Baja’s Transpeninsular Highway zig-zags back and forth between the Pacific Ocean and Sea of Cortez as you drive from north to south. Over the course of our first two weeks in Mexico, we have zigged west to Puerto Santo Tomas on the Pacific, zagged east to Bahia de Los Angeles on the Sea of Cortez, then zigged back west again to Guerrero Negro on the Pacific.
After a few days inland of both coasts in San Ignacio, we set out east again for the Sea of Cortez, not really sure where we wanted to land. We were searching for a good place to spend Mexico’s Independence Day. We had heard great things about Santa Rosalia, Bahia Concepcion and Loreto – all places along the Cortez. We decided to check them all out, and stop at the place that appealed to us the most. Little did we know that we were in for the most beautiful drive of our adventure so far, with tempting crystal clear beaches around every corner. We were lucky to make it to Loreto – where we finally decided to stay – by dinner time.
We reached Santa Rosalia within an hour of leaving San Ignacio. It’s a lively little town that looks as if it is straight out of an old wild west movie, with wooden clapboard homes and shops, a town square, and monuments and museums honoring the mining days of yore and today. We thought we had been transported back to Colorado. As fun as it looked, we only stayed long enough to view the famous metal mission (designed by Alexandre Gustave Eiffel – of Eiffel Tower fame), hit the bakery and buy a few Mexican flags for Independence Day. With only an hour’s drive under our belts, we were eager to keep exploring.
About an hour south of Santa Rosalia, we crested the hill out of the town of Mulege and our senses were treated to a cornucopia of delights – lush green hillsides, flowering cactus, towering mountains and pristine, crystal clear beaches and coves – this was Bahia Concepcion. We had been told it was a must-see; we had no idea how gorgeous it would be.
We stopped at the first opportunity to get down to the turquoise waters at Playa Santispac. As fast as we could with a three-year-old, we got everyone out of the car and dressed in bathing suits and into the sea. We splashed and snorkeled around, marveling at the clarity and warmth of the water, and the fact that we basically had the whole beach to ourselves. There were only two other families there, and one guy in a beat up van selling hats and blankets. There were two abandoned restaurants, and a few palapas set up along the shoreline. That was it.
Playa Santispac is one of several pristine beaches and coves along the stretch of highway between Mulege and Loreto that make up Bahia Concepcion. There are very few places to stay, and none were open when we went through. Most people camp in RVs on the beach, although no one was parked off yet – it was way too hot for camping. Around every corner was another stunning beach. I wanted to stop at them all (we did stop at one more, Buenadventura), but we were already pushing the limits of a sleep-deprived three-year-old.
We rolled into Loreto around 5pm, and spent about an hour looking for an affordable, air conditioned place to stay – the heat index when we arrived was 108 degrees. We found a real gem at Hostal Casas just steps away from the old plaza and mission, and a short walk to the marina and malecon – the seaside walking/running path. One day, I made the mistake of jogging the malecon in the middle of the day and nearly passed out from the heat! The only reasonable time of day to exercise was in the evenings (even though it was still in the 90s then!). Every evening, we’d see scores of locals jogging, walking or biking along the malecon. Clearly, I need to take a lesson from the locals.
Loreto Bay is a nationally protected marine park where you can go whale watching, fishing, snorkeling and more. After we arrived, we couldn’t wait to explore. One day, we rented a triple kayak and went paddling for a few hours along the coastline from Loreto to neighboring Nopolo. We saw sea lions and dolphins playing and jumping in the water, and seabirds swooping into the sea to catch fish. It was Maya’s first ride in a kayak. It was a freeing feeling to realize we could kayak with our young daughter – an activity we love to do as a couple, but hadn’t tried yet as a family.
The next day, we went on a motor boat excursion to snorkel with sea lions and swim at the pristine beaches around Coronado Island. Swimming with sea lions was both awesome and intimidating, and a little unnerving as there were tons of tiny jellyfish in the water both around the sea lion colony and swimming beaches. We all sucked it up and bore the stings to be able to experience swimming in the crystal waters and with these magnificent creatures. Luckily, the stings were fairly minor and went away after only a few minutes. Even brave Maya wanted to stay in the water despite being stung several times. To our delight, we also saw dozens of manta rays swimming around our boat and jumping out of the water, as well as a pair of orcas swimming in the middle of the bay!
Loreto turned out to be the perfect place to celebrate Mexican Independence Day. It is home to the oldest mission in all of Baja California, established in 1683. The mission and plaza were decorated to the nines with red, white and green flags and banners for the holiday. A big fiesta was planned for the evening of the 15th on the plaza. It was supposed to start at 8pm. Like the punctual people we are, we showed up on the plaza at 8pm expecting the party to begin. There were over 1,000 chairs set up on the plaza, but most were empty. There were a few vendors selling snacks and trinkets, but it was hardly a party yet. Little by little, people started filing into the square and more vendors set up shop. Finally, at 9pm, the festivities began.
First on the party agenda was to announce the crowning of La Reina (Queen) 2015 de los Fiestas Patronales. Three thrones were set up on stage awaiting the royalty to arrive. Before the 2015 queen was coronated, the queens of 2013 and 2014 were presented in their full regalia of sparking dresses and crowns. Then the 2015 queen emerged to dazzle onlookers. Maya was mesmerized by the parade of what she thought were true to life princesses. After the procession, a group of Folklorico dancers wowed the crowd with a few energetic numbers. Then came a singer, guitar player and an interpretive dancer. By the time they came out, we were done. The late hour and the heat had gotten the better of us. We had drank about a gallon of ice cold aguas frescas (fresh fruit juices), but no matter how hard we tried, we couldn’t hang tough like the locals. We left just as the party was really starting to roll. The awesome thing was, though, we were the only gringos on the square that night. 🙂
We loved our time in Loreto. It was the biggest town we’ve visited so far, and it was empty of tourists, which gave us many opportunities to practice our Spanish. One of our best memories was an afternoon we spent with our hotel proprietor, Abel Casas, and his compadre who whipped up a fresh batch of shrimp and dorado ceviche. We talked and ate for hours in the shade of the hostal courtyard.
We were sad to say goodbye to Loreto. It was the first town we’ve visited in Mexico that I could imagine living in. But we had an open invitation to stay at our friend’s cousin’s beautiful home in Pescadero just outside of Todos Santos near some of the best surf breaks in all of the Pacific Ocean. So, we hit the road again.