The Streets of Loreto

A uniformed woman holding a remote thermometer in one hand and a bottle of hand sanitizer in the other greeted me outside the entrance to the Loreto Airport. After checking my temperature and squirting a small dollop of clear gel into my hand, she allowed me to enter the building. Without a free second hand to rub the sanitizer between my palms, I flicked the glob onto the floor where it joined a succession of fellow globs that dotted the entryway. Over the next week, I learned that these two things, plus masks and, in some cases, disinfecting mats, comprised the Covid-19 preventative measures in Mexico.

The purpose of this trip was severalfold: speak Spanish, soak up the sun, admire birds, encounter gray whales, play pickleball, and spend some time on the sand. We also hoped to get to know our newfound cousin (and host) and her husband better without driving them crazy. Guests, like fish, begin to smell after three days, and we planned to stay at her house in Nopoló, located about seven miles south of the town of Loreto for eight.

Two years prior, Barb and I had realized that we shared German-Russian roots. The fact that the towns in which our families emigrated from Russia to North Dakota are only 25 miles apart made us fast friends. During the past year, she’d sent me a succession of photos of Loreto’s local wildlife to coax me into visiting. And now, my sister and I had finally arrived.

Barb promised us pickleball and delivered, but the dilapidated conditions of the “complex” that was once a thriving tennis center came as a shock. In the mid-80s, John McEnroe dedicated the courts and for five years served as the pro. It boasted “eight courts, a pool, a sun deck, a stadium that holds 250 people, a racquetball court, and a pro shop.” Forty years later, only two of the original eight tennis courts are still usable, another has been converted into two pickleball courts, and a third is scheduled for conversion into two additional ones.

Besides tennis and pickleball, golf is a major land-based recreational draw to the area. Non-members pay $111 a day to complete 18 holes at the Loreto Bay Golf Course. We don’t play, but we enjoyed its beauty by spending several hours running along its perimeter serenaded by the sounds of some of the 150 local bird species, like the Verdin, Vermillion flycatcher, and Xantu’s hummingbird. Life birds like these turned my head and slowed my progress, but made keeping pace with JoDee, the Energizer Bunny of runners, bearable.

Verdin, Xantus’s hummingbird, Vermillion flycatcher (Source: ebird)

One day we spied an olive ridley sea turtle dead on the beach. “Thousands of Olive Ridleys can show up at nesting beaches together during…nesting events timed around moon cycles.” Their diet includes a “[w]ide variety of crustaceans, mollusks, bryozoans and algae,” which they can dive up to 46 feet to collect. They may live up to 50 years and weigh as much as 100 pounds. The species is named both “for the generally greenish color of its skin and shell” and “Henry Nicholas Ridley, a botanist who encountered the species on Fernando de Noronha Island off of Brazil.” In Loreto Bay: A Refuge for the World’s Sea Turtles, Comer and Nichols write that “[f]ive of the seven sea turtle species can still be found in Loreto,” but “[s]ightings of olive ridleys…are rare.” For several reasons, including that “[a]ll sea turtles are listed as critically endangered or endangered species,” they make a case for putting in place a sea turtle refuge within the limits of the 800 square mile Loreto Bay National Marine Park.

An olive ridley turtle

During a low tide we made our way around Nopoló Rock while Great blue herons, pelicans and people fished along the northeast side. The fisherman came as a surprise because fishing is one of several prohibited activities in the area. On and around the rock formations, we observed anemones, barnacles, sea quirts, sea stars, sponges, urchins and brightly colored tropical fish.

February is the best month to see California gray whales that migrate to Magdalena Bay to calve. Once we arrived at Puerto López Mateos, Barb’s husband Ed negotiated a price for our tour. We then donned bright orange life jackets and boarded our boat. “Gray whales are charismatic marine mammals that can reach 40-50 feet in length and weigh more than 36 tons…when fully grown.” “Every year, gray whales undertake one of the longest migrations of any mammal, traveling 12,000 miles round-trip from their feeding grounds in the Arctic to calve and breed in the Baja lagoons, and then back again.” “Newborn gray whale calves are about 15 feet long and weigh 1,500 lbs. During this time, the mother and calf pairs are known for their curious and “friendly” behavior, whereby they actively seek out interaction with whale watchers (e.g. ‘petting’).” During our two hour excursion, we encountered about a dozen mother-calf pairs within the calm waters of the bay and many adults in the choppier waters outside of it.

Barb couldn’t let us leave Loreto without seeing two local historic structures: The Catholic Church’s Jesuit missionary Juan María de Salvatierra established Mission Loreto, founded on October 25, 1697, at the Monqui [indigenous people’s] settlement of Conchó in the city of Loreto. It was the first successful mission and Spanish town in Baja California and closed in 1829. The trip from this one to another, San Javier Mission, is an hour’s drive and 1,400 feet of climb. Founded two years after Mission Loreto, it closed in 1817. The missionary’s objective was to convert the Cochimí (indigenous people) to Christianity.

Two of my favorite Nopoló locals were a homeless cat-with-no-name, and a dog named Sadie. The young, green-eyed feline greeted us with friendly meows and purrs whenever we passed by her resting place. Sadie, with Barb as her person, spent her days walking the beach (twice a day), swimming in the bay, riding in the golf cart (or car), waiting for Barb to finish whatever she was doing so she could get her attention, and pouting in rare situations when she realized that she wasn’t going to get to go along.

On the eighth day, it was time to return to Seattle. We left with memories of a place with absolutely stunning beauty, nice people and wildlife galore. Before we hugged our hosts, Barb said the magical words that showed our guests-smell-after-three-days stench had already begun to fade, “When you come back…”

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