Santiago de Chiquitos
History and Background
Never a very secure mission, with the Zamucos (a sub-group of the Mojo or Ayoreo) to the south and the much-feared Guaycurus to the east, the mission held a small military garrison. As with all the former reducciones, Santiago fell into a steep decline after the Jesuits were forced to leave in 1767. D'Orbigny visited it in 1831 and was singularly unimpressed. 101 years later, Santiago sent 30 of its sons to death in the Chaco War. Since then, it has remained passive, although in 1944 four U.S. Protestant missionaries based in Roboré were killed by the Ayoreo in trackless territory somewhere between Santiago and Santo Corazón.
Santiago de Chiquitos is a side trip along the Santa Cruz-Brazil railway line (or the newly paved San José de Chiquitos-Puerto Quijarro motorway, if driving), and probably the last of the original Jesuit reducciones you'll see if coming from the west. If you're in Roboré and want to visit this lovely town but are bereft of a vehicle, there are taxis that will take you for about US$12 round trip, or a micro (local bus) you can catch for about US$1.50.
As with the Chiquitania as a whole, the pace of life here is slow and calm. Along with Roboré, Santiago has a reputation for having a very healthy climate and extraordinarily long-lived inhabitants. Given its bucolic setting, pretty surroundings, and agreeable weather (it is somewhat sheltered from the heat by the serranía), it is easy to understand why it is often referred to as la Shangri-la del Sureste Cruceño ("the Shangri-la of the Southeast") or even la Antesala del Cielo ("Heaven's Waiting Room"). Put another way, if you were daft enough to honeymoon in the Chiquitania, this is where you would want to go. Perhaps you wouldn't be so daft after all: Santiago, with scarcely 1,000 inhabitants, also has a reputation as being the safest town in Bolivia. (As of late 2012, no serious crime had been recorded here in more than 40 years.)
Where to Go
The area around the town is fascinating territory. In fact, it is the only municipality located in the gorgeous (and environmentally unique) Reserva Departmental Valle Tucavaca. To help preserve and promote this ecological gem, Santiago is home to the interactive, multi-media Centro de Interpretación del Bosque Seco Tropical (Tropical Dry Forest Interpretation Center), "El Panorama". Operating under the aegis of the acclaimed conservation non-profit group Fundación para la Conversación del Bosque Chiquitano, this is a mandatory stop. Located just in front of the Serranía Santiago, its setting alone is worth the trip. For maximum impact, stop first at the tour guide association (see below, located just a block east of the plaza principal), and have a guide accompany you.
Santiago, as with several other Jesuit mission towns, also plays host every other April or May to the prestigious International American Renaissance and Baroque Music Festival "Misiones de Chiquitos". (If you've read anything about the other mission settlements, you've probably come to accept this as the norm for these little towns by now.) Strange as it may seem for one the size of Santiago, it also boasts a Tourist Guides Association (Asociación de Guías de Turismo), and with good reason. You'll want to connect with them before setting out, as there are myriad hiking and trekking options in the area. Prices for these trips range from a paltry Bs. 50 for a half-day hike to Bs. 100 for a full-day excursion. You won't miss the change and you definitely won't forget the experience.
To start with, there are dozens of caves, caverns, and rock faces all over that boast superior pre-historic paintings. Some are protected, but in most cases they're exactly as they were thousands of years ago. It's an amazing experience to wander about these silent stone galleries unencumbered, free to photograph as you like. (Feel an urge to tag something coming on? Take note that the locals - even little children - never indulge in grafitti, so put the spray can away.) The easiest to get to are Motacú and El Banquete (the latter is also a great spot for fossil hunting), both to the northwest out of town.
Keep heading in the same direction and you'll approach the foothills of the Serranía Santiago, which is amongst the best hiking terrain in the country. Here you'll see some interesting wind-carved rock formations, natural stone bridges, petrified forests, and possibly the oddest rock formations anywhere on earth. The Arco de Don Rómulo, Puente del Mono, Cañon de San Marcos, and Cueva Miserendino in particular are must sees. Anyone in town knows how to get to these spots although using a guide is again the best approach. Day expeditions are very popular; townsfolk often head out on horseback for picnics here.
Santiago also has the good fortune to have a number of crystal-clear pools, waterfalls, and small rivers on all sides. Ask anyone how to get to these places. Soledad, La Colina, La Muela del Diablo, Las Mercedes, and especially Quituniquiña are popular. If it's a hot day, you can do no better than relax in one of the myriad pozos (small natural pools) that dot the landscape: you'll swear you're in heaven. Las Cachuelas is also a popular nearby balneario. Nearby Aguas Calientes, southeast of town, with its thermal waters, is also a top spot. Ecological trails are very popular in Santiago, with at least seven operating, each to different destinations. Be sure not to miss a trip to El Sendero Turístico y Mirador El Órgano, where there are interpretive trails that afford wonderful views and tell the story of the mysterious Valle Tucavaca.
A bit further east, heading towards another Jesuit
settlement, Santo Corazón, you will find what is truly the continent's last paradise. The Valle Tucavaca (often misspelled as Tucabaca, as "b" and "v" sound similar to the Bolivian ear) is gorgeous
beyond description. The valley - where it is so quiet one can hear
a bird miles away - is virtually the last stand (no pun intended) of the ecologically unique Chiquitano
dry forest, with thousands upon thousands of wild orchids,
flanked by millennia-old, wind-eroded rocks (especially popular are
the Arco de Don Rómulo
and the Puente del Mono) on one side and a petrified forest on the
This place is a psychedelic cross between a primeval forest and something
out of "The Wizard of Oz". If any place deserves the sobriquet
"mind-blowing", it is the Valle Tucuvaca.
Places to Eat in Santiago
Santiago is small enough that most establishments, let alone houses, do not have telephone service. The way around this is to call the local ENTEL office at 313.5590 and ask for information about these places (and in the case of accommodations) to make reservations.
As with the towns in Guarayos, and its fellow Jesuit mission towns of San Xavier and San José de Chiquitos, Santiago is rich in tradition. Several times a year you can see displays of dimly recalled rituals, often in the form of dances, that are unique to this town (or have become extinct elsewhere). These are still largely unknown to the outside world.
Ready to go? For a downloadable street plan of Santiago, click here.