With its cosmopolitan vibe and tranquil ambience, La Paz is in many ways a contradiction. Its beachside malecón is lined with posh restaurants and nightclubs, dotted with sculptures such as the celebrated Christ of the Sea, and bustling with throngs of visitors looking out onto the sea. La Paz has a modern energy that somehow does not detract from La Paz’s more welcoming atmosphere. Although it was awhile ago, even John Steinbeck noted that La Paz “had a ‘home’ feeling.” In true form, visiting La Paz is often like returning to a well-beloved place rather than touring an exotic escape.

The main square, Valesco Gardens, is now the heart of the town where many cultural events and town activities are held. The square, or zocalo, is bordered by the Catedral de Nuestra Senora de la Paz, an 1861 Dominican mission built over the ruins of the original Jesuit establishment, as well as the Palacio de Gobierno, which now houses the Biblioteca de Historia Regional de las Californias (Library of Regional History of the Californias).

These buildings serve as chronicles of La Paz’s occasionally bumpy history. Although Hernán Cortés first attempted to establish a European settlement near La Paz, European settlement did not stick in the area until 1811. La Paz continued to be a focus of international interest as it was also once occupied by the United States and enjoyed a brief stint as a self-declared independent republic. Much like La Paz’s earlier colonial attempts, neither of these stuck. Now, however, La Paz is Baja’s capital and a fundamental cultural center.

Though La Paz ultimately remained firmly Mexican, it has continued to enjoy an international element and an expatriate community. In the square, you’re likely to hear a variety of languages despite its being considered the most ‘Mexican’ of Baja’s cities.

Many people do not flock to La Paz for the bricked beachside boardwalk of the malecón but for the beaches. Ten white sand beaches can be found on the shores of La Paz, and La Paz also plays host the coastal rea of Puerto Balandra. This isolated coast has eight beaches held within it, and within Puerto Balandra visitors can find “El Hongo,” or the mushroom rock, which has become a recognized symbol for La Paz.

Off the beaches of La Paz lie several islands considered to be some of the world’s most biologically rich marine areas. Isla Cerralvo has two deep-water channels where coral runs rampant and large schools of fish gather to enjoy the nutrient-rich waters. Isla Partida and Isla Espíritu Santo are joined by an isthmus exposed by low tide, and both islands offer unique ecosystems. While Isla Espíritu Santo has the most intact ecosystem in the region with several endemic animals found nowhere else in the world, Isla Partida beckons an array of whales, rays, and sharks to its waters. With so many remote sanctuaries for wildlife and stunning, uninterrupted panoramas, it comes with little shock that La Paz means “the peace.”