downtown La Paz. This is Mexico without the poverty (the state of Baja Sur boasts Mexico’s highest average income) or the drug cartel-fueled violence (the violent crime rate is lower than in most California cities). It is also Mexico without the Spring-Break-for-Adults vibe or higher prices of nearby Cabo San Lucas.

These are things it is not, and I soon learned what it is: an historic town discovered by Hernando Cortes in 1535. A fishing town once known for pearls and still known for sport fishing and seafood, La

 Paz is the only city on the Sea of Cortez, which Jacques Cousteau called the “world’s aquarium” for its 900 kinds of fish and one-third of the world’s marine mammal species (more on that later). It’s a place not yet overrun by tourists, despite its 340 days of sunshine per year.

For all of these reasons, but mostly the climate and lower cost of living, it’s also a place where many Canadian, American and European expatriates now live seasonally or year-round. Some own luxury condos, but most are in moderately-priced home scattered around the city, as there are non of the "expat ghettoes" you will find in cities like Cancun, Mazatlan and Puerto Vallarta.

La Paz is Gari-Ellen Donohoe, a resident from Brandon, Manitoba, who launched its first English-language newspaper, The Baja Citizen, in 2008. She has lived for 12 years in La Paz with her husband, a doctor, and returns to Manitoba only in the summers to escape the heat.

“I love walking the malecon on weekend nights when everyone is out,” she says. Another expat called the malecon “La Paz’s living room.” Families stroll the promenade until late at night, socializing and stopping at the many vendors selling hot dogs, agua frescas (fruit punch), paletas (fruit popsicles) and helium balloons.

“It costs about half as much to live here, and rain is so unusual that we come outdoors to see it,” says Gari-Ellen. “It’s a good place to retire or semi-retire because you can live simply and live well.”

In fact, the New York Times has rated La Paz among the world’s Top 10 places to retire.

“We have writers and others who can choose to live anywhere in the world. Some people just come down because they are ready to make a change in their lives.”

One of those people is BC resident Gary Green, 69, who, with his wife Cathy, spends six months of each year in Tsawwassen and the other six months in La Paz.

“Cathy studied Spanish for years, which opened up many friendships with Mexican families, who now include us in weddings, quinceaneras and other cultural celebrations,” he says. “Our house is across the street from the malecon, so we’re in the centre of the bustle of city living — great for walks and close to restaurants and shopping. Unlike Cabo, where we previously owned a condo for 10 years, La Paz is not just a tourist destination, but truly a Mexican city.”

The morning after my arrival, I boarded a tour boat for the day trip to Espiritu Santo, an uninhabited island accorded national park status in 2008. We passed several of the Sea of Cortez’s 900 other islands en route. The first stop was a photo op at a colony of 150 sea lions, including new moms shepherding their pups.

Next, it was on to Sea Lion Rock for an even closer encounter. Snorkeling equipment was slipped on and we swam to the tunnel-arched islet, noticing neon-coloured tropical fish beneath us as the barking got louder.

Apprehension turned to amusement when one young sea lion darted straight at me from below, veering off only at the last moment, then somersaulting past my snorkeling companions. I stifled a laugh into the snorkel’s mouthpiece. The Fun Baja cruise captain’s promise that we would “swim with the sea lions” was not mere hype.

The next stop was secluded and deserted Espiritu Santo Beach, set behind a cove of turquoise water. Comida awaited: freshly caught fish, rice, tortillas and Mexican beers.

While the others digested this feast at wooden umbrella tables, I took a kayak out on the cove. I quickly spotted many comically bloated puffer fish below, a sea turtle on the surface, bright-red crabs on the rocky shoreline and sea birds high above on the rocky cliffs. The cliffs were eyelashed by cardon cacti — the world’s largest cactus species at up to 21-metres tall, which dominate the landscape on the island and throughout southern Baja.

