Sunday, November 27, 2011

San Javier - Revisited

One of the best experiences of living in a beautiful place like Loreto is sharing it with visitors.  I had that pleasure this week when Percy and Alejandra, along with their friend Yves, drove down from Orange County in California to spend a few days with me in my home, Casablanca.  You may remember from my first Blog of this season (“The Long and Winding Road” Oct. ‘11) that I had stayed with Percy in Orange County on my way south this Fall, and at that time we made plans for this return visit – their first experience driving in the Baja.

While they had not made the drive before, they are not new to Mexico.  First of all, the three of them are all fluent in Spanish and Percy’s does business in Mexico so he travels regularly to several large centers.  Alejandra recently moved to the US, having lived all of her preceding life in Mexico, but she had only visited Cabo in the Baja before, and Yves had visited many places in Mexico but he too was not familiar with the peninsula.

Their route was the familiar one from southern California, crossing at Tijuana spending the night in San Quintin and carrying on to Loreto the next day.  But, as I have learned from past experience, every trip down the Baja is an adventure and theirs began on the second day when they reached El Rosario and found traffic halted through town for 2 ½ hours, due to a Revolution Day parade.  However, because they were fluent in Spanish, they were able to find out from a local that there was a back road that took them to a ford over the river, downstream from the big bridge at the south end of town.  Following this road, and managing to cross the river in their four-wheel drive SUV, they were eventually able to re-join the main highway and avoid the holdup that would have probably delayed them from arriving in Loreto until the following day.   

But all’s well that ends in Loreto (I think I’ve just made up a new saying!) and they arrived without much in the way of further incidents.  In spite of having spent the last two days driving, they were game for another outing their first day here, when I suggested making the 32 km drive to San Javier.  For those unfamiliar with this area (and likewise unfamiliar with my previous posts on the subject: “Semana Sante, San Javier & Olive Oil” April ‘11, and “Road to San Javier” March ’09) San Javier is the site of the second Mission Church to be built in the Baja by the Jesuits. A simple adobe building was originally built in 1699, just a few years after the first Mission was constructed in Loreto, with the magnificent stone structure that is now the center of San Javier being completed in the mid-1700’s.

As I know from past experience, going to San Javier is as much about the journey as the destination.  The 32 km road that starts from the main highway just south of the town of Loreto travels through typical scrub brush for about the first third of the way.  The road then climbs the east slopes of the Sierra de la Giganta mountains on a spectacular stretch that switchbacks around hairpin turns and opens breathtaking vistas back towards the Sea of Cortez.  Then it straightens out again for the last third, across high plateau ranchero lands before approaching the small hamlet of San Javier that has grown up around this majestic 250 year old mission building.

Five years ago when I made my first trips up this road it was all gravel (and worse) from the highway to the Mission with the road becoming narrower and rougher through the mountain stretch and beyond.  A year or two later paving the road was an election promise made by the successful candidate for Governor and work began at the highway end.  At the end of that 3 year electoral term about one quarter of the length of the road was paved, and so, in the ensuing election, continuing to pave the road was part of the new Governor’s campaign and work continued.  Earlier this spring on my last trip up the new road had reached about the halfway point, with the most challenging (and most expensive to construct) portion through the mountains, still to be done.

So on this most recent trip I was interested to see how far the paving had progressed and I was pleasantly surprised to see that now the new wide asphalt road (now with shoulders – a rarity in the Baja) has reached the 21 km mark, which includes most of the difficult route through the mountains.  Several kilometres past the end of pavement there are several more kilometres of wide graded roadbed, apparently ready for the next section of paving, before the road narrows again to the original rough dusty track through several rancheros.

In my description of this roadwork , I have failed to mention the dramatic shifts in scenery that is the real attraction for anyone making this trip.  The dry desert scrub brush that makes up most of the journey is broken unexpectedly by several small oases that can be spotted from a distance by the tall succulent palm trees that thrive wherever there is a reliable supply of water.  Yes there is water here in the desert, quite a bit, from the appearances of these palm groves, but it mostly travels underground until it is lifted to the surface by the subterranean geology and these areas become the occasional patches of lush vegetation that can be seen from the road.

A significant benefit of the progress this paving is that it has reduced the travel time to San Javier, we arrived in less than an hour, where it used to take up to a half hour longer on the old road.  When we did arrive, my first impressions were that the “town” was looking better than it has on previous visits.  The buildings appeared to be better maintained and, although several of the new businesses I had seen the last time were not open the day we were there, there was still more activity and services than was the case a couple of years ago.

But of course the focal point of any visit is the Mission itself, and it never has failed to impress me what a massive undertaking this huge edifice must have been when it was built with the most primitive of tools and technology over 200 years ago!  It was also my impression that, along with the surrounding town, the building itself and its grounds are being better maintained, as was the beautiful and inspiring chapel inside.  Although I have visited the Mission frequently, I never tire of photographing this building inside and out, trying to capture the impressive scale of the structure and the rugged details of the centuries old stonework.

Needless to say, my visitors were also mightily impressed by the beautiful building, rising from the harsh desert plateau where it is located, surrounded by the craggy peaks of the self same rock that these walls were hewn from so long ago.  The proximity of the materials of construction, within sight of the structure itself, gives the strong impression that this building somehow arose by natural means from the very ground where it now sits, rather than being built by man’s hand.

But I digress!  No visit to San Javier is complete without continuing on by foot behind the Mission building, past an ancient cistern holding irrigation water, and through a cultivated field (now lying fallow, but on prior visits growing a bumper onion crop) to a monument of another kind, the 300 year old olive tree.  Now a massive, twisted and contorted trunk, supporting a huge canopy of delicate silvery leaves, this tree was part of the olive grove that was planted by the early Jesuits, whose goal it was to establish a self-sufficient agricultural settlement to support the Mission building that would rise nearby, decades later.

The evidence of the success of what must have been a daunting undertaking over three centuries ago, is all around us, albeit primitive and marginal by North American standards, crops continue to be raised and harvested, irrigated by much of the original infrastructure laid down by those early missionaries.  As I mentioned in the April posting referenced earlier, artisanal olive oil production is currently being revived here from the fruits of over 300 trees that trace their genealogy back to this ancient specimen – true living history!

And so ended my most recent pilgrimage to San Javier, but I will return, time and time again, as I feel drawn to this place that represents so many unique aspects of life in this part of the Baja.  Very likely, my future visits will include guests or visitors, because it is usually on those occasions, with company, that we who have the privilege of living in this beautiful place, find the time and inspiration to see again the sights, and share the experiences with others.  That which originally caused us to fall in love with this place – through the eyes of others, we can see again, as for the first time, why we are “Living Loreto”.