We arrived in La Paz weary from the long bus ride down from Tijuana. As we intended to stay in La Paz for an extended period of time, there was no rush. We took it very easy on our first day, with nothing more taxing than some fish tacos and a stroll along the Malecón (La Paz’s famous esplanade). Over the course of the next 10 days or so, we would be considerably more busy. We had a week of Spanish lessons planned, hopes of swimming with Whale Sharks and some stunning beaches calling our names.
Isla Espíritu Santo
On our first stroll along the Malecón, we had booked ourselves a tour to see Whale Sharks (Tiburon Ballena) in Spanish with a tout along the seafront. Or at least that was what we thought! We had been feeling rather pleased with ourselves for one of our more complex Spanish conversations, but it would transpire the next day that unbeknownst to us, we had actually booked on to a tour to Isla de Espíritu Santo. Perhaps we had celebrated a little too early!
It certainly wasn’t a problem, as we had every intention of visiting Espritu Santo anyway and it ended up being a wonderful tour of a truly stunning Island. We were the only non-native Spanish speakers on the tour, so the entire tour was conducted in Spanish. This gave us invaluable practice time to avoid mix ups (such as booking the wrong tour!) in future. Trying to listen to obscure words about the beautiful coastal geography over the noise of the boat’s engine was probably a little beyond us at this stage though. Having had time to look up the words that we heard though, we do now know some very specific coastal terms that are at odds with our overall level of Spanish!
Aside from a series of beautiful ensenadas (coves) with stunning beaches, an early highlight of the tour was the abundance of bird life. One spot in particular hosted a whole array of species, the most spectacular being pelicans and frigates. The latter flashing their bulging red throats was quite the sight. In the same cove we saw a couple of turtles in the pristine blue water, which only added to the sense that we really were somewhere special.
To the north of Espíritu Santo, there is another island called La Isla Partida and off the northern most point of that island lies a series of rocky outcrops that are home to the famous colony of Lobos Marinos (sealions) that is a well publicised highlight of a tour of Isla Espíritu Santo.
As regular readers will know, Kim and I are always keen for an opportunity to snorkel with marine life and a swim with some playful sea-lions sounded incredible. As such, it was with more than a little disappointment that we received the news that we would be required to wear a life jacket for the duration of our time in the water. That hardly counted as snorkelling in my eyes! I was pretty annoyed at the situation, but being face down in the sea surrounded by marine life is one of the most calming things that I can think of. Even if I was being unnaturally pulled to an upright position by the life jacket, my annoyance subsided as we entered a cave full of sea-lions who playfully bit on our fins like we were one of their own.
The other marine life was pretty spectacular too, with plenty of species that we hadn’t seen before as well as plenty of favourites from our time snorkelling in Indonesia recently. All in all, we swam with about a dozen sea-lions and watching them play fight under the water moving at the speeds at which they do, right past your nose, was up there with the best underwater shows that we have witnessed. Furthermore, the swim through the arch with walls of coral either side and sea-lions swimming underneath us as we swam was one of those times when I couldn’t quite believe what I was doing. If only I could have actually snorkelled properly without a life jacket it would have been perfect.
That said, the same set of regulations that mean that every visitor has to wear a life jacket also seemed to mean that beaches were absolutely spotless and a lot more care seemed to be taken of both the reefs and the sea in general. Seeing a boat stop to pick up the rare bit of litter that was spotted in the sea occurred more than once, which was nice to see.
For lunch, we stopped on the truly sensational Playa Ensenada Grande. Think white sand, impossibly blue water and high rocky walls to the cove dotted with cacti. There was no doubting we were in Baja California Sur, that landscape would come to define our time here. Lunch was ceviche, which seemed fitting for a post snorkelling snack. Swim with the fishes, then eat them! A very kind Mexican guy gave me one of his beers to go alongside my lunch, as he had come prepared with a cool box full of them. He seemed genuinely upset at the prospect of us not having an ice cold beer to go with our lunch! When researching trips, we come across so much negativity about people and places. In our experience, people the world over are lovely. By and large, if you are a guest in someone’s country they normally just want to ply you with alcohol and/or food!
