As we walked along the dusty road in the small, jungle town we were a little disappointed and thought we had probably made a mistake coming to this remote part of Bolivia. Once we rounded the corner however, we realized that our decision to come here was the right one. Standing before us was a majestic Jesuit mission church that was even more stunning than we had hoped.
In the far eastern corner of Bolivia are the most brilliant Jesuit mission churches. Between the late 1600s and mid 1700s Jesuit monks were sent by the Spanish king to convert the South American indigenous population to Christianity. The Jesuits ended up building dozens of missions in the Bolivian jungle. By the late 1700s though, the Jesuits were expelled from Spanish territories and most of the South American missions fell into ruins. At the same time, the Spanish needed to protect their borders with Portuguese-controlled Brazil. To keep control of his land the king decided that, unlike the rest of the missions, the ones in Chiquitania should remain in use. The Spanish border territory is called Chiquitania (also called Chiquitos).
As a result a handful of these mission churches are still around today. Even though these buildings were not left to ruin, they did suffer a lot of wear and tear over the last couple of centuries. In the 1970s a large restoration project began to bring a few of them back to their former glory. Six of these historic missions are now UNESCO World Heritage Sites.
When we arrived in the small town of Concepción the dirt roads and shabby homes made us think we wouldn’t find anything worth seeing, certainly not a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Once we reached the town’s main square, however we realized why we were advised to visit the Jesuit Missions of Chiquitania. Taking up one side of the central square is a remarkable, massive A-frame wooden church. It looks very majestic with tall, pillars leading high above to an overhanging eave. At its side, the unusual spindles on the tall wooden clock and bell tower adds even more interest to the building.
There are so many details on the church entrance that it’s difficult to decide where to look. Carved wooden doors are below a round wooden window. Earth coloured flowers and designs adorn the bright white walls. The Jesuit mission churches melded European designs with local materials. This one seemed to combine those two perfectly.
A side gate leads to a simple garden surrounded by a covered walkway which gives protection from the strong sun. As we walked around it we passed several small doors that would have been school classrooms and workshops. We didn’t see inside as they are now closed to the public.
From the walkway a large open door led us to the most impressive part. As we entered the sanctuary we couldn’t believe our eyes. A bright red wall at the front of the church is adorned with golden details and sculptures as well as large paintings. At its sides are colourful walls, painted in similar designs as the exterior walls. Adding a rustic touch, carved pillars reach up to a high ceiling covered in wooden slats. Every detail is impeccable. It is easy to see why it is a UNESCO Heritage Site.
It is a large sanctuary though that you have to wonder how such a big church was needed in the middle of the Bolivian jungle in the 1700s.
In addition to the churches, the Jesuits built what they thought were ‘ideal’ towns. Across from the church they erected modest homes for the local indigenous population with a public square in the middle. Today the square is still used by the town folk who enjoy sitting under the shade of the large trees.
Other than visiting the mission though, there is not a lot more to do in town.
A couple of hours away, in the city of San Igancio, is an even more impressive Jesuit mission . The church is not a UNESCO site though, because it has been rebuilt rather than restored. We were told that they did try to build according to the original designs so it is as authentic as possible.
The city of San Ignacio is a large, busy centre, but the mission church still stands out as something special. The large wooden church has high, white walls covered in goldenrod designs and tall wooden pillars holding up an overhanging roof. At night, the church is illuminated making it look even more more impressive.
Once we stepped inside, we were astounded by what we saw. Its layout is similar to the other mission, but it is much more embellished. A large golden altar almost overwhelms your eyes. Golden shrines on either side of it add to the glitter. The surrounding walls are painted white with elaborate golden details. Carved wooden pillars end in fancy arches as they reach the vaulted ceiling. It is truly a remarkable building.
It almost boggles your mind to think that these large, ornate sanctuaries were built in the 1700s when the local indigenous population lived in simple jungle huts. It must have been an overwhelming site to them. Even today the large, imposing wooden churches with gilded interiors seemed out of place in these steamy jungle towns.
In front of the San Ignacio church is a typical square surrounded by pretty terracotta roofed buildings. Some are now used as hotels and others as restaurants with busy outdoor patios. Even though the church and surrounding plaza are nice to visit, the city doesn’t offer much more for the visitor to do.
How to visit the Missions
In total there are 6 Jesuit Missions in Chiquitania. Santa Cruz de la Sierra is the nearest city to this region. (Read our story from Santa Cruz here) There are several tour agencies in Santa Cruz that offer multi-day tours to the missions. We decided to visit on our own but finding information to do this was difficult. After we figured out the buses, it turned out to be quite easy to do on our own. Several buses leave 5 or 6 times a day destined for San Rafael, Concepción and San Ignacio. They can be found in the rear of the Santa Cruz bus station. To get there, go down stairs, through the tunnel and up the stairs on the other side.
The other three sites can be reached by minibuses which travel between the small centres. To find the minibuses ask the locals where the bus stop is to your destination. It will most likely be a small vendor selling tickets. There will probably not be a sign, so you have to ask. Another option is to hire a private taxi to take you for a day trip between the towns for approximately 450 Bolivianos.
Where to stay
Surprisingly both Concepción and San Ignacio have several hotels. In the centre of Concepción there are a couple of hotels with very high rates for what they offer. We were able to find a very nice, reasonably priced hotel near the highway. San Ignacio is a larger city with more options. Try to find a hotel near the main plaza.
Getting From Bolivia to Brazil By Land
It’s not usually very complicated to travel between countries in South America by land. Getting through the border between San Matias, Bolivia and Cáceres, Brazil is a little more difficult. If you don’t have a car you will have to take a bus from Santa Cruz to San Matias. If you’re already in San Ignacio, only one bus company stops in San Ignacio on the way to San Matias. You can get the current timetable from the San Ignacio bus station. When we were there it was scheduled to arrive in San Ignacio at 2 am. Once you get to San Matias take a taxi to the Bolivian immigration office at the border where you need to get your exit stamp. From there you can walk to the Brazilian side where supposedly buses can take you so Cáceres in Brazil. Our taxi offered to drive us all the way to Cáceres for 300 Bolivianos. At first it seemed a bit pricey, but when we passed through the Brazil border, there were no buses and we’re not actually sure how frequent they are. In Cáceres you need to visit the Federal Police Station to get your visa. Our taxi drove us to the station. In the end we found it worth it to take the taxi.
Coming Next – Top Places To Visit in Bolivia
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