When I started traveling on my own, the first thing went through my mind was, I want to go everywhere! Followed immediately by, I don’t think I can afford that. The urge to see the world is exhilarating but the thought that travel is too expensive can be very debilitating. For me, travel doesn’t have to be extravagant. It doesn’t even mean you have to leave the country or the state. For me, travel can be as simple as driving to the mountains to see snow. Or visiting a local historical monument. For more complicated trips, like traveling out of the country, it pays to do a lot of research before hand so I can see as much as I can without going completely over budget. Knowing where to save and where to spend can be difficult, but it’s important if you still want to have money to pay rent. There is a ton of stuff to do in any city for free or very little money. And if you’re going to city that is expensive (like Paris, for example) researching in advance is the best way for me to know where I want to spend my cash.
My parents have always been big time travelers (what can I say, it runs in the family) and we would go to Baja just about every year on vacation. It’s 1,000 miles or 24 hours to drive from Tijuana to Cabo San Lucas so we usually would take our camper and stop somewhere like Mulegé, or Santa Rosalíta along on the way. As I got older we started flying rather than driving because it was easier. Now my parents actually live in La Paz, a city on the east side of the peninsula about two hours north of Cabo. Which is how I ended up spending my Thanksgiving break in Mexico.
If you are looking for the perfect budget travel destination, Mexico is it. It’s easy to get to (especially if you live near the border like I do) and your dollar will go a long way. One American dollar equals about 19 Pesos which means it’s actually cheaper to eat out than to buy food and make it in your hotel (an excellent way to save money when traveling).
Getting To La Paz, Baja California
The most expensive part of any trip is going to be your flight there. Since Mexico is a foreign country (duh) that international flight from LAX to Cabo San Lucas can run you about $300 round trip. But taking a domestic flight from Tijuana is half that. Hear me out – there is a huge advantage to flying out of Tijuana, and it’s not nearly as scary as you’ve heard. From the Otay Mesa crossing you can use the Cross Border Express and walk across an enclosed pedestrian bridge that drops you off directly inside the Tijuana airport. The tickets are $18 each way and there is long term parking on the US side. The parking is a little pricey but if you live close enough finding someone willing to drop you off would be the cheapest option. If you need to drive yourself, there are a few off site parking lots to choose from. My mom found Delta Truck Parking where I could leave my car with a free shuttle for $40 for 3 days. Score!
What to Do
Now that you’re here, what is there to do? La Paz is the capital of the state of Baja and the fourth biggest city in Mexico. Take a stroll along the Mallecon and do some souvenir shopping. Go for a swim then relax at a near by restaurant with a cool drink and fresh fish. Or take a day trip out of town. Since I only had 2 full days (plus 2 half days), we made sure to squeeze as much as we could into each one.
Get Artsy in El Triunfo
The tiny town of El Triunfo is about an hour south of La Paz on the road to Cabo San Lucas. It was once a much bigger and thriving city mining silver and gold. After the mine shut down most of the people left, and now it’s basically a living ghost town. There are probably less than 500 people who still live in town, but it’s slowly making a comeback as an artist colony. One of the restaurants that is still open for business, the Cafe El Triunfo, looks like it may have once been a hotel that suffered a massive fire at some point but now is just a really cool looking cafe/restaurant with an open patio in the back. Walking through it you’ll see all kinds of rad historical pictures and even an old safe in the corner. When you come out on the back side you’ll get a nice view of the desert and the smoke stacks from the old mines. They are they only things left standing from the original structures, and the larger of the two was designed by Gustav Eiffel.
The Chapel of Our Lady of Guadalupe is hard to miss on your way into town, mostly because it’s painted the brightest color yellow possible. Across from the church we ate at a very typical Mexican restaurant – a few tables and chairs and an outside kitchen serving only quesadillas or burritos. I don’t even know if it had a name, but we got a quesadilla, four burritos, beans plus drinks and homemade salsa for about $20 US.
There’s also a piano museum that occasionally has concerts, and four cemeteries separated between Chinese French, Mexican and America/English. If you can find someone who speaks English, ask for directions to the cemetery because it’s not marked on the road. Even if you knew none of that, El Triunfo would be cool just because of it’s ghost town status. Most buildings are decaying and many of them have fallen to the elements completely. It’s an Instagrammer’s heaven. Give yourself plenty of time explore, we only planned on an hour and we ended up being there for much longer. It’s definitely worth it.
Tourist 101 in Todos Santos
The last time I was in Todos Santos I *think* I was 10. The town’s history is pretty extensive which normally would make it a must see place for me. One of the original Spanish missions was founded here in 1723, before the Spanish came to California. Then it became the sugarcane capital of Baja after the secularization of the missions. The town died for a few decades after the mills shut down until the highway was paved in the 1980s.
The tiny downtown area offers shopping and the Hotel California, which my dad will swear is the inspiration for the song of the same name by the Eagles. I couldn’t tell you if this was actually true, but it makes for a fun story to tell especially if you appreciate classic rock. However, in the 20 years between the first and last time I visited Todos Santos, it has become very popular as a day trip destination for passengers on Mexican Rivera cruises. Which means that the shop owners have jacked up their prices on tchotchkes that you can buy in other cities for a lot less. It felt more like a mock-up of a traditional Mexican coastal town than an authentic one. La Paz has an original Spanish Mission also, so you could skip it all together and just keep driving down to Cabo.
