La Paz, Mexico
I’ve been staring at the same email for 15 minutes now. One of my best engineers has quit, I’ve had two new projects dumped on me, and now I’m being sent to Poland to sort out a problem I thought was fixed.
A week before Christmas, London is cold, dark, and depressing. I have a successful career in IT – and I’m thoroughly miserable. I lay my head flat on my desk and decide: enough.
From Mexico City to Tranquility Bay
Fun fact: Mexico City sits nearly 7,500 feet above sea level. The low pressure causes altitude sickness. But it also means water boils at 92°C / 198°F. That’s right – in CDMX, your tea or coffee isn’t quite as hot as you’d like it to be :)
After a week of headaches, lethargy – and cold tea – a short flight dropped us in La Paz on a glorious, sunny afternoon. You could almost taste the oxygen in the air.
Manuel Márquez de León is a small, efficient regional airport, and it only took half an hour or so to get our bags and escape Arrivals.
There’s a pre-paid taxi booth, which does the 20 minute run into town for about US$12/person. Not expensive, and unless you’re renting or being picked up, you’ve no other option. Uber doesn’t operate from the airport, and there’s no public transport. It’s a smooth trip. Traffic in La Paz is minimal; the roads mostly good. Good, because my seat belt won’t fasten.
Speeding into the Centro gives you a first chance to take in the scene: dry desert air, scrubby vegetation, palm trees and cacti, and the ever-watchful mountains to the south.
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We got to our Airbnb without issue, to be met by our grinning Mexican host, Miguel.
“¡Hola! ¡Bienvenido a México! Is your first time?”
We made our introductions, dropped the luggage, had a quick tour around the apartment, and headed to the beach.
Our casa was about as central as it’s possible to be, and the walk to the sea should have taken about 10 minutes. It took three or four times that long; excited as kids on Christmas morning, we couldn’t stop taking pictures.
When you’ve spent so long looking forward to getting somewhere, the clash with reality on arrival can be jarring. Not so with La Paz. There are honest-to-god cactus trees growing in the streets! Palm trees, terracotta roof tiles, pretty low-rise houses, painted in soft pastel colours and then, dear reader, there’s the malecón. I’d explored it on Google Map., Seeing it in the flesh was breathtaking. It felt like we’d been transported into an old Western movie.
The malecón, or boardwalk, runs for 3½ miles along the seafront. For much of that length, it’s in impeccable condition: marble flagstones, solid sea walls, clean, tidy and well-presented. The Paceños take real pride in their waterfront.
In the central section, along with the heart of the Old Town, traffic is calmed. Every few hundred yards there’s some kind of sculpture: Jacques Cousteau, a frequent visitor. Mermaids and dolphins. A whale shark. The immense and moving Perla de La Paz:
And at the very heart lies El Kiosco (“the Kiosk”) – a bandstand and function area which hosts civic and cultural events on a regular basis.
As well as the bars and restaurants across from the malecón, there are hotels and dive shops, market stalls, street sellers selling incredibly cheap and tasty food.
But we were still to discover most of this. Climbing over the low wall by the Kiosk, we took off our shoes and splashed out into the crystal Sea of Cortes. Despite being November, the water was around 26°C/80°F.
Drying off, we wandered along the malecón to the La Paz sign. Mentally, this was the moment I’d been looking forward to.
Six months of planning, 6,000 miles to get here. We’d arrived in Mexico. In the bay of La Paz. The Jewel of the Sea of Cortes. We had our photo taken in front of the sign.
It felt wonderful.
Over the weeks and months, we got to know the place pretty well. A few things you notice pretty quickly.
For example, La Paz has an official population of around 250,000, as of the 2015 census. It’s a big, low, flat city. Most of the buildings are one or two stories high. When land is so cheap, there’s little incentive to build high. The grid system works pretty well: despite occasional brutal thunderstorms and an impenetrable city roadworks policy, there is essentially no traffic.
After London, that’s a joyous feeling.
