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Loreto: Quiet gem on Mexico’s Baja Peninsula

  • This January 2014 photo shows the white sand beach on Coronado Island in Loreto Bay National Marine Park in Loreto, Mexico. The seaside village is located on the Baja Peninsula. (AP Photo/Karen Schwartz)

    This January 2014 photo shows the white sand beach on Coronado Island in Loreto Bay National Marine Park in Loreto, Mexico. The seaside village is located on the Baja Peninsula. (AP Photo/Karen Schwartz)

  • This December 2013 photo shows sunlight reflecting on the central plaza in Loreto, Mexico, a seaside village located on the Baja Peninsula. (AP Photo/Karen Schwartz)

    This December 2013 photo shows sunlight reflecting on the central plaza in Loreto, Mexico, a seaside village located on the Baja Peninsula. (AP Photo/Karen Schwartz)

  • This January 2014 photo shows sea lions resting on Coronado Island in the Loreto Bay National Marine Park in Loreto, Mexico. The seaside village is located on the Baja Peninsula. (AP Photo/Karen Schwartz)

    This January 2014 photo shows sea lions resting on Coronado Island in the Loreto Bay National Marine Park in Loreto, Mexico. The seaside village is located on the Baja Peninsula. (AP Photo/Karen Schwartz)

  • This January 2014 photo shows The Mission of Our Lady of Loreto in Loreto, Mexico, a seaside village on the Baja Peninsula. When Jesuits missionaries established the mission in 1697, it became the first Spanish settlement on the Baja California Peninsula. (AP Photo/Karen Schwartz)

    This January 2014 photo shows The Mission of Our Lady of Loreto in Loreto, Mexico, a seaside village on the Baja Peninsula. When Jesuits missionaries established the mission in 1697, it became the first Spanish settlement on the Baja California Peninsula. (AP Photo/Karen Schwartz)

  • This January 2014 photo shows an empty beach in Loreto, Mexico, a seaside village on the Baja Peninsula. (AP Photo/Karen Schwartz)

    This January 2014 photo shows an empty beach in Loreto, Mexico, a seaside village on the Baja Peninsula. (AP Photo/Karen Schwartz)

  • This January 2014 photo shows The Mission of Our Lady of Loreto in Loreto, Mexico, a seaside village on the Baja Peninsula. When Jesuits missionaries established the mission in 1697, it became the first Spanish settlement on the Baja California Peninsula. (AP Photo/Karen Schwartz)

    This January 2014 photo shows The Mission of Our Lady of Loreto in Loreto, Mexico, a seaside village on the Baja Peninsula. When Jesuits missionaries established the mission in 1697, it became the first Spanish settlement on the Baja California Peninsula. (AP Photo/Karen Schwartz)

  • This January 2014 photo shows Loreto Bay National Marine Park at dusk in Loreto, Mexico, a seaside village on the Baja Peninsula. (AP Photo/Karen Schwartz)

    This January 2014 photo shows Loreto Bay National Marine Park at dusk in Loreto, Mexico, a seaside village on the Baja Peninsula. (AP Photo/Karen Schwartz)

  • This January 2014 photo shows the white sand beach on Coronado Island in Loreto Bay National Marine Park in Loreto, Mexico. The seaside village is located on the Baja Peninsula. (AP Photo/Karen Schwartz)
  • This December 2013 photo shows sunlight reflecting on the central plaza in Loreto, Mexico, a seaside village located on the Baja Peninsula. (AP Photo/Karen Schwartz)
  • This January 2014 photo shows sea lions resting on Coronado Island in the Loreto Bay National Marine Park in Loreto, Mexico. The seaside village is located on the Baja Peninsula. (AP Photo/Karen Schwartz)
  • This January 2014 photo shows The Mission of Our Lady of Loreto in Loreto, Mexico, a seaside village on the Baja Peninsula. When Jesuits missionaries established the mission in 1697, it became the first Spanish settlement on the Baja California Peninsula. (AP Photo/Karen Schwartz)
  • This January 2014 photo shows an empty beach in Loreto, Mexico, a seaside village on the Baja Peninsula. (AP Photo/Karen Schwartz)
  • This January 2014 photo shows The Mission of Our Lady of Loreto in Loreto, Mexico, a seaside village on the Baja Peninsula. When Jesuits missionaries established the mission in 1697, it became the first Spanish settlement on the Baja California Peninsula. (AP Photo/Karen Schwartz)
  • This January 2014 photo shows Loreto Bay National Marine Park at dusk in Loreto, Mexico, a seaside village on the Baja Peninsula. (AP Photo/Karen Schwartz)

Efforts to turn the seaside village of Loreto, Mexico, 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 welcomed only about 40,000 tourists last year, compared with 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.

Here are some highlights:

Waterfront

A new, multimillion-dollar promenade makes for a pleasant waterfront stroll and provides for spectacular views east toward 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.

Dining

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.)

Beaches

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.

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