THE MIGHTY SIERRA GORDA MOUNTAINS
THE 5 REAL DE MINAS
The Sierra Gorda is a offshoot of the Sierra Madre Oriental which runs down along the eastern gulf coast of México, and compose the highest peaks in the state of Guanajuato.
These mountains contain an extensive amount of minerals as demonstrated by the number of mines there. There are 5 Real de Minas (Royal in the sense that they were protected by the Spanish Cavalry) in this area: Mineral de Pozos, Xichú, Victoria, Santa Catarina, and Tierra Blanca.
Further on into Querétaro we’ll find the 5 missions built by Fray Junípero Serra before he built many of the famous missions of California beginning in 1769: Mission Dolores, Santa Clara, San Jose, Santa Cruz, Carmel, San Luiz Obispo, San Antonio, San Juan Bauptista, La Soledad, San Miguel, Buenaventura, San Gabriel, San Diego, and San Juan Capistrano.
There’s not much to see in the way of ancient ruins and/ or fancy architecture aside from the missions themselves, but the countryside is truly spectacular.
Man is drawn to mountains for many reasons: economic, scientific, aesthetic, and for just plain adventure. Here are those last bits of wilderness so necessary for the occasional escape from the pressures of modem life. The mountains were already old when man appeared, and yet they hold the challenge and the opportunity of the future.
This part of the Sierra Gorda is, as they say, off-the-beaten-track, a driving ad-venture worth taking. But if you’re faint of heart don’t go beyond Santa Catarina. There’s another way to get to see the missions of Fray Junípero Serra, a little less adventurous one, that I’ll describe to you later.
To drive all the way to Xichú is a beautiful trip, but it’s 100 miles round trip of high mountain dirt road with little to see at the end of it. So we’ll concentrate on the other Real de Minas.
Take the southbound exit from Mineral de Pozos towards San José Iturbide (named for a President and Emperor of México). go straight on through the intersection for Dr. Mora and keep on going.
When you come into the outskirts of San José and arrive at the first intersection turn left (It’s the first left onto pavement you cometo). Go several blocks down this side street, cross the railroad tracks, and turn left again on a highway leaving town towards Victoria and Santa Catarina. (You’ll see the highway signs right there as you cross the tracks.) The trip all the way to the end of the line is 199 kilometers or 124 miles one way.
This area of high desert is filled with many varieties of cacti. Some of it highly prized by collectors as far away as Japan. There are environmental laws protecting many endangered species of them so beware of harvesting any. This section of the highway doesn’t have much to offer until just before you get to Tierra Blanca.
But then you will come up one last hill and there before you will be spread a fantastic valley far below. You can see bare patches of white earth, obviously where this area got its name. And you can spot more than one working mine. (This area was not famous for its gold and silver mines, but many metals and minerals were and are still mined here.)
THE MIGHTY MOUNTAINS
It is easy to see the results of the geological upheaval that occurred here millions of years ago bringing those veins of minerals to the surface of the earth.
One pattern of mountain formation is distinguished by great sheer faces of rock. These are ‘faulted’ mountains, formed when underground pressure forces one whole mass to break cleanly from another. On one side the rocks rise; on the other they subside. The separation occurs where there is a line of weakness, a fault, in the earth’s trust.
Be careful on the descent to the valley. The town of Tierra Blanca is still further on. When you come to ít keep on driving straight ahead. The town itself is below and to the right. Real de Minas Tierra Blanca, not much to see there now!
The mountains from here on are spectacular. Some of the higher peaks are nearly 10,000 feet high! Further on down the road you will come round a bend and find mountains of bare rock and an organ cactus forest, some measuring up to 10 feet tall.
When we think of rock we u sually think of stones, broken rock, buried under soil and plant life, but here all is exposed and naked. (Edward Abbey in “Desert Solitaire”.)
These boulder covered hills are peppered with thousands of cacti. These magnificent sentinels stand guard crowding the very highway with their numbers.
Soon you will come to the crossroads for Santa Catarina and Victoria. The countryside is spectacular in both directions and the towns aren’t so I suggest carrying on towards Santa Catarina.
