Jesuit Missions & Chiquitanía

The tropical savannah region in the east of the province of Santa Cruz received its name as Chiquitanía, Gran Chiquitanía or Chiquitos due to a misunderstanding.

According to legend, it was the Spanish conquistador Domingo Martinez de Irala who, in the early 15th century in search of the legendary (fictitious) Inca city of Paititi, came across the simple huts made of palm leaves in which the indigenous inhabitants sought shelter from heat, rain and mosquitoes. As the entrances to these huts were very small, the Spaniard concluded that their inhabitants were also small (chiquito).

The Chiquitanía is famous for its so-called Jesuit Reductions (a type of settlement for indigenous people in North and South America established by the Jesuit Order), which belong to the Unesco World Heritage since 1990.
The founding of these mission villages in the late 17th and early 18th centuries was inspired by the concepts of an ideal city as developed by the philosophers of humanism such as Thomas Morus. The city model for the mission villages featured regularly arranged houses for the indigenous population along three sides of a rectangular square, while the fourth side was reserved for the church, workshops and schools.
The architecture of the church buildings is regarded as a remarkable example of the adaptation of European Christian architecture to local conditions and traditions. They resemble large houses with a protruding saddle roof over a gallery supported by columns on the west side. The interior is divided into three naves by two rows of carved wooden columns.
What is unique about these churches is that the wooden pillars did not stand on brick foundations, as is common in Europe, but were buried and anchored in the ground. First the supporting wooden columns and the roof were erected, and only then the walls were constructed from adobe bricks. In order to protect the walls from rain, the building was surrounded on all sides by porches and arcades.
The only exception is the church of San José de Chiqitos, as it is built of stone and inspired by Baroque European models. In addition to their rich interiors, many of these churches house remarkable folk art objects such as sculptures, paintings, altars and pulpits.
The interior of the church of Santa Ana, the smallest of the missions and the only one preserved in its original state, is considered particularly beautiful. The church of Concepción is considered to be the most beautiful from the outside.
The Chiquitanía’s musical treasure is stored in the archives of the town of the same name: 5500 pages of original scores from the Jesuit missions. The Swiss architect Hans Roth discovered them when he came to Bolivia in the early 1970s to restore the dilapidated Jesuit churches. But it was the native indigenous population who had guarded the scores for 200 years after the expulsion of the Catholic order.

San Javier

San Javier (also San Xavier) is the oldest foundation among the mission villages.

The village has grown into a small town and is located 230 km northeast of Santa Cruz. The wooden Jesuit church is the most obvious attraction here as well as in the other places of the “mission circuit”. In addition to the church itself, the complex also includes a small museum (Museo Misional), which houses a collection of photographs of the architecture and landscape of the Chiquitanía as well as musical instruments and scores from the time of the Jesuit mission.
The birthplace of the former Bolivian president Germán Busch (Museo Germán Busch) is also worth a short visit while it also houses the tourist information office of the town.
On the outskirts of the village, the granite blocks called Stones of the Apostles (Piedras de los Apóstoles) pile up, which already served as a ceremonial site for the Piñocas (an extinct people). (Those who want to swim have the choice between the Aguas Tibias or the Aguas Calientes, which have been converted into a thermal bath.)

Concepción & San Ignacio

Concepción is the most “touristic” of all the places on the mission circuit, since it has the most (upscale) hotels and the tour operators from Santa Cruz prefer to take groups here. Concepción’s church is also regarded an architectural jewel and especially photogenic in the evening light.
The town and its surroundings are also known for their abundance of orchids, in which above all the “Cattleya nobilior” is extensively represented. Every year in October an orchid festival takes place. In Concepción’s small nature reserve Orquideas del Encanto, the Cerro Bamba is a lookout point over the surrounding countryside, and the garden of the “Chiquitos Hotel” also has a remarkable collection of orchids.
A popular excursion and bathing destination for locals and tourists is the Laguna Zapocó reservoir two kilometres west of the town.

San Ignacio de Velasco was only founded in 1748, just 19 years before the expulsion of the Jesuits from South America. His magnificent church collapsed in 1948 and was rebuilt in its original style. If it was not for the ugly concrete bell tower, the reconstruction would have to be considered a success. Although the original altar and holy figures in the interior are still preserved, San Ignacio de Velasco’s church does not belong to the Uneso World Heritage. Nevertheless, the small town has grown into the largest settlement and the most important market place of the region.

San José de Chiquitos

The small Santa Ana de Velasco is 40 km away from San Ignacio and is ideal for a stop during the trip to San José de Chiquitos. The church there is a curiosity, because the indigenous village community decided to build a church after the Jesuit missionaries had already been expelled from the area. It is smaller than the other churches, but appears very authentic due to its largely original state of preservation.

In contrast to this stands San José de Chiquitos’ stone mission church, whose architecture is reminiscent of the Jesuit missions of Paraguay and northern Argentina.
With the Parque Nacional Histórico Santa Cruz La Vieja, founded in 1989, San José de Chiquitos boasts another historically important site, since it was here that the current provincial capital Santa Cruz was founded for the first time in 1561.

Santa Cruz La Vieja is about 3km south of San José. From the viewpoint Mirador de Ñuflo, which already belongs to the mountain range of the Serranía de San José, you have an impressive view into the plain of the Chiquitanía.

In the east of San José, the Cerro Turubó towers over the village like a guard. Its summit also promises beautiful views, and the eco-tourism trail (sendero ecoturístico) is ideal for birdwatching.
The small Museo Ayoreo Chiquitano also deserves a short visit. It is run by the Asociación Hombre y Naturaleza Bolivia, and its collection of everyday and ritual objects is dedicated to the cultures of the Chiquitanos and the indigenous Ayoreo. Its inner courtyard hosts a small educational trail on the flora and fauna of Parque Nacional Kaa-Iya del Gran Chaco. The country’s largest national park covers 3.5 million hectares in the southeast of the province of Santa Cruz.

Santiago de Chiquitos

Already the way from San José de Chiquitos to Santiago de Chiquitos offers several sights.

At Chochis, the red rock of the Torre de David, 200m high and visible from afar, dominates the landscape. The Santuario Mariano de la Torre – Virgen de la Asunta at its feet was built in 1988 by the Swiss architect Hans Roth, who was entrusted with the reconstruction and restoration of the mission churches. The sanctuary is laid out in the shape of a cross and commemorates the victims of the natural disaster of 1979, when an avalanche of mud and debris caused numerous casualties.

A very special bathing place can be found in the Río Aguas Calientes in the village of the same name. Here the Río Aguas Calientes creates hot ‘springs’ with different bathing opportunities for more than 5km. The first ones, hotter than 40°C, are bubbling, muddy holes and carry the appropriate name Los Hervores (boil up). They are said to have medicinal effects due to their high mineral concentration. If you follow the course of the river, the temperature of the water drops until you find ideal bathing conditions in El Puente, in the sandy riverbed lined with lush vegetation, at 25°C water temperature.

Santiago de Chiquitos is (also chronologically) the last in the series of Jesuit missions. In the face of the diverse nature and landscape, however, the architecture takes a back seat here. Hiking in the Serranía de Santiago will take you to places such as:

  • eroded stone columns at the Mirador del Valle de Tucavaca with a view over the valley of Tucavaca with South America’s best preserved tropical dry forest.
  • natural stone bridges (“El Arco” and “Puente del Mono”)
  • rock and cave paintings (“Motacú” and “Cueva de Miserendino”)
  • various waterfalls with natural swimming pools (Las Pozas, Las Cachuelas, San Sabá, or La Colina)
  • crystal clear water basins and bizarre sandstone formations (“La Soledad”)