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La Paz History

Catedral de Nuestra Señora de La Paz, La Paz, Mexico
Credit: Jack Hamilton

The cave paintings found in the municipality of La Paz and other places in Baja California Sur are proof of human habitation here for millennia before the birth of Christ.

The area’s modern history begins with the arrival of Hernán Cortés, who sailed here 14 years after defeating the Aztec Empire in 1535. He named the bay Santa Cruz, but in 1596, Admiral Sebastian Vizcaino renamed it La Paz.
Harsh conditions, hostile natives and pirates made the area hard to colonize. In 1616, Dutch pirates took control, with Spain wrestling it back in 1683. They tried to establish a settlement then, but it failed.

A century later, Jesuit missionaries established the Nuestra Señor del Pilar de La Paz, but abandoned the site 30 days later because of native attacks, the dry conditions and disease. There were sporadic attempts at secular and religious settlements, but a permanent one would not be established until 1811.

In 1829, La Paz was named the capital of the Californias after Loreto was destroyed in a hurricane.

In 1846, American forces occupied the area during the Mexican American War. Then in 1847, it was taken without force by privateer Stockton Shurbreick, then again by William Walker, who declared the Republica de las Estrellas (Republic of the Stars). Walter was run out less than a year later. La Paz remained a sleepy town, known best for pearls for many years.

In the mid-20th century, some U.S. writers, actors, and adventurers discovered the area. In the 1940s, John Steinbeck described the city as “a Hollywood production, the fine, low buildings close down to the water and trees flanking the and a colored bandstand on the water’s edge.”  Clark Gable used to come to fish for marlin.

By the 1960s, it looked like the area might become the next Acapulco. Bing Crosby bought a home in La Paz, as did Desi Arnaz and the singer Engelbert Humperdink. Every year for many years, Jacques Cousteau rented a small house on the bay to watch the whale migrations. However, the boom did not happen.

Some growth did occur with the construction of the Transpeninsular Highway in 1973, and over the following decades, there have been growth spurts in both population and tourism. In 1985, La Paz had a population of 36,000 and today it is nearly 250,000. However, this still pales in comparison to neighboring Los Cabos.

The state of Baja California was established in 1974 with La Paz as its capital. The rapid growth of Los Cabos led to the division of the municipality in 1981, with the southernmost section becoming independent of La Paz.

Eco-tourism is the most important driver of the economy in La Paz. There are about 900 islands and inlets in the Sea of Cortez with 244 now under United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) protection as World Heritage Bio-Reserves. The Isla Espíritu Santo group, which borders the northeast portion of the Bay of La Paz, is the primary tourist destination of the area.

Other Industries that contribute to the local economy include silver, mining, agriculture, fishing and pearls.