Bad planning and “bad luck” make for a dream trip to see the whale sharks in La Paz, Mexico.
By Maryann Jones Thompson
We came to La Paz for one reason: To see a whale shark. And after years of planning, days of uncertainty, and a run of “bad” luck, there was only one thing that stood between me and the massive shadow hovering just meters from our boat.
His name was William.
The sweet New England boy had forgone big-ticket Christmas gifts to instead spend a family vacation in Mexico seeing the whale sharks, sea lions, gray whales and turtles that make this part of Baja California a mecca for marine fanatics. He was most certainly “our people.”
William had arrived at the dock in a t-shirt covered with names and pictures of different whales and chatted up bystanders with a few facts about each one. He was wearing proper water sandals and a Patriots baseball cap, and I was jealous remembering the days when my kids didn’t fight me about every item of required-apparel for a particular excursion (“I hate Keens… “I don’t need a hat…” “I will put on the sunscreen – later…”)
Little did William know we were on this particular tour under protest. Our friends had booked a whale shark excursion with the same well-reviewed company but had been left on the dock just a few months ago. We vowed to choose a different outfitter to support our compadres.
So how did we end up here? And why did it take us until Day 4 of a six-day trip to La Paz to get to our most anticipated activity? Good questions. Our winter break is yet another traveler’s tale of under-planning – or maybe over-planning, depending on how you look at it.
La Paz’ Largest Tourists
The whale sharks arrive in La Paz in November and hang out ‘til March or so. The high salinity and warmth of the Sea of Cortez create a buffet of teeny foods for larger sea creatures. And the shallow water discourages orcas and other predators from joining the party because the big guys need depth to attack.
During the winter, high-season months, you have Cabo San Lucas-like weather in the capital city of the Baja California Sur state, just a two-hour drive north of the Los Cabos International airport but a veritable world away from the massive resorts, throngs of visitors, and “wild” life that characterize the tip of Baja today.
To date, the community of La Paz has pushed back against big developments. The Sea of Cortez town has long attracted deep-sea fishermen, divers, retirees, and Mexican holidaymakers. The domestic airport brings folks from across the country to enjoy the warm weather, relax on pristine beaches, stroll, rollerblade and bike the Malecon, dine on fresh seafood, and do what we had come for: Witness the area’s extraordinary concentration of marine wildlife – such a source of national pride that gray whales are pictured on the 500-peso bill.
Wandering the sidewalks of La Paz’ largely one-story Zona Central was lovely, authentic and safe. The town is not yet consumed by Airbnbs; there are locals living in both historic and brand-new homes surrounded by bougainvillea, cacti, and succulents. The blocks have corner stores, local retailers and barbershops mixed with small hotels, bars, boutiques, cafes and restaurants, some so hip that you might think you’re in LA or SF. Over a week of dining in a variety of local establishments, we enjoyed amazing meals and never had a hint of sickness – something I’ve unfortunately got lots of experience doing in Mexico.
The problem with planning a family trip to La Paz is there is just too much to do: Whale sharks. Gray whales and babies in Magdalena Bay. Sea lions on Los Islotes. Glamping on Espiritu Santo. Balandra beach. Diving. Deep sea fishing. Kayaking. Standup paddleboarding. ATV or horseback riding. Our wish list was long – and getting pricey, too.
After we spent a few deer-in-the-headlight nights researching options online, I got an email that offered an easy way out: A friend-of-a-friend marine biologist who’d lived in the area for years, said that he would handle booking all the individual trips we wanted, based on the seas, winds, and weather for the week we would be there in February. He would send us an itinerary and pricing and be sure we got to do it all. Brilliant! Done and done.
But just weeks out from departure, the itinerary never came – even after a second request. The owner continued to sweet-talk us, assuredly promising everything and then delivering nothing. At the same time, work went insane, school revved up, and no one had time or energy to restart the planning process.
A very real fear crept into the back of my mind. “What if we go all the way to La Paz and don’t see the whale sharks?” I could skip all the other stuff but seeing a whale shark was a dream for the whole family – something even our cynical 18-year-old was excited about. I tried to comfort myself with the knowledge that there were dozens of operators offering the tour, yet our friends had been in the same boat – and did miss out. I was nervous.
