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Loreto: Adventures in Dude Town

LORETO, BAJA CALIFORNIA SUR - When my buddy Steve called to discuss a possible trip to visit Ursula and I, we considered planning a much-needed vacation together (outside of San Diego) that would provide a break from the daily stress of our routines. After some deliberation, consideration and web surfing, we arrived at Loreto in Baja California Sur as our desired destination. Loreto lies on the Sea of Cortez side of Baja, approximately 750 miles south of the border. One of the Mexican State Tourism Departments’ designated "Pueblo Magicos" (Magic Towns), Loreto was the original capital of Baja California and boasts an historic center with a 17th century mission…the first constructed on the peninsula. We had heard from friends that Loreto is today what Cabo San Lucas was 20 years ago…before the spoils of development paved the shores with resorts, commerce and mass tourism.

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View from the south toward the north of Loreto’s main Beach. Isla Coronado is in the background.

 

We initially found and contacted Pam Bolles at Baja Big Fish (www.bajabigfish.com) in Loreto to help us put together some yellowtail fishing in the Sea of Cortez and set us up at the Hotel La Pinta (Now the “Desert Inn” and under new ownership at www.desertinns.com/Loreto) at the north end of Loreto’s malecon. Originally from Connecticut (where her love of fishing was borne), Pam relocated to Southern California in the 90’s and then to Loreto seven years ago to found Baja Big Fish. Pam arrived as young, single American woman in Mexico, which made her first two years as a Loreto-based entrepreneur somewhat difficult. Once the locals saw her determination, however, she got all the help she needed, her business grew and she met her husband — ace fisherman and Baja Big Fish panga captain, Francisco.

 

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A couple of deserted pangas, long retired from Loreto’s fishing fleet.

 

Pam let us know up front that February isn’t the best time of the year in the region for fishing, due to the high winds causing the sea to be too choppy for the marina’s small pangas to navigate. We agreed to see how the weather would be upon our arrival before booking our day or two of fishing.

Ursula noticed all the fishermen and surfers on our flight heading south. She immediately dubbed Loreto “Dude Town,”…where a man can be a man and fish is always for dinner. As our plane descended, we were skeptical that the small town below was our destination. The scant city blocks were remotely tucked between the Sea of Cortez to the east and the rugged Sierra de la Gigante mountain range to the west. As we turned around and headed toward the miniscule airstrip below, however, we knew that we were indeed arriving into Loreto…destination “Dude Town.”

 

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The colorful, textured and friendly streets of Loreto, Baja Sur.

 

From the airport, we were shuttled to the Hotel La Pinta, our first hotel through Thursday. The best thing about Hotel La Pinta is the location. The hotel is right on the beach and all rooms boast an awesome view of the Sea of Cortez. We were greeted every morning with postcard-perfect sunrises. Our deluxe room featured a nice fireplace, which the hotel’s staff stocked with fragrant pinion and happily lit for us each night. With the exception of Steve’s wall-rattling snoring, we really enjoyed the room as well as the hotel’s restaurant and bar. And, although at the far north end of town, the property is within reasonable walking distance to the town’s Centro Historico (about 10 minutes and along the beautiful Sea of Cortez).

 

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Sunrise over the Sea of Cortez and Isla Coranado in Loreto, Baja Sur.

 

Isla Coronado, Fish Tacos and a Sordid Encounter with Jack Kerouac

Day one, we woke up too late to get our fish freak on, though the winds were relatively calm. Pam arranged instead to have Francisco pick us up at the marina for a charter out to Coronado Island for exploration and snorkeling. The twenty-minute ride on Francisco’s panga was choppy and had Ursula screaming with a mixture of glee and sheer terror (later, as we rubbed our sore derrières, we referred to this phenomena as having received a “Panga Spanking.”). We circled the island, checking out a sea lion habitat and digging the rock formations of its high cliffs.

 

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Ursula gets “Panga-Spanked” on the way out to Coronado Island.

 

We hit the shore in a clear turquoise bay. Ursula grabbed her snorkeling gear and jumped in while Steve and I took a climb up an unsteady succession of steep, loose volcanic rocks through briar bushes and Saguaro cacti (again, proving that women are generally more sensible than we guys). We had an excellent view of the entire island and Loreto’s shore from the top, while Ursula snorkeled among schools of colorful fish. From a mile away, we could hear her exuberantly yelling “THIS IS GREAT…YOU GUYS HAVE GOTTA COME IN!”, thinking that a couple of tourist dudes from Düsseldorf are Steve and I. From the beach, Francisco waved frantically and yelled to Ursula, “IT’S NOT THEM! IT’S NOT THEM!”

 

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Tranquilo. Captain Francisco pulls the panga in at Coranado Island.

