Bolivia’s Jesuit Missions are a network of colonial outposts from the fringes of the Spanish Empire. Through the centuries, the Missions have grown from sleepy religious compounds to bustling communities on the Bolivian lowlands near Santa Cruz.
Many of the missions are registered as UNESCO World Heritage Sites for their historical, cultural, and architectural significance.
The missions date back to the late 16th century, when the first Jesuit missionaries began to arrive, eager to convert the indigenous peoples of South America.
Between 1691 and 1760, eleven missions were created in the area. Each location was carefully selected with specific requirements for soil, plentiful water sources and abundant wood for construction. The Jesuits believed in creating “ideal” cities, so the architecture and layout of the missions reflect careful planning.
The major attractions within each of the missions are the incredible churches. Hundreds of years old, the inhabitants of these towns believe the churches are architectural jewels and owe the preservation of their beauty to the German architect Hans Roth who began restoring them in the 1970’s to their original splendor.
The Baroque Music Festival held every year is an incredible opportunity to admire the orchestras and choirs typical of the baroque style of the missions. During the church restoration projects, thousands of sheets of baroque music were found from previous centuries and gave new life to the music that now draws tourists from all over the world.
World Heritage Sites
The oldest of the Jesuit Missions, established in 1691, is San Javier. The largest of the missions, San Javier is only a few hours from Santa Cruz. Commanding a picturesque hill overlooking the countryside below, San Javier exemplifies the distinct architecture and design of Bolivia’s Jesuit missions.
San Rafael de Velasco
The second-oldest mission, San Rafael de Velasco, was founded in 1695. Moved several times, San Rafael de Velasco is one of the remaining active missions in the region. San Rafael de Velasco has a congregation of over 3000, who continue to practice the modest Catholicism that the Jesuits introduced centuries ago.
San José de Chiquitos
A few years later in 1698, San José de Chiquitos was founded, and while it remains one of the most handsome and largest of the Jesuit Missions, its main attraction, the church, was built from stone rather than the traditional adobe and wood, which in turn give the town an old western ambiance. Many travelers stop here by train on their way between Santa Cruz and Brazil.
Concepción is the most popular of the missions among foreign tourists. An amazing spectacle of spiraling pillars, intricate woodcarvings and detailed interior paintings, the church is the main attraction.
San Ignacio de Velasco
The largest mission and closest to the Brazilian border is San Ignacio de Velasco. With over 13,000 inhabitants and close to the border of Brazil the mission is now a commercial hub for the area.
Our favorite things to do in the Jesuit Missions:
- Visit the stunning church in Concepción, the most popular mission
- Listen to the orchestras and choirs during the Baroque Music Festival
- Admire the thousands of ancient baroque music sheets of previous centuries
- Check out the restoration workshops in Concepción to see restored artwork
- Relax in the hot springs just outside of San Javier