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Mission: San Francisco Javier

History and Highlights

It may not be the oldest, largest, or most important of Baja’s missions, but a visit to Misión San Francisco Javier de Viggé-Biaundó reveals why, for so many Baja visitors, it’s the most memorable.

Founded in 1699 by Father Francisco María Piccolo, Misión San Francisco Javier’s original location at Biaundó, 17 miles (27 km) west of the Transpeninsular Highway at Loreto, proved too inhospitable for long-term success: too much wind, but too little water.  Fr. Piccolo’s successor, Father Juan de Ugarte, moved the mission to a more fertile location five miles (8 km) deeper into the interior within its first decade.  During his 28-year tenure at San Javier, which culminated with his death in 1730, Fr. de Ugarte left a legacy that extended well beyond the second mission site.  He led the construction of not only the mission’s impressive stone buildings, but also a system of aqueducts and dams that led to the first settlement at what would later become Misión San Juan de Comondú.   Timber collected from areas north of the mission by Fr. de Ugarte was used in the construction of the first ship ever built in the Californias, the famous El Triunfo de la Cruz.

A third priest, Father Miguel del Barco, initiated the construction of the stunning mission church in 1744.  Completed in a relatively short 14 years, the church stands as a monument to the resourcefulness of Fr. del Barco and his team, who mined limestone from the hills and canyons surrounding the mission to provide the material for its construction.

The population of Misión San Francisco Javier held steady through the mid-18th century while other Baja missions’ populations were decimated.  But as the century drew to a close, the population dwindled to barely more than 100 souls by 1800, and to nil eleven years later, when the mission was abandoned.

Visitors are in for a rare Baja treat.  The tiny, secluded village is a sight in itself, with its modest buildings lining the main (well, only) street as it leads to the church set against the spectacular mountain backdrop.  Note, on the church’s exterior, not only the splendid quarried stone, but also the graveyard tucked behind the bell tower on one side, and the finely detailed door and window around the other.  Entering the cross-shaped church by its main doors, an eye-catching retablo covered with no shortage of shiny gold leaf imported from Spain shouts out for your attention.  Rising behind the altar, the retablo features eight 18th-century oil paintings and its focal point, a statue of San Javier, laid out in a three-by-three tic-tac-toe pattern.  Two smaller but similarly remarkable retablos frame the two side altars.  Turning to the rear of the church, a stone staircase, tucked away from view, spirals its way up to a grand choir loft.

For an edifice deep into its third century, the church is in remarkable condition, thanks in no small part to the oversight of the National Institute of History and Anthropology (INAH).  Taken together with the beautiful and challenging – though improving – round trip on the road from Loreto (see below),  it constitutes a full day of adventure that many Baja visitors cite as a highlight of their trips.

Who founded it?

The Jesuits, led by Father Francisco María Piccolo.

What should I expect to see?

The imposing church is in excellent condition.  Keep your eyes peeled for the entry monument at the opposite end of the main street from the church, as well as remnants of aqueducts used to channel water throughout the mission site and present-day village.  Many visitors also enjoy a stop at the grove of olive trees en route from Loreto, and you may be able to catch a glimpse of the original site at Biaundó by resetting your odometer on the return trip and watching for mile 5 (km 8).

When should I go?

The mission is accessible year-round but avoid travel immediately before or after heavy rains as they may render the riverbed on the final approach to San Javier impassable.  Plan for a full day including your return trip from Loreto.

Mass is often said on Thursdays.

Fifty-one weeks of the year, San Javier is one of the most tranquil places in Mexico.  On and around December 3, the feast of San Francisco Javier is celebrated late into the night with great fervor.  For some, this is reason to pack a tent and dive into the fracas of loud, chaotic festivities; for others, it’s the one week of the year not to go.

Where is it and how do I get there?

Set your GPS coordinates to N 25° 51.66’ W 111° 32.63’.  The access road to San Javier meets the Transpeninsular Highway just south of the main arroyo through Loreto, opposite the Loreto International Airport, and is clearly signed.  Recent improvements to the road have turned the trip from a punishing two-and-a-half-hour marathon into a relatively smooth journey that can be completed in less than an hour, although between the spectacular scenery, steep grades and dizzying hairpin curves, there’s no need to rush.  Of the 22 miles (36 km) between the Transpeninsular and San Javier, all but the last five (8 km) are paved at last report.  The remainder is graded with some narrow sections.

Why should I visit?

This mission site is arguably in the best condition of any of the missions, and the pairing of the overpowering quarried-stone architecture and rugged landscape is unmatched in Baja.  It could be said that if you visit only one Baja mission, this is the one – as long as your vehicle doesn’t mind the steep grades.

 

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