Jesuit Missions of the Guaranis in Argentina & Brazil
During our first trip through South America we spent some time in Paraguay . At that time we visited the Jesuit mission of Trinidad. More recently we were totally surprised by the town of Alta Gracia in Cordoba province, which is built around a Jesuit Estancia. That led us to visit Jesus Maria to see two more estancias. So, when we left the region around Bento Gonҫalves in Brazil , we decided to continue in a westerly direction in order to experience some more Jesuit history in the missions of Brazil and Argentina.
The missions we would visit were some of 30 which were established by the Jesuits during the 17th and 18th centuries, in an area that is now part of Paraguay, Argentina and Brazil. Many of the sites lie in ruins, but 7 of them, which have significant remains and reconstructions, are on UNESCO’s World Heritage List:
Jesuit Missions of the Guaranis: San Ignacio Mini, Santa Ana, Nuestra Señora de Loreto and Santa Maria Mayor (Argentina), Ruins of São Miguel das Missões (Brazil) listed in 1984.
“The ruins of São Miguel das Missões in Brazil, and those of San Ignacio Miní, Santa Ana, Nuestra Señora de Loreto and Santa María la Mayor in Argentina, lie at the heart of a tropical forest. They are the impressive remains of five Jesuit missions, built in the land of the Guaranis during the 17th and 18th centuries. Each is characterized by a specific layout and a different state of conservation.”
from UNESCO WEBSITE
Jesuit Missions of La Santísima Trinidad de Paraná and Jesús de Tavarangue in Paraguay listed together in 1993.
“The archaeological ruins of these urban complexes represent a fusion of cultures in which the process of Christianisation permitted the indigenous population to retain elements of their traditional culture.”
from UNESCO WEBSITE
São Miguel das Missões
There had been a lot of rain in southern Brazil, and our trip to São Miguel was no exception. We arrived late afternoon in quite heavy rain, and it showed no sign of letting up. The security guard was happy for us to stay for the night , so we decided to hope for better weather the next day to visit the site. Unfortunately it rained all night, and in the morning it persisted. We cleaned up and packed up, and went out to visit the ruins clad in rain jackets and Crocs!
But the weather gods were kind and the rain, which had eased a little before we left the camper, stopped completely for most of our visit. The money gods were also kind – over 60s don’t pay here either (our first experience of this had been at Canyon Itaimbezinho ).
The site is quite impressive. Our first stop was the museum which has many examples of carved wooden statues, which the Guarani artisans created for the community.
You can see enough of the church to be impressed by its architecture, and the site gives an idea of the extensive community it once was. We even managed to take some photos without rain drops on the lens.
After the visit we drove easily to Porto Xavier to cross into Argentina. It’s only 125 Kilometres.
It was a simple matter to cross this border, since it is a short ferry ride across the Rio Uruguay, and the border control on both sides was fairly relaxed. We arrived in San Javier in the province of Misiones, which is of course named for the missions we had come to see.
It wasn’t quite so easy getting to the first of these. It is around 100 Kilometres – the direct route. We decided to go via Oberá because we needed to change money, and when we left there we took the ‘road-less-travelled’. It was not the best choice this time, although we did see some interesting rural countryside, including tea plantations, and we were accompanied much of the way by blue skies, fluffy white clouds and thousands of butterflies. But the road was sometimes little better than a ‘goat track’!
San Ignacio Mini
When we were only a few kilometres from our destination it started to rain very heavily again. We began to wonder if the rain was going to accompany us to all of the mission sites! But the next morning was clear again. We went into San Ignacio Mini early enough to beat any busloads of visitors that might arrive from elsewhere.
The entry here is 150 Pesos (more than $US10) each – no more freebies for being over 60. The fee covers not only this site, but also the other two we were planning to visit. There is also a guide included in the price. Vanessa, who spoke quite good English and knew her stuff about the place, walked us through the complex. She told us that some of what we were seeing was the result of restoration and some of it was original, and explained how to tell the difference.
We also found out why there are no roofs left on these substantial structures: the buildings were completely framed in thick timber (almost like the ‘brick veneer’ we are used to in Australia), which also supported the roof – the massive stone walls were then built under this roof! Over the centuries it is not surprising that the timber eventually rots, especially in this sub-tropical climate. So, even though the walls might remain, the roof has lost its support.
It was a very interesting tour: Vanessa told us that there had been around 4000 Guaranis living there (other missions sometimes had 6000), with 2 Jesuit priests. The stone carving on the church, also the work of the Guaranis, was very impressive, more so than at São Miguel in Brazil.
Nuestra Señora de Loreto
In the afternoon we drove on to Loreto under threatening skies. It’s only 10 Km away, and we discovered a quiet little town, off the highway, with a pleasant spot to park near the entrance to the Nuestra Señora de Loreto mission. There was also a free town WiFi that we received well, so we settled in for a couple of days and caught up with a few things. The rain didn’t arrive, but it was not too humid and still quite pleasant.
Next morning we went to visit the mission. There is a fairly new visitor’s centre with a plan of the mission as it was, and a small museum with a few interesting antiquities.
The woman that introduced us to the site tried hard with her English and, with a combination of both languages, we pretty much understood what we needed to.
It was warm in the sun and very sticky under the trees. It is different to San Ignacio in that it hasn’t had much restoration work done – mostly just excavation. You have to use your imagination, but we also found it very interesting.
During the afternoon it really began to heat up and the humidity was very high. We had been trying for some time to get away from the rain, but that afternoon and evening we were wishing for it! It finally arrived at around 3am, accompanied by heavy thunder and lightning.
In the morning it was still raining so we waited for a break to pack up and move on another 10 Km to the final mission we wanted to visit. The entry and visitors centre were identical to the one in Loreto, but the reception was entirely different. Nobody was interested in giving us any information, and we had to find our own way around. The difference to the experience of the previous day was as remarkable as it was disappointing!
It started to rain again while we were walking around, and the site appeared less interesting than the previous ones, although this may have been a direct result of the way we were (not) introduced to it. I’m not sure we did this mission justice, but we were so used to meeting people at the missions who were proud of these monuments and what they signified, that we felt quite let down. We left after a very short visit.
The Jesuit missions have been variously called a ‘Holy Experiment’, a ‘Lost Paradise’ or a ‘Music State’. They were actually small, self-determined republics inside the Spanish colonies, where the indigenous were protected from exploitation (often by the slave trade) and indoctrination.
The treatment of, and relationships with, the Guarani people were unique. The priests worked with them to create a community where there was a sharing of ideas and skills. Education occurred in both Spanish and Guarani language. The people were taught trades and skills that related to their culture. And there was always music. The Guaranis came willingly to dwell in these communities.
[Source – recommended for further reading: Jesuit Reducciones in the Context of UNESCO World Heritage – PDF file!]