Saved again by seven Jesuit gems
By David Atkinson
Published: April 22 2006 03:00 | Last updated: April 22 2006 03:00
It felt like stepping back in time. As dusk descended across a steamy jungle settlement, our jeep closed in on the main square, spewing a dust storm in its wake as it ploughed along the rough dirt track. Hot and tired after a 100km-odd drive through the cattle-rearing plains of Bolivia's tropical lowlands, we took in our first view of the pueblo of ConcepciÃ³n, its intricate faÃ§ade looming large against the sunset.
Latin America's Jesuit missions were the first industrial settlements in the new world and the church at ConcepciÃ³n, hub of the Missions Trail, is one of the finest examples of colonial architecture in the Americas. The seven Jesuit mission churches in Bolivia's tropical east, strung out towards the Brazilian border in the region known as Chiquitania, have been long overlooked by all but the most adventurous South American explorer. However, new tourism initiatives aim to change all that.
Tourism authorities staged an international launch last month to show the rich colonial heritage of Bolivia's *mission churches. The International Renaissance and American Baroque Music Festival follows with 10 days of concerts along the Missions Trail to celebrate the fusion of indigenous culture and the legacy of the Jesuits. Participating musicians come from Japan, Switzerland and Chile. Britain's chamber group, Florilegium, will also perform. The aim of these events is to restore confidence in Bolivia's fledgling tourism industry after blockades and riots in June 2005 brought chaos to travel itineraries.
"We began without a single instrument at our disposal and have grown from nothing to one of Bolivia's major cultural events," says the festival's Polish-born artistic director, Piotr Nawrot of AsociaciÃ³n Pro Arte y Cultura, a Santa Cruz-based cultural association dedicated to bringing back to life the music of the missions.
Jesuit missionaries first came to Bolivia in the late 17th century, bringing Catholicism and converting the indigenous Indian population to art, wood-carving and the composition of baroque and chamber music. As the autonomous, self-sufficient Bolivian missions flourished, the elaborate churches founded by the Jesuits went on to become important centres of cultural learning, while the local population became expert musicians as each church founded its own baroque orchestra to accompany the mass.
After the Spanish expelled the Jesuits in 1767, the missions fell into disrepair. As Geoff Groesbeck, who runs the website http://www.chiquitania.com, dedicated to the culture of the missions, explains, Bolivia's missions lay dormant for two centuries. "In 1957, a Jesuit missionary travelled to Chiquitania in an attempt to retrace the route of missionaries who preceded him centuries before. He was amazed at what he saw: seven massive templos seemingly frozen in time, but decaying by the minute."
The Swiss architect Hans Roth subsequently set off to the missions to restore the churches to their colonial splendour. He stayed for 27 years until his death in 1999. "Working with a few European colleagues but otherwise with entirely local talent, Roth almost singlehandedly saved these unique monuments from ruin. By the time he died, he had successfully or largely restored the churches and other colonial buildings of six missions," adds Groesbeck.
Unesco declared the seven churches - San Javier, ConcepciÃ³n, San Ignacio, San Rafael, San Miguel, Santa Ana and San JosÃ© de Chiquitos - world heritage sites in 1990. Today, while other mission settlements across Latin America have decayed beyond redemption, the Bolivian missions are restored colonial gems. They are poised to become some of the hottest cultural tourism attractions in the Americas.
There are two alternative circuits to follow the Missions Trail, both taking about five days with private transport. The classic route by 4x4 forms a loop from Santa Cruz, the economic powerhouse city of southern Bolivia, heading east via ConcepciÃ³n and doubling back from San Jose. A second route runs direct by train from Santa Cruz to San JosÃ© de Chiquitos and follows the trail in reverse, with public buses running back to Santa Cruz from San Javier. The area is best visited in late July or early August when many of the missions celebrate their patron saint festivals, although hotels along the trail do tend to increase rates sharply during this time.
In terms of infrastructure for tourism, ConcepciÃ³n is the natural hub of the trail with an excellent hotel, an internet cafÃ© and a small tourist information office located across from the church. On the main square, the Museo Misional recounts the history of the missions. It also houses an exhibition dedicated to the memory of Hans Roth and a working artisan studio.
That night, as we explored ConcepciÃ³n, essentially just a few blocks radiating out from the main square towards the dark fringes of the jungle, the locals emerged from their languid afternoon siestas to stroll, chat and sip cold beers. A ragtag of roadside stalls were selling everything from char-grilled meat to chicha, the local, industrial-strength moonshine, while a local karaoke joint, little more than a makeshift shack with an iron roof, blasted Latino rhythms into the night. With few tourists and a sultry, frontier-town ambiance, it felt just like stepping into a scene from the 1986 film, TheMission.
Jesuit missionaries brought prosperity to the missions late in the 17th century. As 21st-century travellers seek new and rewarding destinations off the mainstream tourist radar, could the missions prove to be Bolivia's saviour once again? Maybe.
"The Bolivian missions are unique in the Americas and a major cultural attraction with appeal for both people specifically interested in the music and for those just wanting to soak up the atmosphere of the Missions," says Ed Paine, chairman of the Latin America Travel Association. "If local tourism authorities really grab this opportunity to promote themselves," he adds, "the interest generated could help to put the missions, and Bolivia, back on the tourist map."
Well worth a visit if time permits