Worth a Detour: the Jesuit Missions of the Chiquitos
We left our last UNESCO World Heritage site in Brazil (the Pantanal) to cross the border into Bolivia, near San Matias. After almost 300 kilometres of rough dirt road we reached San Ignacio de Velasco, the centre of the next World Heritage site(s).
Maybe we should rename our website, from dare2go to something like World Heritage Tour (I’m sure there is already a site like that), as currently we seem to travel from one to the next…
Ahead of our arrival, we already knew about the UNESCO World Heritage listed Jesuit missions in Bolivia, but we weren’t prepared for what we found. There are 6 historic mission complexes combined into a single UNESCO listing, 5 of which we visited. Each one is different enough to make it worthwhile to visit.
The history of these Bolivian missions is quite interesting and (for us) connects neatly with the Jesuit missions in ruins, which we visited a year ago in Argentina and Brazil. All were built around the same time (late 17th to mid 18th century) in a very similar style. The World Heritage listed missions in Bolivia are all restored as closely as possible to their original appearance – so finally we got to see what we could only imagine at the ruins of Misiones/Argentina.
The churches of the Jesuit Missions of the Chiquitos in Bolivia, large houses with a double-sloping roof and large porch roof overhanging a west gallery, are a remarkable example of the adaptation of Christian religious architecture to local conditions and traditions. Long walls defining three interior naves divided by wooden columns and two exterior galleries, also supported by columns, constitute – except in the case of San José where construction, in stone, was inspired by a baroque model – a very unique type of architecture marked by the special treatment of the wooden columns and banisters. [UNESCO CRITERION]
The majority of the missions in Bolivia were built by Swiss Jesuits, foremost by a man called Martin Schmid. After the Jesuits were expelled from South America most fell into disrepair; the remains of the one in San Ignacio were actually demolished in the 70s and initially replaced by a modern church. After they realised their error the new church was again rebuilt in a style closely reminiscent of the old structure.
Fortunately another Swiss, the architect Hans Roth, took an interest in the Bolivian missions and, from the 1970s to the 90s, moved to Bolivia to lead the restoration efforts. His Jesuit upbringing gave him an understanding of the style and techniques used, so his work is considered to be very authentic.
One might argue about the impact the Jesuits had in South America and the way they ran their missions, but they certainly left a lasting legacy. Not only did they inspire the love of Christianity and music. The Jesuit-introduced style of wood carving and decorative painting, found in the historic churches, is continued nowadays on contemporary buildings throughout the region.
All Missions of the Chiquitos can be visited on a round trip from Santa Cruz de la Sierra, the state capital. We entered this circular route approximately at the 3 o’clock point to the east, which is why we missed the one furthest to the south-west: San José de Chiquitos.
The mission of San José de Chiquitos
We are sorry that we didn’t visit because the buildings in San José are supposedly unique, as they are constructed from stone and rock, whereas all other missions are built with a framing of enormous timber poles filled in with adobe (mud brick) walls. To see San José would have meant (for us) either a return trip of 400+ kilometres on dusty earth roads, or missing the two missions to the north-west of San Ignacio.
The mission of Santa Ana de Velasco
Driving south from San Ignacio this was the first mission we visited. Santa Ana is unique in several aspects: it has the smallest church, it is less richly decorated, and the surrounding village has preserved much of its historic look and feel. It was one of the last missions built, the last one restored by Hans Roth, and the last added to the World Heritage Register.
We enjoyed our visit to Santa Ana tremendously! Both of us aren’t keen on the profusion of gold and garishly decorated statues found in so many Latin American churches. We also liked the feel of the quiet village and stayed for two nights parked in the village square.
The mission of San Rafael de Velasco
Our visit to San Rafael was cut a little short by a sudden rain storm. We spent considerable time inside the church, admired the carved altar with its shiny gold leaf covering. It was also the first one where we recognised (full credit should go to Yasha) the use of thin mica leaves to decorate wood carvings and one entire wall niche. The carved wooden pulpit in San Rafael is an excellent example.
The mission of San Miguel de Velasco
San Miguel was the third and last mission we visited on a short circular route to the south of San Ignacio. This church is set on a small hill overlooking the main square (all others are on the same level as the town squares).
Features which stood out: San Miguel still has one window left which is mostly filled with semi-transparent round mica sheets. Apparently all the windows used to be ‘glazed’ like this. This was also the first church which displayed more elaborate graphic designs painted onto the ceiling.
The mission of Concepción
Concepción, to the north-west of San Ignacio, is one of the more visited Jesuit missions. The first indication: you have to pay a fixed entrance fee to get inside the church, in the three previously listed missions we were asked for a donation. Until very recently the sealed road from Santa Cruz used to end here; now it’s slowly getting sealed all the way to San Ignacio, the region’s biggest city and administrative centre.
The entrance fee includes the visit to two small museums. One is an annexe to the church where interesting historic photos are on display; the other museum is diagonally across the square and displays old relics and carvings from the original church. Most interesting is the last room dedicated to Hans Roth, where you can see a number of his drawings, architectural models of churches he designed, and other paraphernalia.
To us the church in Concepción appeared to be the most richly decorated. The contrast with red strongly enhances the gold leaf covered carvings.
The mission of San Xavier
San Xavier (or San Javier) was the last mission on our tour and it stood out in several aspects: the town square has a more authentic feel to it, many structures around it seem to be original. More surprising was the inside of the church: here you find lime-washed wood columns and a completely painted ceiling – in contrast to the dark heavy columns used in all other churches.
San Xavier was the first mission to be World Heritage listed. It was also the first one Hans Roth restored. Here it seems that a lot of the original carvings were saved; most columns around the cloister looked old. Again you have to pay a fixed entrance fee to get in – but it’s certainly worth it!
Summary of our visit to the Jesuit Missions of the Chiquitos
We certainly enjoyed our visit to the Jesuit Missions of the Chiquitos in Bolivia – despite dirt roads to reach some of them. In a couple of years the bitumisation of the road between Concepción and San Ignacio should be completed (now roughly 70% sealed). As an overland traveller the missions are comparatively easy to reach. If you’re entering Bolivia from the South Pantanal in Brazil, Corumbá border, we would recommend starting the circuit in San José de Chiquitos and drive all of it! Yes, you have to leave the newly sealed road but it will be worth the detour! In the dry season all roads are passable with regular two-wheel-drive vehicles.
If you’re travelling by public transport it can be a different story as connections in this part of Bolivia seem to be sparse. We didn’t see many public buses, on some days only one! It might be quicker and more relaxed if you can afford to join a tour or hire a vehicle. Basic accommodation can be found in all towns; San Ignacio, Concepción, and San Xavier all offer a choice of accommodation.
- The official UNESCO World Heritage listing
- Wikipedia: Jesuit Missions of the Chiquitos
- A long, rather scientific article “Social and Cultural Change on the Jesuit Missions of Paraguay and the Chiquitos Mission Frontier”
- And even more to read (PDF-file): “The Jesuits in Latin America: Legacy and Current Emphases”
- A Christian sect’s critical view of the Jesuits
- For those of you who prefer the easier visual entertainment provided by movies: “The Mission”, the Hollywood classic starring Robert de Niro, tells the story of these Jesuit missions and was mostly filmed at original locations.