In the 1970s, the Mexican government decided it needed to attract more tourists. It created the National Tourism Development Foundation (FONATUR). FONATUR selected five locales for development: Cancun, Cabo San Lucas, Huatulco, Ixtapa and Loreto. While the other four locales experienced uncontrolled development, Loreto was all but forgotten. Situated between the Gianta Mountain Range, the Sea of Cortez and a national marine park, Loreto became the best-kept secret for those seeking big-game fishing, whale watching and eco-tourism.
In the beginning, the Mexican government openly questioned developer James J. Grogan’s plan to return private land to the public sector. Grogan, the president of Loreto Bay Company, felt his organization could create a paradise where luxurious hotels and homes could co-exist with the natural habitat. Grogan and the company made good on their word. The property was originally an 8,000-acre lagoon with a mangrove forest that was home to tropical birds, fish and shrimp. The company rebuilt the forest, added more than five miles of canals and made it a home for wildlife and a resort for man. Among the wildlife that call Loreto home are two of the five major sea turtle species.
Founded in 1697, Loreto was the original capital of Las Californias, which extended from what is now Cabo San Lucas all the way up the Pacific coast to the area of present-day Seattle. It sits on the banks of the Sea of Cortez which is home to abundant sailfish, marlin, mahi-mahi, tuna, cabrilla, acads, roosterfish, dorado and yellow tail, making Loreto a sport fisherman’s dream. With natural beaches, coves and islands, it is ideal for kayaking, scuba diving, snorkeling and windsurfing.
The Loreto Bay National Marine Park is 2,000 square kilometers of government-protected islands and waters. It is home to 15 species of whales, colonies of sea lions and other aquatic life. Exploring the park is an adventure in itself, above and below the water. We went diving with Rafael Macillow from the Dolphin Dive Center who took us to the park’s Coronado Inland. The sea was alive with yellow tail, angel fish, Ridley sea turtles and parrot fish. There were tons of starfish and a wide array of vibrant colors.
A young female sea lion was curious about our presence. She would corkscrew dive toward us, swish her tail and flap her fore fins, then stop in front of our masks. Peering into our eyes, she would blow bubbles at us then dart off. She must have played with us for more than 20 minutes before retiring to her sun perch on the volcanic rocks just above the surf. The colony of sea lions has called Loreto Bay home since the San Andreas Fault separated Baja California Sur from Mexico. With the stewardship of the Loreto Bay Company and its dedication to sustainability, Loreto Bay will be their home, and mankind’s, for many years to come.
If the beach is not for you, there is golf, tennis and rock climbing. For the truly adventurous, one can travel the same “road” as the conquistadors — a dry, washed-out, pot-holed river bed that leads to the San Francisco Javier Mission. It is a two-and-one-half hour drive west of Loreto. Founded in 1699 by Father Francisco Maria Piccolo, the mission is still the center of life for a small community of farmers. Known as the Jewel of the Missions, it is the best-preserved of the 13 missions established by the Jesuits. The original baroque-style carvings still adorn the entryway and the altar still contains its gilded wood and oil paintings.
Behind the mission are olive trees and grapevines, remnants of the priests’ cash crops. One tree is believed to be more than 300 years old and has propagated into more than 1,000 other olive trees now belonging to Guillermo Bastida and his wife Etelvina Itiguerra. The couple supplies all of Baja California Sur with green olives. They also own and operate La Palapa restaurant. On the day we were there, Guillermo was hand-picking the olives, and bringing 40-pound bags of them to Etelvina for scoring. After scoring, the olives are soaked in a brine for 15 days.
The Inn of Loreto and the Villages of Loreto are located just south of the town. New homes have been built to resemble the adobe abodes of the desert. Through changes in Mexican laws, foreigners can own a piece of this beach-side paradise. In fact, most of the homes in the Villages of Loreto are owned by Americans. “With direct flights from Alaska Airways, Delta and Continental, our homes are being bought as summer homes, weekend getaways and retirement homes,” says Loreto Bay Representative Bob Toubman. “They really like the courtyards with views of the mountains and sea, and the rooftop terraces. At sunset, many of the homeowners gather on their roofs; it’s like one large cocktail party.”