“El camino es muy feo.” Those words became the litany of our driver Rafael. My wife Peta and I had hired Rafael and his battered Toyota station wagon—not the four-wheel drive recommended by guidebooks—to take us from Santa Cruz to the historic Chiquitos reductions, missions founded by the Jesuits between 1691 and 1767 in the vast plains of lowland Bolivia. Few Jesuit missions in the world are as remote and difficult to reach. A visit to the circuit of the seven principal surviving missions is an undertaking of several days, almost all of it over unpaved, rocky roads. The few airports have erratic schedules and runways overgrown with grass, the only train service is to the far San José mission, and the buses that travel between the rest of the towns drive at night at terrifying speeds, without headlights, sharing the road with Brazilian truck drivers and wayward Zebu cows.
Things weren’t much different in 1691. That year the Jesuit superior of the Tarija College, José Francisco de Arce, led an expedition to a Chiquitos settlement a few days’ ride north of the boomtown of Santa Cruz to found the reduction of San Javier (figure 3) on December 31. He went when he heard that a smallpox epidemic had struck the peaceful indigenous peoples who occupied the vast region east of Santa Cruz between the Paraguay and Guapay rivers, sandwiched between the Gran Chaco and Brazil. The name Chiquitos (little ones) had been given to the 31 tribes in this area by the sixteenth-century explorer Ñuflo de Chávez as a reference to the narrow doors of their homes. Although the Jesuits had tried to missionize the Chiquitos as early as 1587, when Frs. Martínez and Samaniego worked with them out of Santa Cruz, they had little sustained contact with the tribes until Arce’s expedition at the end of the next century.
Arce and his companions, Fr. Diego Centeno and Br. Antonio Ribas, also had an ulterior motive. They came with orders to find a direct route between Santa Cruz and Asunción, the distant episcopal capital of Paraguay, that would link up the lands of the Chiquitos with those of the Chiriguayos and Guaraní. The Jesuit provincial of Paraguay had hoped to improve upon the usual route between the colonial cities which went far out of the way, via Tucuman (in modern-day Argentina) and Tarija (in Bolivia). Nevertheless, this new colonial road was not to be. All of the Jesuits who attempted exploratory expeditions were slaughtered by the hostile Payaguá Indians who lived between Asunción and the Chiquitos territory, including Arce himself in 1715. Throughout colonial history, the Chiquitos missions would remain hemmed in by hostile tribes and the swamps of the Pantanal, inaccessible on all sides except for the lifeline to Santa Cruz. This isolation continues to this day. The towns of Chiquitanía are still adrift in the breathtaking but challenging landscape immortalized by the explorer Julian Duguid in his 1931 travelogue Green Hell.
Despite this inauspicious start, the Chiquitos reductions flourished beyond anyone’s expectations. Before their expulsion in 1767, the Jesuits founded eleven mission towns, of which ten survive today, moving from west to east toward the Paraguay River. At the end, the Chiquitos region boasted 7 Jesuit houses and 29 reductions, manned by 152 Jesuits. The Jesuits’ commercial network with the Quechua and Aymara peoples of the Bolivian highlands was so strong that they had a surplus of funds to spend on oversized churches (figure 1) and mission buildings in Chiquitanía. The seven towns that have restored missions are San Javier, Concepción, San Ignacio, San Miguel, Santa Ana, San Rafael, and San José. The distance was too great for us to visit the last one, which can be reached most conveniently on its own by train—giving us another excuse to return to Bolivia.
Except for San José, which is built of stone, all of these missions were constructed entirely of adobe and wood by indigenous artisans and decorated with richly carved retablos, statues, confessionals, and other furnishings made with local hardwood called Ajunau. As in Paraguay, the indigenous carpenters and sculptors showed a natural skill with wood and extraordinary ability to adopt European styles. Several of these structures survived the expulsion of the Jesuits, the collapse of the Spanish Empire, and wars with Brazil and Paraguay. Enough were left for the Swiss Jesuit Felix Plattner and the Swiss architect Hans Roth to restore them to their original appearance beginning in the 1970s, a process that continues today at San José. The entire mission circuit was declared a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1990.
Many of these churches were the brainchild of a much earlier Swiss visionary, Fr. Martin Schmid (1694–1774). Born in Zug, Schmid reached South America in 1729, leaving behind him an accomplished career as a musician. Beginning in 1730 and continuing into the late 1750s, the indomitable Schmid worked at the Chiquitos reductions of San Javier, San Rafael, and Concepción, and possibly also San Ignacio and San Miguel. He founded choirs, manufactured musical instruments from harps to flutes, wrote and copied masses, operas, and motets, and even helped build the churches and carved some of their statues and retablos.
