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The Best of Loreto – Best Kept Secret in Baja California Sur


“The landscape looks like nothing,” says our guide Victor as we drive from the airport to Loreto Baja California Sur, “but there are owls and woodpeckers in those cactus, and big horn sheep, grey foxes, mule deer, raccoons and mountain lions in the arroyos, the valleys.” The green and gold mounded hills studded with lanky cardon cactus, copal bushes and prickly chain link cholla seem as static as a western movie set to my untrained eyes. The town of Loreto, and the surrounding towns of Baja California Sur have their own surprises and I was more than ready to savor them all. 

Best Things to do in Loreto – Baja California Sur

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At least I had a guide. In 1697, when Jesuit priests arrived in Baja California Sur, they had high hopes, no money, and a pledge to build a Camino Real, a Royal Road, for the King of Spain. The first mission they built was the Misión de Nuestra Señora de Loreto Conchó in the center of what would become the town of Loreto.

Misión de Nuestra Señora de Loreto Conchó

This beautifully restored stone church near the town square still welcomes worshippers today. Its bells ring out on the hour. For a town of 15,000 souls, the church is a busy place. Celebrations and services are held every day and continue into the evening when the lights from the church spill out into the street. A museum of early artifacts stands on the church grounds, along with a tiny gift shop selling delicately crafted religious souvenirs. This was the first of the missions that stretched from Baja California Sur across the border to San Francisco, 1400 miles away, along the Camino Real.

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Of course, the Jesuits were not the first people to live in Loreto. They were met by the Monqui, the indigenous people of Baja California Sur who had lived there for thousands of years and were very happy with their nomadic lifestyle and polygamous culture. The Monqui were conscripted into building the missions by the Jesuits who offered them a reliable source of food and the promise of salvation, but in less than one hundred years their small population was decimated by European diseases.

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Petroglyphs and Pictographs

Their culture remains in the form of petroglyphs and pictographs at several sites around Loreto. The two sites closest to town are at Cuevas Pintas, 15 km to the west and La Pingüica, 60 km to the north. 

Our Lady of Loreto petroglyphs

Many tour companies in town organize tours to the sites. On my first day in Loreto I took the one hour drive and two hour hike to see the pictographs and petroglyphs at La Pingüica with Juve Orozco from Sea and Land Tours. Our group clambered over dry stream beds and sloughed through sandy washes filled with many kinds of cactus, bushes teeming with butterflies, and trees strung with cat’s claw vines. Juve was generous with his knowledge of the terrain and the plant life. He told us to be wary of cat’s claw, or uña de gato. It’s a woody vine that the indigenous people of Baja California Sur used to cure indigestion and inflammation. But its thorns are as sharp as its name and we gave it a wide berth. 

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When we reached the site, Juve pointed out the fine details of the painted petroglyphs, some symbolic, and others clearly showing animals and people on the move. The sheltered surroundings and arid environment has kept the colors bright.  A bit further down the rocky arroyo he showed us geometric patterns that had been picked out on the rocks thousands of years ago to form petroglyphs. The most impressive cave paintings in Baja California Sur can be found at the UNESCO designated caves high in the Sierra de San Francisco mountains but they can only be reached by a three day trek with mule or on horseback. You can find these larger than life size images from Loreto’s indigenous past reproduced in concrete on the walking street that leads to the Malecon, Loreto’s beachfront seawall. 

Returning to Loreto, I was happy to find my spotlessly clean room at Bugambilias Suites had a strong, hot shower and plenty of fluffy towels. There was also a full kitchenette, perfect for long stays, and upstairs on the terrace there were plenty of lounge chairs and a panoramic view of the mountains tinged with blue.

The Malecon

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If you visit the Malecon as the sun is rising, as I did the next day, you’ll find fishermen casting their lines into the sea, bicyclists furiously pedaling along the boardwalk and joggers taking advantage of the cool morning breeze.

Hotel La Mision

At the Hotel La Mision, a classic Spanish Revival style hotel, I pushed open the massive wooden doors and walked up the cool marble steps to find Los Olivos, an elegant dining room with a shady terrace overlooking the beach. A bountiful morning buffet of fresh fruit, omelets, pastries and excellent coffee was on offer. Next to me a local family were enjoying several kinds of breakfast tortillas and chilaquiles, a traditional Mexican breakfast dish made of lightly fried corn tortillas covered with red or green salsa, mozzarella cheese, onion, cilantro, sour cream and beans. It was a great start to the day.

