The Jesuit Missions - Getting There

Want just the background information on the Jesuit missions of Chiquitos? This is where you need to be.

A quick take on the area's amazing history? Go here first.

Looking for an overview of the beautiful Chiquitos mission churches only? Try this page.

If it's information on the towns themselves you want, they're each described individually (see a specific town's page). You also can find information on their culture and music, respectively, here and here. Want more? How about daily life in the missions?

This page? These are just the boring - but essential - details on transport options, time, and distances to get to these fabulous destinations along what is commonly referred to as the Jesuit Missions Circuit (or less likely, the route from Santa Cruz directly to San José de Chiquitos).

The journey - for which you'll need at least five days to do with justice - usually starts in Santa Cruz, where you have two options: travel by rented vehicle - i.e., a Jeep or other 4WD - (definitely recommended, but not cheap at about US$800 for a week's rental if you do the whole deal) or by bus (not recommended, but definitely cheap) along Bolivia's Route 9 to San Ramón, from there along old Route 503/new Route 10 to the first Jesuit mission town, San Xavier, and then onward. The road is toll until San Ignacio de Velasco (where the road becomes Route 17), but the fare is so pitifully cheap it's not worth mentioning. (OK, it is about Bs. 30 nowadays.)

Conceivably, you could take the death train to San José de Chiquitos and from there a series of buses, travelling the circuit in reverse...but only if you enjoy bone-rattling discomfort and the occasional step outside to push the bus back onto the road. Or you could hitchhike, if waiting days by the roadside watching palm fronds curl appeals to you. Do the smart thing: see the man at A. Barron's Rent A Car and get a 4WD. Note: yes, there are other car rental options in Santa Cruz, but you'd be a fool to waste time with any of them.

Map of Chiquitania showing some Jesuit missions underscored (click on one to go to its page)

Many people make the trip only as far as Concepción, which is a shame. The asphalt used to end 15.5 miles (25 kms) out of town (at Km. 331, to be exact) towards San Ignacio de Velasco (or Km. 440 if heading west from San Ignacio de Velasco), but Evo finally kept a promise and the whole stretch to San Ignacio de Velasco is now almost fully paved. The remaining settlements are real hidden jewels, especially Santa Ana de Velasco, San José de Chiquitos, and, if you're willing to go off the beaten track, Santiago de Chiquitos.

Even in the few spots past San Ignacio de Velasco where the road remains hard-packed earth (or mud in the rainy season, when travel is all but impossible anyway), it is surprisingly easy to traverse. Still, passing vehicles can be dicey in spots, and you'll see some monster-sized camiones hauling logs, blazing along, oblivious to whatever is in their path...including you. Don't worry about the half-empty bottle of rum the driver will be nonchalantly pulling on: of greater concern should be how you'll get around his lorry after he jack-knifes it a few miles ahead.

If you are game enough to make it to San Ignacio de Velasco, you owe it to yourself to visit the three nearby towns of Santa Ana de Velasco, San Rafael de Velasco, and San Miguel de Velasco, after which you can turn back to San Ignacio de Velasco and thence return to Santa Cruz.

Or carry on via Route 17 to bucolic San José de Chiquitos and then turn back to San Ignacio de Velasco. If you want to blaze through straight to or from San José de Chiquitos and bypass the other mission towns, take Bolivia's newest paved road: Route 4, the Santa Cruz-Puerto Suárez-Corumbá Road, the $409-million paving project that forms part of the massive Central Interoceanic Hub.

Approximate road distances along the Jesuit Mission Circuit are as follows:

Location
Miles
Kilometres
Cumulative Distance (miles)
Cumulative Distance (kms)
Santa Cruz to San Xavier
137
220
137
220
San Xavier to Concepción
37
60
174
280
Concepción to San Ignacio
99
160
273
440
San Ignacio to Santa Ana
25
40
298
480
Santa Ana to San Rafael
22
35
310
515
San Rafael to San Miguel
25
40
335
545
San Miguel to San Ignacio (return trip)
23
37
358
582
San Ignacio to Santa Cruz (return trip)
273
439
631
1,015

An alternate route - which takes in all seven of the Jesuit Mission Circuit towns yet is paradoxically shorter than the above - is as follows:

Location
Miles
Kilometres
Cumulative Distance (miles)

Cumulative Distance (kms)

Santa Cruz to San Xavier
137
220
137
220
San Xavier to Concepción
37
60
174
280
Concepción to San Ignacio
99
160
273
440
San Ignacio to Santa Ana
25
40
298
480
Santa Ana to San Rafael
22
35
310
515
San Rafael to San Miguel
25
40
335
545
San Miguel to San Rafael
25
40
360
595
San Rafael to San José
88
142
448
737
San José to Santa Cruz (return trip)
180
290
628
1,011

If you want to know the distances between all the major towns along the Jesuit Mission Circuit (including those that are not actual Jesuit mission towns), you can download the chart here.

Bolivia being what it is, road signs are not always where one would want them. In fact, most times they're not there at all. And when they are, they're in Spanish, and measured in kilometres. So some idea of which interim towns you'll want to see signs for and pass through as far as San Miguel de Velasco may be helpful. After that, it's almost impossible to become lost if you stay on Route 17 in either direction, until reaching San Ignacio de Velasco (if returning) or San José de Chiquitos (if continuing onward toward the Pantanal).

