Jesuit missions of eastern Bolivia

South America continues:

From Samaipata we returned to Santa Cruz for another night and the following day caught a bus heading east to San Jose de Chiquitos. It is a hot, dusty little town and one of the most accessible on the historic Jesuit Missions circuit of Bolivia. In the mid-1700’s, Jesuit missionaries established a handful of missions in these inhospitable parts and the recently restored churches are the main (or perhaps only) reason anyone visits the area. After an eye-rolling 4 hour ride on a bus that had water bottles holding open the door in lieu of air con and gag-inducing stenches coming from the on-board bathroom, we finally arrived. 40C and Sasha don’t get along. I was happy to finally drop the humidity but the truth is we spent most of the time hiding in the coolness of our room. Night didn’t cool things much but brought out a ton of flying beetles which covered the walls and bathrooms outside.

The streets are dusty, the traffic is…. well, lets just say tumbleweeds could consider it as a retirement destination. But the few people about were nice. It is cattle ranching country where it isn’t just wilderness. I liked it though. The plaza was quiet but pleasant enough and the stone facade of the mission is pretty. We went inside to find ourselves in a courtyard. On one side was the church which we were able to see. Most of the structure is wooden, the pillars, roof, pulpit and carved crucifixions. Another side is a museum of sorts, maybe. There were signs for a ticket office and a route to follow around the mission and despite it being an “open” hour it was closed and nobody looked inclined to change that. I guess that’s what happens when you are the only tourists in town. We’ve been seeing a lot of closed and unstaffed offices lately.

San Jose de Chiquitos
Lunch in the market
The San Jose Jesuit Mission

The following day we caught a morning trufi to San Rafael, another mission town 3 hours away on a bumpy dirt road. There were turn offs to the occasional farm or settlement but for the most part it was that same empty landscape, this time complete with the occasional Mennonite horse and buggy. The weather had started to cool and the forecast was for rain so we kept our eyes pointed skyward, willing the growing clouds to delay their deluge. (Our bags were busy getting dusty on the van roof and dust is way better than mud.) We almost made it but hit a quick rain storm and our bags now look like those of seasoned travelers 😉

Loading up the trufi in San Jose

Cowboys at work

We had just enough time for lunch in the dinky station before catching another trufi to San Ignacio. I was worried about the rain on my bag. I should’ve been worried about my bag in general. It turns out the second driver threw everyone’s bags on the roof and took off without tying anything down. We made it only a few km before people in the back were yelling about lost luggage. My bag had bounced of the roof and into the bush on the side of the road. Fortunately it wasn’t seriously injured but I lost its rain cover somewhere in the process.
San Ignacio was just under 2 hours away via a quick stop in San Miguel. San Miguel had a nice looking church right on the main plaza which we saw in passing. It has a more typical style of architecture for the missions in the area, completely different from the one in San Jose and more like what we were to see in San Ignacio.
San Ignacio is the hub town of the region. It is bigger than San Jose and by bigger I just mean more sprawled out so you actually need a mototaxi to get around.  Fortunately they seem to be ubiquitous in Bolivia, or at least in the Santa Cruz region. It has a nice mission church on the corner of a very large plaza where we relaxed and had our dinner, watching the mototaxis cruising around for business and the local teens wandering around. Everyone smiled and greeted us as they passed our outside table. It was quite relaxing and nice. Again, I like Bolivia a lot so far and it is a shame we had to keep moving forward so quickly.

The more representative style of the Jesuit missions, San Ignacio

Nice Plaza

The reason we came to San Ignacio (aside from the church) was to make the crossing to Brazil via a remote and little used border post at San Matias. We knew there were buses making the very long journey from Santa Cruz and that they would pass San Ignacio before continuing further so the plan was to jump on one of them and save ourselves a very long bus ride on bad roads by breaking it into parts. Turns out we were able to catch a bus as there were two a day, both passing through at 3 am! Ugh.  We learned that on arrival in San Ignacio so opted to rent a cheap room for 12 hours, visit the church, have dinner, take a nap and catch the bus. They weren’t lying when the said the road is long and unpaved, but it really wasn’t that bad. The bus made decent time and the seats went way back so you actually had a good position to sleep and the recent rains minimized the dust without making it so muddy it was a problem.  There are only a few very small villages between San Ignacio and San Matias so the landscape was mostly wild and surprisingly green. I managed to see a lot of different birds and even some wild pig and capybara out the window as we drove along. In only 6 hours we arrived in San Matias, earlier than I expected and we were lucky enough to be asked by a nice Bolivian lady if we wanted to share a taxi to the border (this is the way of getting across the no-man’s land and we needed someone to adopt us anyway). With quick stops in town to get money changed and stamped out of Bolivia first, we drove quite a way before we got to the actual border and customs guards. Customs pretended to search our bags with a cursory glance and then we were free to go. And go we could, because there was suddenly a beautiful paved road, perfect right up to the line. After 500km of dirt, it was glorious. Only, there was nothing on the other side. No town, no bus stop, just a road and a much more agricultured (just let me make my own new words) landscape.
So our taxi kept driving. And driving. And we turned to the lady beside us and finally asked “where are you taking us?” Turns out the closest town is Caceres, nearly 100km away. At least someone knew what was going on and they drove us first to the Federal Police station where we had to get our entry stamp. Why they don’t do it at the border I don’t know. They didn’t check our yellow fever vaccination either which I thought all the crossings into Brazil did. And then finally we were dropped off at the bus station in Caceres. The taxi was about $20 each. Beats walking… Had a quick lunch and jumped on a nice bus to Cuiaba, another 4hrs down the road, happy to have successfully crossed on a route that was very hard to get any recent info on.


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