Local Color: Grey Whale Watching

A popular day trip from Loreto in the winter months -- about Dec. 15 to April 15 -- is to the grey whale breeding grounds in Magdalena Bay on the Pacific coast.

C&C Ground Services and Tours operates programs that leave Loreto by motorcoach at 7:30 a.m. for a two-hour drive through the Sierra de la Gigante mountain range and miles of desert landscape to the bay.

There, thousands of whales and their calves live in the shallow waters in winter before migrating back to Alaska for the summer.  The 12,000-mile roundtrip migration is the longest such journey made by any animal.

Visitors spend about two hours in small boats that are about 22 feet long, and the close proximity of the marine mammoths is a thrill.  The docile whales, some larger than the boats, are not timid and often approach the boats, swimming close enough to be touched.

The tour, which returns to Loreto around 5 p.m., costs $110 per person, including lunch, a boat ride and motorcoach transportation with an English-speaking guide. It is sold by tour operators as an option on Loreto packages and can also be booked directly with C&C.

Other C&C tour programs in Loreto include a morning or evening town tour, including visits to the mission church.

There are also excursions to Mulege, a seaside town on an inlet north of Loreto that has its own mission church, and trips to a desert mountain oasis, San Javier, in the mountains above Loreto. San Javier is the site of a 300-year-old mission and a place where the locals live on farms and tend to goat herds.

For information, contact C&C Ground Services and Tours at (011) 52-613 133-0151 or e-mail [email protected].

LORETO, Mexico -- Word of the beautiful landscape surrounding this small Baja California town on the Sea of Cortez has spread over the years among fishermen and nature lovers.

But Loreto now is poised to draw a much wider base of travelers, as a U.S.-Canadian company proceeds with plans for a $3 billion resort and residential community.

The Loreto Bay Co., a Scottsdale, Ariz.-based developer, partnered with Fonatur -- the Mexican tourism agency that 25 years ago selected Loreto as a site for an international tourist destination -- to build a resort that will be the closest Fonatur property to the U.S., about 700 miles south of San Diego.

A vision deferred

Fonatur is the agency that chose and helped develop Bajas largest resort area, Los Cabos, as well as Cancun, Ixtapa-Zihuatanejo and Huatulco.

The 8,000 acres that Fonatur has set aside for Loreto Bay is in an area called Nopolo, about five miles south of Loreto.

Some years back, Fonatur built roads and infrastructure in the area to lure developers.

But with the growth of Cabo on the southern tip of Baja, development stalled, and -- except for a few homes and the 154-room Camino Real hotel and golf course, built in 2002 -- there was little construction.

That has changed.

The Loreto Bay Co. is nearing completion on the first 50 units, which eventually will be part of a retail, entertainment and residential complex of 6,000 homes, ranging from condominiums to large, custom-built villas, in a village-like, car-free zone of bubbling fountains and shady walking paths.

The jagged peaks of the Sierra de la Giganta mountain range and the blue waters of the Sea of Cortez frame the resort area and are the backdrop to majestic sunrises and sunsets.

The buyers of the units -- mostly Canadians and Americans investing in vacation or retirement homes -- have been jetting to Loreto on new Alaska Airlines flights from Los Angeles to choose their model homes (see Local Color, Getting There box below).

The developer is selling packages to potential buyers, with the flights included.

In its first full year of sales, the company sold 200 units valued at more than $70 million; prices start around $250,000.  Property owners have the option of entering their units into a pool of rentals to be offered as part of vacation packages sold by the Loreto Bay Co. and through Alaska Airlines Vacations and other tour operators.

Small-town charm

Loreto, a sleepy town of 3,000 set in a semitropical, cactus-dotted desert landscape, is not new to tourism, but thus far it has specialized in small-scale tourism, largely driven by its proximity to world-class sportfishing and abundant marine life.

Fishermen, whale watchers and kayakers stay at small hotels along the waterfront and explore and fish the waters off  Coronado, Carmen and other islands that make up Mexicos largest national marine park.

