The Best Mexican Destination You Have Never Heard Of
By Noreen Kompanik
“They thought they could make Loreto into another Cancun or Los Cabos,” said our boat captain. With a huge toothy grin that exuded a great deal of pride, he continued.
“But thank goodness it didn’t happen. Loreto is all about nature and the sea and big growth would be muy malo” (very bad).
It’s not that the residents of this magnificent Baja California Sur, Mexico destination on the eastern side of the Baja peninsula believe that time can forever standstill.
It’s that they don’t want huge corporations coming in and disrupting the magic that makes Loreto such a special place.
Its simplicity is its appeal. That, its happy people, and the bountiful gifts that Mother Nature has bestowed upon this fabulous piece of Mexican paradise.
Perhaps it’s why Loreto is quite possibly the best Mexican destination you’ve never heard of. Or why many prefer it to remain their own “best-kept” secret.
One of Mexico’s Pueblos Mágicos
132 towns throughout Mexico have been designated a Pueblo Mágico, or magic town. This special designation is granted to those communities that over time have maintained their original architecture, traditions, history and culture, or have great relevance to the history of Mexico.
In June 2012, Loreto was granted this distinction due to its vast cultural heritage as the site of the very first mission of “Old California.”
This rural desert community has continued to preserve the essence of these early settlers and exudes an old-world character that predates modern Mexico.
The honors do not stop here. Add in its invaluable natural wealth from the sea that abounds within its vast National Marine Park, and it’s of no surprise that Loreto’s adjoining five islands in the Sea of Cortez were declared a UNESCO World Heritage site.
Now we understand why friends who’d visited here in the past highly recommended this Mexican jewel. The laid-back piece of nature’s heaven is a place so special, it’s no wonder more travelers aren’t familiar with Loreto.
Arriving in Loreto
Landing at the airport in Loreto, we delightfully proclaimed “this is the smallest airport we’ve ever been to in Mexico.” And that’s a good thing, as we disembarked the plane on the tarmac, got through customs and immigration in less than 10 minutes, and grabbed our transport to Villa del Palmar at the Islands of Loreto in Danzante Bay.
Although the airport is only minutes from the town, the ride to the resort takes about 30 minutes along a winding scenic desert highway. We enjoyed breathtaking views of the La Sierra Giganta Mountains on the right and the stunning multi-hued waters of the Sea of Cortez on the left.
Each turn in the road brought new surprises. And just as the evening sky lit up in a myriad of rainbow hues, our shuttle arrived at what would be our beautiful vacation home for the next eight days.
The islands of Loreto sport a dry, desert climate receiving a mere 6 inches of rainfall per year. The driest month is April, with September seeing the most precipitation along with higher humidity.
The average yearly temperature sits around 73.6 degrees Fahrenheit. The coldest month is January with an average daily temperature of 63. August is Loreto’s hottest month at an average 84.6.
The best months to visit Loreto are April, May, October, and November. It’s a tough decision on when to come, however, as these are not during whale watching season when Baja’s magnificent whale population migrates from the Sea of Cortez and back to Alaska. But there’s no bad decision here, as each season brings a myriad of benefits.
About the Resort
Villa del Palmar on the Islands of Loreto is located on calm, serene, and picturesque Danzante Bay. With its quiet white-sand beaches, scenic vistas, rich history, and astounding surrounding natural habitat, we felt as though we’d reached a unique part of the world far from the madding crowds of busier, more popular Mexican destinations.
The all-suites resort is the only property located in this stunning remote region, providing a sense of true escapism. Five stunningly-designed pools form the entire body of a sea turtle. And four restaurants on the property feature a number of tantalizing world-celebrated cuisines.
But the true beauty of the resort is the celebration of nature in its “desert meets the sea” natural surroundings. The bay is a siren call to those who love the water. Kayaking and paddleboarding are extremely popular due to the placid waters and clarity of the bay. We managed to get out on this bay several times during our stay and loved it.
Shorebirds of all types love gathering on the beach, especially during low tide when it’s easiest to spot their prey. And they appear more trusting of human proximity than we’ve experienced in the past, providing better close-up photos.
An equally big draw of the resort is their award-winning 18-hole multi-leveled golf course that’s been rated the #1 course in all of Mexico by Golf Digest. Though we’re not avid golfers, those we spoke to raved about the challenge, views, and landscape of the links.
This “home away from home” for us was truly the ideal base from which to explore the magnificent Islands of Loreto.
We love the honesty of Loreto’s official slogan “300 Years Old and Still Undiscovered.”
Loreto was the first capital of the Californias. Its impressive 17th-century mission, Mision de Nuestra Senora de Loreto is the oldest in Baja, Mexico, and Old California and is an absolute must-visit. Masses are still held in the chapel, and when the carillon bells in the massive stone tower echo throughout the rustic and quaint village, it’s quite memorable.
Just a few blocks from the mission, a charming shopping area with cobblestone paths features colorful art, craft, boutique shops, and historic inns.
Like many Mexican towns, Loreto has a picturesque Malecon, a walkable waterfront promenade fronting the marina, lighthouse, and in-town beaches. Whale-watching and dolphin cruises, as well as fishing trips, depart from its harbor.
