California dreaming: Loreto development preserves unique Mexican culture

Villa Group building coastal community from scratch in Baja California Sur desert

Loreto, Baja California Sur, Mexico:

Nobody ever gets to sleep in in the sleepy little fishing village of Ensenada Blanca. The roosters and "mad chihuahuas" make sure of that. Their morning chorus greets each day as the sun rises over the Sierra de la Giganta mountain range in Baja California Sur.

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Descendants of mountain goats brought over by Spanish conquistadors in the 17th century roam the hillsides around the town munching on desert vegetation. A bell on one of the group announces their presence as they move through the scrub.

Hernán Cortés first landed near what is now La Paz on the "Island of California" in May of 1535 but it was another 100 years before the Spanish government sent three ships with 200 men and supplies to establish a colonial outpost on the Baja peninsula. A Jesuit priest, Juan María de Salvatierra, set up the first permanent Spanish settlement just north of Ensenada Blanca, the Misión Nuestra Senora de Loreto Conchó, in 1697. The Loreto mission went on to become the religious and administrative centre for all of Baja California. From there, the Jesuits went out to establish other settlements throughout the peninsula over several decades.

In 1768, King Carlos III of Spain, responding to information that the Jesuits were acting in their own interests, forcibly expelled them from the Americas and left the mission system in the hands of Franciscan padres who were supposedly better team players. Early in the 19th century the Baja peninsula was split into upper and lower halves with Loreto made the capital of Baja California Sur. Natural catastrophes of biblical proportions hit the desert port periodically including a massive earthquake in 1829 requiring the government to move the seat of power further south to La Paz leaving Loreto, despite its grand colonial past, a veritable backwater on the coast of the Sea of Cortez.

Fast forward a couple of centuries and not much has changed in this part of the world. Even the completion of Mexican Federal Highway (carretera federal) No. 1 in 1973, linking Cabo San Lucas in the south with Tijuana in the north, didn't change Loreto's fortunes much in the economic scale of things. That's maybe why people were caught off guard when The Villa Group bought up 4,447 acres of desert scrubland immediately south of Ensenada Blanca and started to develop a resort destination from scratch in the middle of nowhere.

"People were kind of surprised but I wasn't," says hotelier/developer Owen Perry, a co-founder of The Villa Group. "When I went to Puerto Vallarta in 1983 it was a very small town and when I went to Cabo in 1992 it was too, so that kind of became my specialty, I would say."

Over the past 30 years Perry and company have developed 11 hotels in five Mexican regions including Riviera Nayarit, Cabo San Lucas, Cancun and Puerto Vallarta. All locations provide vacation ownership opportunities as well as hotel services to non-members. When they started working on Villa Del Palmar at the Islands of Loreto in 2011, The Villa Group brought all of their previous expertise with them.

Perry originally formed The Villa Group in 1982 with other business partners, including then-West Vancouver resident Graziano Sovernigo of the family-owned Alka Pools company. Sovernigo is now retired.

The company began marketing time-shares in Puerto Vallarta, purchased its own 131-suite vacation property, Villa del Mar, in 1984, and then built its first resort on the land next to it.

"We started in Puerto Vallarta and then went to Cabo in 1992," says Perry. "We were in Cabo when it was probably the size of Loreto."

Perry eventually settled in Cabo himself and used that city to oversee The Villa Group's operations. "I would go out on weekends and travel around the Baja looking for basically the next Cabo-type thing," he says. "One day my wife and I drove up to Loreto for a weekend and I just fell in love with the place."

Loreto was an accumulation of everything he'd experienced in other locations. Before moving to Mexico Perry had worked in Hawaii and he saw that the Baja shared the same sublime combination of mountains and ocean.

"Puerto Vallarta's nice because it has all these little bays you can take day trips to," he says. "Loreto has that, plus the islands, and it has the scenery of Cabo, where the cactus meets the ocean with basically the same climate. That's what really attracted me to Loreto. They had all the infrastructure for what tourism needs - a brand new airport, a nice little town with a Mexican flavour and a very long history dating back to 1680. I thought all those elements together would make a nice destination."

The delicate balance between nature and civilization is perhaps best observed by going out on the water. French oceanographer Jacques Cousteau once called the Sea of Cortez "the aquarium of the world" because of the biological richness of the ocean environment.

"Cousteau convinced the Mexican government to make the islands of Loreto a state park," says Perry. "It was the largest protected seapark in the world, at 600 nautical square miles, until Hawaii made all of their islands a protected area. Basically what that does is keep all the commercial fishermen out. And it's amazing. You know in Cabo we still get the whales but with all the trawlers going through a lot of species have dwindled. In Loreto they are not able to get in there and you see so much more wildlife than what you would see in other areas of Mexico."

The Loreto Bay National Marine Park/Marina Park Bahia de Loreto was created in 1996 and extends for over 61 kilometres (38 miles) along the coast, and 35 kilometres (21 miles) offshore. Large commercial fishing boats are prohibited from the area. Sport fishing is still allowed and in fact it is a big part of the local economy with late summer particularly busy months.

The Sea of Cortez itself was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2005 with the Islands and Protected Areas of the Gulf of California citation stating that "almost all major oceanographic processes occurring in the planet's oceans are present in the property, giving it extraordinary importance for study." The Sea of Cortez has 695 plant species and 891 fish species and 39 per cent of the world's total number of species of marine mammals.

"With the recognition came extra scrutiny from the environmental agencies in Mexico and environmental groups worldwide," says Perry. "There were some areas we had to designate as conservation areas but the Mexican government also realized that the human population needed jobs and tourism does provide some good quality jobs compared to what they had there before so we found a willing partnership with the government. We complied with everything, we didn't take any shortcuts. We abided by the rules and we think that's good because that's what is going to make the Loreto area unique in the future if all that can be enforced."