Five thousand musical scores, many of them in the Chiquitos language, have been discovered in the Chiquitos towns, and scholars such as T. Frank Kennedy, SJ, of Boston College have brought them to life again in performances and recordings. Original instruments and sculptures by Schmid and his indigenous apprentices also survive in small museums in the towns, most notably at Concepción, which also houses the music archive.
The churches look like no other Jesuit missions in the world. Low, wide, barn-like structures with distinctive eaves, they were built by armies of indigenous carpenters numbering in the hundreds. A brilliant mathematician, Schmid related the proportions of their construction to musical harmonies so that each mission church was built in a series of different musical “keys,” allowing the architecture to resonate metaphorically with the musical life of the missions. Nearby bell towers—tall, wooden structures open on all sides and topped with a simple tile roof as at Santa Ana (figure 6)—provided literal sound. Today children play in the rafters of these towers as if they were backyard jungle gyms.
All the churches have three aisles, in homage to the basilicas of the early Church, and their adobe façades are painted in earth tones with a plethora of Baroque scrolls, shells, and balustrades. The roofs are supported by massive wooden columns, carved from single trees, often with the twisted fluting of Bernini’s baldacchino at St. Peter’s in Rome. Especially characteristic are the rose windows above the main doorway, ovals surrounded by petal-like forms (figure 4).
The best-preserved façade is at Santa Ana (figure 2), a simple stucco front with short twisted columns, resembling candlesticks, which end before they reach the roof level. The churches are especially impressive on the inside, not only because of their sheer size (especially at San Ignacio and Concepción, now a cathedral), but also because of the richness of their carved and gilt wooden retablos, pulpits, and confessionals, some of them decorated with glittering pieces of mica as they were in colonial times.
Especially fine are the monumental pulpits in brightly painted wood, supported by sirens and seeming to sprout from a wreath of luxurious tropical leaves. The pulpit at San Miguel (figure 10), painted a vibrant red with gold details, combines this jungle vegetation with classical elements such as cornices, pilasters, and moldings. Until modern times the churches had no pews; old photos record Indians kneeling in rows on the tile floor.
The retablos still contain many of the original sculptures, mostly of the Crucifixion and the Madonna but also many different saints, all carved in wood and painted. The style is unique to the region, very different from that of the Paraguay reductions or of highland Bolivia, and there is a striking immediacy about their facial expressions and poses.
The Crucifixion from San Miguel (figure 7) is one of the most dramatic. The artist communicates Christ’s pain through the jagged profiles of his limbs, angular body, strained muscles, and the harsh diagonal lines of his ribcage. This sober Christ is carried outside on processions, such as the blessing of food and animals on Easter Sunday. The original paint on Christ’s wounds survives on a Crucifixion at San Rafael (figure 8), while the great Crucifixion at San Ignacio (figure 9) is surrounded by trophy-like groupings of the instruments of the Passion.
Each mission also had a figure of Christ as a young boy (back cover) in benediction on the high altar, such as the wooden statue now in the Concepción museum. Villagers would carry these youthful Christs through the streets on Palm Sunday, and they may have shared a tradition with the Guaraní reductions in which the youthful Christ was appointed “mayor” of the town. The church sacristies and aisles also house much humbler statues with a charm of their own, including a delightfully lifelike donkey on wheels at Santa Ana (figure 13) that is led around with a statue of Christ on his back during Holy Week each year.
Much of the sculpture, carpentry, and painted decoration was carried out as part of the restoration work of the last 25 years, and the work attests to the enduring skill of Chiquitos artists and artisans today. The exquisite tabernacle of the high altar at Santa Ana (figure 11) demonstrates the originality of these artisans, with its floral and angel motifs inspired by the colonial era, all carved on wood cabinetry and brightly painted and gilt. These carvers still operate workshops, making columns, finials, and windows for restored or new churches and chapels and decorative angels and other figures for the tourist market. Those with the stamina to make the trip deserve to stay at the La Misión hotel, a welcoming oasis in San Ignacio de Velasco, where guests can buy the sculptures decorating the walls of their room.
One of our most moving memories is attending evening mass at San Ignacio, where we learned that the churches are not only lovingly restored but also lovingly used. The overflowing congregation included a dog that slept in the nave in front of the high altar while worshippers stepped around it to take Communion.
I have visited far-flung Jesuit foundations around the world, from Macao to Chile, yet few have made such a lasting impression as these quiet but astonishing villages. With their unpaved streets and low adobe architecture, the Chiquitos circuit gives the 21st-century traveler an incomparable sense of what life must have been like in this vast but empty land more than two hundred years ago.