The boat ride back was highlighted by a spin past an island where dozens of statuesque great blue herons were preoccupied herding their chicks and the Balandra Bay beach, ranked among the world’s finest for its perfect white sand. Surprisingly few people were on the beach, which is a 30-minute drive from La Paz, if you don’t go by boat.

In a final surprise, a pod of dolphins swam and leapt over the waves alongside the boat, nearly within petting distance, as if they were recruited to perform for us.

While visitors come mainly for boating, diving, sport fishing and, in the winter months, whale watching, locals spend more of their time on the malecon. That evening, I saw local walkers and joggers doing their workouts on the beachside path, while fishermen cast off the pedestrian pier and teen sweethearts nestled beneath palapa umbrellas planted in the beach sand.

My two-day visit to La Paz was far too brief. I decided to return some day to visit the seashore cave paintings, whale museum and serpentarium, and to spend more time browsing the Mercado Bravo, a noisy marketplace of merchants hawking exotic fish, cactus fruits, tropical ice creams and so much more. But it was also a more elemental yearning, most eloquently described by John Steinbeck in his 1951 book, The Log From The Sea of Cortez:

“We wondered why so much of the Gulf was familiar to us, why this town had a ‘home’ feeling. We had never seen a town which even looked like La Paz, and yet coming to it was like returning rather than visiting. Some quality there is in the whole Gulf that trips a trigger of recognition so that in fantastic and exotic scenery one finds oneself nodding and saying inwardly, ‘Yes, I know.’”


Five airlines offer direct flights from Vancouver to San Jose del Cabo — a two-hour rental-car drive from La Paz.

Fun Baja offers the most comprehensive menu of snorkeling, diving, camping, kayaking and land tours near La Paz and Espiritu Santo.

CostaBaja is a 550-acre coastal slice of luxury, with a spa, Steinbeck’s Restaurant, two boat harbours, an infinity pool, a Gary Player-designed golf course, and its own desalination plant (ensuring safe water). Room rates average $200.

Seven Crown La Paz Centro is a small, modern hotel just off the malecon with a swimming pool, comfy rooms, free WiFi and parking. Room rates start at $84.

Bismark Cito is a casual, indoor/outdoor Mexican seafood restaurant right on the malecon. It’s extremely popular among locals and visitors alike for the affordable prices and delectable entrees such as fish soup, scallop salads, shrimp tacos and chocolate clams (named for their colour — there’s no chocolate).

Trocadero, an upscale downtown restaurant close to the malecon, serves international fusion cuisine that incorporates fresh Baja ingredients like cactus fruit, mango and strawberries. Wines include bottles of Casa Madero, produced in northern Mexico at the oldest winery in the Americas (1597).




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Showing 1 to 7 of 7 comments.

my wife and I are thinking of wintering in LaPaz (mid Nov-mid Apr). We're interested in communicating with other snow birds about where to rent. Do we need a car the whole time or only for touring excursions outside of LaPaz

