A series of striking Baroque missions, built by the Jesuits in the Chiquitos region of eastern Bolivia in the 1600s and 1700s, deliver distinct architecture and a unique slice of history to culture-conscious travelers. This journey through the Jesuit Missions Route in Bolivia takes you there.
Cultural Travel Through the Jesuit Missions Route in Bolivia
Between 1549 and 1767, Jesuit missionaries fanned out across parts of Latin America proselytizing their form of Christianity to anyone who would listen. In Bolivia, the Jesuits built 11 mission outposts in the Chiquitos region between 1696 and 1760. Each mission was anchored by a church and these settlements (aka reductions) eventually sprawled into small towns capable of housing, feeding, and educating members of the Indigenous populations whom the Jesuits were trying to convert.
The Jesuits were kicked out of Bolivia (and the rest of Latin America). At that time it’s estimated that the Jesuits had established 200 missions throughout the region. Most of the Latin American Jesuit churches and related structures were abandoned and left to slowly crumble.
In Bolivia, however, these buildings found a savior. In 1972, Swiss architect Hans Roth (who was also a Jesuit) began meticulously restoring and preserving the Jesuit churches and dozens of other related mission buildings in the Chiquitos area of the country. What started as a 6-month project ultimately spanned 30 years, ending with the architect’s death. Roth’s dedication is even more poignant when you know that the Jesuit missions were originally built by Swiss Jesuits.
These preserved Jesuit structures represent history, culture, and architecture not seen in other parts of Bolivia or in other parts of Latin America for that matter.
Today there are seven remaining Jesuit mission sites in Bolivia. In 1990, six of them (San Francisco Javier, Concepción, Santa Ana, San Miguel, San Rafael, and San José de Chiquitos) were jointly named a UNESCO World Heritage site. During a 4-day trip through the region, we visited six of the missions (all but the Santa Ana mission which was the last one that the Jesuits established) to see them for ourselves.
Jesuit Missions Route in Bolivia Day 1: From the Brazil border to San José de Chiquitos via the Chochis Sanctuary and Santiago de Chiquitos
After crossing the border from Brazil into Bolivia, we drove through miles and miles of uninhabited grassland on our way to the town of Santiago de Chiquitos which has a small church, a small plaza, and a surprising array of charming hotels. We also paid a visit to the town’s cultural center museum within the church complex (though we’re not sure it was worth the 20BS/US$3 ticket price).
Though it’s not part of Jesuit history in Bolivia, it’s worth planning a stop at the Santuario Chochis which is just outside the town of Chochis about 30 miles (48 km) beyond Santiago de Chiquitos toward San José de Chiquitos. This building was designed by Swiss architect Hans Roth (yep, the same guy who saved all these Jesuit churches) as a monument to those lost (and not lost) during a rainstorm in 1979 during which a train full of passengers managed to cross a bridge safely seconds before floodwaters wiped it out. The village of El Porton didn’t fare so well, suffering a catastrophic mudslide during the storm which killed 16 people–nearly the entire population of the place.
Sometimes called the Mariano de la Torre Sanctuary, the red sandstone structure, designed in the style of the Jesuit churches, was inaugurated in 1992 and features awesome wood carvings and melodramatic artwork in a serene mountain setting that is somber and hopeful at the same time (10BS/US$1.50 to park and enter).
From the sanctuary, we drove on a well-paved highway to the town of San José de Chiquitos. The town’s square was studded with trees including fascinating taborochi trees that have thorny bulbous trunks shaped like a pregnant woman’s belly, but it was the town’s Jesuit church that we’d come to admire.
The Jesuit church in San José de Chiquitos, finished at the end of the 1600s, is the only one in Bolivia that was built out of stone (20BS/US$3 to enter the church and its attached museum). When we were there it looked like it had just been freshly touched up in lovely shades of yellow which added to its charm. Photography note: the exterior of the Jesuit church in San José de Chiquitos is best photographed in the afternoon when the light strikes it just right.
