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Serra's missions in the mountains

Franciscan churches in the Sierra Gorda are tricky to reach, but the effort is repaid with an evocative taste of the 18th century.

May 04, 2003|Mary Branham | Special to The Times

Queretaro, Mexico — We were in rugged, barren country with awe-inspiring views. The terrain and vegetation seemed to change each time we rounded a curve or drove through a valley.

We had entered the Sierra Gorda, a remote chain of mountains in northern Queretaro state. It is a region of steep mountain ridges, deep canyons and ravines, along with the only cloud forests in central Mexico. There are jaguars, black bears, river otters, spider monkeys and nearly 400 species of birds.

Unfortunately, there also are frightening two-lane roads full of hairpin curves.

I visited this region last June with Eleanore, a friend who has a degree in anthropology and enjoys traveling in Mexico as much as I do. We were in search of five Baroque churches, 18th century Franciscan missions that Father Junipero Serra founded in the Sierra Gorda before building missions in California.

Our plan was to devote three days to the mission journey, driving from Mexico City to Queretaro, spending the night and venturing into the Sierra Gorda for two nights, returning to Queretaro the third day. Our driver was Rico, who has great patience, a calm demeanor and a tourist car stationed at a Zona Rosa hotel in Mexico City. He has been driving me, and family and friends, since I missed a Christmas Eve flight to Oaxaca in 1987, and he has spent many hours taking me about.

Queretaro is a delightful Mexican colonial city, worthy of a three- or four-day stay, so it was a bit frustrating to be there only for a stopover. Meson Santa Rosa, a favorite hotel, was booked, but we discovered the elegant La Casa de la Marquesa, in the heart of the old section. There were flowers on every table, and the room was palatial.

By 9 the next morning we were on our way. Six hours later, with a bit less than 200 miles of bad road behind us, we reached our first mission town: Jalpan. As we sat near the missionsipping cerveza and eating tacos, we reminded ourselves that it took Father Serra and the nine missionaries he was leading 17 days to make the same journey in June 1750. Considering the topography, it seems a miracle that they ever reached their destination. When Father Serra died at the age of 70 he had spent 50 years as a Franciscan friar, with half of his lifetime devoted to building missions in Mexico and California.

In the remote Sierra Gorda, all military expeditions had failed and other religious orders had given up evangelizing. Slowly the indigenous people began to trust the Franciscans. Besides teaching them to plant crops and raise livestock, the friars instructed the women in spinning and weaving.

They also taught catechism and singing and, with the help of native artisans, built five churches. All are in Romanesque style, with identical floor plans, but each facade is different, reflecting the skills of unknown craftsmen who worked with stone, mortar and paint, using not only religious symbols but also flower, animal, vegetable, fruit and shell motifs. The missions are still used as parish churches, open from early morning until dusk.

After lunch we set off for Mision de Santiago in Jalpan. We were not prepared for the impact of its ornate facade. Immediately above the door is a small shield with five wounds, a symbol of the Franciscan order; a little higher is another Franciscan coat of arms, displaying the crossed arms of St. Francis and Christ. There are also saints, flowers and garlands. Rico pointed. "Granadas," he said, and then translated the word "pomegranates" for Eleanore and me. The only slight discord is an unattractive clock high on the front wall where there was once an image of Santiago, or St. James.

Historic missions, historic hotel

Shadows were lengthening, and we still had a 30-mile drive to Hacienda/Mision Conca, the government-operated hotel that we had been told was the most likely lodging in the area.

The hotel turned out to be more pleasant than expected. The grounds are spacious, with inviting walking paths and horses grazing contentedly. The dining room and bar are in a restored 18th century section open to a lush garden. Ceiling fans and window screens kept the rooms comfortable.

The next day we backtracked to Jalpan, taking a pretty stream-side drive. The other missions are about 20 miles apart and can be visited in any order. We chose to go to Landa, Tilaco and Tancoyol, return to Jalpan for lunch, and end the day at the mission in Conca. Roads are paved and well marked.

It was overcast when we reached Mision de Santa Maria de la Purisima Concepcion del Agua, in Landa. It was the last to be built and is the most elaborate. There is a majestic statue of the Virgin Mary over the entrance, accompanied by numerous holy figures. The Apostles Peter and Paul are there, along with Sts. Dominic, Francis, John of Capistrano, Stephen and Vincent of Zaragoza. There also is a mermaid we had heard about but had trouble finding, even with the binoculars Eleanore had remembered to pack.

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