Several different species of whales spend the winter in the Baja where the water temperature in the Sea of Cortez is about 19 Celsius in January and 30 Celsius in July. Pacific gray whales annually migrate over 6,000 miles from Alaska's Bering Sea to Baja California Sur with their epic trek considered the longest mammal migration on earth. At one time the species was considered almost extinct but scientists now estimate there are more than 20,000 individuals in the Pacific group.

Needless to say whale-watching is a favourite pastime in the Baja during the winter months with blue whales (the largest animals on earth), humpbacks, sperm whales, minke whales, fin whales and orcas all swimming around the Sea of Cortez eco-system for at least part of the year.

Because of their remote location Villa del Palmar Loreto has begun the project with an acute environmental awareness and self-sustaining philosophy. A desalination plant will provide the desert community with its own water source and employees go through extensive training to make sure they are a right fit for the resort.

Over 90 per cent of the employees are from outside the area and The Villa Group built a hotel in town, the Hotel Santa Fe, to house them as they start their job training. In terms of service the resort tries to provide a little bit of everything - from Oscar Torres Torres the tequilier (a tequila sommelier born and raised on an agave plantation) to Danzante Tours director Carlos Velasco, an outdoor expert and fitness scientist who is a walking encyclopedia about the environment and your place in it. The concierge who helps you during the day will also probably be part of the cast performing in a musical at night on the outdoor stage in front of the Casa Mia restaurant.

The attention to detail has paid off as this year TripAdvisor has named Villa del Palmar Loreto one of the top 25 resorts in Mexico. "It's a lot of satisfaction in our efforts," says Perry. "We do put in a lot of effort and we do look at the details - it's not so much about spending money, it's about providing a service. I have been very involved in Loreto and the management there. We talk all the time. We congratulate (general manager Sixto Navarro and his staff) because they're not phony ratings. We don't play with them at all, that's not our policy. If there are some bad ones along the way, it helps us to know how to get better. All the social media things are a new element and we're learning."

At present, Villa del Palmar Loreto features five swimming pools, tennis courts, hiking trails and the 39,000 square foot Sabila Spa right on the ocean front with access to all the Sea of Cortez has to offer.

Up next on the agenda is completion of Mexico's only Rees Jones-designed golf course and the construction of 300 single-family homes (designed by award-winning Tucson architect Kevin Howard) around the course featuring spectacular ocean views.

"Rees Jones is famous as an architect," says Perry. "He's not a celebrity architect. His father was a golf architect, his grandfather - they have generations of golf architects in their family. He's been really willing to work with us on accommodating the golf course to the terrain of the property. That's been very interesting for us because when we open up a road and we go up in the back there we're finding these incredible views. We just changed a couple of the back holes. There's one where the green is going to look like it's hanging over the Sea of Cortez. It's a very playable hole but very scenic. It's going to be incredible.

"A lot of courses now make golf so hard the average player goes out there and gets discouraged. In our conversations with Rees we want a challenging course but we want the average golfer to go out there and have a good day and enjoy it. He's really kept an open mind about that so we're not making these crazy holes that you have to be Tiger Woods on his best day to make a putt."

Construction of the first model home overlooking the golf course and the clubhouse began this spring. "We're doing a limited amount because we're trying to conserve the open nature of the property," says Perry. "We have some incredible home lots with panoramic views of the entire bay and we hope to start putting those on the market towards the end of this year.

"What's been built (previously) in Mexico is a Mediterranean colonial look and we are trying to find something else that we thought would be appealing to people. Kevin Howard has built these mountain homes with all glass, a nice big vanishing pool and an outdoor entertainment area that blends into the nature of the land. We thought that look would be so cool in Loreto."

If you go:

Alaska Airlines flies to Loreto International Airport (LTO) through Los Angeles (LAX) and this year WestJet started weekly seasonal flights direct from Calgary (YYC) on Saturdays. Alaska may add flights from San Diego (SAN) opening up more seats as many of their planes leave LAX completely full. LTO, built in 1986, is very modern but quite small in comparison with other Mexican airports. It handles 55,000 passengers per year compared to Mexico City (34 million), Cancun (17 million) or Cabo (3 million).

Accommodation:

Villa del Palmar at the Islands of Loreto (villadelpalmarloreto.com), Carretera Transpeninsular km 84 Ensenada Blanca, Loreto, Baja California Sur, Z.C.23880. Call toll free from Canada 1-855-440-5590.

Area:

There are five islands off the coast of Loreto in the Sea of Cortez: Coronado, Danzante, Del Carmen, Montserrat and Santa Catalina. They provide a wide variety of activities such as snorkeling, scuba diving, kayaking, paddle boarding and whale watching. A $25 Pesos permit fee for access to the Natural Reserve marine park is required to visit any of the Islands of Loreto.

Sport fishing, an important aspect of the local economy, is allowed inside the protected area year-round with late summer (August through September) considered the high season for marlin and yellowfin tuna.

History and Culture:

Between Loreto and Bahia de Los Angeles lies the Sierra de San Francisco, home to a large collection of paintings, estimated to be 1,000 to 1,500 years old. There are several Spanish missions in the immediate vicinity including Misión San Bruno (founded in 1683), Misión de Nuestra Señora de Loreto Conchó (founded in 1697), Visita de San Juan Bautista Londó (founded in 1699), Misión San Francisco Javier de Viggé-Biaundó (founded in 1699) and Misión San Juan Bautista Malibat (Misión Liguí) founded in 1705. John Steinbeck published The Log from the Sea of Cortez in 1951 about a six-week trip he took in March and April of 1940 with his friend, the marine biologist, Ed Ricketts.

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