In San José de Chiquitos we stayed at Hotel La Casona Chiquitana, a half block off the main square, where we got a private double room with a private bathroom, air conditioning, Wi-Fi, and breakfast for 250BS (about US$36). There are cheaper hotels on the square but when we were there they did not offer Wi-Fi or breakfast. If you feel like exploring more, the area around San Jose de Chiquitos has good hiking plus waterfalls and a few hot springs.
Jesuit Missions Route in Bolivia Day 2: From San José de Chiquitos to San Ignacio via San Rafael and San Miguel
The dirt road out of San José de Chiquitos heading north into the Chiquitana region toward San Rafael included some of the worst washboarding we’ve ever endured thanks to the red clay dirt which is easily formed into ridges when wet–then those ridges bake concrete-hard in the sun.
The rigid ripples in the road were unavoidable and the entire road was also punctuated by potholes, ditches, and entrenched rocks. There was so much shaking, bumping, and rattling as we navigated our way around and over the obstacles that the screws holding one of our spare tires in place jiggled loose, forcing an emergency re-tightening on the side of the road.
Rain showers turned the red clay into a slippery mess which meant we were in 4-wheel-drive quite a bit. If your rig is heavy (like ours is) and if you care about your vehicle (like we do) you’ll average about 18 mph (28 kmh) on this stretch of road. And that’s why it took us 5 hours to drive the 83 miles (134 km) between San José de Chiquitos to San Rafael.
On the bright side, this “road” goes through large tracts of jungle and we saw three toucans and one odd fox-like thing along the way.
We finally arrived in San Rafael around 2 pm to find the main entrance to the town’s Jesuit church, which was the heart of what became the largest Jesuit mission settlement in Bolivia, locked. Undeterred, we went through a small metal gate to the right of the front doors and we were able to enter the church through a side door.
Inside, we found the most traditional interior of all of the Jesuit churches punctuated with a glistening pulpit covered in mica. This is also the only Jesuit church in Bolivia with a ceiling lined with cane reeds, so don’t forget to look up.
At this point, it would have been logical to take a 30 miles (48 km) detour to visit the Jesuit church in the town of Santa Ana, which is part of the UNESCO World Heritage site grouping, before backtracking 30 miles (48 km) back to the highway and carrying on to San Miguel. However, we opted not to visit Santa Ana. After bouncing over bad roads for hours and hours we just couldn’t face another 60 miles (96 kms ) of the stuff get to Santa Ana and back.
Sadly, the road between San Rafael and San Miguel remained horrific but we finally arrived in San Miguel around 5 pm, in time to enter the town’s Jesuit church which was completed in the mid-1700s and restored by Roth in the early 1980s. When we were there, the church was filled with blaring music as people prepared for a children’s event.
If you’re lucky, you will also be greeted by a diminutive but enthusiastic man who will show you around the San Miguel mission church and helpfully point out what’s original (lots) and what’s not. Tip him if you can. After touring the church with our impromptu guide, we continued for another hour on the dreadful, no good, very bad road before finally reaching San Ignacio.
San Ignacio passes for a bustling metropolis in this region because there’s a gas station and an ATM here (but don’t count on it working or having any cash in it). The Jesuit church in San Ignacio was abandoned and eventually torn down and replaced with a modern one. Then that was torn down and a replica of the original church was built in 1992 (this lack of an original structure is why this Jesuit church is not part of the UNESCO World Heritage site grouping).
When we were there, workers were replacing the roof which was loud and messy and meant that parts of the interior of the church were covered in protective plastic as you can see in the photo above.
In San Ignacio, we stayed at the splurgy Hotel La Mision which is right on the square just steps from the church. This place is stylish and very Jesuit-inspired with carved wood columns surrounding a breezy interior courtyard. There’s also a refreshing pool and its 32 rooms have air-conditioning and Wi-Fi.
