By Greg Niemann
As the historic mission appeared on our left, one of the men in our shared airport taxi said with strained apprehension, “And what little village is this?”
My wife and I looked at each other. I decided to give the guy the news, “Uh dude, this is Loreto, the heart of downtown, as a matter of fact.”
We had just arrived on one of the two new Alaska Airlines flights from Los Angeles each week (Thursday and Sunday). Alaska’s 1? hour flight now joined Air California’s three weekly flights and Aeromexico’s daily arrivals (all from Los Angeles) to Loreto, Baja California Sur, Mexico, on the Sea of Cortez about 800 miles south of Southern California.
Loreto, established in 1697, bears the distinction of being the birthplace of all of California. Once the capital of the Mexican and U.S. states of California, tourism has still not yet really taken off - but it appears all that is about to change.
Snowbirds from the Pacific Northwest (now aided by Alaska Airlines) are yet pushing into another warm locale for their seasonal nests. New houses are sprouting up along the town’s northern shoreline, many built by these migratory northerners.
Up to now, about 80 percent of the visitors to Loreto have been Californians who have enjoyed the simple amenities of this small backwater town of about 10,000 hardy loreteños (people of Loreto).
Compared to Cabo San Lucas, a burgeoning city with a population of 300,000 where the Los Cabos Airport disgorges passengers up to a record 239 landings and takeoffs in one day, it’s no wonder my taxi mate was confused. I never saw him again, but it appears he had an incredibly more laid-back, time than he might have imagined. That’s the Loreto of today.
For years there have been attempts to bring growth to Loreto, and maybe this time it will happen. Back in the 1970s, the Mexican Government Tourism agency, FONOTUR, pegged Loreto for development, along with Cancun and Los Cabos. While the others became internationally famous, all Loreto got out of the deal was a golf course, which suited most Baja aficionados, who abhor the resort developments, just fine.
It was at a place called Nopolo, seven miles south of Loreto, where construction commenced on a master-planned community, with tennis, golf, and resort hotels, and then the project sat—for about 30 years.
Along with the golf course, only the adjacent Hotel Loreto Presidente became operational. The Presidente later became the Eden Loreto, and after being closed for a while, re-opened last year as the Whale’s Inn, with double rooms at $230.00 a night yet. Meanwhile a new Camino Real Hotel opened on the other side of the Nopolo golf course about two years ago.
Enter the Loreto Bay Company, a Canadian company partnered with FONOTUR, and now it appears extensive growth at Nopolo will become a reality. The company’s Villages at Loreto Bay development has already exceeded $100 million (U.S.) in residential sales in its first 17 months of operation. $30 million of that came in the last four months alone.
Loreto Bay, which lines three miles of coastline, is a $3 billion project encompassing 8,000 acres. It will feature 6,000 homes, a town center, artisan’s village, hotels, spas, golf courses and a marina. Over half of the acreage will be set aside for a “green lands” preserve.
The residential homes, priced from the mid-$200,000s (U.S.), range from courtyard to luxury condominiums and beachfront custom villas. Spanish Colonial architecture will offset the pedestrian friendly neighborhoods in an anticipated picturesque environment. It promises to be an environmentally friendly development near a very old setting.
Loreto, the only 17th century town in the Californias, came into being over 300 years ago, on October 25, 1697 and is truly the “Historical Capital of the Californias.” The Loreto mission “Nuestra Senora de Loreto” (Our Lady of Loreto) became the first of a system that colonized and settled not only Baja California but all the way up to Northern California.
When the town was wiped out by a hurricane in 1829, the capital of Baja California was moved to La Paz and Loreto dwindled in importance.
For years, Loreto remained a sleepy oasis where summer’s heat forced a slow, easy pace for locals and visitors alike. California’s first city had changed very little until the 1960s when fishermen discovered the place.
Fishermen began going to Loreto to catch Dorado (mahi mahi), yellowtail, marlin, sailfish, grouper, red snapper, sierra, rock sea bass, roosterfish, yellowfin tuna, and other species. The pelagic fish are mostly in evidence during the hot summer months when the word “dorado” becomes synonymous with Loreto.
An Alaska Airlines package offered us lodging at either the Camino Real (which I knew to be way south), or at the Posada de las Flores right downtown. We opted for the Posada, a boutique inn of 15 units right on Loreto’s main plaza, a short walk from everything.
It’s a delightful appearing place with Old World architecture blending in nicely with the heart of Loreto. It features a unique rooftop swimming pool with a Plexiglas bottom that is the main lobby’s ceiling. With all that charm, we still found amenities lacking and management from mediocre to poor; plus the central location can get quite noisy.
Frustrated, we took out our energies on the town itself. It’s a great walking town, and we covered it several times.
The old Plaza Salvatierra, which fronts the historic mission, and the old Museo de las Misiones (museum) next door were inviting. We toured the mission church, noting its only concession to the 21st century being electric fans lining the chapel. The museum is an enchanting romp into the past, complete with fine art and artifacts. A nominal fee is charged.
Delightfully shaped ficus trees shade the plaza and the tourist shops along the Paseo Salvatierra.
