Our skiff motors slowly, silently along the rocky Isla Coronados. Orderly rows of pelicans glide along the water’s surface; on the cliffs overhead, blue-footed boobies flex their webbed Smurf toes.
“There! Did you see that? Humpback.”
Local guide Rafael Utrillo points to the horizon as a breaching whale slips back into the blue. Although the annual undersea cetacean convention that attracts colossal blues, stormy grays, playful orca to Loreto Bay National Park ended in March, a few bask in southern Baja’s protected waters into the late spring.
Sea lions, though, dive and flop and holler from the island’s shore all year-round. Outfitted with a mask and snorkel, I circle their sleek, underwater ballet. The colony knows Utrillo. Sometimes they’ll even coax their babies into the water to meet him or swim right up and bark like a puppy asking to play. Today, they eye us curiously and carry on with sea lion business with unexpected grace and speed.
It’s hard to say which of the national park’s five islands are its most beautiful. From the top of the arduous hiking trail climbing the volcano on Coronados’ southern side, they are ingots of desert gold in turquoise and sapphire waters. White sand coves like Danzante’s Honeymoon Cove and Carmen’s Playa Blanca are so secluded, we are virtually alone—minus the spindly red sea stars that patrol the ocean floor.
But despite its remarkable gatherings of whales and birds, Loreto is still largely undiscovered by the Baja-going set. There are no high-rise hotels or private pay-to-play beaches. There’s no raucous bar and club scene, no massive cruise ship enterprise, no all-inclusive resorts. And if the community has any say, it’ll stay that way: A laid-back little beach town on the edge of one of Mexico’s most enticing bays.
On land, too, Loreto has a charm Cabo can only dream of. From its stark landscape, a geologically impressive echo of California’s Palm Desert (if said desert were located on a stunning ocean bay, that is) to its historic downtown center, a quaint square lined with family-owned restaurants and the first Spanish mission to be completed on El Camino Real, Loreto is Baja Sur’s most underrated getaway.
Here’s how to get there, where to stay, and what to do in Loreto and the Loreto Bay National Park in Baja Sur.
Getting to Loreto, Baja Sur
The Crayola coastline of Baja Sur.
(Courtesy of Visit Baja Sur)
The town of Loreto is less than a 10-minute drive from the Loreto International Airport (LTO). Hop a direct flight via Alaska Airlines from LAX or fly American Airlines from Phoenix. Both flights are approximately two hours.
Where to Stay in Loreto
The Hotel Oasis, a classic beach stay in Loreto.
The Hotel Oasis (Calle Baja California E) is a classic beach stay with swaying palms, colorful hammocks, and a killer view. Rooms are modest and clean with essential amenities (including A/C, WiFi, and Netflix); there are kayaks, paddle boards, and bikes to borrow and a pool at the back of the property is prime for a dip. A morning chilaquiles bar and Saturday night chocolate clam bakes (the huge local bivalves are named for their color, not how they’re cooked) make the Oasis’ beachfront restaurant one of the best in town.
Posada de Las Flores (Avenida Salvatierra y Fco y Madero s/n) brings charming Spanish Colonial style to Loreto’s town square. The boutique hotel is packed with vintage furnishings and the glass-bottom pool on its roof deck forms a luminous skylight above the Posada’s interior courtyard (roof deck day passes are also available for those not staying at the hotel). At their ground floor restaurant, artisan cocktails and elevated eats are prepared with skill and a wallop of local flavor.
What to Do in Loreto
A blue whale sighting.
(Visit Baja Sur)
There are so many ways to get out into the Loreto Bay National Park. A simple skiff from the Loreto harbor at the Malecón will get you to Coronados Island in about 25 minutes but you’ll get so much more out of the trip with a guide that’s well-versed in the region’s marine biology and geology. At Peninsula Incognita, specialized tours are hosted by incredibly skilled and knowledgeable guides to watch whales, swim with sea lions, hike the jagged isles, and so much more. // Go deeper into the dramatic bay with an Outpost Charters yacht. Book a half- or full-day excursion into the national park where secluded white sand beaches and crystal-clear waters make for spectacular swimming, snorkeling, and sun soaking. // While the historic Spanish mission in town is nice, its baroque sister, the Mission San Francisco Javier de Viggé-Biaundó (23893 San Javier), is stunning. Tucked into a natural oasis in the formidable mountains 25 miles southwest of Loreto, the stone cathedral has changed little since it was built in 1699, and the olive grove at its back is the oldest in California. // You don’t have to hike to the tippy top of the Volcán Coronado for incredible views of the entire Loreto Bay, but making it up the ultra-steep final grade will earn you well-deserved bragging rights.
Chocolate clams—named for their color, not how they're cooked—are a local delicacy made weekly at the Oasis Restaurant.
(Visit Baja Sur)