Once you get past all the tourists packing the 90 miles of coast just south of San Diego, CA and way before you get to that other tourist mecca on the tip of Baja, lies one of the most barren, prehistoric, desolate and starkly beautiful stretches of land left in this hemisphere. The Baja peninsula is amazing on one hand, but brutally unforgiving on the other. A land of little rain, it's dry, red and covered in scrub vegetation. But for those fisher-folk in the know, the Eastern coast of Baja California has long issued the siren call to truly abundent fishing and a laid back lifestyle, with a handful of small towns that seem to exsit for no other reason than to cater to the serious fisherman.
Loreto lies 222 miles north of La Paz, the capital of Baja California Sur and about an equal distance south from Mulege. Fornatur the Mexican tourism development agency, has been threatening for the last 20 years to make Loreto it's next Cancun or Ixtapa, but thankfully they've not quite gotten the development machine kicked into high gear. Loreto is serviced by AeroCalifornia once a day from LAX and there is Thursday and Sunday service from San Diego via Aero Mexico, those flights continues on to Mexico City. There are a lot of really cheap 4 and 5 day all inclusive trips out of San Diego, which is how I ended up spending the last 5 days there.
It's only an hour and 20 minute flight out of San Diego. We were surprised that we were served a full meal en route. The bigger shock was that at least half of it was actually edible!! The temperature this time of year in Loreto hovers between 89-91 degrees with 55% humidity. It feels hotter than it is. We passed immigration and customs pretty quickly (which was better organized than in Oaxaca) and were off to our hotel in no time flat. The Hotel La Pinta is one of the 2 oldest hotels in town and for it's age, it's in pretty good shape. Air conditioning works, the room spacious and well maintained, staff is friendly, and every meal we had there was good. There are 2 main features at the La Pinta, a really, really cool palapa bar where everyone hangs out, which is next to a great pool, and it's the spot where Arturo's sportfishing leaves every morning to go out into the Gulf of California.
The first night I had a grilled chicken dinner that was very good. Half a chicken, boned and grilled over an open fire, refritos with cotija, guacamole, some sliced limes and a basket of warm tortillas. The chicken was a tad on the overdone side, but in a foreign country I'm not going to quibble on that too much, a squeeze of lime helped. My friend had corbina that had been stuffed with cheese, wrapped in bacon and then sauted on a flat top grill. WOW!!! Incredibly good, but also incredibly rich. Too rich in fact. Her dish came with carrots and chayote and some rice. We split a shrimp cocktail that had been made mostly of broken shrimp of different sizes in a typical red cocktail sauce. It was pretty good too. We had margaritas with dinner. They were strong and tart. We did observe an interesting twist, once the maggies had been made, the bartender took half a lime and squeezed it over the top of the drink.
Chilaquiles are a real weakness of mine, so when I saw them on the breakfast menu I had to go for it. I had the verde version with chicken. I have to say this is one of the best versions I've had in quite a while. The tortilla pieces were still very nicely crisp and crunched when I bit into them, the verde sauce had just the right amount of piquancy to it. There was a bit too much crema on top, but when you're on vacation who's counting calories. My friend had the red chilaquiles with beef, which I don't think were nearly as good as the green version.
After a morning spent in the pool and meeting all the fishing widows it was time for a snack. Ceviche made from dorado, served in a tulip, ice cream sundae shaped glass hit the spot. The fish was literally just a few hours out of the water, and combined with a little dice of onion, jalapeno, cilantro, tomato and lime juice. Service with saltines and tortilla chips it was the right thing at the right time. Corona, Sol, Modelo, Dos Equis, or Pacifico were the beer choices with which to wash it down.
The fishing boats leave around 5:30 AM every morning and are usually back by 12 noon, if not sooner. The weather is just now starting to heat up, in another few weeks it will be well of 100 degrees every day. This makes the water closer to shore warmer, which in turn draws the fish closer to shore. The folks going out fishing this week were have tremendous luck. Most were back in by 10 AM because they'd reached their limit. The primary catch was Dorado (such a gorgeous fish), sail fish and marlin. There was also alot of catch and release going on as well. If you are out with a reputable captian, they will weigh your catch, clean and filet it, freeze it and then deliver it to your hotel the day you leave. Most hotels will also prepare your fish for you. A lot of ceviche was passed around each morning made from whatever the day's best catch was.
