Hiking The Reef Bay Trail

About two-thirds of the island of St. John is national parkland. As is the case with most national park properties, that means you’ll find ample hiking trails that allow you to get some exercise and feed your adventurous spirit at the same time.

Earlier this week we decided to tackle the Reef Bay trail, which begins at mile marker 5 on the Centerline Road, up in the hills that form the twisted spine of the island, and then heads through dense forest down to the beach far below. The hike has a deceptively bucolic beginning, with a tiny parking area that is filled with beautiful butterflies, but immediately takes you down a rugged path into the jungle. As you descend, following a winding path with a steep downward grade, you’ll see lots of trees and insects and tropical plants, along with national park information signs — many of which have been rendered largely illegible by the ravages of tropical heat, humidity and rain.

More than halfway down, there’s a spur to the trail that takes you to a double waterfall and some petroglyphs left by the indigenous people who lived here in the pre-Columbian, pre-colonial era, when the pools of fresh water were an important resource. You can reach the upper waterfall, shown in the first picture in this post, by following a crude trail that heads straight uphill and requires you to limbo under several fallen trees. Don’t flirt with the pooled water, though — it looks to be filled with leeches.

Many of the petroglyphs have been worn away by the tropical climate, but some are still distinct. The experts believe they were created by the Carib or Arawak people. What’s pictured here? I’m not sure, but some might see an ancient astronaut and his spacecraft. I was just grateful to find some remaining legacy of the people who lived happily in this part of the world before European invaders brought greed, slavery, and disease that decimated their civilization.

And speaking of colonialism, the trail then winds past the remains of a colonial sugar plantation, with its long-abandoned stone buildings now inhabited solely by hundreds of hermit crabs and a colossal insect nest, and then on down to Reef Bay, a pretty little beach on the south side of the island that looks out over the turquoise Caribbean Sea beyond. We rested here for a bit, drank our water, and enjoyed the scenery — which for one member of our party included a sighting of a shark swimming lazily through the shallow water near the beach. In the back of our minds we all knew, however, that while gravity was our friend on the way down the trail, the forces of nature would not be so kind on the uphill trudge.

The Mission Trail

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The church at the Mission San Jose

San Antonio and its environs are home to four of the early Spanish missions — or at least, what remains of them.  From an historical preservation standpoint, the centuries have not been kind.

Yesterday I had a chance to visit two of the four missions, San Jose and Concepcion.  San Jose is the most complete mission, with its outer wall intact and the small rooms where Indian converts and visitors lived available for a look.  They are spartan, but practical — about what you would expect in a development that was intended to be an outpost of civilization in an untamed land.  Some of the outbuildings and outdoor ovens also may be found there, as well as the ruins of a convent.

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The facade of the cathedral at Mission San Jose

The centerpiece of the missions, of course, was the cathedral, and the church at San Jose Mission is striking — with a beautiful facade that features statuary of the saints and renderings of hearts, shells, and other meaningful symbols.  I wasn’t able to see the interior of the cathedral, for reasons I’ll explain in a minute.  At one time the church was covered with brightly colored tile that must have presented a dazzling sight for weary travelers on the dusty Texas plains, but most of the tiles are gone and the church now stands as a stone monument.

Mission Concepcion, which is found in the middle of a neighborhood, is much less complete.  It consists of a church, a well, some ruins, and a prayer area.  The church itself is simple, and what you would expect to find at a Spanish mission, with whitewashed interior walls.  Some signs of the former frescoes in the church may be seen, but for the most part the church interior has been decorated with modern paintings and furnishings.

The two missions must be popular wedding options.  When I visited yesterday, both were busy hosting nuptial ceremonies — which is why I was unable to see the interior of the church at San Jose.  That was disappointing, but I found myself feeling good about the fact that the churches were still being used as churches.  A lot of work went into building these missions, which served as agents of colonialism but also as a testament to the power of religious faith.  It’s nice to see that, centuries later, that part of the mission is still being served.

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At Mission Concepcion