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Well off the international tourist radar lies one of Bolivia’s best architectural gems: the heavenly Jesuit churches of Chiquitos. Steeped in history and immaculately preserved, these magnificent religious edifices portray a different side of Bolivia’s history which is seldom explored. Here’s everything you need to know before visiting the region.
Originating out of Spain in the 15th century, the Jesuits, A.K.A The Society of Jesus, are a fanatical scholarly section of the Catholic Church intent on evangelizing the world. Part of their early expansion included mass migration to South America in the 17th century in an attempt to convert the native inhabitants. Such efforts were quite successful, mainly because they sought to aid rather than enslave the indigenous, unlike the conquistadors. Eventually, however, the sect was banished from the continent by the Spanish king.
The Chiquitos circuit consists of seven separate missions, or towns, in the tropical lowlands of eastern Bolivia. Although the marvelous churches undoubtedly take center stage, each mission also retains other Jesuit buildings from the era. Expect to stumble across charming old-world plazas, town halls, and colonial residences throughout.
Much like other reductions in the region, the Jesuits founded the Chiquitos missions in the late 17th to mid 18th century. Therefore, many of the remaining structures are over 300 years old.
To visit all seven Chiquitos missions requires at least five days, a worthy expedition for travelers with a particular interest in Jesuit architecture and history. Most, however, constrain their journey to the highlights of San José de Chiquitos and Concépcion.
Unlike other Jesuits reductions throughout South America, the Chiquitos missions were not destroyed when the Spanish expelled the sect from South America in 1767. As a result, these astonishing churches remain the best-preserved examples of Jesuit architecture on the continent today.
A popular 1986 period drama entitled The Mission tells the story of a group of devout Jesuits and their struggles to protect their converts from slavery. Partly thanks to a strong leading performance by Robert de Niro, the blockbuster brought new interest to this largely forgotten region.
Prompted by increased interest as a result of the film, UNESCO declared several of the Chiquitos missions to be World Heritage Sites in 1990.
Some 25 years of painstaking restoration work has been carried out, restoring many of the Chiquitos churches to their former glory.
Most travelers get to the ruins from Santa Cruz, Bolivia’s biggest city and the capital of the Oriente. From there, several buses leave to San Javier, Concepción, and San Ignacio. Travel is typically done in a clockwise or anti-clockwise circuit, with daily buses running between each town. The circuit can easily be navigated with private transport while tour operators such as Nick’s Adventures are an excellent alternative as well.
Each mission has basic tourist infrastructure such as guesthouses and restaurants. The best quality lodgings can be found in Concepción and San Ignacio, although don’t expect to find anything luxurious.