This article is from the April 2004 The Mexico File newsletter.
Loreto – the best town in Baja
by David Simmonds
The Baja peninsula is in the process of being discovered – once again. The first tier of American boomers has begun receiving their gold watches and pension promises, with the fortunate ones finding that they have a good chunk of equity in their homes and inheritances. Although they now “keep on trucking” with the help of Vioxx, Lipitor and glucosamine, they were the backpacking vagabonds who hitched and railed around Europe, certain that their generation was the chosen one, the ones who would be, as Dylan promised, forever young. Now, nearly four decades later, after raising families and burying parents, the hopes and dreams of their youth are a hazy memory, extinguished by life events resulting from a few bad decisions, untimely bad juju, and all too often, bad people armed with too much power. But they do remember the dream and now that the hard work is done they are thinking about finding the “place” – that spot where they can hang their hammock and maybe wind back the clock to a less complicated and hopeful time. A place to be the person they still see in their dreams, the dreams that never died. For many, Baja California is looking like that place, the place to rediscover the dream that got sidetracked by…life.
The largest real estate explosions now in motion in Baja are the seventy-mile corridor from Tijuana to Ensenada on the north Pacific shore and the twenty-five mile stretch from San Jose del Cabo to Cabo San Lucas at the southern tip of Baja. A good infrastructure, improving services and easy access to the U.S. make it an easy move for value-conscious buyers. But for my money, I like the smaller villages not yet over-run with expats and speculators. Now, after having driven the peninsula many times the past 30 years, the old town of Loreto is my favorite.
The towns of Baja have a unique feel to them, a wild-west personality not found in mainland Mexico. The Mexicans who have lived there for generations are not descended from indigenous bloodlines, since most of the early pre-Colombian inhabitants were wiped out by disease and murder. It seems that their forced conversion to Christianity was not enough to save them. Many of the long-time families around Loreto are named Davis, Fischer, Drew and other European surnames brought by settlers in the mid 1800’s, another period of Loreto discovery.
The first thing that you notice about Loreto and its 10,000 citizens is the green vegetation, giving it the look of a mainland town in the sub-tropical region of Mexico, a mini Mazatlan. The town sits on a huge, ancient artesian well aquifer, enabling you to drink the water right from the tap without bringing on an intestinal meltdown. That may have something to do with why the Jesuits built the first mission in Baja there in 1697, and it is still in use today. This cobble-stoned, colonial-era section of town is movie-set perfect, offering a quaint setting where locals and visitors gather in family-owned cafes, stores and bars, sharing stories and building a sense of community. I noticed no graffiti, street gangs, Armani suits or nose rings in attendance. I did observe a place of serenity where hard-working local fishermen shared equal space and footing with business owners and gringo sojourners. Not once was I approached to buy a time-share or asked for spare change.
Loreto, to the surprise of most, was the first capital of all of the Californias. After a devastating 1829 hurricane the capital was moved to La Paz the following year, where it remains today. After the hurricane, Loreto was pretty much deserted for about 20 years when a group of immigrants, many from Europe, settled in and rebuilt what remained of the town. It wasn’t until after WWII that the town was used as a base port for commercial fishing. Soon after, the sport-fishing enthusiasts were the next group to, once again, discover Loreto.
A Protected Park
After some 50 years of commercial long-liners and net fishermen working the waters, the fish population was in serious jeopardy. Then in 1996, with much pressure being applied by the local people of Loreto, President Zedillo established The Loreto Bay National Marine Park, an area approximately 35 miles in length by 30 miles off shore. No commercial trawlers, purse seiners or netters are allowed to enter the protected area, although local panga fishermen can still earn their living from the sea that has been their lifeblood for generations. It is estimated that 80 percent of the local economy is based on the sea. With limited financial help from the federal government, the citizens of Loreto have taken the responsibility of policing the park to ensure that the rules are not broken. They are very serious and vigilant in that regard, paving the way for a healthy sea for their children and beyond. Other sea towns would do well by following the example set by the people of Loreto, before its too late.
