Life on and off the waters of the Wood River Valley
Falling in Love with Loreto
Sun Valley’s (unofficial) sister city
THEY SAY THAT TOWNS, just like people, have souls to them—at least the special ones do.
And while scholars, theologists and bartenders the world over have long tried to settle arguments about how best to describe a human soul, understanding the soul of an exceptional town is a lot easier.
These extraordinary spots, often tucked along coasts or nestled high up the mountains, simply feel special as soon as you set foot upon them. There’s just a different vibe, a sweeter kind of energy to them. Some places have just the right kind of magic.
Loreto, Mexico, which overlooks the Sea of Cortez on Baja California Sur, has that special kind of feel—especially, it seems, for people who also love Sun Valley and its friendly Idaho confines.
There has, apparently, long been some kind of soulmate connection between Baja’s first town and America’s original ski resort. After visiting Loreto for the first time last spring, I can clearly see (now that those Pacifico “Ballenas” have finally worn off) at least a half-dozen reasons why it’s easy for Sun Valley fans to fall in love with Loreto.
1: Isolated in Paradise
Hints about the love affair between to the two towns first began to catch my attention as soon as my wife and I signed up to visit Loreto as part of last spring’s conference for the Outdoor Writers Association of California (OWAC).
“You’re going to love Loreto!” is what I just kept hearing every time I’d mention the trip to anyone familiar with the place.
The general consensus seemed to be: Loreto is a small town, surrounded by stunning natural beauty and lots of protected land and water. It’s a bit isolated and is basically a sun-worshipping, outdoor-sports lovers paradise—especially if your favorite outdoor sports are fishing, hiking or drinking things that go well with limes (like cold beer or margaritas) while watching glorious sunsets.
Throw in a couple Jägermeister shots and you could use the same description for Sun Valley.
Nestled beneath the “Sierra de La Giganta,” where the mountains meet the Sea of Cortez on the east side of Baja California Sur, Loreto is much smaller and more difficult to reach (flights are only offered a few days a week) than Baja’s other resort communities like Cabo or La Paz. And I think that’s where the immediate attraction lies.
Part of Sun Valley’s appeal is that it’s out in the middle of nowhere. Heck, it’s been considered a bit of a challenge to get to Sun Valley ever since Averell Harriman first started shipping folks from Los Angeles and the East Coast up to the Gem State by the trainload in the 1930s. So those of us who love it here in Sun Valley’s section of the Northern Rockies, undoubtedly like Loreto’s off-the-beaten path appeal.
Left to right: Enjoying one of Mexico's best beers from the rooftop deck at the Loreto Playa Boutique Hotel; The Loreto Plaza.
2: The Hola/Howdy Factor
Most of the small towns of Idaho are pretty friendly places and Sun Valley and its neighboring communities are no different. It’s common to wave or say “Howdy” to the people you pass on the streets of Ketchum or Hailey. So part of the appeal of Loreto (population roughly 11,000) is that it’s also small enough to be high on the “Hola/Howdy Factor.”
As my wife and I wandered from our exceptionally sweet accommodations (the Loreto Playa Boutique Hotel Bed & Breakfast owned by a very cool couple originally from the states) whether along the Malecón to the historic plaza or across the dirt roads to the local market, most of the people we passed—primarily locals during our May visit—would offer up a friendly “Hola” or “Buenos Dias.”
Loreto has that small town, everybody-knows-everybody-else feel to it. While walking back from the marina one delightfully warm and predictably breezy afternoon, we passed a couple of fellow “gringos” from Seattle. They noticed I was wearing a Silver Creek Outfitters hat and immediately started saying how much they loved to ski and fish in Sun Valley. They said there were lots of American second homeowners in Loreto, like themselves, who were also big Sun Valley fans.
In fact, Bob aka “Roberto” and Paulette “The Pie Lady of Loreto,” who own and do a terrific job running the three-room Loreto Playa, seconded the strong connection, adding that some Sun Valley folks even own a home just down the beach from their beautiful bed & breakfast. “It’s the one that usually smells like marijuana,” Roberto joked.
Left to right: A life-sized whale shark sculpture along the Malecón; Loreto's Baja Books actually sells copies of Sun Valley Magazine!
3: Muchas Munchies
Regardless of your take on the “Hippy Lettuce,” eating well is important to people who live in and visit Sun Valley. The culinary scene in America’s first destination ski resort is legendary. The foodie scene in the oldest town on the Baja California Peninsula is pretty impressive itself, especially if you like fresh seafood and authentic Mexican cuisine.
Every meal we had during our stay in Loreto was delicious. The breakfasts, especially egg-cellent burrito and Chile Relleno, overlooking the Gulf of California at the Loreto Playa were so good they made you want to go to bed early just so you could wake up and eat sooner.
With the “World’s Aquarium,” as the Sea of Cortez is called, at the fingertips of the port town, the seafood is as good as it gets as well.
