Big Plans for Baja

Sleepy Loreto gets new attention with development of a village-by-the-sea resort

By: Maribeth Mellin

LORETO, Mexico At dusk, the sun drops between mountain ridges and spreads rosy streaks through the sky. The Sea of Cortez slowly turns from turquoise to a deep midnight blue. Small fishing skiffs putter around islands just offshore as dolphins dance in their wake. The silence is broken only by the occasional cry of a seagull.

Then the bell in the campanile at the Camino Real Hotel tolls six times, announcing cocktail hour at the new, more refined Loreto.

Tucked between the Sierra de la Giganta and the Sea of Cortez in a remote region of southern Baja, Loreto has long been a secret retreat for fishermen and adventurers. Only those willing to drive 750 miles from the border in San Diego along Baja’s narrow Transpeninsular Highway were rewarded with the town’s considerable charms.

Until recently, those visitors found a small Mexican community that seemed rooted in the 1950s. A few modest hotels, trailer parks, restaurants and taco stands met the needs of intrepid travelers. Bells tolled the hour from the tower of the 18th-century Misión de Nuestra Señora de Loreto, site of the first mission in the Californias. Most visitors lingered in Loreto for weeks, fishing, diving, kayaking and sailing in the Sea of Cortez before heading back up the highway in dusty trucks and campers.

Today AeroMexico flies twice weekly between San Diego, Loreto and Mexico City (the flight departs at 1 p.m., so travelers from other areas can easily make the connection). AeroCalifornia comes in from Los Angeles, and AeroLitoral from Hermosillo, Mexico. A few cruise lines now include Loreto in their winter itineraries. And Nopoló, the master-planned resort community south of Loreto that sat fallow for decades, has a new name. It’s now called Loreto Bay.

Nopoló was created by Fonatur, Mexico’s National Trust for Tourism Development, in the 1970s. The master-planned resort’s infrastructure was carved into an 8,000-acre plot of desert, haparral, coastline and arroyos five miles south of town. The Presidente Hotel (now the Whales Inn) was the fanciest hideaway in the area, with a rock-wall dining room, shimmering swimming pool and room service for guests lounging on balconies. Nopoló blossomed as a tennis resort for a few years. A golf course appeared beside the Transpeninsular Highway. A few homes lined the perfect grid of streets lined with power poles that appeared like a mirage on the barren coastline. But Loreto never took off like the Fonatur resorts at Los Cabos and Cancun.

Over the past two years, however, Fonatur has paid considerable attention to the loveliest town in Baja, helping to beautify the downtown waterfront and build the new Camino Real in Nopoló. At the town malecón (seafront walkway), piles of boulders forming a seawall are topped with a concrete sidewalk lined with green park benches. The dirt streets of the past are paved. Archways formed from entwined tree branches frame a pedestrian path from the waterfront to the mission church and museum.

The Posada de las Flores, a rose-tinted boutique hotel with a rooftop swimming pool, rises above Loreto’s main plaza, where children play in the wrought-iron gazebo and shoe shiners set up their stands. Diners feast on sublime bruschetta, ripe tomatoes with goat cheese, marinated beef and imported Spanish wine at wood tables in front of Pachamama’s restaurant. Old adobe houses hold stylish galleries displaying handcrafted silver brooches and reproductions of the prehistoric paintings found in mountain caves above town. Tour companies now offer trips to those paintings on the way to Misión San Javier, one of Baja’s finest 18th-century missions. Loreto’s present and past are on display like never before.

In July 2003, Canadian developer David Butterfield took charge of Nopoló’s future after negotiating thousands of minute details with John McCarthy, director general of Fonatur. Butterfield renamed the area Loreto Bay and formed the Loreto Bay Company with Arizona developer Jim Grogan as CEO and president. A team of architects and engineers drew up plans that include 5,000 homes in several villages, boutique hotels, a town center and a second golf course.

Butterfield’s Trust for Sustainable Development has a reputation for creating environmentally sensitive communities. His plans for Loreto Bay include a 5,000-acre nature reserve in the inland portion of the resort. Posts and markers designate lots in the coastal region, where several eager buyers have put up modest signs for future bookstores, cafes and galleries. “We’re not building a gated, rich-gringo type of community,” Grogan said during a sales presentation at Canipole, a restaurant serving fine down-home Mexican cooking in a courtyard beneath Loreto mission’s towers.

He described a series of walkable villages with homes designed for maximum views of the sea and mountains. Some villages will nestle within hills and valleys, “Tuscany-style.” Others will edge golf courses and the beach. Golf carts (and bicycles when it’s not unbearably hot) will be the main mode of transportation within the resort. The architecture and overall design echo a village by the sea, with plazas and parks, shaded streets and plenty of archways and other Mexican elements. Prices for lots range from $140,000 to $2 million.

The plans have a strong environmental element, as well they should. Loreto Bay sits at the edge of one of the most fertile seas in the world, the oft-threatened and fiercely protected Sea of Cortez. The development’s three-mile-long coastline faces Carmen Island, part of a national marine park. Scientists and environmentalists say the sea is one of the most diverse marine nurseries and habitats in the world. Manta rays leap, spin and splash on the water’s surface in the summer. Swarms of dorado, tuna, and marlin attract hundreds of anglers to Loreto from June to September. From December to March, blue whales, orcas, finbacks and sperm whales all migrate near Loreto’s shores.

“You can sit on the beach while God puts on a display,” said Grogan. “The locals say Loreto is the place where the mountains come to swim. We are stewards of this naturally beautiful area.”


Loreto Tourist Office

Loreto Hotel Association

Loreto Bay

Most hotels in Loreto pay a 15 percent commission.

Camino Real
The fanciest resort by Loreto Bay has a sprawling swimming pool, long beach and watersports center. The rooms are not up to four-star standards, but are spacious, air-conditioned and comfortable. Rates start at $140 per night; packages include free golf.

Hotel Oasis
This simple hotel with a friendly staff, good food and chatty clientele has been catering to fishermen and wanderers since 1960. Rates start at $88 double with breakfast. Summer rates with mandatory meal plans are more expensive.

Posada de las Flores
Gorgeously decorated with Mexican pottery and antiques, this boutique hotel has a few rooms that overlook the mission church and plaza. Rates are high for the area, starting at $140.

Villas de Loreto
Made up of bungalows and a beach house on the southern edge of town, TVs and phones are nonexistent here, but there’s a pool, well-stocked book exchange, a dive shop and bicycle and kayak rentals.

Whales Inn
The former Presidente Hotel has been through several incarnations, including a stint as a clothing-optional resort. It’s now an all-inclusive. A three-night, all-inclusive package including flights on AeroMexico (San Diego-Loreto flights run on Thursday and Sunday) starts at $415 per person.