On the Ground in La Paz
Right up until our arrival in La Paz on President’s Day, we continued to pester our “cruise director.” “The winds are too high on Tuesday and Wednesday so just hang out in town and we’ll set whale sharks for Thursday, diving for Friday, and deep-sea fishing for Saturday.” Indeed, the weather was breezy and chilly – more like 70 degrees than the area’s typical 80s – but not stormy, and there appeared to be many people enjoying water-based activities.
Truth be told, we were all truly and completely exhausted from a long journey and busy month of work and school. We were happy to have a day to do nothing. Our teens slept ‘til noon in our uber-stylish pension, Casa al Mar, a hip new spot right on the Malecón.
We ate chilaquiles and fruit bowls to-die-for in the hotel cafe and spent Tuesday afternoon sunning, swimming, hiking, wandering and snacking on Balandra and Tecolote beaches. Both spots were far more gorgeous than I expected – and the chill-out day re-energized us all.
Our “coordinator” also informed us that, unfortunately, the gray whale thing wasn’t going to happen, citing something about wind and not that many gray whales this year, anyway. I immediately began to contact other tour companies that do the trip – a big one because you must drive almost three hours from La Paz to the port on the west coast and then back. The reps did not mention a lack of cetaceans but did mention a lack of seats for Wednesday.
Reluctantly, I decided it was okay to miss seeing the gray whales, even though that was my no. 2 reason for coming to La Paz. I knew I loved Baja so much that I would be back, but would I be back in winter when the mom and baby grays were in town? Tough to say.
The coordinator also asked for a deposit for our trips. He offered to pick it up at our hotel – then drop it off at his office – then pay by credit card on his site – then give the card number over the phone. It felt so unorganized and sketchy that we started to feel like we were 19 again on our first trip abroad and getting ripped off by a money changer in an alley behind a train station. But we had gone this far, and the guy was such a sweet-talker that we ended up letting him charge us hundreds of dollars on our credit card – not even 100% sure exactly what portion of what activity we were paying for – and prayed for the best.
Our second full day of “relaxing” was decidedly less restful. The teens had holed up with Snapchat and Netflix in their hotel beds. My husband was sneaking a look at his work email. I wasn’t seeing gray whales. But we did enjoy another morning walk around town and were seduced by the landmark Docecuarenta cafe and later, a brunch of McFisher’s legendary fish tacos.
In the afternoon, my family twisted my arm into the back seat of an ATV. We zigzagged up a sandy playa and into through of my favorite landscapes: A desert oasis replete with cactus, boulders, palms, streams, and even wild burros.
Most importantly, today was “Whale Shark Eve!” We contacted our coordinator for details on our tour the next morning and were shocked to hear that he had booked us with the “flaky” tour operator that had let down our friends. “Whaaaaa??? What happened to you guiding us around with your marine biologistness? What happened to not using that company because they stood up our friends?” At this point, we knew we’d been had – and we began to hope we were going to do anything at all.
The One that Got Away
When we arrived at the dock, William couldn’t know that my husband and I had been keeping a hopeful eye out for a whale shark during snorkel and dive trips since he was negative-15-years-old or so. He couldn’t know that we’d been trying to get to La Paz for years but had had a variety of wrenches thrown into our winter holiday works. He couldn’t know our cruise director had given us the run-around followed by a bait-and-switch.
Before boarding the boat, our whale shark guide Karin briefed us on the tight restrictions Mexico keeps on boats taking snorkelers to see the whale sharks. Everything is controlled by permits and wristbands and GPS and radios and sea-going rangers to try to keep the whale sharks safe, unperturbed, and content to annually return to La Paz’s krill feast despite the number of boats and gawking snorkelers that await. My mind scrambled with the thought of having to navigate the bureaucracy and baksheesh needed to obtain such permits in Mexico – and then be able to hold onto them for a particular day so as to honor months-old reservations for this unique experience.
We were lucky to have a permit – and we were also lucky that the big guys were hanging out just ten minutes from port today. But the guide explained we were actually second on the waitlist to enter the preserve: Only after two boats finished their encounter could we enter.