Travel tip: if we had this day to do over again we would have broken it up into two days by spending the night in San Rafael where there was a simple but good-looking hotel on the square. The next day, we would have continued to San Miguel then on to San Ignacio for the night.
Jesuit Missions Route in Bolivia Day 3: From San Ignacio to Concepción
Leaving San Ignacio we were delighted to see pavement. Okay, there were a few unpaved stretches as we traveled toward Concepción, but when we were there these unpaved sections had been graded in clear preparation for paving.
Our good luck continued once we reached Concepción. The mission church here (25BS/US$3.50 including entry to the church and its two museums) has one of the largest cathedrals of all of the Jesuit missions in Bolivia. It was finished in the mid-1700s and its reconstruction was completed in 1982.
Roth really outdid himself with the church in Concepción, including replacing all of the wood in the church and cloisters and recreating original paintings which could not be saved. To make sure he got it right, Roth also went to Switzerland to get the original plans for the church (remember: the Jesuit missions were originally built by Swiss architects).
The result, in our opinion, is the most beautiful Jesuit mission church in the most beautiful setting of the entire Jesuit Missions Route. Your entry fee also gets you into the house where former Bolivian President Hugo Suárez was born. It’s now an atmospheric space that’s full of artifacts from the missions.
In Concepción we stayed at the Gran Hotel Concepcion which opened in 1994 and was the only hotel in town for years (now there are nearly 20 hotels in Concepción of various descriptions). It’s on the main plaza opposite the church and offers simple but comfortable rooms around two interior gardens plus a pool and a perfectly peaceful environment. Bonus: the hotel manager, Bernardo, was a wealth of information and speaks perfect English (among many other languages).
At the Buen Gusto restaurant, also on the main plaza, we had our first sopa de mani (peanut soup), which is a beloved staple in Bolivia, accompanied by a wacky soundtrack of The Eagles, WHAM, and The Bangles.
Jesuit Missions Route in Bolivia Day 4: From Concepción to Santa Cruz via San Francisco Javier
The road out to Concepción toward Santa Cruz is all paved, but the paving had lots of potholes and many unmarked speed bumps, so there were plenty of obstacles to navigate.
We arrived in San Francisco Javier (sometimes spelled Xavier) just in time for a quick pass through the town’s Jesuit mission church before it closed at noon (20BS/US$3). Established in 1691, this was the first Jesuit mission church established in Bolivia. This settlement ultimately became known for having a music school and a musical instrument workshop.
After looking through the small museum attached to the church, we entered the church itself where we were struck by the rugged beauty of the brittle, bare, and extremely worn original carved wood pillars in the church and the interior courtyard. Don’t miss the painted ceiling.
By 4 pm we were in the big city of Santa Cruz which felt even bigger after our days along the Jesuit Missions Route.
Travel tips for the Missions Route
Be prepared to pay in cash. Credit cards were usually not accepted and ATMs were very scarce.
We found very few places to eat along this route, so bring snacks.
There are gas stations along this route. If you’re lucky, you may be able to talk an attendant into selling you gas at or near the much lower locals-only price, but be prepared to pay the higher state-mandated foreigner price for fuel.
These Jesuit mission churches are generally open between 9 am and noon and again between 2 pm and 6 pm. Hours on Sunday may be more limited, but the churches are open during mass and scheduled services. However, opening hours are fluid. So, if a church is closed when you arrive during what should be open hours, ask a local until you find someone who has the key to the church. And be aware that the main front door to the church may be closed and locked but a side door may be open.
Roads in this region can be bad. Very bad. So be prepared for slow speeds and long drive times even between destinations that seem close to one another. See just how bad parts of our drive were in the drive-lapse video from our Brinno dashcam, below.
For more background and history about the Jesuits in Latin America, watch (or re-watch) The Mission starring Robert De Niro and Jeremy Irons.
Here’s more about travel in Bolivia