Long overlooked by beach goers bound for Baja California’s smaller surf hamlets, for decades the city of La Paz seemed like a bit of an underdog. However, in recent years the local government has been hard at work to turn La Paz into a destination in its own right. Today, the city is the perfect base for exploring Baja California, with a plethora of options for adventure and eco tourism for both adults and families looking to explore La Paz with kids.
Understanding La Paz
La Paz is the capital of the Mexican state of Baja California Sur, which encompasses the southern portion of the Baja California Peninsula. Historically, the city was little more than a small town until the population explosion of the early 2000s. On the back of a booming tourism industry, the new century turned La Paz into one of northern Mexico’s most prosperous cities, with living standards comparable to that north of the border. Indeed, La Paz has a long, complicated history with the United States. In fact, in the mid-19th Century, the city was the capital of the short-lived American-founded Republic of Sonora. Seeking to emulate the Texas Revolution, American mercenary William Walker proclaimed the republic in 1853, after seizing a sizable but sparsely inhabited chunk of the peninsula from Mexico. Walker’s invasion was never approved by the US government, though he managed to fend of legal challenges in his homeland and even sell bonds for his self-proclaimed republic. The Republic of Sonora collapsed a year later amid internal chaos and a fierce counteroffensive by Mexican authorities.
Today, La Paz continues to entertain its fare share of adventurers from the north, but in the form of eco-tourists and whale watchers instead of grizzled mercenaries. The city is famed for its gray whale and whale shark tours, not to mention a good mix of heritage sites and some of the best beaches in northern Mexico. As a major commercial port, La Paz can have a bit of a city feel to it, and is busier than most of the otherwise relaxed Baja California Peninsula. Luckily, there’s a good variety of surf towns and historic villages within a stone’s throw of the city, not to mention pristine island hideaways and all-inclusive resorts.
When to Visit La Paz, Mexico
Peak season is December through to around March, with New Year being a particularly popular time to visit. During peak season, expect prices to surge and all but the most remote beaches to be crowded. Whale watching season runs from January to March, when the temperatures tend to be mild. The summer months can be unpleasant, with hot days and occasionally brutal storms. Prices tend to bottom out around August, when discounts try to woo in travelers despite the lousy weather. By September, expect plenty of rain and gray skies (which is, nonetheless, the time of the year when we visited. We were lucky and had decent weather during our five days). November, on the other hand, makes for a good shoulder just before peak season hits. This is a good month for scoring reasonable prices before vacation season kicks in, while avoiding the worst of La Paz’ weather. So if you’re after a serious bargain, aim for August, but otherwise November is usually the best time to visit La Paz.
Things to Do in La Paz with Kids
While La Paz is quieter and not as popular as Los Cabos, there is no shortage of things to do in the area. In fact, now that we've been there too, I'd venture to say that this area is friendlier for families visiting Baja California with kids. Why? Perhaps the calmer ocean makes everything easier. There's no shortage of beautiful beaches where kids can play in knee deep water
Catedral de Nuestra Senora de La Paz
La Paz isn’t Mexico’s best destination for cultural or historic tourism, though the city’s main cathedral is worth a bit of a peek. The Catedral de Nuestra Senora de La Paz was constructed in 1861 by Dominicans, and is today often used as the site for both religious and the occasional classical music event. The cathedral dominates the Jardin Velasco, and is unmissable if you’re strolling through central La Paz.
Museo de la Ballena
If you don’t have time for a whale watching tour during your time in La Paz, then make sure you visit this enlightening museum. The La Paz Whale Museum is both a wealth of information on all things whale related, though it has a particular focus on the gray whales that frequent the local seas. To add to the atmosphere, the museum features a soundtrack of whale noises that follows you through the five exhibition areas. On top of this, the good mix of images, videos and displays makes the museum colorful and interactive enough to keep kids occupied. Moreover, the museum itself manages a foundation dedicated to the study and preservation of whales, so you know your money is going to a good place.
The Malecon is La Paz’ main waterfront area, stretching over 5 kilometers along the city’s coastline. There isn’t anything in particular to see here, except perhaps those incredible sunsets. Head down to the waterfront in the late afternoon, and join locals as the sun’s rays start to bronze. On weekends, the entire walk becomes inundated with artists peddling their work and vendors offering ice cream and snacks. The whole walk is lined with restaurants and cafes, so it’s likewise a good place to get a meal overlooking the water.
