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Published: November 28th 2017
La Paz 2 November - 2 December 2017
The ferrry crossing from Topolobombo to La Paz went smoothly although for us the challenge was staying awake to wait for embarkation. It is necessary to arrive at least two hours before departure time so we were delivered by the Baldarrama driver at 9.30pm to wait for the midnight ferry. It is the only time the ferry leaves and then only a few times a week.
On arrival there were people everywhere and it all seemed chaotic but in true Mexican style, without any fuss or histrionics, it all gets sorted. Luggage was taken to the hold and passengers climbed aboard just before midnight.
I went to collect the cabin key to find that dinner was included in the price for all passengers. We did go to the restaurant but as we had already eaten and it was midnight we settled for a drink and a small piece of fish. Our cabin was a surprise, very clean and modern like the rest of the ship and we soon fell asleep. The next morning we awoke in time for a simple breakfast and coffee before disembarking about 9am and went in
search of a bus.
Our hotel, Perla, is only two blocks from the bus station on the seafront so it could not have been easier to walk to the hotel and we were soon in our new room, even though it was only 10am.
We decided to travel slowly this winter, staying a reasonable chunk of time to really get to know the locations and feel as though we are living here rather than just passing through.
After the activity in the Copper Canyon, La Paz is a very relaxing place to unwind. There is always something happening to watch but it is never anything too demanding. The tourist area stretches along for a couple of kilometres by the sea with the Malecon, or promenade, running the whole length. Our hotel has a couple of terraces which overlook the Malecon and we spend at least part of most evenings watching the world go by. The level of activity varies depending upon the day of the week and any special events. Friday and Saturday nights are the liveliest when most of the town seems to parade up and down the Malecon either on foot or, as seems more popular these
days, in a vehicle. The cars all travel at little more than walking speed and often have music playing and people standing up with heads through rooves or out of windows.
Although the traffic can be non-stop on a Saturday night we noticed that there was very little smell or pollution from the vehicles so think they must use LPG. The activity always dies down by about 10pm.
Normally, the Malecon feels more like a village than a town. Each evening a handful of people push, pull or carry tables and bicycle stalls to the front and set up little businessess selling clothes, food and souvenirs. When they arrive they unwind cables and plug them in somehow to the street lights for power. Then the balloon man arrives, totally concealed behind his barrier of balloons and soon the flower seller takes up his position by the road, two bunches of red roses in his hand as he tries to sell them to the passing cars, usually one rose at a time.
During the day the movement up and down the Malecon is not so much of people as of birds. Frigates float high up and parallel to the
road, carried along on thermals. Pelicans also migrate up and down but their movements are just above the sea until they spot a fish and dip down for it. We also saw an Osprey which flew along and then snatched a fish from the water right in front of us.
One weekend the town played host to the Baja 1000 miles Off Road Race which is for all kinds of vehicles from motorbikes to large and eccentrically constructed 4x4s. Participants were mainly men from the U.S., many racing in teams. They all seemed to wear a uniform of black T-shirts with team names or names of businesses associated with cars and racing such as tyre manufacturers and the like. As you might imagine it was the noisiest weekend but as most were drunk well before 9pm they did not keep us up late.
Another week a number of naval vessels arrived and moored in front of the hotel. The next day they were festooned in bunting, together with the local dredger. The President was in town! We think we saw his entourage drive along the front in two huge luxurious looking coaches, which had no identification or advertising on
them but they were colourfully decorated with scenes of Mexico. We decided they were the ultimate in stretch limos and must be the Presidential party as they were preceded by 2 vehicles full of armed soldiers and followed by another seven similar vehicles. We assumed the naval vehicles were also around for protection but we don't really know.
Again, as in Mazatlan, there is normally a strong presence of armed vehicles. Here they can be the State Police, Federal, (los federales), Marines, Tourist police and what looks like a specialist desert force from their camouflage clothing. The Tourist police travel in an ordinary car, the rest in open backed jeep type vehicles carrying between 4 and 7 armed soldiers. I worry that the ones standing up in the back for long periods in the hot sun with their rifles or machine guns are going to go over a bump or nod off and fire by accident! They travel up and down the Malecon constantly, every five or seven minutes at busy times, at the same walking speed as other vehicles. Apart from that risk of accident I never feel threatened by them but reassured, however that might be my naivety.
