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BAJA SUR'S NATURAL PLAYGROUND
 
(2015 - Fall Issue)

Writer: THERESA STORM



I felt like I was entering a John Wayne movie set.

As the WestJet Boeing 737 descended into Loreto, Mexico, I noticed giant cardon cacti lining the runway, the don’t-mess-with-me sentinels of the desert, which stretches 1,250 kilometres south from the United States border to the tip of Mexico’s Baja California peninsula.

Upon landing near the historic town of about 15,000 residents located a little more than midway along the peninsula’s east coast, I half-expected Wayne and his cowboy cohorts to gallop past, followed by actors playing a tribe of Cochimi Indians, the area’s first inhabitants, in hot pursuit.

Alas, the golden age of the American western is long past, but Loreto, the 318-year-old first capital of the Californias, retains its colonial charm with some modern touches (such as a single traffic light).

In lieu of a Wild West posse, we were greeted in the airport by smiling Zayra Arroyo from Villa del Palmar at the Islands of Loreto. Opened in 2011, it’s the region’s newest and most luxurious vacation resort, with a gamut of land and sea adventures on offer.

Off the Radar 

On board the bus to the resort, which is nestled above Danzante Bay 40 minutes south of Loreto, I took a deep breath of arid, unpolluted air, in anticipation of the rejuvenation I was sure to experience in this peaceful, little-discovered natural playground.

It wasn’t, however, planned this way. More than 40 years ago, FONATUR, Mexico’s tourism development agency, identified Loreto as one of five sites with prime tourism potential. Unlike the others—Cancun, Ixtapa-Zihuatenejo, Huatulco and nearby Los Cabos—Loreto escaped the full-steam ahead development, which transformed those once-sleepy fishing villages into mega-resorts.

One barrier to increased tourism has been limited flights, with none from Canada. However, WestJet’s new seasonal, direct four-hour flight from Calgary and the cruise ships, which recently started calling here, are sure to put Loreto on more sun- and adventure-seekers’radar.

Jaw-dropping Scenery

Pulling off the highway, we were granted access through an impressive adobe gate to Danzante Bay, which, in addition to the resort, will eventually include a development of up to 300 single-family homes.

Wending our way along a twisting, hillside ochre dirt road, diamond sunrays shot from the mirror-calm, volcanic-island-dotted Sea of Cortez below. The deserted beach wrapped around the cove later beckoned a sandy barefoot stroll.

To the west, trail-laced, purple-tinged peaks of the Sierra de la Giganta—the mountains of the giants—tumble in layers toward the desert floor, tucking the Rees Jones golf course (under construction with the first 11 holes scheduled to open in 2016) and the secluded 181-suite resort between the ridge and the sea. No wonder Loretanos say this is where the mountains come to swim.

Welcome Guests

On the lobby veranda overlooking five clever turtle-shell-pattern pools and a landscaped oasis, we were welcomed to Villa del Palmar with a picante chili cucumber margarita, a complimentary Sabila Spa chair massage, and a hand-cleansing ritual to release stress as we eased into vacation mode. Ahhh!

In the resort’s casual Casa Mia bistro, executive chef Alfonso Peregrina presented Loreto’s culinary specialty of chocolate clams—said to be an aphrodisiac. His gratin-style delicacies, baked with cheese, chipotle, garlic and butter were a hit.

“There are millions of clams here,”enthused Sixto Navarro, general manager. “Want to go clamming?”

The next morning found me skin-diving in the shallow, crystal-clear waters fronting the resort with Spanish-speaking guide Mauricio. He skimmed the sandy floor and pointed to two tiny protruding air tubes, which resembled wee bubble holes, and beckoned me down. I took a gulp of air and clawed at the sand to unearth the glistening dark chocolate-shelled mollusk before buoyancy sent me popping back up to the surface.

Shoreside, the clams were shucked for willing tasters, garnished with a squeeze of lime and tajin seasoning, a Mexican medley of chili peppers, lime and salt.

Whales Galore

To explore the wonders of Loreto Bay, Mexico’s largest national marine park and a UNESCO World Heritage Site, a boat tour is a definite must-do. We embarked on a snorkeling expedition in Loreto Harbour with Danzante Tours. Our destination, Coronado, one of the park’s five uninhabited islands, boasts a stunning white beach and aquamarine cove.

Jacques Cousteau proclaimed the Sea of Cortez “the world’s aquarium” for just this reason. As we motored out, guide Daniel gave a rundown on the rich marine life. Hundreds of fish species including sailfish and marlin make Loreto a hit with sport fishers; common, bottlenose and striped dolphins and false killer whales are regularly sighted; and the nutrient-rich sea supports the world’s largest and most varied whale population, which includes enormous blues and finbacks, the largest cetaceans, for which the sheltered waters are a nursery. In addition, he explained, in protected Magdalena Bay on Baja’s Pacific coast, 2.5 hours to the west, grey whales give birth between January and March.

A surprised shout interrupted Daniel. Turning, I could only stammer. The sheer size of a blue whale surfacing off the bow, then another to starboard, took both words and breath away. Just like Loreto’s natural beauty did. Baja Mexico’s little-discovered destination won’t be so for long.

Travel Planner

This winter, WestJet’s (westjet.com) weekly service from Calgary commences December 12, increasing to twice weekly between February 10 and May 28, 2016.

For more information, visit:

Danzante Tours: viajesdanzante.com

Loreto Hotel Association: gotoloreto.com

Loreto Tourism: loreto.com

Villa del Palmar at the Islands of Loreto: villadelpalmarloreto.com

Wild Loreto: wildloreto.com

 
 
 
 
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