Some of my most memorable travel memories have been the result of what I call happy accidents. My friend Daniel, who had come with me for a chance to scuba dive in the Sea of Cortez, received a free trip to the San Javier Mission as consolation for treacherous currents canceling all water activities. Seeing his land-bound condition as an omen that he should lounge poolside with a good murder mystery, Daniel graciously allowed me to take his place on the tour.
Another happy accident – no one else took the tour that afternoon. And so it was that I set off that sunny afternoon with driver Omar and tour guide Said of Wild Loreto Tours to the historic mission of San Javier in a massive Chevy Suburban. Jesuits founded the mission in 1701, part of the long chain of missions in Baja California and California. The Church of St. Francisco Javier, completed in 1759 after fifteen years of construction, is regarded as one of the most beautiful and best preserved of the California missions. As I learned upon arrival, visiting St. Javier is akin to traveling back in time and a wonderful way to understand mission life.
First, we had to get there, as it turned out no easy feat because we had to drive 24 miles inland through a mountain range. Under the best of conditions, the twisting and narrow roads into the Sierra de la Giganta mountains require a steady hand at the wheel and a good set of brakes. Damage from a recent hurricane had washed out parts of the road while overturned trees still partially blocked access, exponentially amping up the difficulty factor. On the positive side, locals said that they had never seen the area so green.
Fortunately Said and Omar were good traveling companions. We laughed a lot as we bumped along the road at glacial speeds, Said translating between Omar and me, pulling over to the side of the road periodically to photograph panoramic views. Frequently Said was able to point out a road carved out of the mountains that centuries of travelers had taken from Loreto to San Javier. (I sent up a small prayer of thanks for the Suburban.)
On the way to San Javier we stopped to see petroglyphs (cave paintings) at the site called Cuevas Pintas. The fencing around these indigenous drawings had been washed away during the recent hurricane, allowing us a rare opportunity to study them closely. Even after centuries of exposure to the elements, the vibrant reds, oranges and yellows shone through.
The Jesuits picked as the site of their mission an area of flat desert which, thanks to their irrigation know-how, they turned into an oasis ringed by mountains on all sides. Today the village has 125 residents who farm the land originally tilled by missionaries and Indians. The same irrigation system built three hundred years ago waters the area, aided by strategically placed PVC pipes. Most amazingly, olive trees planned by the Jesuits continue to live on.
Brightly colored homes with palm frond roofs signal the town’s beginning. We turned a corner to see a stone cross, the Cross of Calvary, marking the beginning of a cobblestone road that ended at the church. During religious ceremonies some of the devout walk to the church on their knees along this rocky road, a sign of piety I would be hard pressed to emulate, no matter my level of devotion. That said, the view of this exquisite baroque stone church incongruously set against the mountains quite took my breath away.
We might have been in the 1800’s save for the occasional pickup truck and – get this – about twenty to thirty off road vehicles. Yes, the route of the Baja 1000 off road race from Ensenada to La Paz ran right through San Javier. This quaint village was overrun with sweaty, dirty American off roaders stopping for lunch, the ratio of Americans to Mexicans running about one to one. My meal of goat tacos (not bad with homemade salsa and tortillas) and a much-needed Pacifico beer was accompanied by the music of revving engines. To my immense distress upon downloading my photographs, I realized I had failed to get a picture of the dozen off road vehicles parked in front of the church.
Fortunately, the racers did not stop to visit the inside of St. Francisco Javier, its seven feet deep walls deadening all sounds but the whispers Said and I exchanged. Still used as a place of worship, the church is made of stone quarried and carried from twenty miles away. Imagine. The missionaries also carried thirty-two boxes from Mexico City containing, among other things, the elaborate gold altar filling one wall. Old as the church is, some of the Italian and Spanish artwork is older. I quit taking notes to quietly drink in the history of the people who had created St. Francisco Javier. Said pointed out carved Indian heads holding up columns, explaining the unappreciated yet essential part the indigenous peoples played in building both the town and the church.
So much of their work remains long after they are gone, I thought as Said and I walked through the farmlands past the church, accompanied by a small dog named Betty. (One of Said’s gifts as a tour guide is knowing the names of all the local dogs, some of whom came to say hello when we arrived in town.)Farmers work the same land as ancestors who bred cattle and grew olives centuries before, with little curiosity about the world beyond. Even the off road drivers could not dislodge the peace I felt in San Javier.
For anyone interested in visiting San Javier, I recommend calling tour company Wild Loreto and asking for Said Orozco. A rental SUV might get one through the mountains to the village, but without the knowledge and love of place Said gave to me.