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LAKELAND BOATING: JANUARY 2012

As writer Bruce Berger notes in his acclaimed 1998 book “Almost an Island,” most written work about Mexico’s Baja California peninsula has focused on the region’s natural wonders. And perhaps rightfully so, as they are many.

With more than 30 species of marine mammal and 500 species of fish making their homes here, some of which are found nowhere else in the world, the peninsula’s Pacific and Gulf of California waters offer world-class scuba diving, snorkeling, sea-kayaking, whale-watching, fishing and recreational boating. Kite- and wind-surfing enthusiasts flock to the best beaches, many of which remain undeveloped.

And then there’s the otherworldly Baja desert, with its banded volcanic mountains, oddly green high sierra, hidden box canyons and sweeping arroyos. The landscape proves to be a haven for mountain bikers, backpackers, hikers, RV’ing families, ATV devotees and those intrepid explorers bound for the celebrated Sierra de San Francisco cave paintings with local guides and mules.

They’re all coming to experience “Baja” — that unique place of unparalleled adventure, a stunning natural juxtaposition where the desert tumbles to meet the tropical sea.

This Baja, however, is what Berger calls a hard-edged mirage. To truly experience the heart and soul of this place, you need to get to know its people.

“To approach the goal of conjuring the peninsula whole in my mind,” Berger writes of his own travels in the region, “I needed to pass through Baja to Baja California.”

The best way to discover the real Baja California is to spend a few days before or after your on-water adventure in La Paz, capital of the Mexican state of Baja California Sur. Located just 100 miles, or roughly three hours, north of the more famous Los Cabos corridor, this bustling, friendly seaport has managed to retain its laid-back, muy tranquilo character even in the face of increasing development and a population explosion.

Spanish conquistador Hernan Cortés was the first European to attempt a permanent settlement here. He founded Santa Cruz in May 1535, the same year as the Spanish crown officially founded New Spain. This effort failed due to lack of food, water and cooperation from the native Guaicura and Pericú peoples.

Explorer Sebastian Vizcaino arrived in 1596 and named this quiet place Bahía de La Paz (bay of peace) because, ironically, he had such good relations with the Pericú. Then came the Jesuit missionaries; however, the La Paz mission only lasted until 1647, and King Charles III expelled the Jesuit Order from Mexico just 20 years later.

The Franciscans and Dominicans came next, but they had few to whom they could minister. The indigenous people were succumbing to diseases to which they had no natural immunity, and by the 19th century, Baja California Sur’s native population was utterly wiped out.

Lasting settlement finally arrived in 1811, just months after Mexicans first declared their independence from Spain. These Paceños were ranchers and fishermen, as much of Baja California Sur’s local population remains today; the oldest families are descended from the soldiers who accompanied the first Jesuit padres.

La Paz became the territorial capital following a disastrous 1829 hurricane that flattened Loreto, but Mexican statehood didn’t come until 1974 — just one year after the 1,054-mile-long, paved Transpeninsular Highway from the U.S. border to Los Cabos was completed.

La Paz did experience a golden age, one that coincided with the height of its pearling operations. In fact, American author John Steinbeck based “The Pearl” on a story he heard during his 1940 visit with biologist Ed Ricketts — travels he later recounted in the oft-quoted “Log from the Sea of Cortez.”

Hollywood celebrities and literati favored the city during the first half of the 20th century. By midcentury, however, an unknown disease destroyed the pearl oysters, and La Paz returned to its quiet self. At least until the new millennium dawned, when new waves of outsiders ventured north of Los Cabos.

As a result, La Paz has grown considerably, with its population jumping from approximately 35,000 in the 1970s to more than 400,000 today. Big box stores are here, as are a golf course and a waterpark, and the outlying villages are rapidly evolving into bona fide suburbs.

Yet the bulk of those moving to La Paz are fellow Mexicans seeking employment, the Mexican tourists still outnumber gringos three to one, and the few thousand expats generally maintain a low profile compared to those in places like Los Cabos and Cancún.

Brightly painted colonial architecture adorns the historic centro with its narrow zigzag streets, and the waterfront resembles a seaside European boulevard with its 5-kilometer-long malecon seawall promenade, open-air restaurants, sidewalk cafes and venerable hotels.

A modest fleet of colorful fishing pangas rests on the beach, with fishermen ready to supply fresh seafood to the city’s myriad restaurants and taco stands or to carry visitors to see whale sharks in the bay, to swim with sea lions at the Los Islotes colony or to explore Isla Espíritu Santo, a UNESCO World Heritage Site and Biosphere Reserve north of the city.

