San Juan Bautista
History and Background
The Jesuit missionary Fr. Sánchez Labrador seems to imply that sometime between 1699 and its relocation in 1705, San Juan Bautista might have been re-established by Frs. Pedro Juan Carena and Juan Bautista Xandra. What is known is that Xandra did refound the mission, although the date for this was 1717.The evidence for Carena’s role as a co-founder is scant. In any case, by virtue of Xandra’s efforts, San Juan Bautista the only Jesuit mission in the Chiquitania to have at least three co-founders.
It is also possible, although much less likely, that Xandra (and perhaps Carena again as well) re-founded the reducción not once but twice. They would have had time on their side. Xandra arrived in the Chiquitania in 1699 and Carena the following year. Both had lengthy careers in the region, Xandra serving for 49 years (the longest of any Jesuit missionary in Chiquitos) and Carena for 34 years.
The new incarnation of San Juan Bautista, relocated in 1772, suffered as badly as its predecessor. In 1781, a disastrous fire broke out (on the heels of a plague that had just swept through the region), destroying most records and eventually forcing the colonial government to quit the ex-mission for good and relocate its remaining inhabitants. In 1788, the town’s population, riven by dispute over whether to relocate or stay where it was, split into two hamlets. Those who opted for San Juan [Bautista] “Nuevo”, moved a few miles away (ironically returning to the ruins of the 1772-1788 settlement), whilst those who chose to stay in Taperas de San Juan (“taperas” is Spanish for ruins) remained on the site of the earlier, burned out 1717-1772 settlement.
The two communities existed side by side for roughly a decade, until sometime between 1798 and 1800, when most of the families living in both San Juan “Nuevo” and Taperas de San Juan were combined and relocated to form a brand-new San Juan Bautista. A remnant of the populace of Taperas de San Juan stayed amongst the ruins of the 1717-1772 site, but by 1831 they had gone. By then the former reducción had been abandoned completely and overcome by the jungle.
Colonial census records show San Juan Bautista with a population of 1,433 in 1807 - the last count before the disastrous fire of 1811. Its population had dropped to just 879 in 1830, only 42 years later.
To make matters more confusing, sometime around 1940, the Bolivian government established a railway station known as Taperas, not far from the site of San Juan “Nuevo”, and named after its proximity to San Juan Bautista’s long-abandoned ruins. This settlement eventually took the name of San Juan de Taperas and rose to prominence (being named the location for the canton’s parish in 1960), as the older San Juan “Nuevo” – known now as San Juan de Chiquitos - faded into obscurity. Ironically, a new church –not a reconstruction of the Jesuit one (for which little information exists) – was built in San Juan de Chiquitos between 2009 and 2012.
Robert Jackson, in his article "Demographic Patterns on the Chiquitos Missions of Eastern Bolivia, 1691-1767", makes an interesting conjecture that San Juan Bautista may have been established not as a conventional reducción but as a visita - a settlement visited only occasionally by a priest until there were a sufficient number of other Jesuits available for permanent staffing. This view makes a good deal of sense in light of the turbulent history of the ill-starred establishment and the fact that there was a scarcity of priests at the time and in the region, largely due to matters in Europe. His view is supported by evidence regarding the number of missionaries in the Chiquitania in this timeframe. It has had other supporters as far back as René Moreno, and more recently in Ramón Gutiérrez, who worked with Hans Roth and others on the piecing-together of the confusing and still-incomplete history of this settlement.
The original settlement of San Juan de Bautista is long gone except for a ruined tower - possibly the oldest unreconstructed building (well, part of one, anyway) in existence in the Chiquitania. It was built before 1748, according to notes by Roth and Kühne. At the time of D'Orbigny's 1831 visit, it was all that remained, along with some charred foundation walls.
Present-day San Juan de Chiquitos, and the nearby settlement of Taperas are located along the scenic-beyond-belief Río Tucavaca, about 28 miles (45 kms) northeast of San José de Chiquitos. The journey is made by following the Santa Cruz-Puerto Suárez-Corumbá Road to Taperas and then bearing left along a dirt track.
The chief appeal now of the original San Juan Bautista is its value as an archaeological site. Much remains to be properly excavated and documented. The ruins of the Jesuit church complex amount to little more than the tower. (The modern church in the town of Taperas de San Juan is nondescript as is the older - but still modern - one in San Juan de Chiquitos.) But the old site, that is, the abandoned site once known as Taperas de San Juan, has a certain mysterious appeal to it. To this day, the reasons for the abandonment of the original reducción are unclear (plague and tribal attacks are most often cited), and apart from San Ignacio de Zamucos it is the mission for which the least information is available.
Possibly its original church was erected by Fr. Martin Schmid by 1745 - a claim backed by Querejazu and others - but there is no firm evidence to support this conjecture.
If you come on a quiet day, bring a lunch and picnic in front of the ruins. There is a sense of calm here. Although apart from the stones nothing tangible remains, something intangible - the lingering past - is definitely here.
Just to be clear, the modern-day hamlet of Taperas, which came into existence when the Santa Cruz-Brazil railway was built, has nothing to do with San Juan Bautista or Taperas de San Juan (the lineal descendant of both being the now-much smaller community of San Juan de Chiquitos). It has a few hundred residents - most of whom are descendants of those who arrived in the 1940s to build the railway - but no restaurants or hotels (you could ask at the parsonage if looking for a place to sleep). Likewise, it has none of the conventional amenities (e.g., bank, post office) associated with larger towns in the region.