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Playa La Negrita

Loreto is full of wonderful restaurants. After a day at the uncrowded sandy shores of Playa La Negrita (Bold Beach) along the Malecon, or an afternoon spent perusing some of the many jewelry, pottery, art, and clothing shops on Juan Maria de Salvatierra, the town square is the place to be. The lights strung through the trees around El Zopilote Brewing Co. begin to glow at sundown as delicious pizzas arrive fresh out of the brick oven to be washed down with an IPA, Bandito Stout or Blood Orange beer. There’s also a fried grasshopper appetizer on the menu for the adventurous. 

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For the best homestyle Mexican food in town, locals, expats and tourists alike head to Asadero Super Burro. At this hole-in-the-wall diner you can watch the staff as they chop, toss and fry huge platters of traditional favorites over a roaring wood fired stove stoked with dried cat’s claw vines, a perfect use for those pesky vines. The Super Burro on the menu lives up to its reputation – it’s gigantic. Come hungry.    

Heroica Mulege

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If you’re in in the mood for a road trip full of beautiful scenery, water sports and a Baja California Sur history lesson, head to the pretty town of Heroica Mulege about an hour and 50 minutes north of Loreto on Highway 1.

Rent a car or go with Wild Loreto Tours. On the way you’ll pass many secluded beaches, but pull into El Burro beach at Conception Bay at around the halfway point (75 kms./46 mi). It’s one of most lovely beaches in Baja California Sur. The water is clear and warm and La Burra Tours is located right on the beach.

They can take you out to visit all the islands in the bay, or you can rent a kayak and snorkeling equipment to explore the shallow reefs. JC’s Restaurant is near the water. You can sit with your feet in the sand under a shady palapa while the owner Juan Carlos Osuna brings out fresh caught snapper done “pescado zarandeado” style. It’s a traditional recipe from Sinaloa and Nayarit that tastes even better when the fish on the grill was just swimming in the bay that same morning. 

Kayaking

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For more intensive kayaking trips, including personalized training from professional kayakers, try Peninsula Incognita Tours. I learned more about kayaking in two hours with them than I had on all my previous kayak tours. Contact them through their Facebook page where they also mention their whale watching tours in March and April and the dolphins, sea lions and marine life that you’ll see every day around the islands of Baja California Sur. Read all about kayaking on Baja California Sur – Sea Kayaking Baja Mexico – A Remarkable 10 Day Journey

Santa Rosalia de Mulege Mission

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When you arrive at Heroica Mulege, make sure to visit Santa Rosalia de Mulege Mission, a beautiful and evocative church located near an oasis about five minutes from the center of town. A Cultural Heritage Monument, it was built in 1766 and has been lovingly restored. The overlook near the church has splendid views of the Rio Mulege River valley, the carpet of palm trees in the oasis, and the Sierra Giganta mountains.

Museo de Mulege

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Heroica Mulege has a most unusual jail, now the Museo de Mulege, to explore. It was called “the jail without walls” because the prisoners were able to leave the jail at daybreak to work and had to return when the warden summoned them back by blowing through a conch shell. In reality, there was nowhere for them to go as there was no road out of Mulege. It existed as a prison from 1907 to 1974 and now has a collection of the handiwork of the prisoners, displays on the history of the local indigenous Cochimi people, and friendly tour guides. Admission is by donation.  

Historico Las Casitas

Before heading back to Loreto, drop in at Historico Las Casitas where you’re sure to be overwhelmed with the multicolored floor to ceiling Mexican décor, and a great meal. You can find the house special of yellow fin tuna on the English and Spanish menu, along with traditional favorites and vegetarian dishes. 

best of loreto baja california sur las casitas

Far from being a landscape full of nothing, Loreto Baja California Sur and the surrounding towns are rich in hiking, adventure, horseback riding, snorkeling, and diving tours and proud of its history. It’s a more relaxed and authentic side of Mexican life, away from the all inclusive experience. If this sounds like your kind of place, I’ll see you there. 

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Debra Smith was a guest of Visit Baja California Sur. As always, her opinions are her own. For more stories by Debra, visit her website at WhereToLady.com and follow her travels on Instagram @where.to.lady and on Facebook

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