Although it is across the peninsula on the Sea of Cortez, La Paz has the only major international airport in the area and thus has become a center of Baja's winter whale-watching excursions. Most tours originating in La Paz go to Bahía Magdalena, where the whales give birth in calm waters. Twelve-hour tours from La Paz start at around $115 per person, including breakfast, lunch, transportation, and an English-speaking guide. Baja Expeditions offers the widest variety of tours, including family-focused overnights at Magdalena ($480 per person for 2 nights), overnights at San Ignacio lagoon ($420 per person for 2 nights), and a charter flight tour from San Diego ($2,395 per person for 4 nights all-inclusive). Fun Baja travels to Magdalena, as does DeSea Adventures.
You can go whale-watching without joining a tour by taking a bus from La Paz to Puerto López Mateos or Puerto San Carlos at Bahía Magdalena (a 3-hr. ride) and hiring a boat there for about $30. It's a long trip to do in a day, but there are a few modest hotels in San Carlos. Check at the La Paz tourist office for information.
Snorkeling with Sea Lions
Prime among the many treasures of Baja are the colonies of sea lions that live in the Sea of Cortez. These playful, curious sea creatures prove a powerful lure for many travelers to this area. One of the largest colonies is found at Los Islotes, a cluster of tiny rock islands north of La Paz, where a colony or "rookery" of some 250 California brown sea lions lives year-round.
Many tour operators in La Paz offer trips to Los Islotes, generally in pangas -- the trip, by boat, takes about 2 1/2 hours from La Paz. Here, the sea lions lay in the sun along the jagged rock shelves, bark out greetings to visitors, and occasionally belly-flop into the water.
Trip participants don wet suits or skins, life jackets, and snorkels to join the sea lions, which will sometimes instigate play by mimicking your movements in the water.
California sea lions are considered to be the smartest of the pinnipeds, the class of mammals with flippers. However, they're also kind of like seafaring guard dogs. While they are adorable, don't let their big brown eyes fool you: They are wild animals and should be treated as such. No feeding, no touching, and don't get too close to their rocky home. The chocolate-brown "bulls" can weigh up to 455 kilograms (1,000 lb.) and can occasionally become aggressive, so keeping your distance from the males and the females and pups they're protecting is a good idea. For example, if a sea lion blows bubbles in your face, consider it a warning that you're too close.
Among the operators offering sea lion snorkeling trips is Cortez Club, at the La Concha Beach Resort (tel. 612/121-6120; www.cortezclub.com). The full-day excursion departs at 8:30am and costs $83 per person, which includes wet suit, snorkel gear, and a box lunch, which you'll eat on the beach at Isla Partida. Dive trips are also available, with depths at Los Islotes averaging 7 1/2 to 15m (25-49 ft.).
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.