While most people visit the Malecon in the afternoon for sunset, the area is actually quite nice in the mornings. While the afternoon atmosphere is definitely nice, nothing beats a full Mexican breakfast as the morning sea breeze comes in to clear away the summer heat.
Bear in mind the waterfront began to undergo a series of renovations last year. The Malecon is still very much open to the public, but don’t be surprised if your walk is interrupted by a stretch of wet concrete.
Museo Regional de Antropologia e Historia
This sprawling but logically organized museum serves as a good orientation to La Paz and its surroundings. The various exhibitions here follow the history of the peninsula from prehispanic times through to the revolutionary period of the early 20th Century. Much of the museum is in Spanish, though some English is available.
Ibarra’s Pottery Workshop
This pottery workshop has been churning out some of Mexico’s most prized ceramics since 1958. For Mexican tourists, a visit to Ibarra’s is pretty much mandatory during a trip to La Paz. Known throughout the country for their high quality products, Ibarra’s also makes for a good hour of entertainment with their workshop tours. Watch the potters as they carefully craft ceramics – then stock up on a few of your own.
Teatro de la Ciudad
As previously mentioned, La Paz isn’t really known as a cultural destination, but that doesn’t mean the city is devoid of a lively performing arts scene. On the contrary, the City Theater puts on regular theatrical and musical shows, with most top performers from across Mexico passing though here at some point. So if you’re feeling a bit starved of culture, then consider checking out one of the weekend performances at the City Theater.
Dove of Peace
Anyone coming in or out of La Paz will undoubtedly run into this gigantic monument. The symbol of the city, the Dove of Peace can be viewed as either a pair of doves or a whale’s tail. There’s a short walk around the monument, but not much else here. Your best bet is to take a quick selfie stop here on your way in or out of town.
Activities in and Around La Paz
Explore Isla Espiritu Santo
This tiny island in the Sea of Cortez is home to a thriving population of sea lions, not to mention a colorful variety of other wildlife such as sea birds. The volcanic scenery makes for a stark contrast with the rest of the peninsula, and there are numerous trails for hikers. Getting to the island is easy: just jump on a boat from the Malecon, and be prepared to return sometime in the afternoon. Tours are easily organized from the waterfront, not to mention adventure tourism options. Indeed, Espiritu Santo is something of a hub for scuba and snorkeling trips. It’s also possible to swim with sea lions here.
Espiritu Santo is a protected UNESCO site, and locals are pretty keen to keep it that way. Don’t litter or disturb wildlife, and keep on the trails.
Hit up the Beaches
The city of La Paz itself doesn’t have much in the way of surf or swim beaches. While pretty, the waters off the Malecon are generally snubbed by locals. La Paz is an important commercial port, which unfortunately means the waters immediately off the city’s shoreline can be polluted and unfit for swimming. Having said that, there’s no shortage of shoreline outside town that’s perfect for surf, snorkeling, swimming or just lazing on the sand. The most well-known of these is Playa Balandra, which can be reached by bus from the station at the corner of Independencia. It’s about 30 kilometers out of town, and buses run from around 8 am to 5:30 pm. Take note that the bus probably won’t take you all the way to the beach. Instead, you’ll probably end up being dropped off at the final stop near Playa Pichilingue. From there, you’ll need to flag down a cab for the last 10 minutes or so. During peak season, Balandra can get extremely crowded, so arrive early if you can.
The Best Beaches in La Paz, Mexico
If you’d rather avoid the crowds, then consider heading out to one of the lesser-known beaches outside La Paz. Just up the road from Balandra you’ll find Playa Tecolote, a quieter stretch of beach with good views of Isla Espiritu Santo. There’s a few good lobster restaurants in the area, too.
Closer to town, the same bus that runs out to Balandra and Tecolote also passes by the quiet beaches of Caimancito, Coromuel, Tesoro and the afore-mentioned Pichilingue. All are good bets for anyone looking for a lazy beach day. Most are reasonably chilled even during peak season, with the exception of Tecolote, which can get even busier that Balandra (this was the case when we were there and ended up in a smaller and quieter beach). Still, if you’ve got your heart set on Balandra or Tecolote, just try to visit mid-week during low season. You’ll be surprised by how empty these stunning beaches can be once the tourism season ends.
Lastly, if you’re not keen on taking a trip out of town, then luckily La Paz does have a few stretches of shoreline that are suitable for swimming. Right on the edge of town, La Concha Beach Resort maintains its own private beach. Nonguests can hire equipment and make use of the resort bar and restaurant.