So William, his mom, and our family boated five minutes to a sand spit in the bay and parked for what ended up to be a good 90 minutes. The young boy sat sweetly shivering in the shade wearing a loaner wetsuit that gapped two-inches aside each knee as he prepped to snorkel in 68-degree water with sharks four-times his height. He was forty-pounds of badass – not unlike our kids had been at that age.
While we waited, Karin put us into three ordered groups of two: William and his mom first, my daughter and me next, then my son and husband. She also said no cameras would be allowed on the first trip into the water – just people and sharks looking at each other. Upon hearing the no-camera rule, William’s demeanor cracked for the first time as he shot an anguished look up at his mom; He had been faithfully clutching a kid-version of an underwater camera with both hands the whole boat ride. His mom gave him a reassuring nod and pat on the leg.
But I felt William’s pain. No matter how often our guide assured us there were plenty of whale sharks nearby to see and photograph, I sat in that boat fearing the worst. We’ve been on numerous wildlife spotting expeditions and knew well that nothing wild behaves predictably.
Suddenly, our captain yelled to the next boat. Our radio had been crackling with Spanish all morning but now, apparently, it was saying something important. “They’re first on the waitlist,” our guide explained, as we watched that captain and his guests push off. A few more crackles and our guide announced, “It’s our turn!”
We scrambled for our seats and motored for the mouth of the bay. A few small tour boats were visible in the distance, easily recognizable from the bright orange life vests required of all passengers. After no more than five minutes on the water, someone called out, “There’s one!”
Indeed, a large dark figure was easily visible against the light-blue sea! The biggest-of-all-fishes hangs out so near the surface that it is easy to make out the meter-wide snout and even some of its dot-and-dash markings. As our captain maneuvered closer to the animal and radioed our location, we gasped and laughed and high-fived. Out of the corner of my eye, I even caught my son beaming.
But before we could don our fins and masks, our guide gave us the bad news. “The rangers say we cannot go in with this shark. He is too close. We have to move farther out into the official area and look for another one.”
Seriously?!? Jeesh. What if that’s the only whale shark we see today? And he’s too close to shore? Even though our guide was confident we would find another animal, everyone returned to their seats, disappointed. My mind only had a moment to wallow in our bad luck when I heard, “There’s another one!”
We were in the zone. No other boats were nearby. It was a big shark – and it was feeding – just hanging out in a vertically-diagonal position, glugging down as much food-filled-water as it could get into its giant mouth and down his tennis-ball-sized throat.
Everyone grabbed for gear. Over the scuffle, our guide reminded us we would enter the water in groups of two, sliding feet-first off the side of the boat without splashing, staying a safe distance from the animal, and following her instructions the whole time. Part of me couldn’t believe it was really happening: After all these years, I was finally going to meet a whale shark.
And all that was standing between me and my giant fish was William.
His mom was all geared up and sitting on the side of the boat. And William was nearly all set, too. But it wasn’t an easy entry – even for fully grown adults who had lots of experience jumping into the ocean from a variety of boats. You had to climb up and perch yourself on the narrow edge of the rocking boat and then turn your body to the sea, all while wearing fins, hanging onto your mask, and not falling in prematurely. Our guide was already in the water waiting for William and his mom, and the captain was hovering behind the mini dude to help him assume the precarious jump-in position.
I, on the other hand, was going to jump out of my skin. I had one eye on the goings-on in front of me, and one eye on the dark figure floating farther and farther away from the boat. I actually don’t know if it took William two minutes or two hours to jump in, but I knew that I was only two seconds from shoving the darling boy over the side, diving over his small body, and catching the shark before it disappeared into the vast Sea of Cortez.
“Great job!” I heard our guide cheer as mom and son hit the water. In reality, William hadn’t hesitated to jump in, nor did he complain that his body temp was surely approaching frostbite, or get freaked out by being in the water with a “whale” the size of at least three Gronkowskis.
Ten Tons of Fish
Like William, I met a whale shark on February 21, 2019 – in fact, we met seven or eight of the impressive and gorgeous creatures. My hysterical fear of missing the one-that-got-away was replaced by a very real fear of getting run over by a ten-ton fish: There were so many whale sharks crisscrossing our patch of sea that you’d be watching one and feel someone yank you back because another would be vertically feeding and coming at you like a freight train, with no ability to quickly stop or change course.
