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Loreto: Quiet gem on Mexico's Baja Peninsula

Feb 27 2014, 18:08 IST
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SummaryLoreto was earmarked for tourism development 30 years ago...

Efforts to turn the seaside village of Loreto into a major destination have been going on for years. So far, though, the results have been limited, and that in itself makes it worth visiting.

Loreto is already a gem - a historic town nestled between gold-hued mountains and the blue Sea of Cortez. It's known mainly to whale watchers (late winter), sport fishermen (year-round) and snowbirds who drive down from British Columbia, Canada.

Loreto was earmarked for tourism development 30 years ago, part of an initiative that also included Cancun, Ixtapa, parts of Oaxaca and Los Cabos. While the others flourished, the development of Loreto faltered.

In a renewed effort two years ago, Mexico's tourism agency gave Loreto its ''Magic Town'' moniker, a label to promote places notable for natural beauty, cultural riches or historical relevance. Still, the international airport here welcomed only about 40,000 tourists last year, compared to the million or so who flew to Los Cabos, 300 miles (480 kilometers) to the south.

And there are no cruise ships. Instead, there is the Loreto Bay National Marine Park, a UNESCO World Heritage site made up of five islands accessible only by boat.

I heard about Loreto by chance, and visited for a week this winter. After a 90-minute flight from Los Angeles - the only U.S. gateway at present - we found a town seemingly frozen by the economic downturn, with half-built hotels and empty storefronts.

We also found a bit of ''old'' Mexico. There are a fair number of people who speak no English, friendly ex-pats happy to offer suggestions, a scattering of small festivals, a soccer stadium with spirited games, and a local mariachi band that plays in khakis, not costumes.

Here are some highlights:

HISTORY

Loreto became the first Spanish settlement on the Baja California Peninsula when Jesuits missionaries established the Mission of Our Lady of Loreto in 1697. The baroque-style church still functions, and was used for a wedding during our stay.

An adjacent Mission Museum highlights not only the religious past, but also the political history, as Loreto served as the regional capital from 1697 to 1777.

An 18th-century church popular with pilgrims is located an hour away, high in the Sierra la Giganta mountains in the hamlet of San Javier. Following the advice of our innkeeper at Coco Cabanas, we drove our rented Jeep up part of a dry riverbed before rejoining

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