We harboured dreams of wasting days carelessly cruising down the highway with the wind in our hair, taking in the craggy moonscapes to a road trip soundtrack of Bruce Springsteen. And of nights spent alone on wilderness beaches, perched around campfires, sipping rum under skies filled with millions of gently flickering pin pricks. In reality this couldn’t have been further from the truth.
After hearing incredible things about Baja California, we were anticipating it being one of the most exciting legs of our epic journey around Mexico. We had some lofty idea of renting a car, or maybe even a camper van, and driving the entire length of the peninsula from north to south.
A quick check of the “widespreadness” of WiFi completely scuppered that plan, as we soon learned that outside of the larger towns, it’s virtually non existent. That’s one of the drawbacks of being in the line of work that we are - our itineraries are completely reliant on a strong connection, and if a place hasn’t got WiFi, then it just ain't viable for us to visit it.
But we revised our expectations and settled for heading straight to one of the more popular cities, one we knew could cater to our 21st century requirements. After grudgingly leaving behind the enticing bright lights of Guadalajara, we boarded the short flight to La Paz.
The Thing About La Paz
La Paz is a small seaside city towards the south of the peninsula and is actually the capital of the state of Baja California Sur. We’d recently spent a wonderful week in the cool little beachtown of Mazunte in Oaxaca, and not knowing much about La Paz, mistakenly thought it might be similar. How wrong we were.
In this part of the world, “only” being inhabited by around quarter of a million people qualifies La Paz as a small city. That’s just under a quarter of a million more people than the 702 residents who call Mazunte their home, so you can probably imagine how far our expectations were from the reality.
We have absolutely nothing against big cities, and in fact absolutely fell in love with two of Mexico’s biggest metropolises, Guadalajara and Mexico City. But that’s because they’re full of character, culture, history, and incredible food.
Unfortunately we found La Paz lacking on virtually all of these fronts. Added to that, it’s pretty expensive in comparison to much of the rest of the country.
The crown jewel of La Paz is its malecon or boardwalk. This long, wide stretch of walkway is extremely pretty and looks out over a virtually enclosed bay whose aquamarine waters are calm and flat, more like a lake than the ocean. It has statues made by both local and international artists stationed at frequent intervals, each depicting fishermen or the local sea life.
There are busy restaurants and bars lining the roadside of the malecon which all have impressive views of the harbour and are a great place to grab a sunset beer. There are marinas filled with gigantic, shiny yachts, the kind that are only owned by the mega rich.
The weather in La Paz is sunny and warm virtually all the time. It only has about 10 days of rain, and well over 300 days of sunshine per year, which for us as sun lovers is a pretty ideal climate.
You’re probably thinking that none of this sounds too bad, and you’d be right. On the surface La Paz is a perfectly serviceable city. But it lacks spirit. Or character. Or complexity. Or depth, whatever you want to call it.
What We Didn’t Know About the Baja Peninsula
This long, thin stretch of land occupies the most north easterly corner of Mexico. It borders the U.S. and lies directly below some of the more well known parts of its south west coastline like San Diego and Los Angeles.
It’s particularly popular amongst so called “snowbirds”, retirees from cold locations in the U.S. and Canada who head south for a few months to escape the harsh winters. It’s also a favourite getaway for families over the Thanksgiving and Christmas period looking to catch some rays rather than dig their cars out of multiple feet of snow.
Together they head down in their droves, many making the journey in RVs or camper vans, filling up the usually desolate beaches with huge vehicles and booking up the masses of flashy international hotel resorts that line the beachfronts of the most touristed towns.
Because of its proximity to Uncle Sam, it probably shouldn’t have come as a surprise that it’s one of the most popular Mexican holiday destinations for U.S. citizens. But what we really didn’t understand is just how much the Baja is set up entirely to cater to this crowd.
The Rest of Baja California Sur
Not being able to complete our length-of-Baja camper van odyssey, we decided to take a shorter road trip to celebrate Sarah’s birthday. From La Paz there are a number of other nearby towns and cities which we’d heard were cool, so we hired a car and set off to explore for a few days. Though we made the most of the time, unfortunately the places we visited were a bit of an anticlimax.
Cabo San Lucas has a reputation as being the Baja’s equivalent of Cancun. A spring break destination packed with clubs, resorts, and U.S. style restaurants. Following our experience in Cancun we decided to steer well clear of that.
Instead we stayed in its sister town San Jose del Cabo which is billed as a smaller, more laid back equivalent. In reality it’s a brash, sparkly, personalityless mass of (you guessed it) resorts, shopping malls, international restaurants, and bars, which made us glad we hadn’t plumped for Cabo San Lucas.
We passed through Los Barriles, and though we didn’t stay long, it was long enough to see that despite being smaller than the other towns we visited, it’s still heavily populated by expats and holidaymakers.
Even during our time in Todos Santos, a place we were assured was a quaint, picturesque, typically Mexican town, we felt completely disorientated at just how “American” it was. Restaurants had menu prices in American Dollars rather than Mexican Pesos, people welcomed us into their shops in perfect American English, and the general population seemed to consist overwhelmingly of non-Mexicans.
All of this is probably best summed up by the fact that there’s a widely circulated free newspaper with a tagline of “No bad news”, imaginatively called the Gringo Gazette. Written in English for a U.S. market, there’s even an option to get it mailed to the States.
Disclaimer: We have nothing against the U.S., and it’s somewhere we would love to explore sometime in the future. But we visited Mexico to explore Mexico, and on that front we felt somewhat shortchanged by the Baja.
Would We Come Back?
Strangely enough, we probably would. But it would have to be under completely different circumstances.
We’d choose to avoid the winter which is peak vacation time, and instead come in the summer when fewer people brave the high temperatures and levels of humidity. We’d plan much further ahead to allow us to complete the road trip we’d originally planned as we’re certain that the remote beaches would be deserted at this time of year. And we’d stay well away from the resort heavy towns of Baja Sur.
Where have you been that just didn't live up to expectations? Have you visited Baja California? Did you love it or hate it? Let us know in a comment down below.