(For the faint of heart turn around here and go back to San Jose Iturbide. From there you can go back to San Miguel and do the rest of the trip another day, or carry on, down highway 57, to Queretaro and the easy route to Jalpan (the trip to Jalpan from here will take at least 4-5 hours more), but in either case read on.)
Just before entering Santa Catarina take the road to the right, Continuing on will bring you to a piece of dirt road 45 or so miles long. The scenery is spectacular and well worth the trip if you can do it. (If you’ve spent any time at all exploring México this is nothing!) It will take you about 2 1 / 2 hours to get back to paved road, but you will get there!
…there is a special kind of beauty for every hour the mountain knows, beauty which man perceives without participating, beauty to which he feels himself a stranger. (Mary Austin in ‘The Land of Journey’s Ending”.)
THE HIGH DESERT
You can feel the change in climate almost immediately as you begin the descent from the cool mountains to high desert country. The high cliffs and Borges are spectacular all the way!
Notice the tailings of different colored earth spilling down the sides of some of the mountains, signs of working mines high up in the cliffs. The villages you will pass all along the way are of the indigenous people of this area, Chichimecas (Jonaces & Pames Indians). They seem to have become Christians, herders of sheep, goats, and miners.
Several times along the way you’ll come to crossroads. The first one is to Tolimán to the right, but go left. The next one is quite a long way off. You come to a wide clear space on the side of a hill. Bear to the right and go downhill. A short way further on you’ll bear to the right again, and finally go to the left at the next one. If you aren’t sure where you are ask! All you have to do is say “Hal pan” and point!
(Toliman was a pre Hispanic Otomí settlement, and is called the “Gateway to the Sierra Gorda”. The Otomi’s were afiles of the Spaniards against the Chichimecas). Just about the time you are beginning to think the dirt road will never end you come around a last bend and see the most magnificent sight of the trip so far. Far off across a valley to the right is a colossal mountain of sheer towering rock with a tiny Swiss like village at its base. This is Peña Miller (Miller’s Rock) and the village is of the same name. The road here is wide enough to stop for pictures.
At little further on you’ll come to paved highway. If you’re ready for some lunch, or a cool drink turn right on the paved road to Peña Miller. Otherwise turn left.
After refreshments turn around and go back the way you carne on the paved highway toward Querétaro.
This is highway 120. You travel on until you come to a turnoff to the left marked Jalpan and also Xilita which is a village further east of Jalpan. The other way is marked San Juan del Rio. You’ll take it coming back.
(I suggest you make note of your odometer miles at this point and when you arrive in Jalpan so that when you come back this way you’ll know how far you have to come. The scenery is very distractíng!)
The mountains here are even higher than before! You will come to an area with row upon row of mountains as far as the eye can see. Beginning with dark peaks and the other rows becoming bluer and lighter one after the other into the horizon.
Here you will begin to see a new kind of mountain scenery. Forests! If you’ve been in the central highlands of México for any length of time you’ll know how wonderful it is to see a forest!
A important part of the economy of this area is timber. Here and there you will see small sawmills processing lumber.
You will drive along here aboye, in, and sometimes below the clouds! The highest peak in the area is the Cerro Pengüicas, Penguin Mountain, at 3,191 meters (10,370 feet) high! (If you’re traveling here in winter be prepared for snow.)
From here you will descend to nearly sea level when you reach Jalpan.
LAND OF THE JONACES & PAMES INDIANS
Much of the land you’ve traversed is of the fierce Jonaces and Pames Indians from time immemorial. These nomadic tribes were members of a group of tribes loosely called Chichimecas (barbarians) by the Aztecs.
In 1740 it was reported by the Spanish Military of the Jonaces:
After a century and a half of experiment, the means of bringing them to submission has not yet been found. All the military expeditions undertaken against them have failed; Franciscans, Augustinians, and Dominicans have likewise wasted their time in efforts of evangelization. I have reached the conclusion that the Jonaces are impossible to convert.
