Travel | 4 comments
By: Zdenko Kahlina
San Jose del Cabo – La Paz by car
During our stay in San Jose del Cabo we rented a car with the idea to make one day trips to Todos Santos, Cabo San Lucas and La Paz. So, after we already completed our trips to Cabo San Lucas and Todos Santos, early in the morning on Thursday, we left San Jose del Cabo and went towards Los Barriles and La Paz on Mexico Hwy 1.
Vera and Zdenko in front of Cathedral in La Paz
The weather was great, just about perfect. December is an excellent time to visit La Paz, the summer humidity and heat is gone but ocean temperatures are still comfortable and great for swimming.
Distances we were planning to drive on this trip:
San Jose del cabo – Los Barriles 79 km
Los Barriles – San Padre 75 km
San Padre – La Paz 29 km
Total of 183 kilometers one way or close to 400 kilometers by the end of the day, when we return to San Jose del Cabo again.
Wonderful scenic and winding, two lane road accross the Sierra de la Laguna mountains
The highway was busy until we reached the outskirts of Cabo and past the international airport. As soon as it switched from four lanes to two lane road at Santa Anita, we were left alone on the road. Our VW Jetta was nicely ‘gliding’ through the mountains on this wonderful scenic and winding road. Highway 1 has less traffic than Pacific Highway 19 via Todos Santos, but its narrow curves and steep grades make it a slower route to La Paz. It winds through the Sierra de la Laguna, southern Baja’s highest mountain range, with peaks rising over 7,000 feet from the Sea of Cortez.
Watch for animals on the road
With very little traffic on the road, the biggest danger was the cows that graze along the highway. They frequently wander across the pavement, to get to the greener grass on the other side. All of Baja is open range, and animals are always a hazard on the road, but between San Jose del Cabo and La Paz, the numbers of cows, horses, burros and goats per mile of pavement easily exceeds the count on any other stretch of the highway. Evidently, the vegetation, watered by moisture that collects at the edges of the pavement, provides good nutrition. The livestock looks quite fat and healthy, somewhat surprising, given the lack of visible forage in their cactus covered pastures. But, the animals are a serious driving hazard (especially at night) along this route. Only for this reason it is not recommended to drive on this road through the night.
During hurricane season, washouts can also be a hazard. Road repairs are often not completed for months, and detours across river beds, usually but not always dry, are common. But in December, it is a dry season and road was in perfect condition.
This trans-peninsular highway passes through or near several historic towns. Coming from south, Santiago is first town you will see from the highway (actually Miraflores is first, but we didn’t see it!). By the road there is nothing much to see, only Pemex gas station and a small grocery store. But there is a left turn off on a small gravel road that connects highway and Santiago puebla, which is about 2 kilometers on the side.
This small town was the site of some of Baja’s bloodiest Indian uprisings, resulting in virtual abandonment of the mission there by the end of the 1800′s. Today the town is a thriving farming community and home to the only Zoo in Baja south of Mexicali. Santiago’s “zoological gardens” house such native animals as coyotes, bobcats, and a pit full of rattlesnakes, along with a bear, a tiger, and some ducks and sad-looking monkeys.
Just before we left the mountains behind, by the big bridge at Las Cuevas, I spotted a turn off on the East Cape Road which was freshly paved… at least for as far as I could see from the main highway. If they ever pave the East Cape Road, this area would gain on popularity tremendously. For now it stays out of reach for most tourists!
View of Buena Vista from the highway
After Las Cuevas the highway drops out of the mountains to the Cortez coast at Los Barriles on the East Cape, then cuts inland again, north of the mountains toward La Paz. Soon, we were entering Buena Vista and Los Barriles with the beautiful and tempting beaches right in front of us. There were two gas stations on this route before we reached Los Barriles, and also two more Pemex gas stations in Los Barriles, so nothing to worry about while driving from the coast to La Paz. At this point we decided to continue driving to La Paz, and explore these villages on our way back.
In the mountains again
From Los Barriles the road turned back into the mountains and became even more scenic. We were gaining the altitude again as the road continued to climb towards San Bartolo, San Antonio and El Triunfo.
San Antonio and El Triunfo are two villages of great historical importance, found on this trans-peninsular Highway, only 50 km south of La Paz. El Triunfo was a center for gold and silver mining in the mid 1800′s, and San Antonio, where silver was discovered in 1748, served briefly as capital of the Baja California, before the capital was moved to La Paz in 1830. Apparently El Triunfo has population of only 327. There was another gas station in San Antonio at 155 km marker. Tip: slow down and watch for tope in both villages.
