Vacation means something different to a stay-at-home parent than it does to a working parent. This began to sink in the moment my husband and I arrived in the San Jose del Cabo airport for our first real vacation from parenting. Erik could not stop pointing out families with their children – both locals and other Americans.

“See?” he said. “We totally could have brought the girls.”

“Uh, yeah,” I replied. “Except, that when I said I wanted to get away, I actually meant I wanted to get away. From our children.”

I had purposely planned a week of activities that we never would have undertaken if we had been traveling with our kids, who are 4 and 2. We started with a three-hour bus ride to La Paz, a bay city of 190,000 people that would be home base for our week at the southern end of Mexico’s Baja peninsula. We spent the bus ride dozing and staring out the window at ocean, desert and tiny towns, and chuckling at what a nightmare the ride might have been with kids, especially following as it did a four-hour plane ride.

When we arrived in La Paz after dark, we checked into the Posada Luna Sol and immediately headed out to stroll the malecón – a broad waterfront walkway dotted with benches and sculpture. We were looking for a spot to have a margarita and a bite to eat, and I had to remind Erik that, if the kids were here, they’d be so shredded from the day of travel that they would not have been able to sit quietly in a restaurant.

Taste of Freedom

For a full week, we tasted freedom with a relish we hadn’t felt since our first college days away from our own parents. La Paz is all about beaches and wildlife, but all the good destinations are a bit out of town. With the kids, we would have had to go to the expense of renting a car, but on our own, we reverted to our backpacker days and bussed, walked, cabbed and even rented bikes to pedal to the beach. We took a cab to one isolated beach, Playa Balandra, and then walked a mile along a desert highway to another, more popular strand, Playa Tecolote.

“Try doing this with a stroller,” I said as we hiked, snapping photos of flowering agave cacti.

“Yeah, yeah, yeah.” Erik was getting a little tired of my reminders that I was thrilled to be traveling without our kids.

La Paz Beaches

All the beaches outside La Paz are on a bay off the Sea of Cortez, and each has its own character. Balandra is a peaceful cove, protected from the wind. It has no toilet facilities or restaurant, but is a popular free camping spot. When we arrived by taxi on New Year’s Day (the public bus run was canceled, I’m guessing due to hangover), several Mexican families were emerging from their tents and grilling up breakfast.

Tecolote, the next beach down, is much more exposed to the sea, and the wind can really get going there. It has waves – although not big enough for surfing — and the sand is silky and beautiful.

We had started our morning sunbathing at Balandra, thinking that the water would warm up as the day went on. But by the time we got to Tecolote with its brisk wind, the sun had gone behind clouds, and we realized that it would not be a day for swimming. In fact, I wore a hooded sweater and wrapped my beach towel around myself to keep warm. Still, the view from this beach – mainly the beautiful Espíritu Santo Island a few miles off shore, made the afternoon worthwhile.

Throughout the week, the temperature fluctuated depending on whether there was sunshine or cloud cover. The nicer days were in the 80s and we did enjoy getting in the water once or twice. However, pursuing the main activities available there, snorkeling and kayaking, could be bracing when the temperature dipped.

The 70s sound nice when you’re sitting in Chicago planning a winter getaway. But with no sunshine, I was miserable the day we snorkeled with sea lions off the shore of Los Islotes, a tiny island group near Espiritu Santo. I was freezing despite wearing a wet suit – so I really felt for a group of travelers we met who were headed to do the same outing but without suits. Brrr!

Espiritu Santo

Our short trip to Los Islotes and Espiritu Santo was arranged by the travel company headquartered at our inn, Mar y Aventuras (link: Besides the snorkeling, we briefly went ashore on Espiritu Santo, which is a nature preserve protected from development, to see caves where natives once made their homes, and we kayaked through peaceful mangrove swamps along the island’s shore. The kayak interlude was reminiscent of canoeing in the bayou of Louisiana, except that there are no alligators in this part of Mexico. Instead the inlets were teeming with white herons and low-flying pelicans. From the boat that took us to Espiritu Santo, we saw several bottlenose dolphins crest the surface of the water. From our kayaks, we saw a whole school of small fish jump in perfect formation. Our guide was funny and well-informed, and it was obvious that he enjoyed the trip almost as much as we did.

Mar y Aventuras runs much longer trips to Espiritu Santo – 7- to 10-day camping trips – and if I ever get back to the area, I may just sign up for that. With the kids. When they’re much older.

We dedicated the day before we left La Paz to an outing that would have been truly unthinkable with small children: We rented kayaks and paddled along the coast, starting and landing at peaceful beaches but going around several rocky points where the water got quite choppy. Just before dropping us off, the guide from the travel company that brought us – not Mar y Aventuras – said, “You ARE expert kayakers?”

Gulp. Nobody had said we should be experts when we signed up for the unguided venture. But we did fine, although the trip was more strenuous than we’d imagined and when we arrived at our destination in wet clothes we nearly got hypothermia.

The Lone Gringos

When we weren’t out on the water, we enjoyed the laid-back and authentic atmosphere of a real – and surprisingly cosmopolitan – Mexican city. We were often the only gringos in any restaurant we visited or in sight on the malecon. Despite the relative scarcity of foreign tourists, most service employees spoke enough English to round out our crummy attempts at Spanish, and we rarely had any difficulty getting what we needed or wanted.

Like we always do when we finally break away from the kids, Erik and I found ourselves talking and thinking about them more and more as the week went on. We shopped for them, sent them postcards, and checked with in their grandparents through e-mail. We talked about family trips we’d take south of the border when our brood was older and more self-sufficient.

Even though I missed them, oh how I didn’t miss taking care of them. And cleaning up after them. More than anything, I enjoyed the vacation from my housewifely duties. I loved sitting down at a restaurant as soon as I was hungry, and then walking away without washing a dish. I let Erik cook and clean up after the few meals we ate in the Posada Playasol’s communal kitchen – which was a great place to meet fellow travelers and felt just as convenient as having an in-unit kitchen.

Cheaper than Cabo

La Paz is a destination I’d recommend to any nature lover who’d like to get close and personal with sea life, and for the beach lover too. It’s much “realer” and way cheaper than Los Cabos, the more renowned resort areas a few hours to the south.

There’s only one thing I wouldn’t repeat about this trip – I wouldn’t go back in December, January or February, when the average highs are in the 70s. That’s just not warm enough for a sun worshiper like me. I would rather return in March, when the weather at home in Chicago can still be miserable but the average high in La Paz hits 81. Another benefit of a spring visit: Blue whales frequent the area from February through April.

Freelance writer Carrie Kirby blogs about the long, strange trip that is parenting at My Funny, Funny Family .