Astoria Cruise: Visiting La Paz, the city of peace

Thanks to my high school English teacher Miss Frances Cappel, I knew the significance of the pearl sculpture on the beautiful malecon in La Paz, Mexico.

Pearl sculpture in La Paz honors the book by writer John Steinbeck, credit Jackie Sheckler Finch

I also knew a bit of the history of this Baja California Sur capital whose name means “The Peace.”

For my first shore excursion stop on my Astoria cruise, I was looking forward to actually stepping foot in La Paz. My high school years are some decades in the past but I still remember Miss Cappel talking about how Pulitzer Prize winner writer John Steinbeck had visited La Paz and heard a Mexican folk tale about human greed. That prompted him to write “The Pearl.”

Seems appropriate that Steinbeck was writing his classic novel in the 1940s when the Astoria was being built as the Stockholm. “The Pearl” was published in 1947. The Stockholm was officially launched in 1948.

Tour guide Emmanuel shares the story of the Creation as told by his ancestors, credit Jackie Sheckler Finch

Our La Paz guide Emmanuel welcomed us to “the place where desert meets ocean.” It certainly does. From the white sands on the beach, we could see the clear blue-green water of the Sea of Cortez in front of us and the tall prickly arms of cactus behind us.

“Spanish explorer Hernan Cortes (or Cortez) discovered the area that is now La Paz in 1535,” Emmanuel said, adding that the Sea of Cortez was named in the explorer’s honor.

La Paz was once rich in pearls, Emmanuel added. When Cortes returned to Spain in the 1530s, he told tales of indigenous tribes wearing pearls as though they were abundant trinkets from the sea.

Unfortunately or fortunately, the native folks did not welcome intruders and were quick to attack these foreigners. It wasn’t until years later that Spanish colonists were able to make peace with the locals, naming the area Bahia de La Paz or Bay of Peace. However, it wasn’t until 1811 that a permanent settlement was successfully established.

                                         Abundant pearls a thing of the past

Although pearl diving was restricted during the Jesuit mission period, the 19th century brought a rush to cultivate pearls. As a result, the once abundant oyster beds became heavily depleted. In the 1930s, a disease attacked the few remaining oyster beds. By the time Steinbeck arrived in 1940 in La Paz, the once glorious pearls were a thing of the past.

But La Paz is rich in history, culture and beauty. At the local Regional Museum of Anthropology and History, Emmanuel stepped away for a few minutes to find his “travel assistant” and returned as a shaman dressed in red and black with a cloth hood covering his face. In this role, Emmanuel recounted the story of the Creation and the important beliefs of his ancestors.

Life and death have always been closely intertwined, Emmanuel said, and both are to be celebrated. “When a baby is born, one thing is sure,” he said. “That baby will die. No matter how long we may live, we all will die. It is part of life and it is never goodbye.”

That helps explain the Dia de Muertos (Day of the Dead) Mexican holiday celebrated throughout Mexico when family and friends gather to celebrate and remember those who have died. “It is not a day of sadness but a day of celebration because our loved ones are still with us,” Emmanuel said.

Emmanuel also talked about the importance of many different people living together in peace and harmony. “Why make another people to think like us?’ he asked. “We should appreciate another people and their beliefs. We are all brothers, just one huge family.”

Our time in La Paz passed far too quickly. We did so much but I’m sure there was so much more to do. We ate fresh seafood at outdoor tables at Bismark restaurant along the seaside malecon, a paved pathway that runs along the edge of the sea for three miles.

Considered one of the most beautiful boardwalks in Mexico, the malecon (Spanish for pier) had more than $10 million invested in remodeling this important centerpiece in 2017. Along the malecon, sculptures of mermaids, mantas, hammerhead sharks and the gigantic mirrored pearl remind us that the sea is the heart and soul of this place.

                                   Cruising ‘The World’s Aquarium’

Boat ride on Sea of Cortez, credit Jackie Sheckler Finch

We took a boat ride on the Sea of Cortez to see the wondrous world that Jacques Cousteau called “The World’s Aquarium.”  The Sea of Cortez has an almost legendary status among divers and marine naturalists. Some 900 fish species and 32 types of marine mammals gather to feed and breed here.

Every year from December to April, the Sea of Cortez is filled with migrating whales. The giant marine mammals travel more than 20,000 miles from the Bering Sea to reach the warm calm waters of La Paz to mate and give birth.

We didn’t see any whales but our boat did circle a small island where sea lions napped in the sun, seemingly oblivious to us.

Sea lion basks on sunny rock, credit Jackie Sheckler Finch

Although it was almost time to be back on the Astoria, Emmanuel wanted to show us one last place of beauty. While only 20 minutes outside the heart of La Paz, Belandra Bay seems a world away.

Known as the “Laguna de la Colores” for its six different colors of blue and turquoise, Belandra’s waters are shallow, warm and calm. Our bus back to the ship had to leave or some of us would have wanted to wade into the bay as far as we could go.

The sun was going down as we climbed into the bus and headed back to the ship. With the dark curtain of night drawing around us, Emmanuel played a song written and recorded by a friend. Although I couldn’t understand a word, the melodic tune seemed a perfect ending for this perfect day.

“May you always have peace in your life,” Emmanuel said as we exited.

La Paz lives up to its name-the Peace, credit Jackie Sheckler Finch

Wise words to remember from a most memorable day.

Cover photo: La Paz / Belandra Bay is so shallow and clear that it seems as though waders can walk into the sunset, credit Jackie Sheckler Finch

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