Back to basics in Baja

As the thatched roof on the airport suggests, a visit to Loreto entails a change in attitude as well as latitude. The sunny little fishing port on the Gulf of California retains the slow pace and small-town warmth that have all but vanished from a certain booming resort zone at the tip of the Baja California peninsula. Think of this as the anti-Cabo.
The spectacular surroundings are the main attraction in Loreto.

Don't expect luxury hotels or riotous nightlife. People (including a surprising number of Europeans) come here to unwind and to drink in Baja's stark beauty -- a salt-rimmed cocktail of desert, mountains and sea. Set against the high, jagged Sierra de la Giganta, Loreto looks out on blue water dotted with arid islands straight from a Magritte painting.

Most of the panorama falls within Loreto Bay National Park, which protects a wealth of whales, dolphins, manta rays, and other marine life. Exploring this aquatic playground should be part of any trip, but you'll also find memorable sights ashore.

Founded by Jesuit explorers in 1697, Loreto served as the original capital of Spanish California, which stretched to the Oregon border. The territory's first successful mission endures as Our Lady of Loreto church. It echoes the colonial past with a handsome bell tower, cloistered courtyard, and engaging museum. A short stroll leads to the zócalo, a plaza with shady benches and a gazebo bandstand.

"Loreto was the first civilized place in Spanish California," says local tour operator Cecilia Haugen. The isolated outpost always had a strong link to the sea (some residents trace their Anglo surnames to English pirates).

Today, joggers and couples holding hands enjoy the waterfront promenade that parallels Calle de la Playa (Beach Street). The road runs from one playa to another, past a marina that harbors a flock of bright, blue-and-white motorboats called pangas.

On and off shore, rock cliffs plunge into the sea -- and so should you. Try the highly rated scuba diving and sportfishing; venture out to the islands to hike, picnic and snorkel in turquoise coves; or laze on an empty crescent of white sand.

Whether you go through a tour operator, hire a panga and skipper, or rent a kayak and paddle out, the islands offer splendid solitude. Watch for pelicans hurtling from the sky to scoop up fish, or a pod of dolphins playing leapfrog. And, of course, the whales. Loreto makes a fine base for day trips to Magdalena Bay, one of three lagoons on Baja's Pacific coast where gray whales come to give birth. For a close encounter, time your trip when they're in residence, from late December to early March.

A rental car or guided tour will take you from Loreto to tiny San Javier, known for its stone mission church. The rutted, 18-mile route, part of the historic Camino Real (Royal Road) linking California's missions, passes pre-Hispanic rock paintings and the odd oasis. After returning from this dusty trip, you'll be ready to dispense with modern transport.

"It's easy to walk anywhere you want to go here," says the receptionist at Posada de las Flores. Sure enough, within a block or two of this inn, you'll find craft shops and art galleries, plus restaurants such as 1697 and Pachamamma, with savory food and patio dining.

Two wonderful away-from-town accommodations are surrounded by nature, the número uno attraction. The beachfront Inn at Loreto Bay, a few miles south, features a modern-hacienda design and a pool with obligatory swim-up bar. (Beside it spreads a golf course and a fast-growing development of stylish villas.)

For an off-the-grid getaway, go farther south to Danzante eco-resort. The guest quarters come with hammock-strung decks, stunning ocean views and tasty meals in a separate dining hall. Activities range from swimming and kayaking to horseback riding and hiking spring-fed canyons. "People come here thinking they'll get bored," says co-owner Lauren Farley. "Then they're always sorry to leave."

In town, at the Giggling Dolphin's bar, a few snowbirds sample Baja Fogs --longneck beers topped off with tequila -- and discuss the run-up of local real estate. "Loreto's changing," declares a repeat visitor from Canada. "But it's still a sweet place."

Don't wait too long to experience it for yourself.

1 comment:

charm said...

I've always loved to have an island hoping and enjoy the fresh soothing air from the ocean with the cool breeze. Dolphin watching is such a wonderful idea too.
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