Loreto, Mexico is many things. One thing it is not is Cabo San Lucas.
There are no cruise ships, partygoers or spring-break revelry. For discerning travelers looking for a more peaceful, laidback commune with nature Loreto ticks all the boxes. Easy to get to and even easier to get around, Loreto is the perfect place to escape the crowds while discovering paradise by the sea.
A laidback paradise on the Sea of Cortez
It was mid September and we had just sold our home near Los Angeles with a loosely-knit plan to travel the world for a couple of years. Knowing that we may not return to this part of the world for some time we decided to spend a few day in Loreto, Mexico, a place we had always wanted to visit.
What better way to celebrate the sale of our home and our 24th. anniversary than by going on a short vacation!
With tickets in had we boarded our plane at LAX for the 2-hour flight to Loreto International Airport. Yes, this largely undiscovered, sleepy destination facing the Sea of Cortez has its own airport, making it all the more convenient to get to.
We touched down, exited the plane and were immediately greeted by balmy weather and clear blue Baja California skies. Walking across the short tarmac we headed to the large, quonset hut terminal to check in. The mood among passengers and the congenial staff was lively and our check in was a breeze, if not exactly speedy.
With passports vetted and stamped we headed for the rental car counter. In short order we were driving off the lot in a brand new VW Jetta for the whopping price of $9.00 a day which is roughly the cost of 2 gourmet tacos in Los Angeles…ala carte!
Our hotel was a short twenty minute drive south from the airport and with a full day ahead we were anxious to check in and let the adventure begin. Located on the white sand Bay of Nopoló, the Loreto Bay Golf Resort & Spa was clean, comfortable and in a great location. Featuring a private 9-hole golf course, several tennis courts, two outdoor pools and an outdoor restaurant it was the ideal destination to plan our upcoming world tour while enjoying the mild mid-September weather.
Our snorkeling adventure
The Loreto region offers an abundance of outdoor activities from sailing, fishing, diving and snorkeling to whale watching. For those who don’t mind a little dirt under their nails there are ATV and dirt bike tours into the surrounding Sierra La Giganta mountains. There are also numerous hiking trails in the same mountains for those who prefer to hoof it.
One of our more peaceful adventures was to spend a half day on a tarp covered panga exploring the islands, coves and open sea with an affable, water loving local named Rafa. A seasoned captain and native of Loreto, Rafa picked us up on the beach just outside our hotel at 9:30 sharp, which is noteworthy in a place known for its laid back approach to arriving anywhere on time!
Fifteen minutes into our first destination Rafa informed us that after making the requisite morning stops that all the boats make, he was going to treat us to one of his favorite out-of-the-way places. Looks like we picked the right captain!
Our first stop was Isla Danzante where we hiked the headland trails around the cliffs which provided spectacular views in every direction. On the way we encountered a large pod of common dolphins doing what dolphins do best…playing in the early morning calmness.
Back in the boat we headed to the larger Isla Del Carmen where we dropped in for our first real look at the magnificent undersea life. As we moved from cove to cove the abundance of fish simply blew us away. One plunge found us surrounded by millions of juvenile sardines that spend time in the protection of the coves before growing large enough to head out to sea.
When I say millions it is no exaggeration!
After about an hour in the water Rafa peeled away from the other boats and headed off to his secret dive spot. Turns out it was a low, small rock outcropping covered in native cardón cacti and thorny brush surrounded by impossibly clear blue-green water.
Looking 30 feet down was like looking through a glass of water. It was in these shallow waters that we encountered hundreds of needlefish swimming in a schizophrenic, back-and-forth frenzy as if they could not decide which direction to travel.
Needlefish are exceptionally adept jumpers, carnivorous by nature and distinguished by long, slender jaws equipped with four rows of very sharp teeth. Fortunately for us they are not dangerous, unless of course one accidentally stabs you with its needle should you happen to get in its way!
Time to head back to the marina.
With our panga hoisted on to a trailer we drove through Loreto (while sitting in the boat!) to drop it in a secure, storm sheltered location, for the day. A twenty minute ride back to our hotel and we walked our sea legs to the poolside bar for a cold beer and some tacos.
It was a great day and a fantastic way to celebrate our anniversary!
A road trip to the Mission at San Javier
Anxious to get out and explore more of the area we decided to search out the Mission at San Javier. Little did we know the drive, or the adventure, that we were in for. With the sea at our back we turned onto the Road to San Javier through the Sierra de la Giganta (mountains of giant women) that would take us to the famous Mission San Javier.
Throughout our drive the scenery appeared as if we had landed on another planet. Four days of torrential rain the week before we arrived had turned the mountains into every shade of green imaginable. Palm trees, palo verde and the slender cardón cacti we had seen on our dive trip the day before were all in attendance by the thousands. Standing tallest amongst all this greenery, the cardón looked like small armies of soldiers marching through the hills. Before the rains came this was a dusty brown landscape that blended in with the surrounding rocks and sand. Sudden transformations like this are not uncommon in these harsh and unforgiving mountains.
With all this unimaginable lushness it was hard to believe that we were driving through a mountain desert. Not so hard to believe was the name given to this region…”the cactus garden of Mexico”.