The chocolate clams are a local specialty. Enjoying them baked in the traditional Loreto-style, in a pit on the beach like they do at the Hotel Oasis, while enjoying the view of the sun setting across the islands of the Loreto Bay National Park is a meal that’s tough to top.
Left to right: Chocolate clams baked on the beach, Loreto-style at the Hotel Oasis; Chile Relleno is a staple of Mexican cuisine.
4: Protected Peaks
Since the largest Wilderness Area in the lower 48 states is just up the road from Sun Valley and the one of the largest National Recreation Areas in the nation (the SNRA) is next door, protecting land is pretty important to people in the heart of Idaho.
It’s surprisingly—and inspiringly—important to the people of Loreto, too.
The Bahia de Loreto National Park protects the five islands sprinkled off the coast of Loreto. The park also includes Concepcion Bay, just south of Loreto, considered to be the most beautiful and well-protected bay on the Gulf of California.
It is easy to get a tour of the Isla Coronado and spend the day sea kayaking, snorkeling or admiring the abundant aquatic life. It doesn’t take long to realize why they call the Sea of Cortez the “World’s Aquarium.”
Depending on the time of year, it’s easy to see huge pods of sea lions lounging on rocky shoals, dolphins playing with their dinners, large gamefish like marlin and sailfish leaping after bait, whales of all kinds breaching, or birds like blue-footed boobies enjoying the salty breeze.
From the water, it’s also easy to also admire the high desert mountains, the Sierras La Giganta and San Francisco, that tower above the small town giving the mountain-loving side of us Sun Valley fans a pretty sweet fix.
Left to right: Dolphins frolicking in the Bahia de Loreto; Pelicans like to fish in the Loreto Marina.
5: Astounding Angling
Fishing is pretty popular pastime in Idaho. In Loreto, it’s a way of life—and can be quite a workout. Catching fish the size of elementary school kids is a thrill, but it can wear you out. Simply put, the fishing in the Sea of Cortez is downright ridiculous. What we would call a nice-sized trout here in the Northern Rockies, they’d call decent-sized bait.
Angling around Loreto is great just about anytime of the year, but the big game fish like Dorado (or Mahi Mahi) and sailfish really gets hot during the hottest months of the year, from mid-Spring through early autumn.
During our early May visit to the Gulf of California, the best big game fish bite on the Bahia de Loreto was on Yellowtail or Great Amberjack.
The hardest part about catching Yellowtail is reeling the hogs in. It took an average of about 15 minutes for fellow fishing writer John Burk and I to reel them each in, a joyous but sweat-drenched task, with the bigger ones pushing 40 pounds. It’s pretty amazing to be catching fish that outweigh your young children!
It’s easy to have the fish cleaned, frozen and packed in a cooler for the return flight to the states. And enjoying fish you caught yourself for months after the trip is about as good as any souvenir gets.
If you love to fish and haven’t yet angled in the Sea of Cortez, I’m sorry to report that you’re living an unfulfilled life and your priorities are clearly out of whack.
Left to right: Sunrise on the Sea of Cortez; The author shows off a Yellowtail/Great Amberjack (photo courtesy of John Burk).
6: Sunsets & Saluds!
Despite the fact that it has a sleepy—make that “siesta-style”—feel to it, Loreto still offers some fun spots to cheers the end of another terrific day in a tropical paradise.
And being able to properly “salud” such days is an important ingredient for Sun Valley fans; for if there’s one thing we know and readily accept about ourselves, it’s that we love to end an epic day by reminiscing and toasting it with friends and family.
While Loreto offers it’s fair share of places to end the day in-style with your favorite drink of choice, a couple really stood out (not including the roof-top deck at the Loreto Playa, which offers a stunning 360° view of the area).
The Coronado Bar at the Oasis Hotel is literally where the sidewalk ends. Overlooking the beach at the southern edge of town, it’s an amazing spot to watch the last rays of sunlight leave the Sea of Cortez for the day.
A few blocks north, Augie’s Bar & Bait Shop has a much stronger gringo-feel to it. Just like lots of Idaho’s best bars, it’s owned by an overweight white guy with a big smile and an even bigger personality.
Augie’s offers Loreto’s best Happy Hour, a friendly staff (referred to as the “Bait” in the joint’s name) and sweet views of the Bahia de Loreto. Augie’s is similar to many watering holes in Sun Valley in that it manages to be both a tourists’ spot and locals’ hangout.
More than one day found some of our crew of (primarily California-based) writers and photographers at Augie’s topping off another sweet day in Loreto with chilled beers or tasty margaritas as the sun majestically faded across the Sea of Cortez and its Islas de Coronado and Del Carmen.
There’s definitely something special and unique, something romantic, yet rugged and real about Loreto that feels a lot like a tropical version of Sun Valley. No wonder the two small natural playgrounds have such a strong, soulmate connection.
* All quotes from Steinbeck’s, "The Log from the Sea of Cortez."