Travel to La Paz, Mexico

A whale sculpture and a thatched beach umbrella frame sunset-watchers along the malecon in La Paz, Mexico. (Brian J. Cantwell, Seattle Times, MCT / November 14, 2011)

LA PAZ, Mexico — As traffic stalled along the palm-lined street, we peered from our taxi and spied the cause. A little parade came our way: boys in crimson church robes, young women balancing flower baskets on their heads, and a flatbed truck carrying a raucous band. Crackling fireworks zipped every which way.

A local festival? We asked the cabdriver.

He shrugged. No idea.

Maybe a wedding? Perhaps a girl's 15th birthday — they call it Fiesta de Quinceanera. Who knew? It was just one of many little street celebrations my daughter and I observed in a spring visit here.

That's La Paz, said 30-year-old Chabelo Castillo, a local dive guide. "Any excuse, any excuse, for a party! 'Whose birthday is it today?' Hey, PAR-teee!"

La Paz, a city of 220,000, about a two-hour drive north of Cabo San Lucas, isn't a major tourist center (though it has hopes, having recently launched its first-ever U.S. ad campaign). The state capital of Baja California Sur — the southern half of this desert peninsula — it 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 on college break.

For visitors looking for authentic Mexico, that's a big part of the charm. 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.

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, Wash. — which also made that retirement list.

What La Paz has that Spokane doesn't: world-class diving, saltwater fishing and kayaking, found nearby on the Sea of Cortez.

Just a few miles north of the Tropic of Cancer, La Paz has a pleasant winter climate, enjoyed by many as they stroll the city's sea-wall promenade, or malecon.

"I love just walking or biking the malecon," we heard from George Hastings, a Seattle friend who had journeyed here with his wife, Celeste Bennett, on their sailboat. "The people here are happy!"

That showed in the evenings when the temperature cooled and crowds flocked to the malecon, 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.

Old couples walked past arm in arm. Groups of self-conscious teens shuffled like herd animals. Twenty-somethings zoomed by on skates and bicycles while young marrieds 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-streamered sedan full of giggling young women in fancy dresses blared its horn nonstop. Another Quinceanera? A bachelorette party? Who knew?

We were the only turistas in sight, and it all felt happy.

In 1995, my family had come to La Paz from the Northwest on our sailboat. I noticed a few changes 16 years later:

—City boosters have extended the malecon miles beyond downtown, connecting with a beach park and making for a great bay-front cycling path. (Bike rentals are available downtown.)

—New condos and a golf course have sprouted on El Mogote, a formerly empty peninsula in the bay, and the fancy CostaBaja resort has sprung up on the bay's outer rim with a marina full of superyachts.

—America has made incursions: Applebee's and Burger King along the malecon, a downtown Sears, plus Office Depot and Walmart on the city's edge.

But much is unchanged, and the local character remains strong. I could still find my way around downtown's narrow back streets, to the Mercado Madero, a public market where fresh shrimp mounded high at a seafood stand and steaks dripped at a butcher's counter, just down the aisle from a shop with neon-hued party dresses (apparently in high demand in La Paz).