The main reason I chose to visit La Paz is that whale-sharks congregate here in the winter and I have been wanting to see one for years. We watched the weather forecast for a calm day with light winds and then we booked a trip on a snorkelling boat. The whale-sharks reside near the opposite shore from the Malecon in a sheltered bay and access is tightly controlled. The bay is divided into two areas and boats are told which area they can go in. Boats have to have special licences. Only so many are allowed in at one time and the captains are in constant touch with the 'controller' who says when they can enter the area, and when they must leave. Each boat can only allow 5 snorkellers in the water at once, the boat has to stay a certain distance from the whale-sharks, and the crew have to brief swimmers about their behaviour. This is all to reduce the stress experienced by the fish. It is really good to see the efforts made to protect them and according to our guide the penalty for any breach of regulations is very severe.
But eventually we were ready
to lower ourselves quietly into the water, again so as not to cause stress and see if we could approach them. We had been briefed on the best strategy. If they are in front of you swimming away it is impossible to catch up with them as their 'wake' washes you backwards. You need to try and see where they are and approach them from the side so you can position yourself parallel to them level with their pectoral fin. Not easy as they are constantly moving and often below the surface! Any further back and you are washed away and too far forward you might cause them stress. If you can manage to reach this ideal position then you can easily swim alongside them for some minutes, but you should not go closer than two metres.
It is much more difficult than it sounds. I tried to catch up with a couple from slightly forward of the tail and despite finning like crazy I was washed back. But eventually I made it, and managed to get to the perfect place to swim alongside four of them. They are huge! They are three to four times my length and
about four times as wide at the mouth. In fact these are not as large as they can be because they are juveniles and still growing!
So I enjoyed calm, leisurely and companionable swims with them until the last of the four when two snorkellers on the other side moved forward to see it's mouth. You are not meant to go that far forward as when you cross their sight line they become stressed and turn. That is what happened. It turned from them towards me and I could not get out of it's way quickly enough, (as it is not possible to fin in reverse!) so I had no option but to swim all the way past the mouth as it turned round in front of me. I tried to do it without too much splashing but at least I had a really good view of that very wide mouth!
The four young snorkellers on the boat found it exhausting and two were back on board after just a few minutes, so we were pleased that we had more stamina! They are Jehovah's Witnesses. They took photographs including stills and underwater videos. They promised to email some
photographs to me but I am still waiting. Because of their religion I hopefully thought they might be more reliable but it seems not. We were tired by our exertions the next day but I had been determined not to miss a minute of our contact time. I have included some photographs from the website of the company we used.
Another day we visited the museum. It is small and has few items to display, most of them copies but having said that I really enjoyed it as everything is displayed in an interesting and accessible way. Jim struggled a little as all the comprehensive signage is only in Spanish. I returned on my own another morning to take photographs and spend more time reading the information boards, which is a slow process. The museum deals with the early history of the region and it's peoples, the conquests, revolutions and Independence and everyday life of the indigenous people. I have included pictures of the burials. I am not obsessed with bones but find the various burial rituals in different geographical locations fascinating. Put it down to a misspent youth studying anthropology! There is also a video of the cave
paintings in the mountains to the north of here. We hope to see some when we travel up to San Ignacio, but to visit the best requires a two or three day trip on horseback up into the canyons, which is probably more challenging than we need.
After that we retired to a beach, Balandra, about 23 miles north of the town. It is a beautiful undeveloped beach in a horseshoe shape. When we arrived I wanted to cool down so donned mask, snorkel and fins to swim out and see what was in the shallow water. Surprisingly, there was very little. I could not understand why. As I walked back up the beach I realised that the current was very strong but as the water was only knee deep it was fine. We sat for about an hour and by that time the water had almost disappeared. It retreats so far and so quickly that the sun dries out the sand at the bottom of the sea which is why nothing lives there.
Almost next door to the Perla is the new Whale Museum. I spent a couple of hours there when Jim was working on the
computer. It is part of a research programme about whales, trying to protect some of the endangered species as well as increasing public understanding of the creatures. In contrast to the local museum of ethnology, which tries to make information accessible even to children, the Whale Museum is a very grown up place, full of complex biological information but the numerous skeletons and models hung from the ceilings give some interest for the less scientifically minded. One fact which stayed in my mind is that more money is made now annually from whale watching activities than was ever made from the whaling industry.
The other popular attraction here is the island of Espiritu Santo, an hour and a half away by boat. There you have the opportunity to snorkel with sea lions as well as see the amazing pastel pink cliffs , arches and desert scenery. We have seen lots of sea lions so I was not too excited by that but have to say being in the water with them and having them race around at top speed was fun, and best of all, under the water you cannot smell their fishy breath! I have never really understood
the attraction of sailing before but I would love to have the money to float around this area in a yacht, stopping to swim and snorkel at will as it is really remote and unspoiled but with wonderful rock formations and hidden islands.
