Valley media mainstay Tara Hitchcock gets cozy in Baja California Sur.
“Welcome to your home,” Francisco “Chato” Garayzar greets me as I navigate a small stone walkway and lovingly cared-for courtyard to the room that will be my personal palace for the next few nights as I savor the delights of Loreto, an historical Baja Californian fishing village on the Sea of Cortez.
Conveniently located around the corner from Loreto’s historic town square, and just steps from the Malecón, Villas Del Santo Niño is one of many family-run havens where travelers can base themselves while exploring this pueblo mágico, a title given to small Mexican cities that have managed to attract visitors while keeping their authentic beauty and charm. The oldest Spanish colony in the Californias, Loreto was founded by Jesuit missionaries in 1697, a history reflected in some of its beautiful architecture.
Today, Loreto attracts thousands of visitors looking for a laid-back vacation vibe, a Sea of Cortez adventure, a hike into the Sierra mountains, or a unique gastronomic experience thanks to some forward-thinking chefs and locals excited to share the tastes of their beloved peninsula with the rest of the world.
A UNESCO World Heritage site, Loreto Bay National Marine Park and its many islands are “must explore” in anything from a catamaran to a kayak. (I’ve done both!) Let Sea Kayak Baja Mexico (seakayakbajamexico.com) guide you around Isla Coronados, part of a dormant volcano that offers water lovers a chance to snorkel and dive with sea lions, spot Charles Darwin’s beloved blue-footed boobies (one reason Loreto Bay has been nicknamed “the Galápagos of North America”) and enjoy fresh ceviche on Ensenada Blanca, a white-sand beach overlooking waters that seem imported from the Caribbean.
Venture underwater and you’re guaranteed to spot one of over 800 fish species, from colorful parrot fish to an array of micro-invertebrates that spend their day between a mix of canyons and coral. Yellowtail and dorado attract sport fishermen (and women) from all over and between December and March, and you may even spot the earth’s largest animal, the blue whale (one of several whale species found in the area), as they migrate from the north in search of warm water.
No wonder Jacques Cousteau dubbed the Sea of Cortez “The Aquarium of the world.”
An hour-long scenic drive through the Sierra de la Giganta mountains takes you to one of Baja California Sur’s best-preserved missions, Misión San Francisco Javier de Viggé-Biaundó (San Javier Mission) (visitbajasur.travel). On the way, stop by Rancho Viejo, one of the area’s oldest working ranches, where a large, colorful mural from Mexican artist Uli Martinez welcomes you. Let the ever-so-patient “Chari” Romero guide you through the art of milking a goat – it took me several tries! – while making homemade tortillas, and brewing a cup of traditional cafe de talega using a simple sock as an effective filter, proving the footwear is good for more than just a killer workout.
Don’t let the name fool you. Loreto’s traditional ‘Chocolata’ Almejas Tatemadas (chocolate charred clams) don’t taste like the latest foil-wrapped kiss from Hershey. Instead, the moniker is all about their rich, brown color! On Saturday nights, watch as Hotel Oasis (hoteloasis.com) employees bury the clams in the sand, cover them with branches of romerillo and chamizo and roast them on an open flame.
Pro tip: Once at your table, break the clams open on the provided stone slab and enjoy in a tortilla, only after a Hot Ones-style dab using their house mustard sauce.
After a few days in Loreto, it’s time to say goodbye. Chato tells me that, while I’ve only been here for 48 hours, some of his guests stay as long as a year. “When you stay with me for one year, you are my family” he laughs. I may have to settle for “friend” then, but I tell Chato I’ll be back. He gives me a hug. “Please come back,” he smiles. “Loreto waits for you. Loreto waits for everybody.”
Test your golf skills on the signature par-3 17th hole at TPC Danzante Bay (tpcdanzantebay.com), where your biggest challenge will be to not get distracted by the incredible Baja coastline while you try and land it on the green. If you’re lucky, ask course pro Danny Garcia to be your “hype-man” while you navigate the valleys, arroyos and cliffs that serve as potential obstacles during your 18 holes on this award-winning Rees Jones course. Scottsdale-based PXG clubs are available on request.
Loreto Meal Guide
Breakfast: Sure, most menu items at Orlandos might be labeled “special,” but they truly are! Try the Omelet de la Casa (stuffed with bacon and mushrooms). At Café Olé (loretorestaurants.com) grab a coffee and some huevos rancheros in a charming spot around the corner from the town square.
Lunch: Try the fresh Baja catch of the day with menier sauce and mushroom risotto at La Mision Hotel’s Los Olivos restaurant (lamisionloreto.com/dining). Or, if a stunning Mediterranean tuna salad is more your style? They have that too. Sip some tequila during Happy Hour at La Mision’s Agave Cantina overlooking Loreto’s Malecón.
Dinner: SWant to find the locals? Head to Asadero Super Burro with an empty stomach – their burritos and stuffed potatoes are huge! – and watch the cooks work their grilling magic in the open kitchen. Chances are you won’t even need one of their freshly baked tortillas. I practically finished my quesataco de arrachera (flank steak and cheese) right out of the bowl!
Drink: Norma and Keiran Raferty run the charming Hotel 1697 (hotel1697.com) and the craft brewery, El Zopilote Brewing Co., next door. Come for the tacos and beer, but Norma’s preference? The pizza! “Everybody does pizzas,” she says, “but not like we do!” Try El Zopilote’s signature chile relleno (served with poblano cream sauce).
Fun fact: For years, the owners imported their beer from Cabo-based Baja Brewing Company, until Norma challenged her husband. “Come on, you’re Irish,” she reminded him. “You should be able to brew your own beer!” He agreed. Request a beer flight. (The blood orange pale ale was my fave!)