The Jesuit Missions of Chiquitos, Bolivia
One of my favorite films of all time is called The Mission.
The Mission is a 1986 British drama about the experiences of a Jesuit missionary in 18th century South American. Back in the day, the film collected a number of prestigious awards from the Cannes Film Festival, the Academy Awards and the Golden Globe Awards.
Here is a scene from the film.
Based on historical facts, the film takes place in an area that stretches across Bolivia, Paraguay, Argentina and Brazil. There is a grouping of Jesuit missions in eastern Bolivia. It is a little off the beaten path for most travelers, but being on a motorcycle, I thought that I would check it out.
So I hopped on my bike and headed north and east down a dirt road.
The Jesuit Missions of Chiquitos are located in eastern Bolivia. These former missions collectively were designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1990. Distinguished by a unique fusion of European and Amerindian cultural influences, the missions were founded as reducciones de indios by Jesuits in the 17th and 18th centuries to convert local tribes to Christianity. In 1767 there was an expulsion of the Jesuits from the area and many of the settlements turned to ruins. A large restoration project of the missionary churches began with the arrival of the former Swiss Jesuit and architect Hans Roth in 1972.
On the way to the mission area, I passed by some lush green farming areas.
It was a very picturesque ride with small lakes and rivers and rolling green hills. It looked like scenery fitting to be in a film.
The first town that I visited was San Xavier (San Javier).
Along with many of the religious artifacts.
Then he was joined by his sister and pet dog. As they road off, I snapped this image... capturing the two kids and their dog at play.
I rode on.
The mission church was constructed between 1753 and 1756, by Fr. Martin Schmid and Fr. Johann Messner.
It was inhabited by the Chiquitanos, the largest tribe in the region.
From 1975 to 1996 the mission was reconstructed as part of Hans Roth's restoration project.
One of the unique structures associated with this mission was the bell tower.
It was completely built of wood with a twisting staircase.
There were some beautifully carved wooden columns that lined the interior walkway.
The interior of the sanctuary was fully restored.
Even the religious artifacts had a certain warmth and charm.
It was late in the afternoon, so I decided to spend the night in Concepcion.
The next day I rode on. I passed a few small villages that contained some pretty simple structures.
A wood burning oven made of clay under a thatch roof.
And a very simple bell tower.
And this very ornately gilded pulpit.
Another mission... another extraordinary day.
A gilded sunset over the town of San Ignacio.
As the sun set, people gathered in the central plaza. I found the silhouette of this tree particularly captivating. But it would not be a restful night...
And a place for the rodeo. To kick off the rodeo they had a fireworks show. The rodeo seemed to be more of an exhibit than a true competition. All the competitors were from a crew of cowboys from Brasil. My guess is that they tour around the area putting on shows such as this rodeo.
There was even a display of motorcycles. This particular motorcycle was a professional rally bike which was ridden by a Bolivian named Chavo Salvatierra in the 2012 Dakar Rally.
Here is a short 1:30 minute video of scenes from the rodeo...fireworks, horse barrel racing and bull riding. Yee...Haw!
The mission church was built between 1750 and 1757 by an architect who is believed to have been a collaborator or student of Fr. Martin Schmid.
The interior courtyard was lined with palm trees.
And the interior of the church was meticulously restored and gilded in gold.
It was interesting to see how each mission and church had it's own style and character.
As I parted from San Miguel, I passed by this small rustic cemetery. About as basic as it gets.
San Rafael de Velasco was restored between 1972 and 1996 as part of Hans Roth's restoration project.
I think what impressed me most about this mission was the simple yet detailed wall murals both on the inside and outside.
I rode on. Here the road changed from a white sand to a red dirt. Interesting how the road conditions changed so abruptly in Bolivia...from asphalt to dirt to gravel to sand.
The mission was a bit different than the others that I had visited. The mission of Santa Ana de Velasco was the final World Heritage Site-inscribed mission to be established. It was founded by the Jesuit priest Fr. Julian Knogler in 1755. The original native inhabitants of the missions were the Covareca and Curuminaca tribes.
As we parted ways, the young boy walked across the central plaza... making music along the way.
I was just as curious to find out what they were doing. They said that they were gathering palm branches for a techo (roof).
I suppose some things change and some things stay the same.
I spent one more night in the town of San Ignacio, then headed back toward Santa Cruz.
A bright ending for a couple of interesting days of riding around the countryside.