4. San Ig­na­cio & Loreto

Un­cover the his­tory of Baja Cal­i­for­nia through the churches built by Je­suit mis­sion­ar­ies in the 17th and 18th cen­turies

Lonely Planet (UK) - - Baja California -

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.

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