Sunday, March 15, 2009

The Road to San Javier

One of our favourite “road trips” is to drive up to San Javier, the site of the second Jesuit mission church built in the Baja in 1707, following the establishment “Mother” church in the town of Loreto in 1697.

The 32 km road to San Javier ALMOST joins the #1 Highway two km. south of Loreto. The ALMOST qualifier is because a little over two years ago, one of the candidates for Governor of Baja Sur (the state that Loreto is located in) made a campaign promise to pave the road to San Javier. At the end of his two year term he had delivered on his promise - sort of. He had paved SOME of the road - exactly 3 km or about 10% of the total length. However, because the new paving was a on a State road and the #1 Highway is a Federal road, they don't actually connect. There is a 30 meter unpaved gap from the shoulder of the Federal road to the beginning of the new pavement on the State road – likely either a disagreement over survey or jurisdiction. But the bumpy start is only a hint of what is to come!

The current Governor has also made a campaign promise of paving the same road, and he has delivered considerably more during his time in office. The road is now complete for about 10 km. and it is one of the nicest stretches of new pavement I have ever driven on in Mexico. It is smooth, wide (with actual 1 ft. shoulders beyond the white lines) with guardrails in appropriate places and good signage - a substantial improvement over most roads in the Baja.

In fact, a couple of weeks ago, when we made an earlier attempt to travel up to San Javier, we were stopped at a road block at the end of the new pavement where there were a large number of cars parked and an event tent in the distance. Apparently, the Governor was making a speech about beginning the next phase of the ongoing project, a 5.3 km stretch which will complete approximately half of the total distance to San Javier. This new phase is marked by the sign in this picture saying “El gobierno federal moderniza un tramo de 5.3 km que beneficia a 32 mil personas para vivir mehor” roughly translated as “The federal government is upgrading a stretch of 5.3 km, helping 32,000 people live better.” The 32,000 can’t refer to the population of Loreto, so I am assuming it refers to the yearly number of voyageurs making the pilgrimage, including yours truly.

One of the appeals of this drive is “to get off the beaten track” and away from Highway #1, which has it's own challenges and dramatic scenery, and head off deeper into the desert. The first 5 or so km are relatively straight and level but the road becomes progressively windy and hilly the further you go. As you drive, it becomes increasingly clear that the “easy” and “cheap” part of this road project is at the beginning and the further you travel the more this road will cost and the longer it will take to complete. By the end of the 10+ km of paving, you have finished what would be a challenging, but realistic bicycle trip for a reasonably fit cyclist, with increasing elevation changes the farther you go. In addition to widening the existing road, they have straightened out some of the sharpest corners and reduced some of the elevations changes, no doubt at considerable expense.

However, the fun is just beginning! Starting at the new section of paving, the project appears to be entering a whole new level of magnitude. At this point the road reaches into the canyon bottoms where seasonal floodwaters cascade through with a suddenness and force that I can only imagine. This necessitates reinforcing the roadbed in these vulnerable places with a solid boulder and concrete base to withstand the torrential floodwaters that can happen during the rainy and hurricane season from the end of August to mid-October.

The road is now approaching the base of El Pilon de Parras, a distinctive pyramid shaped peak, that is easily identified from the Highway we left 15 km back. From here the road gets REALLY crazy. This is the beginning of extreme roadwork, drilling and blasting to widen and straighten the track with the heaviest earthmoving equipment ploughing and grading the rubble into what will be a much more civilized and tame thoroughfare on completion.

At several points in the construction zone, it was temporarily unclear just where the road was, amidst all the mounds of fresh fill and tracks of the machinery. At one point, a helpful water truck driver waved us to follow him as he lurched up and over a particularly rough spot and got us back on track. Perhaps now is a good place to put in a few words about appropriate vehicles for this sort of travel, away from the highway. We drive a 10 year old Yukon Denali, purchased several years before we thought about living in this part of the world. So, it is more luck than good judgement that finds us in what I think maybe an ideal Baja vehicle - high road clearance, available 4 wheel drive, strong truck chassis, and yet still comfortable for long highway drives with lots of cargo space. It also is good to drive something that is a popular enough make and old enough for there to be a reasonable supply of second hand parts available in the Baja.

Once we passed through the construction zone of a couple of km, we returned to the original road which has not yet been upgraded. For all of the impressive manpower and horsepower involved in the current road work, what we realized was even more impressive, by comparison, was the engineering feat of the “old” road; carved out of sheer rock walls, twisting around hairpin turns and climbing and descending at sometimes precipitous grades of up to 20%. I have no idea when the older road was built, and no doubt it has been maintained and improved over the intervening years. But it is certain that the first road builders here had, by far, the toughest job, and they accomplished most of it with the simplest of hand tools and a staggering amount of labour!

