These Baja cities are your gateway to all things wet and wild

Having sailed, dived and sated a tequila hangover over the years in the popular Mexican playground of Cabo San Lucas, I wanted to see what other destinations were worth exploring in the region. In the middle of the Baja California peninsula, the sleepy desert town of Loreto called my name.

Friends who recommended the cobblestone-covered town rightly described it as a peaceful town with a rocky, golden, arid landscape and white-sand beaches, where very few people normally hang out. Downtown Loreto itself is full of colourful, family-run restaurants with local artisan decorations. a handful of boutique properties, each housing a modest 15 rooms or fewer; and a sleepy promenade perfect for a jog, stretching, or a quick yoga session on La Darsena Beach.

Perhaps more notably, in 1694, Loreto became the destination of the first Spanish-founded mission to all of California. It’s also home to Loreto Bay National Park: a 200,000-hectare (nearly 500,000-acre) marine space with five islands that was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2005.

I’m an adventurer at heart, so my first step was to explore Loreto Bay National Park: Catalana, Montserrat, Dazante, del Carmen and Coronado are the islands that make up the largest marine reserve in the Gulf of California. I signed up to dive with Dolphin Dive Baja, which has PADI certified Instructors and Divemasters who lead tours of the national park. For one of my dives we visited Coronado Island, a volcanic landmass with rocky wall structures and intricate fissures formed over many years that offers around eight healthy dive sites. As we approached you could immediately hear the loud barking of the male sea lions sunning themselves on the island and in the water.

Once we prepared and dismounted, the sea lion pups dived into the water to play on the sandy bottom around us. Even if you’re not a diver, you can snorkel along the island’s border and interact with the hatchlings as they zoom off the rock structure. Coronado is also home to numerous tropical fish such as angelfish, parrotfish, and puffer fish, which you can either dive or snorkel to observe. Other marine life to look out for while exploring the national park include the slow-moving Cortez clam, hermit crabs, moray eels, starfish, and the elusive seahorse.

On the return trip we passed Carmen Island, formerly nicknamed “white gold” because of the now defunct salt mine. Although I didn’t get a chance to try it, I saw seven tents set up on the island and learned about kayaking companies like Sea Kayak Adventures who offer camping on the beach for about a week and strive to give guests the option to stay 2nd night nights per island. Being on a remote island for the sounds of nature at night, fresh seafood and active kayaking can only be described as every outdoor girl’s dream. Back in downtown Loreto, the Almejas Chocolatas (chocolate shells) buffet, held every Saturday at Hotel Oasis, is a must-try culinary experience. They presented the traditional pre-Hispanic preparation of chocolate shells: a fire pit in the middle of the sandy beach is covered with sprigs of chamizo, creating a combination of roasting and steaming the shellfish.

Before leaving Loreto, I saw Loreto Bay National Park from a different perspective: by boat. ABT Sailing is a professional shipping company with well-maintained boats, offering trips from the mangrove-lined marina of Puerto Escondido. Depending on the time of year, you can see manta rays by the hundreds in June and July near the marina, and blue and humpback whales near Dazante Bay from January to March, as 60 percent of all mammals in the world come to this area. The most impressive part of the sailing tour was the “Honeymoon Bay” on Dazante Island, where you can disembark, hike and see all five islands of the bay in less than 30 minutes. Sights to look out for include the yellow-footed gull (endemic to the bay); pelicans; gulls; and plants like the purple Mamilaria flowers and the Copal plant, whose fragrant gum the missionaries used for incense.

After a few vitamin D-soaked days in Loreto, I said goodbye and boarded a 45-minute flight south to La Paz, Mexico, also along the Baja Peninsula, which unfolded around me as a desert landscape as I descended. However, during the taxi ride it became immediately clear that La Paz’s promenade is the destination’s main attraction and is home to trendy seafood restaurants such as La Faim (casual eatery) and Bismarkcito (a 1960’s eatery), high-end hotels, houses , and loads of outdoor retailers from bikes and scooters to water sports shops. The crowd was a mix of couples, families and groups of friends celebrating birthdays or celebrating their last days as bachelors.

To get away from the hustle and bustle on the boardwalk, I took a 1-hour speedboat ride from La Paz Marina to the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Espiritu Santo. One of the destination’s most impressive islands, Los Islotes, is home to a sea lion colony of 500 animals: a combination of males, females and young mammals and the largest sea lion colony in Baja California. After my experience in Loreto I was obsessed with the playful animals. They didn’t disappoint: several lithe puppies nibbled my hand, fins, cameras and even pulled my hair. At the dive site I also encountered thousands of sardines swarming with cormorants, the diving birds that provide that elaborate separation of large schools of fish. Snorkelers may encounter colorful sergeant majors, parrotfish and sea turtles as they explore from the surface.

The La Paz vibe I remember most is the local energy that urges you to walk or bike, eat, or shop outside on the Malecon (be sure to visit the old Chinatown Strip , today a craft market where you can). score points with everything from ornate wooden sculptures to traditional shot glass souvenirs). For example, I put my Spanish to the test when I sampled artisanal dishes with an all-Spanish menu and ordered artfully prepared fish tacos at Hambrusia. One evening I felt like it and dined at Nemi, a romantic spot with dark gray and blue accent walls lit only by candlelight and Edison bulbs. I ordered the sea bass marinated in sugar, sea salt, and mezcal with white asparagus from Ensenada. Washing down my meal with organic beer at Panderia Pan D’Les Bar, I also savored the essence of the Bajas: the smell of salt in the air and the colorful locals around me that guaranteed a future return.

#Baja #cities #gateway #wet #wild
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