I’m goin’ way down south
Way down to Mexico way…
Way down where I can be free
Ain’t no one gonna find me
Sure, Jimi was talking about a guy running from the law ’cause he’d just shot his cheating wife, but the sentiment is there:
Heading south to explore the colonial history and natural delights of Baja, Mexico is an ideal form of escape.
Climb into a small van with a local Loreto tour guide…and leave your weapons at home.
I was recently in and around the town of Loreto, in Mexico’s Baja state (the long skinny peninsula that sticks out at the bottom of California), staying at the Villa del Palmar at the Islands of Loreto, a friendly spa resort on the Sea of Cortez.
Local tour company Wild Loreto helped further my explorations of the southern Baja region. In the company of kind, funny Mexican guys in their 20s and 30s who love their work and speak excellent English, I visited the historic missions at San Javier and Loreto, splashed through a rocky stream, snorkeled the clearest waters I’d ever seen, and snarfed ceviche on a white-sand beach.
The journey from the Villa del Palmar to the mountain town of San Javier is an hour’s drive, 2,ooo feet up into the Giganta Sierra mountain range on a winding, still-in-progress road.
Along the way, I saw:
-sparkling swaths of the Sea of Cortez
-the poorly preserved cave paintings at La Pingüica and the much finer mountain stream beside it
-hawks and vultures soaring overhead
-hillsides’ worth of indigenous cardón cactus, the largest variety on Earth
-and a Mad Max-type dune buggy practicing for the late November off-road race called the Baja 1000
The 1759 Jesuit mission at San Javier, the second-oldest in Mexico, is an amazing feat of engineering in what amounts to the middle of nowhere; the stones used to build it were quarried 12 miles away and then schlepped here, uphill. A crown jewel in a dusty village, the mission has inspired one restaurant (where you should try the local cotija goat cheese with a side of mango jam), a cute little B & B, and little else in the way of tourist facilities.
What’s to do up here, then? Observe a stone-carving class at the local community center, a skill which enables preservation of the mission; tour the mission’s gilded interior and small cemetery; then take a wander out back, past overgrown vineyards and working farms, to see Mexico’s oldest olive tree.
After San Javier, heading down into the small city of Loreto can hit you with a bit of culture shock: there’s a big fishing marina, general stores with bright and garish signs, and even vehicular traffic. The old town has a sweet elegance, however: the mission here is actually Mexico’s oldest (despite its renovations), and it’s surrounded by cobbled streets and arched hedges strung with lights. The enticing, affordable shops in this part of Loreto are full of shiny silver, hand-painted pottery, woolen serape blankets, and dioramas with teeny-tiny bands of mariachis.
Wherever you go for lunch or dinner in these parts (ask Wild Loreto or check out Baja.com for recommendations), be sure to try the almejas, or “chocolate clams”; a local delicacy, these big brown-shelled bivalves are sometimes served with a melted sprinkling of cheese.
When you’re ready to get out on the water, know that Wild Loreto’s biggest ace in the hole is their knowledge of the Sea of Cortez. They can show you amazing dive spots, where to find choice game fish (including marlin, dorado, and yellowfin tuna), or, as in my case, where to have the best snorkeling experience of your life.
A 30-minute boat trip from the Loreto marina, the 50-mile-long UNESCO World Heritage sanctuary of Loreto Bay National Marine Park is composed of the five major Islands of Loreto. My particular journey was to Coronado Island, where I found warm, clear water that’s chock full of huge parrotfish, silver-striped sergeant majors, strange starfish (like the tan-bodied, brown-spiked “chocolate chip”), and the occasional acid-green moray eel.
Sometimes you’ll find sea turtles, dolphins and whales out this way, but I had to content myself with a flock of blue-footed boobies, a seagull only otherwise found in the Galapagos Islands, and a big colony of sea lions. Every time I lifted my snorkel-masked face out of the water, I could hear these furry pinnipeds barking up a storm.
Post-snorkel, it was on to the beach side of Coronado Island, which has some of the whitest sand in Baja. Though popular with small tours and locals, this crescent-shaped idyll of see-through sea felt uncrowded even on a Saturday afternoon. There are a couple of makeshift port-a-potties just off the beach and a handful of frond-fringed palapas for shade; Wild Loreto brought along ceviche, chips, beer, water and sodas, and the snacking, sand-strolling, water-floating and nap-taking began in earnest.
I’ve never seen a more beautiful beach in my life.
My tours of San Javier, Loreto and the Loreto Bay National Marine Park
were provided courtesy of Wild Loreto and the Villa del Palmar,
but all opinions and observations are my own.