Discovering Loreto

Discovering Loreto

Wed, 2012-06-27

Tucked into a bay on the Sea of Cortez on the eastern coast of the state of Baja California Sur lies the quiet town of Loreto. This town's captivating history, dramatic landscapes, and nearby adventures just waiting to be experienced, beckon visitors to come and explore.

I was invited to visit Loreto and stay at the Villas del Palmar, and I happily accepted. It was my first visit to the region, and having traveled extensively throughout the rest of Mexico I was very anxious to finally get to know Baja California Sur. 

As it turns out, getting to Loreto from Oaxaca, where I live, is not easy. It is far simpler for travelers from the U.S. to get there, with several direct flights every week from Los Angeles. Rather than fly a more circuitous route, I flew to Los Angeles and took the weekly Saturday flight on Cal Jet Air. Alaska Airlines also offers direct flights from L.A. to Loreto four days a week, and regional carrier Aero Calafia connects Loreto to Los Cabos and some other Mexican cities.

Rugged Mountains, Serene Water

Approaching Loreto from the air, the aridity and the stark landscape of the Sierra de la Giganta mountain range are striking in its contrast with the blue water of the Sea of Cortez. The islands of Loreto share the same rugged landscape as the peninsula. The land is evidently inhospitable yet remarkably beautiful. The water, in contrast, teems with a rich variety of marine life.

Unlike mainland Mexico, the climate here did not sustain agriculture in ancient times and the original inhabitants were nomadic hunter-gatherers. In 1697 Jesuit priest Jose Maria de Salvatierra arrived with a small group of supporters, bringing with him an image of the Virgin of Loreto, and founded the mission of Nuestra Señora de Loreto Conchó. Loreto became the first capital of the Californias, and the first in a series of over 20 missions which ultimately stretched all the way up to Sonoma in California's wine country.

Quiet Seaside Village

On a Sunday afternoon, the town of Loreto is quiet, almost sleepy. The stone-paved streets, church, and mission museum are practically deserted, but it's a good time to explore the tranquil town square, and visit the church, which dates to the 1740s. It contains the image of the Virgin of Loreto, a beautiful altarpiece with gold leaf, and historical paintings. A stop at the mission museum provides greater insight into the history of the area. Afterwards, a stroll through the nearby shops to purchase arts and crafts and varied souvenirs is a great way to top off the day.

As afternoon turns to evening, the mood picks up, and the spirit at Domingo's, a local restaurant, is positively lively. As you enter the bar at the front of the restaurant, your eyes take a few minutes to adjust to the dark, wood-paneled interior, but continue through to the back and you will find a leafy, sun-dappled courtyard with long wooden tables. Domingo's offers steak and sea food specialties, but the chef is happy to whip up some chiles rellenos de queso (cheese-stuffed chiles) for vegetarian clientele. 

Adventures on Land and Water

Five islands sit in the Sea of Cortez off of Loreto's coast: Coronado, Carmen, Danzante, Montserrat, and Santa Catalina. Explore the clear waters, coves, and lagoons surrounding them on a boating, snorkeling or kayaking adventure. You're likely to spot sea lions, dolphins, and the occasional blue whale, as well as a wide variety of bird species. Underwater, snorkelers and divers can observe a wonderful array of colorful fish and sea life. The islands are within the protected area of the Loreto Bay National Marine Park, declared in 1997 to ensure the preservation of these natural treasures.

A visit to the mission of San Francisco, Javier de Biaundo, makes for a great day trip. It's a 38 km drive into the mountains, but a stop along the way to have a look at some pre-historic rock paintings breaks up the drive. The Jesuits founded this mission in 1699 and built the church between 1744 and 1758. This is the most well-preserved mission in Baja California and has three baroque altarpieces. The tiny village is set in a mountain oasis and still uses gravity-fed irrigation. After visiting the church, take a walk out to the olive orchard where you can see the oldest olive tree in southern Baja.

I found Loreto's charming small town feel, dramatic natural setting, and fascinating history enchanting. I hope I will have the chance to return and explore more of Baja California Sur before too long.