Each whale shark was as exciting and big and dotted and dashed as the next. Even though we were all dazzled by the 25-footer who swooped by, my favorite was the smaller one who bore a sliced scar on his spine from a boat’s motor. It was flattering to know it could swim away at any moment but decided to hang out with our family for a long time.
After so much hoping and waiting and angsting, the whale sharks of La Paz were every bit as amazing as we could have imagined. The tour company we aimed to avoid turned out to be perfect. Our “cruise director” had come through when it counted – and did so again the next day for a dive trip with the mischievous sea lions of Los Islotes. (He did leave us high-and-dry on deep sea fishing, however. “Weather’s gonna be bad… All the ports will be closed… And it’s not the right season for fishing anyway…”)
The good news? We snagged seats on a big bus tour to Magdalena Bay for our last day in La Paz. We witnessed dozens of gray whales frolicking near shore, including a one-month-old baby and its mom. The pair stayed with our boat so long and came so close that the mom spouted salty spray all over our faces.
I guess luck was with us all along.
- Travelers: Maryann & Don Thompson, plus teens age 15 and 18
- Date: One week during February 2019
- Itinerary: Four nights at Casa al Mar on the Malecon and two nights at Costa Baja Resort
- Cost: Approximately $1,500 (excluding flights), including $100-$200/night for rooms, $100/day eating and drinking everything in sight, and about $50/person/day for activities. Whale shark tours start at $80 per person for the half-day experience.
The Good Stuff
Whale Shark Snorkeling A look at TripAdvisor will show you that VIP Tours is the top-ranked outfit for seeing the whale sharks. As explained above, there are a lot of things that play into whether or not a whale shark trip can go out or not, including your guide, how crowded a day you are visiting, how close the sharks are to shore, how many boats the government is letting out at the time, how the weather is, and so on. I would book with a well-ranked outfit, and then if anything goes wrong and you really want to go, just head to the dock and start asking around to try and get on another boat. I bet you will.
Gray Whales in Magdalena Bay This trip takes a full day from La Paz but is 100% worth it if you love whales. We booked with Choya Tours and had a perfect day. You can absolutely do it yourself by driving to the port and booking a boat but it is quite a long drive there and back – not to mention, I would think a non-Spanish-speaking tourist family might not get the best deal on the booking-a-boat part.
Isla Espíritu Santo Sea Lion Snorkeling/Diving On these trips, you are providing knee-slapping entertainment for dozens of sea lions. So be aware that the only thing worse for someone not 100% comfortable having these guys biting at your ponytail, flipper or air hose while diving would be having the same thing happen as a snorkeler.
I blamed the bratty behavior of the two young sea lions who relentlessly pestered us underwater on the fact that teenage boys are difficult above water, too, only to have our guide correct me that the brats had been girls.
All this said, it is a gorgeous place to see, dive and be in the water with the sea lions. They are truly not aggressive. But for kids or parents who are a bit freaked out being in the water with such a crazy, fast bunch of critter, I’d stay in the boat.
Playa Balandra Yep. It’s stunning. As amazing as everyone says. It’s unbelievable that there’s not 3-5 resorts in this area, with big gated parking lots keeping out we riff-raff. But there ain’t. The locals fought to keep this cove pristine. And it’s epic: fishing pelicans, crystal waters, big vistas, playing families, and the whole thing fringed by white dunes and desert magnificence.
It is an easy 30 minute drive to get there. There are many beaches on the way and beyond. The road heads north along the coast with marshes and stands of cordon cactus, a larger cactus than the saguaro but extremely slow growing – only one centimeter per year. That means the fields you drive past are filled with hundreds-years-old cactii.
You’ll want to go early in the morning or off-season to get a spot and miss the crowds. The parking lot is small and tour buses come all the way from Cabo to share this wonderland with the hoardes who want to see it. If possible, avoid low tide when all that white water will be naked sand. You can see the famous hongo (mushroom) rock, a famous outcropping that was toppled and then fixed.
Playa Tecolote Aside from a couple trucks selling souvenirs and snacks, there are no services at Playa Balandra so bring your own water and food. Then continue the gorgeous coastal drive to Playa Tecolote – a calm swimming beach lined with restaurants serving snacks and cervesas in the sand.
