History and Highlights
So well-situated was San Ignacio in the 18th century that the Jesuits committed over 20 years to the site before finally establishing Misión Nuestro Señor San Ignacio de Kadakaamán.
So well-situated is San Ignacio today that the modern Baja traveler would be foolish to whip by without stopping – and that’s before one even considers the fantastic condition in which the mission church can be found currently.
Located deep in the peninsula’s mountainous interior, 91 miles (146 km) southeast of Guerrero Negro on the Pacific side and 46 miles (74 km) west of Santa Rosalía, the Transpeninsular’s gateway to the Sea of Cortez, isolated San Ignacio, with its thick complement of palm trees, appears to travelers like an oasis in the desert. Thus today it is as important a regional center for through travelers as it was in the 18th century for the succession of Jesuits, Franciscans and Dominicans as they extended their reach northward up the Baja peninsula.
Father Juan Bautista de Luyando, freshly installed on the Baja, founded Misión Nuestro Señor San Ignacio de Kadakaamán in early 1728 in an effort to capitalize on the presence of prime agricultural land and the freshwater of San Ignacio’s prominent laguna. During the mission’s early years, it served as a launching point for parties heading north and west to remote locations such as Santa Gertrudis and San Pablo.
The stone church and surrounding buildings, which make San Ignacio seem more fortress-like than most other Baja missions, were constructed during the mid- to late-18th century. Ironically, the construction period coincided with the reversal of population growth at the mission, as waves of disease pushed the population from several hundred in the mid-century to barely more than a hundred when the church was completed in 1786, with Franciscan Father Juan Gómez at the helm.
And what a church it is. Still standing over two centuries later, and still basking in the glow of extensive renovations in 1976, San Ignacio’s church could claim to be the most decorated in all of Baja, arguably outshining even the “mother” mission in Loreto. Its exterior, primarily white but speckled with browns and grays, dominates the landscape of San Ignacio’s tiny center. Walls measuring more than a yard (1 m) thick helped ensure the edifice’s survival over the centuries.
Once inside, the opulent wooden and gold-leafed retablo, with Saint Ignatius at its heart, jumps out to grab the visitor’s attention. But don’t miss the myriad other features that make this mission so architecturally unique. Although the retablo was constructed on the mainland and assembled on site, both the volcanic rock and timber beams were locally sourced. The church also contains a rich collection of statuary worth exploring.
Although the annihilation of the Indian population led to the closure of the mission in 1840, the church has survived as the community parish ever since, making a visit to the church today not only possible, but well worth the stop.
Who founded it?
The Jesuits, led by Father Juan Bautista de Luyando.
What should I expect to see?
The town-square church is an outstanding example of Moorish architecture in particularly great condition, owing to its modern-era renovation. Also worth noting are the rock dike, measuring almost three miles (4.8 km) long and constructed during the 18th century to protect the mission from floods that followed heavy rains. You’ll cut right through it on the main road from the Transpeninsular to the town center. A National Institute of History and Anthropology (INAH) museum adjacent to the church is free to visit and details the history of the settlement and mission.
When should I go?
The church is open year-round and functions as an active parish, so you may have a chance of catching a Mass on Sunday. If you hope to visit the adjacent museum, note that it’s closed on Sundays in the off-season, but otherwise open most days from 8am to 6pm.
Where is it and how do I get there?
Set your GPS coordinates to N 27° 17.02’ W 112° 53.91’. From the Transpeninsular Highway, follow the green highway sign indicating the main road to San Ignacio village. The church will appear on the right 1.5 miles (2.5 km) from the Transpeninsular; it’s impossible to miss.
Why should I go?
Perhaps the real question is, why wouldn’t you go? In addition to being one of the most impressive edifices of any kind anywhere in Baja, the mission church and surrounding village are ideally situated for a pit stop (or overnight stop) between Guerrero Negro and Santa Rosalía. Only the mission churches at Mulegé and Loreto offer such well-preserved architecture so conveniently close to the Transpeninsular Highway.