Exploration of the Amazonian region of Bolivia was our next major event following our visit to La Paz and the northwestern region of the country. Specifically, we planned to drive near Santa Cruz on the foothills of the Bolivian Andes and explore the Jesuit Mission Loop. Before we dive into our experience along the route, I’ll explain a little about the Jesuits and the missions in Bolivia.
First, who are Jesuits? The Jesuits are members of the Society of Jesus which is a religious organization that stemmed from the Catholic Church in the sixteenth century. Vows of poverty, chastity and obedience are taken to become members. Christian evangelism is a major focus of the organization and, in addition to the religious focus, equal importance is placed on education, research, healthcare and cultural preservation. Christianity spread through Latin Americas quickly and the later pursuits of the Jesuits is a major reason for this. When the Jesuits arrived in the region now known as Bolivia, they educated and cared for the indigenous and, in turn, acceptance of Christianity quickly followed.
In the late 1600’s, the Spanish government ordered the Jesuits to be sent to South America and explore the region now known as Chiquitania. This region was almost entirely undiscovered by Europeans at this time and the Jesuits settled here to begin their work of educating, providing health care and converting the people living here to Christianity. In total, eleven missions were established over 76 years. In 1767, the Jesuits were removed from the region for various reasons and the missions were left behind. Over the course of nearly 200 years, the missions gradually decayed due to neglected maintenance but were given new life when Swiss Jesuit, Hans Roth, took special interest in restoring these missions to their former glory. Over the course of two decades, the missions were restored and six received UNESCO World Heritage Site designations.
All of the missions were constructed using European techniques but the architecture blended European and local styles. Large columns were locally sourced and carved to provide the main supporting structure for the roof. Wood joinery techniques were used to provide the remaining support between the columns. Each mission has a recognizable appearance with the roof sloping to either side from the highest point in the center of the building. Although each building is impressive, the architecture is incredibly welcoming and non-intimidating.
Our location in Santa Cruz put us about four hours south east of the unofficial “beginning” of the route. From San Julian, we made our way north to San Javier which was the first of the eleven missions built. After San Javier, the road took us through Concepcion, San Ignacio and San Rafael. Finally, from San Rafael, we drove due south to San Jose, marking the last mission we would visit and reconnecting to the main highway.
This is the landscape of the region:
Naturally, visiting the San Javier mission first was fitting as it was the first mission built. Part of the mission building hosts a small museum explaining the history of the Jesuit pursuits in Chiquitania. Various artifacts ranging from wood carved figures of angels and Jesus to instruments used to teach music to indigenous people are displayed in the museum. In the central courtyard, a Franciscan priest found us and gave us explanation of the sundial in the center. We climbed the bell tower for a great perspective on the mission and surrounding area. Unique to the San Javier mission is that every wall, column and the entire ceiling is painted. The designs filling the sanctuary were similar to those we would see in all of the other churches.
Only an hour from San Javier, we arrived in Concepcion for the second mission. We arrived at lunch time and the mission was locked up, but we wandered around the exterior of the building and began to see the trending architecture. The same basic lines completed the sanctuary of the church. A bell tower with a spiral staircase leading to the top was found near the sanctuary. A central courtyard separated the sanctuary from other buildings on the campus. In the center of the courtyard another sundial marked the time. The colors used to paint the walls in this church were different from those of San Javier, but the basic designs and styles were similar.
On our second day of the Jesuit Mission Loop, we arrived in San Ignacio at lunch time. Luckily, the gate was open and we wandered into the courtyard and eventually the sanctuary for a visit. Similar to the Concepcion mission, the columns and ceiling were not painted and the beautifully carved and polished wood made for an impressive supporting structure. Unique to this sanctuary is that sugar cane was used to fill the space between the wood supports on the ceiling. We wandered through the town of San Ignacio, which quickly became one of our favorite towns on the loop.
As soon as we left San Ignacio towards San Miguel, we realized the brand new paved road ended and we would not see pavement again for 125 miles at the end of the loop in San Jose. At 15mph, it took us over an hour to arrive in San Miguel, which we finally did late in the afternoon. Our luck on sneaking into the church for a quick visit ran out and we were only able to see the exterior. This mission was clearly off the beaten path as there were no paved roads in the entire town. Unlike San Javier, Concepcion and San Ignacio, the central park here had only begun being turned into a landscaping masterpiece with a long ways to go. Nonetheless, we loved the familiar architecture.
We arrived in San Rafael late in the day after nearly 50 miles of slow going, washboard gravel roads. The side door to the sanctuary was open and we poked in for a quick visit. The familiar wood columns stood tall throughout the church. Unique wood carvings ordained the walls including wood carved stations of the cross. In this church, the floor was a beautiful, rustic, clay brick unlike any of the other missions. The altar at the front of the church is only six inches higher than the main floor adding another element to the welcoming architecture. The following morning, we joined the local congregation for Sunday mass. I must confess that after a half hour of being lost in Spanish, I found myself daydreaming about the construction and joinery of the building. From San Rafael, we braced ourselves for the 75 miles of gravel road ahead of us and final leg of the Jesuit Mission Loop.
At 15mph, the 75 miles of gravel separating San Rafael from San Jose would take us five hours to complete. Two small stretches allowed us to drive at 45mph, but the remaineder of the time we drove at about 15mph. When we finally reached the paved roads of San Jose, we were relieved. We found the main central park and the final mission could be found along one end. The San Jose mission has a facade that creates a different exterior appearance compared to the other missions. Inside the sanctuary, we recognized many of the same styles from the other missions. Here there is a museum that can be visited, but we were tired from the long driving day and opted to make it to our hotel early instead.
The Jesuit Mission Loop was something we had been looking forward to for quite some time. The history, architecture, region and everything in between was everything we thought it would be. Although the missions of San Javier and San Jose are frequented by tourists, the missions in between provided us with the authentic experience we were looking for. We highly recommend this loop for anyone visiting Bolivia, but visiting San Javier or San Jose would give a good taste if limited on time.
Road quality was a big concern for us as we heard the road was pretty bad and five days of rain before we arrived made us nervous. The road is completely paved from Santa Cruz to San Ignacio. Between San Ignacio and San Jose, gravel roads are the only way to get between the cities. It is pretty slow going but a good podcast or two will help pass the time.
Speaking of road quality, we were forced to drive extra slow as we blew an airbag before leaving the pavement. The weight of the camper maxed out our suspension and caused our truck frame to slap the axle every now and then. Even though we were faced with this problem, I doubt we would have driven must faster anyhow.
With our suspension problems, we opted to skip visiting the final two UNESCO missions of Santa Ana and San Juan. Visiting Santa Ana would have forced us to double back and we opted to save ourselves the agony of 30 more miles of gravel. As for San Juan, this mission is out in the boonies and probably would have taken an extra day to visit. Even before we discovered our suspension problems, we did not plan on visiting this mission.
All in all, the mission loop took us three days. We wouldn’t recommend trying less than two days, but it could potentially be done in one long, miserably grueling day. If you are a glutton for punishment, go for it!