There are roads..and then there are epic roads.
Think Highway 1 in Big Sur, the Road to Hana on the island of Maui, Pikes Peak in Colorado not to mention the Ring Road in Iceland, the Icefields Parkway in Canada connecting Banff to Jasper or numerous other epic drives around the world.
Should you find yourself on the Eastern side of the Baja Peninsula near Loreto, Mexico there is one such road called the “Road to San Javier” that courses steadily upward through the Sierra de la Giganta mountain range. This sinuous ribbon of concrete and blacktop rises dramatically from the shores of the Sea of Cortez and is sure to make it on your list of memorable drives.
With only one sign off Highway 1 indicating the starting point for this amazing drive you are left to wonder how far into the mountains you will drive before hitting the “The Jewel of the Missions of Baja California” Unless you have done your research and actually know the distance to the Mission you will have to suspend all attempts to figure out how far you must travel as there are no additional signs or mile markers along the way. Throughout the roughly hour-and-a-half drive you will encounter turn-after-turn, switchback-after-switchback and mile upon mile of long steep climbs along with arroyos so deep you can barely see the bottom.
On our late September journey to the Mission at San Javier we were treated to every shade of green against a backdrop so fresh that it was hard to believe we were driving through a desert. The verdant landscape was the result of a 4 day rainstorm that drenched the peninsula turning everything from dusty brown to unimaginable lushness. Mile after mile of palm trees, palo verde, cardon, and cacti of all shapes and sizes reward this landscape with the title “the cactus garden of Mexico”. We found the cardon cacti especially fascinating due to their enormous size, age and the fact that they serve as multi-story dwellings for dozens of varieties of birds.
Along the way we saw many streams, rivers and pools of freshwater left over from the recent rains, some of which crossed the road at several low points. The earth here is rich year-round but more so after a torrential storm or two. During our drive we observed dozens of hawks and turkey buzzards circling lazily overhead adding to the sensation of being in the middle of nowhere.
Just when you are about to question…once again…“where the heck is this place” the terrain flattens out and you see the sign to the entrance of the peaceful, sun-washed community of San Javier. Instantly a calm comes over you, not the least for which the drive is finally over. You have arrived.
The cobblestone main street, if you can call it that, is just one block long and is festooned with the traditional Papel Picado (paper cutouts) strung across the road giving it a festive feel as though the locals are preparing for a religious celebration or a fiesta. Instead, the town is decorated this way year-round and the feeling you get is very welcoming.
As you pass the only store and the the single restaurant you are immediately overwhelmed by the size of the church which sits at the end of the road. When you exit your car you cannot help but stare up in complete reverence at this enormous, cut stone church that took 14 years to build. Under the guidance of the priests, who ventured to this remote land to spread their faith, the church was built by the hands and hearts of the indigenous people. It is difficult to comprehend the Pyramid-like precision this structure was built with, yet it is exactly this precision that has kept it standing for hundreds of years enduring earthquakes, floods and the ravages of nature and time.
Every December 1st, 2nd, and 3rd, thousands of pilgrims from all over Mexico find their way to the festival that honors this historic site. In 2013 a record 6,000 people made the trek. In a small town such as this, available parking cannot handle a crowd of this size. Once the town fills, the faithful park on the mountainous road and walk the remaining distance to the church, adding to the feeling of a true pilgrimage.
While contemplating this massive structure it is impossible not to reflect on the union between the padres, with their all consuming passion for the almighty and the innocence of the indigenous people that resulted in this enormous and incredible expression of human accomplishment. That is the real story of Mission San Javier.
With the mid afternoon sun blazing overhead we decided to bid farewell to the kind and friendly people of San Javier to enjoy the drive down the mountain to the sea. Being a bit more familiar with the road heading down allowed us to relax and take in the gorgeous scenery as the deep blue waters of the Sea of Cortez and the town of Loreto came back into view.
An epic drive through mountainous terrain combined with a historical and cultural landmark such as the Mission at San Javier have made it into our book as a drive worth taking. Put it on your list when you visit this region and you will not be disappointed.