Swimming with Whale Sharks in La Paz
I’m not going to lie, this was basically the reason I went to La Paz. I mean, sure my parents are there and I hadn’t seen them in a few months, but WHALE SHARKS. My parents are friends with Paul, a former marine biologist turned restaurant owner who happens to be one of the only people in La Paz who is licensed to lead whale watching trips. He came to Baja to study manta rays, but discovered this pod of Whale Sharks and began studying them instead. The sharks spend their adolescence in the water off El Mogote, which is the peninsula that separates the inner and outer bay of La Paz. They might be teenagers, but they are massive. We ended up seeing about 6 and the largest one was the size of our boat. I was slightly nervous being around such big animals, especially since they didn’t seem to care in the least that I was there. We had to be careful not to get too close because we didn’t want them to shift directions and we end up running into each other. (For the safety of the whales, not us, lol) This almost happened to me though; I was trying to get my mask on and get my face in the water, so I asked my dad where the shark was and he said, “It’s coming right at you!” To which I responded with a few expletives and a crazy sideways jump in the water – the kind that’s only possible when you feel your life is in mortal peril.
I was all hyped that I got to be in charge of the GoPro and take pictures of the sharks. Turns out, it’s much more difficult than I thought to take pictures of giant moving creatures under water. Just before we took off to go back to the beach we saw the largest whale we had seen that day. He swam right up next to our boat and dude, he was fantastic. They have a mouth that goes all the way across the front of their head and they scoop water and plankton in together, then filter out the water through their gills. That’s really all they do, swim around and look for food. It was pretty unbelievable to be so close to them and it’s probably one of the coolest things I’ve ever done.
The Most Beautiful Playa – Balandra Bay
After we finished our whale shark adventure and since we were already in swim suits we decided we would drive up to Balandra, a protected bay on the north tip of the peninsula above La Paz. It’s about 45 minutes outside of the center of town and GUYS, it’s one of the most beautiful beaches I’ve ever seen. It rivals beaches on Caribbean islands, in my opinion. When we got there, it was low tide. Like, really low tide. We could walk from one end to the other and the deepest the water got was waist height. It was shallow as a puddle in some areas. Yet surprisingly, there were still tiny fish swimming in that inch of water. Mexico is pretty lax on leash laws so there’s no rule about letting your dogs play on the beach. The dogs ran around like they were on fire and ended up covered in sand.
Out at the tip of the peninsula there is a rock referred to as the “Mushroom Rock”. The ocean has worked for centuries to carve a giant rock into something that slightly resembles a mushroom. It’s the unofficial symbol of La Paz. But not too long ago, it fell over. The people were so sad about it the government
came out and fixed it. They reinforced the stem with concrete and re bar to help hold it up. Now everyone can enjoy it in all its mushroom-y glory.
If you come when the tide is in, there are several activities you can partake in. Rent a kayak on the beach and explore the bay and the other inlets near by. Snorkeling is always a good choice and Balandra has a lot of exotic sea life to see. The water is so clear it’s like looking in an aquarium. We saw several species of fish swimming around while we were just wading. Or you can spend the day swimming and relaxing on the beach under a palapa. For an alternative Baja adventure, check out my friends 2TravelDads guide to snorkeling in Cabo. It has lots of ideas on where the best snorkeling is and different ways to achieve it.
What to Eat
Lastly I wanted to give a quick mention of all the fabulous restaurants we ate at in La Paz because, let’s face it, eating is an important part of any trip.
In the El Centenario neighborhood of La Paz, where my parents and most of the other gringos live, there are three main restaurants. They are all owned by Americans or Canadians and they do a variety of food. Big Ruby’s offered an American style Thanksgiving dinner which we had on Thanksgiving. Usually they have things like pasta and fish dinners. My parent’s eat here a lot. The manager is the sweetest lady who will remember you when you come back a second time. They have live music on weekends, too.
Mezquite Grill is a sports bar that actually bought the NFL package on satellite so my dad could watch the Chargers’ games. They have really good pizzas and burgers and they pour beer from the Baja Brewing Co. I’d recommend the Red Ale, and my dad likes the IPA.
The best restaurant in La Paz is Sorstis. It’s in the main part of town and has mostly seafood options. I had an abalone appetizer that was seriously one of the best things I’ve ever eaten and the sea food linguine main course with pesto instead of marinara sauce. My dad got the steak and lobster which was divine and my mom got the lobster stuffed portobello mushrooms. You can all ahead to make a reservation, especially on the weekend.
El Toro de Geuro is a traditional Mexican joint – meaning it’s under a giant palapa with plastic tables and chairs serving tacos and burritos. But what we came for was the ceviche. The plate of shrimp ceviche with tostadas was only a few dollars and is a really big portion. They also have fish served several ways, like in butter or with garlic, that comes with rice, beans, and tortillas for about $10.
Bonus: If you like coffee check out Batallia, a coffee store in the Mallecon that offers only two kinds of coffee – con azucar or sin azucar. (with or without sugar) The bean is roasted with the sugar, but it doesn’t make the coffee sweet. My dad usually gets his beans revueltos, or mixed. You get 2 kilos for about $5. Crazy.
So there it is, my all encompassing guide to the best of La Paz. Did I miss something? Let me know about it in the comments. I’ll be sure to check it out next time!