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Misiones Jesuitas

Set to take the world by storm: The cultural heritage of the Bolivian orient


In the jungle something was stirring. As we emerged from the undergrowth, the bus trundling to a stop along a rough, dirt track, a strange noise greeted our arrival. Night was tumbling around my ears like a badly constructed bamboo scaffold and the air was heavy with the ominous threat of a good dousing. I cocked my ears and followed the sound on the breeze...it wasn’t the preening of a jungle beast or the call of a rare species, but something far more unexpected: the gentle strains of weeping strings. Dusk in the jungle pueblo of Concepción and I’d just stumbled across my first hint of the jungle Baroque.

Concepción, the travel hub of Bolivia’s Jesuit Missions Circuit, is a dusty, one-strip pueblo with a frontier feel and a ragbag of roadside stalls selling everything from char-grilled meat to chicha, the local, industrial-strength moonshine. At dusk the locals emerge from their languid afternoon siestas to stroll, chat and suck on cold beers in the main square, from where the elaborate facade of the mission church looms large against the sunset.


Following in the Jesuit footsteps

Inside, Father Reynaldo Brumberger is preparing for the nightly mass. A German-Franciscan native of Munich, he came to the Bolivian jungle 25 years ago, following in a long tradition of Jesuit missionaries spreading the word of God across the heathen, teaming pampas of Latin America. He has never left.

“The church has always been at the heart of community life in the Missions,” he says, putting on his robes. “But since 1975, when a restoration programme was initiated to revive the spirit of the mission, I’ve really seen the congregation grow,” he adds. “My flock are proud to be part of their church’s place in history.”


Bolivia’s Jesuit Missions had been all but forgotten outside the jungle pueblos of the country’s Oriente. Indeed, with just 400,000 international tourist arrivals per year to Bolivia, the seven mission settlements, strung-out across Bolivia’s eastern lowlands towards the Brazilian border in the region known as Chiquitania, were traditionally even overlooked by the gringo backpacker trail.


A change for the better

But all that is about to change. The Bolivian Vice Ministry of Tourism is staging a major international launch event on March 24, 2006, to bring Bolivia's mission churches to the world's attention. The International Renaissance and American Baroque Music Festival, featuring concerts along the Missions Circuit by a host of international musicians, will follow soon after in late April to promote the cultural heritage of the Missions.

These activities aim to restore confidence in Bolivia’s fledgling tourism industry after the country was hit by massive social unrest and transport strikes in 2005. Only a handful of tour operators so far offer excursions to the Missions, but local tourism officials hope to show that, while Paraguay’s Jesuit missions have long since fallen into disrepair, their Bolivian counterparts remain vibrant cultural centres in authentic colonial surroundings.

The word is they could prove to be one of the hottest new cultural tourist attractions in the Americas.


The history of the missions

The Jesuit missionaries first came to Bolivia in the late 17th Century.  They not only brought Catholicism, but also converted the indigenous Indian population to European tastes in art, wood-craving, pottery and the composition of Baroque and chamber music. As the Bolivian Missions flourished, the elaborate churches founded by the Jesuits went on to become important centres of cultural learning, while the local population evolved into expert musicians as each church founded its own Baroque orchestra to accompany mass. At the time of the Jesuits' expulsion by the Spanish Crown in 1767, there were about 37,000 people living throughout the settlements.

By the time Bolivia declared its independence in 1825, the Missions had already fallen into severe disrepair and were only saved by the Swiss architect, Hans Roth, who worked tirelessly for 27 years to restore the mission churches to their erstwhile colonial splendour until his death in 1999. UNESCO inscribed six of the seven churches that now form the Missions Trail as World Heritage sites in 1990 and today, it seems, their moment in the spotlight has finally come.


The lure of the churches

“These temples are beginning to play a role as magnets for tourists from the world over. They house rare musical instruments, musical scores, and priceless works of art. They also train the next generation of local artists and artisans, who remain faithful to the music and carvings their ancestors produced centuries ago,” dedicated to the culture of the Missions.

Most of all, though, following the five-day Missions Circuit, overnighting at the larger pueblos, Concepción and San Ignacio, is about more than just visiting the churches. The real attraction is taking a journey back through time to the era of the Jesuits with scenes straight out of the 1986 film The Mission, staring Robert De Niro.


Santa Cruz to Concepción

My own journey started from Santa Cruz de la Sierra, the economic powerhouse city of southern Bolivia. The traditional image of Bolivia is one of the high-altitude Altiplano: think men in ponchos, llamas grazing on scrubland and thin, oxygen-starved mountain air. But filtering through sprawling suburbs of Santa Cruz in a ramshackle bus provides a whole new perspective on the poorest country in South America.

