History and Highlights
Tracing the history of Misión San José de Comondú requires a bit of tenacity, although given the turbulent history of the mission, it seems only fitting.
After its founding in 1708 by Father Julián Mayorga, the original site of the mission, 30 miles (48 km) northwest of Loreto and due south of Bahía Concepción, was beset by an outbreak of smallpox that halved its population in just its third year. But Fr. Mayorga and his company soldiered on at the site for another quarter-century before finally giving in to the inhospitable agricultural conditions and relocating the mission 30 miles (48 km) southwest to its second location at San Miguel.
Originally founded as a visita to nearby Misión San Francisco Javier in 1714, the San Miguel site was upgraded to mission status when Misión San José de Comondú was relocated from the first site, now known as Comondú Viejo, in 1736. Favored because of its superior agricultural potential, San Miguel was short-lived as a full-fledged mission site, as the mission was uprooted once more in 1737 and shuffled two miles away to its final location at the former visita of San Ignacio – not to be confused with the mission and town of the same name in the northern part of the state. The mission flourished during the mid-18th century before meeting a fate similar to other Baja Sur missions, as wave after wave of disease reduced the population to less than a hundred, and finally, in 1827, to zero, leading to the closure of Comondú.
Most of Misión San José de Comondú’s growth and development took place at this final location, now a village of the same name. While the main church – believed to once rival the great temples of San Ignacio and San Francisco Javier – no longer stands, its side chapel is the primary architectural attraction for those on the mission trail. As part of an extensive 1973 restoration, the chapel was reinforced with stone mined from the remnants of other fallen mission structures. The restoration produced a delightful result. On bright days, sunlight streams through the windows and illuminates the church’s rich, natural tones. In the immediate vicinity of the chapel, it’s also possible to spot remnants of the walls of long-fallen mission era buildings.
Given their proximity to each other, it’s a breeze to visit the second and third sites – San Miguel and San José – in tandem. By virtue of geography, most travelers find themselves poking around San Miguel en route to San José, as it’s just 2.5 miles (4 km) from the final mission site. Both villages, still barely populated and offering the most basic services, allow visitors to step back in time, far removed from the hustle of the busier coastal towns of Loreto and Mulegé. Each has an impressive square featuring the crumbling facades of multiple generations of construction. One almost gets the impression of being in on the set of a movie – except that it feels a little too authentic.
A visit to the original mission site at Comondú Viejo requires a little more planning – and perhaps a better vehicle (see below). While the site is adorned with many remnants of that first mission complex, the roads leading to it could be in better shape.
Who founded it?
The Jesuits, led by Father Julián de Mayorga.
What should I expect to see?
The stone chapel at the third site, San José, is the main attraction, along with the various ruins that surround it. Much of the original mission stonework has been incorporated into more modern construction in both San José and San Miguel. At Comondú Viejo, it’s possible for the intrepid traveler to see ruins demarcating the footprint of the original mission buildings.
When should I go?
The mission sites are “open” year-round but, really, nobody is there to either open or close them.
Where is it and how do I get there?
Set your GPS coordinates to N 26° 03.62’ W 111° 49.32’ for the third and final mission site at San José. There are four roads leading into the Comondú area that incorporates San Miguel and San José, but only one is recommended for travel. The most reliable access route is from the southwest. Leaving the Transpeninsular Highway at Ciudad Insurgentes, follow the unbelievably straight Highway 53 north for 40 miles (64 km) to Francisco Villa, then turn right and follow the signs toward Comondú, a further 21 miles (34 km) inland along an unpaved road that can be navigated by any vehicle. You’ll stumble upon San Miguel first, and San José another 2.5 miles (4 km) upstream. The Comondú Viejo mission site is 30 miles (48 km) northeast from San José de Comondú along a road that is deteriorating and not about to be fixed anytime soon. Recent reports also indicate that the roads northwest to San Isidro and the road southeast toward San Javier are in appalling condition – the latter a particular disappointment for those wishing to combine Misión San José de Comondú with Misión San Francisco Javier for a single trip. At this time, your best bet is to retrace your steps to Highway 53 at Francisco Villa, but if you’re driving a 4WD or high-clearance vehicle, you can inquire locally about your options – just don’t hold your breath.
Why should I go?
Buried deep in the interior of the Sierra de la Giganta, this series of mission sites gives visitors the best chance to truly get away from it all. If the beautiful stone chapel isn’t reason enough to inspire a visit, the contrast of time-worn colonial-era buildings and verdant arroyo setting create a Baja visitor experience unlike any other.