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Published: February 27th 2019
Baja California Sur, MéxicoTrip goals:
Not to be confused with the city in Bolivia.
Speak Spanish all day, every day √
Swim with whale sharks √
Solo road trip across the desert with the music turned all the way up, singing in Spanish at the top of my lungs √ Unplanned bonus:
Swim with sea lions √
Discover what a great town La Paz is √
For a short trip with simple goals, I got way more than I had even hoped for. When a cheap flight direct from Seattle to San José del Cabo popped up, I bought it, knowing only that Baja California has much better weather than Seattle in February. The briefest of research about Baja California Sur made me decide to drive from Cabo up to La Paz to swim with whale sharks. With only three full days in Mexico, not counting my travel days before and after, I didn’t think I would have time for much else. How wrong I was! La Paz is a fabulous place, both for the town itself and for the access it provides to the biodiversity of the Sea of Cortez.
I arrived late enough the first day that I spent the night in Cabo
There are no adjectives for what it feels like to swim with whale sharks. None of my photos are half as good as my videos but Travelblog still isn't supporting videos, so check back later.
and drove the next day up to La Paz. Getting around was much easier than I had expected, so next time I fly in late I’ll spend the night in Todos Santos or even drive all the way up to La Paz. Cabo San Lucas is a very strange place and not my style. I found a little hotel that was pretty chill, but most of town is giant hotels, bars and pharmacies advertising the sort of thing you can’t get without a prescription in the US or Canada. As long as I was there, I did a little investigative journalism, asking about working conditions in those giant hotels. There is a union for hotel workers, but I was told that it really doesn’t do anything for the members. They get paid $6 USD per day and the union doesn’t fight for higher pay or better working conditions, according to the staff I interviewed.
Leaving Cabo, the road trip was exactly what I had in mind. Driving north I had the Pacific on my left, with long white beaches stretching all the way up the coast. On my right were desert hills with giant cactus, even more picturesque than
This was one of my surprise bonus discoveries about La Paz. The juvenile sea lions are so playful and so much fun in the water!
in cartoons. Long distance busses in Mexico are great, but if you ever need a desert road trip with the emptiness of Nevada and the beauty of California’s Highway 1, drive from Cabo up to Todos Santos. It is stunning the whole way. It’s only about two hours from Cabo up to La Paz and the part of the road that isn’t along the coast is still a beautiful drive through the desert.
La Paz is a lovely town and I spent most of my first day there walking around, soaking in the heat and the sun. I arranged a whale shark trip for the next day from a little office along the malecón. This turned out to be an absolutely amazing experience. Swimming with whale sharks is like swimming with dinosaurs. They are huge and seem even more massive when you’re in the water with them. You’re not allowed to touch them, but they swim so close that at times it’s hard not to. They are a protected species in Mexico, and very unique. They’re not whales at all and they are very unusual for sharks, since they eat plankton like whales. Do a quick search for whale
I just loved the turquoise water, white sand, green cactus and red sandstone. Every inch of that coast is absolutely stunning.
sharks and you’ll see how much is still unknown about them.
Some of the whale sharks we found were juveniles, but several were full sized adults. I am not good at estimating their size, but the guide said that the largest one we swam with was over 9 meters long (about 30 feet). Wikipedia says that the largest whale shark recorded was 41.5 feet and about 47,000 pounds. Several times I was swimming alongside one, watching the zebra pilot fish that manage to stay just in front of their mouths, when the shark suddenly turned towards me and I had to scramble to keep from hitting the shark with my fins. I don’t know if scramble is the right word for what you do when you’re snorkeling along and suddenly have to stop and back up, but that’s all I can think of. I also enjoyed swimming right above their backs, admiring their speckles and watching the remora fish that latch on to the sharks’ skin. At least when the sharks decided to go up to the surface when I was above them it was easier to get out of the way by swimming sideways than it was to
As a protected area you're not allowed to take anything from the beaches of Isla Espíritu Santo, but you can take pictures of them and put them back. I gathered a pile of worn fish vertebrae off the beach for a little photo shoot.
get out of the way when they decided to cut sideways in front of me. At one point I was surrounded by three whale sharks and there are no adjectives for how amazing that was.
