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Want Something Quieter than Cabo San Lucas

Serene Loreto, a secret in Baja

LORETO, Mexico - Three days on the Sea of Cortez. Three days of brilliant sunshine. Three days to snorkel or sail or kayak - or do any of the things that bring visitors to this cozy little beach town on the Baja California peninsula.

That was the plan, anyway. But then it began to rain. And rain.

Everything I had read about Loreto boasted of its warm weather and endless sunny days, at least 300 of them a year. Storms are more common in September and October, not in the winter, when tourists often come to hike or fish or watch for whales.

Rain? "Es muy raro," a taxi driver told me one morning. Very rare.

Visitors who had hoped to work on their tans were probably disappointed. But Loreto, I discovered, is more than just sand and surf.

About 30 years ago, this town was designated by the Mexican government as one of five areas to be developed and promoted as major tourist destinations, along with Cabo San Lucas, Cancun, Ixtapa and Huatulco. While the others have become tourism glam spots, Loreto has remained quiet and largely unknown.

Its inviting beaches and crystalline waters are prime attractions, although for many the allure is Loreto Bay National Marine Park, a protected area that stretches from Coronado Island in the north to Santa Catalina Island in the south - more than 510,000 acres. Small, flat-bottom boats, called pangas, take visitors on snorkel trips and sightseeing excursions, where the views can include sea lions, bottlenose dolphins, colorful fish, and, during winter and spring, 15 species of whales.

And while the sun is always welcome, it's not a necessity for Loreto's other popular activities: scuba diving, kayaking, hiking, biking and sport fishing, where a day's catch might be marlin, yellowfin tuna, red snapper or dorado.

The difference between Loreto and Cabo San Lucas, at the southern tip of Baja California, is stark.

Cabo is party central. Loreto is tranquil.

"We're not loud," said Jesus Jacques Ayala, director of tourism for this town of 14,000. "That's not what we want."

But Loreto may not remain a secret much longer.

South of town, construction on a 6,000-unit residential complex, including retail shops and an 18-hole golf course, has begun. A 155-room hotel, the Inn at Loreto Bay, opened several years ago and caters to the five-star crowd. Several other developments, aimed mostly at American baby boomers looking for vacation homes, may break ground soon in the region.

Across the street from Loreto's malecon - a paved walkway that curves along the water a few blocks from the central plaza - luxury condominiums are rapidly rising to meet demand. Some residents worry that the town may lose its quiet charm.

"Things change," said Jeannine Perez, a retired teacher who moved here three years ago with her husband, Alberto, from New Mexico. "The empty beaches, the traffic, the crime - they could all increase. It's kind of unfair to the people who have always lived here.

"Cabo is a lot of fun, but it's always good to come back."

The people who are developing Loreto's new residential community, the Villages at Loreto Bay, insist they want to preserve the area's pristine nature. Of the 8,000 acres they bought, only 3,000 will be used for construction; the rest will be left in their natural state. Every room of the hotel, built on the bay next to the homes, affords amazing views of the coast and surrounding islands. Behind it, the Sierra de la Giganta mountains provide a towering backdrop.

"We want to maintain the character and the reasons that people come to this area in the first place," said Bob Toubman, an executive of the development. "We're very sensitive to that."

The hotel, which opened in 2002, has three restaurants, a pool, spa, and free kayaks for guests to use. This month, nine of the golf course's 18 holes will be available for limited play.

But anyone who comes to Loreto and doesn't venture into town is missing the best part of a trip here.

One drawback: Taxis charge an outrageous $20 for a 10-minute ride into the city (and the same going back), so if you're staying more than a couple of days, consider a rental car. But once there, visitors can easily stroll the historic district with its shops and restaurants, or walk along the water's edge and admire the nearby islands.

The plaza, at Salvatierra and Francisco Madero streets, is a good place to start. The town's municipal building contains the tourism office, where visitors can pick up street maps and inquire about water activities or a guided trip into the hills north of the city to see cave paintings estimated to be 1,000 to 1,500 years old.

One block west of the plaza, La Misión de Nuestra Señora de Loreto (the Mission of Our Lady of Loreto), which dates to 1752, has weathered hurricanes and earthquakes. The mission was founded in 1697 by Jesuit priest Juan Maria Salvatierra, and all missionary expeditions in California began from here.