 

That evening, we walked to town to hang out at “McCaw’s”, which we’d been told by Roger (an American from Riverside, California down fishing for a week or two) is THE place where local expats and visiting fisherman alike go to tell tall fish tales. McCaw’s happy hour is from 4-7 and most good Mexican beers are only a buck. Their fish and shrimp tacos are as fresh as it gets, EXCELLENT, reasonably priced and highly recommended.

 

When we arrived, Roger was there with his fishing buddy (who looked vaguely like Howard Dean), keeping court at the end of the bar. We were promptly introduced to a number of other middle-aged gentlemen. Among these fascinating characters were dropout ex-scientists, gold prospectors, businessmen, a former General Instruments engineer who had “wired” Loreto to the Internet just a few years back, and (we’ll call him) Danny LeCourt, who we initially compared to “The Dude” from “The Big Lebowski.” At first, I was impressed that he claimed to have hung with the Beat Poets in North Beach, San Francisco in the fifties and sixties, no matter how sordid the circumstances (he yelled to me across the bar that Jack Kerouac had tried to perform an, um, unsavory act on him). I asked Danny if he ever met Ken Kesey, to which he replied, “Kesey was an A–HOLE. He always had to be in control of everything.”

 

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Macaws. THE place for cheap beer, amazing fish tacos and tales of expat braveries and woe.

 

Danny immediately took a liking to our company, and we were invited back to his trailer where he broke out his best bottle of Tequila. Danny’s “unique” blend of psychedelic storytelling, poetry and XM Radio kept us entertained for hours. Upon comparing him to Brian Wilson, he proceeded to recite the entire “I’M FAMOUS” monologue from the Beach Boys made-for-TV movie word for word and with serious dramatic aplomb.

 

“I WISH I KNEW HOW TO FISH YOU!”

Day two, we DID get our fish freak on. After a wake-up call from Pam, Francisco picked us up at the beach in front of our hotel promptly at 5:30AM (ouch!). The ride north in the panga was overcast, chilly and bumpy, but in a Hemingway-esque way, I was enjoying the hell out of myself. From the panga, we were treated to an AMAZING sunrise over Coronado Island as we made our way north up the coast to the area where a school of yellowtail had recently been spotted. The rocky coast was amazingly complex and colorful from the Sea of Cortez.

 

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Fishing in Loreto with Captain Francisco.

After several hours, I managed one aborted bite (my line tangled in my reel) and one brief fight for about five minutes until the big one “got away” (we deduced that it may have been a shark by the way the line was snapped). Steve didn’t get a single nibble, pleading to the sea in his best Brokeback Mountain accent, “I WISH I KNEW HOW TO FISH YOU!” Our lack of luck was no fault of Captain Francisco’s, however. Whenever he spotted a flock of gulls, he gunned the boat in that direction, the assumption being that larger fish had caused smaller fish to surface causing the gulls to go into feeding frenzy mode. Francisco went out of his way to try to put us where the fish were.

 

At the end of the day, Steve and I were barren of fish. Francisco caught a 20-inch yellowtail and a nice, fat 18-inch red snapper off the coast of Isla Carmen. Upon our departure from the panga, he let us know that they could put the fish on ice for us and then deliver it to whatever restaurant we wanted later on. We asked to have it delivered to “La Palapa,” our new favorite restaurant in town where we had watched the Olympics and enjoyed excellent appetizers and fresh seafood the night before. After another day of panga spanking, Steve was snoring away at dinnertime so Ursula and I walked to La Palapa and enjoyed Francisco’s freshly-caught fish served “Vera Cruz” style — grilled then sautéed with salsa, onions and black olives. Mmmmmmmm.

 

The Mountains and the Precarious Dirt Road to Mission San Javier

After several days absorbing Loreto, we became attuned to its slower place, casual atmosphere and especially its friendly people. Everyone on the street said hola and buenas dias. Truckloads of teenagers greeted us as they drove by with a hearty “HEY MUCHACHOS!” We began to develop the habit of saying hello right back to our smiling hosts. There’s something to be said for this attitude and it represents a big difference in the ways that we as North Americans (and especially Southern Californians) and Mexicans interact with each other. We tend to be more guarded, isolated and somewhat skeptical of each other. The Mexican people seem more open, warm and concerned for each other as well as their visitors.

 

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A view from the historic Loreto Town Center.

 

For days three and four, we rented a four-wheel drive Jeep Wrangler for a trip up into the Sierra Gigantes to visit the village of San Javier and its old mission the first day, and then a trip across the peninsula to Bahia Magdelina for whale watching the next day.

