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.’”


IF YOU GO

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

TOURING IN LA PAZ
Fun Baja offers the most comprehensive menu of snorkeling, diving, camping, kayaking and land tours near La Paz and Espiritu Santo. www.funbaja.com

WHERE TO STAY
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. www.costabaja.com

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. www.sevencrownhotels.com/english

WHERE TO EAT
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).

MORE INFO
www.golapaz.com or www.lapaz-tourism.com

 

MARCH 2013 SENIOR LIVING MAGAZINE

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But off the coast in the temperate interior, other adventures await the traveler. After 15 months of criss-crossing Mexico, my new book looks at Americans and Canadians who’ve chosen to avoid the big expat colonies in San Miguel de Allende and Lake Chapala, as well as the beach. What they’ve found is both diverse and surprising. The book is called Into the Heart of Mexico: Expatriates Find Themselves Off the Beaten Path. There’s a sample on my website: www.sanmiguelallendebooks.com/intotheheartofmexico.html

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