I stuck my face into the murky water, but there was nothing. Just an empty teal haze that stretched into the distance as I bobbed on the choppy surface of Bahia de La Paz, Mexico, snorkel in mouth, scanning for giants.
"Left! Left!" From the boat, our dive master and captain directed us toward the unseen creatures, but there was only blankness. Then someone grabbed my shoulder and spun me around, and there, just a few yards away, a shadow emerged from the cloudy water. As it approached, the dark form took the massive, dappled gray shape of a whale shark, the largest fish on Earth.
Once-in-a-lifetime aquatic experiences happen all the time in La Paz. In fact, this was my second one of the day. The capital of Baja California Sur, the city of 215,000 people looks out on the sheltered Bay of La Paz, which shines like a mirror on calm, windless mornings. Beyond the bay is the Sea of Cortes, a marine wonderland home to hammerhead sharks, turtles and numerous species of whale, which Jacques Cousteau famously called the "world's aquarium."
Scuba diving in the Sea of Cortes.
We started the day at the Cortez Club, a PADI five-star scuba dive shop that has its own dock, fleet of boats and waterfront bar. Our first dive was an hour's ride away at Los Islotes, a scrappy outcropping at the northern tip of Isla Espiritu Santo, an uninhabited island preserve where desert hills empty into idyllic bays with water that fades to robin's egg blue.
Los Isolates is not quite as picturesque, but what it lacks in natural beauty it makes up for in marine mammal activity. The islet is home to a colony of around 200 sea lions that have grown accustomed to the presence of humans above and below the waves. Fifty feet beneath the surface, they played tug o' war with the anchor line, nibbled on fins and tumbled past in graceful S-curves, tussling like puppies. And the sea lions were hardly the only attraction. A narrow trumpetfish floated by, its body shaped like a flute. A moray eel snapped intimidating jaws as it poked a cautious head out of its hole. Our dive master carefully hoisted a crown-of-thorns starfish between two sticks, pointing out the poisonous barbs that sprouted from its sunburst body.
The Sea of Cortes is key to La Paz's appeal. Divers explore its depths. Snorkelers prowl the surface. Kayakers paddle along the shore.
The Cristo del Caracol statue on La Paz’s Malecon boardwalk.
Even on land, the water is always present. We grabbed breakfast at Tacos el Estadio, where fresh fish tacos made with the morning's catch cost about $1 apiece. We strolled the Malecon boardwalk that traces the coast for about 3 miles, stopping at La Fuente ice cream shop for mango and tamarind paletas. Our driver said he swims every morning in the glassy bay, which is as much a part of La Paz's charm for the locals as it is for the tourists.
This isn't the destination for all-inclusive megaresorts or all-you-can-drink daiquiris. A three-hour drive from the grand hotels and major international airport of Los Cabos, La Paz is a more intimate alternative. Its central waterfront real estate is all public land, and the downtown is full of restaurants and bars where locals and visitors mingle over cold beers and fresh seafood.
Only a handful of hotels, like the well-appointed Costabaja a few minutes beyond el centro, boast beachfront, but 15 minutes outside of town, stunning landscapes abound.
At Playa la Balandra the water was bathtub-warm and just as calm, waist-deep for at least 100 yards. Farther down the road, locals' beach Playa Tecolote offered heavier surf and a full-service restaurant, where we dined on ceviche, charcoal-grilled whole snapper and raw chocolate clams served so fresh they twisted and curled when I squeezed a lime over the open shells.
Kayaking in Playa la Balandra in La Paz.
La Paz has only begun courting tourism in the last few years, and it's still deciding how to market the city to visitors. Is it the "world's aquarium"? Is it an adventure travel destination? Is it an authentic Baja city unspoiled by hordes of sunburnt tourists and the businesses they attract? The answer to all of those is yes, but perhaps it's that last question that's most important.
On my last night in town, after a decadent dinner at Costabaja's Steinbeck's restaurant, I found myself sipping a fiery mescal flight on the patio at La Miserable, where Mexican hipsters drink local microbrews and cocktails mixed using herbs grown in the garden.
Before I retired to my hotel room, our guide insisted we make one final stop at his favorite late-night food cart.
As the grinning chef shuffled ingredients around her griddle, I order my hot dog con todo, even though I had no idea what that entailed. A few minutes later she delivered our midnight snack: a doughy bun bowed like a canoe to accommodate layers of cheese, meat, onions, avocado and cream, all piled on top of a bacon-wrapped dog.
Our guide proudly announced that this was a La Paz-style hot dog. Like almost everything else I'd experienced there, it felt unadulterated and authentic. Leaning over my plastic plate, I ate the whole thing.