 

The trip to San Javier is rugged and beautiful. The unpaved dirt road winds for about 18 miles up into the mountains. The tight turns, big ruts and sometimes eroded road edges dropped down hundreds of feet, which made for an exciting, often precarious and fun drive. We stopped about halfway up to check out the cave paintings on the rocks by an oasis. No one is sure when the paintings were made, or by what tribe. They are predominantly natural and geometric forms, hallucinations perhaps brought on by the smoking of tobacco, the site signage indicates.

 

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Mysterious petroglyphs on the road to San Javier.

 

Several more miles and at least a half dozen wild burro sightings later, we arrived in the village of San Javier. We dug the dusty streets, small houses, and assortment of farm animals strewn throughout the village. The stone mission here was built in 1799 and is the oldest in Baja.

 

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Baja’s first mission in the village of San Javier, high in the Sierra Gigantes.

 

We enjoyed tasty tacos and Pacificos at the only restaurant in town, and also munched on fresh peas straight from the pod grown by a local farmer. After a bit of hiking around, I relinquished the keys so Steve could enjoy driving the Jeep down the dirt road down the mountain. There were surveyors on our way out taking measurements. We stopped and asked what the project was going to be and discovered that they are planning to pave the road to encourage more tourism from Loreto to San Javier. We were glad to have visited before “progress” creeps in and potentially homogenizes the experience.

 

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Ursula, my Baja Cowgirl enjoying San Javier, “pre-progress.”

 

Whale Watching in Bahia Magdelena

The next morning, after a quick breakfast in our hotel, we headed out again in the Jeep to cross the peninsula to the Pacific side. The grey whales migrate from Alaska in the Winter time, coming down the California coast and ending up in several bays in Baja to spawn. We’ve always wanted to see this up close and this trip was our golden opportunity. February is a the most active month for grey whale spawning in Baja.

 

After about a three-hour drive through mountains and desert, we arrived at the docks of Magdelina Bay, one of the best spots for whale watching. We immediately made friends with Sonia and Pilar, both from Mexico City, looking for someone with whom to share the price of a panga ride. The panga took us and our new friends out into the bay. Throughout the two-hour ride, we spotted dozens of them, often mothers and their calves swimming together.

 

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Whale watching…and touching…in Magdalena Bay.

 

Environmental regulations in Mexico are more relaxed than in the states. When we’d gone whale watching off the coast of San Diego, the charter boat had to stay 200 yards from the migrating whales. In Magdelena Bay, the pangas swarm around the whales and often the whales say “hello” by coming up to the side of the boat and allowing humans to touch them. We were treated to this phenomenon on several occasions. Ursula touched a whale while I stayed back in the boat taking pictures. Amazing.

 

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Whale watching in Magdalena Bay, Baja Sur.

 

We enjoyed a lobster and seafood lunch in a mariscos restaurant in the scant town with our new friends from Mexico City. We found out that they both worked for the Mexican Office of Tourism and had visited every state in Mexico…with Baja Sur being their final state left to visit. We toasted them with Pacificos and exchanged business cards and travel stories. More great Mexican people.

 

Hotel Romantico and the “Dude Pod”

On the previous evening we parted ways with Steve, his snoring and the Hotel La Pinta. Ursula and I checked into Hotel Oasis (www.hoteloasis.com), on the exact opposite end of the beach as La Pinta at the south end of town. Steve dubbed our new digs “Hotel Romantico.” The Oasis has a very nice courtyard, restaurant with patio and palapa bar. The rooms are clean but sparsely appointed. The overall atmosphere is very early 1960’s, which is when the hotel was established. Overall, we were very pleased with the hotel, with the exception of the construction happening in the room above us at 6AM on our last morning — a Sunday. Ouch.

 

Steve checked into the Hotel Palmas Altas on the edge of town, not far from the Oasis. His accommodations were a bit more rustic than ours, but at a price of only $22/night for a single, he couldn’t pass it up. Built out of corrugated tin trailers, the rooms are spartan, the wallpaper yellowed and the area just large enough to fit a bed and nightstand. Ursula appropriately dubbed his room “The Dude Pod.”

 

This was our day off. We hung out in town, visited artisan shops and galleries, picked up some nice silver bracelets made in Taxco, hung around the beach and pool, drank Pacificos and generally did nada. For dinner, we walked to the western edge of town in search of Sonoran beef. Our destination, El Nido Restaurant (www.loreto.com/elnido). El Nido’s serves up huge slabs of grade A Sonoran beef, slow-grilled over a mesquite fire in a stone fire pit. Steve and I ordered the 20-ounce porterhouse with lobster and Ursula had the filet mignon wrapped in bacon, also with lobster. The food, service and price were all exceptional. We’ve since made plans to visit El Nido’s in nearby Rosarito based on the great time we had there in Loreto.