I was supposed to go out one morning with a couple of single moms and their 11 year old boys. Unfortunately, the gal I was traveling with got ill so I ended up having to take her to la clinica since I spoke Spanish and she didn't. The boys caught 5 fish and they invited us to dinner to try it. The La Pinta does have a way with cooking Dorado, these were some of the best fish tacos I've ever had. The boys were also nice enough to give me about 5 pound of fish to bring home, which I thought was really sweet for 11 year olds.
We had not intended to eat most of our meals at the La Pinta, but that's kind of how it ended up. The La Pinta is on the Northern end of town and it's at least a taxi ride in, and there are precious few taxis in Loreto. There are only 10,000 people in Loreto and there just aren't that many dining options. However, I was able to cull some other suggestions from the locals and from our pool buddies. So here they are:
El Nido - Without fail everyone I talked to local or visitor thought this was the best restaurant in town. It is a steakhouse (big steaks) that also serves chicken and pork chops. This is also a sister restaurant to the El Nido in Rosarito Beach in Northern Baja.
El Taste - with the exception of one Canadian ex-pat everyone liked this place to
Macaws (or possilby McCaws) - a seafood house. One of the single moms ate here, liked it a lot, but ended up getting sick. She's pretty sure that it was because the dish was too rich.
Cafe Ole - for breakfast (cute place, we walked by)
Pachamama - close to the main drag. It appeared to be closed when we walked by
McLuLu's Fish Tacos - on Salvaterra by the Supermercado is supposed to have the best fish tacos in town. Our friend Raul said to be VERY careful here since, while the tacos taste good, her sanitation isn't the best.
Taco El Rey - good carne asada tacos, clean restaurant
Mike's Bar - fun bar, good cheeseburgers
Chillie Willie - nice bar, but whatever you do DO NOT EAT HERE. I had lunch here one day and ended up with full blown food poisoning. I've eaten all over Mexico, at all kinds of places, and never have I been so sick. (And yes, having been in the food business for nearly 27 years I'm pretty familiar with what real food poisoning is, and I don't wish it on anyone). Found out after the fact that the cook at Chillie Willie's doesn't have the best reputation. NOW, they tell me :-(
The health department in Loreto tries to close down those restaurants and stands that aren't operating in a very sanitary way, but they usually just lay low for a few weeks and then reopen in a new spot. So the message we got, was that it isn't in your gut's best interest to be terribly adventursome in Loreto. Stick to the more well known places and you'll run less of a chance of getting sick.
There are a number of really cheap (i.e. read seedy) hotels in Loreto for the budget minded. But there are at least 4 really nice ones for those that don't need to rough it. The La Pinta was $89/night for a very nice double. The Hotel Oasis, right on the Malecon, is the original hotel in Loreto catering to fishermen and is about the same price range, perhaps a little lower. Fornatur may be getting serious about development because a Camino Real has opened within the last year, rates in the $125-140 range. But by far the most spectacular hotel in Loreto is the Posada de las Flores. It has a very colonial feel to it, lots of vibrant color, lush foliage inside and out and a good variety of contemporary Mexican art work. When you walk in the first thing you need to do is look up. You'll see a wood beam lattice work with glass between the beams. What you don't realize at first is that you're looking at the bottom of the roof top pool!! There are only 15 rooms, rates are $140. They give tours of the hotel everyday between 1-3 PM. There are 2 restaurants, the Roof Garden Restaurant and the Vecchia Roma. Both restaurants require advanced reservations (kind of an oxymoron in Loreto), but the bar does not. I took a look at the menu for both restaurants. Heavy on the seafood, salads and Italian. Prices are expensive by Loreto standards, moderate by San Diego or Los Angeles standards.
There is a cute little cobblestoned street through town where most of the shops are located, and where the Mission Loreto stands. This is the first of the series of California Missions, and it's worth a quick tour. Prices for tourist stuff were fair and they do a little bartering. Other than fishing, shopping, and laying by the pool there isn't an awful lot more to do in Loreto. There is a golf course and the couple of guys we talked to that played it said it wasn't too bad.
It will only get hotter from now until about October. It's a nice place to go for a quick retreat to recharge the batteries. There's not a lot of great eating that will knock your socks off, and you do need to be a little careful in what your menu choices are and choose your restaurants carefully. The bay is absolutely stunning, and if you're into doing some meditation or inner-self work, you might find this a nice get away from the big city rat race.