Travel: Land of happy hours

Richard Holledge checks out the wildlife and people of La Paz, in Mexico's Baja California

Stooping, moustachioed, guitar drooping from one hand, the singer was straight out of central casting - the one who gets shot in some Western bar-room brawl in mid-melancholy lament. At the Camaron Feliz -the Happy Shrimp - he nudges his way into your consciousness and conversation with tentative strums of the guitar. If it's yes to a little trite music, you get the tremulous tenor recital for a few pesos. If no, there's not even a shrug as he shuffles off to the next table.

Yes or no, he is an essential ingredient to a happy hour that stretches from 4pm to 6pm. You order a margarita. You get two. As the afternoon progresses and the sun dips in a blaze of scarlet over the bay of La Paz, in the south of Mexico's Baja California, the waiters get restless as they prepare themselves for the evening trade and save time by serving only one, double margarita - a veritable bucket of crushed ice and alcohol.

Later in the evening our shabby chanteur is at the most pleasing restaurant in the town, Palapa Adriana. Thatched and circular, with waves lapping against the walls, it serves mountains of shellfish and a particularly grumpy-looking red snapper that lies resentfully on the plate, defying you to assault its bony frame.

La Paz is one of those comfortable places you can settle into. Sit in the cheerfully cosmopolitan terrace cafe of La Perla on the sea front, with its half-hearted curio shops, dusty palm trees and moored fishing boats, and you can watch the people pass by, the pelicans swoop and dive. Stay a little further out and lounge by the pool side at La Concha - and enjoy the bonus of a taxi ride to town (pounds 1.75) in a spectacular array of old Chevvies - all fins, crusty chrome and fascias like instrument panels designed for a moon landing.

Better still, take a bus and cab to the beach at Tecalote to sit in the sun drinking Tecate beer with nachos and salsa in a kind of blissed-out inertia.

But you haven't come all this way to sit about. From Tecalote you can take a boat to the sea lion sanctuary off the island of Espritu Santo. It is a gruelling trip, through surprisingly high swell and waves that splash over the side. The sea lions sit on the rocks, swaying their upper bodies in angry unison, bellowing and squabbling. The young bulls posture and fight as if they are starring in a David Attenborough documentary.

Back on dry land, I headed for the cactus-strewn land to the north - and the promise of unlimited beaches and wildlife around the rackety town of Tijuana on the border with the US. Little relieves the monotony of the long, hot journey there, save a few little cafes such as Rositas, on the 132km mark. Here, amid stacks of 7-Up crates, dusty piles of Chiclets and crisps, I sit at a table with blue check cloths, a jar of Nescafe and a bowl of artificial flowers, munching at a burrito filled with something that looks and tastes like corned beef with a piquant salsa. Chickens cluck, budgerigars cheep, and from behind a screen come the deep, satisfied snores of the man of the house.

Back on the bus, we are escorted by sopalitos, white-headed vultures. These keep an eye on our progress, which rewards us with a sudden glimpse of the Sea of Cortes, the promise of sandy beaches and the actuality of a startlingly well-manicured golf course.

Well, we are in RV territory. The Americans have discreetly colonised this area with their huge trailers (Recreational Vehicles) and as you drive into Loreto a caravan of RVs is queuing for petrol, the drivers at the back of the queue keeping in touch with the leaders with walkie- talkies.

Certainly some of the hotels and restaurants are geared to the US trade - not that that detracts from the quality of the sea bass or the charm of the tree-lined little avenues, or spoils the view across the bay to the small, lumpy islands.

The area is probably not much busier than it was in 1697, when the Jesuits made one of their many attempts to colonise the Baja and convert the two main tribes, the Guayacura and the Cochimi. On this successful expedition Bishop Juan Maria Salvetierra led nine Spaniards from the mainland and two natives who landed at Loreto - and stayed. But they probably had little appreciation for the beach along the coast at Huanjatito. Here three or four families hang out in their RVs, watching the setting sun catch the islands in the sea and the scores of pelicans diving for fish, and pretending not to notice the couple skinny-dipping at the far, seductive curve of the bayn

Manana in Mexico: how to achieve it

Getting there The easiest gateway is San Diego, just across the US border from the city of Tijuana. British Airways flies daily via Phoenix, but lower fares may be available from US airlines. Flightbookers (0171- 757 2000) has a fare of pounds 420 including tax, on American Airlines from Gatwick via Dallas, for travel in June. Or find a cheap flight to Los Angeles, around pounds 350 from discount agents; there are direct buses from the airport to Tijuana.

More information Mexican Ministry of Tourism, 60 Trafalgar Square, London WC2N 5DS (0171-734 1058). Note that this office takes a substantial siesta, closing from 1.30-3pm.

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