My first trip to magical Baja was a real adventure. 1979, beat up ancient $150 Pinto station-wagon, long lost adventure buddy. $800 budget to ride the ferry from the mainland to Baja and then drive back to the States. It was gorgeous. I still remember how alone and yet safe we felt camping on deserted beaches, campfires on the beach under the blue-black blanket of the sky studded with diamonds. Surviving on tortillas and street food. We barely had enough money for gas to cross back into the states 2 weeks later. I have been back to Baja many times since that first drive-up Mexico 1 from the southern tip at Cabo back to the US in 1979. I recently reread the great adventure book “Into a Desert Place” by a real greenhorn, you might say crazy red-headed, fair skinned European Graham MacKintosh. He circumnavigated the whole of the Baja peninsula in 1997 on foot. That was the way to really experience all of the magic this place offers.

Now my partner, a dentist and I come once a month (except in the blazing heat of summer) flying in with the Flying Samaritans to facilitate free medical, dental and vision clinics in small towns on the peninsula. We have gotten so enamored of the area around Loreto, that this January we are here for the month. What keeps us coming back? The people, the sea, the mountains, the food, the magic of it all.

They call them the “Pueblos Mágicos”, the magical pueblos of Mexico. Places with extra special cultural, natural and culinary wonders. Loreto is the abuela “grandmother” pueblo and one of our favorites. It nestles on the turquoise blue waters of the Sea of Cortez, under the jagged cliffs of the Sierra Gigante mountains. Loreto is probably my favorite town in Mexico. The colonial architecture, friendly people, amazing food, local handicrafts, music and sun-drenched beaches bring so much enjoyment to our stays here. Church bells start the sunny days with sweet chimes, the people smile and greet you as they enter a restaurant, no one passes on the street without a smile and a Buen Dia. We have met so many nice ex-pats and locals, all having chosen the magic of Loreto over any other town in the World. Yoga in the mornings, cribbage in the afternoons, musicians serenading on the square at al fresco dining.

And the food, oh gosh the food. We have been here a week out of our monthlong stay and we still haven’t even scratched the surface of the all the cocinas that have got our noses and stomachs paying attention as we walk around the pedestrian friendly town. Yesterday we ate at a table surrounded by tropical plants under the shade of several palapas. I had undoubtedly the “best taco ever” of my life so far. The Buena Vida Taco at, you guessed it, the Buena Vida restaurant. One taco filled the entire plate, world-famous Sonoran wheat tortilla stacked high with toasted local cheese, arrachera steak, al ajillo shrimp and guacamole. It was surrounded by little dishes of pico de gallo, marinated red onion, cabbage and fresh fire roasted salsas. I had to deconstruct it to eat it! My partner has his “best ever taco” of fresh grilled octopus. I have to say that is not on my list. We have had amazing fresh dinners at Mita Gourmet featuring Owner Chef Juancarlos Cortes. Juancarlos personally consults with you, and I mean he genuinely wants to know what food you love to eat so he can cook it for you, to take your order. Personal favorite today at Mita of Pechuga Rellena de Espinacas, chicken stuffed with spinach, cheese and ham, in an amazing sauce. We can’t decide if tonight we want Mita Gourmet or another favorite Orlando’s grilled chicken breast smothered in a soft green cream of poblano chili sauce. So many restaurants, so little time.

Later this month we will fly out of Loreto to go to the free medical clinic across the mountains on the pacific side of the peninsula. Climbing up 5,000 feet at the dizzying rate of 500 feet per minute in our little private planes to clear the jagged cliffs. It is a thrill ride to be sure. As we successfully climb up out of sleepy, colonial Loreto, we leave behind the islands dotting the coastline, floating in the turquoise waters lined with their deserted white sand beaches. As I turn my gaze westward, I search in the cracks below in the rocky terrain for two small canyons, one on each side of the mountains. On the Sea of Cortez side San Javier Mission and village, another Pueblos Mágicos, is tucked in with its date palms, vineyards and olive groves planted by the Jesuit missionaries from Spain that colonized this area in 1699. We have driven the winding road up to that small village to hold vision clinics at the local schools. I remember a pretty teenage girl who spoke of never having been down the mountain to the “big city” of Loreto. She had spent her whole life there on her family’s ranch in the austere, beautiful and brutal untouched desert of Baja California Sur.

As we crest the ridge over the sharp craggy side of the western side the land totally changes into lava flows and a gentle slope down to the great Pacific Ocean. This mountain terrain reminds me of a table with the legs pulled out on the eastern side. Down below I follow another winding canyon, I see the startling green of the palm groves that mark the sweet colonial towns of San Jose de Comondu and San Miquel de Comondu. On a visit to Comondu, we were delighted to find this fertile valley alive with another collection of dates, figs, sugarcane, olive trees and vineyards. Local people live in the original 300-year-old colonial Spanish-style haciendas constructed the old way out of adobe around open courtyards with gardens, chickens and outhouses. The village old ones line the cobblestone streets on rickety chairs as they watch over the happy children darting in and out of the ancient wooden doorways. More Pueblos Mágico. Loreto, San Javier, San Jose and San Miguel de Comondu having been honored for their culture, stunning natural beauty, local charm, handicrafts and heritage for this special designation. The Pueblos Mágicos of Baja are truly worth making a trip to explore and come to know.

Reporting back next month on our excursions to world famous cave painting sights, a pickleball camp and more…

Great resources for planning your trip to Loreto: Amazing account of circumnavigating Baja on foot in 1997, Graham MacKintosh “Into a Desert Place”. Stunning picture book of the major worldclass attractions in Baja in “101 Baja California Peninsula” by Felix and Simeone. A where-to, how-to guide to one of the most fascinating places on the earth “The Baja Adventure Book” by Walt Peterson. And, of course, the helpful “Moon Guide to Baja”. Hope to see you at the Pueblos Mágicos!