Mountainous islands have risen from the crystal clear Sea of Cortez, just offshore from a small town lined with black sand beaches. I didn’t know it at the time, but the bay I was looking at was a national marine park teeming with 800 species of marine life, including blue whales. The little town that curved along the bay was Loreto, Mexico – a lesser-known Baja California Sur gem that I had the opportunity to explore.
When I was invited to visit Loreto, I had no idea where he was or even that he existed. I was surprised that American Airlines offered a direct two-hour flight from Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport and even more shocked when I learned that Loreto was the first Spanish settlement in the Californias.
Despite my ignorance, I had traveled often enough to know that sometimes the best trips happen when you have no expectations. Loreto did not disappoint, especially when it comes to experiencing the area’s cultural and outdoor offerings.
Loreto is a six-hour drive north of Los Cabos, east of the southern Baja Peninsula. When I landed in the city, which has a population of 20,000, in January, the weather was sunny and in the mid-70s with a nice breeze. In the summer, it can reach the 90s.
During the short drive to Hotel Rosarito, a quiet boutique hotel with stylish rooms and an open courtyard with a pool and breakfast area, I realized that Loreto was the kind of Mexican destination that I like. Although tourism is a large part of the economy, there is no specific “tourist zone” separate from the city’s citizens. In fact, visitors and locals mingle in the restaurants and downtown, allowing for authentic interactions you can’t have at many popular coastal destinations in Mexico.
My hotel was within walking distance of the square, the Malecon (the promenade), the port, the beaches and restaurants, like Casa Carmen where I had the most delicious grilled and fried seafood cooked over an open fire by Carmen she -same.
My first full day in Loreto started with a run along the Malecon at sunrise. As I ran from one black volcanic beach to the next, I admired the fiery shadows rising behind the mountainous islands of the bay. Fishermen would set out for the morning catch, and later I saw catamarans and boat tours taking visitors diving and snorkeling around the reefs.
I spent a few days in Loreto eating lots of seafood and Mexican food at places like Pepegina’s Restaurant and Zopilote Brewing and Co. My love for history was satisfied by visits to the Californias First and Second Missions . The first, Misión de Nuestra Señora de Loreto Conchó, sits in a beautiful plaza in Loreto, near artisan shops that line a cobblestone avenue under a lovely canopy of trees. Misión San Francisco Javier was an hour’s drive away in the nearby mountains. The baroque architecture looked like something I had seen in Spain years ago.
My trip, however, was far from being limited to Loreto. My guide was adamant that a visit to Loreto wouldn’t be complete without exploring the outdoor offerings around town. So I went whale watching.
I checked into the Mangrove Inn in Adolfo López Mateos, a small fishing village just a two-hour drive from Loreto. This destination on the west coast of Baja California Sur provided the most incredible animal encounters I have ever had.
For two days, I went on two whale watching tours with Garcia’s Tours. My camera quickly filled with images of whales flipping their tails, lifting their heads out of the water, and dragging their bodies 50 feet across the surface a few feet away. I even filmed a gray whale that spent 15 minutes directly under our boat. She stuck her mouth above the water for us to caress her smooth barnacle covered skin and blew water from her blowhole.
The whales weren’t my only animal encounter in the bays of Adolfo López Mateos. I’ve seen the fins of dolphins, pelicans diving for fish, and one night Garcia’s Tours took me to a sea of golden sand dunes where I saw coyotes trotting from the mangroves.
After two days, I left the whales behind and drove north from Loreto to Heroica Mulegé, a beautiful town that sits in a tropical oasis of palm and date palms surrounded by arid mountains. Visitors can kayak and paddleboard the river that runs through the town, and all can observe them from a high vantage point at Misión de Mulegé.
I stayed at Historico Las Casitas, once the home of a famous Baja poet. Today it is owned by a man named Javier, who welcomed my tour group to the historic space with its courtyards full of lush plants. In the dining room we had delicious Mexican dishes arranged in traditional hand painted dishes. Historico Las Casitas was not just a place to eat and sleep, but offered evening karaoke with mango margaritas.
Heroica Mulegé is a starting point for many outdoor adventures, such as a 20-minute hike to the oldest cave paintings in North America. The San Borjitas Cave Paintings are located on Rancho San Baltazar in the Sierra de Guadalupe. In the cave, my neck tensed as I gazed up at the ceiling in awe. Figures of men, women, children, shamans and animals had been painted in red, black, white and yellow 7,500 years ago – and they were still there for me to see.
The day after my visit to the cave, I left Heroica Mulegé to return to Loreto. Along the way, I stopped for a boat trip to Bahía Concepción, where Americans and Canadians, who had parked their RVs and pitched their tents on the beaches of the bay, sailed, kayaked, paddleboarded and fished in turquoise waters.
Our boat captain took us close to the rocky islands to see blue-footed booby birds and the geological structures that time, water and wind had sculpted. We dropped anchor several times so his son could grab us fresh oysters from their oyster farm, jump into the ocean to spear halibut, and scoop scallops off the sandbar of a white sand beach. One of those times I put on a wetsuit and jumped into the ocean, but the water was too cold in January to stay there long. With all the seafood in hand, we found a sandy beach along one of the bays, and the boat captain and his son prepared a delicious lunch of fresh seafood with tortillas and fries.
I returned to Loreto that evening and checked into Hotel La Misión, an elegant property with pool, spa, restaurant, bar, and views of Loreto Bay. My last day and a half in Loreto was spent relaxing on the beach, shopping for souvenirs, and devouring a one foot burrito at the Super Burrito. Sitting on the black beach in front of my hotel, I scrolled through my photos from the past week. Was this experience as remarkable as I thought?
The photographs said yes, as did friends and family. They constantly messaged me throughout the trip responding to my photos of wildlife encounters, the beauty of the beaches and bays, the baroque architecture of the Spanish missions, and the amazing food I ate. All remarked that they had never heard of Loreto or all that it had to offer.
I told them they better visit Loreto now – before word gets out.