If you go swimming with whale sharks, be prepared to swim as quickly as you can. They’re not fast compared to most fish, but you do have to stay close and keep up. Pause for a moment to look around or catch your breath and they’re gone. Thankfully, the way the tour is structured, there were two groups taking turns being in the water with the sharks. There are new regulations that require each guide to have only five people in the water at a time. When we spotted a shark, the boat got close, then we jumped in and swam with the shark until we couldn’t keep up. Then the boat picked us up and we waited for the next shark to come along. While the other group was in the water, I caught my breath and chatted with the boat captain. The guide stayed in the water the whole time and the captain made sure that we took turns so that there
There were pelicans everywhere. I love watching them diving into the ocean after a fish and skimming over the water, flying so low. They're just such cool birds!
were never more than five of us in the water together.
The boat captain and guide explained to me that two years ago the government made a lot of new regulations for tours with the whale sharks. Most of the new rules they agree with and thought were a good change. One of those is that each guide can have only five people in the water at a time. Another is that boat captains must be actual licensed captains that speak English. In my group everybody spoke some Spanish, but I know that not all tourists speak Spanish. Guides must also be licensed, and to take tourists out with whale sharks, the guide must complete a four-day course. They said that the four days was repetitive and overkill, but that the idea of making sure the guides know what they’re doing is an improvement. One thing they didn’t like in the new rules was that each boat can only carry ten people. They pointed out that the biggest threat to whale sharks is boat propellers. Wouldn’t it make sense to allow twenty people per boat and reduce by 50% the number of propellers in the water? The other thing
La Paz Art Exhibit 1
All along the malecón are beautiful sculptures done by locals or people with ties to La Paz. This one was titled Mujer en Nautilus.
they wish they could still do is spot the sharks with drones. Drones are now forbidden, and the boats have to zig zag around the bay at six knots, using more gasoline and wasting time looking for the sharks. I understand that drones are harmful to wildlife like birds and mammals when they get close, but I have a hard time believing that whale sharks are at all bothered by drones. Hopefully they’ll come up with some regulations that will allow drones to be used in a way that won’t bother any wildlife and that will reduce the amount of driving around looking for the sharks.
The tour guide companies have to call the government each morning to ask at what time of day they’re allowed to take tourists out to the sharks. The sharks were quite close to town and even at six knots it didn’t take long to get out there. There is an NGO that has boats in the water checking that companies follow the regulations and reporting back to the government. When we approached the area of the bay with whale sharks our guide and captain had to report the authorization number they had for
La Paz Art Exhibit 2
This part of the malecón is getting new surfacing but the hammerhead sculpture still looks great.
the day to the observers. They took photos of our boat, recording the number of tourists and boat name and registration. Check out the NGO and see what else they’re doing at www.paralelo28.org
The website had both Spanish and English versions.
When we got back to shore, I returned the wetsuit to the office and asked what they had for the next day. With such a short trip, the next day was actually my last day. I signed up for a tour of Isla del Espíritu Santo and swimming with sea lions. This is a much longer tour, involving a drive to a port just north of town and a boat ride across some open water and then up the western side of the island. It is a beautiful place and the turquoise water contrasting with the red sandstone cliffs and hillsides of tall cactus was stunning. Not even a minute from the dock we stopped in the bay to watch a pod of at least thirty dolphins hunting what looked like mackerel. They chased the school of fish across in front of us, hundreds of fish jumping out of the water en masse to escape the dolphins. We followed
La Paz Art Exhibit 3
Manta rays were the one thing I didn't see on this trip. As if I needed another excuse to go back!
them around the bay for a bit before heading north towards the island.