The Town of La Paz The sidewalks of La Paz’ authentic Zona Central are safe and perfect for exploring – passing small hotels, one-story homes, hipster restaurants, local barbershops, street art, corner markets, and the happiest ice cream shops. The whole place is sort of an “anti-Cabo,” and I hope they can figure out how to make it stay that way.
Along the Malecon coast-side walkway, dog walkers, joggers, rollerbladers and tourists from Mexico and around the world stroll from day til night. Every night, we found a perch over the Malecon for happy hour, dinner or post-dinner card game to watch the world go by.
Casa al Mar If you want to experience city life in La Paz, stay at the new Casa al Mar, right in the heart of the Malecon, just steps from the sea and anywhere you want to be. The Baja-meets-CB2 style makes you want to take photos of every detail in the lobby, the garden, the cafe and the ultra cool rooms.
The two-bedroom suites are perfect for families, with a sitting area, dining table, kitchenette – and Netflix! The only concern I had for families was that the railings seemed a bit low on the balconies; if I had young kids, I might have been nervous in the oceanfront rooms. The Malecon is notoriously noisy, as well.
The high-end Hotel Catedral La Paz is the most popular hotel in town, but it’s pricey. Upside for families is a pool on the rooftop – never a bad thing. It’s near the cathedral and a bit off the Malecon but on a pleasant square.
Costa Baja Resort After all our adventures in town, we headed 10 minutes north of the center of town and checked into Costa Baja Resort. Here, you can splash in a pool overlooking the Sea of Cortez or head to the beach club and splash in the sea itself.
Later, we splashed out for a nice dinner restaurant, followed by some cards on our balcony. If you’re looking for a spa treatment or a round of golf, the resort offers just about any activity you might want.
The feel is more buttoned-up than the spots in-town and the clientele is mostly American. But the sunsets envelop the entire area with rosy, peachy skies.
The Good Food
La Paz has more amazing things to eat than you’ll have meals in town. From Uruguayan steak to Baja seafood to a veritable rainbow of tacos, helado, and sushi, there’s a meal for any budget and any craving. There are plenty of kid-friendly options as well.
The tap water in town is potable. But aside from brushing teeth, we drank bottled. The great city water helped all four of us eat ice, ice cream, fruit, and vegetables without getting sick 😉
A survey of friends who’d recently visited (thanks Katie 😉 resulted in a long list of spots to aim for. Though it appears we ate and drank everything in site, we only scratched the surface 🙁
Rancho Viejo We loved it so much we ate here twice! You go for the arrachera – marinated skirt steak tacos. Get the platter of ten tacos with the flour tortillas (de arianas – much thinner than the American flour tortillas) and your family will be happy people. The location near the port is one block off the Malecon and a great stop after a day on the water. There’s a large dining room and the food is served in traditional pottery by friendly women.
Rancho Viejo 2 is right in the center of the Malecon, a perfect spot for sunset Happy Hour and early dinner. Don & I became fond of their palomas; our daughter was equally enthralled by the piñadas – a virgin pina colada.
McFisher’s – Here lie the fish tacos of your dreams, with all the fixins. But perfection takes time: The food takes a bit to get to your table. And McFisher’s is really a breakfast/lunch thing: They close at 5-6pm.
Doce Cuarenta – Coffee snobs will not go thirsty in La Paz. Doce Cuarenta is as fine a coffee bar as you will find in San Francisco, serving delicious breakfast pastries, yogurts, and sandwiches on a cool patio with a fun shop of local items, as well.
Restaurante Casa al Mar – Tucked on a side street behind the lobby of the Casa al Mar hotel, the small dining room explodes with authentic, inventive cuisine from the local La Paz chef. We ate epic chilaquiles, egg dishes and fruit bowls for breakfast and creative seafood pastas at dinner. If the weather is nice, the cafe serves food in the hotel’s pleasant, quiet atrium/garden.
Harker Board – In two spots across from each other on the Malecon, Harker Board has great pizza, craft beer and a roof bar. Great for sunset.
La Miserable – Feeling like a spot in a corner of New Orleans, La Miserable is a cool spot for tasting mezcal. The garden/patio is extra pleasant at night. Our teens came along and we played cards out there, though I am not sure kids are officially allowed.
