Monday, July 18, 2011

On a Mission


San Ignacio


San Miguel



San Miguel


Loop of Jesuit Missions

I needed to see another old church like I needed another hole in my head. However, since being in Bolivia, I have been intrigued by the Jesuit settlements in the jungles of eastern part of the country.

The Catholic Church sent a group of Jesuits to some hellacious “off the map” places some 300-years ago to convert the nomadic jungle tribes to Christianity. During the same period, the Portuguese were also in area and had more "laborious" intentions for the indigenous people. The Jesuits were soon forced out, and boundaries were established between Brazil and what would become Bolivia. However, before their forced exodus, the Jesuits built these amazing missions, or “reductions” as they were then called.

The post and beam construction with thatched roofs utilized materials from the cleared rain forest and the architectural style incorporated a fusion of European design and Indian styles, making them unique to anything else that had been built at that time. The non-supporting walls were made of adobe. Many of the missions on the UNESCO list were restored in the 1970’s.

Now in the thick of winter, the dense lowlands are still very hot and humid. I cannot, and do not even want to try to think how miserable it is in the summer months, or how hard it is to get there. Red dirt roads plagued with huge potholes were the only choice. The potholes were impossible to avoid. Imaging what the Jesuits must have gone through to get to these places, to get through the virgin jungle is beyond my capacity.

The missions survived the exodus/slaughter and the local people that survived continued to use the buildings for worship. The Jesuits famously used music as a tool to attract and convert the “savages”, and this has become an important legacy of the missions. Children are still taught how to play music on “western instruments” on site. I was lucky enough to enjoy an impromptu recital by three young girls on violins at the San Miguel mission.

Due to heavy rains, I stayed a second night in the beautiful Gran Hotel Concepcion for about $25 a night, which included a breakfast of scrambled eggs, fresh papaya and pineapple and a selection of the local variations of empanadas. At night I would walk across the square to the Buon Gusto outdoor restaurant for their Majadito. Typical to the area, Majadito is a rice dish slow cooked with shredded dehydrated beef and seasoning, topped with a fried egg and plantain. The juices from the meat make the dish filling and tasty. Served with a salad and a cold Huari beer, it was good enough to repeat the next night – not there was much of a choice.

Another day spent on the bombed-out roads, viewing five of the six missions listed on the UNESCO list, and I had seen enough. I found a hotel just opened by a Belgian couple in the town of San Jose de Chiquitos and was in bed soon after checking in. I wanted to get on the paved road to the border as early as possible in the morning. However, waking up to a flat rear tire and leaking drive shaft changed those plans. ARGH!!

For a good movie on the topic check out the Robert DeNiro, Jeremy Irons 1986 flick,

The Mission