This was a larger group than the day before and the area with the sea lions is much smaller than the area with whale sharks, but once we got in the water it didn’t seem crowded. Most of the sea lions were basking in the sun on the rocks but there were always a few in the water. The guides warned us that if we are approached by sea lions that we can touch them only with a closed fist. It’s generally the babies that are playful enough to approach humans and we were told that they’ll bite the way Labrador puppies bite. Puppies aren’t generally trying to hurt or draw blood, but they do have sharp teeth, hence telling us to keep our fingers safe. Several times I had young sea lions approach me, twirling around me, chasing each other and curiously nosing me. At one point an adult sea lion rushed me with its mouth open and I had to remind myself that it really wasn’t going to bite. I must have gotten too close to the rocks that above me had baby sea
La Paz Art Exhibit 4
Inspired by a poem by Guillermo Gomez in the next photo.
lions resting in the sun. It reminded me of the National Geographic talk by photographer Paul Nicklen when he describes being rushed by a leopard seal. Leopard seals are to seal lions what real lions are to house cats. The sea lion that rushed me was nothing like the leopard seal that Paul Nicklen faced. However, if you want to know what came to mind when I was faced with a lot of teeth coming at me, take a look at this https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UmVWGvO8Yhk
Biodiversity hotspot that the Sea of Cortez is, there was a lot more in the water than just the sea lions. I saw brightly colored brain coral and purple fan coral. There were many more species of fish than I can list here, but my favorites were the yellowtail surgeonfish, the blue-barred parrot fish and the giant hawkfish. Since this tour was most of the day, after we swam with the sea lions we motored over to a little bay for lunch. There are several bays along the western coast of Espíritu Santo, each with perfect turquoise waters, gorgeous white sand and spectacular hillsides of cactus. We saw pelicans, gulls, frigate birds and boobies. Lunch was
La Paz Art Exhibit 4.5
This is the poem that goes with the previous sculpture of the man in the paper boat.
giant tubs of the best ceviche I have ever had, served with tostada shells. After lunch we swam around the bay and played on the beach before heading back to the harbor and the shuttle van back to town.
This was my last night in La Paz and I tried to focus on how wonderful the place is, rather than start dreading the cold and dark that awaited me in Seattle. There was a full band on a pier playing Queen for almost an hour and as I walked along the malecón I started a list in my head of all the things I love about La Paz. I only saw the area near the beach and the malecón so I can’t report on the whole city, but what I saw was pretty fantastic. Below is an abbreviated version of the list, in no particular order.
· They had a full band playing Queen on the pier Friday night!
· People smile and greet you when they walk past you.
· There are lots of creative sculptures along the malecón and cool murals around town.
· People of all ages, families and tourists walk along
Sunsets over the water
I never got tired of watching the sun set into the water. What other east coast town can say that?
the malecón all day and well into the night.
· There were lots of skate boarders, of all ages. Every evening I saw two guys who were probably in their 60s on longboards.
· There were teenage BMX punks, rollerbladers, bikers, runners and recumbent bikers.
· The whole malecón has a bike lane between the walking path and the road.
· There are palapas all along the beach for anybody to use.
· The beach and the streets are very clean.
· The bay in front of La Paz has lots of biodiversity that you can see up close.
· Even though it’s on the east coast of the Baja peninsula, the shape of the bay means that you can watch the sun set into the water.
· There is a fantastic bookstore in the cultural center by the church.
· Food is really good and very cheap.
· Most of the tourists I met spoke Spanish and locals I met all spoke English.
· The beach part of town is small enough that you recognize people. Each evening when I was having dinner I saw people who had been on my tour that day.
· The area of town I saw seemed to have a gay scene (confirmed by https://www.gaymexicomap.com/baja-california-sur.php
· It’s an easy place to be alone because people are so friendly and it feels so safe.
· When I was looking for the post office about ten minutes before closing some kids helped me find it by walking with me to make sure I got there before it closed.
· The tour guides I met were from La Paz and they were all excellent.
· Just a few blocks from the beach is a great bakery named “Pan d’Les” with good coffee, whole grain bread, scones, muffins and cookies.
· La Paz is the state capitol and it’s a real town people live in, so it doesn’t feel touristy.
· The beach area and most of town is lit with LED lights
· The palm trees along the malecón are painted white around the base and well cared for.
· All of the dogs I saw along the malecón were on leashes and all the cats were clean and well treated by the restaurant employees.
· Police were not overbearing or too visible, but the place felt very safe. I was comfortable walking by myself even after 11pm.
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