You know when you get a short glimpse of a “new-to-you place,” fall in love, and instantly start working on how to get back for a longer stay before you’re even on your flight home? That was me last December during a quick three-day trip to Cabo San Lucas, my first time, when the magic of the Sea of Cortez hit me like everything I’d been missing during the pandemic.
I’m a scuba diver and Jacques Cousteau wasn’t exaggerating when he called this place the world’s aquarium. I’d been blown away when I swapped my face mask for a scuba mask to dive with silvery bait balls of fish and frolicking sea lions just a 10-minute boat ride from the city marina, near the famous El Arco formation.
What else must there be to see in this part of Mexico—a rare part of the world that’s actually easy for Americans (and many other nationalities) to travel to in pandemic times—I wondered?
I vowed to come back to see more of Baja California Sur as soon as I could.
New crushes don’t always come at ideal times, of course. And this travel crush’s timing wasn’t good, I’ll admit, with the pandemic still raging across continents.
But when I told a longtime friend of mine—the German adventurer and travel writer Astrid Därr (you can follow her on Instagram here), who was struggling with the isolation of another round of strict lockdowns at home in Bavaria with her 1-year-old son—how surprised I’d been by Cabo, we hatched a plan to travel to Mexico with our young children (including my 3- and 4-year-olds) for an extended stay.
Like most of our friends and family, we’d spent the bulk of 2020 sheltering at home. But sudden tragedies in our extended circles (totally unrelated to COVID-19) had recently brought life’s fleetingness into further focus—and with it, a realization that these days weren’t ones we’d ever be getting back with our kids.
Soon enough, they’d be school-aged, and even taking them out of class for a week or two outside of the school holiday periods to travel would require all sorts of bureaucracy and finagling.
The time might not have been ideal, we thought, but the time was now.
It was early February when we decided to fly to Mexico, before vaccinations in my age group (40+) were widely rolling out as they now are across the U.S.
We felt the crush of travel shaming that was peaking back then, too, and worried about what people would say when we took off to Mexico for an extended stay during the pandemic—I recall reading one Tweet that several of my friends had liked that read: Stop. Going. To. Mexico. You. Monsters. I didn’t want to be a monster. And social media-shaming aside, we second-guessed our decisions, too, to travel with young children during a pandemic.
What if they got sick while we were away from home? What if we got sick? I found comfort in signing up for a Medjet membership. For an annual $578, the Medjet Horizon membership would cover me, my husband (who had stayed back home in Tampa to renovate our kitchen), and our two kids while traveling in Mexico and most other countries for a year (as well as in the lower 48 back home, as long as we were more than 150 miles from our primary residence). Should we become hospitalized for any reason (including for COVID-19) during our time in Mexico, I could rest assured Medjet would transport us to our hospital of choice in Florida. It gave me a sense of relief, too, that we wouldn’t be a potential burden on Mexico’s healthcare system. Shelling out the money for it was a no-brainer.
I decided to book our flights using American Airlines miles since I could cancel the departure or return (or both) at any time and get my miles and taxes re-credited. This flexibility with flights is something I’ll really miss once things get back to normal if the airlines decide to go back to their former flight change fee-gouging ways. I loved knowing I could cancel with no penalty right up to departure time, should we get the virus or have another reason to cancel our trip.
After talking to friends who live in Cabo San Lucas and La Paz, a city two hours north of the tourist Mecca, we decided we’d base in the latter. La Paz, the seafront capital of Baja California Sur, fronts the sparkling Sea of Cortez. People told us it was more of a real Mexican town than a tourist hotbed. Plus, it was whale shark season in La Paz (they congregate just offshore from October to May), and we’d heard the scuba diving was excellent. We were sold.
Astrid and I had been scouring vacation rentals in La Paz for a few weeks prior to our departure on Airbnb, VRBO, and local rental sites, hoping to land a safe, comfortable place to stay for the five of us. But we’d been reluctant to pull the trigger on booking a place, since many had surprisingly strict cancellation rules, even during the pandemic. We decided we’d wing it, stay in a hotel and find a rental in person after arriving.
Mexico doesn’t require proof of negative COVID-19 tests to enter the country, but I booked PCR tests for me and the kids three days before our departure from Florida (mine at the drive-through at CVS and my kids’ at their pediatrician’s clinic). I wanted to do as much as I could to have confidence boarding the plane and arriving in Mexico that I wasn’t transporting the virus with me.
Of course, I know we could have gotten COVID-19 after the test day or even on our flight or in the airport—we all know that by now—but there’s really only so much we can do, short of not traveling at all.
And by then, Astrid and I decided we were going to Mexico unless we tested positive for the virus before leaving. When her test came back negative from Munich and I got ours back (negative) in Florida, we knew it was happening for real.
It had been over a year since I’d been with my kids on an airplane when we boarded from Tampa to Los Cabos (via Dallas) on February 5. But muscle memory translates to traveling—and traveling with kids, too—I can report.
The first thing I did when we landed was pick up our Kia Sedona minivan, which I rented from Enterprise at the airport in Los Cabos for around $800 a month. It’s hardly cheap, but having a car is essential to enjoying all there is to do in Baja California Sur in an independent way. Also, in pandemic times and in an effort to avoid public and shared transportation, it was another layer of protection we could add to our travels by ensuring we were moving as much as possible within our own bubble.
