La Paz Turns 483!

Candles on the cake are going to be a problem

Last week, instead of celebrating Cinco de Mayo, La Paz celebrated its 483rd birthday with three days of celebration kicked off with a reenactment of the landing of Hernán Cortés in May 3, 1535. Concerts, fireworks, and even a culinary festival were part of the celebrations. Since the Cortés landing, La Paz has gone through a name change, a pearl rush, and entered statehood. The long history has given the city a distinct flavor and charm with which any Paceño can be proud. Here is a little history on the city known as the Gateway to the Sea of Cortez.

In 1535, Hernán Cortés was actually searching for a rumored island of women warriors and, of course, gold. He found a desolate beach and no gold, but he did find pearls, so he formed a settlement and called it Santa Cruz. (Fun fact: Fortún Ximénez was actually the first to land in La Paz, two years earlier, but he died during that expedition, so apparently that doesn’t cut it.)

Cortés’ settlement did not survive, but the Spanish continued their conquests and Spanish explorers dropped in on La Paz over the years. Capitan Francisco de Ulloa resupplied in the area after he discovered that Baja was not an island but a peninsula, and then in 1596 Sebastián Vizcaíno arrived and gave the settlement a new name: La Paz.

The next century brought several unsuccessful settlements. Harsh conditions, clashes with the natives, the Pericú Guaycura, and a continuous need to fight off pirates led the Spanish Crown to cut back on the money spent for settling the peninsula.

Dutch pirates and the Spanish confronted each other so often in the early 17th century the Spanish referred to the pirates as Pichilingues, mispronouncing the name of a Dutch city, and giving name to the port just north of La Paz.

As the Spanish crown focused on other areas in the Americas, the Jesuits moved in on the peninsula. They established the Misión de Nuestra Señora del Pilar de La Paz Airapí, but it also failed. After continued conflicts, the Great Rebellion of 1734, and abandoned settlements, the Spanish became exasperated and expelled the Jesuits in 1768. It would take another 43 years before a permanent settlement took hold in La Paz—José Espinoza searching for pearls.

If anything kept the Spanish returning to La Paz is was the dark pearls found in the bay. Hues of purple, blue, and green and the large size of the pearls enticed the early explorers. They were used in Europe as a status symbol in Baroque style art, as jewelry, and in Cathedrals. But continued exploitation led to several periods with no oysters and no pearls.

In 1821, Mexico gained independence from Spain and in 1829, a hurricane in Loreto caused the capital of the Baja Territory to move to La Paz. As the capital, the town was able to grow. Fishing, pearling, and mining were the main industries. Then, in 1853 an American adventurer, William Walker, captured La Paz, and declared the town the capital of the New Republic of Lower California, naming himself president and instituting law from the US State of Louisiana. Neither Mexico nor the United States recognized Walker’s republic and he was forced to flee from Mexican forces the next year. With Walker gone, La Paz could focus on economic growth.

The late 19th and early 20th century meant oyster cultivation and a new pearl rush. But by the time the American author John Steinbeck ventured to La Paz on a collecting expedition in 1940, the pearls had all but disappeared. Steinbeck visited La Paz twice on his journey, which he detailed in Sea of Cortez (1941). He says, “We had never seen a town which even looked like La Paz, and yet coming to it was like returning rather than visiting,” (SOC 105) – a relatable sentiment. His trip to La Paz also inspired the novella The Pearl (1947).

 The famed oceanographer, Jacques Cousteau visited the area and proclaimed the Sea of Cortez “the World’s Aquarium”. Today, his statue stands on the Malecón and the Island to the south bears his name. As the population grew, the territory’s status was about to change.

Baja California Sur earned statehood in 1974, one year after the paving of the transpeninsular highway. As a result of the road, tourism increased, and along with fishing and mining, economic prosperity arrived. Today, La Paz is making gains as a world ecotourism destination and enjoys one of the highest standards of living in all of Mexico, and yet still holds onto a small-town charm. Events, big and small, like the Foundation Festivities happen year round with locals coming together, with maybe a few expats as well, to support the city they call home. Happy Birthday, La Paz! So far, it has been a wild ride.