By BOB SCHULMAN (†)
“Know that on the right hand of the Indies there is an island called California … and it is peopled by black women, without any man among them, for they live in the manner of Amazons.”
So wrote Spanish author Garci Rodríguez de Montalvo of a fictional paradise ruled by a black super-woman he called Queen Calafia in his 1510 novel, “Adventures of Esplandian.”
Among the book’s fans was the Spanish conquistador Hernán Cortés, who, after invading the Mexican mainland in the 1520s, sailed west to what he’d heard was an island loaded with gold.
Like Christopher Columbus, Cortés thought the lands of the New World were part of the eastern side of the Indies, and that the island could have been De Montalvo’s California.
Cortés landed in what was to become the Spanish region of Las Californias in 1535, but after striking out in his search for gold soon went back to the mainland.
Another expedition in 1539 found the “island” was actually an 800-mile-long peninsula (today’s Baja California) edging the Pacific on one side and what Cortés immodestly named the Sea of Cortés on the side facing the mainland.
After a long string of failed attempts to colonize Las Californias – the natives were disinclined to share their turf with the bearded invaders – a veteran Jesuit missionary was able to talk the local folks into letting him set up a church there in 1697.
Built on a spot the Jesuits named Loreto (after Our Lady of Loreto, the patron saint of the founding Jesuit priest), the mission turned out to be the Spaniards’ first permanent colony on the peninsula.
Fastforward to today, and Loreto is one of Mexico’s 65 or so pueblos mágicos (magic cities), so-designated in recognition of their heritage, culture and colonial ambiance.
What’s more, the city edges the spectacular Loreto Bay National Marine Park, which runs along 50 miles of shoreline and zigzags out as far as 25 miles into the Sea of Cortés, all told covering some 800 square miles.
Easily seen from the shores of the government- and UNESCO-protected park are five large, volcanically formed islands on which sea lions go about sunning themselves while sea gulls, pelicans, terns and blue-footed booby birds dart around above.
Below, sea turtles glide through the cobalt-blue waters as do dolphins and big gamefish of the likes of dorado, marlin and sailfish along with hundreds of other species of marine life.
At certain times of the year the park comes alive with pods of whales splashing around the islands and slapping the water with their immense tails.
It’s their annual migration to breeding and birthing spots along the peninsula, some having found their way here from as far away as feeding grounds in the Arctic.
Visitors to the park quickly see for themselves why it earned descriptions such as “the world’s aquarium” by underwater explorer Jacques Cousteau and as “Mexico’s Galapagos” by Mexico City-based adventurer Jaime Capulli.
Enjoying all this are some 35,000 annual tourists plus a hefty number of expats (as many as 7,000, mainly from the United States and Canada) living in the area along with 13,000 or so choyeros (natives of the Loreto region).
Most of the populated area is along a 25-mile coastal strip starting at the town of Loreto and running south to a big luxury resort on Danzante Bay.
Along the way is the popular harbor of Puerto Escondido and the residential and resort community of Nopoló, the latter originally built as the focal point of a scaled-down Cancun-like project.
Developers had announced big plans for the area in the 1980s and 1990s. Dozens of hotels were going to spring up the beaches of Loreto and Nopoló, all told with 5,832 rooms (about a third the size of Cancun’s capacity at the time and almost the whole room count of Mazatlán).
And those hotels were going to be filled by 309,700 annual vacationers by the year 2000.
A top-of-the-page headline in the Aug. 30, 1990, issue of the travel agent trade magazine Travel Weekly proclaimed: “Loreto Might Finally Be Ready for Major Tourism Development.”
Well, it wasn’t.
As things turned out (for lots of reasons, including financial issues, a lack of water at the time and dips in the U.S. economy), most of those plans ended up in corporate shredders.
Loreto never became a mega-player on Mexico’s tourism scene – to the delight of the choyeros and their neighboring expats.
Vacationers today can either stay in their own campers or boats or in a number of small hotels and boutique inns dotting the region, mostly in Loreto and Nopoló.
NOTE: Sadly, Bob Schulman, who was one of the most esteemed and respected travel writers in the United States and a founding member of Pulse News Mexico, passed away on Dec. 28, 2017, after a courageous battle with cancer. This story was filed with Pulse News Mexico prior to his death. We will all miss him and his extraordinary writing.