Want to Experience the Real Baja? You Can Skip Cabo…

Baja sea kayaking, Espiritu Santo

“You’ll love Cabo,” various friends kept telling us. “You have to go.”

Admittedly, I wanted to go.

So with visions of a Baja, Mexico vacation dancing in my head for years, and the stresses of daily life with two wild boys taking its toll, my husband and I finally planned a trip.

We’re not ones to spend an entire vacation lounging on the beach though, so we arranged to spend half the week on a Baja kayaking trip to Espíritu Santo Island in the Sea of Cortez, and several more days lounging at an all-inclusive resort in Cabo San Lucas.

Here’s the thing. These two Baja experiences are such polar opposites that they should never be combined. That’s the first lesson. Here’s the second: If you want an authentic Baja adventure away from the hordes of tourists, you can skip Cabo and escape to Mexico’s Galápagos instead. Let me explain…

Baja kayaking, Espiritu Santo

Kayaking around Espíritu Santo vs. Kayaking around Cabo

From La Paz, Mexico, a short boat ride gets you to Espíritu Santo. Located in the Gulf of California Biosphere Reserve—or “Mexico’s Galapagos”—and protected as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, Espíritu Santo is known for its incredible marine and birdlife, striking dessert beauty and rugged cliffs that are contrasted by stunning turquoise waters.

Most people take a 1-day boat tour around Espíritu Santo, but the true magic of the island is revealed when you slow down and camp a few nights on a guided sea kayaking trip or on your own if you have adequate sea kayaking experience. As you paddle into secluded bays and watch the sun rise and set with nobody else in sight, you’ll feel like you’re on your very own private beach in paradise.

Back in Cabo, a sea kayaking trip to El Arco, the iconic arch that dominates the landscape, feels a bit more like a game of Frogger as you try to dodge water taxis, jet skis and party boats. When you get there you can find a small plot of sand on Lover’s Beach to throw down a towel, but since you have to share it with everyone else, it’s not worth it.

Baja kayaking, Espiritu Santo

The sound of exotic birdlife vs. Thumping club music

To say Espíritu Santo is a peaceful place would be an understatement. The soundtrack out there is nothing but crashing waves on shore, the subtle splash of your paddle hitting the water, and the cooing of birds. The island is home to an impressive array of birdlife and you’ll likely see everything from ospreys and great blue herons to blue footed boobies and magnificent frigate birds. So don’t forget your binoculars. Meanwhile, in Cabo, the poolside club music starts early and doesn’t stop. If rest and relaxation is high on your priority list, make sure you know what you’re signing up for.

Authentic Mexican cuisine vs. Run-of-the-mill resort food

In La Paz, the launch point for many Baja sea kayaking adventures, you’ll find real deal taquerias where they bring you platters of toppings—everything from pickled peppers and slow-roasted meats to three different kinds of salsas and fresh guacamole. Later, at your basecamp on Espíritu Santo, be prepared to be wowed by a trip chef who can conjure up authentic Mexican dishes on the beach like fish Veracruz made with fresh mahi mahi and served with handmade tortillas.

In Cabo, all-inclusive sounds like a good idea until you realize you’ll only be eating from the same three establishments for the duration of your trip. Get ready to ask yourself, “Should I have the nachos this time or the quesadilla again.”

Experience the Real Baja | Swimming with sea lions at Los Isolotes

Swimming with sea lions vs. Swimming with spring breakers

Just beyond the northern tip of Espíritu Santo and neighboring Partida Island you’ll find Los Isolotes, a sea lion rookery that’s home to an estimated 300 sea lions. If you’ve never swam with a sea lion before, it will make you feel like a kid again. You’ll be laughing underwater as you somersault and dive with these playful creatures. That’s not the only thing that makes swimming here so spectacular. The snorkeling around Espíritu Santo is some of the best. Scientists and researchers actually come to study the diverse fish and plant species found here. So you can pretty much guarantee that swimming with sea lions and snorkeling around this protected archipelago is going to be better than swimming alongside a rowdy bunch of spring breakers that clearly started their breakfast at the hotel’s swim-up bar.

Happy hour on a secluded beach vs. Happy hour being haggled by beach vendors

Speaking of the bar, this is vacation after all, so if you’re one to enjoy a margarita or cerveza, go for it. Just ask yourself if you’d enjoy that drink better if you were quietly relaxing on the beach staring at a picture-perfect ocean scene – like happy hour on Espíritu Santo. Or, would you prefer to be interrupted every two minutes by local beach vendors who will relentlessly try to sell you luchador masks and colorful sarongs, while simultaneously blocking your ocean view. That’s happy hour in Cabo.

Baja sunset, Espiritu Santo Island

Epic sunset views vs. Views of cruise ships

Baja sunsets are spectacular no matter where you are. But when you’re on a beach in the middle of the Sea of Cortez, watching the sky turn brilliant shades of pink, red and orange as the sun sets behind a cliff-lined shore in the distance, it’s pretty special. The alternative in Cabo is watching the sun set behind several massive cruise ships that are parked for the night just off shore. Or worse, trying to have a romantic sunset moment as a giant pirate ship blaring the Village People’s “YMCA” passes by with a mob of partygoers on board.

Hey, it’s not that you can’t have a great vacation in Cabo. Surely you can find solace at an off-the-beaten path resort, go to hidden gem restaurants and find your slice of paradise there. It’s just based on our experience, Cabo can’t hold a candle to sea kayaking around Espíritu Santo.