Posted by Larry Sagen | June 19, 2017 Report Violation

In 1996 my siblings and I received a phone call from my father's "girlfriend" stating that my father had past away in his sleep. My father retired in 1986 from his Chiropractic practice . He was a WW2 Naval Captain Veteran with 28 years in the Navy. In 1987 he bought a 48 ft yacht and began to live his dream of sailing the Mexican Riviera. My best friend and I accompanied my father and his Black Widow girlfriend on the maiden voyage from Long Beach stopping first in Cabo then south in the Sea of Cortex finally after 4 months of the most spectacular vacation of our lives ended up in La Paz. There my father nested his boat in the Marina De La Paz. He then found a piece of land close to the Hotel De Laposada. He singed a 33 year lease for the land because Unless you are a Mexican national you cannot own land. He built a beautiful home with a 2 story apt adjacent. Long story short, after receiving that phone call that my father had passed away we flew down there in less than 24 hours. We had found in my father had already been cremated and put it in a box and it was sitting on the dining room table. Anybody who has lived in La Paz knows that nothing gets done in a hurry in that city. My dad's girlfriend story change several times about the way he died. And we did not receive the death certificate of my father for 16 weeks. While trying to get my dad's boat ready to bring back up to United States we were stopped in our tracks by my dad's girlfriend claming she was married to my father and that all of his possessions including the house and the boat we're legally hers. Of course that was not the case my dad had a living trust. We spent the next year fighting that in court after we had to have it translated into English and hired an attorney down there to fight our case. During our time down there are we discovered multiple discrepancies and ended up knowing that my father was murdered for his possessions. To this day there are people living in my dad's house that have no right to be in there but we have no legal right to kick them out. We spend over $100,000 and a year of Our Lives we finally got the boat back up to the US with much difficulty including fighting the port captain of La Paz and the manager of the other Marina in La Paz which is owned by the Felix Brothers Cartel. That manager helped in the murder of my father. Fair warning to anybody that decides to retire down in La Paz. This place is a Melting Pot for criminals and according to the US travel advisory for the year of 2016 recorded the most murders of US citizens ever. We personally witnessed the corruption first hand in all levels of the government and judicial system. We were even thrown in jail for two days and then deported by the Mexican imigration department. Do your homework before you decide to retire in La Paz Mexico it is a very dangerous place!

Posted by David Seibert | April 23, 2017 Report Violation

Would love to talk to someone re: renting a place this winter (Jan and feb) Maybe Wanda from Calgary? We are from red Deer Alberta We love Mexico

Posted by Brenda | April 21, 2017 Report Violation

I live in la Paz and the guy who says its like east Anaheim is lying for whatever reason. It's a nice family place, yes there is now crime as anywhere, but he is clueless. It's a great place, low crime, honest people, not sure what happened to this guy, but he wrong on stats and knowledge of LaPaz

Posted by Steve | June 5, 2016 Report Violation

I am a Canadian who owns a property in LaPaz which I rent as well as use with my 4 children for the past 8 years and I am sitting looking at the beautiful bay as I write. I've been here 3 times this year with my family. We walk the Malecon with the Mexican local families pushing their strollers at night, shop the local markets and clothing shops, go to movies where most are shown in English with spanish subtitles, sit at the peaceful beaches, enjoy the fabulous local restaurants with fresh fish daily, and am here now. I have not seen evidence of any crime although in every city there will be some. The local teenagers ride their skateboards publicly on the malecon. No evidence of drugs, bad behaviour, drunkenness. This is a nice family orientated city. The Catholic Churches are full on Sunday and Sunday evening is a day of Celebration on the Malecon with balloons and roses for sale openly, often public entertainment, police visible to stop cars so you can cross the street to see the festivities. I felt it necessary to say this as a writer in July very incorrectly portrayed this city that we love and call our 2nd home! My senior next door neighbors from Calgary came and stayed twice and loved everything about it! They only stopped coming due to health. Wanda E. , Calgary

Posted by Wanda E. | April 9, 2016 Report Violation

this is senior citizen dribble from a decade ago, La Paz now has the 3rd highest crime rate in Mexico with 120+ executions in the past 10 months, violent crimes against foreigners, mass graves and severe meth addiction among young population. Add to that a lawlessness Mexico is famous for since Pancho Villa, slimy cops shaking down rental car drivers and generally the high cost of living, a vibe of franchise apocalypse, La Paz looks like the worst part of Anaheim discounting the waterfront malecón..

Posted by Jack Conrad | July 9, 2015 Report Violation

I have 2 elderly parents to take care of and I need 1 or 2 live in nurses to help take care of them. Where in la paz can I find such a place. Or do I just rent a house and hire 1 live in nurse and 1 day worker? I would like to live in a small house just down the street from them so I can check on them every day or so. I will be in La Paz in Aug. thank you in advance Van Patrick

Posted by van patrick | June 18, 2014 Report Violation

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