4. San Ignacio & Loreto
Uncover the history of Baja California through the churches built by Jesuit missionaries in the 17th and 18th centuries
AS THE MIDDAY SUN BEATS down on the white façade of the Misión San Ignacio, its door creaks open. The church’s warden, Francisco Zúñiga, steps through, gesturing to the aged wood. ‘This is original,’ he says, ‘from 1728.’ That makes the door older than many towns here in Baja California. The largest city on the peninsula, Tijuana, was founded in 1889. While the native history here is long – there are cave paintings by the Cochimí people which are thought to date from as far back as 7,500 years ago – the history of modern settlements didn’t begin until the arrival of Jesuit missionaries from mainland Mexico in 1683. It was 1697 before they founded the first Spanish town on the peninsula, Loreto, a three-and-a-half hour drive further south from San Ignacio. They came by boat from Sinaloa, unsure whether they were approaching an island or a peninsula. They first landed at modern-day La Paz, but were driven north by the native Pericúes and Guaycura people, and eventually ended up near Loreto. Their first attempt at constructing a church, Misión San Bruno, was abandoned in 1685 due to a shortage of food and water. In 1697, another Jesuit group led by the Italian priest Juan María de Salvatierra arrived in Loreto and tried again to construct a mission. This church, the Misión de Nuestra Señora de Loreto Conchó, proved more successful and the settlement became the first Spanish-claimed territory on the peninsula, and the base from which the missionaries expanded their evangelical work throughout the region. The church still stands in Loreto, next to a museum dedicated to the history of the Jesuits. However, as the museum’s custodian Hernán Murillo explains, the missionaries who made it as far north as San Ignacio saw a fall in the number of their flock due to an unforeseen danger, which would be repeated across the continent. ‘There’s an expression here: “The bells that call the wind,”’ he says. ‘The San Ignacio mission was started by the Jesuits and finished by the Franciscans, but by the time they completed the mission, they were seeing the effects of Westerners arriving with diseases that the locals didn’t have immunity to. By the time the Mission was finished there weren’t many people left to go to the church. That’s why we say there were only bells to call the wind.’ Today, the village surrounding the Misión San Ignacio is home to just 700 people, while Loreto is a larger town of 15,000. Until 1777 Loreto governed the whole state, which at the time stretched all the way up into what is now the USA, and much of the town’s architecture still bears out that colonial legacy. Loreto is easy to explore on foot and is arranged around a central square, Plaza Juárez. From there it’s just a short stroll up the tree-lined Avenida Salvatierra to the mission. Restored several times after centuries of earthquake damage, it retains an inscription above the door which attests to how important it once was, translating as: ‘The head and mother church of the missions of upper and lower California’. Inside, behind the altar, sits an elaborately decorated Baroque retablo that was transported here at great expense from Mexico City. For a town with such a rich history, Loreto is now a peaceful place. As dusk falls in the Plaza Juárez, couples sit outside a restaurant named 1697 sipping beers as they listen to a guitar player. They gaze across the square to the imposing Spanish Colonial city hall. Underneath the word ‘Loreto’ it bears a stone legend, naming the town as the ‘Capital Histórica de las Californias’. But now, like the beer drinkers themselves, it is a town left alone with its memories.