On the flip side: waste processing – and infrastructure in general – lags well behind Europe. We asked in every place we stayed, but there is no coherent plan for collection and recycling in La Paz. To make it worse, literally, everything comes with single-use plastic.
I paid for some bread and milk in Oxxo – before I’d even got my wallet out, they were scanned, scooped, dropped in a plastic bag, and handed to me by the bagging assistant. (Top tip: 10 pesos. Don’t be a Scrooge!)
Street tacos are often served on plastic dishes. These are washed and reused, but there’s a plastic sheet underneath the food – which isn’t. Buying empanadas? You may be able to buy them loose or in a paper bag. In Soriana, you get an 8” x 8” single-use plastic box for them.
And then, of course, there’s water management. Tap water isn’t drunk in Mexico: you get bottled water in. (It’s fine for making tea/coffee, and ice cubes in bars and restaurants are also safe). At the other… Uhm, end of the process, you’ll see waste bins beside most toilets. These are for toilet paper, sanitary products, and anything else that can find itself flushed away back home.
Mexican plumbing isn’t geared up for it. Use the basket. If you’re embarrassed at the thought, imagine having to explain to your host or front desk how you’ve blocked their pipes!
One other thing to bear in mind about La Paz is the cost of living. Yes, it’s Mexico, so it’s a lot cheaper than the US, Canada or the UK. But it’s also on the Baja peninsula. It’s the best part of 1,000 miles up to Tijuana, and the same again down to the nearest city (Mazatlan) across the Sea of Cortes.
To all intents and purposes, Baja California Sur is an island. Many staple products have to be shipped, flown or hauled from the mainland. And that costs.
Everything, from buses to beer, to cornflakes costs a bit more than in the big cities across the sea. This might partly explain why La Paz has one of the highest standards of living in Mexico – you need to be earning to afford it.
Being a Gringo In La Paz
There’s a lot of talk on Facebook groups and bulletin boards about the experience of being a Gringo in Mexico.
Let’s cut to the chase: Is La Paz a safe city? Obviously, I can only speak from my experience, and not for locals or other individual ex-pats or tourists.
At no time – not once – did I feel in the slightest danger in the three months I lived there. My partner got peseros to Zumba and boxing in the dark; not miles out of town, but a long way from the Centro. She also felt comfortable.
We’re not crazy-drinking teenagers, but a few times we were out for beers and ended up slightly the worse for wear. We felt in no danger walking home, and indeed, didn’t elicit very much interest from anyone. Ubers are safe, reliable and cheap.
My view on this is pretty much the same as you’ll read in sensible travel guides everywhere. Don’t walk around wearing conspicuous jewellery. Don’t flash cash. Don’t get involved with drugs, don’t get blind drunk and try to stagger home in the dark.
La Paz is a safe city (far safer than many), as long as you use the same common sense you would go anywhere else in the world.
Another topic that comes round from time to time on the boards is the “Gringo Tax”. For those not in the know, this is the idea that Mexicans will use any opportunity to extort additional funds from their “wealthy” visitors.
(You may not consider yourself wealthy – I’m an English teacher, so I certainly don’t. Nevertheless, when the minimum wage here is around US$32 a week, and I earn upwards of $10 an hour teaching online, it’s easy to see how the disparity arises).
Personally, I don’t think there’s much to the Gringo Tax. Sure, some chancers will take the opportunity if it comes round. And sometimes we’re just idiots!
I dropped some washing round at the laundry near our place. I was in a hurry, so I grabbed a couple of carrier bags, stuffed the washing in, and left them with the attendant.
When I queried the bill, it was pointed out that the price was per bag. Two bags – twice the cost. The woman helpfully suggested that next time I read the price list carefully before dropping the laundry.
Gringo tax? Idiot tax, more like.
Things to Do in La Paz – Getting out and about
La Paz is a perfect place to explore the rest of Baja California Sur. Car hire is pretty straightforward – just make 100% sure you check what is and isn’t included in the price. I found it really hard to compare companies, as they rarely compare apples and apples online!
