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The Sea of Cortez

A trip to the world's aquarium

A bronze statue of Jacques Cousteau clutches a diving mask and stares out to sea on the malecón, La Paz’s main promenade. It’s an indicator that even on dry land there’s no getting away from the Sea of Cortez – or as Cousteau famously called it, “the world’s aquarium.”

Stretching 700 miles from north to south, the Sea of Cortez (also known, less romantically, as the Gulf of California) is the result of some spectacular tectonic grumblings five million years ago, since when it has separated the Baja Peninsula from mainland Mexico. This narrow but menacingly deep channel holds legendary status among divers and marine naturalists, and La Paz, Baja’s biggest metropolis just two hours by plane from L.A., is the perfect starting point for an otherworldly voyage of discovery.

Home to at least 30 different mammal species (including one third of the world’s different whales and dolphins), well over 500 species of fish and more than 150 types of bird, the Sea of Cortez is one of the most diverse ecosystems on earth – something you’re frequently reminded of in La Paz, a city that wears its seafaring credentials with pride (nowhere more so than in the local restaurants where you can sample everything from grilled yellowtail to octopus).

Your most likely mooring spot in La Paz is the luxurious Marina CostaBaja, where vessels up to 200ft can comfortably lay up while owners and guests disembark for the 15-minute drive to the centre of town; once there they can take in the same dreamy vistas that were an inspiration to John Steinbeck when he wrote The Pearl, which is set in the city. Steinbeck had a soft spot the place: the American author also wrote about his precious time in the area in another book, The Log From The Sea of Cortez, which describes a six-week sea voyage he made with his friend Ed Ricketts, the marine biologist.

Mid-summer temperatures in this stretch of the world can be punishing, though the azure waters offer respite, as do the many local bars where Margaritas – some people claim the drink was invented in Baja – are the ubiquitous local favourite.

The Sea of Cortez is a substantial body of water – its surface area is some 62,000 square miles – but you really don’t need to circumnavigate the whole shoreline to get under its skin. A memorable journey, leaving La Paz and taking in a cluster of rugged islands before enjoying the chic, old-town charm of Loreto, involves a thrilling, 150-mile stretch of Baja California that could comfortably be spread across a week or so.

From La Paz (and, if you’re a golfer, following a round at the Gary Player-designed CostaBaja course, named one of the 10 best in Mexico), a 14-mile cruise to the north takes you to Isla Espiritu Santo, an unabashedly rugged and uninhabited spot that was declared a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve in 1995. Lapped by seas of emerald green, it is popular with hikers, especially those armed with a set of Leica binoculars as snowy egrets, ospreys and great blue herons can all be seen there. More popular still is sea kayaking. The most secluded and breathtaking beaches can be reached in this way, and a good paddling arm will put a number of seriously impressive coves within reach. Drop anchor and leave the luxury of your yacht to camp overnight in one or two of these delightful natural harbours – any children in the party will love it.

A definite highlight is the rowdy welcome you’ll get from a colony of sea lions which reside on some of Isla Espiritu Santo’s neighbouring islets. People like to snorkel with these magnificent whiskered beasts – usually with half an eye open for the tropical fish that abound here, the scintillating Parrotfish among them.

Slightly larger than Isla Espiritu Santo and 25 miles away is Isla Jan José, rugged, cactus-lined and with towering cliffs. It’s another great place to kayak, not least because of a large mangrove estuary on the island’s south side.

The wildlife in this part of the world naturally draws an eco-loving crowd: there’s a chance you’ll see everything from turkey vultures and brown pelicans to blue, grey and humpback whales, hammerhead and whale sharks and giant manta rays. Some of the world’s best game fishing can be found here, too, with yellowfin tuna and the famously feisty marlin (striped, black and blue) in abundance.

Almost a dozen notable islands fringe the coast between La Paz and Loreto, and while there are geographic similarities, each has its own merits. The tiny Isla Danzante, for example, is home to a remarkably rich range of reptiles, though visitors tend to come for the views: it is two miles across beautiful blue waters to the Baja California mainland and the same distance in the opposite direction to the sprawling Isla Carmen. Isla Danzante is the perfect spot from which to watch the sun go down.

Compared to certain other nautical gems, the Sea of Cortez – named in honour of Spanish Conquistador Hernán Cortés by one of his explorers who sailed the length of the Baja California Peninsula in 1539 – is pleasantly sedate. That’s not to say that tourism hasn’t changed this strip of land over the past few decades, but who’s to say that development is always detrimental? At Loreto, for example, locals may tell you that you’re in the oldest permanent settlement on the peninsula – but they’ll also be be able to point you to the acclaimed Villa del Palmar Beach Resort. Built in 2010 and named at the 2015 World Travel Awards as Mexico’s best beach resort, this is where to head if you want to indulge yourself in a 39,000-sq-ft of sumptuous spa heaven.

The Sea of Cortez is one of those places where you amass memories that will last a lifetime. And when Steinbeck mused in 1962 that “Many a trip continues long after movement in time and space have ceased,” there’s a good bet that he was momentarily back in sunny Baja California.