However, what really horrified us was the cavalier attitude to snorkelling demonstrated on the boat. True, by law everyone has to wear a life jacket now to snorkel with the sea lions, but as we prepared to get in the water we realised that a young couple with three children of ages three, five and seven were all going to snorkel! This was in open sea near a rocky outcrop where the sea lions live in the choppy breakers. The father had the three year old handed down to him when he was in the water and just carried her in his arms. The five and seven year olds were left to get in and go off alone. We could not believe our eyes.
We had to do a long surface snorkel of about 300 metres in total. All went well for two minutes. By then the father was struggling to move forward and keep
his daughter above water. She started screamed hysterically, not surprisingly, clearly having a more finely tuned survival instinct than her father, and so he had to be helped back to the boat to get her on board, still screaming. Then the five year old panicked and starting screaming with terror so she too had to be rescued. The parents stayed on the boat then. The seven year old boy did complete the snorkel on his own with no-one accompanying him. At home we would never allow someone of that age to snorkel in the midst of the sea unattended.
Now a change of topic. I included a couple of photographs in the last blog of the Day of the Dead displays from El Fuerte but wanted to say a little more. It is not a macabre occasion but a celebration of the life of family members who have died. Many people have picnics by the grave and take along food and drink that the deceased enjoyed when alive. Paper bunting is hung up and there is a lot of partying. This attitude to death extends to the use of skeletons for advertising of all types of products from beer
to restaurants. When we arrived at Hotel Perla restaurant a large skeleton dressed as a tia, or aunt, welcomed us at the door. Then on 27 November she suddenly morphed into Mother Christmas, or is it the ghost of Christmas past? I am not sure, see what you think.
In the photograph of the naval vessel you can see blocks of apartments in the background which are built on a spit of land reaching out into the bay. Some are finished and inhabited, others are only half built. We assumed it was a work in process but our guide on the boat explained that they are recently built but the sand is not stable and is shifting underneath them. On looking more closely we could see some already have a list. Eventually they will all have to be demolished.
As part of his usual research routine, Jim looked online for birding information and found out about a bar/restaurant called the Tailhunter, (referring to their fishing trips not birdwatching), 15 minutes walk along the Malecon towards the edge of town. It is three storeys high under an open thatched roof so provides a good view out to sea and
right in front is a stoney breakwater full of birds. This is one of our favourite places as the fish tacos and burgers are delicious. We think it is the best bird hide in the world - food and drink on tap literally whilst with binoculars and camera we can monitor bird arrivals and departures. We have seen Woodpeckers, Royal Terns, Osprey, Tri-coloured Heron, White Egrets, a variety of waders and even the resident White Ibis.
Our hotel, the Perla, is one of the original hotels established in 1940 but it has undergone numerous changes and so does look as if it has 'grown' rather than being designed. At that time La Paz was famous for pearls which could be collected from the beach and the shallow bay. There is a story (see photograph) about two of the largest, most beautiful pearls, one of which was bought by Richard Burton for Elizabeth Taylor.
We have loved our stay here as it is in such a convenient position, close to everything, overlooking the sea, friendly, no-one worries if you bring in your own food and drink, and cleaner than anywhere else we have stayed. An army of people spend
their whole day washing, mopping and polishing until it sparkles and we receive a full room service daily. When we arrived here we bought a couple of plates, bowls and cutlery so we can prepare simple meals for ourselves and we eat out perhaps 5 times a week.
Just behind our hotel is a building with a traditional colonial interior patio. The building is home to a very superior book shop and a venue for cultural events. It is very refined inside compared to the hustle and bustle of life on the streets. In the patio is a very small restaurant which is our second favourite place after the Tailhunter. We have not been able to work out if it is meant to provide lunch for the people working in the building but it is definitely open to the public as they have a sandwich board outside advertising it. The food is very good and well presented and best of all a two course meal with a drink costs £3 each!
Finally, we mentioned that in Mazatlan 60% of the pavements were being dug up and replaced. Here in La Paz the WHOLE of the Malecon is going
through the same upheaval which sometimes makes walking hazardous as there are huge holes in the ground waiting to catch the unwary but we have been amazed at how quickly the work is being carried out. We wish we could be here a few more weeks to see La Paz Malecon in it's new splendour! On Saturday we are moving to Cabo San Lucas to see a different area and even catch a glimpse of Land's End, the Mexican version.
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