 

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Loreto con Pacifico. A still life on the town’s streets.

 

Loreto Carnaval. What the Gallos do in Life is echoed in Eternity…

We had been looking forward all week to our last night (Saturday) in Loreto. In the afternoon, the town would come together to celebrate Carnaval to kick off the Lenten season. Although we had heard that there’s a much larger party taking place in La Paz, we decided to hang in Loreto to get a taste of how our newly-adopted local friends would celebrate.

 

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A Loreto local waiting for the Carnaval Children’s Parade.

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Some Carnaval Parade hooligans spot us in the crowd.

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Steve gets plastered by corn-starch filled balloons by hooligans during Loreto’s Carnaval Children’s Parade.

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Loreto’s Carnaval Parade. Makeshift. Colorful. Fantastic.

 

The celebration took place on several fronts: the Children’s Parade on the main drag by the beach kicked off the celebration in the afternoon. In the evening and into the night a festival with rides, activities and concessions took place at the northern end of the beach. The men in our group had our sights set on the edge of town, however, where a very different type of “celebration” was to occur. The “Gran Pelea de Gallos”…the Cock Fights.

 

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Steve and friend are ready for the cock fights during Loreto’s Carnaval.

 

We had heard of the Cock Fights all week. It lingered in the air, part rumor and part myth. No one was able to tell us exactly what time – or even day – they were to occur. We had narrowed it down to SOMETIME on Saturday, “Maybe 2, maybe 3 this afternoon,” according to the bartender at our hotel the night before. Just another example of the Mexican Minute.

 

After dinner at El Nido’s with some new friends (we met at our hotel over a plastic water bottle full of homemade mescal a few nights before ), we headed up the street where the cockfights were about to begin. The ring was well lit and full of predominantly male Mexican ranchers and their families. The beautiful and colorful fighting Gallos lined the inside of the perimeter fence feeling cagey in their cages.

 

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Ranchers prepare their gallos for bloody battle in the ring.

 

Each rancher brought his gallo into the dirt-covered ring. There, they proceeded to tie a sharp, hooked claw to one of their rooster’s legs — using red and blue string to designate the animals and make it easier for bettors. The ranchers then used a “sparring” cock to rile their contenders and make them thirsty for blood. Once appropriately riled, the ranchers would hold their roosters up to each other several times to make them combative, and then set them loose on the ground to have at it.

 

At first, the gallos lept at each other, tearing with their tied on claw. After a few passes, the roosters tired. The ranchers would then pick them up and blow into their faces…apparently to revive them vis-a-vis some twisted barnyard CPR. The roosters made a few more half-hearted lunges at each other until one finally dropped and would not get back up. It was hard to discern if their was any type of organized betting happening, so we bet 200 pesos on each fight with each other.

 

EL GRINGO DISCLAIMER: You won’t find information on the cock fights on TripAdvisor – or even in your copy of Lonely Planet. Apparently, it is illegal for most of the year, but permits are issued for special events and festivals. Regardless of the carnage and what PETA may have to say about all of this, the cock fights were very interesting from a cultural standpoint. Your Gringo tries not to let judgement get in the way of a new cultural experience, which is part of the essence of travel.

 

Hasta Luego, Loreto

And so we left Loreto, promising to come back as soon as possible. What had we learned? More about Mexico and it’s people. A reiteration of what the Mexican Minute is really all about. To go easy on the homemade Mescal. That the best seafood is served in a town that fishes for a living. That we were fortunate to have visited a somewhat rustic and unspoiled town and its environs that, like the rest of Baja, is constantly under the threat of large-scale development beyond it’s sustainability.

 

But I think our cab driver to the airport on the way out of town exemplified Loreto’s magic qualities best:

 

“I’ve lived in Loreto all my life. I have two cabs, a nice boat, I go fishing, have a decent place to live, nice weather, beautiful sea, my family are here. I have friends who go to the work on the otra lado (other side, the US). Why? I have everything I need here. I’m not rich, but I’m happy.”

 

Your Gringo in Mexico,
Scott

 

Interested in visiting Loreto? Check out our Travel Resources page for hotels, restaurants, attractions and activities.

1 Comment on Loreto: Adventures in Dude Town

  1. My introduction to Baja. This was an amazing trip all around. I want to go on record and say I don’t personally approve of cock fighting and had mixed feelings about checking it out. That said, I’m not passing judgment on the town. It was definitely a REAL experience, not one manufactured for the amusement of tourists. I try to be a Traveler, not a tourist and I appreciated how much of the real life of the town and its’ inhabitants I was able to immerse myself in. Great trip, great people, great food and great companions.

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