Two and a half years later they staged their last uprising “putting everything to fire and sword”. “They were paid back in their own coin by the Spaniards capturing and executing their chiefs, massacring their population, and burning their homes,” by order of the Viceroy the race was exterminated. But the Pames were scarcely any better:
…they robbed travelers and merchants, then murdered them, and then they retired to their lairs in the mountains, inaccessible to the King’s calvarymen.
In 1744 General Escandon made his way into the country of the Pames with 2 “crews” of Franciscan monks. From the College of Pachuca, one group settled on the west bank of the Moctezuma river, and the other which we will follow, on the east bank.
The General and Father Mezquia drew a line on their map in the form of a trapezium. Along the horizontal sides 5 missions were to be founded: Jalpan, Landa, and Conca in the south; Tancoyal and Tilaco in the north. It is 13 miles from Jalpan to Conca, 21 miles from Jalpan to Tancoyal, 24 miles from Tancoyal to Tilaco, 8 miles from Tilaco to Landa, 13 miles from Landa to Conca. (No you won’t find them on your map except for Jalpan.)
This trapezium has a perimeter of 79 miles.
The General set up a presidio (part of which still stands in Jalpan as part of the museum), and left the Franciscans with the responsibility for collecting, converting, and feeding the Pames.
They succeeded in assembling 7,406; by dirt of self-sacrifice— eating nothing but corn — they set up 5 emergency churches and as many farms.
But their numbers dwindled and the last 4 returned to the College in Pachuca.
FRAY JUNIPERO SERRA
In May of 1750 Father Mezquia chose ten newly arrived recruits under the leadership of Fray Junípero Serra as Acting Prefect to replace them. They left México City on foot May 23rd and arrived in Jalpan on June 16th.
Father Junípero Serra was born on November 24, 1713 in Mallorca, became ordained in 1737, and received a doctor-ate in Theology in 1743. He longed to serve in America. He made the journey on foot to follow the example set by his personal hero, Francisco Solano (1549-1610) a saintly missionary who had walked through Peru, Argentina, and Chile single handedly baptizing over 100,000 “aborigines”.
Jalpan, as all of the missions, sit in a warm narrow subtropical valley at the foot of a mountain range thousands of feet high, and was the headquarters for the Franciscan effort. Each of the 5 missions were given 2 ministers, Junípero Serra and Francisco Palou taking charge of Jalpan.
(Junípero wasn’t really enthused by his title or his chore and wrote to his superiors: “Either it is an honor to be Prefect, and it is time someone else should enjoy it; or it is a burden, and it is fitting that turns should be taken in carrying it.”)
But the dilemma, after all, was how to civilize these Redskins:
Dirty, boisterous, lazy, generally drunkards; in the habit of lying, cheating, stealing, killing; people who begged without shame, enjoyed the sight of suffering, knew nothing of the sentiment of honor or of gratitude, seemed susceptible only to fear, and considered their neighbors only the folk of their own clan and kinship.
The methods the good Fray chose were perfectly adapted to the curiously degraded nature of most of the Indians in México. By transforming their soul and their conscience, through religion. By imbuing them with the love of work. By making them workers and Christians!
The mornings began in the mission with prayers and religious study. Examples were made of Christian behavior that fitted the Indians daily lives. In the evenings they would review the days lessons and celebrate mass.
They were taught to plant and tended huge vegetable gardens, and began breeding cows, goats, donkeys, horses, and mules. They raised sheep, and sheared them, and the women were taught to spin, weave, make their own clothes, pottery, and even to weave baskets. They made villagers and farmers of the nomad Pames to love this earth which they cultivated, as their foster mother and their friend; and, wanderers as they had been, they no longer dreamed of leaving it.
Their farms grew richer and more prosperous year to year; they came to possess plow oxen by hundreds, mules, cows, and sheep in abundance; their granaries were piled high with corn and wheat.
They helped to build the Churrigueresque style church that stands there still in Jalpan. Juan Crespi built one as beautiful in ‘Maco, and each of the other 3 villages has its own, Conca being the smallest.
Fray Junípero lived his life like the good father Cirilo Conejo Roldán once said:
We must live our lives like mortals, but we must construct like eternals.
The spectacular success of these Franciscan missionaries is in evidence today as much as it was then. “The fact remains,” he wrote in his report “that our 5 villages could henceforth rival in fervor the most Christian villages of Spain.”
