April 18, 2012 – Condé Nast Traveller India
“On All Souls Day, the butterflies arrive,” Mauricio told me, clutching his violin and bow, “and the spiders cross the road.”
We were in the tiny village of Santa Ana de Velasco, a remote settlement on the Jesuit Mission Circuit of the Gran Chiquitania in the lowlands of southeastern Bolivia. We had just left mass at the village’s 18th-century church, the last and smallest of the UNESCO-protected Jesuit missions built in the region. Outside, the expansive plaza was empty save a few boys roughhousing in the pavilion at its centre.
Mauricio was balding and gray, short, with a protuberant belly and wiry hairs just beginning to grow from his ears. I had come to mass that Sunday morning solely for the music, played by a small group of men, including Mauricio, for more than 250 years.
Though the Jesuits were forcibly removed from the New World colonies by the Spanish crown in 1757, this village, like all the mission towns of the Chiquitania, preserves the artistic traditions introduced by them centuries ago. And as elsewhere in Latin America, they have combined those catholic traditions with their own indigenous beliefs. The butterflies, Mauricio told me, were the souls of the people who had died in the previous year.
Music figures prominently in daily life here, especially during the International Baroque Music Festival. Every other year, world-class performers come to this remote corner of South America to play by candlelight in these marvelously restored churches. This year, the concerts will run from April 26 to May 6.
Far from the tourist trail that streams across the western highlands, the Chiquitania towns are among the best-preserved in Bolivia. They lie strung along a semi-paved circle of roads, extending from Santa Cruz de la Sierra to the southwest, to the Brazilian border in the east.
San Javier, the oldest and most accessible mission town, sits on a low hill just a few hours northeast of Santa Cruz, Bolivia’s largest city. When morning sunlight strikes the façade of San Javier’s church, built in 1691, it illuminates saints and angels in white plaster. At night, candlelight turns the spiral columns and painted ceilings gold.
Along with Concepción, the pretty, quiet village of San Miguel is the centre of the region’s woodcarving traditions. The interior of San Miguel’s church, unlike the luminous white of San Javier, is sombre, with elaborately carved, dark wood. The sculptures here were carved by indigenous masters, trained in the 18th century by Jesuit sculptors from Spain, and their descendents continue the tradition in the many workshops scattered throughout town.
The loveliest of the Chiquitania villages is also its smallest and most remote: Santa Ana. The church here is by far the simplest in the region, decorated only with flecks of mica in the plaster that shimmer like silver in the candlelight. Low, thatch-roofed houses line the plaza and straddle the town’s few dirt roads, painted white with a stripe of orange or turquoise or yellow around the base. One woman in town weaves hammocks; her husband makes coffee. Otherwise, there is nothing much in Santa Ana. When I arrived, I was the first overnight visitor in town in over three months.
Indeed, there’s little to do anywhere in the Chiquitania. Beautiful though the churches are, they themselves occupy just a few hours of your time. The few visitors that pass through these villages often come on day trips organised out of Santa Cruz, stopping just long enough in each village to see its church. In doing so, they miss out on the region’s hospitality and traditional beauty.
On All Souls Day, I walked down the dirt path leading to the small reservoir at the edge of town. Halfway down the road, the light caught in midair. Just like Mauricio had said, hundreds of tiny black spiders had begun to spin a giant web from one side of the road to the other. I edged around it and came to the reservoir. Along its banks, hundreds of green and white butterflies had gathered. It was another tradition fulfilled.
How to get there:
Buses depart regularly for San Xavier and Concepción from the main bus terminal in Santa Cruz de la Sierra (a common spot for petty theft, so keep your things close). Concepción-bound buses also stop in San Xavier, and the trip should last three to four hours. From the north, take a Santa Cruz-bound overnight-bus from Trinidad and ask to get down at San Ramón. From San Ramón, shared taxis are available to San Xavier.
Food and drink:
Bolivia is not exactly known for fine dining, but there are a few tasty dishes to be had. Lowland cuisine is entirely different from that found in the highlands, and its staples are cassava (called mandiuca) and plantain (platano). Cuñape, a bread made from flour, cassava and cheese is a popular snack. Masaco, a mash of either cassava or plantain with dried meat (called charque), makes a hearty breakfast at any town market. Mojadito, also readily available at most markets, is a rissoto-like dish of rice cooked with herbs, spices and charque, then topped with slices of fried plantain and an egg. Because the lowlands are fertile and tropical, fruit juices are also common.