The abundance of the natural world surrounding Loreto is met in measure by the richness of its cultural heritage. Loreto’s colonial past lives most actively in the town and Mission of San Javier, an hour’s drive from Loreto and its resort hotels. This town was founded by the Jesuits in 1697. It served as the first capital of all of the Californias until 1777.
The Mission is located in a stunning, oasis setting in the Giganta Sierra mountain range. The drive to the Mission offers dazzling views as you ascend 2,000 feet from the coast. You wind along narrow mountain roads with some sheer drop-offs. The pristine Mission remains much as it was when completed in 1757 by the Jesuits. In recent years a small village has built up around it, and local young men take part in relearning the art of stone carving and masonry.
The La Giganta Sierra mountain range hosts eco-adventure opportunities through canyon hikes and rock-climbing. There are also some ancient painted caves from the indigenous people of Baja California. The ‘Cuevas Pintas‘ are found about 15 km to the west of Loreto, on the road to Mission of San Javier. However, Hurricane Paul did much damage to this area in October 2012. Restoration work is ongoing.
The downtown of Loreto offers many options for shopping and dining. Most restaurants rightly focus on local seafood, particularly the buttery and delicious chocolate clams. The pedestrian-oriented, cobblestone shopping streets offer many unique local wares. These range from leather boots to woven blankets, silver jewelry, real vanilla, and colorful lucha libre masks. Not a brand or chain-store in sight.
Loreto is very well situated on the east coast of the Baja California peninsula between the Sea of Cortez, (also known as the Gulf of California), and the impressive La Giganta Mountain range to the west. This charming town is fairly quiet and seemingly unspoiled by mass tourism. This is no small miracle, given the fact that Loreto was identified by the Mexican government in 1967 as one of five targeted places for new, purpose-built tourist resorts. The other four were Cancun, Ixtapa, Los Cabos and Huatulco, and their mass tourism economies are well known and very well established.
Visitors and tourists who are looking for an alternative to the full-on, all-inclusive Mexican resort experience can be very grateful that in spite of development pressures and last-century planning, Loreto remains a small, authentic Mexican town that appears to have successfully embraced a tourism industry on its own, particular terms.
This delicate balance has resulted in Loreto’s designation as a ‘pueblo magico‘ by Mexico’s Secretariat of Tourism in 2012, in recognition of the town’s ability to offer visitors a ‘magical experience’ by virtue of its natural beauty, culture, and historical relevance. This is rooted partly in the historical significance of its Mission heritage (founded by the Jesuits in 1697), and its location adjacent to the protected Loreto Bay National Marine Park, a UNESCO World Heritage site.
The combination of colonial history and a protected ecology and environment has created a unique and incredible eco-tourism market catering to many different adventure-seeking tourists and nature lovers. The Loreto Bay Marine Park is an azure blue sanctuary that is a diver’s and snorkeler’s dream. Schools of fish, coral reefs, sea turtles, sea lions, dolphins and whales can be found in the warm blue water of the 50-mile-long protected area. The Marine Park also includes the five major Islands of Loreto: Coronado, Santa Catalina, del Carmen, Danzante and Monserrate. These Islands are easily accessible by open-air ‘panga’ boat ride. The Islands offer limited but highly prized access to a secluded (and protected) paradise of white sand beaches.
The lure of excellent fishing has made Loreto a major sport fishing destination for many North American visitors. Thousands of fish species make fishing in the Islands of Loreto an event to remember, with sailfish, marlin, dorado (mahi mahi), and yellowfin tuna being among the most highly-prized catches. Daily catches are limited by size and species, to preserve the marine bounty that local commercial fisherman also depend upon. Many local restaurant and resort chefs will happily prepare your catch of the day so you can enjoy it for dinner.
The incredible spectacle of whale-watching is also a growing attraction. Gray whales migrate from Alaska to bear their young in the warm waters of their winter habitat in the Baja Peninsula from January to April. Finback and blue whales are also present. They can be seen from the deck of a tour guide-led ‘panga’ open air boat tour. If you’re looking for a more intimate encounter, rent a sea kayak. Several local tour companies offer a wide variety of fishing and guided eco-adventure tours of the Loreto and Sea of Cortez areas.
