The Spanish Jesuits, Franciscans, and Dominicans established 27 missions on the Baja California peninsula during their time colonizing the “New World.” Many of the Baja missions have been reduced to not much more than piles of rubble or a few adobe remains, but there are a few that have remained intact over the centuries. Here are five of our favorite Baja missions to visit along the peninsula.
Misión Nuestra Señora de Loreto Conchó
Years of Operation: 1697-1829
Why We Love It: As the first mission founded in the Californias (Baja and Alta), the mission holds special significance in the history of the region. Jesuit Padre Juan Aria de Salvatierra founded the mission of Loreto at the village of Conchó on October 25, 1697. Loreto was the capital and religious center of California for decades. New missions and visitas were built out from Loreto on a network of roads eventually known as El Camino Real. In 1740 Padre Jaime Bravo began constructing a larger church at the mission site built from stone and mortar, the walls of which survive today. The entrance over the doorway to the church reads “Head and mother of the Missions of Lower and Upper California.”
DBTC Insider Tip: There’s a museum just next door to the mission, the Museo de los Misiones (tel. 613/135-0441, open 9a.m.-1p.m. and 1:45p.m.-6p.m. Tues.-Sun.) run by INAH. The small museum has some interesting exhibits about the history of the missions and the missionaries including historic maps and artifacts from daily life during that era.
Misión San Francisco Xavier de Viggé-Biaundó
Years of Operation: 1699-1817
Location: San Javier, 36 kilometers southwest of Loreto
Why We Love It: Considered to be the crown jewel of all the Baja missions, San Javier makes for a great day trip from Loreto. Visitors will enjoy a scenic drive through the lush and craggy Sierra de la Giganta mountain range to reach the small agricultural town of San Javier where the mission resides. The stone church that remains today was built from 1744 to 1758 and is one of the most well-preserved and handsome missions on the peninsula. The mission featured the first stained-glass windows of the peninsula and three gold-leaf altars that were shipped from mainland Mexico and reassembled in the mission. The mission reportedly cost nearly a million pesos to build and was financed by profits from pearl fisheries on the Sea of Cortez. Jorge is the caretaker of the mission and is around daily from 7am-6pm to answer any questions that visitors may have.
DBTC Insider Tip: Don’t visit the mission at San Javier without taking some time to walk around the back of the mission, exploring the old gardens of the mission and stopping to see the large gnarled olive tree that’s over 315 years old.
Misión Santa Rosalía de Mulegé
Years of Operation: 1705-1828
Why We Love It: Located just up a small hill from the center of town, this was the fourth mission established in California. The beautiful stone mission (the church standing was built in 1766) is a handsome example of a well-preserved mission, and the site here offers some of the best views in town.
DBTC Insider Tip: Be sure to walk around the back of the mission where you’ll find steps up to a small mirador lookout that offers great views of the Río Santa Rosalía (the Mulegé River) and of town. Please note that there’s sometimes an aggressive swarm of bees at the lookout. Be careful if you’re allergic.
Misión Nuestra Señor San Ignacio de Kadakaamán
Years of Operation: 1728-1840
Location: San Ignacio
Why We Love It: Located right on the picturesque town plaza of San Ignacio, this mission is one of the most beautiful and easy-to-visit missions in the peninsula. In its time as an operating mission, many expeditions were launched from San Ignacio to find new mission sites. One of these expeditions in 1746 was to the Colorado River Delta and put an end to the misconception that California was an island. The beautiful cut stone church that now stands was started by the Jesuits and completed in 1786 by the Dominican, Padre Juan Gómez.
DBTC Insider Tip: Just to the left of the mission, the Instituto Nacional Antropología e História (INAH) has a small museum (open 8 a.m.-6 p.m. Mon.-Sat.) with some history of the region and information about the rock art of the Sierra de San Francisco.
Misión San Francisco de Borja Adac
Years of Operation: 1762-1818
Location: West of Bahía de los Ángeles
Why We Love It: Called “San Borja” for short, this is the northern-most stone mission on the peninsula. The church that stands today was built in 1801 and the impressive beige quarry-stone building is a striking find in the middle of the desert. With a remote location, the mission is accessed with a scenic off-road drive from the road out to Bahía de los Ángeles (at Km. 44) or from Highway 1 at Rosarito. There’s a picnic area at the mission if you want to take food and enjoy a leisurely afternoon.
DBTC Insider Tip: The caretaker of the mission is a fourth generation Cochimí (one of a handful of native tribes in the region) and he and his family give free tours of the mission from 8a.m.-6 p.m. daily. Behind the church are adobe ruins of earlier constructions.
For more information (along with detailed locations and GPS points) about these missions and all of the 27 Spanish Missions on the Baja peninsula, pick up a copy of David Kier’s book, “Baja California Land of Missions.”