It’s no secret to anyone who knows me that of the 60 odd countries I’ve traveled through, the Baja Peninsula will forever be my favorite place on the planet. A desert playground where the Pacific coastline and Sea of Cortez provide dueling opportunities for adventure, legendary experiences in Baja seem to be the rule and not the exception.
Of every fishing village, surf outpost, wine region, and resort district I’ve ever visited in Baja, however, there has only been one city where everything fell apart. Not because it’s a bad city—in fact, it’s meant to be one of the nicest parts on the entire Peninsula—but simply because our evening there was vile, disastrous, and completely unplanned.
So after four and a half years of loathing La Paz, Mexico, I am finally going to give it another shot. To say that things didn’t go well the last time I was in La Paz would be a pretty big understatement. In fact, of the three worst nights I’ve ever spent while traveling, La Paz is responsible for one of the three (the other two, if you must know, were being homeless in Melbourne and violently ill in Borneo).
In 2008 while driving the length of the Baja Peninsula our haggard troupe of surfers intended to spend the night camping at Punta Conejo, a surf outpost on the Pacific coastline of Baja Sur. Having gotten a late start from the campsite at Bahia Concepcion, sunset came and went and we still hadn’t even reached the turnoff. On the list of “Top Ten Things You Shouldn’t Do In Mexico”, driving at night is almost always atop the list, and after another hour of driving it became lamentably apparent we had missed the turn for Punta Conejo. The only option was to soldier on through the darkness to the booming capital of La Paz.
No one in our group had ever been to La Paz, and by this point in the evening we had all been drinking quite heavily (except the driver, of course). Like many global urban centers La Paz has its nice areas and its not so nice areas. As it would just happen to turn out, we finally rolled in about 11 p.m. into what was decidedly a “not so nice area”, but knowing we would have to find a hotel and judging from the fact we were (are) poor surferfolk, the best hotel was going to be the one which was cheapest.
In the outskirts of many international urban centers, however, cheap hotels don’t exactly just spring up. Oftentimes the hotels don’t even have a sign announcing their services…you somehow just have to know that they’re there. Navigating the streets in a chaotic haze of car horns and stray dogs we finally settled upon asking a prostitute directions to the nearest hotel. Making it markedly clear we were just looking for a place to sleep—and nothing more—she eventually directed us to an off-pink, two-story building on a street corner which apparently had rooms for rent.
“Perfect”, we said. “If this barren concrete slab with a dangling lightbulb and one toilet must be our shelter for the next 7 hours, so be it. We’ll take it”. Cramming six fully grown men into a room the size of a prison cell, we all knew we weren’t seeing the best that La Paz had to offer.
Nevertheless, with accommodations sorted there was still the task of eating a quick dinner. There aren’t very many places to grab a bite between Ciudad Constituciones and La Paz, and despite the fact it was approaching midnight none of us had properly dined. Not wanting to foray too far on foot in this unknown part of town, we settled on a taco stand across the street that for some reason was still open at midnight. Beneath the glow of a fluorescent bulb an aging man with a big white mustache slung meat he claimed was chorizo.
Whether or not it was actually chorizo none of us seemed to care, seeing as we were exhausted, intoxicated, and essentially lost in a bad part of a city we never intended on visiting in the first place. The chorizo meat tacos went down with a quickness, only to have five out of the six group members spend the rest of the evening wretching them back up, our single toilet occasionally seeing two to three visitors at a time. The sink wasn’t immune from the digestive violence, nor was the shower, the mattress, or the legs of whoever was sleeping on the floor. If ever there were an evening of group bodily failure, it was in that questionable hotel room on the outskirts of La Paz.
So as I sit in the Alaska Airlines departure lounge in the terminal of LAX, I hold high hopes for re-visiting La Paz and seeing the city correctly. Considering that my previous visit to the vibrant capital was the equivalent of visiting New York City and doing nothing but sleeping in a sewer, I’m excited for La Paz to redeem itself so I can go back to loving every inch of this sun-bleached peninsula.