Loreto, Baja California Sur

Joanne and I spent 6 days in Loreto over New Year 2017. I had never heard of Loreto until October when I looked for the closest warm place that we could go. It turned out that Alaska Airlines flies there, despite its relative obscurity and small size. It is a town of about 15,000 inhabitants (plus tourists), located on the Sea of Cortez about 200 miles north of La Paz.

Loreto is historically significant in that it was the site of the first of the long chain of Jesuit missions, founded in 1697.

It really is a small town, and the old town is close to the beach with its malecón (boardwalk): it is a very walkable place (but watch out for the stray dogs in the outlying areas). Most of the area immediately adjacent to the mission is reserved for pededtrian traffic only, and the roadways are covered by well-manicured laurel trees.

There are at least 10 good restaurants within a block or so from the central square. Cafe Olé has a fine breakfast menu and opens at 7AM. Almejas Conchó specializes in clams, including the local favorite chocolate clams - no, there’s no chocolate, but the shells have a dark brown color. The restaurant at the Hotel 1697, as well as the restaurant adjacent to it, Mita Gourmet, offer high quality seafood, salads, and meat dishes. The tiny La Casita served us an excellent bowl of pozole on New Year’s day, when most restaurants were closed. On the beach road, El Calorón had truly delicious ceviche; we had one each of the callo (scallops) and pulpo (octopus). Both were absolutely fresh, and very nicely spiced. My favorite place might have been Mezzaluna, with its wood-fired pizza oven, and Uruguayan influenced Italian food.

It is a very clean city. On the main street, where our hotel wass located, I saw every business owner sweeping the sidewalk every morning, so there was almost no litter, and very little dust. Even further away from the center it seemed that the streets were kept clean.

Pelicans and terns

The sea around Loreto is a designated marine wildlife preserve, with most forms of net fishing prohibited. This has made Loreto a prime destination for ecotourism, and it is also popular for sport fishing. Whales migrate through the area starting in February, and there is an abundance of fish year-round, though mostly in the spring.

Sea lions on Isla Coronado
Sea lion statue in Loreto harbor
Dolphins off Isla Coronado

We took a boat tour to the nearby Isla Coronado, in a 20’ “panga”. On the way, we came across a group of dolphins. It turned out to be absurdly hard to get good pictures of leaping and cavorting dolphins, but take my word for it, they were leaping and cavorting like crazy. Good times.

Isla Coronado has a permanent colony of sea lions which we approached within 20 feet. They were busy soaking up the sun and scarcely paid any attention to us. I was offered the opportunity to snorkel around the area, but declined: the air temperature was about 65, and the water was cold.

A little bay on Isla Coronado
Another beach on Isla Coronado, looking south toward Loreto

I did get a chance to snorkel a little later, though, in a sheltered shallow bay where the water was warmer and less choppy. Sadly, the snorkeling was not great - not many fish. Still, it was nice to go for a swim.

Afterward I walked across the island to the south side, to a deserted beach, with a beautiful view of the Sea of Cortez. The island is quite small, and undeveloped, except for a ramada on the beach at the snorkeling bay.

The side entrance to Misión San Javier
A stream over the road to San Javier

Loreto is quite arid, but in the mountains to the west (Sierra de la Giganta) there are oases with year around water. San Javier is the nearest, and is also the site of the second of the Jesuit missions. There is enough water to sustain sizable orchards of olives and citrus, as well as vegetable crops.

Having grown up in the desert I am still excited when I see running water in a desert landscape, so our visit to San Javier was a treat.

The mission is impressive, in the context of it having been built so very long ago, under difficult circumstances. Otherwise it is no more than a modest parish church, though with surprisingly skilled stone work on the front facade.

The Hotel Plaza Loreto

We stayed at the Hotel Plaza Loreto, located a half block from the main square. This was a very convenient location since many of the best restaurants are there, and it’s only about 4 blocks from the beach. The main drawback was the noise: for such a small town, a shocking number of people choose to share their car audio systems at high volume. Worse, the Mission likes to play its out of tune bells every 15 minutes, and loud recorded music every 3 hours. Other than that, the hotel was fine. And one of the hotel staff was more than fine: Marco, one of the front desk people was very helpful to us in arranging the tours to Isla Coronado and to San Javier.

The bay at Posada Concepción on Bahia Concepción

We rented a car and drove north toward Mulegé. The first part of the drive is pure Sonoran desert, with thick stands of cardón and saguaro catus, cirio, ocotillo, mesquite, palo blanco, and palo verde. Really beautiful country with canyons and mountains. About halfway to Mulegé we arrived at Bahía Concepción, a large and scenic bay off the Sea of Cortéz. It is mostly undeveloped, owing, I suppose, to the lack of available fresh water. There are a few campgrounds, and some very small developments, including Posada Concepción, where we stopped briefly. A good many of the houses were for sale, for very low prices. A notice board, and the development’s website, made it clear why: electricity is only provided 12 hours per day; there are random inspections of residents’houses to ensure that they are not using prohibited appliances; and they have a shortage of water.

The prison without doors at Mulege

We continued on to Mulegé where we were underwhelmed. It is situated on a river flanked by palm trees, but the town itself is cramped and crowded. We walked up to a museum located in a former prison, called the “Carcel sin Puertas”: the prison without doors. From 1906 until about 1975 it served as a prison, in which prisoners were let out during the day to work and earn money, and were required to return at night.

The mission in Loreto
An entrance to the mostly pedestrian streets in old town Loreto

Overall we enjoyed our stay in Loreto. It has a lot of natural beauty, and the town itself has its attractions. The area around city hall and the old mission is quite pleasant and free of cars. The people we met were friendly and helpful, and the town is small, without the tumult of a city.

There are a surprising number of good restaurants for such a small place, as well as a good sized grocery store, a liquor store, a few tour guide agencies, and 3 car rental agencies. And, most surprising, an airport served from Los Angeles by Alaska Airlines. So it’s easy to get to, and a convenient, pleasant, and fun place to stay.