'Tranquilo' Loreto

Laid-back town is Baja California's best-kept secret

By: Anne Burke

Honeymoon translates literally into Spanish as luna de miel moon of honey. But in this blissfully laid-back beach town, the sweetest surprise awaiting newlyweds comes not with the darkness but the dawn.

Sunrise on the Sea of Cortez is a delicious treat. The sun creeps over the chocolate-colored Isla del Carmen, a few miles offshore, with a dazzling display of pink and blue and finally a fiery red that awakens the cobalt sea, sleeping desert, and rugged mountains that form Loreto’s dramatic backdrop.

Quickly emerging as one of Mexico’s more popular vacation destinations, Loreto offers plenty of other understated pleasures: an arm-in-arm stroll along the breezy malecon, a fishing line cast off the rocky pier, an afternoon of snorkeling or kayaking in iridescent waters, and a dinner of fresh fish swimming in butter and garlic at a funky, thatched-roof restaurant.

The town of 50,000 is located about 725 miles south of San Diego on the Sea of Cortez side of Baja California, the long finger of mountainous desert stretching from Tijuana to Cabo San Lucas. While many vacationers reach Loreto via the winding Transpeninsular Highway, the town is as close as a 90-minute, nonstop flight from San Diego.

AeroMexico, the country’s largest carrier, added new service from Lindbergh Field late last year. Since then, tourists who largely stayed away after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001 are returning in greater numbers.

Still, Loreto retains the air of a closely guarded secret and that’s just the way visitors like it. There are few spring breakers and hedonistic sun worshippers. The delightful malecon and the tree-shaded, cobblestone path in the historic center are refreshingly quiet tranquilo as the locals say.

Visitors come to Loreto for its nautical adventures and eco-tourism offerings rather than swim-up bars and all-night partying. The region boasts some of the best sports fishing in Mexico. Dorado is in season December to June; sailfish, May to October. Kayakers come here from around the world, bravely paddling the choppy sea. The islands in the coastal archipelago offer crystalline waters and pristine beaches, excellent for snorkeling or lazy afternoons watching playful sea lions.

The richly diverse marine ecosystem off Loreto was perilously overfished until 1996, when the government designated a half-million acres as a national park. Today, tourists who venture offshore for recreational purposes are supposed to buy a low-cost license, but not all outfitters collect the fee.

Though most hotels are happy to make tour arrangements for guests, outfitters are plentiful and easy to find. One of the biggest is Las Parras, located downtown next to the popular gringo breakfast hangout, Café Ole. There are many more tour operators, and even visitors with limited Spanish can strike a deal on their own with one of the boat captains who hang out at the marina.

I hooked up with outfitter Loreto Davis (the given name is a fortuitous coincidence, he told me) after seeing his shingle hanging outside his modest stucco home on one of Loreto’s notoriously rutted streets.

For $20 per person, Davis’s “lancha” driver, Beto, piloted our party of four to Isla Coronado and an unforgettable day of snorkeling and hiking.

Just a half-hour offshore, this island boasts stunning white-sand beaches, shallow, blue-green water, and a thriving sea lion colony. Aside from the compost toilet and a few shady palapas, though, there are no services on Isla del Coronado, so be sure to bring your own lunch. Snorkeling and diving gear can be rented in town or from an outfitter.

Loreto is also a convenient hub for the short trip across the peninsula to the Pacific Coast to watch the whales that migrate from the chilly Arctic waters to mate and calve in Baja’s warm lagoons, usually from January to April. Skiffs venture so close that visitors can reach over to affectionately pat the friendly grey whale or one of her pups, but eco-minded tour operators discourage this practice.

Though Loreto is best known for its water sports, visitors who skip a trip into the desert will miss out on Baja at its most picturesque. The 20-mile drive to the Mision San Javier southwest of Loreto was one of the most delightful surprises of my five-day visit over the Christmas holiday.