Many U.S. cities now have direct flights to Los Cabos, where you can rent a car, catch the Eco Baja Tours shuttle or take an Aguila bus, both of which offer service to the La Paz terminal on the malecon. You also may fly directly into La Paz.

First tip: Stay in town, perhaps at the Seven Crown, the Hotel Perla or El Moro. The city’s centro is quite walkable, and its vibe will enchant you.

Second tip: Rent a car so you can enjoy the many pleasures just a short drive away. Don’t worry about parking; at most public lots, 20 pesos — less than $2 — will buy unlimited time.

Enjoy your morning cup of coffee and a plate of huevos rancheros or chilaquiles at Hotel Perla’s La Terraza restaurant, a gracious, open-air, waterfront establishment that has been in business since Steinbeck’s day. Or, if you prefer to make your own coffee, visit Ramón at Cafe Batalla, just past the intersection of Calle Zaragoza and Avenida Independencia. Ask for “dos molinas, revuelto,” and savor the flavors of Veracruzean coffee roasted in La Paz.

Drive 10 kilometers to Playa Balandra, near the tip of the Pichilingue Peninsula, and hike around the northern rim of the bay; a delightful, hidden beach with sugar sand and turquoise water is just around the corner, adorned with La Paz’s iconic “mushroom rock.” While crowds can be heavy on weekends, you might be the only one there on a midweek morning.

Stop at Playa Tecolote, which faces the San Lorenzo Channel and Isla Espíritu Santo. The surf might be up, the water will be warm, and the fish tacos are nothing short of spectacular at the beach restaurant.

Or take a drive down to Bahía de Los Muertos, more recently christened Bahía de Los Sueños — “dreams” is apparently easier to promote than “the dead.” Despite new home development and a nearby golf course, you likely will have the beach to yourself, with only the local fishing pangas and a few anchored cruising sailboats for company.

Not only is the beach sublime and the palapa restaurant fascinating, with its palm-tree supports holding up the roof, it’s a mesmerizing high-desert drive across the Sierra de Laguna. And the long descent into San Juan de Los Planes is unforgettable.

If you desire a weekend beach outing but don’t want to brave the crowds, drive around the Bahía de La Paz and then head north on the coast road toward San Juan de La Costa. Around kilometer 23, you’ll see little public beaches tucked below the cliffs. These are good spots for shelling and enjoying the quiet.

For the adventurous: Hike up the box canyon at kilometer 20.

Back in La Paz, sit outside Café Exquisito with a café con leche, or visit nearby La Fuente for an ice cream. Just look for the polka-dot tree, and be prepared for a startling array of flavors — including the cactus fruit pitahaya.

Saturday is prime time to enjoy a sunset or evening stroll on the malecon, teeming with families, couples, kids, dogs, musicians and dancers. This is, without question, the throbbing pulse of the city.

Then there are the cultural events and performances at the Teatro de la Ciudad or one of the city’s universities; the art galleries; the Museo de Antropología; and the lovely Plaza Constitución, which incorporates the 1861 Catedral de Nuestra Señora de La Paz and the Biblioteca de História de Las Californias.

Don’t miss the lobster tacos at the Bismark-cito taco stand on the malecon or the fried oysters at Moyeyo’s, next door to popular sea-kayak outfitter Baja Outdoor Activities. Have a tequila or a cold cerveza at the appropriately named watering hole Tequila’s, just a block off the waterfront.

And take a little drive past the village-come-suburb of El Centenario to El Comitan, where you’ll find a small restaurant named Meny’s on Calle 3. It looks humble, but the Durango-born chef, who’s been a Paceño for nearly three decades, will delight you with first-class fare at affordable prices. Try the Chateaubriand or the pollo naranja, the Caesar salad and the platano dessert. The tableside preparation alone is worth the price of admission.

A final tip: Wherever you go, talk to people. Paceños are warm and friendly, they’ll tell you “Tenga un buen día” and mean it, and they all will want to know if you’re enjoying their beloved city. The pearls may be gone, but La Paz is awash in hidden gems. You may find, as Berger did, that it draws you back time and again, whispering, “Here you must live.”

For more information, visit La Paz’s official Web site at www.lapaz-tourism.com and the popular web magazine www.BajaInsider.com.