Much of the mission's history is told next door at the Museo de las Misiones. Among the historic items on display are weapons, agricultural tools, paintings and statues. Admission is 34 pesos (about $3.20), but it's a welcome shelter on rainy days.

Arched trees on Salvatierra create a nice canopy for souvenir shoppers. Vendors sell silver jewelry, pottery, rugs, glassware and other trinkets. And unlike other Mexican towns, you won't see locals hawking curios or souvenirs on the street, or beggars. It's not permitted.

"We're protecting our visitors," Ayala said. "We want people to walk freely in the city."

There are plenty of family-owned restaurants in the area - not a Margaritaville or Señor Frog's in sight - and some of them offer outdoor seating, where you can order fish tacos or carne asada (grilled beef) for a few dollars. Dining at the Inn at Loreto Bay is a more expensive proposition - $28 for a dinner buffet, about half that for breakfast. In town, you can find a tasty seafood meal or tacos with beans and rice for less than $10.

Even if you don't fish or kayak, a boat trip to Coronado Island is popular with most visitors. For a group of four, it will cost $25 per person, which includes a ride to a white-sand beach for some snorkeling and a sack lunch. On the way, visitors are likely to spot sea lions sunning themselves, or a group of dolphins.

Similarly, trips to Carmen Island and Danzante Island are available for fishing or diving, though they're a bit more expensive, ranging from $105 to $180.

My best-laid plans, though, were derailed by rain every day of my visit. I stopped frequently at the marina, where fishermen wait in their pangas after catching their day's allotment, hoping the weather would break. The one time it did, there was no room for me on any of the boats leaving that afternoon.

The next day, it rained continuously, and the marina shop closed early.

So I ducked beneath shade trees and under overhangs, browsed souvenir shops, paid a few pesos for an ice cream cone from the Thrifty store across from the mission. I shared my cone with a friendly mutt - they're everywhere - and hoped for a little sunshine.

Except for a few brief moments, it never came.

But a late-morning walk along the malecon gave me a chance to admire the rugged silhouettes of the islands, and I found the city's slow, quiet atmosphere relaxing - the kind of thing you look for in a vacation.

The beach and the sun? They'll have to wait until next time.


Peace and Quiet in Loreto

US Airways and United fly to Loreto from Philadelphia International Airport with one stop. The lowest recent roundtrip fare was about $1,206.

Things to do

Go island-hopping. Catch a ride in a flat-bottom boat, called a panga, to nearby islands to spot sea lions and dolphins or go snorkeling.

Check out the caves. Guided tours go into the foothills to see cave paintings from more than 1,000 years ago.

Kayak, anyone? The calm waters of Loreto Bay make kayaking and sailing popular.

Cast a line. Sport fishermen have been coming for decades to land yellowfin tuna, marlin, red snapper and other varieties.

Places to stay

There are plenty of hotels in town, but if you're looking for a quiet getaway, the Inn at Loreto Bay (www.innatloretobay.com, 1-866-850-0333) has beautiful beaches, restaurants, a spa, a pool with a swim-up bar, and an unhurried atmosphere. All rooms face the beach. Rates start at about $160 per night, plus tax. One caveat: Taxis charge $20 each way for a 10-minute ride into town and back.

For more centrally located lodging, try Posada de la Flores (www.posadadelasflores.com) on the city's main plaza. It has an inviting patio entrance and 15 rooms (five are suites) decorated in colonial style. Rates start at $150 a night until July 15, when they go up to $180.

Things to do

There are several spots in town that offer boat tours, but it's best to cut out the middleman and go directly to the marina. There visitors can sign up for five-hour tours to nearby islands. Expect to pay about $25 per person for a tour of Coronado Island, which includes lunch and a visit to a beach for two hours of snorkeling. Sport fishing trips are also available, starting at about $190.

More information

To find out about lodging, dining, transportation and activities, including biking and tours to see cave paintings, go to www.gotoloreto.com, the site of the Loreto Hotel Association.

- Michael Martinez

Posted: Monday, April 21, 2008 9:16 AM by Nick Fong
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