Loreto; The Birthplace of the Californias
By Claudia Velo
Yes, you read it right, "Californias," there are three states with California in their name. Baja California Sur, the land of Los Cabos, La Paz, and Loreto, Baja California, the state to the north, is known for its good wines and beers and the fun you can have in Tijuana and Rosarito, and California, our neighbor across the border. Now that we've cleared that let's talk about where it all began.
Loreto, a place that is a quiet little town, so much so that it is one of Mexico's 132 Pueblos Mágicos, and in the case of Loreto, you can feel the magic as you walk along its Malecón (boardwalk) or stroll its charming central plaza.
The town of Loreto was where, after more than a century of failed attempts, the Spanish finally settled across what was then called the Vermillion Sea, now known as Sea of Cortez or Gulf of California. Then again, back then, we're talking about 1697; California wasn't a thing yet. But let's get back to the story. It was then that the Jesuit priest, Juan María Salvatierra, landed in the place that is now Loreto and established the first Mission in California. The remnants of that first mission are still there, and they are part of the tourist attractions one can enjoy when visiting Loreto. You can also see the original virgin, the "Virgen de Loreto," brought from Europe by Father Kino in 1667. The current church, where the virgin is housed, was finished in 1752, and the most recent restoration was done in 1976. As it reads above the entrance, that church is the "Mother of the Missions of Lower and Upper California." From this mission, Fray Junipero Serra left in the 18th century and founded the Missions in San Diego, Monterrey, and San Francisco in what is now the U.S. Can you imagine, setting out on foot, driven by your faith to travel through unknown territories to establish Missions? Building churches with what you found in the area and getting it done all across the Baja peninsula? Well, that is precisely what he did, but I digress.
About 2 hours from Loreto and in a section of the old Camino Real used by Spanish missionaries and explorers, you will find the Mission of San Francisco Javier. This is the best-preserved, most spectacularly set mission in Baja -- high in a mountain valley oasis beneath volcanic walls. This mission was founded in 1699 by the Jesuit priest Francisco María Píccolo. However, the current building is the second location of the mission, which is now closer to a natural spring. Construction began in 1701 and was completed in 1758. This was the second mission established in California. The church was built with blocks of volcanic stone from the Sierra de la Giganta Mountains. When Father Ugarte founded the mission in its current location, he started to grow wheat, corn, and grapes, and it was in this mission, the first missional wine was produced. Originally the grapes were used to make sweet wine and brandy. Currently, the grapes grown in the area are not considered of good enough quality for the tradition of producing missional wine remains.
If you are not into colonial architecture and history, there are many other sites to visit and enjoy in Loreto. In fact, you can see prehistoric cave paintings that date back more than 12 thousand years. Spectacular paintings on the walls have kept their secret meaning for thousands of years. There are animals and human images shown in what seems to be ancient rituals, pilgrimages, hunts, and battles. It is impossible not to marvel as you stand in front of these paintings and realize that there were groups of people living in that area that long ago.
Within Loreto Bay, you can also visit five beautiful islands with beautiful beaches that are perfect for enjoying their crystal-clear waters, admiring the abundant marine life, and having fun kayaking, paddle-boarding, or snorkeling. Nothing like enjoying a day out enjoying the beauty of the sea and returning to the magic town of Loreto to enjoy civilized pleasures like fine dining at one of the quaint restaurants or enjoying the warm breeze as you taste some local fare like charred clams "almejas tatemadas."
Go ahead, visit Loreto, discover its beauty and wonders, taste the charred clams…. You can thank me later.