Downtown Ice Cream

Cabo San Lucas has drawn most of the tourists to the tip of Baja, leaving La Paz quiet. (Nik Wheeler)

Under the beachside palapa of La Posada de Engelbert, a bougainvillea-covered inn owned by crooner Engelbert Humperdinck, the leathery bartender shrugged when asked about modern La Paz.

"La Paz used to be the place to go, and Cabo San Lucas was nothing," said Mario Carrasco, who has been mixing drinks and entertaining La Paz visitors with his baritone voice for 27 years.

Before La Posada, Carrasco sang the old songs and served margaritas at the Grand Baja, a hundred yards down the beach. Once a center for the yachting community, it is now a burned-out shell, its twin 11-story terra-cotta towers covered with graffiti, windows broken, the roof collapsed on the once vibrant nightclub Caracol Coco.

"In Cabo they build a new hotel every week. Here, nothing," Carrasco said.

The prosperity of Cabo San Lucas is only the latest twist in the saga of La Paz, for centuries the center of commerce and culture in the relatively untamed desert regions of southern Baja California. The city's history is laced with dramatic turns of fate and fortune, flirtations with glamour and wealth, all revolving around its role as guardian of a huge bay, a legendary oasis guarding the south entrance to the Gulf of California (known in Mexico as the Sea of Cortez).

English and Dutch pirates once patrolled the entrance to the bay, hoping to pounce on Spanish galleons laden with treasures from the Orient. Four hundred years later, La Paz was developing into the pearl capital of the world when the oysters disappeared in the 1940s, victims of overharvesting or a mysterious disease, depending on which story you believe.

On a recent trip, I came across the sun-bleached remains of thousands of huge oyster shells strewn across a beach on an uninhabited island off the coast, a vivid reminder of the riches once yielded by the sea.

I've visited La Paz three times in the last three years, each time discovering new evidence of the tides that have shaped the city.

La Posada, where Carrasco tends bar, is a throwback to the days when John Wayne and his cronies flew to La Paz for fishing trips. Cabo may draw hordes of spring breakers, but La Paz is still a place where grizzled sailors swap stories over bowls of fresh fish stew and cheap tequila.

On a Saturday night, the Malecón, the main drag along the bay, is dominated by young couples dressed in their Sunday best, chastely holding hands and enjoying the warm breeze off the bay, a few grabbing a kiss in the shadows of the street lights. There is no Hard Rock Cafe or Planet Hollywood on the Malecón. Nor is there McDonald's or Starbucks. La Paz is a place forgotten by the international franchisers.

Nor is there a golf course, which is one reason some travelers prefer Cabo. There has been a plan for many years to build a course on the north end of La Paz, but there are few signs of progress, even as new golf courses sprout like ivy along the coast in Cabo. The lone sign of new development on the Malecón is the stark glass and metal Hotel Seven Crown, which stands out like a Palm Pilot in a Bogie movie. The main drag is still dominated by the Old World styles of Hotel Los Arcos and Hotel Perla, the oldest in the city, which offers an open-air restaurant perfect for sipping a cervezaand watching the passing world.

A lure for adventurers

More than anything, La Paz is a working city, home to universities and the state government. Ferries run daily between the city and Topolobampo and Mazatlán, making La Paz a primary connection between Baja and the mainland. In another flirtation with riches, La Paz was once a duty-free zone, and the ferries were crowded with the families of wealthy ranchers and businessmen from the mainland. However, as is often the case in La Paz's history, the law changed, and new resorts in Puerto Vallarta and Zihuatanejo lured mainland travelers, once again snatching the dreams of La Paz businessmen.

But the elements that have attracted centuries of explorers and adventurers remain an integral part of the city's life and culture. First and foremost is the Gulf of California, inspiration to John Steinbeck and Jacques Cousteau, a twinkling mirage in the middle of the area's blistering heat, which usually hovers around 90 from March through October.

La Paz is still considered a sportfishing port, rivaling the better-publicized Cabo and the legendary east cape of Baja, just to the south of La Paz. During the prime fishing season from May to September, almost every boat returns with marlin and dorado.

For non-fishermen, the sea is an aquarium filled with exotic life. Several large desert islands, home to crystal-clear coves, provide unique and fertile breeding grounds for marine life. The coves and reefs harbor stories, mysteries and generations of sunken ships.

My wife and I discovered one of La Paz's legendary spots on our first trip. We booked a half-day snorkeling excursion, expecting little more than a pleasant outing.

In a panga, one of the long, narrow fishing boats that are a staple in Baja, we skimmed across the glassy bay toward Isla Espíritu Santo, a 14-mile-long wasteland pocked with secluded coves. As we passed through the bay, we saw splashes in the distance. Moving closer, we realized the splashes were caused by manta rays jumping toward the sky, a mysterious ritual often seen in the area.

After about two hours, we approached a collection of barren rocks jutting out of the water, covered with birds. The sounds of barking drew our attention to the isthmus connecting the two main rocks, where we could see dozens of sea lions squabbling and sunning themselves. The rocks are Los Islotes, home to a seal rookery protected by the government. Donning our snorkeling gear, we hopped into the clear water of the bay, where we were soon joined by a dozen playful seals, clearly accustomed to the daily invasion of tourists. The seals would dive to the bottom and shoot toward the surface, teasing us and our cameras.