About halfway down Mexico's Baja California coast, nestled on one side by the Sierra Gigante Mountains and the sparkling Sea of Cortez on the other, is a spot that Jacques Cousteau once called his favorite place on earth. And yet Loreto, Mexico, is still relatively undiscovered.
"This is really the un-Cabo, as we like to call it," says Scott Serven, an American expat who bought a vacant motel a few years ago on Loreto's picturesque seaside promenade, renovating it and reopening it as La Mision Hotel, the town's only five-star resort. "It's still kind of an Old World place. Very simple way of life."
"There aren't any wet T-shirt contests here in Loreto," he adds, laughing.
The town has a rich history, both before and after its brush with Western civilization. The surrounding mountains have some of the most extensive cave paintings in the region, dating back about 12,000 years. Loreto also has the Mission of Our Lady of Loreto, an iconic structure more than 300 years old and one of the best-preserved buildings from the days of the Jesuit missionaries.
But beautiful as the Mission is, Cousteau was drawn to Loreto for its wildlife. Its Marine Park has the highest concentration of whale species on the planet, from resident and migratory gray whales to humpbacks to blue whales. In 2002, UNESCO established it as World Heritage Site.
Within minutes from leaving the marina, visitors immediately see what Cousteau meant. The explorer once called the Galapagos Islands the "closest thing I've seen to the peaceable kingdom on earth." The waters and islands off Loreto are perhaps the closest thing in this hemisphere to the Galapagos, the area teaming with charismatic fauna, remarkably tame and approachable, if they don't approach you first.
"Right now in beautiful Baja California, the area of Loreto, you have an amazing amount of wildlife," explains naturalist and lifelong resident Cecilia Fischer at C&C Ground Services and Tours, describing the diversity of birds, as well as lobos marinos, or sea lions.
Loreto's central location and direct 90-minute flight from Los Angeles have also made it a popular staging area for explorations throughout Baja California.
"If you leave Loreto, in about 30-40 minutes, you arrive to the Pacific," explains Fischer, whose family company runs tours up and down the peninsula. "And it's filled with birds and sea life, you name it," as well as Baja's friendly gray whales.
Each winter, the gray whales migrate some 6,000 miles from the Arctic to these Mexican lagoons to give birth -- and to seemingly share their pride and joy with visitors, like parents with baby pictures. Forty-ton mothers nudge their newborns up to these small boats, called pangas, rising out of the water and gently offering themselves for the eager petting of elated tourists.
The first person to experience this friendly whale phenomenon was a Baja commercial fisherman named Pachico Mayoral, who found himself surrounded by whales one day in 1972. He soon gave up fishing, and after convincing people he wasn't just purveying a fish story, he helped found the eco-tourism industry in Mexico. The lagoons are now protected by the government, and the whale-watch boats strictly regulated. But even so, visitors come away with an experience they remember for a lifetime.
Pachico has recently hosted such celebrities as director Stephen Spielberg and actress Cameron Diaz.
"Baja has been known for the friendly gray whales," says Pachico's son Pancho Mayoral, a Loreto resident who operates a sea kayak tour company called Baja by Kayak and still takes visitors out to see the whales his father made famous.
"And we used the opportunity to create a model for eco-tourism around the world. We've learned to respect the whales and give them their space. And I think they've come to appreciate that over time, and they trust us. Whether it's the friendly gray whales on the Pacific side or all this wildlife on the Sea of Cortez side, the animals here are incredibly tame. They let you observe from a close distance, and they let you know when they're not comfortable. But most of the time, you don't need binoculars to look at wildlife here."
Most importantly, says Serven, Loreto is a safe place to visit. The area has virtually no crime, not even panhandlers on its main streets. "It's a family-friendly place, lots of kids, and a community where people go back generations. Visitors feel safe here. You can walk to any corner of town at night and not even have to look over your shoulder."
Feeling safe is all part of the stress-free Loreto experience, says Serven. The accessibility, the history, the wildlife, the uncrowded nature of this sleepy old fishing village -- the un-Cabo.
"We see people transform when they come to Loreto," Serven says. "Who couldn't fall in love with this place?