History and Highlights
The southernmost of all Baja missions still showing some resemblance to their original appearance, Misión San Luis Gonzaga Chiriyaqui sits smack in the middle of a lonely, dusty desert 33 miles (53 km) southeast of Ciudad Constitución. Far off the beaten track of the Transpeninsular Highway, this desolate site gets just a fraction of the visitors that the missions at Loreto and Mulegé get. Yet those who make it are rewarded by an experience that is as much about the setting as it is the architecture.
Initially an inland visita for Misión Dolores Apaté, Misión San Luis Gonzaga Chiriyaqui came into its own as a mission in 1737, when it was founded by Father Lamberto Hostell. On the arrival of Jacob Baegert 14 years later, the isolated mission was found to be all but destroyed by a hurricane and Baegert led a rebuilding effort in earnest. It was at this time that construction began on the church that still stands today. Using local sandstone for the walls and adobe bricks for the ceiling, Baegert oversaw the church’s completion in time for the 1767 expulsion of the Jesuits from Baja. In the following year, despite a population numbering close to a thousand, the mission was abruptly closed and consolidated into the Misión Santa Rosa de las Palmas, 120 miles (193 km) down the peninsula at Todos Santos. The stone church was left to fight the elements over the following centuries.
That church is what draws most visitors today to a village that is a few souls shy of being a ghost town. Rising above all other structures in the hamlet, the church is visible from miles around. But exploring the church, with its exposed, intricate masonry on the outside and simple yet handsome interior on the inside, is just part of the experience. Half the joy of visiting San Luis Gonzaga is standing in the nearly deserted plaza, in front of the church, soaking in the isolated beauty of it all. The plaza and the buildings that surround it seem larger than life for this tiny outpost, and a 360-degree turn will expose visitors to architecture from each of the past three centuries. It’s worth traipsing around to the adjacent graveyard, too, as the peaceful ranchland soundtrack compliments its small collection of headstones to provide an eerily calming experience.
Today’s church building is used on occasion by the local community, and is in surprisingly sturdy condition despite the lack of a concerted maintenance effort. Of those Baja mission sites that are far enough away from the Transpeninsular Highway to feel truly removed, this one may be the best at marrying accessibility – you can get there in any vehicle – and preservation. While many comparable sites are either too difficult to access or too in ruin to warrant the trip, Misión San Luis Gonzaga Chiriyaqui is well worth the detour.
Who founded it?
The Jesuits, led by Father Lamberto Hostell.
What should I expect to see?
The mission church rises above the plaza in the center of tiny San Luis Gonzaga. Though not regularly maintained, it’s in fine condition and can be explored safely. Check out the graveyard just outside, also in admirable condition given its age.
When should I go?
Any time is a fine time. The feast day of San Luis Gonzaga typically aligns with the summer solstice on June 21, and although the community is too small and remote to sustain annual activities, they aren’t unknown and there are few finer places to spend the year’s longest day.
Where is it and how do I get there?
Set your GPS coordinates to N 24° 54.52’ W 111° 17.43’. The turnoff from the Transpeninsular Highway is just south of Ciudad Constitución and is signed first for Presa El Ihuajil and second – when it’s a little too late – for San Luis Gonzaga. Traveling northbound, it’s not signed at all; just look for the right turn around km 195. Once you’ve made the turn, a sign indicates the mission is 48 km from the Transpeninsular; it’s actually little more than 23 miles (37 km). You’ll turn right at the end of a 13-mile (21 km) straightaway. The road is unpaved in its entirety but is passable by all vehicles. There are alternative routes, but your best bet is to retrace your tracks to the Transpeninsular when you’re done, unless you want a rocky ride.
Why should I go?
Misión San Luis Gonzaga Chiriyaqui pairs the isolation of a well-preserved mission perched upon rugged terrain with relative accessibility. It’s your best chance to experience life in the Baja hinterland without straying too far from the Transpeninsular.