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LORETO - Mission of San Javier

Mission of San Javier
One of the Best Preserved Missions in Existence
by Benjamin Eugene

Fortún Jiménez de Bertadoña discovered the Baja California Peninsula in early 1534. However, it was Hernán Cortés who recognized the peninsula as the "Island of California" in May 1535, and is, therefore, officially credited with the discovery.
In January 1683, the Spanish government chartered an expedition consisting of three ships to transport a contingent of 200 men to the southern tip of Baja California. Under the command of the governor of Sinaloa, Isidoro de Atondo y Antillon, and accompanied by Jesuit priest Eusebio Francisco Kino, the ships made landfall in La Paz. The landing party was eventually forced to abandon its initial settlement at San Bruno due to the hostile response on the part of the natives. In 1695, the missionaries attempted to establish a settlement near Loreto but again failed.
Father Kino and Atondo y Antillon returned to the Mexican mainland, where Kino went on to establish several missions in the northwest. A Jesuit priest named Juan María de Salvatierra eventually managed to establish the first permanent Spanish settlement, the Misión Nuestra Senora de Loreto Conchó. Founded, on October 19, 1697, the Mission went on to become the religious and administrative capital of Baja California. From there, other Jesuits went out to establish other settlements throughout the peninsula, founding a total of 18 missions along the initial segment of El Camino Real over the next seven decades.

As early as the voyages of Christopher Columbus, the Kingdom of Spain sought to establish missions to convert pagans to Catholicism in Nueva España (New Spain. New Spain consisted of the Caribbean, Mexico, and portions of what is now the Southwestern United States.). To facilitate colonization, the Catholic Church awarded these lands to Spain.

The Spanish Missions in Baja California comprise a series of religious outposts established by Spanish Catholic Dominicans, Jesuits and Franciscans between 1683 and 1834 to spread the Christian doctrine among the local natives. The missions gave Spain a valuable toehold in the frontier land, and introduced European livestock, fruits, vegetables and industry into the region. Eventually, a network of settlements was established wherein each of the installations was no more than a long day's ride by horse or boat (or three days on foot) from another.

One of the 18 missions is the Mission of San Javier, which was built by Spanish Jesuit Miguel del Barco in 1744, and it is generally claimed to be the most beautiful and one of the best-preserved missions in existence.

The original Spanish mission of San Francisco Javier was initially founded about eight kilometers north of the mission's current location, near a stream in an area inhabited by the the native Cochimíes.

Jesuit Father Francisco María Píccolo visited the place on May 11, 1699, two years after the founding of Loreto, and started the construction of a chapel in October of the same year. Father Juan María de Salvatierra dedicated it to All Saints on November 1. The site was abandoned in 1701 because of a threatened Indian revolt.

Father Juan de Ugarte, one of the most esteemed missionaries of the conquest, reestablished the mission in 1702. A few years later it was moved to the better-watered present location of the community of San Javier, Baja California Sur. The energetic Ugarte constructed dams, aqueducts and stone buildings. He introduced cattle breeding, big and small species, developed agriculture and taught the locals to thread and knit wool, not only for themselves, but also for the missionary project in general.

In 1744, a few years after Ugarte's death, Father Miguel del Barco (1706–1790) began to build the present mission church, which took 14 years to complete. The three magnificent gilded baroque retablos (altarpieces) came from Tepotzotlán, just north of Mexico City, and were brought here on the backs of mules, along with oil paintings and other religious paraphernalia. Miguel del Barco was responsible for building what has been called "the jewel of the Baja California mission churches."

Due to the ravages of European diseases, the native population declined steadily through the Jesuit period (1699–1768) and then more steeply after the missionaries of that order were expelled from Baja California. By 1817, the mission was deserted. The church has been restored and is now maintained by Mexico's National Institute of Anthropology and History. Remarkably, the church really hasn't changed much over the last 250 years.

How To Get There

The mission of San Javier is located in the Sierra la Giganta, the mountain range to the west. The junction is 7 km south of Loreto at Km 118. As of August 2009, half of the 36-kilometer mountain road to San Javier is paved.

The drive to the San Javier will take around two hours. You'll want to stop and see Cuevas Pintas, one of the most easily accessible locations in all of Baja to see cave paintings. Abstract figures, thought to be the visions experienced by a shaman during a trance adorn a protected rock overhang. The area sits in a small canyon oasis with a cascading stream flowing over large boulders and between the tall swaying palms.

As you climb the mountains, you can look back and see a magnificent view of the Sea of Cortez and Isla de Carmen. You'll marvel at the desert countryside, with its unique flora and fauna. You'll also want to visit to the olive orchards planted by the Jesuits, a stopover visit to Las Parras Ranch, with a charming orchard at the bottom of a canyon, a natural spring and fruit trees, remnants of the Jesuit presence in the area, an irrigation systems introduced by the Jesuits that is still in use today, a more than 200-year-old chapel.

This route is a winding mountain road, rocky in places, with some steep sections and occasional mud from the mountain rains. Once you reach the top of the range, you'll cross the high Chaparral and several large ranches.

The village of San Javier is an oasis in a semi-arid mountain wilderness with about 60 inhabitants, which live in small houses that run up and down the few narrow, clean, cobblestone streets. The community sits center a small valley surrounded on all sides by tall mountains with a stream running through. It offers very limited tourist services, but does include a small store, restaurant, motel and police station.

Any trip to Loreto should include a side trip to San Javier. This is not only one of the most amazing missions in the Californias, but a very beautiful drive and a look back at the history of the region and Baja California Sur.

On your way back down the mountain, just a kilometer before reaching the Highway 1 junction is Del Barracho Saloon. This is a "must do" addition to the San Javier trip. Stop for a game of pool, awesome burger, or cold beverage; this is one of the few locations with actual draft beer, including dark.

Excursion Length: 6 Hours

What You Need:
Comfortable shirt and pants or shorts
Bottled water for the drive to and from the Mission
Windbreaker or sweater
Your camera

Who Should Take This Tour:
Anyone interested in Mexican history
Anyone interested in the history of the Missions in the New World
Anyone who'd like to learn some of the history and lore of Baja California
Anyone looking for a low impact excursion

Viva Travel Guides,
Cruise Port Insider,

Additional Reading:
Baja California Sur

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