The Chiquitania, a vast area, stretches from Santa Cruz, Bolivia’s biggest city, to the Brazilian border four hundred miles east. Its biggest town is probably San Ignacio, with about thirty thousand people; there are only about a half-dozen other towns with over a thousand. In short, this huge expanse is largely uninhabited. Only one road across it is paved, and that only since five years ago; another paved road links Santa Cruz with San Xavier and Concepción, but it’s in awful shape. The rest of the few roads are dirt. Mainly flat, low, hot, lush, and wooded, it does feature some lovely rolling hills with palms and even a few spectacular mountains; to the east and north are tropical wetlands and jungles that are almost impossible to access. But what makes this region so interesting is its history and culture.
In the early eighteenth century, Jesuits, mostly highly cultured and ascetic Germans, established a dozen or so missions there. In each, two priests worked hand-in-hand with hundreds of indigenous people to build wooden churches (one, in San José, is of stone) full of wooden sculptures, with elaborately frescoed walls; in the baroque style, everything was decorated to the hilt. They also collaborated on music that followed the baroque examples the priests brought from Europe, incorporating indigenous elements.
Then, in 1767, the Catholic church terminated the Jesuit order, in part so that the Portuguese could enslave the indigenous people whom the Jesuits were protecting. The Jesuits left; many of the indigenous were taken to the mines in Potosí. But the few who were left maintained the missions, later with the help of Franciscans. The grander stone missions of Paraguay and Brazil fell into ruin. But in Bolivia, the mission towns—and six of the original churches—still survive.
Between the 1960s and 1980s all six, plus one in San Ignacio that had collapsed in 1948, were restored and rebuilt by the Chiquitano people under the leadership of a German Jesuit named Hans Roth. In one, Santa Ana, a huge treasure trove of original music scores was discovered. All of a sudden this remote region became a center for eighteenth-century art and music comparable to some of the towns of Europe. Astonishingly, the Chiquitano people had maintained baroque traditions—of making and playing European instruments, of carving religious figures—through the centuries.
In 1996 a biannual international baroque music festival was inaugurated in the Chiquitania. 2014 is its tenth iteration. More than a hundred concerts are given over a ten-day period in over twenty locations, including in all the original missions, attracting performers and audience members from all over the world. Including us.
Rather than a day-by-day account, I’ll treat our trip topic-by-topic.
The indigenous culture is not as pronounced in the Chiquitania as it is here in Chuquisaca. The only traditional clothes we saw were worn by dancers, who dressed in white cotton, embroidered in pastel colors, with straw hats and no shoes; the dances themselves were nondescript, and the music was fife and drum with a strong beat. Their masks are either wooden, painted with angry faces in black, white, and red; or cloth, painted with landscape scenes, with holes for eyes and feathers on top. The roofs of the village houses are mostly made of grass; the walls of wood and/or adobe. They make wooden sculptures, primarily of musicians and angels, and embroidered clothes.
Our chief difficulty is getting from place to place. I want to rent a car in Santa Cruz, but the cost exceeds $100 a day, so we decide to take buses. To get to Roboré takes six hours in eighty-five degree weather on a barely air-conditioned bus with windows that won’t open. The next morning it takes us an hour to even find transportation to Santiago de Chiquitos, twenty minutes away. There, a guide or hotel owner drives us around, which is pricey. The latter takes us off-road to see some prehistoric wall paintings, then to Chochís to see Hans Roth’s astonishing sanctuary there (we climb to a cleft between two rocks and a rainbow appears), then back to Roboré, where the former meets us and drives us to San José, since the only other way to get there would have been to go early in the morning or late at night: that day’s trip totals one hundred dollars. We want to stay in San José longer, but the hotel owner tells us that the only bus to San Ignacio leaves at six a.m.; it actually leaves at seven, but not knowing that we lug our suitcases for about eight blocks in the dark. That six-hour ride, on a dirt road, is much better because the bus windows are all open and we make plenty of interesting stops to drop off or pick up packages—the transport doubles as a mail service. The next day we want to visit the three mission towns near San Ignacio, so we spend another three hours in a minivan on rough roads—in vain, as it turns out, since it’s a dia feriada, May 1, and two of the three missions are closed. Then getting from San Ignacio to Concepción (a four-hour trip) the next day at first appears impossible—the road is so bad that buses can’t travel it. We hire a taxi for another $80 or so, and indeed, when we get close to Concepción, the road begins to be paved, but the rain has washed out the pavement and left a huge muddy ditch which no heavy vehicle can possibly cross without getting stuck (we all get out of the minivan and it makes it, but a small truck gets seriously mired). Then from Concepción to Santa Cruz is another six-hour, seventy-dollar haul over very rough roads.
We (the four of us and Philly) attend ten concerts featuring a huge variety of music. Every concert is required to include at least one piece written in Bolivia, either from the Chiquitania missions or the astonishing collection of music formerly housed in the cathedral in Sucre. The least satisfying concerts, for me, are either boring (non-choral music by anonymous or little-known composers without the imagination of Bach or Purcell) or hokey (an Argentian group that uses modern instruments and jazzed-up arrangements); a few of the masses too are of the when-is-this-finally-going-to-end flavor. The best are undeniably authentic, featuring truly flavorful music, whether by great European composers or anonymous indigenous ones. And of course there is plenty in-between. A large Polish boys’ choir is one of the major hits of the festival, and their renditions of Renaissance songs are inspiring. A small Chiquitano youth choir sings slightly out of tune but with much spirit and verve. A Cruceño group plays a huge variety of wooden flutes and recorders with a beautiful foresty sound. We hear wonderful groups from London, Belgium, and Uruguay; and in Santa Ana, where a small organ from 1750 is still in the church loft, a young Cruceño organist demonstrates its power and tells us its history. The settings of the concerts are breathtaking, adding to the music’s power. Hearing it has inspired Thalia to once more play violin every day.
