Tuesday, September 11, 2012

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). 
Initially established in 1691, the mission of San Xavier was the first of the missions listed as a World Heritage Site.
The church was built between 1749 and 1752 by the Swiss Jesuit and architect Fr. Martin Schmid. The school and church, as well as other characteristics of residential architecture, are still visible today in the village.
The original inhabitants of San Xavier were the Piñoca tribe.
San Xavier was restored by Hans Roth between 1987 and 1993.
The wooden structure was meticulously restored by local wood carvers both inside and outside.
Along with many of the religious artifacts.
As I was about to leave, I spotted this young boy hanging around the front of the mission.
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.
I passed by this hacienda (ranch) for sale. Hmmm... perhaps a fellow countryman or just an admirer of the great state of Texas.
The next town I visited was Concepcion. The mission of Concepción, was initially founded in 1699 by the Jesuit priests Fr. Francisco Lucas Caballero and Fr. Francisco Hervás.
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 patio contained shaded walkways, a green lawn, palm trees and a cross.
The interior of the sanctuary was fully restored.
Nice ambiance with natural lighting and warm colors.
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.
These basic structures were made of wood, adobe and thatch roofs. This primitive technique of home construction has been around for hundreds of years, but it still is an economical and typical form of housing in this area of Bolivia.
A wood burning oven made of clay under a thatch roof.
I arrived to the town of San Ignacio.
Next door to this mission was a workshop that illustrated how items from the church were restored.
A lot of painstaking work.
Fine wood carving.
The outside of this mission was somewhat similar to the other missions. However, this church was adorned with masterfully carved religious statues.
An open patio, long walkway and spiral carved wooden columns.
And a very simple bell tower.
But on the inside of this church, the sanctuary contained substantial gilding.
And this very ornately gilded pulpit.
As depicted with this statue, in addition to Christianity, the art of music was one of the things that the Jesuits tried to share with the indigenous people back in the 18th century.
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...
Because... it just so happened that San Igancio was hosting a livestock show and rodeo. I thought that I should check it out. Being from Texas, I felt right at home.
There was a place within the fairgrounds for the livestock.
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 next day I continued down the road to visit some of the surrounding missions. This mission was in the town of San Miguel. When I arrived at the grounds, it seemed like everything was closed. I walked around a bit and took some photos. Then a man on a bicycle rode up. He asked if I wanted to go inside the grounds. Of course I said yes. He said that he was the grounds keeper and that he could let me in. He seemed rather excited. As I signed the guest book, I noticed that there had only been one other visiter for over the last month. Shame... it is such an interesting area.
San Miguel de Velasco, was established by the Jesuits Fr. Felipe Suarez and Fr. Francisco Hervás in 1721.
It was an off-shoot of the mission of San Rafael de Velaso, where the population had grown too large.
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 church was restored by Hans Roth between 1979 and 1983.
The interior courtyard was lined with palm trees.
And the interior of the church was meticulously restored and gilded in gold.
This is an example of a wooden carving with gold gilding.
Simple, but also quite elegant.
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.
Next town on the route was San Rafael.
The mission of San Rafael de Velasco was the second mission built out of the six inscribed as a World Heritage Site.
Founded in 1695 by the Jesuits Fr. Juan Bautista Zea and Fr. Francisco Hervás, it was moved several times.
The mission had to be moved in 1701 and 1705 because of epidemics in the region. In 1719 the mission was moved once more due to fire.
Fr. Martin Schmid built the church between 1747 and 1749.
San Rafael de Velasco was restored between 1972 and 1996 as part of Hans Roth's restoration project.
The most unique aspect of this church was the wood carved alter and pulpit.
Perhaps a bit more modern than what existed back in the day.
I suppose the statues were charming in their own way.
I think what impressed me most about this mission was the simple yet detailed wall murals both on the inside and outside.
I needed to fill up with gas. Filling up at gas stations in Bolivia was always interesting. There was often a line. In this area of Bolvia the line consisted mostly of motorcycles. Motocycles are simply an effective and economical way of getting around on the dirt roads. I believe that I explained previously that Bolivian gas stations are by law required to charge different prices to foreigners than to locals. The price for foreigners is typically three times the price charged to locals. However, in these smaller towns, the gas attendants were kind enough to only charge me the local price. Sweet!
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.
I entered the town of Santa Ana. The community had a light playful feeling to it. The houses were painted in a variety of bright colors... muy chevere.
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. 
The mission church was designed after the expulsion of the Jesuits between 1770 and 1780 by an unknown architect and built entirely by the indigenous population. The complex, consisting of the church, bell tower, sacristy and a grassy plaza lined by houses, is considered to have the most fidelity to the original plan of the Jesuit reductions. Starting in 1989 and lasting until 2001, the mission underwent partial restoration through the efforts of Hans Roth and his team.
After I toured around the mission, I came across this young boy hanging around the front patio. I inquired as to what he was doing. He said that he had just finished his music lesson. I asked him where he took lessons. He motioned for me to follow him and he took me around the corner of the mission.
There I found a group of young violinists. I asked them if they could play me something.
And they happily began.
Most of them could only play simple cords, but it was still pretty cool.
As we parted ways, the young boy walked across the central plaza... making music along the way.
As I headed back, I came across these two teens. They were interested in what I was doing riding around the area on a motorcycle. I suppose they have not seen many travelers on motorcycles before. Especially someone on a big bike wearing motorcycle gear.
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.
And came across this.
Fields and fields of girasoles (sunflowers).

A bright ending for a couple of interesting days of riding around the countryside.


  1. awesome pictures.. i especially like the little kids with violins :)

  2. Having just returned from Bolivia, visiting only the western part for lack of time, I was very curious to know what the remote little villages and missions with the UNESCO signs looked like. Thank you for your pictures and writing. It made me want to visit there next time in Bolivia. Nira

    1. Nira, thanks for following along. The missions are a little difficult to reach, but if you enjoy history, architecture and art it might be worth a visit. You'll need private transportation because there is not much public transportation available. I enjoyed it.


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