A Historical Exploration of Baja California Sur
By Mareth Griffith, expedition guide on the Safari Endeavour
The Safari Endeavour had a unique opportunity recently to visit a more remote destination in Baja California Sur - the San Javier Mission, which, founded in 1699, is the second oldest of the missions founded by the Jesuits, and reaching all the way from the southern tip of Baja California, to San Francisco in the U.S. state. We left the boat shortly after breakfast, hopping into a van as our local team of drivers and guides took us from the coast and inland across the Sierra de la Giganta mountains. Along the way, we viewed glimpses of the original Camino Real, the road connecting the mission in San Javier to its sister mission in Loreto, now little more than a footpath winding along the sides of a gaping arroyo.
The road clung to the mountainside, layers of reddish boulders, interspersed with the graceful white branches of the palo blanco and Adam’s tree - both showing a thick canopy of tiny green leaves, thanks to the recent rains. Recent, of course, meaning three weeks ago, but this tiny jolt of moisture was enough to encourage many of the trees to sprout leaves to take advantage of their brief drink.
The mission building, which dates to the 1740s, has been called ‘the jewel of the Baja California mission churches’. The building is home to several original 1700s-era altarpieces, and the mission, towering above us with its three stories of hand-carved stone, looks over a small town of two hundred residents, living in houses with traditionally thatched roofs - your roof leaking a bit in wet weather isn’t much of a problem if it only rains three or four days a year, on average.
Along one end of the main street, we passed a vendor selling mango jams, made from mango trees growing at the oasis fed from water using the mission’s aqueduct system, still in use nearly three hundred years after it was first constructed. The presence of a natural spring was a key reason for the Jesuits’ decision to build a mission in this spot, as their original mission in nearby Loreto struggled due to the lack of a natural water source nearby.
In addition to mangos, we walked among banana trees, and groves of date palms and citrus trees, many of which are descendants of trees brought to the peninsula over three hundred years ago. Our local guide, Daniil, lead us to one particular olive tree, which, he told us, is not one of these descendants - the olive tree, at over three hundred years old, is thought to have been planted during the Jesuits’ tenure and has continued to grow and thrive over the intervening centuries.
More prosaically, we saw several small fields used for the cultivation of onions, which make one of the main exports of this small town, clustered around a natural spring in the desert that has been sheltering life here for hundreds of years. Our time here gave us ample opportunities to enjoy both the cultural, historical and natural features of the area.