Find Old World Charm in Mexico's Loreto

January 28, 2011
Eric Anderson, MD

,
Nancy Anderson, RN

Tourist places in Mexico tend to be ... touristy. But in a little town of about 12,000 souls called Loreto, under the base of the stark Sierra de la Giganta Mountains, you'll find a taste of the country's Old World charm. Loreto looks the way Cabo did 50 years ago.

Photography by the authors.Tourist places that have been in style for years tend to be, er, touristy. For example, if a traveler is looking for the simple, Old World charm of a small Mexican village, he won’t find it on the Miami Beach-like Mexican Riviera. But if he sneaks a little bit to the North and slips into that gulf created by the San Andreas Fault, and drifts up its West Coast he will come to a town of about 12,000 souls called Loreto under the base of the stark, jagged Sierra de la Giganta Mountains. Loreto looks the way Cabo did 50 years ago.

Loreto makes you feel as if you were somehow transported into a Sergio Leone movie: Lethargic pelicans perch indolently on bobbing fishing boats; occasional puffs of dust zigzag across the village square. There’s music, there’s dancing! The first of all California missions, the Misión Nuestra Seňora De Loreto, was built here in 1697, and rebuilt in 1752 still with the original mission bells. Opposite it squats a bust of the original missionary, Juan Maria de Salvatierra. Juan Maria was the one who drew up the plan to conquer the natives of Baja California by “spiritual means” because the military campaigns had consistently failed.

Next door to the mission lies an interesting little museum whose exhibits include Spanish campaign weapons, a Mass Book from the 18th century, and some of the pots and pans the priests brought into service “in their attempts to influence the Indians by way of their stomachs,” says our guide, Nick Inman.

Although Loreto is the site of the oldest human settlement on the Baja peninsula, the Indians were wiped out within a century, says our guide. The town was the capital of the Californias at a time when it stretched all the way from the tip of Baja to the Oregon border. Loreto’s importance lasted until the town was devastated by a hurricane in 1829, when La Paz took over as capital. Loreto is now a famous center for sports fishing. The Mexican government tried to develop the town into another super-resort in the early 1980s, the way it had developed Cancun 10 years before. So far, fortunately, it has failed.

Loreto is still a delightfully laid back small town, whose little Plaza Civica is reached in an easy walk from the harbor along the Playa. The path runs past a home with life-size metal mariachi musicians standing guard outside the front door. The road turns, at a tall rusting signpost, down a street named, not surprisingly, Salvatierra. The street passes a local Huichol Indian artist, Mariano, who is completing a decorative work of beading. The Huichols of the Sierra Madre Mountains of Central Mexico have created beaded art for centuries as offerings to the gods. They create the items, some of museum quality, by spreading beeswax over the surface and then pressing in the beads, one at a time.

The Plaza, like the square in any Mexican town, is the center of any activity. Streets run beyond it as small shopping centers. But just before the Plaza stands something every Mexican town needs to complete an American visitor’s vacation: A firstclass hotel. Posada de las Flores is a 15-room/suite hotel, formerly a Mexican colonial home. It has a restaurant, satellite TV and air conditioning, and is furnished with Mexican antiques. Its most fascinating characteristic, however, is its glass-bottomed swimming pool, situated in the lobby’s ceiling. The hotel is part off Baja Tours & Resorts owned by an Italian hotelier Giuseppe Marcelletti who has lived in Baja for 15 years. The company owns similar hotels in La Paz and Punta Chivato, and rates are posted on its website.

The Andersons, who live in San Diego, are the resident travel & cruise columnists for Physician's Money Digest. Nancy is a former nursing educator, Eric a retired MD. The one-time president of the New Hampshire Academy of Family Practice, Eric is the only physician in the American Society of Travel Writers. He has also written five books, the last called The Man Who Cried Orange: Stories from a Doctor's Life.