Loreto is the oldest colonial settlement of Baja California and was the first capital of California.
Obsessed with the idea of converting the indigenous people of the peninsula, it was here that the Jesuit Juan María de Salvatierra founded the mission Nuestra Señora de Loreto in 1697, whose first church, a building made of adobe and wood, was completed in 1703. After the expulsion of the Jesuits from the New World in the second half of the 18th century, first the Franciscans and finally the Dominicans took over the mission. Despite its long history, Loreto has been forgotten for centuries, and the tourist boom since the late 1970s also left the sleepy place untouched. Most of the visitors were fishermen and water sports enthusiasts from the USA.
Loreto is characterised by its incomparable location between the Cortés Sea and the Sierra de la Giganta (a 4 to 5 hours drive from La Paz). Five lonely islands appear to float weightlessly in the calm, cobalt blue water in front of the mostly cloudless horizon. The Islas Coronadas and the Isla del Carmen are ideal for swimming and snorkelling.
Dramatic changes can be expected from the completion of the controversial major real estate project “Loreto Bay Villages” on the planned scale. A few kilometres south of the town centre, thousands of hotel rooms, condos and villas including an artificial city centre with shops, restaurants and other services are to be built. Thanks to the US real estate crisis, only part of what had been planned to date (end of 2017) has been realised. Despite its ecological gloss over, major problems of the mega project, such as water supply and wastewater disposal, remain unsolved.
The National Park “Bahía de Loreto” was created in 1996 to protect the extremely diverse waters from Loreto. It covers an area of 2065 square kilometres and extends from Isla Coronado in the north to Isla Catalana in the south. In 2005 the protected area was inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage List as part of the Cortés Sea.
The Cortés Sea, the world’s youngest sea in geological history, is also called “Mexico’s Galapagos” by biologists. With 695 plant species, it is more diverse than any other marine or island region in the world. This number is surpassed by 891 species of fish, 90 percent of which are endemic, and 39 percent of all marine mammals occurring worldwide, including one third of all whale and dolphin species.
Diving trips usually head to the Isla Coronado or the Isla del Carmen:
The volcanic Isla Coronado is reached after a 30-minute boat trip, often accompanied by dolphins and seabirds flying in formation. The lava formations on the eastern side of the island are an ideal habitat for corals, tropical fish and marine mammals seeking refuge here. The Isla del Carmen gives the impression of being made entirely of salt. In fact, this impression is not entirely misleading, since the salt mine discovered here by Spanish missionaries is considered the world’s largest, even if no salt is mined here today. In front of the island one can often observe whales and some sandy bays – as on the Isla Coronado – are perfect for sunbathing.
Misión San Javier de Viggé-Biaundó
An interesting excursion, which is also offered in Loreto as an organized day trip, leads to the fascinating mountain landscape of the hinterland to the Misión San Javier de Viggé-Biaundó, one of the best preserved mission churches along the Camino Real. The road to the mission church and the village of the same name starts at km 118 of the Carretera Transpeninsular.
In 2007, the Mexican government released funds to connect the communities in the interior of the peninsula with the main Mex1 road. In this context, the road to San Javier was also paved throughout. The average driving time from the turn-off at the main road to the mission is about one hour. The route leads around Cerro La Gigánta (1490 m), past several hidden palm oases in narrow brook valleys. One often sees wild fig trees (Zalates) clinging to cliffs. Around the small municipality of San Javier the irrigation channels that were once built by the Spaniards still exist. They allow the cultivation of citrus fruits, onions, grapes, guavas, figs, corn, papayas, dates and chiles in the middle of the desert landscape. The seedlings of the cultivated plants as well as the gilded altarpieces of the church were brought to the Sierra de la Giganta at the beginning of the 18th century by boat and on donkey ridges.