If this is your first time visiting this part of Mexico, I have some “Insider Tips” for things to see and do in Loreto. Typically, the first place visitors want to see is Misión de Nuestra Señora de Loreto Conchó, the first mission of Baja California Sur, but I also take them to San Javier Mission – for a more local, authentic experience.
The Islands of Loreto, Mexico
When I want to get away from the tourists, my favorite place to visit is the Malecon (boardwalk) or the Islands of Loreto. If this is a romantic trip, I recommend Honeymoon Beach – you can get there by boat of take a sea kayaking adventure.
Museums are wonderful, but if you are traveling with kids, you’ll want to visit the nearest islands, Coronado and Danzante. Walk down to the marina and hire a boat for a half day tour. You might see dolphins during your boat ride and you may snorkel by the island of Coronado. Stop and see the local birds – did you know the Blue-footed Booby was local to Loreto, Mexico? Visit sea lion rock.
Islands of Loreto Food
If you are looking for chocolate clams, which are typical of the Islands of Loreto, I recommend The Concho´s Restaurant and “El Pangalapa.” The best place to go for coffee & a breakfast treat is Loreto Islas beach front, located in the Malecon. Looking for cheap food in the Islands of Loreto? Go to El Farolito de Loreto or Orlandos Place, where you can have typical Mexican food.
The Mita´s Gourmet located in the main Plaza is the spot for late night dining. For an expensive, yet quality meal, go to La Palapa restaurant, 1697 Restaurant and Domingo´s Place. Domingo’s had strolling guitar players during my visit.
Authentic Loreto, Mexico
Seeing a lot of marine life? The islands of Loreto were named “The Aquarium of the World” by Jacques Cousteau, as they host 80% of the world’s marine species.
When you come to Loreto, get your picture taken at the Hand Crafting Alley near the Main Plaza. The best vantage points are taken by walking to the top of Mirador Frida next to Juncalito beach, a 15 minute drive from Loreto, or climbing the hill right on the beach of Nopolo Bay.
The Islands of Loreto offer great views. Villa del Palmar is the best place to watch or experience the constellations.
In Loreto, outdoor enthusiasts will want to hike the giant mountains in Tabor or Tecomajac and see oasis and waterfalls. Do you like sport fishing? “La Mision Tournament” is a great one to watch and contributes to a great cause. Kayaking, paddle boarding, scuba diving, snorkeling, horseback riding, bird watching, island hopping and whale and dolphin watching are all “must do” activities for outdoor lovers. For those of you looking to simply relax, enjoy a drink in “El Santuario” beach shack while admiring Danzante Bay.
Looking for a little exercise? Walk along the boardwalk or rent a bike from Hotel Santa Fe and explore the colonial town. If shopping is more your style, stroll along the tourist corridor while checking out the artisans shops.
If you are a museum lover, visit the Loreto Museum of the Jesuits Missions. It’s next to the Nuestra Señora de Loreto Mission. Looking for night life in Loreto, Mexico? Go dancing at Bichos Bar or Bikers Bar for live music. If you are looking for wild parties and dancing, you’ll need to head to Los Cabos, Mexico.
In the winter, visit Magdalena Bay and see the Gray Whales winter breeding grounds with all the new baby whales. In the summer, visit Isla del Carmen and see Punta Arena Beach; the underwater cave & the “Pueblo Fantasma.”
Come to the San Javier Anniversary Celebrations in the winter. The Mission of San Javier is one of the best preserved Jesuit missions in southern Baja. The locals grow a variety of fruits like mangos, papayas, figs and guavas and craft them into artisan candies.
Insider Tip: Check out the often over-looked Giant Mountains in The Islands of Loreto.
I’ll bet you didn’t know that the Islands of Loreto are considered a National Marine Park and are a UNESCO Heritage site. The 800 square mile conservancy consists of a string of five unique islands and is the largest of Mexico’s marine sanctuaries.
Just outside of The Islands of Loreto you can visit Mulege and have lunch while enjoying the view of the river which flows into the sea.
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