I clicked our WAYB Pico travel car seats (best travel car seats, if you’re forced to travel with car seats—they pack down so small) into the minivan and my kids clearly felt right at home, zonking out as I drove north to La Paz.
You can fly directly into La Paz on American Airlines from Dallas and Phoenix thanks to new seasonal routes on American Airlines (Astrid flew there from Frankfurt via Mexico City on AeroMexico), but I found the best deals for my dates into Los Cabos. It’s an easy drive about two hours north from there to La Paz along a perfectly paved highway lined with cacti (just don’t drive at night, as the locals will warn you, due to potential livestock on the road).
I booked our first night at Hotel Pekin, a central hotel with a restaurant on the ground floor that had been recommended by a friend as a cheap and cheerful option. I’d wondered what the $35 per night rate I snagged on Booking.com (garage parking included!) would get us and was surprised that it was a large, clean, bright room right across the street from the Malecon, La Paz’s main seafront promenade, which was lined with cafes and bars (most of which were open, with socially-distanced tables busy with patrons lining the streets).
During our first dinner in La Paz, over a plate of spicy aguachiles (raw butterflied shrimp marinated in lime juice, red onion, and peppers) and margaritas, Astrid and I decided a month would not be long enough in La Paz. We decided to extend our stay to two months right then and there, thanking those flexible airline policies for making it easy.
The next day was dedicated to apartment hunting. And after looking at a few places we’d almost booked from home on Airbnb with sketchy balconies or tons of road noise, we were glad we’d decided to wait until arriving in La Paz to visit apartments in-person and find the right place to stay with the kids.
After seeing a real estate sign for Sunshine Realty Mexico while driving around and dialing the number on it, we plonked down the deposit on the first (and only available) place they showed us—a fourth-floor apartment on a hillside, five minutes from the Malecon and overlooking all of La Paz. Outfitted with a modern kitchen, two bedrooms and bathrooms, and a washer and dryer—with secure parking and an onsite swimming pool, too—it cost around $1,600 per month. We moved in that night, immediately padlocking the balcony since the railing was still a little low for our comfort with the kids. We surely could have found cheaper places in town if we spent more time looking, but Astrid and I were ready to settle in, get the kids comfortable, and start enjoying.
A friend of a friend in La Paz gave me a lead on a local babysitter, and that’s how we found Renata, a university student who’d worked as an au pair for a stint in Northern California. At our initial meeting, in a coffee shop, she let us know she was minimizing her socializing with others during the pandemic as her grandmother lived with the family and they were all doing their best to keep her safe. Hiring anyone to watch your kids is a leap of faith at home or abroad—and Renata was taking a leap of faith with us, too—but we all felt comfortable with the situation and each other, and she ended up being the best baby sitter we could want for our three kids.
Soon enough, Astrid and I got into a routine with our entourage—so much so that my son eventually asked me, one night at dinner on the Malecon when I was holding Astrid’s son, “Mommy, is this our family now?” And for that time in Mexico, it was.
Renata would come stay with the kids for a few days each week during the daytime before her virtual classes started, so Astrid and I could head out scuba diving with sea lions or snorkeling with the whale sharks with operators like RED Travel Mexico and The Cortez Club that were back running tours again, after being closed for months in 2020. Both companies had all the protocols in effect, with sanitized dive and snorkel gear and mask-wearing and temperature-taking. In fact, everywhere we went in La Paz—whether into a grocery store or a restaurant or the optician—came with a temperature check and a hearty squirt of hand sanitizer before you entered the door to get down to business. There were far more protocols in place there than most places I’d been back home in Florida, in fact.
We made a few trips down to Cabo San Lucas to stay at oceanfront properties like Grand Solmar at Rancho San Lucas and Pueblo Bonito Sunset Beach Golf & Spa Resort, which were operating at limited capacity and never felt crowded—and where we took advantage of the free COVID-19 tests on offer for guests returning to the U.S. just to make sure we were all still virus-free (we were). But most of the time, we just hung out around La Paz, walking along the Malecon with the locals or making the short drive to hike near Balandra Bay or relax at Tecolote Beach for sunset. We went scuba diving and whale watching with Dive Ninja Expeditions and saw a baby humpback learning how to breach, following behind its mother like a stone that couldn’t stop itself from skipping across the surface if it tried.
Toward the end of our time in La Paz, we spent two unforgettable nights glamping at Camp Cecil on Espiritu Santo Island. Distant from WiFi and world news of mounting COVID infections, we passed the days kayaking with the kids, snorkeling with sea lions on Los Islotes, and, come nightfall, stargazing under the Milky Way’s canopy on our backs in the sand.
One warm afternoon, my 3-year-old hurled herself into the cool Sea of Cortez and braved snorkeling, squealing into the tube as she saw “real-life” reef fish for the first time right there in the world’s aquarium.
I owe it all to Mexico and the freedom to travel there safely during the pandemic for the gift of two months we’ll never get back—and never, ever forget.