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Travel in Bolivia

Bumping Along the Jesuit Missions Circuit

by Amy Stix Miller

Jesuit Mission San Jose de Chiquitos in Bolivia.
Jesuit Mission San Jose de Chiquitos. Photo courtesy of Banjo Tours.

It has been almost five hours since we have boarded this merciless bus, by my estimate a circa 1970 machine that is belching and pitching across a savannah parched in the waning days of a tropical dry season. My fellow passengers and I are covered in a fine film of red dust, which has been churning steadily since our dawn-break journey began along the single-lane, clay road.

I’m back in Bolivia to visit my friend Andrea, who is completing her final months of Peace Corps service. I am also reconnecting with a country where I once spent eight months studying and volunteering. Together, we’re bumping along Bolivia’s “Jesuit Missions Circuit,” a winding, indirect route in the country’s southeastern lowlands, which expand in damp, alternating hues of green and brown all the way to the Brazilian border. 

Seven mission towns are scattered along the circuit, each with its own church and architectural style. Although the oldest mission community dates back to 1691, the first of the churches, San Rafael de Velasco, was completed between 1740 and 1748. The other churches were completed in the mid-18th century.

It can take the independent traveler nearly a week to visit all seven churches. Our goal in the three days we have is to visit five. The intrepid Bolivian bus system serves most of the route and fits our tight budget. 

In the era of conquest and colonial control over the South American continent, European missionaries were dispatched into its wild territories, which today comprise the countries of Paraguay, Uruguay, Argentina, Bolivia, and Brazil. The first missionaries arrived in 1572 in what is now Bolivia, tasked with imbuing the hunter-gatherer indigenous populations with Roman Catholic faith, European-style education, and practical skills in farming, animal husbandry, and carpentry. Compared to other native people forced to slave in the Conquistadors’ gold and silver mines, the Indians absorbed by the missions were fortunate. The Jesuits promised “tributes” to the Crown in exchange for exempting their indigenous flock from forced labor.

For a century and a half, the missions operated as independent, communal societies, known in Spanish as “Reducciones”, which functioned like tiny nations unto themselves. Land, and the fruits of one’s labor upon it, were shared. Under Jesuit tutelage, the Indians’ artisan skills flourished, producing master woodcarvers, weavers, metal workers, and classical musicians. A visitor can delight in their mastery today, in the intricate altar carvings, religious sculpture, colorful frescoes, and handcrafted musical instruments, on display in the mission churches and small museums. 

San Ignacio de Velasco

After departing from the chaotic, exuberant metropolis of Santa Cruz — gateway to the missions circuit — Andrea and I arrive first in San Ignacio de Velasco, a charming town with crisscrossed dirt roads that all seem to lead back to the peaceful town plaza, flanked and protected by large wooden crosses. The plaza sits across from the mission church. 

Founded in 1748, San Ignacio de Velasco’s church was apparently the largest and most elaborate of all the missions. Sadly, the original structure was demolished in the 1950’s and the church standing in its place is more replica, that true restoration. Still, the impressive altar and wooden pillars from the original church remain inside.  

It is the next day’s churches that captivate. Arriving first in the village of San Miguel de Velasco, founded in 1721, we visit the church extolled as most accurately restored. It showcases a carved wooden altar and pillars, gold pulpit, bell tower, and a dizzyingly painted facade. We also visit the oldest church of San Rafael de Velasco, discovering that it’s luminous interior emanates from tiny mica chips mixed into the buttery plaster. This church also boasts a unique ceiling made of reeds.

The missions’ industriousness brought them success in commerce and trade and ultimately, their own undoing. The Crown of Spain caught onto the missions’ agricultural productivity and wanted control. Portugal, meanwhile, eyed the indigenous brethren with an interest in expanding its slave trade. The communities survived initial attack by conquistador forces, but eventually, King Carlos III of Spain expelled the Jesuits from Spanish territories in 1767.

For the next two centuries, the abandoned villages languished in neglect and obscurity until the 1986 film “The Mission”, piqued interest in the unique mix of Jesuit and indigenous culture. In 1990, UNESCO declared the entire region a World Heritage Site. And after a quarter century of meticulous restoration work lead by the late Swiss architect Hans Roth, Bolivia’s mission churches have been mostly returned to their original splendor. 

But we discover our favorite church is the one yet untouched by restorative hands, in the blink-and-you’ll-miss-it town of Santa Ana de Velasco. About three hundred souls live in this outpost, consisting of a few adobe houses and buildings nestled around a central square of weeds and grass. Every South American town has its plaza.

Santa Ana’s place of worship is actually a post-Jesuit construction, built by a stalwart priest after expulsion. After opulent displays of facade paintings, gold pulpits, and ornate carvings, this church revels in simplicity with its earthen floors and palm frond roof. It contains the same lustrous — if a bit more worn — mica walls, which softly light the building from within. In a loft above the nave, we discover an original painted wood organ, which the church caretaker beautifully demonstrates still works.

The final mission on our journey is found in the village of San Jose de Chiquitos. The Jesuits arrived here in the mid-1740’s and church construction began around 1750. This jaw dropping structure is the only church built entirely from stone, necessitating the labor of 5,000 individuals to complete it. The church and accompanying bell tower occupy an entire city block.

San Jose de Chiquitos.
San Jose de Chiquitos. Photo courtesy of Banjo Tours.

After a three-day, jam-packed history lesson, we arrive back in bustling Santa Cruz, heads spinning and exhausted. It has not been a relaxing journey. But we agree it is well worth the effort to visit a part of Bolivia often overlooked by travelers. The region offers a fascinating portal into the country’s rich, layered and unique history.  

For More Information

When to Visit

The most comfortable — and road accessible — time to visit Bolivia’s Missions Circuit is either before or after the rainy season. The dry, fall/winter seasons (which also brings slightly cooler temperatures to the region) runs from April through October. 

Getting There

From Miami, American Airlines offers daily service to the Viru Viru International Airport in the City of Santa Cruz. (The outbound flight stops first in La Paz, Bolivia before continuing on to Santa Cruz.) From Santa Cruz, Bolivia’s military airline Transportes Aereos Militares (TAM) flies weekly to the town of San Ignacio de Velasco; check the airline for updated schedules. After restructuring this past year, Bolivia’s national airline, Lloyd Aero Boliviano (LAB), is reinstating domestic routes. 

You may purchase bus tickets for Bolivia via a new website if you wish to travel independently.

Organized Tours

Banjo Tours and Ruta Verde located in Santa Cruz, offer guided tours of the missions, from overnight to multi-day excursions. Prices vary, depending on the number of days and people in the tour group. These companies can also provide information for private car rental agencies, accommodations and schedules/prices for public bus and train transportation for the entire missions circuit. 

Accommodations in San Ignacio de Velasco

Note: Using this town as a base, it is easy to visit all of the missions mentioned in this article in a day trip, except for San Jose de Chiquitos.

Located directly across from the main plaza, La Misión Hotel provides its guests with a breakfast buffet, air conditioned rooms, private bath, swimming pool and tropical gardens. 

Shopping that Supports Local Artisans

In the town of San Jose de Chiquitos, brightly colored cotton weavings, clothing, and hand-carved walking sticks are just some of the handicrafts to be purchased from the Asociacion de Artesanos Chiquitos and the women’s cooperative, Asociacion de Artesanas Chiquitanos, which support local artisans and their families. Their store is located just off the plaza, across from the church.

More by Amy Stix Miller
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