Real Mexico Found En Route to La Paz
We love every minute of our time in Cabo. It’s hard to even contemplate a few days away from our home away from home when our time here is limited.
However, adventure called. We wanted to stretch our legs, expand our cultural horizons and better acquaint ourselves with our second home state of Baja California Sur, Mexico.
We packed our bags and loaded up our Kia with all the necessary beach paraphernalia to make the most of our two nights on the road with stops in El Pescadero, Todos Santos and La Paz, the capital of Baja California Sur.
The drive from Cabo to Todos Santos is filled with lovely vistas overlooking the Pacific Ocean. Dusty side roads are plentiful. What I imagine to be old Mexico before tourism arrived at its doorstep is palpable.
Side road in El Pescadero
The more we traveled north toward La Paz, the more authentic our experience felt. We found ourselves surrounded by locals and feeling comfortably at home as we explored places more off the beaten path.
Stop 1: El Pescadero
Just before arriving to Todos Santos, it’s easy to miss El Pescadero. The sleepy town of about 3,100 residents is just shy of an hour’s drive from Cabo and 8 miles south of Todos Santos.
The town is sandwiched between the Pacific Ocean and the Sierra de la Laguna mountains to the east. Not surprisingly by its Spanish name, the fish merchant, commercial fishing is the primary industry in El Pescadero. But there are plenty of trendy eateries popping up here to satisfy the hungry traveler.
We were so happy to have taken the road to Hierbabuena.
We bellied up to the main open-air restaurant’s counter, where we got full view of the working kitchen. We figured it was the best way to narrow down our menu options by sight.
Thanks to the working garden that surrounds the restaurant, the specials change daily.
In addition to some delicious salads and pizzas, menu options include a catch of the day, grilled veggie plate, baked eggplant, enchiladas, ravioli, roasted organic chicken and steak.
If traveling the road to Todos Santos or La Paz, a stop here is essential.
Stop 2: Todos Santos
Recognized by the Mexican Federal Secretary of Tourism as Baja California Sur’s first magic town in 2006, Todos Santos is an instant charmer.
The magic town designation is one given to locales with cultural, historical, gastronomical or natural treasures deemed exceptionally special and meaningful to Mexico’s heritage. Todos Santos checks all the boxes with diverse and delicious restaurants, quaint hotels, plentiful art galleries and boutiques, and nearby stunning beaches that make this a place worth a visit.
Color and history saturate this town. Plastic flags waving a warm welcome from above, colorful tiles adorning building walls and bougainvillea-draped patios all conspire to create an enchanting, laid-back setting.
This town of 6,500 has definitely gone through a revival as tourism has moved north from Cabo. You will find some colonial buildings in disrepair, but many have been or are in the process of being renovated.
Our Lady of Pilar Church in Todos Santos
Todos Santos, which means all saints in Spanish, got its start as a mission in 1723. It later became the sugarcane capital with eight sugar mills working in the area in the late 1800s through the 1950s until the freshwater spring dried up, resulting in the last sugar mill closing in 1965.
The fledgling town came back to life after the Mexican government paved Highway 19 in the 1980s. Tourism and agriculture, including chilies, avocados, papayas and mangos, as well as fishing and ranching sustain Todos Santos.
We got the perfect blend of nature and hipster, laid-back vibes at Hotel San Cristóbal Baja.
Named after the patron saint watching out for travelers, surfers and sailors during their long journeys, the hotel can be found at the end of a dirt road outside of Todos Santos.
The hotel faces a gorgeous section of beach from where you can watch local fishermen launch their boats.
The 32-room hotel is centered around a beautiful pool and lounge. The hotel’s design is minimalist with pops of color and texture throughout – both natural and man-made. There are lots of welcoming sections that invite the visitor to lounge.
The only disadvantage of staying at this hotel is that Todos Santos’ many restaurants aren’t within walking distance. However, its restaurant, Benno, is good and the sunsets are spectacular.
Flautas de camote with spicy sweet potatoes, adobe sauce, avocado puree, pumpkin seeds and black beans
Short rib dish
Churros con cajeta
Just walking along the beach is awe-inspiring as you consider the forces of nature that conspire to bring human-high waves crashing onto the beach. It’s a sight and sound spectacle.
When you do make it to Todos Santos, there are lots of dining and shopping options to command your attention.
The highly recommended Tequila’s Sunrise Bar & Grill was just what the doctor ordered to start our afternoon of exploration and shopping. The shrimp chiles rellenos and margarita damiana is a winning combination, especially before an afternoon of shopping.
