Nestled between the Sea of Cortez and the Sierra de la Giganta mountain range is the quaint, picturesque town of Loreto. The town’s historic plaza, examples of colonial architecture, and California’s oldest mission (in both Baja and Alta), provide a magical background for this Baja destination. Appropriately enough, Loreto was designated a Pueblo Mágico in 2012 (a recognition given to cities in Mexico that offer visitors a “magical” experience – by reason of their natural beauty, cultural riches, or historical relevance) and this charming town has grown into a must-see for any Baja traveler.
Loreto is a town as diverse as it is beautiful. This is a place where culture and history come alive. Where the outdoor calls to those who enjoy fishing, snorkeling, golfing, kayaking, and hiking. Where you can spend your morning swimming with sea lions and your afternoon exploring 300-year-old missions. History buffs, foodies, outdoor adventurers, avid shoppers, and fishermen will all find plenty to do here.
With a commercial international airport offering regular flights from Los Angeles, Tijuana, and Calgary (among other places), Loreto is now an easy weekend escape from the U.S. or Canada.
Loreto is a great place to get outside and get active. The nearby Sierra de la Giganta mountain range is a beautiful region to explore and is full of hidden waterfalls, pools, canyons, and sea views for those up for the adventure. Grab a copy of the book Hiking Loreto and get out and explore some of the trails featured in the handy guide. If you’re a golfer, head out to the 18-hole Loreto Bay Golf Course (the much-anticipated Danzante Bay Golf Course at Villa del Palmar is slated to open by the end of April 2016).
Spend the afternoon exploring the historic center of Loreto. Start with a stroll along the malecón on the Sea of Cortez. Head west on Calle Salvatierra, a pedestrian walkway covered with trees that will lead you right into Loreto’s Plaza Juárez. The Plaza is surrounded by colonial buildings, restaurants, shops and the Loreto tourist office. Stop in for lunch at Orlando’s or an artisanal beer at Loreto’s first craft beer brewery, El Zopilote (at 1697 Restaurant) right on the plaza.
Continuing to walk west along Salvatierra will take you to Misión Nuestra Señora de Loreto Conchó, the first mission founded in California (Baja or Alta) on October 25, 1697. There’s a small museum next door to the church for those who want to learn more about the history of the missions and what life was like during the missionary times. There are plenty of curios shops along here where shoppers can purchase souvenirs and handicrafts like Mexican blankets, colorful Talavera pottery, and silver jewelry.
Many of the restaurants and bars around the plaza have two-for-one happy hour. Try the exotic margaritas at Agave (happy hour 5p.m.-7p.m. daily) with flavors ranging from avocado, basil, cilantro, jalepeño, kiwi or peach. We recommend the pepino (cucumber) or jamaica (hibiscus). For dinner, walk over to the new restaurant, Mi Loreto where you can sit outside and people watch while enjoying dishes such as enchiladas with mole sauce or chile relleno stuffed with banana.
Start the morning with a quick breakfast of huevos rancheros at Café Ole or pick up fresh pastries or a chocolate croissant from the bakery at Pan Que Pan for breakfast on the go. Then head out of town to the mountain village of San Javier. The beautiful drive through the Sierra de la Giganta is paved all the way to San Javier (except for a small section between Km 13 and 14) and the craggy and lush mountains provide a scenic background for the hour-long drive. Once at San Javier, the main attraction is the stunning stone mission, Misión San Francisco Javier de Viggé-Biaundó. Don’t miss taking a walk around the back of the mission, exploring the old gardens of the mission and stopping to see the 300-plus year old olive tree. There’s an even older olive tree in town behind a row of buildings on the street leading to the mission. Ask at the artisan shop Vigeé Biandó Arts & Crafts to have them point you in the right direction of the olive tree. While you’re at the shop, don’t forget to pick up a bottle of Damiana, a sweet herbal liqueur from Mexico believed to be an aphrodisiac.
Spend a relaxing afternoon lounging at La Picazón. The space is less like a restaurant and more like a hip oasis lounge that just happens to serve food and drinks. The large open-air palapa sits right on the Sea of Cortez with a view of Isla Coronado, and has tables for dining, couches and arm chairs for lounging, and hammocks for resting. This is the type of place where you come to wile away the afternoon while sipping on margaritas and enjoying wraps, seafood, burgers, and salads. Owner and chef, Esmerelda is half of the reason that patrons keep frequenting La Picazon, with her warm hospitality and “mi casa es su casa” mantra. Located on a dirt road 8 kilometers north of Loreto, the location is off the beaten path and can be difficult to find, but that makes the paradise that awaits you all the more rewarding.
At some point in their time in Loreto, tourists, locals, Mexicans and gringos all find themselves at Asadero Super Burro. This glorified taqueria stand specializes in burros (giant burritos) made with melted cheese, savory meat, (they specialize in arrachera), and an accouterment of vegetables and salsas. Their papa rellenas (stuffed baked potatoes) are equally as filling and delicious. After dinner, head down to the malecón for a drink upstairs at Augie’s Bar & Bait Shop to enjoy views of the Sea of Cortez. The party may move down the malecón to the owners’ other spot, Evening Shade.
No trip to Loreto is complete without taking a boat trip out onto the Sea of Cortez. Fishermen will want to head out on a fishing charter to have a shot at some of the yellowtail, dorado, cabrilla, and snapper in the area. Non-fishermen will love taking a boat out to explore the Parque Marítimo Nacional Bahía de Loreto (National Marine Park), a protected area and UNESCO World Heritage site comprised of five islands off the coast. Beautiful deserted island beaches with crystal clear turquoise waters, swimming with sea lions, world-class snorkeling, and cruising with pods of dolphin are just some of the treasures you may encounter.
If you caught fish earlier in the day, have it freshly prepared for you at any of the many restaurants in town that specialize in doing so. La Palapa is a fun and popular spot for this, as is the Giggling Dolphin Restaurant and Boat Bar a large palapa space serving up seafood as well as beer and margaritas from the boat that’s been converted to a bar.
The Got Baja? Loreto map is an indispensable guide to the region. Pick up your free copy in advance at the Discover Baja offices in San Diego or get the online version at www.gotbaja.mx.
Where to Stay:
Hostal Casa Loreto ($)
Cabañas de Loreto ($$)
Coco Cabañas ($$)
La Mision ($$)
Villa del Palmar ($$$)
The following airlines fly into the Loreto Airport:
Alaska Air: Los Angeles to Loreto
Aéreo Calafia: Tijuana, La Paz, and Cabo to Loreto
WestJet: Calgary to Loreto (seasonal)
Loreto is about a 15 hour drive from San Diego. Cataviña or El Rosario are popular choices for a place to stay overnight on the drive down.