Location
Cumulative Distance
Notes
Santa Cruz (start)
0 miles/0 kms
Head east on Avenida Virgen de Cotoca (major thoroughfare); pay initial toll after clearing novento anillo; you will pick up Route 4/Route 9 here.
11 miles/18 kms
Turn right after surtidor about 1 km before entrance to town. Turn is not marked.
Puerto Pailas
17 miles/27 kms 
Cross Río Grande (also known as Río Guapay) via new, two-way cement bridge.
Pailón
28 miles/45 kms
Buy round-trip ticket at caseta (toll booth) for Bs. 30 (good to San Ignacio); go straight towards Trinidad on Route 9. Do not take right turn marked "Pto Suarez": you will go directly to San José de Chiquitos and bypass Jesuit Missions Circuit.
Los Troncos
75 miles/120 kms
Turn right to stay on Route 9. 
San Julián
93 miles/150 kms
 
San Ramón
112 miles/180 kms
Stay right at fork to Route 10. Do not take left turn: you'll wind up in Ascensión de Guarayos.
116 miles/186 kms
Private resort, gateway to Chiquitania; signs are visible from about 5 miles (8 kms) out; entrance on right through gate.
137 miles/220 kms
 Caseta at outskirts of town.
174 miles/280 kms
Caseta at outskirts of town.
Santa Rosa de la Roca
224 miles/360 kms
Caseta at outskirts of town.
Carmen Ruiz
244 miles/394 kms
Road to Parque Nacional Noel Kempff Mercado is 0.6 miles (1 km) out of town on left, immediately past surtidor
273 miles/440 kms
Caseta at outskirts of town; stay right at fork 0.6 miles (1 km) out of town for Santa Ana. Do not go straight: you'll wind up in San Matías.
298 miles/480 kms
 
310 miles/515 kms
Road to San Miguel is Route 17. Do not take left turn onto Route 39: you'll wind up in Cuatro Cañadas.
335 miles/545 kms
Road back to San Ignacio is Route 17 north (left turn out of north end of town); road onward to San José is Route 17 south (right turn out of south end of town). 

Approximate travel times by private vehicle depend upon your driving skills and the weather, but Bolivian bus companies have it down to a science...sort of. Average times to these towns from Santa Cruz are as follows:

Location
Hours
Miles
Kilometres
San Xavier
3
137
220
Concepción
6
174
280
San Ignacio
9
273
440
Santa Ana
9.5
298
490
San Miguel (does not pass through Santa Ana)
10
335
545
San Rafael (passes through Santa Ana)
11
310
515

There is also direct bus service from Santa Cruz to San José de Chiquitos via Route 4. If taking this route, renting a vehicle is still a better bet, as buses are infrequent and often are subject to delays.

And if you're game for that, how about a decent road map? (This one covers all of Bolivia, but can be magnified easily.)

Approaching the first Jesuit mission of Chiquitos: San Xavier

Tourist Visas
If you are a first-time visitor to the Chiquitania - or Bolivia in general - you will need a tourist entry visa in addition to your passport. (By the way, make sure your passport is valid for at least 90 days from the date of entry. Some Bolivian officials may not authorise a visa for you if your passport is not valid for at least this length of time.)

The long-rumoured special entry visa for citizens of the United States was more bark than bite. There was a rumour circulating that from March 2007 on all U.S. citizens showing up on the border would have to have a nearly-impossible-to-procure entry visa, lest your face be pressed against the window, with you on the outside looking in.

However, this is avowedly not the case. It's US$135 and good for five years, mi amigo norteamericano. This does not mean you can overstay your visit (see below); it does mean that each time you come to Bolivia within the five-year period you're good. Because Evo and his minions are mercurial fellows at best, you can go through the pointless motion of checking the relevant page of the Bolivian Embassy's Web site - which provides absolutely no information at all - or, alternatively, check that of the US Department of State's Web site - which does - before heading in. By the way, the entry visa costs the same US$135 no matter whether you intend on arriving by air or land. Do not even think of trying to get a visa on Bolivian soil; getting it ahead of time is the only option.

For most nationalities (including US citizens), when you enter Bolivia you will receive, free of charge, a 90-day entry permission card (and a green exit card, which you must carry with you when you travel). If you stay beyond the original 90 days, you can get two more 30-day extensions within the same calendar year if you apply and are willing to pay the Bs. 165 fee each time. So conceivably you can max out your tourist stay to 150 days or five months as long as it is done in one year ("year" meaning within a consecutive January - December period, not extending into another year). You do not need a new exit visa for these extensions; the original is still valid as long as you keep all the paperwork in order. If you do overstay your visa limit, you'll be docked Bs. 20 per day of the overstay (and another Bs. 5 per day if you have a minor with you).

When you leave Bolivia by air, there is a combined aeroport and exit tax of Bs. 190 (roughly US$26.50) that must be paid before your receive the exit stamp on the exit portion of your entry permission card. If you've stayed more than the original limit of 90 days, you'll be docked another Bs. 190 as well.