With surprising surety, my rented Ford Focus navigated the rocky dirt road that climbs through the Sierra de la Giganta mountain range to the deep valley that is home to the mission, one of the best preserved in Baja.

The road took me past cattle ranches, palm groves and broad sweeps of cactus rising arrow-straight toward a brilliant blue sky. About 2 1/2 hours into the ascent, the road reaches the tiny community of San Javier and the mission, built in 1699 and still in use today.

After a leisurely look at the ornate altar and stained glass, I settled in for a cold Tecate and quesadillas at La Palapa restaurant. Joining me on the ride back to Loreto were two locals a teen-aged girl and an elderly man who hitched a ride in my rental car.

There are an estimated 500 hotel rooms in Loreto and the Napolo area south of town.

We stayed at the moderately priced Hotel Oasis. Located right on the beach, this 40-room hotel was built in the 1960s by Mexicans Bill and Gloria Benziger. The couple lives on the premises today as does daughter Ana Gloria, who manages the property.

For visitors looking for the amenities of a major resort hotel, Loreto’s only choice today is the 120-room Camino Real, which celebrated its grand opening this month. This hotel is located five miles south of town in Napolo. During the oil boom of the 1970s, the Mexican government targeted Napolo for luxury development along the lines of Cabo San Lucas. Most of the development money dried up, leaving Napolo with the distinct feel of a work in progress. Still, the setting is picturesque a protected bay with calm water so shallow you can wade out 100 yards and remain dry from the waist up. Among this hotel’s most popular draws is the adjacent 18-hole golf course. Tennis courts are a short walk away.

Paseo Hidalgo, the main drag, is lined with good restaurants serving fish any way you’d like it garlicy, grilled or breaded as well as familiar Mexican fare like the fajitas, carne asada, and the popular combination plate often an enchilada, taco and chile relleno. But my favorite meal in Loreto was at El Taste (pronounce it “toss-tay” or no one will know what you’re talking about), where I enjoyed a fish filet smothered in chef Audelia Trujillo’s delicious mole sauce.

No trip to Loreto is complete without a stop by McLulu’s taco stand on Paseo Hidalgo. Look for the “Muchos Tacos Sold Here” sign under the bright-red arches. Loreto is a good spot for a history lesson on the Californias, richly detailed in the Museo de las Misiones, located next door to La Mision de Nuestra Senora de Loreto and well worth a visit.

The museum contains artifacts of Indians who eked out an existence in this inhospitable terrain until they were all but obliterated by disease and war brought by Spaniards who arrived around the start of the 16th century.

The mission whose bell tower rises regally above the palm trees was founded in 1697 by the Jesuit Priest Juan Maria Salvatierra. It was from here that a Franciscan monk named Father Junipero Serra set out to establish a chain of missions stretching from San Diego to San Francisco.



Hotel Oasis: Pleasant rooms, a children’s playground and pool in a tropical setting on the beach. www.hoteloasis.com.

Camino Real: Loreto’s only resort, located south of town and surrounded by an 18-hole golf course. www.loretobaja.com.

Motel El Dorado: Artsy décor in a motor-inn setting close to the beach. www.moteleldorado.com.

Posada de las Flores: When money is no object, an exquisitely appointed boutique hotel with a rooftop pool and Italian restaurant; near the mission. www.posadadelasflores.com.


Café Ole: Oatmeal, pancakes and other gringo fare. Calle Madero.

El Taste: Delicious seafood and Mexican fare, beautifully presented. Calle Juarez across from the Pemex station.

McLulu’s: Look for an old shack and the “Muchos tacos sold here” sign on Paseo Hidalgo.

Tiffany’s Pizza: The place to go for cappuccinos and cinnamon rolls. Paseo Hidalgo at Paseo Pino Suarez.


Las Parras Tours: www.lasparrastours.com

Loreto’s Sport Fishing: Calle Davis, Numero 65

Arturo’s Sport Fishing Fleet: www.arturosport.com