Halfway into our journey we came across a small chapel that was built as a rest stop of sorts for the hundreds of pilgrims from around Mexico who participate in the annual “Feast of San Javier” (December 1-3). They arrive on food or riding their donkeys up the long, winding road to the San Javier cathedral. After a brief stop to rest, enjoy some food and say a prayer, they would be on their way once again. Riding in the comfort of our air-conditioned car it was hard to fathom multitudes of reverent people walking along this hot, dry and steep mountain road.
The word devotion comes to mind.
Another half hour passed with more signs warning of “camino sinuoso” until we finally found ourselves at the entrance to the village of San Javier. The village is small, even by Baja standards, and the single cobblestone street running the length of it feels like you are driving through a time machine. Take away the cars and motorcycles and you could easily imagine winding the clock back to 1875. This is no museum mind you. The 200 or so residents, mostly elderly people and women with small children, live as they have for centuries, although many working-age men have moved elsewhere to seek better economic opportunities.
The massive mission dates back to 1758 and has weathered the years so well that it is still in use as a church. Over the centuries it has survived several devastating earthquakes which the parishioners consider a miracle. The grounds around the mission are loving kept by the locals and the pride they take in the church is yet another testimony to their belief in this special place.
Our drive back down the mountain was as magnificent at the drive up. With the midday heat and oppressive sunshine losing their grip we kept the windows down and enjoyed the view toward the Sea of Cortez as we closed in on the town of Loreto and dinner by the sea.
During our years of living in California we have visited several missions including San Diego, San Juan Capistrano, Santa Barbara and Carmel. All of them are impressive in their own rite yet this particular mission, with its remote location, resonates as truly unique and special.
Dining with a full moon and a great view
In 20 years of visiting various parts of Mexico the food has always been one of the highpoints of our travels. From a humble taco cart on the streets of Mexico City to dining on fresh rainbow trout with a watercress sauce while touring the pyramids of Teotihuacan, the food is consistently outstanding.
The dinners that we enjoyed on our trip to Loreto would now be added to the list.
One of our more memorable meals was enjoyed on the second floor terrace of the Spanish Colonial style Hotel La Mision. The hotel is located in the heart of Loreto on the palm-lined malecon with a fantastic view across the Sea of Cortez to the distant mountains.
With the afternoon heat waning we freshened up from our road trip to the Mission at San Javier and took a table on the open terrace. Being that we were early to dinner (8-9pm is the normal start time in this climate) we enjoyed a quiet meal of a ceviche trio, the catch of the day and coconut shrimp. And of course, the requisite bowl of guacamole before dinner. A couple of generous, hand shaken margaritas rounded out our delicious meal.
Nearing the end of our dinner we glanced across the water to see a full moon rising from behind Isla Carmen. Edging upward on the horizon through clouds the color of coral the moon was positively sublime. Looks like we’ll need another margarita to continue watching it rise!
Our second memorable meal was had on our anniversary at the award winning Villa del Palmar Beach Resort and Spa in their signature Italian restaurant, Casa Mia. The Resort sits perched on the pristine Danzante Bay overlooking several islands with the Sierra de la Giganta mountains in the distance. With a few luxury yachts mooring in the bay a better view for dinner would be hard to find.
Due to it being the off season in Loreto we nearly had the outdoor patio of the restaurant to ourselves and the service along with the food could not have been better. Once again we indulged ourselves with an appetizer of ceviche trio which we were starting to realize was a staple among finer restaurants in and around Loreto.
Fresh white fish from local waters was smothered in a red chili sauce and a filet mignon wrapped in smoky bacon were both simply delicious and a bottle of crisp Chilean white wine pretty much covered all the bases.
Back on the water
On the second to the last day we woke to clear blue skies and a slight breeze coming off the sea. The weather was calling for a very warm day so we decided to skip breakfast, secure a couple of kayaks and hit the water early to avoid the afternoon sun. Heat comes fast in the Sea of Cortez.
The water was crystal clear and calm and everywhere we paddled we saw hundred of fish. As we rounded the corner of a nearby rock outcropping we saw several rays leaping out of the water. They are a spectacular sight to see under the water but to witness them catching three-to-four feet of air while backlit by the rising sun is simply amazing.
We spent the next hour ducking in and out of various coves observing the sea birds in the cliffs, riding the waves and scanning the horizon for more jumping rays.
With the sun, and the heat, rising fast we paddled back to the beach to grab some lunch before heading out for an afternoon road trip.
The remainder of our day was spent driving Highway 1 south from Loreto exploring the wide coastal plain the separates the sea from the mountains. Along the way we saw several small beachside fishing villages that dot the various inlets. The dry, warm air was perfect for windows-rolled-down driving while we did exactly what you’re supposed to do while on vacation.
Relax. Laugh. Explore.
Oh…and plan your next vacation!
QUICK TRAVEL FACTS
In Loreto, the summers are long, hot, and oppressive; the winters are comfortable; and it is dry and partly cloudy year round. Over the course of the year, the temperature typically varies from 58°F to 95°F and is rarely below 53°F or above 99°F.
Unless you plan to take a taxi or shuttle to your hotel and remain there it’s best to rent a car at the Loreto airport. They are inexpensive and great to have for exploring Loreto, the coast and mountains.
So get a car, roll down the windows, turn up the music and let your Baja adventure begin!