One of the many quiet delights of the CostaBaja resort in La Paz is strolling around its little marina, which we did every night we were there. There were some gorgeous and expensive boats there – in fact, we saw Steve Jobs’s yacht, Venus, anchored offshore. (Expensive Venus definitely is; “gorgeous” is very much up for discussion.) On the far side of the marina was a trio of open-air restaurants: a so-so Italian restaurant, an innovative sushi spot called Odayaka featuring rolls with a Mexican twist (the RRR, with a mango-habanero sauce, is pictured below), and an elegant “international” restaurant called Azul Marino.
We ate at Azul Marino twice, but it was too dark to get a decent picture. My favorite dish was a scallop and shrimp summer roll. The rice noodles inside were bathed in a delicate sauce of peanut and ground pork, and it came with a tangy, spicy “sweet and sour sauce” that deserved a better name. Other highlights were fish grilled in grape leaves and served with a smooth, tahini-heavy baba ghanoush sauce, a perfect spaghetti Bolognese, and a seafood marinara pasta absolutely bursting with fresh fish.
Near the end of our trip we had the pleasure of dining at Steinbeck’s, CostaBaja’s most upscale restaurant. It was a windy evening, so the big glass doors were shut, but the room was lovely nonetheless. The wall we sat next to was taken up by a glass-fronted case full of tequila bottles, which doesn’t sound that great when I type it, but fancy tequila comes in some impressively beautiful bottles.
The food was delicious and well prepared, if somewhat less innovative than I had hoped. We both chose the tasting menu. Our first course was the most interesting – a refreshing salad of watermelon, tomato, and grapefruit, topped with a little sharp cheese and basil. I never would have thought of those things together, but it worked. Next was a simple plate of lovely raw bay scallops with serrano chiles and daikon (which the menu called “Chinese potato”). The serranos were really hot – I achieved the perfect level of heat by dabbing my scallops with them instead of actually eating them.
Next came a black bean soup with tiny fragments of lobster. The soup was served with a kind of pageantry I’ve rarely seen: Two servers placed soup plates in front of us with a flourish. Each plate contained a small pile of lobster, but no soup. In perfect unison, the servers poured the soup from small pitchers over the waiting lobster. The dish was almost worthy of such a presentation – the earthy beans and sweet lobster complemented each other beautifully.
The last savory dish was a ribeye steak, grilled medium-rare, with a red pepper and beer sauce that brought out the smokiness of the meat. Though somewhat fatty, the steak was the best I’ve had in a very long time, and the sauce complemented it well.
Alas, dessert fell flat. The flan that finished the meal was probably the worst I’ve had in a long time – grainy and dry. And it was served with ice cream, which just seemed odd. The thoughtless final course was a sad finish for an otherwise beautiful meal.
And now we come to the piece de resistance of our trip, if not one of its culinary highlights – snorkeling with sea lions! Honestly, this is the reason I chose La Paz for our first tropical paradise experience. I love sea mammals, and my very favorites are otters and sea lions. To actually swim with them is a dream come true.
A colony of 350+ sea lions lives year-round on a tiny rock island called Los Islotes, near the much larger Isla Espiritu Santo. The islands are a 90-minute motorboat ride from La Paz. The ride was loud and choppy, but worth it – and much leavened by the extravagant joy of a five-year-old girl who stood in the prow of the boat with her parents and squealed and laughed delightedly whenever she got splashed (which was often).
Upon arrival at Los Islotes, we donned our wetsuits and jumped in. Neither Arne nor I had ever been snorkeling before, unless you count our experiments in the pool and by the beach at CostaBaja. It was easier than we had feared, and any difficulties with equipment were forgotten as the sea lions swam and played around us. I don’t know if I’d call them friendly, exactly, but they certainly had more curiosity than fear about us. Arne squealed and laughed like a child whenever they approached him. I squeed a lot too, but when I crinkled up my face to do so, water got in around the edges of my mask, so I tried to control myself.
Honestly, I did find the experience a little intimidating. The smaller sea lions were the size of medium to large dogs, and had a tendency to swim with open-mouthed playful expressions that showed a lot of teeth. When one of the giant males swam across my field of vision I froze like a scared bunny. I never forgot that these were wild animals. But magic is the unknown, and the unknown is scary – and this was absolutely magical. I’ll never forget the soft brown eyes of one particular sea lion who swam to within eight inches of me, looking me right in the eye, then spun away into the darkness below.
I don’t know how long we stayed at Los Islotes. Cold as the water was, I could have stayed twice as long. But eventually we had to go. We climbed back into the boat and made the short trip to Esperanza Beach on Espiritu Santo, where we relaxed while our guide prepared lunch for us. It was a surprisingly tasty meal, starting with a simple brothy soup with big chunks of cauliflower, cabbage, and carrot. When we’d finished that we had nicely cooked fish, a simple salad, rice, and tortillas.
After some more playing in the beach – I kayaked while Arne tried to master stand-up paddleboarding – we headed back to La Paz, tired and content. But one more delight awaited us that day. A pod of dolphins approached our boat; they followed us for some time, leaping in breathtaking fashion and surfing in our wake. It was a perfect end to an amazing day.