Swim with Dolphins Around the Islands of This National Park in Mexico

Head to Baja California Sur for lava cliffs, sea caves, and private-beach vibes.

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The magic in Loreto Bay National Park begins with church bells ringing in a glorious sunrise. Mornings are a favorite time for the wildlife across the five islands of the national park, when seals are outlined by an array of changing colors across the sky and creatures below the surface start waking up. Here in the waters between Baja California and mainland Mexico (officially called the Gulf of California and nicknamed the Sea of Cortez), almost 800 square miles of protected ecosystems are teeming with marine life. As the ever-present sun streams through the blue pool of ocean life, it’s easy to see why 43 species of all marine mammals and 900 species of fish—77 found nowhere else on the planet!—make this their home.

Most visitors come to Loreto Bay to commune with the hundreds of dolphins and sea lions that populate these lively waters, or witness the majestic rise of a whale tale. Five of the seven marine turtle species can be found in these waters and lucky observers spot the electric blue webbed feet of the elusive Blue-Footed Boobie contrasted against white rock.

swim with the dolphins in the blue sea Loreto Bay
izanbar/iStock/Getty Images

Snorkelers and divers hang out below or in sea caves, exploring shipwrecks and black coral forests. Others drift lazily on sailboats or in kayaks around craggy basalt rocks jutting out of the water, their captivating formations given names like “The Window.” Some hike the mountainous islands, along cliffs scattered with cacti, while others spread themselves across sandy beaches. The five islets that dot the bay—all uninhabited and with distinct topography—can sometimes feel like your own private island where you’ll never see another human.

Back on the shores of Baja California Sur, about a half-day’s drive from Cabo, the nearby town of Loreto offers its own artistic charms, full of murals, old Spanish missions, and handmade tortillas. Further afield are more mountain treks and ancient cave paintings. From the volcanic cliffs to the watery explorations, here’s what to do when visiting Parque Nacional Bahía de Loreto.

Carmen Island, Loreto Bay National Park
Darryl Leniuk/ Photographer's Choice RF/Getty Images

Embrace boatlife to get to and around the islands

A $4.50 marine park pass, purchased at the marina snack shop, is your license to explore all five islands and the waters that surround them—you are only limited by the amount of time you have to spend. To get around the islands of the national park, book online with Outpost Charters, where you can choose to be the captain or have someone else do the steering. Or rent a kayak or a boat from the marina in Loreto. The smaller the vessel, the more you can paddle into areas where you’ll have the bay to yourself and get up-close views of the sea life. To maximize your time, let a guide show you the way, share specialized knowledge, and introduce you to the local culture.

From the Marina Puerto Escondido, book a day with ABT Sailing on the Bel Gato, a luxurious catamaran that sails the south end of Loreto Bay. Snorkeling equipment, food, and drink are all onboard, along with kayaks and stand up paddleboards. The Bel Gato nestles into coves where the only face you’ll see is your reflection in the water, and the only sound you’ll hear is your paddle dipping into the surf. On your sunset ride back, keep your eyes peeled for a whale tail, especially during peak whale-watching season in February and March.

Sea Lion, Los Islotes Island, Loreto National Marine Preserve
Stuart Westmorland/Corbis/Getty Images

Choose your own uninhabited island

Here’s an overview of the five islands—Isla Coronados, Isla del Carmen, Isla Danzante, Isla Monserrate, and Isla Santa Catalina—and what they each have to offer.

At Isla Coronados, the dramatic lava cliffs of a former volcano will draw you to the land, in addition to opportunities for bird watching and a sea lion colony. Whereas the steep diving drop-offs and schools of grouper, barracuda, and reef fish will make you want to dive into the waters below.

Isla del Carmen used to produce some of the purest salt in the world, but now it’s a popular hunting ground for bighorn sheep. There’s a ghost town on the island, so you can wander abandoned houses, a school, cemetery, and salt manufacturing warehouses. You could also dive in this area to explore underwater sea caves or dramatic vertical walls that lead to emerald water and black coral forests.

Isla Carmen
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Boasting some of the most beautiful sandy beaches in Loreto, Isla Danzante’s “Honeymoon Cove” is considered one of the most romantic spots in the marine park. Need a break from all that body heat? Grab some diving gear and explore the Agustin Melgar wreck, a 180-foot ship sunk 70 feet into the watery depths.