Salad and this yummy dessert are included with the meal. No dessert decision required.
I blame our purchase of a trunk-load of colorful Mexican ceramics and decorative bronze turtles on the margaritas. Whether it's ceramics, clothing, jewelry, original art or leather goods you’re after, you’ll find more unique pieces in this town. That’s not to say there aren’t plenty of the other mass-produced trinkets around, such as those at the Hotel California’s souvenir shop. (No, it’s really not the hotel the Eagles sing about, but it’s certainly a story the proprietor is happy for people to believe.)
Another great restaurant to which locals and visitors flock is Café Santa Fe. The Italian restaurant resides in an 1850s building with a beautiful interior courtyard.
The caprese salad with burrata and lobster ravioli are star dishes not to be missed. The starter housemade focaccia also is noteworthy.
Stop 3: La Paz
As I began researching Baja California Sur’s capital of almost 250,000 people, I realized we really hadn’t planned enough time to fully appreciate the natural wonders surrounding La Paz. More on that later.
We checked into the Costa Baja Resort, which was a bit removed from the downtown area but provided nice views of the Sea of Cortez and marina. The nearby Docecuarenta Casa de Café offered the strong java I craved, delicious pastries and a nice harbor view.
If you want to stay in the historic center, Hotel Catedral looked like a good option.
Our Lady of Peace Cathedral adjacent to the hotel.
We took an Uber into town to stroll the waterfront walkway, the Malecon, the evening of our stay. The 20-something-block stretch offers beautiful sunset views and bustles with locals.
Marine-themed sculptures from Mexican artists around the country line the street.
We lucked into some added local flavor with fair-like vendors and booths set up along the Malecon during our visit.
We dined at La Tres Virgenes, which makes a great Caesar salad. If you dine there, be sure to request the more romantic courtyard seating. Our late reservation got us a table near the kitchen. It always pays to plan ahead.
Exploring La Paz got us so much closer to the real Mexico. We watched as the bar scene off of the Malecon unfolded with people laughing, clinking glasses, enjoying the beautiful setting and sunset. We checked out the latest fashions at one of the few remaining Sears around. We navigated our way around the grid streets with ease. We felt comfortably at home.
In addition to tourism, silver mining, agriculture, fishing and pearls are big business in La Paz. I hadn’t realized that one of my first John Steinbeck reads, “The Pearl,” included references to this town.
Spanish Conquistador Hernán Cortés arrived in the bay by La Paz and named it Santa Cruz, but left after logistical problems plagued his attempt to start a colony. It wasn’t until Spaniard Sebastián Vizcaíno’s visit in 1596 that La Paz got its name.
This city on the bay is the perfect launchpad for adventures of all sorts. Next time, I’ll carve out some time to swim with the whale sharks or spend a few nights exploring Espiritu Santo Island, a natural protected area declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1995. There you can dive and snorkel with friendly sea lions, hike nature trails, kayak along the coastline and camp under the stars.
With more time, we would have booked a couple nights glamping at Camp Cecil in Espiritu Santo National Park.
Stop 4: Balandra
After a good night’s sleep in La Paz, we headed to a beach I had been wanting to visit for years. Balandra is rated one of the most beautiful beaches in Mexico for good reason.
The idea of strolling thigh-deep in crystal-clear waters in a protected lagoon fascinated me. The surrounding cacti and rust-color hills punctuate and contrast beautifully with the water undulating various shades of blue and green.
We rented a kayak and navigated outside the lagoon to see the famed mushroom rock. Wind and water are responsible for shaping this rock structure that looks as if it could topple over at any moment.
Mexican tourists make a day of visiting this prized beach, staking their claim under one of about a dozen palapas. Vendors with boxes strapped around their necks casually stroll past these temporary harbors of respite, tempting beach-goers from their views with juicy fruits.
After getting our fill at Balandra, we ventured further along the highway to visit the next beach, Tecolote. The fierce winds that day kept our visit short. While we were there, the water wasn’t swimmable, but we got an eyeful of views of Espiritu Santo Island.
We are saving a visit to this special “holy spirit” island for another trip, when we can fully appreciate its more isolated beaches and frolic with its resident sea lions.
Don’t want to stop
Baja California Sur offers more than Cabo as a playground of discovery. It’s a beautiful state worthy of exploration. Adventure awaits at every turn and we can’t wait to see more.