exploring the Mission San Juan Bautista
California, USA

Mission San Juan Bautista – On the California Mission Trail

The Mission San Juan Bautista is the largest of the 21 missions on the California Mission Trail; an incredibly beautiful and well-preserved mission which is also known as The Mission of Music. And, oh my goodness you guys- what an amazing introduction to the history of California I had, with a visit to this peaceful place.

What are the California Missions?

In all honesty, the California missions were built for rather an unfortunate reason: good old fashioned colonialism.

When Spanish military troops began stomping across California back in the day, they were accompanied by Franciscan missionaries- who were all set to show the natives their Catholic ways. (And when I say ‘show’ I mean ‘convert to.’ Let’s not beat around the bush on that one). Part of their convert-and-colonise tactic was to build missions along the coastline- in which the missionaries and their potential converts would live, work, eat and pray. Each mission was no more than a day’s ride away from the next, making it a lot easier to maintain control of the area.

A total of 21 missions were built, from the most Southerly in San Diego, to the Northernmost in Sonoma, all in a fairly rudimentary but stunningly beautiful architectural style.

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The town of San Juan Bautista

Frankly. This place looks like the set of a Zorro movie.

We visited San Juan Bautista on the way back from Carmel by the Sea; my pal’s brilliant mum declared that this is a beautiful town with a beautiful mission, and that we simply must stop there. And she was 100% correct in that statement, I’ll tell you that for free.

Unlike most of the other California missions, this one hasn’t been surrounded by a more urban vibe; instead the town of San Juan Bautista has kept its small-town atmosphere, which makes for an all round pretty place to explore. On the day that we pulled up in town there was a tiny country fair taking place amongst the historic buildings, complete with ponies (honestly the presence of the ponies was questionable) and fairground games. It was quaint you guys. It was just SO quaint.

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The Mission San Juan Bautista sits on one side of a wide open Spanish Plaza, neighbouring several other buildings from the Spanish-Mexican colonial era- my favourites are the Plaza Hotel and the Plaza Stables. But every building is beautiful here, let’s face it.

outside the Plaza Hotel in San Juan Bautista

Inside the mission

Thanks to those adobe bricks, the walls inside the church look as if they’ve been formed out of clay- but are hand-painted in beautiful earthy tones and adorned with pretty patterns, with gold leaf here and there to add a bit of razzle dazzle. Statues of saints look down from their little nooks above the altar. The church is free to enter and is still used for worship today.

The mission also included a granary, barracks, and several adobe houses, surrounding a pretty garden in the centre.

Outside is the church cemetery, which was the final resting place for over 4,300 Native Americans and European colonists. Because of course, this mission was built largely by Native Americans, who then worked the mission’s farmland. That was the way it was back during the Mission Era. It’s kind of crazy to walk around a place as beautiful as this and know that its original reason for being there was questionable at best.

the altar of the Mission San Juan Bautista

The history of the Mission San Juan Bautista

Before the Spanish arrived on the scene with their holy padres, it was the Mutsun tribes who lived in this part of California. Hunting and gathering and living their dreams. And then the Spanish arrived and plonked a mission right in the middle of it all. That’s right: they chose the spot for its proximity to several native tribes, as these natives were the ones who would (for the most part) be building it. Once the natives had been baptised they were known as ‘neophytes,’ and although they were paid a wage for working for the mission, they were also not allowed to leave.

When you look at the cold hard facts, it seems that colonialism did far more harm than good to the natives, although it’s hard to find much information about whether day-to-day mission life was an enjoyable experience at the Mission San Juan Bautista or not. Many of them contracted diseases brought over by the Spanish, and others deserted the mission completely when they realised it wasn’t all it was cracked up to be. In addition, and possibly most tragically, the culture of the Mutsunes was almost completely lost.

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One of the Mission San Juan Bautista’s big cheeses- Padre Tápis- was particularly talented when it came to music; and the Mutsun were also renowned for their love of music. In a bizarre kind of a way, it was a great match. Choral music became all the rage under the guidance of Padre Tápis, and his hand-written choir books are on display in the church today.

And then there was good ol’ Padre de la Cuesta, another music-lover. This padre learnt to speak several Indian dialects and wrote a book about the Mutsumi language, and another Native American phrasebook. Good on you Padre de la Cuesta.

At least (unlike many), he bothered to learn the local language. And at least this helped to preserve some aspects of the Mutsunes way of life.

one of the Fransiscan missionaries in California
doorway to the mission garden

The legend of the San Juan Bautista Organ

The Mission San Juan Bautista is, uniquely, home to an extremely old barrel organ. This is the kind of instrument that was most commonly played by street entertainers, but in 1829 it found its way to the mission. Not only were the neophytes fascinated with it, but apparently it also once saved them from an attack. What an absolute palaver I tell ya.

When the Tulare tribe launched an attack on the mission and its inhabitants, Padre de la Cuesta hastily carted the barrel organ outside and began turning its handle. The music began to play, the neophytes began to sing, and the Tulares thought the whole thing was absolutely brilliant. The attack was off, and the Mission San Juan Bautista was saved.

That awkward moment when you realise you’re in an earthquake hotspot

The location of the Mission San Juan Bautista might have been great for its proximity to the natives, but rather awkwardly it also happened to be in an earthquake hotspot.

The San Andreas Fault runs for about 750 miles throughout California, and to put it simply this is the place where two tectonic plates meet: the Pacific Plate and the North American Plate. The two plates are moving in different directions, and it’s this movement which causes earthquakes- and pretty severe ones, at that.

The mission has therefore been damaged many many times by earthquakes of varying magnitudes. Poor mission.

cacti in the garden
bench and a turquoise door

El Camino Royal

The Mission San Juan Bautista is only one of the twenty one California missions, and these are all linked together by the 800 mile long El Camino Royal. The name translates to ‘the royal road’ after the Spanish monarchy, and plenty of people make a pilgrimage along the entire route. (Which, if you fancy giving it a go yourself, normally takes around 55 day to complete in one go.)

Most walkers begin the route at the Mission San Diego and end at the Mission Francisco Solano in Sonoma, and the trail goes through cities, forests and mountains. It sounds intense, but also quite frankly AWESOME. If you’re up for finding out more about walking the mission trail, check out the California Mission Walkers site.

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Logistical Statisticals

  • Although the church and grounds of the mission are free to enter, there is a small admission charge (no more than a few dollars) to look inside the museum.
  • If you’re wondering how much time you need to visit the Mission San Juan Bautista, you could easily spend at least 3 hours here including the museum.
  • For information on the town of San Juan Bautista, head on over to their website.

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