After the park was established, the fish came back rapidly. Yellow tail, dorado, rooster fish, sea bass, tuna, bill fish, and, most importantly, the sardine population that attracts the larger species, have returned, if not to the levels of the 1960’s, certainly to a huge improvement from a decade ago. On a recent trip, schools of jumping dolphin and sixty-foot fin whales were easily spotted from our panga en route to Isla del Carmen, nine miles off shore. There are several other islands nearby, all providing protected anchorage for passing boaters as well as secluded beaches as fine as you will find anywhere.
Two and one-half hours, but only 22 miles by dirt road west of Loreto, high in the Sierra de la Gigante, sits one of the more awe-inspiring sites in Mexico, La Misión San Javier, founded in1699 by the Jesuit Father Francisco Maria Piccolo. Father Juan de Ugarte took over in 1701, introducing cattle breeding, agriculture, and wool threading to the native peoples, who naturally provided the back-breaking labor in construction of the church.
Today, the amazingly well-preserved stone church is still in use by the 300 inhabitants of the town and the many others who pilgrimage to the site, most often during the week ending on December 3rd, San Javier’s patron saint day.
I’m not an expert on church interiors, being an infrequent visitor, but I was surprised at the quality of the art and artifacts here, including a golden alter piece with five oleos brought from Mexico City in the 1700’s as well as museum quality paintings. We had a very fine meat taco lunch at a picnic-tabled restaurant to the right, just before reaching the church. This is a trip that should not be missed, and includes some cave-paintings on the way there. The road partly follows a riverbed and can be impassable during rains. A high clearance vehicle is recommended under any condition. This is the rugged view of Baja that defines the true nature of this one-of-a-kind spit of dirt. You can see first hand why it remains one of the most unpopulated areas in North America.
The Villages of Loreto Bay
This is what I came to see on this recent trip, a daring new concept that, should it succeed (and it should), will be the best planned development in Mexico. The area is actually five miles south of Loreto in Nopolo, where roads and infrastructure were laid down in the 1970’s for a project that never was completed. The Villages of Loreto Bay is a project partnership between a respected Canadian company called the Trust For Sustainable Development and Mexico’s FONATUR (Federal Tourism Promotional Fund). Following Cancun, Los Cabos, Ixtapa, and Huatulco, Loreto is the last of five communities originally selected for development by the Mexican government. But this time, FONATUR’s partners are The Trust For Sustainable Development and the Loreto Bay Company. The Trust is under the guidance of its chairman, David Butterfield, one of Canada’s most prominent developers. American real estate expert, Jim Grogan, is president and CEO of the Loreto Bay Company. Grogan is known for his accomplishments in land development, homebuilding and commercial investments. Butterfield’s expertise is in “town making.” “When building a community, the most important factors are economic development, social responsibility, and ecological protection. When these factors come together, you have what is called a sustainable development,” Butterfield explains.
The trust has control over about 8,000 acres along the coast, 5,000 of which will be preserved as open space and recreation areas. The project, to be built over 12 to 15 years, will have 5,000 homes, two golf courses, a medical clinic, boutique hotels, and a sport fishing center and marina. A high priority also calls for areas of art, culture and learning. There will be no high-rise structures.
The plans call for a series of walkable seaside villages, designed in the old-Europe village style, built around a town center. Cars will be prohibited. Energy will be provided by photovoltaic and solar technology, and environmental waste discharge systems will be built.
Home sites, priced from around $160,00 (includes the house) recently went on sale, and by all accounts, business is brisk. Prices are one-half of what you would pay in Cabo, and the vision in design and utility is far superior to any of the other planned communities I have seen. The artery roads and utilities are already in, as well as two existing hotels, a Camino Real and Whales Inn, as well as an 18-hole golf course (needs some work) and a John McEnroe tennis complex. This is the Woodstock generation taken to its communal living, 21st century metamorphosis. What JFK called “idealism without illusions.”
I have very high hopes for this concept and what it stands for. I have met the principals, and I believe them to be good, honest players. This is a huge undertaking and not without considerable risk in a part of the world that is tough to conquer. I have the feeling that they see that old dream coming into clear focus, dusting off long held ideals and youthful aspirations. Check it out at www.loretobay.com.