Indeed the 300km stretch from Santa Cruz to Concepción cuts a swathe through the cattle-rearing farmland of Bolivia’s Oriente. Dust billows through the open windows, children hawk homemade lemonade from plastic cups as we stop at a toll road checkpoint and, in the absence of a decent suspension system, my backside takes a damn good bashing with every pothole along the way. Nevertheless, the scenery is spectacular with lush, tropical foliage, exotic-coloured birds and the tropical torpor of remote pueblos providing an almost cinematic backdrop to the journey.


Better still, the frontier feel of the whole area means that, as you emerge hot and thirsty from a long stretch and stop for a hit of fresh juice at a roadside watermelon or orange vendor, the sense of breaking new ground is quite tangible. The locals, mainly of Guarayo, Paiconeca and Chiquitano stock, an indigenous group representing about 80 per cent of the population in the Oriente, while not shocked by the sight of a foreigner in their midst, certainly seem far less cynical about tourism compared to the gringo Disneyland of certain other, high-profile Latin American destinations.


On the mission trail

Over the next few days I followed the circuit trail, skipping from one Mission settlement to the next, stopping to eat a simple but satisfying set lunch at a restaurant on the main square, or taking a late afternoon stroll around the church, and perhaps stopping to chat with local craftsmen working to produce their traditional artisan goods. It was not a journey for those leaving a sense of adventure behind at Heathrow, however, the infrastructure deteriorating markedly after leaving Concepción. Pushing deeper inland towards the Pantanal region and, ultimately, the Brazilian border, rough-hewn dirt tracks replace the distant memory of tarmac roads and the heat level edges up a notch from stifling to somewhere just shy of unbearable.


The welcome, however, remains one of friendly curiosity and a slew of unexpected discoveries keep the journey feeling fresh. In particular the animal-shaped phone boxes, apparently imported from Brazil, bring an exotic splash of colour to the dust and heat haze. From toucans to tigers this telephonic menagerie finds a home throughout the whole of Bolivia’s tropical southeast, but my favourite remains a giant parrot phone, radiating red like a Missions sunset, on a side street tucked behind the church in Concepción.


Mission music

Most of all, however, I was struck by the way my journey was underscored throughout by a soundtrack of Baroque and chamber music. Arriving late afternoon in the main square of a new Mission settlement, the staccato tuning of violins accompanied me on my first lap of the main square and the rapid bowing of cellos sent me on my way to the hotel check in.

In San Ignacio, a bumpy 171km ride east from Concepción, I sneaked through an open door to an outbuilding of the church one evening to find the local youth orchestra rehearsing for a forthcoming recital. A group of mere teenagers in shabby T-shirts and shorts, they were wringing sweetly elegiac music from their instruments. Finally I was face to face with the other-worldly strains of the jungle Baroque I’d heard on my first night in the Missions.

 “I like Latin American rock acts like Molotov and Octavia, but I love chamber music more,” says Alejandro Martinez, the orchestra’s 17-year-old leader, taking a break from tuning up. “I like the fact the music we play now has been played in this building for centuries.”


Back in Concepción, old, grumpy-looking men were sipping ice-cold Paceña beers on a shady cafe-terrace, and children were playing in puddles formed by a sudden, tropical storm. From a local karaoke joint, little more than a makeshift shack with an iron roof, the music of top Bolivian hip hop act, Azul Azul, blasted Latino rap rhythms into the night.


Music in the air

Meanwhile at Concepción Mission church, founded in 1708 and fronted by an elaborate clock cum bell tower, a more sedate call to prayer was under way. A virtuoso performance of a traditional score by local violin-toting teenagers filled the night air with music. Father  Brumberger finished the mass that night by calling for a prayer for the musicians who today fill the church with the very music that Jesuit missionaries first brought to Bolivia some 300 years ago.

The Jesuit missionaries brought culture, faith and hope to the jungles of Bolivia, but can their legacy now bring tourism to one of the least known and poorest rural areas of Bolivia? Maybe. “They say that music was the single most important factor in the successful conversion of the Bolivian Indians,” Father Brumberger tells me, relaxing after mass in the cool night air of the church garden. “The Lord may move in mysterious ways,” he smiles, “but only music can actually change the faith of a whole nation.”


David Atkinson is the author of Bolivia: The Bradt Travel Guide

 ...to visit Misiones
1) Intricate carvings depicting local plants and animals 
2) Catch the strains of music written over 300 years ago and brought over to "civilise" the indigenous populations 
3) UNESCO site since 1990 
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Misiones, Bolivia

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 Last update November 2020 21997 views since January 2020  
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