At Isla Monserrate, you’ll want to motor in, drop an anchor, and enjoy the peace and solitude. Take in the exquisite Sierra de la Gigante mountain range from your vantage point on the water. On land, Yellowstone Beach on the north end of the island is the perfect place to picnic and tan.

Just off Isla Santa Catalina, Elephant Rock is one of the more unique rock formations you’ll find, looking like a trunk dipping into the water. The waters below are like your own personal aquarium—look out for the Cortez Damselfish, colorful coral, shrimp, and chocolate and red clams. Giant cacti and endemic reptiles like the Spotted Chuckwalla populate this island.

Baja California Sur, Mexico

Hike amid cacti and waterfalls or explore historic missions

Remember the Sierra de la Gigante mountain range you admired from the plane, and the water, and pretty much every shore? Now’s your chance to explore it, and the best place to start is the trail at Arroyo las Parras. From Loreto, take the 35-minute drive to San Javier, which takes you past the soaring Cardon cacti that dominate the landscape and goat farms (where, yes, you can milk a goat). Once your boots hit the rocks and sand of the Sonoran Desert, you’ll find unexpected waterfalls, vibrant vegetation, and majestic canyon views. This 2.2-mile trail is rated easy (but be aware the terrain is rocky and uneven) and can be hiked in less than an hour.

About an hour and a half drive north, dedicate a day to exploring Sierra de San Francisco, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Here, you can channel your inner adventure-archaeologist as you decipher cave paintings and petroglyphs that cover the rocks and illustrate the lives of the ancient inhabitants. A guide will provide historical details and lead you directly to these treasures.

For a decidedly less strenuous study of Loreto, take the stunning one-hour drive to San Javier Mission, built by Jesuits in 1699 and considered the jewel of the town. Visit the on-site museum and stroll the ancient Missionary Gardens and centuries-old olive groves.

Photo by Russ Heinl/ Shutterstock

Wander through a cute town you’ll never want to leave

Colorfully painted homes with palapa roofs and Spanish tiles line the palm-shaded streets of Loreto. You could spend hours strolling galleries of local artists, shops carrying Talavera pottery, and murals that depict the history of Baja. Follow the scent of freshly fried tortillas, and you just might find yourself under a sign that reads “Stop, keep calm, and get a margarita.”

The Plaza Loreto is the central hub. From here, you can explore all the side streets, taking in the beautifully rounded and bright architecture and multi-colored papel picado draped over the streets. Be sure to wander into the Misión de Nuestra Señora de Loreto, a prominent church housing paintings from the 18th century, an ornately gold-embossed sanctuary, and a soaring ceiling of wood beams.

The Loreto International Airport is the main airport serving Baja California Sur, so getting here is easy. From your arrival, it’s an easy 10-minute drive to La Plaza and an icy margarita.

restaurants Loreto
El Zopilote Brewing Co. Loreto, Baja Mexico

Eat your way through town and wash it all down with a cold one

Start your day with an Omelet Champiñones at Café Ole, or dine alfresco on the Huevos Divorciados at colorfully festive Orlando’s. After a day in the sun, class it up for dinner at Los Olivos Restaurant. Chef Ramiro Lopez rotates a seasonal menu that includes everything from sea bass over portabella to beets and carrots with a bechamel, pesto, and clam sauce. The Zopilote Brewing and Co. is the place to grab a craft brew and even pizza if that’s your thing—it’s possibly the one place it’s okay to stray from Mexican fare.

Hotels loreto
Posada de las Flores Hotels

Where to stay in Loreto

Stay at the Hotel Posada del Cortes and enjoy daily breakfast served in the charming central courtyard. This boutique hotel is small enough to feel like a private home, and it’s within walking distance to everything there is to do in Loreto. In the center of town, the Pasada de Las Flores Hotel is jaw-droppingly beautiful, from its elegant spiral staircase to its gorgeous rooftop pool. Nearby, the Hotel 1867 features rooms with balconies that look out over the central plaza. Many long-term rentals are available at discounted rates, so when you fall in love with Loreto, there’s no need to rush home.

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Rebecca Deurlein is a contributor for Thrillist.