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Serra’s missions in the mountains

Special to The Times

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

The Franciscans were adept at selecting choice sites. In each case the church dominates the village, but in Tilaco, Mision de San Francisco de Asis is in an exceptionally idyllic setting. We were intrigued by the bull’s-eye above the door decorated with a shell framed by extraordinary curtains held open by two sturdy-looking angels. From the top section of the facade, a smiling St. Francis looks out over the valley.

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There was another change of scenery as we drove through a canyon to Tancoyol to visit Mision de Nuestra Senora de la Luz. Festive streamers suggested there had been, or was about to be, a celebration. The first thing we noticed on the ornate facade was an empty niche that, according to Eleanore’s notes, once held a statue of the Virgin Mary. The Virgin’s parents, St. Joachim and St. Anne, still stand in recesses on either side. Father Serra himself worked on this mission for 17 years.

We had a late lunch at the Hotel Maria del Carmen in midtown Jalpan. The upstairs dining room is bright, clean and cheerful, with a backdrop of mountains beyond the town. The Aztec soup, guacamole and quesadillas were satisfying and the service efficient.

After lunch I suggested we have another look at the Jalpan mission, having been so overwhelmed by our first church that I was sure we had missed something. Eleanore and Rico were easily persuaded to revisit.

We found we had indeed missed several details, among them graceful pilasters, that we would have looked for if we had been more experienced mission visitors.

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We finished the tour by returning “home” to see Mision de San Miguel Arcangel in Conca, visible across the highway from the hotel.

It is the smallest of the missions and the only one with extensive ceiling and wall painting. The Franciscan shield above the door, surrounded by acanthus leaves, is dramatic. Binoculars are necessary to make out an unusual treatment of the Holy Trinity atop the wall -- three lighthearted young men visiting one another in a jovial manner. The buttresses beside the door are climbed by some sort of mythological monkeys.

A waiter at the hotel suggested that we go by way of Rio Verde to San Luis Potosi and then by toll road back to Queretaro. He described it as a lovely mountain drive that’s “gentler.”

“I don’t want to go back to Mexico City,” Rico said as he pulled onto the highway.

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Eleanore and I agreed. We ate lunch in San Luis Potosi. Less than two hours after leaving there we had checked back into Meson Santa Rosa, in the center of Queretaro, and were sitting in the courtyard with cool drinks. But the spell of another era lingered.

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Tracing the mission trail in the Sierra Gorda

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GETTING THERE:

From LAX, Aeromexico, Mexicana, Delta and United offer nonstop flights to Mexico City. Restricted round-trip fares begin at $298. (It is possible to fly from Los Angeles to the Leon-Guanajuato airport, but the bus ride to Queretaro takes as long as the trip there from Mexico City.)

By car: The most practical way to visit the missions is by rental car, or by hiring a car and driver. Negotiate for a car and a driver in Mexico City; the price should be about $100 per day. The toll fees round trip are about $30. We also paid for a room in Conca for the driver for two nights.

By bus: Luxury buses leave regularly for Queretaro from the Terminal del Norte in Mexico City. The buses have reserved seats, air conditioning and a restroom. After leaving the station, Mexican passengers close the black curtains to watch television movies; someone may frown if you open a curtain, but smile politely and go ahead: It is a fine three-hour ride, and you don’t want to miss the scenery. When you reach Queretaro, you should be able to book a taxi for the three-day trip to the Sierra Gorda missions for about $100 per day.

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TELEPHONES:

To call the numbers below from the U.S., dial 011 (the international dialing code), 52 (country code for Mexico) and the local number.

WHERE TO STAY AND EAT:

La Casa de la Marquesa, Madero 41, Queretaro, QRO 76000; 442-212-00-92, www.slh.com/marquesa. If you want to splurge a little, this luxury hotel, built in 1756 as a private residence, is a wonder of carved stone, iron grillwork and Talavera tile in the historic center of the city. Its 25 suites have been decorated individually. Doubles from $120, with continental breakfast. Comedor de la Marquesa, the elegant restaurant, is a culinary highlight with exotic dishes such as boar and venison.

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Meson Santa Rosa, Pasteur Sur 17, Colonia Centro, Queretaro, QRO, 76000; 442-224-27-81. A stable in the 18th century, this residence was beautifully restored and opened as a hotel in the 1980s. It is on the corner of Plaza de la Independencia, a charming square. Rooms are large and the baths luxurious. Excellent dining room. Doubles start at $105. The restaurant is one of the best in the city, featuring seating in a dining room or in the atrium courtyard with vine-covered walls and a flower-filled fountain. The menu offers a mixture of native and foreign dishes. Three-course meals about $24.

Holiday Inn Queretaro, Av. 5 de Febrero 110, Queretaro, QRO, 76000; 442-216-0202, fax 442-216-8902, www.holidayinn.com.mx/principal. This large hotel is out of the historic district on Highway 57 on the way to San Luis Potosi. The building is contemporary but has colonial touches and rustic Mexican furnishings. The drawback is that it is crowded and noisy on weekends when folks from Mexico City flock here to escape the metropolis. Doubles start at $118.

Hotel Hacienda Mision Conca, Carretera Jalpan-Rio Verde 57, Arroyo Seco, QRO; 555-5209-1700. This restored hacienda has a spa and is in the Sierra Gorda near the missions. It is delightful. Doubles from $108, including breakfast and dinner. We ate dinner in a tranquil garden, enjoying flavorful pork, chicken and Mexican specialties. No entree was more than $10.

Fonda del Refugio, Jardin de la Corregidora 26, Queretaro, QRO, 442-212-0755. Typical Mexican food and lots of appetizers at this restaurant in the historic district. Entrees from $10.

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TO LEARN MORE:

Mexican Government Tourism Office, Mexican Consulate, 2401 W. 6th St., 5th Floor, Los Angeles, CA 90057; (800) 44-MEXICO (446-3942) for brochures or (213) 351-2069, fax (213) 351-2074, www.visitmexico.com.

-- Mary Branham


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