In particular, check insurance is included and what it covers. It’s common for rental web sites to advertise daily rates as low as $3-4/day – then hit you with the extra $20-30 when you get into the office.
Buses between the major destinations are cheap and fairly frequent. They’re pretty luxurious too – if you don’t mind having Mexican soap operas or kids’ movies forced upon you by the in-house TV screens.
The must-visit locations are Todos Santos, Cabo San Lucas, and the beach strip running northeast of the city.
Todos Santos is a small, sleepy community an hour’s drive from La Paz. Its inhabitants are a mix of long-time local residents and immigrants; apart from its lovely old architecture, it’s mostly known for its art and craft scene. Everything is very expensive here, so bring a card – and some cash too, as the ATMs are unreliable, and at least one won’t pay out on foreign accounts.
Fun Fact: The famous Hotel California here was founded by a Chinese immigrant, known locally as “El Chino”. In the 1950s he started shipping ice from La Paz to Todos Santos and became wildly popular for having the only bar in town with a cold beer.
Cabo San Lucas
Cabo San Lucas is 2-2½ hours drive from La Paz. Depending on what you’re looking for, you’ll either love it or hate it.
“Cabo” has direct flights into major cities in the US and Canada, and is unashamedly a tourist resort. Everyone speaks English. Most visitors are wealthy compared to the locals, and the prices reflect that. (Think: US$11 for a pizza).
The Centro and marina would be beautiful, were it not for the crazy loud party bars, drunken tourists, and kids following you around trying to sell you drugs.
Pharmacies are everywhere, sometimes 2-3 in a row. They sell everything legal and some questionable. The kids even seem to be edging into this market – they were selling cocaine, marijuana, and Viagra. My only consolation was that they weren’t trying to sell me the latter!
We hated the place. It’s a Mexican Theme Park for gringos who want the comforts of home, in warmer weather, by the sea. This is not authentic in Mexico.
The whole area is unquestionably beautiful, but take my advice and get a bus or Uber out to one of the quieter beaches along the coast.
The Beach Corridor
There are 5-6 beaches stretching off beyond the eastern end of the Malecon, starting with El Coromuel which is a stiff walk from the Centro. For the rest, you really need a car, cab or Playa Bus which can be arranged from the Tourist Bus Station by the kiosco.
Balandra Beach may have launched the career of a thousand Instagram influencers, but it’s a little over-rated in my opinion. It’s certainly pretty and scenic; but the water only comes up to your knees, even when you’re a long way out. For me, a beach where you can’t swim is missing something :)
If you want your Instagram shot, stop off at Balandra. Otherwise, carry on up the coast to Playa El Tecolote. It’s more remote and exposed, bigger, quieter, and affords lovely views of Isla Espirito Santo.
Moving On and Final Thoughts
La Paz is a peaceful, pretty, and easy place to live. The natives are warm, the weather warmer, the sea a delight. If you’re used to the conveniences of home, Walmart, Sam’s Club, and other box stores are on the outskirts of town – but honestly, for simple living, you don’t need to venture out there often. (Unless you need tea. Don’t get me started about trying to find British tea!)
But for us, it’s just a little too quiet and peaceful. Sure, there are bars, restaurants and a club or two. There’s even a regular open mic at Bob Marlins. But after living in London for so long, eventually, the peace and relaxation turn into antsiness and a need for more stimulation.
We’re now in Guadalajara. But I’ll always think fondly of La Paz. It was the right venue, in the right country, at the right time. It looked after me during a big change of life, and it carved a place for itself in my heart.
Give it a go – it may end up doing the same for you.
Marco Crawford is a recovering IT manager. He’s now travelling through Latin America teaching English and exploring Latin culture.
His favourite quote is: ”Nobody’s gravestone reads ‘I wish I’d spent more time in the office.’’”
Marco blogs at “Jocks Away Travel Blog”.
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