Jesuit Missions of the Chiquitos
The Jesuit Missions of the Chiquitos are a UNESCO World Heritage Site in Bolivia's department of Santa Cruz.
The missions consist of six towns which were founded as reductions by Jesuits in the 17th and 18th century and survived as a living heritage:
- 1 San Javier
- 2 Concepción
- 3 Santa Ana de Velasco
- 4 San Miguel de Velasco
- 5 San Rafael de Velasco
- 6 San José de Chiquitos
There are some additional missions which are not under UNESCO protection:
Between San José de Chiquitos and Santiago de Chiquitos is the town of Chochís with its marvelous sanctuary and mysterious "devil's thumb".
The region is called Chiquitania. Besides the missions, it boasts pristine natural beauty.
For the best Chiquitania experience consider visiting not only churches, but the nature and communities as well. According to locals the best time to experience Chiquitania nature is December - then the vegetation is lush and green. For arguably the best church experience consider visiting them during international baroque music festival (live worldwide baroque music and songs inside the churches).
If visiting the missions on public transport be aware that departure times can change and travel times are to be taken as rough estimates only as they depend on all kind of factors (road conditions, weather, mood of the driver,...). Guidebooks cannot be trusted for bus timetables and you don't want to be stuck for a day or two just waiting for the bus. Better check locally with bus companies and tourist information offices in Santa Cruz or San Ignacio for updated schedules.
On private transport all you need is a reasonably fine map.
Accommodation is available in all of the mission settlements. The better hotels are found in Concepción and San Ignacio. Out of festival season finding a hotel room should not be a problem. If arriving late at night in a town you might want to book ahead though as some of the night guards could be reluctant to open in the middle of the night.
Though the missions are interesting in themselves it could be worthwhile to do some research before your trip in order to time your visit with one of the many festivals in the towns.
The towns are situated in a remote part in eastern Bolivia. The main access point to the mission settlements is Santa Cruz which is well connected by national and international flights and bus routes.
Alternatively San José can be reached from Quijarro / Corumbá (Brazil) on the "death train".
A third option is to take a Santa Cruz bound bus from Trinidad and change in San Ramon for transport to San Javier.
There might be the odd bus running between San Ignacio and Cáceres in the northern Pantanal.
The missions lie on a loop east of Santa Cruz and are connected by roads (about half paved and half rough) and a rail line between Santa Cruz and San José.
The following assumes Santa Cruz as a starting point. Modify as necessary.
Cars can be rented in Santa Cruz. It is possible to drive in a non-4WD car in clockwise direction from Santa Cruz via San Javier, Concepción and San Ignacio de Velasco to San José.
Bus/Train - clockwise
Santa Cruz to San Javier
There are several daily direct buses between Santa Cruz and San Javier with the first leaving around 8am from Santa Cruz. Most of the daytime buses continue to Concepción, with at least one going on to San Ignacio (arrival after midnight). In addition there are various night buses from Santa Cruz to San Ignacio passing San Javier on the way. However with an arrival around midnight, these might not be interesting for travelers heading to San Javier.
It takes around 3 or 4 hours for 225 kilometers on a good paved road to San Javier. The church is just 50 meters off the main road.
San Javier to Concepción
Many buses from Santa Cruz pass San Javier around noon on their way to Concepción. In a bus it takes around 1.5 hours for 80 kilometers on a paved but winding road. Night buses heading east to Concepción pass San Javier around midnight. The church of Concepción is a few blocks from the bus drop off.
Concepción to San Ignacio
San Ignacio de Velasco is the main commercial center and transport hub in the region. It is a good base for a visit to the missions San Rafael, San Miguel and Santa Ana.
Many night buses heading for San Ignacio pass Concepción around 2am. There is at least one bus leaving Concepción in the late afternoon.
It is 170 kilometers on a red sand track to San Ignacio. Count on 4 to 6 bumpy hours for this.
To San Miguel, San Rafael, Santa Ana
These three missions are reasonably close to San Ignacio to be visited as a day trip or several day trips from there. Doing so you could take advantage of comparatively better facilities (hotels, transport, internet,...) in the capital of the province. Alternatively you might want to spend the night in a small town like Santa Ana to experience what life was like in times past.
Whatever you do, unless you have your own car, you will have to solve the problem of getting there as public transport is rare beyond San Ignacio. In fact to see all three missions in one day on public transport from San Ignacio is probably impossible.
The three towns lie on a loop south of San Ignacio. In clock-wise direction you can go San Ignacio -> Santa Ana -> San Rafael -> San Miguel -> San Ignacio. The distance between neighbouring towns is circa 40 kilometers or around 1 hour on bus.
Option 1: To see the missions in a short time you could get a taxi in San Ignacio. A day trip to all three mission churches including waiting time can be had for around Bs400 and will take 5 or 6 hours.
Option 2: On public transport you will likely spend the night in one or more of the three towns. From San Ignacio there are two bus connections a day to San Miguel. One leaves in the early morning and the other in the early afternoon. The morning bus continues to San Rafael. There might be occasional micros connecting the three towns to San Ignacio.
Option 3: Combine buses with hitchhiking, but read "Stay safe" below first. There are no regular taxis in any of the three towns. So if you miss a bus, you might have to spend the night in whichever village you are in or hitchhike.
San Ignacio to San José
There are one or two buses daily from San Ignacio to San José. These pass San Miguel and San Rafael on the way, so you could get on in any of these towns. (But check locally, as it could as well take the road via Santa Ana in which case it would not pass San Miguel!) It should take 5 hours or so for the 230 km trip on a sand track.
San José to Santa Cruz
From San José you can return to Santa Cruz by night bus in the dry season or train at any time of the year. There are at least two departures each day, both in the middle of the night taking 6 or 8 hours respectively.
The department of Santa Cruz in which the missions are located is one of the most prosperous areas of Bolivia. With the current political situation in Bolivia you should avoid large demonstrations in Santa Cruz. The towns on the mission circuit should be generally safe. Take the usual precautions against petty theft. With Brazil being very close there is some amount of contraband trade going on. Apart from the occasional shortage of gasoline, travelers should not be influenced by this. The tourist information in San Ignacio discourages hitchhiking on trucks for safety reasons.
A trip to the Jesuit Missions of the Chiquitos can be combined with a visit to some of the best wildlife and nature destinations in South America. You can get to the southern Pantanal by taking a train from San José to the border with Brazil at Quijarro / Corumbá. The northern Pantanal can be reached by bus from San Ignacio to Cáceres in Brazil.
North of the mission circuit lies Noel Kempff Mercado National Park. Access from the Bolivian site on public ground transport is difficult and slow. Ask in San Ignacio for the occasional bus heading north.
West of the missions lies Santa Cruz with good connections to all places of interest in Bolivia. For instance, after visiting Jesuit Missions you can book a tour to Cochabamba, called the garden city of Bolivia, La Paz, the administrative capital of Bolivia, visiting the sinister Moon Valley, and Tiwanaku, an archaeological site and UNESCO World Heritage site.