The day after our Espíritu Santo tour, we moved into an apartment that we were renting for a week through Air BnB. Not only would we have a “home” of sorts, but also a routine. We had arranged Spanish lessons for a week to help kick our language learning to the next level. At 4-7pm every day we would head up to El Nopal language school for 3 hours of intensive Spanish lessons. The classes would cover both the technical aspects of the language as well as some cultural insights into Baja California Sur and Mexico in general.
As well as lessons for the week, I also had a kitchen back in my life. So after checking into the apartment, we went to stock up on groceries. I was like a kid (or Kim!) in a sweet shop. I was surrounded by specialty Mexican ingredients that would cost a small fortune if you could find them at all at home and yet here they were both abundant and cheap. So many types of chilli (both dried and fresh)…tomatillos…cactus…a kilo of limes for 80p…amazing avocados…so many types of tortilla products…my mind buzzed with ideas for dishes.
I had a great week churning out new salsas and attempting to cook cactus for the first time (we weren’t huge fans!). We were always destined to eat a lot of tortillas, but our tortilla consumption sky rocketed when we discovered a tortilleria near our apartment that made truly stunning tortillas. They were so good that we would be eating them on their own before I could even cook anything to go with them. I had never had tortillas like them!
In between lessons and cooking we still found time to squeeze in the Whale Shark tour that I had failed so miserably to book on our first night here. This time having a much more successful conversation. Our lessons were obviously paying dividends!
It was quite a simple tour. Take a 15 minute boat ride to just outside La Paz harbour, try to find a whale shark and swim with it for a maximum of 30 minutes per boat in a maximum of groups of 5 at a time. Once again, the level of care taken with the marine life here was way beyond what we have witnessed anywhere else.
Despite their size, adults average nearly 10m in length, I wasn’t quite sure how easy it would be to find one of these gentle giants. I needn’t have worried. Within moments of arriving at the spot where our guide and captain started their search, they had found one. We were quickly in the water in groups of 5, trying to make the most of the time that we were allowed near the whale shark.
Our guide pointed in the direction in which the Whale Shark was travelling and we jumped off the side of the boat in anticipation of where our paths would cross. Visibility wasn’t great in the shallow water in which the Whale Sharks were feeding as sand was being churned up from the bottom, but we soon saw a huge silhouette looming out of the darkness towards us. It was a tiddler for a whale shark at only 4m long, but it was still by far the biggest thing that we have ever swam with. Other than the exertion of trying to keep up with a creature far better equipped for swimming than us, it was a very tranquil experience as I cruised alongside it for as long as we were allowed. Unlike the sea lions a few days earlier, the whale shark did not put on a show for us, it simply went about its business with minimal fuss. However to get a glimpse of the underwater world of the worlds largest living fish species was a true privilege.
As our boat pulled away from the area in which the Whale sharks are known to feed, we were stopped by a government boat checking permits to be in the area. Once again, the respect for Marine life in Baja California Sur had impressed us.
As well as everything else that it had to offer, La Paz served as a great base for visiting some of Baja California Sur’s famous beaches. Our favourite of which was undoubtedly Playa Balandra, a remote group of beaches (about 40 mins by bus from La Paz) set in a sheltered bay.
Surrounded by mountainous desert, Balandra offers little in the way of facilities, but offers plenty in terms of visual appeal. From the bus stop we took a path up a hill which offered panoramic views over the bay. There were two main beaches. To the left of us was a long curving beach set against crystal clear blue water. The extent of the development on the beach was a line of palapas (palm shelters). To our right, we had another curving white sand beach, this one backed by sand dunes. It had no shelter but it also had almost no other people. We only had a short time as we had to get back for Spanish lessons, so a lack of shade wasn’t a huge issue for us. The deserted beach was calling our names.
We dumped our bags on the beach and jumped straight in the inviting water. The water goes out for at least 100m and never really gets above waist height. In fact it would probably be possible to walk across to the beaches on the other side of the bay, for an even more deserted beach experience. Unfortunately, we didn’t have all that long to enjoy Balandra on our first visit as we had to get back for our Spanish lessons.
However, we didn’t have long to wait as we would return the next day. Our lessons now finished, we didn’t have the same time pressures. On our second visit, we started over at neighbouring Playa El Tecolote for ceviche on the beach before walking along the cliffs to Balandra. In the process, passing many more pristine beaches that weren’t even named on the map.
We were really starting to fall for the beauty of Baja California Sur and with our confidence sky high after our Spanish lessons too, we had settled into the trip nicely.