Watch for tope in San Antonio and El Triunfo
Only 43 km before La Paz, also along the same road, is the Cactus Sanctuary, a botanical garden located on the communal land of El Rosario. The area has just the right climate for the conservation of cacti and other species of desert plants.
This mountain road is spectacular and the vistas are epic… lots of peaks, dried river beds and bridges. Very little traffic along the whole trip… another tip: watch for the police speed trap when entering village of San Padre 30 kilometers before La Paz. In this small village, shortly after merging onto highway 1, the speed limit is only 40 km/h. Police was there issuing tickets in the morning and in the afternoon…
A tricky thing about driving in Mexico is that instead of exits they have RETORNO’s. The retorno’s are streets running adjacent and parallel to highway so that if you want to make a left hand turn, many gringo’s think they just turn left. NO! You must take the RETORNO to the right and follow until you come to next intersection lights.
We arrived in La Paz after 2 hours and 50 minutes of nice and relaxed driving, across the mountains and didn’t get the ticket in San Padre! Yay…
Bienvenidos to La Paz
City of La Paz
La Paz, the Mexican capital of southern Baja California, is a happily ordinary, safe city with world-class saltwater attractions in the adjoining Sea of Cortez. This is the city of 220,000 people, about a two and a half hour drive north of Cabo San Lucas if you use the Todos Santos route. This is the state capital of Baja California Sur — the southern half of this desert peninsula, but it isn’t a major tourist center. La Paz has few big hotels, with no American names such as Marriott or Hilton. Unlike Cabo, most partying in the street is done by locals, not by drunken gringos…
Entering La Paz – American like surroundings
As we entered the city from the south, traffic intensified and very soon we were in an American like surroundings – big stores on both sides of the highway, car dealer-ships and lots of restaurants. Once in the city we made a left turn towards the ocean and soon found ourselves on the sea-wall promenade, or Malecón. We were the only tourists in sight. Visitors looking for authentic Mexico, this is it!!
Cultural Centre on Zaragoza Street
On the Malecón
A happy place
While the Spanish explorer Cortez landed here in 1535, author John Steinbeck hung out in the 1940s, and Jacques Cousteau called local waters “the world’s aquarium” in the 1960s, these days La Paz is mostly a normal, mid-size Mexican city, unsullied by drug violence and untrammeled by tourists.
La Paz is a very quite, restful place with enough shops, restaurants, bars etc to keep most contented. Costs are much lower than touristy Cabo, prompting ‘CNN Money’ to call La Paz one of the best places for Americans to retire. A holiday here is kind of the Mexican equivalent of vacationing in Spokane. The Museum, a fairly long walk from down town, is worth the trip. And if you need shoes, La Paz seems to have enough shoe stores to take care of every foot in Mexico.
Gazebo on the Malecón
The Malecón is truly the great heart of this waterfront city – the favorite stroll for tourists and locals alike. There are several small cafes alongside, and on the opposite side of the boulevard are just dozens of restaurants and shops. It is dotted with numerous sea-related sculptures. Joggers, walkers – with or without dogs, children in recumbent bicycles, everyone is out enjoying the Malecón.
In the evenings when the temperature cooled, the crowds flocked the Malecón, a wide swath of red tile, lined with wrought-iron benches and liberally dotted with sculptures of whales, manta rays, mermaids and other marine subjects.
Colorful garbage can on the Malecón
Vera by the whale statue on the Malecón
La Paz has a pleasant winter climate, enjoyed by many as they stroll the city’s sea-wall promenade, or Malecón. Old couples walked past arm in arm. Groups of self-conscious teens shuffled like herd animals. Twenty-something zoomed by on skates and bicycles while young married couples pushed strollers. On the adjacent street, a stream of cars poked along, including a limo with a bride and groom standing to wave through the sunroof. Down the line, a pink-streamer sedan full of giggling young women in fancy dresses blared its horn nonstop. Another Quinceañera? A bachelorette party? Who knew?
La Paz beaches
La Paz has more than a score of calm-water beaches, ideal for enjoyment by young and old alike, and for participating in aquatic activities without needing to be expert.
At the end of the Malecon, a panoramic highway begins
Panoramic highway along the coast
At the end of the Malecon, a panoramic highway begins. We drove our car along the coast to explore it. The first beach is found only 5 minutes from the city. The traditional resort of El Coromuel, named for the pirate Cromwell, who took refuge in the bay. El Coromuel has been recently remodeled, with water slides palapas, services and special entertainment for children and young people. It was completely deserted and empty when we drove by, with exception of couple of local beauties sun tanning on the beach.
