To be honest, when it was suggested to me that I embark upon the Jesuit Mission Circuit in eastern Bolivia
I was initially lukewarm about the prospect. Visiting churches has never been one of my greatest enthusiasms, in spite of the glorious baroque architecture of the religious buildings peppering Latin America. I thought it might be going to be – well, a bit boring.
How wrong I was. In over 28 years of travel on the continent, this was one of the most intriguing, touching, and downright amazing trips I have made.
There is so much of Bolivia which is scarcely touched by tourism. There are so many remarkable places that the eager visitor just passes by, or which just slip under the radar. A poor country, Bolivia does not have the resources to launch sophisticated marketing campaigns to shine the spotlight on this fascinating country. It is left to experienced operators such as ourselves to put that right.
The story of the Jesuit missions in Bolivia, Paraguay and Argentina is an extraordinary one. It could be a film script – as indeed it was, reconstructed in the movie the Mission, with Robert de Niro, in 1986. As dramatic and explicit as the film was, it couldn’t really capture the enormity of the events which took place in the plains of scrubby dry and tropical forest east of the present-day Santa Cruz.
The Spanish conquistadores wanted to occupy this strategically important region but were frustrated by the ferocity of the indigenous tribes (known to the Spanish as Chiquitanos) which populated it. Finally they invited the Jesuit missionaries in to do their bit to subdue the indians. The missionaries, experienced in such endeavours, used the carrot rather than the stick, and beguiled thousands of tribal members to convert to Catholicism and, more importantly, establish settled communities. It wasn’t just the promise of a sandwich that persuaded them; they were captivated by the tenets of the Christian religion and adopted enthusiastically the performance of sacred music, as shown so evocatively in the aforementioned film.
The Jesuits trained the indians in construction, and as a result ten glorious, ornate wooden churches, sparkling with gold leaf, were built in the small communities of adobe huts where the newly settled populations lived. The Chiquitanos also crafted the musical instruments they used to perform the baroque pieces, many of which were composed in situ.
The communities adopted European agricultural practices and were given a certain level of autonomy. This was not a socialist utopia, but it wasn’t a bad life. It all came to an end when for political reasons the Spanish empire withdrew its support for the Jesuit missions and the system collapsed, many indians being taken into slavery and the churches falling into disrepair.
Then, in the 20th century, a campaign to restore the churches was launched by Swiss architect Hans Roth, and once again it was the local indigenous communities who were trained to do the work, and once again to craft the musical instruments and perform the baroque music composed centuries before. Nowadays, six of the churches have regained their former glory and are designated UNESCO World Heritage Sites. The interior artwork not only tells the story of Christ but interweaves it with scenes from the daily lives of the local indians, creating some dazzling, truly original works of art. Incongruous, yes; they sit in small isolated rural villages where the population lives in thatched adobe houses surviving on a subsistence economy where money scarcely shows its face.
Visitors now have the opportunity to visit these remarkable churches. Upon entering a mission church your breath will literally be taken away, as mine was. At Santa Ana, where the church is the only one with an organ, I listened to the local Chiquitano organist playing Bach. Magical. You also have the privilege of interacting with the shy but welcoming people still living their unchanging lives, visiting their craft workshops and simple weaving projects, eating their nutritious cuisine in a series of delightful (and very comfortable) traditional-style hotels. Every two years (the next in 2016) there is a Festival of Baroque Music, performed by the local people, attracting visitors from all over the world to this otherwise little-visited region.
This is a story way out of the ordinary even for Latin America. These are places that really have to be seen, to be believed. It’s not so easy to get there: you have hours of travel on unmade roads, but that all adds to the fulfilling sense of satisfaction when you arrive. It’s now one of my top five experiences on the continent – no mean achievement…