The three birds we see most of are toucans, which smoothly fly overhead; roadrunners, which, indeed, love to run across or down the road, zigzagging; and caracaras, mostly black-and-white falcons that seem to be everywhere. Well, actually, we see plenty of chickens and turkeys too. But the most astonishing creature we see is a toad the size of a large turtle, at least a foot long, sitting in the middle of the road after a concert in Santiago; when I point it out to folks, everyone gets out of their little shuttle bus to look at it, and we eventually succeeded in prodding it out of the road so it won’t get squashed. The cattle in this area are mostly brahmin, white with bony humped backs; we don’t see many sheep or goats. And here, unlike in Sucre, the cats seem to outnumber the dogs.
Roboré is the least interesting town we visit, and also the first. Santiago is tiny, with only a thousand inhabitants, and its church is twentieth-century, though a few baroque things are inside. San José is far bigger, but we don’t get to see it much because we arrive after dark and leave before dawn. We only get to spend a small amount of time in San Miguel and San Rafael. But the other four towns—Santa Ana, with about three hundred people, San Ignacio, with about thirty thousand, and Concepción and San Xavier, which are in-between—make a strong impression. Each features a large flat square plaza with the mission church and its complex on one side; in the center of the plaza is often a wooden cross with palm trees at each corner of a small square around it; the roads are mostly dirt and the houses are all one-story with long arcades shading the sidewalks; the rest of the town is laid out in a grid. Practically nobody drives a car here—even the taxis are motorcycles. Santa Ana feels the most unchanged, bucolic; but even busy San Ignacio has many charms.
The churches, except for San José’s, are large, simple wooden structures with peaked roofs. In many practically every surface is painted, sometimes with pictures, sometimes with patterns. Some have mica embedded in the walls, making them shine; many of the altars are replete with gold leaf. The statues of saints and Jesus and Mary are simple but beautiful. Combining baroque and ascetic aesthetics seems impossible since one emphasizes extravagance and ornament and the other extreme simplicity, yet these churches accomplish it. One has a brilliant yet dark painted sun over the altar, both glorious and threatening; another’s massive wooden columns are painted to look like huge snakes. Our favorites of the wooden churches are those in San Miguel, San Rafael, and Santa Ana, but we only have five minutes in the first two, brief stops on the bus from San José to San Ignacio. Santa Ana’s is the simplest yet somehow holiest, the least restored, the most intact, built by Chiquitanos after the Jesuits had been expelled, but following their model. The cathedral in San Ignacio collapsed in 1948 and was completely rebuilt, but faithfully and gloriously; the churches in Concepción and San Xavier were restored and painted in a rather fanciful and much wilder style than the others, and feel less sacred as a result; in addition, the altars and paintings are clearly contemporary, setting the lives of Jesus and the saints in the context of the story of the Chiquitano people. And then there's San José, a massive stone complex whose facade is utterly unlike the others—a great stone wall with a belltower, a chapel, a church, and a parsonage, each completely different, all mestizo baroque.
The hotels/hostals range from filthy, crumbling, and moldy to exceptional, with beautiful gardens, hammocks, a pool, and wonderful breakfasts featuring a dozen different baked goods (cuñapes, cheese puffs made with yucca flour, are ominpresent). We often sleep all five in one room, but sometimes in two or even three. In Santiago we stay in a small house we have to ourselves; unfortunately we leave the windows open during a storm and two of the mattresses and Karen’s suitcase get soaked. The prices are all about $15 a person per night.
The temperature usually reaches the mid-80s at midday except in Santiago, which is a little cooler, and San Jose, which is a little warmer; it’s humid, but not unbearably so. The northern towns—San Ignacio, Concepción, San Xavier—are surrounded by lush, rolling hills, mostly wooded; where cattle graze, the forest has been burned, leaving emerald curving meadows with black tree trunks poking from them, littered with foot-high ant mounds. Santiago, in the Southeast, is in a vast preserve called La Valle Tucavaca; we hike up one mountain there littered with sheer 200-foot-high rocks; it’s unearthly. The forests are “dry forests”: deciduous and flowering, green in the wet season, multicolored in the dry (the wet should have ended by now but it rains some almost every day this week). Swamps and savannahs alternate with the forest; rolling hills stand beside canyons and cliffs. The hotel owner tells us that we could spend two weeks in Santiago, taking a different hike every day, and always see something new and breathtaking. We visit nearby Aguas Calientes, a shallow lake fed by underground hot springs, like geysers, rather than an outside source. When we walk on the sandy bottom we suddenly sink into deep holes of almost scalding water bubbling up with such force that it keeps us from going down too far. The swimming in the deeper parts is the most pleasant I’ve done in ages.
In Santiago we visit an American Quaker who has been living there for forty years—he’s seventy now. He has an American wife, four children, and 130 head of cattle. Warm and wise with a gigantic bushy beard, he and his family give us slightly fermented sugar cane to chew on and fresh raw milk to drink; we delight in talking with his daughter, who is finishing high school and coming to the States to go to college (we hope she visits us!). His place is filthy and smells of a dead chicken he hasn’t yet disposed of; Jack, as usual, delights in the kittens. The Chiquitania, especially the eastern part, is heavily populated by Mennonite communities, some of whom have been there for a century or longer; Bolivia allows them to govern themselves, so it’s a haven for them. The Mennonites, with whom he feels some kinship, are the reason this American first came here; the beauty of the place is why he stays. We, of course, want to stay longer too . . .