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West East: Viva La Paz

August 14, 2011

We were about a mile offshore when an enormous shark surfaced beside the boat. Its dorsal fin sliced through the waves as it raced towards us. “Now! Go!” the captain screamed at me.

Without a second to think, I grabbed my mask and flippers and dived overboard. The sea was so hazy I could barely see two metres in front of my face. Such restricted visibility did not ease my sense of vulnerability. The eerie underwater silence was deafening. Then, out of nowhere, it emerged right in front of me.

The shark brushed past me nonchalantly, its polka dot tailfin swishing hypnotically from side to side. Captivated, I trailed the beast for a short distance before it disappeared back into the murky depths. Adrenalin pumping, I clambered back onboard.

Shark attacks are rare in Mexico, but it is widely known as a dangerous country these days. Over 35,000 people have been killed since President Felipe Calderón declared war on the drug cartels in December 2006. The Mexican army tasked with restoring order has been frequently accused of human rights violations. Meanwhile, the violent feuds between rival cartels are exacerbated by endemic police corruption. In spite of this chaos, business continues as normal: each year billions of dollars of cocaine and marijuana are smuggled north of the border, while weapons manufactured in America flow steadily the other way. It is a vicious but lucrative cycle of death.

But this did not dissuade me from visiting this vibrant and diverse country. Basing myself in the town of La Paz, on the Baja California peninsula, I took a boat trip to visit the stunning Isla Espiritu Santo. This place is truly incredible. Imagine a typical desert island as projected by Salvador Dali’s inner consciousness and you’re half-way there. Its surrealist, cactus strewn landscapes rise out of implausibly blue waters which host an abundance of marine life.

During the winter months you can watch various whale species beginning their annual northern migration. I arrived just too late to catch this spectacle, but I was far from disappointed by the other sea-dwellers I encountered.

Espiritu Santo is a place where visitors can experience true harmony and interact with nature. Entire schools of dolphins raced alongside our boat, gleefully playing up to their reputation as the jokers of the ocean. Later, inquisitive sea lions peered up through the glass hull, eager to catch a glimpse of their strange, two-legged guests.

As I discovered, these waters are also home to the world’s biggest fish: the whale shark. Snorkelling with them is a popular attraction around here. It defies all instincts of self-preservation to swim after such a monster, but, despite their intimidating size, these harmless giants eat nothing but plankton. Like many resorts in Mexico, they suffer from guilt by association. The whale shark is no more a Great White killer than La Paz is a drug-infested warzone.

The town’s name says it all: La Paz. Peace. The violence that has ravaged places like Ciudad Juárez has not reached La Paz. One of the safest cities in Mexico, it remains a fortress of calm, isolated from the mainland by the Sea of Cortés.

There could not be a greater contrast between this tranquil resort and Mexico’s current public image. While the newspapers print graphic images of decapitated corpses, the only disturbances I witnessed here were the jubilant celebrations after a football clásico.

The local cuisine is as good as you’ll find anywhere on the peninsula. Street stalls sell crispy shrimp tacos, while the seafront bars offer king-size Margaritas and cheap cerveza – all served in front of the most sublime sunsets. This makes for a great combination.

For some reason my hostel, the inexpensive but homely Pension California, was practically deserted. This was particularly unusual for the Spring Break period, when Americans normally flock upon the southern peninsula.

“We’ve not had as many visitors recently,” explained the young hostess. “People are put off by the negative headlines about the narcoviolencia.” This drug violence has had a profound impact upon the tourist industry. No matter that many areas of Mexico remain entirely safe; the media’s blood fetish has clouded the world’s perception of the entire country.

Leaving La Paz, I drove north up the Peninsula. Almost 1000 miles of desert lay between me and the US border. On my way to the Tijuana/San Diego crossing I passed through countless military checkpoints. Each time the soldiers would ask me to step aside while they searched the car for illegal narcotics. As an Englishman I was something of a novelty to the armed guards. Once we even exchanged a bit of banter over English football, but this barely masked the serious nature of their work.

As we spoke the barrel of an assault rifle glinted in the harsh sunlight and reality hit home. I felt stupid for ever being scared of a big harmless fish; these people have to deal with the real dangers. Human addiction, greed and corruption have caused untold damage to this country. Never mind the sharks, the only killer here is mankind. The US and Mexican authorities must find a new approach to this war, so that the entire country can enjoy the same natural harmony as La Paz.

This story appears in Issue 34 of West East magazine (June 2011) accompanied by a selection of my original photos. The theme for the issue was “Harmony”, hence the choice of La Paz. You can read the magazine in pdf form here.

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