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177km (110 miles) N of Cabo San Lucas; 196km (122 miles) NW of San José del Cabo; 1,578km (978 miles) SE of Tijuana

La Paz has no picturesque colonial downtown, no sunbathing boardwalk, no magical postcard views. And yet bajacalifornianos up and down the peninsula claim it as their favorite place. Why? La Paz means "peace," and this breezy provincial city has got it in spades. Although it's the capital of the state of Baja California Sur, and home to nearly 200,000 people, it's slow-paced and relaxed. Beautiful deserted beaches just minutes away complement the lively palm-fringed malecón that fronts the town center, and the busy port -- Baja's principal shipping center -- lends the place a decidedly marine air. But most importantly, this easygoing city maintains an "old Baja" atmosphere, a beloved bastion of a tourist-less past.

Despite its name, La Paz has historically been a place of conflict between explorers and indigenous populations. Beginning in 1535, Spanish conquistadors and Jesuit missionaries arrived and exerted their influence on the town's architecture and traditions. Mass pearl harvesting lasted from the time conquistadors saw local Indians wearing pearl ornaments through the late 1930s. All the pearls eventually were wiped out. John Steinbeck immortalized a local legend in his novella The Pearl.

The slow-paced charms of this city are matched by vast opportunities for outdoor adventure close by. Adventurous travelers enjoy hiking, rock climbing, Baja's best scuba diving, "big one" sportfishing, and sea kayaking excursions from several hours to several weeks. The uninhabited island of Espíritu Santo and Los Islotes islets, just offshore, were once hiding places for looting pirates but now draw kayakers, snorkelers, and beachcombers. You can swim with sea lions during the day, then camp overnight, posh safari-style, at Baja Camp (www.bajacamp.com).

The University of Southern Baja California adds a unique cultural presence that includes museums and a theater and arts center; there are also galleries and a natural foods street market downtown twice a week. Recent years have seen a flowering of restaurant culture, too, and the new generation of interesting eats is another great reason to make this a base. From accommodations to taxis, La Paz is also one of Mexico's most outstanding beach vacation values and a great place for family travelers.