Where else is it possible to swim with the world’s largest fish, get sprayed by whales, snorkel with sea lions, and visit blue-footed boobies all in a single day? La Paz, Mexico, as we learned on our recent three-generation journey, is a family travel adventure just waiting to unfold.
La Paz is located near the southern tip of the Baja California peninsula on the Sea of Cortez. It’s served by its own airport or can be reached in just over 2 hours when driving from Los Cabos (with a 70 peso toll). When you get there, these are the 4 activities my family recommends you put at the top of your to-do list, along with 1 recommended place to stay and 1 great place to eat on your vacation in La Paz with kids.
Activity 1: Swim with a Whale Shark
Swimming with whale sharks, which can grow up to 40 feet long in some parts of the world, has ranked high on my wish list for years. But last fall, after exposing my children to a few too many YouTube videos on the subject, they started thinking it was just as good an idea for them to swim with whale sharks, too.
With a little research, I learned that each October whale sharks migrate to the Sea of Cortez, with many wintering La Paz Bay through early March. Several outfitters offer half-day excursions from La Paz to seek out and swim with whale sharks—and yes! Even kids—and their grandmas—can swim with a whale shark (minimum ages may vary by outfitter and trip).
We opted for a full-day trip with Mar y Aventuras, which combined swimming with whale sharks and a visit to Isla Espiritu Santo (more on that in Activity 4). They outfitted us with snorkel gear and wet suits, and our bilingual guide Edgar taught us what we needed to know before jumping in with the first gentle giant. And not only did all three generations get to swim beside a whale shark estimated to be about 26 feet long, which I assure you was plenty long… I even got to use my trusty little Lumix to make my OWN whale shark YouTube video:
Activity 2: Ride Horses Along the Sea of Cortez
If you’ve had enough of horseback rides with nose-to-tail-to-nose nags who resent walking the same trail every…single…time, then a ride with Rancho El Cajon is sure to be a treat. Just 30 minutes from La Paz, Rancho El Cajon is a real working ranch and the horses are real working horses! Every ride is “custom-built” for the riding party’s wishes, from how long of a ride to where to ride, whether up to the ridge with sweeping vistas or along the glistening sea.
We opted for a 2-hour ride that took us through amazing saguaros towering two-stories high, then out to and along the Sea of Cortez, with a break to stretch our legs at a remote fishing village. I took photos of the sea birds the entire break (Herons! Pelicans! Egrets, oh my!). In retrospect, we wished we’d brought a picnic to enjoy at the scenic stop–perhaps you can work that into your own ride.
It was a fantastic experience for us, but be aware that these are not “trail ponies” so it’s best if riders already have some experience and are comfortable directing their own horses. Book your family’s ride with Rancho El Cajon by calling Larry at the number listed on their Facebook page (he also leads mountain biking trips in the area) and reserve at least two days in advance.
Tip: For 50 extra pesos, you can upgrade to an “American saddle” (AKA western, and much more comfortable than the standard ranch saddles).
Activity 4: Watch Those Whales
Whale sharks are not the only giants calling on the Sea of Cortez. In late winter and early spring you may encounter whales here as well, including pilot, sperm, and humpback whales, not to mention the largest of all creatures on earth: blue whales. If you can come to La Paz in late February, you may have the best chances of swimming with whale sharks and having a close encounter of the whale kind as we were so lucky to do (this chart from Mar y Aventuras may be helpful in planning your timing).
While there are many half- and full-day whale-watching trips available from La Paz, Captain Beto simply took us on a slight detour–between our whale shark swim and visit to Isla San Espiritu–to where he’d seen whales frolicking the day before, and what do you know? We got close enough to three humpback whales to see their mossy barnacles, admire their baleen as they scooped through the water off our bow, and–surprise! Get soaked by their spray. What a day!
Activity 3: Visit Isla Espiritu Santo and Snorkel with Sea Lions at Los Islotes
After our exhilarating swim with whale sharks and visit to the humpback whales, our day trip with Mar y Aventuras continued with lunch at the outfitter’s exclusive kayaking camp on a gorgeous beach on Isla Espiritu Santo. From there, we motored on to Los Islotes, the tiny rock islands off the north end of Isla Espiritu Santo that serve as a nursery for mother and baby sea lions. We circled the main island, admiring the mamas and wee pups from the boat, and then we were asked if we’d like to swim through the arch.
As the boat slowed, a narrow passageway presented itself right through the middle of the island. It looked exciting enough to me, but I wasn’t sure how my kids–or mother-in-law–might do in the passage if there was much current or surge. Thankfully, our guide Edgar (with his swim fins as long as my legs) kindly offered to tow them along with the help of a floating buoy. All three kids and grandma took him up on the offer, and when we first saw the stunning coral and marine life awaiting us under the arch, I was thrilled they were able to enjoy this experience along with the many others that day. Once through the arch, the first mama sea lion greeted us with a splash. And suddenly the first sea lion was swimming right next to us.
Our day trip with Mar y Aventuras ended with a cruise-by of blue-footed boobies, a visit to a frigate-bird rookery, and as if each experience was trying to outshine the last that day–we even saw humpback whales breaching and then got encircled by dolphins on our return. We were afforded extra flexibility (and time!) since we booked a private trip–which allows up to 6 people for a flat rate that came out to less than if we’d payed separately for the 6 of us to do a different day-long trip. Lunch, snacks, snorkel gear, wet suits, water, sodas, and our very knowledgeable bilingual guide were included.
1 Great Place to Stay in La Paz: Paraiso del Mar
If you love the sea but can’t stand crowded beaches, pay close attention to this photo. The only five people you’ll see in it are members of my family (two are out in the water). Located out on the “tombolo” of La Paz Bay, the Paraiso del Mar condominiums are best reached by water taxi–which is as fun to ride on as it is easy to catch (every 30 minutes in low season and 15 in high season). Guests and residents of Paraiso del Mar get complimentary water taxi service on “El Trolle” and use of the HOA’s kayaks and stand-up paddle boards, which you can launch right from the beach.
There is also an infinity pool and hot spa, tennis courts, and golf course. The “Survivor Bar” outdoor restaurant serves some of the best food we had on our trip and is conveniently located at the end of the swimming pool; be sure to make reservations for dinner, however, as they close early if things slow down. I found our 2-bedroom/3-bathroom vacation rental at Paraiso del Mar through a listing on VRBO, but you can see more available properties, photos, and prices on their website here.
Oh, and do keep an eye out on that water, as dolphin sightings are quite common (I even got to paddle board with a pair!). On our last morning, I spotted one from my place at the breakfast table, then we rushed out to the balcony and counted seven dolphins!
Tip: For a $30 fee, you can have groceries there to meet you at your condo when you arrive, and for $10 US you can rent a basic Mexican cell phone for your stay. WORTH IT! We had the condo stocked with three 11-liter jugs of water and most of our groceries for 6 people for the week, and the total bill including the delivery charge and cell phone fee was $124 US.
1 Great Place to Eat in La Paz: Restaurant Cuquita
Chances are you won’t find Restaurant Cuquita by chance–it’s where the Calle Nayarit ends at a small beach frequented mostly by fishermen and their pangas. (Could this have something to do with why the fish is so good here?) It’s a great place to enjoy all manner of Baja fare and, if the kids finish lunch before you? Just send them out to play in the sand while you enjoy the rest of your feast (just make sure no one’s towing a boat in or out). But if the kids catch sight of the enormous helados here–a coconut shell packed with coconut ice cream, or a small pineapple stuffed with pineapple ice cream–you may be here extra long waiting for the kids to finish up (unless they’re willing to share).