We chose the hottest day of the summer to bike the Missions Trail along the San Antonio River.
I had been struggling with a persistent cold for a couple days and when we stepped out of the hotel that day I felt like I stepped out of my skin. I was almost numb from the blistering heat coming off of the pavement. I don’t remember why we decided to go biking that day specifically but I’m proud to say that we made it 10 kilometers in the scorching sun. That may not seem like much, but without any shade, or even the slightest breeze, this was quite the accomplishment for us.
We began our day at the Alamo. Its real name is Mission San Antonio de Valero. It was the first mission founded in the San Antonio area in 1718, back when Spain was still trying to make inroads into colonizing North America. The Alamo is the most famous of all the missions because of its bloody history during the conflicts between Mexico and the Republic of Texas. In 1836, Mexican troops, under the direction of President Santa Anna, massacred over a hundred Texans at the Alamo. This spurned Texans to fight back and eventually led to the success of the Texas Revolution. Today, the Alamo is one of the most visited attractions in Texas, made famous through numerous movies and books.
Most tourists don’t make it past the Alamo.
The building is certainly impressive, with its rough facade, heavy set doors and the armed Texas Ranger standing at the entrance. Inside the Alamo there is a museum which pays tribute to the Texas Revolution and has great artifacts from that time period. The gardens around the building are also worth a stroll, full of cacti, flowers and sprawling trees. Just in front of the mission there is a memorial to the victims of the Alamo massacre of 1836. My friend and I had a look around the grounds but ultimately the huge crowds discouraged us from staying too long. The Alamo is a beautiful historic building but it is also something of a tourist trap.
The sun was already directly overhead when we decided to head south down Alamo street to a bike station near La Villita. The bikes we rented worked on a timer where you pay in advance for a set of thirty minutes and then have to make it to the next bike station within that time limit or risk paying penalty fees. Of course, since we were under a deadline, we managed to get lost. We made it to Mission Concepcion with only a couple minutes to spare, wheezing and sweaty. Although I felt like there was a furnace inside me I had enjoyed the bike ride. We had passed through some beautiful scenery along the San Antonio River, flowers and birds adding colour to the dry landscape.
Before we even went inside the mission we knew we had to get something to drink. Ultimately, we ended up with ice-cream. We walked over to a little gas station across the street from the mission which had a beautiful mural of people from the local Mexican community enjoying ice cream and playing guitar. The 200 meters from the parking lot to the convenience store seemed like an impossible trek but getting to sit down with cold treats was worthy every step.
When we stepped inside the mission we were pleasantly surprised by how cool it was compared to the outdoors. I suppose that the thickness of the walls kept the building from heating up too much. Mission Concepción was built in 1755 and is the oldest unrestored stone church in the United States. Back in its glory days the church exterior was covered in colourful designs but time has erased them from the walls and the only remaining frescoes are the faded ones inside the church itself.
The best part of Mission Concepcion was that there was no one there. Most of the time we were completely alone as we explored the rooms and corridors of the mission. It felt eerie to be wandering about this centuries-old building without a single other person to remind you of the outside world. Silence filled the domed church and the hallways were dimly lit by candles. I really appreciated the relaxed pace when compared to the hubbub of the Alamo.
After Mission Concepcion we still had some energy left to spare for the bike ride over to the next mission, which is located about 4 kilometers away, along the Missions Trail. When we first arrived at Mission San Jose we weren’t entirely sure we had come to the right place. There was a wide open field with a complex in the middle surrounded by tall stone walls without any visible entrance. We ended up circling it from the back (here’s a hint: the entrance is not off the main road).
San Jose is the biggest of the missions in San Antonio and is known fondly as the “Queen of the Missions”.
Mission San Jose was founded in 1720 and then restored in the 1930s to show what a mission community might have looked like in its heyday. Besides the impressive domed church and bell tower, there is large courtyard, granary, and bastions along the surrounding stone wall. Spain used missions to colonize the North by spreading their culture and the Catholic faith to the local population. During the colonial era, the San Jose mission was a social hub with a large community of Coahuiltecans (Native Americans). They had previously been nomads but came to live within the protection of the mission’s walls in exchange for tending the nearby fields and pastures. Under the direction of the Franciscan friars who ran the mission, the Coahuiltecans were able to fend off raids by other bands. Although the Coahuiltecans had to sacrifice their old way of life for Catholicism many of them chose to stay with the mission.
San Jose was by far the biggest mission we had seen and it was fun to explore all the different passageways and rooms. Just like Mission Concepcion, it was relatively free of tourists and far more impressive than the Alamo. The inside was well kept, with flowers and statues lining the walls. Mission San Jose is still an active parish and holds church services every Sunday, right within the ancient walls which are nearly 300 years old. There is lots of surprisingly well preserved detail in the archways and church facade despite the fact that the church is actually missing one bell tower.
I loved walking around the mission grounds, especially the courtyard full of bright flowers. Getting away from the downtown core of San Antonio was definitely worth a day-trip. We could take our time exploring everything and it was as if these historic sites were open exclusively for us alone.
There are two other smaller missions that we unfortunately didn’t get around to visiting — San Juan and Espada. They are set further away than the other missions and it would have taken some serious dedication on our part to bike all the way there in the heat. It was about 40 Celsius that day and we felt accomplished enough having completed even two missions. By the time we got on the bus to go back to downtown we were pretty exhausted.
That being said, everyone should give this a try. The Mission Trail is off the beaten track and has a real sense of discovery to it. If you don’t mind a bit of exercise, biking along the San Antonio River and exploring the historic missions is a great way to go beyond the usual tourist attractions. And once you’ve achieved an even bake under the sun, you can retreat to your hotel swimming pool like we did. We finally cooled off at the end of the day, floating on our backs as dusk settled in.