Loreto lies between the blue waters of the Sea of Cortez and the Sierra de la Giganta mountain range.The town of Loreto, with its main square and tree-shaded roads, has a long history.

In 1697, it was the site of the first European settlement in the California territory claimed by Spain. 

The Jesuits built their first Mexican mission in Loreto, starting a string of 21 missions that extend northward as far as Sonoma in northern California.

The Mision de Nuestra Senora de Loreto still stands, and its cupola is the town landmark.

Loretos appeal has been its tranquility and small size. There is only one bank and ATM and just a handful of restaurants, souvenir shops and nightclubs.

Officials at the Loreto Bay Co. say they have no intention of changing the local ambience and are using Loretos small-town charm as a selling point to buyers, many of whom had considered Cabo but were put off by its growth and increasingly big-resort environment.

The construction of Loreto Bay is intended to be on a human scale, said Debra Stevens, vice president of marketing communications.

The low-rise buildings will be constructed with environmental conservation in mind, according to a strategy created by David Butterfield, president of the Trust for Sustainable Development, the Loreto Bay Co.s parent.

Stevens said the development will harvest more potable water than it consumes and will use solar or wind power.

Use of cars will be discouraged in favor of electric carts; entertainment, restaurants and shops will be within walking distance from the units.

Vacationers and residents can take taxis into town (for about $10).

As an added commitment to keeping the environment pristine, 5,000 acres of the 8,000-acre tract will be maintained as a natural preserve but will be open for hiking and horseback riding.

In full swing

On a recent trip sponsored by Alaska Airlines and the developer, the construction of the first phase, called the Villages of Loreto Bay, adjacent to the Camino Real, was in full swing.

The two- and three-bedroom townhomes are being built of adobe block, the natural building material of the area.

The tile floors, high ceilings, small courtyards and terraces are Mexican-style. Furniture will be built in Mexico in traditional hacienda-style. (Loreto Bay sales offices at the Camino Real and another in the center of Loreto have samples and architects renderings.)

In addition to the homes, which will be built in phases through 2015, the project includes the construction of a beach club, retail and entertainment outlets and recreation facilities, all projected to be completed by the end of 2006. The golf course at the Camino Real is also slated for renovation.

The first 50 units are expected to be available for rent by late fall, and packages will be released at that time, commissionable at 10% to agents, said Don Weintraub, vice president of destination marketing. Pricing has not yet been set.

About 70% of owners are expected to put their units in the rental pool and offer the units at least six months of the year.

Loreto Bay is planning to set up a reservations office and toll-free number in Scottsdale by late May.

The company, which is a major sponsor of this years Mexico Travel Market trade shows, will start marketing to the travel trade this spring in preparation for the autumn roll-out of packages, Weintraub said.

Travel agents and tour operators are extremely important to us, he said, adding that U.S. tour operators are expected to start adding Loreto Bay accommodations to their packages late this year and in 2006.

But much work has to be done to familiarize the trade with Loreto, which many people confuse with Laredo, Texas.

A lot of people dont know where Loreto is, Weintraub said. Our philosophy is getting the destination sold first and then the Loreto Bay product second.

Airlift into Loreto was critical to the project, said Weintraub.

Alaska Airlines recently started twice-weekly (Thursdays and Sundays) nonstop flights from Los Angeles to Loreto, service that was spurred by a commitment from the Loreto Bay Co., which wanted the service to boost sales of homes and tourism to the destination.

AeroCalifornia and Aeromexico are the other airlines that serve Loreto.

The agreement with Alaska Airlines for service out of Los Angeles is a key development, Weintraub said, because the flights offer connections to service from the Pacific Northwest and western Canada, important markets for Loreto Bay.

More information is available at www.loretobay.com or (866) 956-7386.

To contact reporter Laura Del Rosso, send e-mail to [email protected].

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For more details on this article, see The laid-back love Loreto.

 

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