Ruta de las Misiones

Although most towns in northern Sonora have a link to a nearby mission, those founded by Padre Eusebio Francisco Kino, a prominent figure in early Sonoran history, seem to hold the most interest. Although none of the original missions is still standing—some were destroyed in the Pima Indian uprising of 1695, other were replaced with newer structures by the Franciscans, who took over after the Jesuits were expelled for defending the local people—the so-called "mission route" is still fascinating.

Most of the missions are closed to visitors, but their stolid presence and the mood of these tiny towns, basically unchanged for 400 years, make them worth a visit. The best way to see the mission route is to start on Highway 15 just south of Nogales. It takes around three hours to reach the city of Caborca, a decent-size city with many restaurants and a few hotels. Since most towns don't have much else to see, you could technically tour the missions in one day.

Start at the mission Kino named Santa María de Magdalena, in the town of Magdalena de Kino. Padre Kino died here in 1711, while dedicating the town's first church, and the town holds what are alleged to be Kino's surprisingly new-looking remains. The remains, discovered by archaeologists in 1966, can be viewed inside a special dome constructed for this purpose. The church, on the other side of the Plaza Colosio, honors St. Francis, the town's patron. Every October 4 the town hosts an extremely rowdy festival in his honor.

Heading south toward Santa Ana, turn west on Highway 2 toward Caborca. Detour north on Sonora Highway 43 toward Oquitoa to visit San Antonio de Oquitoa (meaning "white woman" in the Opata language) and San Pedro y San Pablo de Tubutama, (Opata for "the highest place"). The church at Oquitoa has the twin towers typical of the Franciscans, but also the flat roof favored by the Jesuits. Tubutama's facade has a working sundial, the church's most striking feature.

Back on Highway 2 you'll come to San Diego de Pitiquito, between the towns of Altar and Caborca. The whitewashed church (circa 1780) is famous for its didactic paintings, which are thought to have been created by Papago Indians in the late 1800s. Once painted over, they were rediscovered and restored in 1966.

The final mission you'll come to on this route is La Purísima Concepción de Caborca, built in 1809. The town is known for beating back the 1857 military expedition of Henry Alexander Crabb, a California state senator. After a six-day battle during which Crabb's 69 men exploded the doors of the church with dynamite, the Mexican commander, Hilario Gabilondo, came forward with terms of surrender. Crabb acquiesced, but he and his men were betrayed and executed the next morning. Crabb's was the last of the so-called "filibuster" incursions into Mexico that served as inspiration for Cormac McCarthy's novel Blood Meridian.

Tours of the mission route can be arranged through the compelling and extremely amiable local historian José Jesús "Loco" Valenzuela Luna The rates, based on your area of interest, range from $45 to $75. 637/372–1989 or 637/107–0345.

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