In June of 1767 the Jesuits were expelled from Spain and its territories by Carlos III. And so they withdrew from their missions in México leaving them abandoned. Other orders of the Church took them over and Fray Junípero Serra was sent to California where he built more beautiful enduring missions. He spent 35 years in the Sierra Gorda and California, and died peacefully on August, 28, 1784 at the age of 70 in his mission in Carmel, California.
In teaching them the habit of drawing Pope John Paul II recently began the process from the soil resources that would raises of his sainthood, for his work among their standard of living, they led them the Indians, with his beautification.
After a trek of 199 kilometers we arrive in the beautiful little town of JaIpan de Serra, Queretaro. It was the largest settlement of the 5 little-known missions, that have been restored by the government, established by Fray Junípero Serra before bis journey to California. The façade of the mission you’ll see here is like something out of a story book. It was restored by the government during the 1980’s
suggest you stay overnight, at least, in the beautiful hotel here “Mesón de Fray Junípero Serra,” Tel. (429) 6-01-64, or 602-55, so that you may see the museum and the surrounding area at your leisure. You’ll find it very inexpensive. There is one other hotel just a block up Hwy. 69.
The town is a warm friendly place full of flowers, banana plants, and mango trees.
To see the other mission at Conca. take Hwy. 69 north from Jalpan towards Rio Verde. (You might want to save this mission for last ifyou want to return borne by way of Rio Verde/San Luiz Potosi, there’s a nice hotel there “Mesón Conca”.) It’s the smallest of the 5 missions but has a very pretty foyer. For the others continue on to the east on Hwy. 1.20. ‘the turnoffs for the missions are well marked.
Landa (de Matamoros) is the first– mission you come to after leaving Jalpan. It’s just beside Hwy 120 on the left very easily spotted. The façade of the mission is as intriguing as the others. The modest plaza is surrounded by humble buildings.
Carrying on down the road you come to the road leading to Tilaco on your right. These roads were built and the missions restored by the people and the government of Querétaro after the missions came to ruin after the War for Independence (1810-1821).
The town is located in a beautiful) valley surrounded by towering forested mountains. There is a small musuem and some interesting cellars the locals will guide you through. From Tilaco the mountain known as Joya del Hielo, Jewel of the Ice can be seen.
Back out on Hwy 120 you continue on to the well-marked turnoff for Tancoyol on the left. This is the farthest of the 5 missions. The mission with its walled atrium can be plainly seen from a pretty plaza with its profusion of plants and trees.
From here one can return the way you carne or carry on toward the gulf coast. If you return toward Jalpan you might want to drive north to Rio Verde/San Luiz Potosi. If you carne over the dirt road from Santa Catarina you might enjoy returning by way of Bernal to see Bernal’s Rock and then to Querétaro.
(Back to those faint of heart folks. Follow the clearly marked highway signs to Queretaro. As you enter the industrial area keep to the right and watch for and take the exit to México. This ramp takes you to an overpass that crosses the en-trance freeway. Follow this until you pass a Burger King restaurant on the right. (Here in Mexcio this is a legitimate landmark!) Move, at your leisure, to the right onto the service road.
Taking your time follow along until you see a huge stone aqueduct passing over the road. Turn left, go over the overpass, and follow that road toward La Cañada, and as the signs read toward Tequisqiapan. Keep on this 2 lane road until the turn-off marked Bernal where you will take a left. Just before you arrive at Bernal, off to the right, you’ll see a huge stone mountain peak. This is the Peña de Bernal, Bernal’s Rock. This mountain is said to have magical energy and during the “rites of spring” people come from miles around to join hands and circle it in a human chain to receive its magical energy. The town, off the highway to the right, is a clean, tourist oriented little place full of nice shopping and dinning possibilities. (Avoid it on weekends!).
Leaving Bernal follow the signs straight on to Jalpan. Pronounced “Hal pan”.) The countryside is as described for the other route, high desert country. At the crossroads, Peña Miller to the left, Jalpan to the right you decide if a short detour to see this other magnificent rock is worth taking or not.
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