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Loreto: Baja’s best secret to be revealed in years to come

The Jesuits’ foray into California had its origins in this small town

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LORETO, BAJA CALIFORNIA SUR, MEXICO: A local woman walks briskly into the mission courtyard under the late afternoon sun and opens her hand to reveal a hummingbird with an injured wing.

The tiny bird jumps to the cobblestone pavement below and the woman leans down to pluck the delicate creature to safety. A visitor to the town of 13,000 suggests feeding the delicate bird droplets of sweet fruit juice. She smiles, nods and disappears into the church containing a statue of St. Francis of Assisi, the patron saint of animals.

It was from this mission, founded 308 years ago by Jesuit Juan Maria Salvatierra, that Franciscan priest Juniperro Serra ventured north in 1769 and set-up church settlements in San Diego, Santa Barbara, Sacramento and San Francisco. They became American cities, big and small. Loreto is still a charming, little Mexican town.

Mision Nuestra Senora de Loreto’s landmark clock tower rises above all in the oldest colonial habitation in the Californias. Until an 1829 hurricane, Loreto was the capital of the Californias. These days, Loreto is the best-kept secret on the Baja Peninsula.

The Sierra La Giganta mountain range spills into the Sea of Cortez and prickly cactus gives way to the rustling palm tree as the 26th parallel cuts through Loreto.

Bougainvillea arches cast refreshing shadows on Salvatierra Boulevard, Loreto’s main street, where craft stores and outdoor eateries sit side by each. Aggressive merchants and beggars are seemingly non-existent. El Canipole, over the mission wall, is situated around a centuries old well and offers ceviche and taco-making classes when it’s not so busy. A girl in traditional blue and white dress struts back and forth in front of the town hall’s sun-bleached maize façade. A mariachi band plays by the mauve Posada de Las Flores hotel, which boasts a transparent swimming pool embedded in the roof.

Salvatierra terminates on the east at the malecon waterfront promenade where an abandoned hotel and vacant lot scream out for redevelopment. As I sip beer with my companion at a beach bar, pelicans at the marina huddle around sport fishermen who unload their catch from pango boats. MS Ryndam, a Holland America cruiseliner renovated in Victoria, is anchored offshore in the foreground; Isla del Carmen and smaller sisters Coronado and Danzante float in the background among the 2,065 sq. km. Loreto Bay national marine park. Eight of the world’s 17 whale species live in what Jacques Cousteau called "Mother Nature’s aquarium."

The picturesque natural harbour of Puerto Escondido is worth the 20-minute drive south of Loreto on the Transpeninsular Highway. It’s the departure point for the yacht El Don. Our excursion took us to the far side of Coronado to view a California sea lion rookery. En route, we spotted a massive finback whale in the distance. A trio of dolphins greeted us on our return to port as a flock of terns glided amid the low, cotton clouds above.

For an up-close encounter with marine mammals, the village of Puerto Lopez Mateos on Baja’s Pacific coast is a most-memorable 90-minute drive west. The two-lane highway winds through Basalt canyons and valleys where turkey vultures nest atop giant cardon cacti. The mountains yield to flatlands and the farming town Ciudad Insurgentes. Lopez Mateos is across from the north end of Magdalena Island and serves as a winter home of the California gray whale. If you stand long enough on the dock, you’re sure to spot a spout. Pango boat tours of the lagoons, where mothers nurse their offspring, are offered daily from November to March. It’s truly a humbling experience to look right into the eye of a creature bigger than a bus that will soon migrate north to Alaska for the summer!

Back on the Cortez side of Baja and 8 km south of Loreto are the cacti and succulent-covered hills of Nopolo that beckon for hikers and mountain bikers. Nopolo’s shallow, white sand coastline is ripe for easy kayaking, from which one can admire an estuary that forms the signature 14th hole on a golf course being redesigned by the PGA Tour’s David Duval.

Another David – Victoria’s David Butterfield – is transforming Nopolo into a 6,000-home network of solar-and-wind-powered, car-free, adobe-style villages in partnership with FONATUR, the Mexican tourism agency that put Cancun and Los Cabos on the map.

Butterfield’s nine-phase Villages of Loreto Bay is slated for completion in a decade or so, which means now’s the time to catch lovely Loreto while it’s little.

If you go: Visit www.gotoloreto.com for area information. Alaska Airlines flies Thursdays and Sundays to Loreto from Los Angeles. Leave Vancouver at breakfast, catch the connecting flight at LAX and arrive in the historic town for a seafood salsa lunch and siesta on the beach. Go to www.alaskaair.com or call 1-800-252-7522 for information.

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