We visited Bill Benzinger, owner and founder of the Hotel Oasis (where I usually stay, www.hoteloasis.com
. ). The Hotel Oasis, founded in 1962, is featured in my book Baja Legends). The Oasis, a charming hotel on the water and a short walk from everything, offers three plans: room only, bed and breakfast, and all-inclusive meals. They have catered to fishermen for years.
We walked over to the other side of the mostly dry riverbed to visit former Canadian Wendy Wilchynski, now owner of the charming Villas de Loreto, a comfortable smoke-free resort that offers nine standard rooms, a poolside casita and a beach house. Book early; they fill fast. www.villasdeloreto.com
We returned to town along the beach, crossing the water from the river and estuary where pelicans, sea gulls, cormorants and terns shared space with cranes, noble snowy egrets and majestic blue herons.
There’s plenty to do in Loreto, especially for those interested in the outdoors and mini-adventures. Along with fishing, the area offers superb diving and snorkeling. The waters are usually crystal clear with incredible visibility and some 3,000 species of maritime animals, including 800 varieties of fish.
There’s kayaking, sailing and whale watching, mountain biking, mule riding, limited shopping (credit cards, even Visa, are not widely acceptable in shops and restaurants), and golf. You can rent a car and find a secluded beach or head into the Sierra Giganta mountains that perform a dazzling backdrop to Loreto.
Most popular is visiting the historic Mission of San Javier, California’s second (1699) and best preserved. The mission sits in a mountain valley surrounded by trees and orchards originally planted by the padres. There are also numerous locations in the area where you can visit ancient cave art and paintings.
Most hotels have packages that can arrange for any activity. In addition there is Las Parras Tours email@example.com
. which offers Natural History and Cultural Tours (missions), kayaking, cave painting, mule riding, mountain biking, whale watching and sailing. Desert Expeditions offers much of the same. www.desertandsea.com
Paddling south offers extended kayak adventures, and Pedaling South hosts mountain biking excursions. Both at www.tourbaja.com
or (800) 398-6200. Divers can check out Cormorant Dive Center at www.loretours.com
Guaycura Adventours & Sportfishing has its own fishing fleet and also offers other tours and packages with several hotels. www.guaycura.com
Arturo’s Sport Fishing, www.arturosport.com
., has everything from two passenger pangas to four passenger mini cruisers. Arturo’s offers numerous package deals and a host of eco-tour activities.
In addition to the Camino Real (with 137 rooms), and the 140 room Whales Inn at Nopolo, and the others mentioned above, there’s the 40 room La Pinta (one of a chain throughout Baja) on the beach in Loreto, the Hacienda Suites at the town’s entrance, and the small Las Cabanas de Loreto just opened by wildlife photographers Richard and Jill Jackson.
South of town is the eco-resort Danzante, named for a nearby island. The 10-acre seaside property offers nine hilltop suites with commanding views of the sea.
For dining, excellent fish tacos with all the trimmings are offered by Lulu at her popular McLulu’s stand as you arrive in town. Another great taco stand (fish and carne asada) is El Rey del Taco on Calle Benito Juarez. Run by Francisco Garcia and family, it opens when they feel like it (usually in time for lunch), and closes when he runs out of food (by dinner time).
One of the town’s landmark restaurants, Café Olé, an institution for 23 years, is downtown next to the Posada de las Flores and offers excellent food, large portions, and reasonable prices. Local expatriates meet there for breakfast and lunch.
Other good restaurants, all informal as is the entire town, are La Terraza (above Café Olé), Playa Blanca (upstairs across the street), Mexico Lindo (very good), Macaws (fronting the beach), El Taste, and El Nido (both for steak), El Canipole, and El Tio Lupe (both near mission).
A new restaurant has in a few short months become a favorite of tourists and the expatriate community as well. Across the plaza from the city hall is Mita Gourmet, a small restaurant opened in November 2004 by Uraguayan restaurateur Juan Carlos Cortes Hillard and his wife Martha.
I was surprised to see cruise passengers in town one day. But there were 100 of them off the Spirit of Endeavor, anchored offshore. Cruising CB West departs La Paz to the south and makes several stops on remote islands and towns like Loreto.
The passengers remarked that it was a wonderful adventurous cruise, the best ever, according to some. Well, an occasional small cruise ship of hardy travelers has a much more minimal impact than that of Cabo San Lucas where 900,000 of its visitors in 2004 arrived on cruise ships.
For now, the charm of Loreto is that you can do a lot or you can do nothing. Even downtown you’ll wake up to the sound of roosters crowing. It’s not for the disco crowd, but it’s a place for introspection and withdrawal. It can get very hot in the summer where even the dogs hardly move. I’ve always liked the place, even though, and perhaps because, it’s grown very little.
In town, Americans and Canadians are buying lots and houses, many who are integrating into the community rather than creating their own isolationist cocoon. With a major resort coming in just down the road, who knows what the future will bring?
Maybe my taxi-mate will discover a lot bigger place if he ever comes back. b
(Greg Niemann, a long-time San Clemente Journal writer, is the author of Baja Fever and Baja Legends.)