The waterfront also sports seafood and Mexican restaurants with tantalizing scents impossible to resist. In the summer, Loreto’s eateries serve their iconic chocolate clams. No, they don’t taste like chocolate as they are named for the rich brown color of their shells.
Word of advice for coming to Loreto is that many of the locals do not speak fluent English or any English for that matter. But, keep in mind we are in their part of the world, so speaking Spanish is not only important, it’s polite and very appreciated by its kind and considerate locals.
Exploring the Islands
The five islands of Loreto include Danzante, Isla del Carmen, Isla Coronado, Monserrate, and Santa Catalan. Collectively, they’re known as the Coronado Islands and boast Mexico’s largest marine preserve where dolphins, seals, turtles, fish, and sea lions all thrive in its crystal-clear multi-hued waters.
From mid-January to mid-March, the Sea of Cortez is home to blue whales, humpbacks, grey whales, orcas, and more. And the underwater sea life here alone rivals that of any world-class aquarium making snorkeling and diving a beloved pastime.
It’s because of these natural riches that the entire marine area has been established as a protected national park (Parque Nacional Bahía de Loreto) in addition to its UNESCO World Heritage Site status.
Day Tripping to Isla Coronado
On our second day in Loreto, we ventured for a day trip to Isla Coronado. On the way to the island, our captain slowed the boat several times for numerous pods of common, bottlenose, and spinner dolphins. And they put on quite a show, frolicking in the ocean, with a few spinners propelling upward and twisting in mid-air.
We passed hundreds of pelicans diving for their next meals, and sea lion colonies sunning on the massive rock formations cut out by the winds and tides of time.
Upon approach to the island, a few sea turtles appeared to escort us to the pearly sands where we beached our boat. The perfectly clear waters teeming with fish, and though the seas were a bit chilly on this spring day, having wet suits made for a more comfortable snorkeling experience.
After a box lunch on the beach, we headed out to explore the desert landscape. We also chatted with some campers who come down to Loreto each year to rough it in the great outdoors. And since there are no facilities on the island, roughing it is exactly what it is…but they absolutely love their communes with nature.
On our trip back to the marina, we spotted more dolphins and manta rays in some of the most aquamarine and multi-hued waters we’ve experienced in Mexico.
This was a day trip we’ll long remember.
If there are mountains, there’s usually good hiking. And Loreto has plenty of both.
With the majestic Sierra Giganta Mountain range framing Loreto with hundreds of canyons, arroyos, and miles of beautiful shoreline, Loreto was destined to become an avid hiker and adventurer’s paradise.
As guests of Villa del Palmar, we had access to a 6-mile network of moderately challenging trails that can keep hikers busy all day.
These treks feature desert mountain hills with breathtaking vistas of the Danzante Bay, its islands, and the resort’s magnificent golf links scattered among the rugged terrain.
Mesquite Canyon is another unbelievably picturesque 3.2-mile hike in the Loreto area, but it’s highly recommended to be done with a local professional guide who knows the area well. The rewards are entering a narrow slot canyon with towering walls through the waters of the river that fills it. On a hot desert day, this is the perfect hike.
For an easy trek, Cerro de la Cruz is a 1.1-mile route that takes about 45 minutes providing views of Puerto Escondido and the beautiful boats that enter and leave this marina. The desert and sea landscape are impressively breathtaking.
Some important hiking tips to keep in mind. Even on days when the thermometer isn’t registering high, the sun is intense. Adventurers should bring at least 50 SPF sunscreen, plenty of drinking water, and wear sturdy hiking shoes.
One Day – Two Magnificent Islands
What a treat to be able to witness the majesty of two of Loreto’s impressive islands in the same day. Isla Danzante with its dramatic coastline and amazing snorkeling opportunities was our first stop from our RIB (rigid, inflatable) boat. The uninhabited island is actually a rock formation rising 283 meters above sea level.
Not only does the island have pristine waters teeming with marine life such as dolphins, sea lions, and a large variety of fish and waterfowl, but it’s also home to the Blue-Footed Booby, a bird found in only a few places around the globe. Snorkeling here is a treasure.
Next, it was off to Carmen Island, a private natural reserve that’s a stunning representation of the natural beauty of Loreto accompanied by its own unique piece of history.
Both the Wildlife Organization and the Salinas del Pacifico Company, which own and manage the island, are committed to protecting and conserving the natural flora and fauna that reside here.
Carmen Island’s tidal bay houses a wealth of natural beauty along with relics from its inhabited past. Weathered abandoned houses, a school, a cemetery, and a church are among the remnants of a commercial salt-mining operation defunct for almost 50 years.
Today, Carmen Island is an uninhabited wildlife conservation area comprising 37,000 acres of land. In 1995, a program was established to re-populate the island with its once native desert Big Horn Sheep.
Loreto Night Sky
Perhaps our most unexpected surprise was the breathtaking beauty of Loreto’s spectacular night skies. The virtual absence of artificial lights results in inky black skies layered with stars upon stars providing views that are becoming exceptionally rare in our modern world. It was awe-inspiring.
British author Ronald Dahl once said “And above all, watch with glittering eyes the whole world around you because the greatest secrets are always hidden in the most unlikely places. Those who don’t believe in magic will never find it.”
I’m so thankful we had the chance to discover Loreto’s special magic. It was a treasure we’ll long remember.