On the inaugural AeroMexico flight from Los Angeles to La Paz, near the southern tip of the Baja California peninsula, the landscape is a captivating sight for nearly the full flight. Above the edge of the continent, thousands of feet in the air, I can see the pavement and asphalt mazes of Los Angeles melt into green-lawned suburban expanses, then shift dramatically south of San Diego, just beyond the Mexican border. Instantly gone are the networks of roads and the green sprawl that wouldn't be so green if not for sprinkler systems. Baja is truly a desert, spare, striking, and beautiful. It wasn't that long ago that the western United States was Mexican territory, and the contrast in terrain is more easily noted from a height than from any car or train. It makes a fine point of the effects of human boundaries and manipulation of the terrain.
Ten minutes or so beyond that striking border between the landscaped and the natural, still riding the outline of the Pacific Ocean, a second body of water emerges, the blues and greens of the Sea of Cortez. From the plane, the entire breadth of the peninsula is visible.
This flight is the first of the twice-weekly (Thursdays and Sundays) LAX-LPB (La Paz's El Alto International Airport) flights, and in an inaugural flight tradition, the first passengers were treated to a show: Water cannons flanked the runway and we ended our flight under the arch of a water salute.
Getting Away From it All: (clockwise from top left) Sea lions lounge in the sun; kayakers near the protected Isla Espiritu Santo; the miles-long Malecon boardwalk at night
The La Paz town center is a short 20-minute drive from the airport. The city has been described by the New York Times and Money magazine as one of the best places in the world to retire, something that's unlikely to be said of its more famous, rowdier neighbor, Cabo San Lucas, a heavily trafficked tourist destination about a two hour's drive south. La Paz, by contrast, is smaller, offers up fewer mega-hotel resorts (the first American chain, Hyatt Place, just announced it would open), and fewer spring breakers. The city rests in a bay on the Sea of Cortez and feels more pristine and, to many visitors, more "Mexican."The DetailsWhere to PlayThe Fun Baja
The town's hub is the three-mile-long boardwalk called the Malecon, a gathering place for locals of all ages, particularly on the weekends. From bars and cafes that face the Malecon you can watch families strolling, friends gathering, and couples on first dates, or take in concerts and festivals. It's also the nightlife hub, and taxis are plentiful to take visitors home after a night of cervezas. La Paz is relaxed and gay-friendly, and there are some gay bars and an annual gay and lesbian parade with glittering floats; I'd just missed the drag event "Miss Orgullo Day" in late June.
The Baja peninsula is one of the longest and most isolated in the world, and the Free and Sovereign State of Baja California Sur (its official name) is the second smallest of Mexico's 31 states by population. But that's only if you're counting humans.
The low population density means that on the miles of beach within a 10 to 45 minute drive, and it's entirely likely that not another soul will be seen all day. But the real thrill is what's found under the water's surface. After a short boat trip from La Paz, I was surrounded by sea lions, manta rays, dolphins, turtles, and gray whales.
Isla Espiritu Santo ("Holy Spirit Island") is an 11-mile-long uninhabited island with a UNESCO-protected ecosystem. In its dozens of bays, herons, lizards, ground squirrels, and blue-footed boobies -- some species found nowhere else in the world -- regard their human visitors with benign disinterest. Our experienced Fun Baja guide gave me tips on snorkeling with the sea lions: The giant bulls bark their warnings from the rocks near their lounging harems, then they dive into the water and dart back and forth just below the water's surface near the island, marking a this-side-sea-lions-only line. Cross the line, and face a 400-pound charging bull at torpedo speeds. Younger pups are playful -- they can cross the line that I couldn't -- and may nip harmlessly at your flippers or hand if you let them.
"La Paz" means peace, and it's true to its name. But foregoing Sammy Hagar's Cabo Wabo doesn't mean you have to give up a good time. Especially if you end the day with a little Gusano Rojo mezcal -- the one with the red worm.
adventure excursion company will take individuals snorkeling, kayaking, whale watching, hiking and camping on protected islands, and scuba diving. The staff is friendly and very knowledgeable.
An hour's drive southwest across Baja is the surfer's haven of Todos Santos. Galleries and shops dot the main drag, Calle Juarez, selling gorgeous painted skulls (below), metalwork, pottery, and paintings. Skip the schmancy restaurants and get lunch at one of the many cerveza, fish, and taco stands. The area's unique water supply makes it a lush oasis in the desert.
Where to Stay
The 115-room, five-star Costa Baja Resort and Spa is designed to impress, and sits on a teardrop of land between the sea and a marina, adjacent to its renowned golf course. Steinbeck's, a restaurant at the resort, makes such good use of the local seafood that the turf dishes are listed on the menu under the heading "Not Fish."
Where to Unwind
The Espiritu spa at Costa Baja's signature therapy is the Damiana ritual ($150), a massage and herbal wrap that incorporates the dried leaves of the local shrub that gives the treatment its name. (Damiana is also used to make a liqueur that locals say was an ingredient in the original margarita, in place of Triple Sec, and was brewed as an aphrodisiac tea by the area's native people.)
Where to Eat
Dinner at Los Tres Virgenes might start with the sounds of a female mariachi band and a mango margarita with a chili rim. It only gets better from there with the chef's inventive scallop, ceviche, and red snapper dishes. Francisco I. Madero 1130, Centro
Photos courtesy of La Paz tourism board (Sea of Cortez, kayakers, malecon); Peter Kunasz / Shutterstock (sealions); Matthew Breen (skulls)