Santa Ana de Velasco
History and Background
The Extrañamiento affected Santa Ana de Velasco far more than it did the other mission towns, with indigenous uprisings occurring in 1768, 1795, 1797, and 1819, the last more than a half-century after the Jesuits' expulsion, although it was largely a reaction to the abuses of the secular clergy then in charge. The town also served as the provincial capital, of what was then a much bigger Chiquitos Province, from 1800 until 1825 and again from 1826 to 1830, when it passed to San Ignacio de Velasco.
Roughly equidistant from San Ignacio to the northwest and San Rafael de Velasco to the south, Santa Ana de Velasco is a quiet little town (the smallest of the mission settlements, with barely 300 souls) with a timeless feel to it. Most people arrive here from San Ignacio de Velasco, and proceed quickly along to San Rafael de Velasco, San Miguel de Velasco, and thence back to San Ignacio de Velasco (unless completing the trek to San José de Chiquitos in the south).
With its grassy plaza and houses built off it in rectangular fashion, Santa Ana most closely resembles what the reducciones looked like when they were founded three centuries ago. Little has changed, and were it not for electricity and the occasional motor vehicle, the town could be mistaken for a colonial settlement. The entrance is still marked by the Stations of the Cross, exactly as it would have appeared to an eighteenth-century visitor. Santa Ana de Velasco - along with several other Chiquitos towns - still preserves the offices of cacique (roughly equivalent to the modern-day alcalde or mayor) and has a cabildo (town council), set up by the Jesuits centuries ago to give the natives a level of official representation.
Apart from its beautiful church (the most indigenous of the mission templos, as it was built entirely by natives without Jesuit assistance or direction), Santa Ana is famous for its music. The church's organ and diatonic harp (the latter of which was built by native hands) are still functional, and during restoration, thousands of missionary-era musical scores were discovered. The church also houses some priceless artwork (along with a very cool mission-era sun dial). Behind the church are a series of nature walks that eventually meander to the Represa Tucavaca, a nice watering hole on a hot day.
There is a tiny museum, the Museo de Cultura Chiquitana (Museum of Chiquitano Culture), off the plaza in a house once the lodgings of the Bolivian patriot Andrés Ibáñez. Behind it is the artesanía known as the Centro Artesanal. This town is as close to the eighteenth century as you'll find anywhere, and several institutions from that time still stand (and function). Along the main drag, Calle Bolivar, are found the Casa de la Imprenta, Casa del Bastón, the tourist office and miniature alcaldía. Eh, they wouldn't like that in Santa Ana de Velasco: let's call it a subalcaldía instead.
As one would expect, Santa Ana de Velasco, as with other Chiquitos missions, also hosts the increasingly famous International American Renaissance and Baroque Music Festival "Misiones de Chiquitos" (held every other late April-early May in even-numbered years, e.g., 2012, 2014).
And then there's, uh...um...well.... Were it not for the fact that there are usually two meandering about the square at any given time, this would be the proverbial one horse town. But this is precisely why a trip to Santa Ana de Velasco is so important. It is the most authentic mission settlement of them all, and its relatively small size makes it much easier to take in all at once, so to speak, than the larger Chiquitos missions. Actually, you can find more information on the hamlet...if you read Spanish. If so, see Santa Ana de Velasco: La joya escondida de Chiquitos.
In the immediate vicinity, there is the Embalse (reservoir) Pauro where you can cool with the locals, and you can see the still-operating Minas de Caolín, where lime is extracted to aid in the white-washing of buildings, exactly as it was when the Jesuits were here. This ancient tradition is still observed in some Chiquitos locales, including - surprisingly - much more urban San Ignacio de Velasco. You could take a side trip to the nearby indigenous community of El Teré, which is locally known for its brickmaking and ceramic ware. Further out of town are the westernmost serranías of the Chiquitania, a sure indication that the Pantanal lies to the east and the Sureste Cruceño to the south.
But let's go back to that church organ for a minute. It is original, and dates to c. 1750. And it still puts out a tune. The boy playing it in the photograph below is Francisco Rocha, the son of the current custodio (custodian or vicar) of the church, Luís Rocha. This is one of the many colonial-era customs still intact in the Chiquitania. The Rochas have held this position (considered a great honour in colonial times) in an unbroken line from father to son for more than two centuries. If you arrive and the church is closed, stand near the gate for a few minutes. If you see a kid on a bicycle looking at you from a distance, wave to him: that's Luís' son Francisco, the heir apparent, as it were. He'll come blazing over and open the church for you. His sister Antonía Esther makes a great guide, too, even if she is only eleven years old.
Of course, I climbed all over the templo once I was in, including up to the organ loft. As I marvelled at the antiquities, Francisco asked if I wanted to hear anything, then nonchalantly sat down in front of a priceless organ and proceeded to slam out a Baroque hymn that would level a forest a mile away. It sounded like a calliope and Wurlitzer organ playing simultaneously. Never take anything for granted in Bolivia....
If you're really into Santa Ana de Velasco, Oscar Tonneli Justiniano - a Bolivian writer on the Chiquitos missions, author of Reseña Histórica Social y Económica de la Chiquitania, and expert on the town - in 2008 published a fascinating history of it (in Spanish), entitled Santa Ana, la cenicienta chiquitana.
Ready to go? For a downloadable street plan of Santa Ana, click here.