Jesuit Missions of the Guaranis in Argentina & Brazil

The Jesuit Missions of Argentina and Brazil are on the UNESCO World Heritage List.

The Jesuit Missions of Argentina and Brazil are on the UNESCO World Heritage List.

Jesuit Mission of Trinidad in Paraguay (which we visited in 2008). Also UNESCO HERITAGE listed, though in a different group than the missions of Argentina & Brazil.

Jesuit Mission of Trinidad in Paraguay (which we visited in 2008). Also UNESCO HERITAGE listed, though in a different group than the missions of 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.

A map showing all 30 Jesuit mission of what was then called 'Paraguay'; now they are in 3 different countries. The symbols show the state of each 'reduccion'.

A map showing all 30 Jesuit mission of what was then called ‘Paraguay’; now they are in 3 different countries. The symbols show the state of each ‘reduccion’.

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

São Miguel, Brazil: the church facade. This is the only one with remains of a bell tower standing.

São Miguel, Brazil: the church facade. This is the only one with remains of a bell tower standing.

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.

Taking a 'goat track' from Oberá to San Ignacio: 1000s of butterflies, often moving faster than us in our truck...

Taking a ‘goat track’ from Oberá to San Ignacio: 1000s of butterflies, often moving faster than us in our truck…

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

Ruins of the Jesuit Mission of San Ignacio, as seen through the trees from the entrance

Ruins of the Jesuit Mission of San Ignacio, as seen through the trees from the entrance

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

Storm brewing on the way from San Ignacio to Loreto

Storm brewing on the way from San Ignacio to 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.

Santa Ana

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.

Jesuit Mission of Santa Ana: church ruins as seen from the entrance

Jesuit Mission of Santa Ana: church ruins as seen from the entrance

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!]

Yasha

dare2go's human navigator (we're not lost because there's nowhere particular we have to be) alongside our Nexus 7 tablet, writer and editor of our blog, first cook and loving wife. Teaching English as a second language when possible.

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16 Responses

  1. Ana O says:

    I must admit that I haven’t been to the missions in Misiones yet, but I’ve been to Alta Gracia. They are very different!
    The guaraníes are still known for their music, among other aspects of their culture. BTW, those tea plantations you drove past probably were yerba mate plantations, This area is the biggest (maybe only??) producer of yerba mate in the world.

    • Yasha says:

      Thanks for your comment Ana. We are so impressed by what the Jesuits brought to South America. Recently we visited the Jesuit Missions of the Chiquitas in Bolivia.
      And the tea plantations were probably tea plantations. We also visited Las Marías, the World’s Largest Yerba Maté Producer, in Corrientes province, who also grow tea. Check the photos in that post and you can see the difference.

  2. Simon Ostrovsky says:

    Oh my God, South America is truly gorgeous and magnificent. As for me, my gf travelled to Brazil last year with vivaster.com. It’s a terrible pity for us, because that trip was without me (But we will travel there again and I hope it will worth our while to earn money for it).

  3. Vlad says:

    I’ve never been to South America so this was a very fascinating read! Thanks for linking up with The Weekly Postcard :D

    • Yasha says:

      It was a pleasure. We shall come again. I found some very interesting blogs too. And put South America on you list of places to go – it is fascinating in so many ways.

  4. I enjoyed this post a lot! I have not being to this part of South America but hope to do it in the future. I like places full of history like these ones. And, yes, some of those structures are impressive!

  5. Ana W says:

    Great read Yasha! I’m originally from Brazil, but sadly I do not know the south of the country. One of my favorite things to learn about when I visit somewhere are the historical sites, world heritage sites. I just love the history. Hopefully one day I’ll make it to the south of my homeland.

    • Yasha says:

      I would definitely recommend it. We haven’t been further in Brazil than the southern 3 states – yet! We have loved what we have seen.

  6. Isobel says:

    This looks fantastic- what incredible buildings! I only really know about the Jesuits in terms of their presence in Britain and Ireland, so this was a fascinating read. I hadn’t realised they taught in the Guarani language!

    • Yasha says:

      Thanks for visiting us, Isobel. It was a very unique situation that they created here with the Guarani people. If you get to visit this area and the missions one day, I really recommend taking a guide. They have all sorts of interesting information.

  7. Anda says:

    Great read, Yasha. Very few people are as lucky as you are to travel the less beaten paths of this great continent. There are a lot of Jesuit reductions in South America created by the Jesuit Order during the 17th and 18th centuries. We wanted to visit a few when we went there some years ago, but had to cut our plans short because of some family issues. Thanks for joining #TheWeeklyPostcard this week-end.

    • Yasha says:

      Thanks Anda. These missions are all in relatively easy reach of Iguazu Falls, so we like to encourage people to make a side trip into Argentina, Brazil or Paraguay in order to see them. I hope you get to this part of the world again. They are definitely worth the visit. Or you can see a different setup by the Jesuits around Cordoba with the Estancias, which we wrote about here .

  8. Great overview and interesting points. I was happy to hear that the relationships between the people and the few Jesuits was a unique one and by that I hope compassionate. It was otherwise at the Missions in California too often.

    • Yasha says:

      Thanks Elaine. From what I understand, the relationship with the Guarani in the Jesuit missions here in South America was quite unique. Although, the priests lived much more privileged lives than the indigenous, there seemed to have been some respect for their culture and a certain amount of protection.

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