Why you should skip Cabo’s bro-fest for the whale sharks of La Paz

Arriving at Cabo San Lucas airport, most make their way to the nearby resorts. But with all its backward cap-wearing bros looking to get lit, why would you want to?

Instead, head north for a two-hour drive to the city of La Paz, a small metropolis of about 250,000 in the Sea of Cortez. It’s a charming old burg built on silver mining, fishing and pearls — one of the area’s gigantic lemon-sized orbs adorns a crown belonging to the Queen of England.

But you didn’t come all this way to mine silver or shuck oysters, though the fishing is abundant — marlin, dorado, yellowtail, grouper, snapper. The best reason to come to this coastal conurbation is adventure. Jacques Cousteau called the Sea of Cortez the world’s aquarium, which means to do it right you have to get wet.

If the sharks at the office wear pinstripes, the ones in this sapphire body of water wear spots. They range up to 33 feet long, but they’re not the bloodthirsty predators you know.

Instead the whale shark is a docile filter feeder, content to mosey along on the surface, casually engulfing its prey.

Whale sharks can range up to 33 feet long.
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The sea was murky and frigid the day we took the plunge. Buffeted in choppy waves, it’s easy to get disoriented. If you’re not careful, you might find yourself spinning around and coming nose-to-nose with the beast. Sure, he has no hunger for humans, but that mouth — as wide as five feet and lined with over 300 teeth (mainly for show)! Few have ever been that close to a mouth so large, a terrifying thrill that will leave you scrambling.

Swimming with whale sharks and sea lions is about the coolest thing you can do in La Paz. Baja Adventure Company makes it affordable at $175, including a homemade ceviche lunch on Balandra Beach, a remote stretch of sand skirting the Dunas de Arena national preserve.

But there’s more, including seasonal whale watching — humpbacks and occasional blue whales in winter. Sandboard on a remote dune where the cardón cactus forest meets the sea, care of On Board Baja ($55/person).

Exterior of the Baja Club Hotel.
Rum is the life blood of Baja Club, a colonial-style spread on the Malecón, La Paz’s main strip.
Baja Club Hotel

Ride the powdery sand as you would the snow at Aspen. Just know that it’s slower and heavier, and the amount of the stuff you collect on your body might be enough to build your own dune.

Located on the beachside thoroughfare called the Malecón, the Baja Club Hotel is a restored colonial-style villa that once belonged to a family of traders. Dating from the early 20th century, it’s been repurposed to accommodate guests with $300/night rooms surrounding a secluded courtyard. There, in the restaurant under a vine-covered pergola, you can dine on Greek and Mediterranean dishes.

Right outside the door, a charming stroll along the Malecón offers coastal scenery and scintillating sunsets.

The lobby of the hotel.
A family of traders built this early 20th-century villa now repurposed as a $300 a night hotel.
Baja Club Hotel

Turn on any side street to enjoy painted murals and landmarks like the Catedral de Nuestra Señora de La Paz, erected in the 1860s, or the old Government House, recently converted into the Museo de Arte de Baja California Sur, exhibiting mainly contemporary practitioners from southern Mexico.

But get real. You didn’t come all the way to La Paz to look at art.

Take a short drive down the coast to ChiloChill at La Ventana, the Northern Hemisphere’s premiere kitesurfing capital. When the wind is right, kites outnumber seagulls in an array of colors dotting the horizon. It’s easier than windsurfing, though the lesson takes at least two hours.

A kite surfer in La Ventana.
A kitesurfer in La Ventana.

Depending on wind speed you can skip across the surface at up to 40 miles per hour. With no path but the open water, riding on breezes is the closest you’ll come to flying without taking to the air. And if it’s not your thing, sit back in the shade of a palapa and sip a piña colada while the sun and wind animate the seascape.

If you like, you can rent a tent and glamp for the night so you can be first on the bay when the sun rises. But the smart move is to head up into the desert hills to Rancho Cacachilas. There, at 1,200 feet above sea level, enjoy spectacular views of the coast and rustic desert glamping with farm to table cuisine and friendly guides amid natural splendor for $300/night.

You can tour the farm, visiting goats, chickens and a burro next to small plots of land where produce is grown. The goats are responsible for the cheese you spread on your bread, cempasuchil, palo blanco or a girasol aged three to five weeks.

The maestro around here is an affable dude by the name of Sebastián Del Valle, a naturalist and dedicated outdoorsman who knows the hills like he was reared there. A hike with him will familiarize you with the terrain, but to get intimate with it you’ll want a mountain bike for shredding steep narrow trails and the unforgiving turns of the dusty arroyo. But beware: Cardón cacti that look like saguaros are as ubiquitous as fan palms in the higher elevations.

The coat of dust you put on in the desert complements the coat of salt you took from the sea. Adventure hardened, wear both as armor against the deadly sharks in suits back home who are hungrier and less merciful than the whale shark.

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