If you’ve ever dreamed of wandering around a UNESCO World Heritage site and having the place entirely to yourself, then make a beeline to the Jesuit Missions of Chiquitania in Eastern Bolivia. In the five days I spent touring the region I didn’t see a single other tourist. Unfortunately, I didn’t see the sun for four days either.
300 hundred years ago the Jesuits arrived in this area with the aim of converting the locals to Catholicism. Their mission was supported initially by the Spanish crown as it was a way of subduing the ethnic people without resorting to violence. The Jesuits taught their new-found followers skills in construction, carpentry and music and together they built some magnificent churches. As the film “The Mission” showed, however, the Jesuits were eventually thrown out of South America and the churches collapsed into ruin.
In neighbouring Brazil, Argentina and Paraguay most of the sites are in ruins, but in Bolivia the towns surrounding the churches thrive and the churches themselves were painstakingly restored in the 1970s and 1980s. The facades are richly decorated and the interiors house magnificent altars and statues.
Even if, like me, you’re not religious, these sites still impress with their sense of history and transport you back in time. The towns are set out in the usual grid system with a huge plaza at the centre. An interesting stylistic feature of the streets is that the wooden roofs of the buildings hang out across the pavements, giving protection from the sun and rain. Most of the streets are still unpaved and consist of red earth. Basic shops operate out of tiny premises and cobblers sit in the streets performing their work out in the open.
Another curious feature of the area is the presence of Mennonites, a Dutch Protestant sect that fled persecution in Europe and found refuge here. Like the Amish, they generally reject modern life and keep to themselves. I wondered how difficult it would be to find them. In fact, they found me on my first bus journey from Santa Cruz de la Sierra to San José de Chiquitos, when a man and his three children got on, all dressed in dungarees and with golden hair, as if they’d stepped out of a fairy story.
I travelled north from San José to San Ignacio, visiting San Miguel from there, and then onto Concepción which I found the nicest. On the downside, there’s not much to do apart from visit the churches so it means there’s a lot of travelling and only a little actual sightseeing. There are some waterfalls and lakes in the area, but unfortunately for me these weren’t an option as another annoying cold front moved in, making it unpleasant even sitting in the main square. In fact, I feel like this cold front is following me around, like a rain cloud above a cartoon character.
The towns in the Missions Circuit are conveniently grouped in a circle. However, the Bolivian transport system makes it as inconvenient as possible to get around. Many private companies all operate a variety of buses, minivans and taxis so getting impartial information is not easy, even if you speak Spanish. The good news, though, is that the roads are slowly being improved, reducing journey times considerably. However, as access improves, the crowds will increase, so go now if you want to have the place to yourself, as I did.