Nim – A gourmet take on local specialties. We chose it as our one fancy meal in town and were not disappointed. The scallop ceviche was worth the trip, alone.
Los Laureles – Casual seafood spot along the north end of the Malecon. Everything a la plancha – grilled. Classic Mexican ceviche. Huge margaritas.
Mariscos el Toro Guero – A local raved about this seafood spot as the best in town. We didn’t get there but drove by one time and the line was out the door.
Tailhunter Restaurant – Right on the Malecon, a good balcony for drinks and a great outfit for sportfishing.
Bagel Shop – Don’t let the boring name hold you back. The freshly baked bagels are stuffed with all toppings imaginable and the coffee is great too. Takes a few minutes to get your food but grab a to-go breakfast and head to the port for your day on the water.
Steinbeck’s – If you’re staying at the Costa Baja, check out the steak and seafood plates at Steinbeck’s dining room. It is a splashy, fine-dining spot with walls lined in vintage tequila bottles.
The Not So Good
Beware Los Cabos Airport If I end up in traveler’s purgatory, it will probably be spent in the Los Cabos airport. I know there are far worse places to be a traveler, but the fact that it is brand new and already so messed up makes it that much more frustating to endure. They’ve actually created a special lobby for the “touts” – the guys who pester you for taxis, tours and rooms – between baggage claim and the “real” kiosks for rental cars and other services. Just stare straight ahead and keep walking through the doors at the far end that seem to get further and further away as you and your kids are accosted by an endless barrage of unofficial reps.
Granted, we were there in high season and on one of the busiest American holiday weekends of the year. This surely accounted for some of the misery related to overwhelming arrival and departure lounge crowds – not to mention, the construction that continues. There are Disneyland-worthy lines for the bathroom, food, shops – not to mention immigration, a process that we Americans probably set up because Zimbabwe aside, I’ve never waited so long to get into any country aside from the U.S. and Mexico. Plan for an hour to get through immigration and don’t plan on any wifi or food during departure. Anything better than that will be a pleasant surprise.
Stay near the Zona Central Police regularly patrol the Zona Central and Malecon, which keeps these areas safe for tourists. Outside of La Paz’ central area and Malecon, there can be some rough parts of town.
Good to Know
Getting to La Paz The airport in La Paz only serves other domestic Mexican airports. We met some people who flew from the east coast direct to Mexico City or Guadalajara and then hopped over. Many Californians fly to Cabo and then drive the 2-2.5 hours to La Paz.
Rent a Car We like Cactus Auto Rentals when we’re in Baja but Los Cabos airport has all the usual suspects. Book ahead and walk through the gauntlet of touts to the outer counter, get a two-minute ride to their office, jump in your car and take off. The new freeway on Highway 19 enables you to avoid the ride through the town of Cabo entirely. The whole trip was smooth and easy and took about 2.5 hours of driving. Parking in and around La Paz is surprisingly easy. We saw a couple federales but no where near the number near Cabo or Tijuana. It was all very tranquilo.
If I was flying direct to La Paz airport and staying in town, I don’t know if I would rent a car. Most things are walkable aside from the Balandra Beach area. It would be possible to rent a car for a day – or book a tour to that area.
Good Stops On the way north on Highway 19 from the Los Cabos airport, you can make it to El Pescadero and then you’ll have to stop for gas – and for local tacos at Carnitas Machin. The Hierbabuena restaurant in the fields is 10x nicer; you’ll feel like you popped into Napa for lunch. Todos Santos is a bit out of the way but another great town to see if you have time. On the way back to the Cabo airport, we drove Highway 1 through the hills – beautiful and different views to Los Barriles, another Sea of Cortez town full of kiteboarders, offroaders and expats. We ate a final plate of chilaquiles at Taqueria el Viejo, where everything was delicious.
When to Go The whale sharks are only in La Paz during the winter months. It is critical to check with the tour operators to be sure the creatures you hope to see will be in town for your visit. For example, winter isn’t great for sportfishing or glamping/kayaking on any of the Sea of Cortez or Pacific islands.
Good Book Parents (and into-it kids) should read The Log from the Sea of Cortez, Steinbeck’s journeys along the coast in the 1940s.
Maryann Jones Thompson – March 2019
© ROAM Family Travel 2019 – All rights reserved
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