LORETO, Mexico - 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 already is 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 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:
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 the scenic mountain road. Lunch is available at a restaurant in the village, which only got full-time electricity in 2012.
A new, multimillion-dollar promenade makes for a pleasant waterfront stroll and provides for spectacular views east towards the islands. It passes a lighthouse and a small marina, where skippered pangas (small open boats with outboard motors) can be rented for about $100 for fishing, bird-watching, wildlife-viewing or a lift to the white-sand beach on Coronado Island. Recycling bins and dog-waste bags might help explain why the town is so clean.
Farther down, the sidewalk runs past a city beach, empty during the January chill but for the permanent thatched-roof palapas that provide relief from the sun. Trash cans shaped like circus seals seemed sadly out of place.
My favorite restaurant was Canipole, which has no menu, no roof, and an open kitchen, and provides traditional blankets for diners to wear when temperatures fall. The guacamole was made tableside, followed by the daily special, which almost always includes some divine mole.
El Rey del Taco is so popular it routinely runs out of food while those hungry for lunch still wait in line.
Mezzaluna has terrific empanadas and salads (all the restaurants here cook with bottled water), while Mexico Lindo Y Que Rico had great chili rellenos and a 7-foot shark sculpture beaded in a classic Huichol style to depict scenes of Loreto and the surrounding mountains.
The best beaches are a short drive from Loreto, but the roads are good and the travel easy.
Twenty miles south is the community of Ensenda Blanca, which undoubtedly has the most spectacular views of the marine park.
We accessed the beach through a time-share property, the Villas Del Palmar. It sells a visitor pass for $65 per person, which includes unlimited food and drinks, and use of the pools and beach from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.
However, since the beach in Mexico is public property, we decided not to get the pass, and instead bought lunch from the resort restaurant. Security kept a watchful eye but no one interfered as we headed to the beach, where we rented kayaks and a stand-up paddleboard from the resort concession.
Closer to Loreto, a mere 5 miles south, is the town of Nopolo, where investors in 2004 envisioned a 6,000-home tourist community along with shops and a golf course. The course, a few hundred homes and the Inn at Loreto Bay were built before the project stalled in the recession.
We used the hotel to access the 4-mile beach, but stayed only briefly as it hadn't been raked and the watersport rental shack was unstaffed. The lack of attention was surprising since the hotel was purchased a few months ago by Carlos Slim, one of the world's richest men.
His move into Loreto has sent quivers of excitement through the local tourist establishments, who hope he can revitalize the development. So far, Slim's presence is subtle, with the renaming of the hotel to the Loreto Bay Golf Resort and Spa.
Whether Slim will do for tourism here what past development efforts have not remains to be seen. But whatever his plans, I certainly hope he keeps the "magic" in Loreto.