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
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
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
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
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
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
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