Beautiful but deserted El Coromuel beach
The next beaches down the road are La Concha and El Caimancito. We didn’t go beyond this point, but learnt there are Marina CostaBaja, with its commercial zone, and Pueblo Marinero with a small beach of soft sand. Farther out is the East Cape with lots of lovely beaches & small resorts to stay at.
Main beach along the Malecón
Restaurants – Rancho Viejo on Malecon
This small grill restaurant seems to be consistently popular throughout the day – always a good sign of consistent quality. Someone recommended this place to us… so, give it a shot, it’s worth getting on the Malecon and eating with the locals. Many of their signature dishes have grilled beef but they also have some good seafood options. Super tender beef with a special marinade and both of us were glad we stopped there for a lunch. Very affordable!
Small Rancho Viejo restaurant
La Costa is a favorite of locals as well as visiting boaters, at the end of Calle 5 de Febrero, near Marina La Paz. A memorable dinner for two of deep-fried snapper (the whole fish!) and the local chocolate clams is $16 U.S.
La Paz has a very different feel than Cabo San Lucas. More quiet, beautiful beaches, fine restaurants, and easy to walk anywhere if you stay in a downtown hotel. No one will bother you in La Paz to buy a timeshare, visit a shop, or buy their wares. You truly have the feel of old Mexico in La Paz. The city of La Paz is not particularly pretty though and there isn’t much in the way of historical sites or such. It is a great base to explore the beauty of Isla Espiritu Santo. The city itself gets pretty dull after a few days. Most of the action takes place around the Malecon.
Beautiful flowers on the beach in La Paz
Southbound journey – returning to Los Cabos
The afternoon leg of our southbound journey, to San Jose del Cabo began at La Paz Malecon. After spending several hours and had a good lunch in La Paz, we left the city via highway 1, and were soon confronted by our first real fork in the road. The branch to the left, the continuation of Highway 1, is the original Transpeninsula Highway to San José del Cabo and on to Cabo San Lucas. But, the right fork is now the fastest route to Land’s End. Sometimes called the Todos Santos Cutoff, Highway 19, paved in 1985, is a relatively straight shot to Todos Santos, and from there it follows the Pacific coastline south to Cabo San Lucas.
Because it’s wider, straighter and faster, the Todos Cutoff is the choice of most drivers from La Paz to San Lucas. The route is less than scenic crossing the desert from La Paz to the Pacific coast, although the desert vegetation becomes impressive near Todos Santos, and to the south the road offers grand Pacific Ocean vistas, especially spectacular at sunset.
Going through El Triunfo on the way back
But we were different. As previously planned we choose the branch to the left. The same road we used in the morning to come into La Paz from San Jose del Cabo. We still wanted to visit Los Barriles and Buena Vista before returning to San Jose del Cabo.
The road winds through the Sierra de la Laguna, southern Baja’s highest mountain range. Again, its narrow curves and steep grades make the highway 1, very scenic road and we loved it. It all went well through the mountains as traffic was no issue at all and soon we were approaching Los Barriles, from the northwest this time.
Arial view of Los Barriles
Los Barriles has a population of roughly 5,000 about half of which are locals and half expatriates here full or part time. It has the small town atmosphere and sense of local community. The pace of life is very relaxed here.
Main street in Los Barriles
You can stroll the beaches of Los Barriles without encountering a soul. If you like the outdoors you’ll enjoy the easily accessible and safe beaches for swimming, snorkeling, or kayaking. A very popular thing to do here is hiking, exploring on ATV’s, mountain biking or horseback riding. Los Barriles is known for it’s exceptional wind surfing and kite boarding conditions during the winter months. And, of course, you can take advantage of the world-class sports fishing and surf casting for which they are most famous. Many ex-pats are active in the local community sponsoring extra curricular activities, scholarship programsor participating in one of the local churches. These opportunities to get to know the locals truly enrich the living experience here. English is commonly spoken but there.
Vera on the beach in Los Barriles
La Paz has had some great beaches, but Los Barriles was disappointment. Vera and I didn’t like the beach here and the village was just… very small. We couldn’t see ourselves spending more than a day here. This is the place to be if you decide to leave the world behind and we are not ready to do this yet!
We also made a quick stop at Buena Vista which was just few minutes down the road. This is even a smaller place, with only one hotel on the beach and dusty roads through the town. The beach was deserted and we didn’t go into the ocean.
And on the beach in Buena Vista
The next 80 kilometers across the Sierra de la Laguna mountains was uneventful and we were back at the hotel in San Jose del Cabo before dark. This was a GREAT DAY OUT, ABSOLUTELY A MUST DO WHEN IN LOS CABOS. Do not hesitate to rent a car!
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