Those azure waters off the coast of Baja just scream for a kayak adventure. Kayaking is extremely popular across the region, and for good reason. The generally calm waters around La Paz make gliding across the sea in a kayak an absolute breeze and is an ideal activity in La Paz and Baja California's Sea of Cortez to do with kids of all ages.
Most beaches mentioned here have plenty of kayak hire options. Usually, it’s a simple matter of paying a few bucks, leaving behind a deposit and hitting the water for a few hours. Likewise, virtually all established tour operators in town offer guided kayak trips, sometimes combined with camping or wildlife trips.
Swimming with Sea Lions
While exploring La Paz's surroundings, you’ll no doubt eventually run into some of the region’s friendliest denizens, the sea lions. Throughout most of the year, there’s no shortage of these adorable, playful creatures, and sooner or later you’re going to want to acquaint yourself. To get up close and personal with these critters, consider a day trip of swimming with sea lions.
The most popular place to swim with sea lions is Isla Espiritu Santo, where a thriving colony of the animals live. This colony is pretty accustomed to human visitors, and don’t be surprised if they swim right up to your face.
Most tour operators around La Paz can arrange a sea lion swim throughout the year. Cortez Club is a reputable option that’s generally well regarded among locals and visitors alike, and it's the one we went with. We met at the dock and made our way to another well known spot where you can now only spot sea lions but giant manta rays as well: Los Islotes.
As soon as we got there we got the chance to see some manta rays while were were getting our snorkeling gear on, however once we jumped into the water we didn't see them again (the group members who were diving did).
What we did see were the sea lions, who didn't mind us at all and even came to check us out every now and then. All three jumped into the ocean, and at two years old Teo has already swum with sea lions!
La Paz is one of the most popular places in Mexico for whale watching, though your window is fairly short. For three months from January to March, gray whales migrating from Alaska spend time frolicking in the waters off La Paz. If you do arrive at the right time of year, your chances of seeing a few whales are extremely good. Reviews for tour operators are generally good across the board, and few tourists complain of being let down during whale watching trips. There is, of course, always some degree of luck involved, but at least La Paz has a reputation for reliable oceanic mammals.
You won’t have any problem finding tour operators – if you arrive in season, you might have trouble getting away from all the advertising for tours. Fun Baja Whale Watching is a popular option, offering day trips that get surprisingly close to the whales. If a day on the water isn’t enough, some operators also offer multi-day adventures, following the whales as they migrate through the area.
Swim with Whale Sharks
Whale watching might sound exciting, but what about swimming with sharks? It’s hard to decide which is better – so why not both? Whale sharks are peaceful, incredible giants of the ocean, and they happen to pass by La Paz in their hundreds late in the year.
The whale shark season usually starts in early to mid October, and can last until the following March. Ideally, the mid point of the season is the best time, particularly around December. However, the long season means a whale shark tour can make for a good consolation prize if you happen to miss the gray whales – and what a prize it is. If you’ve ever wanted to swim with a fish the size of a school bus, then this is your chance.
For all ye landlubbers out there, Baja is more than just about the ocean. Inland lies vast swathes of sparely inhabited, open flatlands. It’s some of northern Mexico’s most beautiful, pristine countryside – and it’s just begging to be shredded by quads. Off-road quad biking is extremely popular around here. As with other popular activities, most tour agencies around town can arrange quad trips, it’s just a matter of finding a place with a bunch of bikes parked outside. Typically, day trips take small groups just outside of town for a few hours. Expect transport costs to be included, along with possibly a packed lunch. Multi-day tours are also possible.
Where to Stay in La Paz with Kids
As with any tourist destination there is no shortage of hotels where to stay. However, I did find that there aren't too many options when it comes to higher quality hotels/ resorts. We stayed at the Costa Baja Resort and Spa, a four star resort ideal for what we wanted. Not smack downtown in La Paz, but just a few minutes away, with its own beach ideal for kids, close to the marina, and with a restaurant of its own and others within walking distance. You can read my full review here.
Things to do in La Paz (Mexico) with kids range from the wild and crazy to mellow and easy. We found it to be a very quaint and easy town, with almost of all of its attractions being nature related, something we appreciated. Plan ahead, consider possible hurricanes if visiting during low season (prices are half or less than during high season) and plan on spending at least three or four days with your family to see the best of the area.