Enough about the road! The scenery is nothing short of spectacular! This land may be a desert, but it certainly isn't lifeless. An evenly spaced combination of Mesquite shrubs, Elephant Trees, Jumping Chola, Organ and Cardon cactus, Palo verde and blanco are among the most recognizable species covering most of the terrain. But in the canyon bottoms, where there is fresh water, you will find lush palm tree oases. Did I say “fresh water”? Absolutely! There are a number of underground streams that surface periodically, depending on the geology, and wherever they do, the rich soil and abundant water combined with tropical temperatures produce jungle like conditions yards away from parched arid desert conditions. Did I also say “palm trees” in the desert? We understand they are not indigenous to the area but were originally introduced by the Jesuits and thrive with a consistent supply of water.

The occasional torrential downpour creates runoff that is so extreme, that there are dry waterfalls paths which have been so shaped and smoothed from the force of the water to appear to have been formed of molten rock from a volcano. But the staggering thing is that the water that has worn this hard rock into it's smooth flowing shapes, only flows for a few weeks a year - at most! Sometimes, for several years there is no water flow at all. Therefore, we can only contemplate how many thousands and thousands of years it has taken to shape this wild country into it's current form.

After successfully rounding El Pilon de Parras we emerge onto a high plateau and the road calms down into a relatively civilized, straightish path, albeit still very rough and dusty. This is ranchero country, and we pass over several cattle gates and past a couple of haciendas, built mainly from materials in the vicinity. These year-round working homes could teach us a lot about sustainable living in a harsh and beautiful environment. Where there are rancheros there are cattle and goats and horses and burros. The grazing area of these animals bring a whole new meaning to “free range”! They are largely left to fend for themselves, finding food and water the same way, and probably in the same places as their ancestors have for many generations. So far this year, because we have had several days of slight rain, the cattle we saw were well fed and sleek. At other times, in other years, you can easily count ribs from a distance.

At about the 20 km point, you come to Rancho Las Parras, one of the oldest rancheros in the Californias. Its name originally came from the wild grapevines that the first missionaries found in this oasis and the oldest buildings here date back to 1757. Another 6 or 7 km further is Rancho Viejo, where the first San Javier mission was established in 1699. About 5 km further and we finally reach our destination – the town of San Javier. The site of the present village was settled in 1707, and the mission was moved there in 1720. Construction of the beautiful stone church building began in 1744 and took 14 years to complete.

Constructed of locally quarried basalt and decorated with a gilded altar that was transported from Mexico City, it is in excellent, unrestored condition with original walls, floors and windows. Every time I visit this historic and religiously significant place, I can't help but wonder what an amazing sight the completed building would have been to the indigenous peoples of the area over 250 years ago!

The town itself has a wide cobblestone boulevard that becomes the focal point of the Fiesta de San Javier, held every December 2-3, celebrating the Saint's day. The local population of a couple of hundred swells by at least tenfold as thousands of tourist and especially Mexican pilgrims flock here from all over the Baja and mainland Mexico, many travelling on horseback and some (the hardiest pilgrims) even on foot! The church itself is in regular use and serves the needs of a sparse, but far ranging congregation of rancheros. It is open most days and receives a steady stream of tourists whose names and places of origin, from all over the world, fill the guest book kept by Francisca. This charming dona can often be found sitting quietly in the semi dark of the pews greeting visitors in hushed Spanish, and gently requesting no flash photography inside. The impressive altar wall and its remaining oil paintings, are remarkably well preserved in this arid desert climate.

There are crops in the fields behind the church, watered by a simple irrigation system of raised ditches, sourced by the river, which emerges above ground around the town site. This area is also home to an olive tree that is over 300 years old. This gnarly relic of the Jesuit occupation stands at the head of a grove of other olive trees and is the subject of an interpretive plaque mounted on a nearby stand. Between now and the time of our last visit about a year ago, a large branch of the tree had broken off, crushing the plaque and the stand. We hope it was an act of God and not of vandals, but the tree will undoubtedly soldier on into the future.

The return trip back to the highway holds just as many magical moments as the trip in, the same vistas from different angles, the first glimpses of the Sea of Cortez across miles of rocky desert terrain. But the biggest impact of the trip is the realization that this is just a 32 km slice into the hundreds of thousands of square miles of this peninsula and the imagination is staggered by what an abundance of space and beauty that this land encompasses. Understanding that we have just begun to scratch at the surface of a whole new world of exotic adventures, that too is a wonderful part of Living Loreto!

Reference books I used for some background material were:
“Best Guide - Loreto Baja California Sur, Mexico” by Alan and David Axelrod and Aaron Bodansky.
“The Baja Adventure Book” by Walt Peterson.