History and Background
As relatively strife-free as the Jesuit expansion into the area was, there were exceptions. Caballero was killed - probably a case of mistaken identity as a Portuguese bandeirante - two years later by hostile Puyzoca (who ironically later settled in the town). The grave of this first (and one of only four) Jesuit martyr of the Chiquitania is unknown. Concepción was moved again in 1722 by Fr. Juan de Benavente to its current location. It soon became the cultural centre of the region, with Fr. Ignacio Chomé publishing the first Chiquitano- and Ayoreo-language dictionaries there in 1750.
As many of its original inhabitants were Chiquitano, and Concepción was one of the largest settlements, by the 1760s the Jesuits decided to make this language the lingua franca of the region, even in areas where other languages predominated. And so it remains today for those few who still speak the local tongues, of which there are perhaps ten still used (out of at least 36 that were spoken at the time of the Jesuits' arrival in the Chiquitania).
Fast-forward some 160 years: In 1926, the late Bolivian president and reformed assassin, Hugo Banzar was born here, and in 1951, the Apostolic Vicariate of Ñuflo de Chávez was established, with Concepción as its seat.
The second stop along the Jesuit Missions Circuit, many consider Concepción, with its population of roughly 10,300 and the countryside around it, the most enchanting part of the journey, and indeed, the entire Chiquitania. Roughly 174 miles (280 kms) distant from Santa Cruz along an asphalt road that affords some of the country's most scenic views, on a good day the trip can be made in under four hours.
As with all the towns in the Chiquitania, the pace of life in Concepción is decidedly slow. That and its beautiful surroundings, make it a great spot to relax and kick back. Much of what you'll want to see from a cultural and historic perspective is in the middle of town, so take your time. After experiencing its templo (now a cathedral), everything else may seem anti-climactic, but there's quite a bit more to see.
Where to Go
The church is technically a cathedral. It is the seat of the apostolic vicar - who holds the rank of bishop (and maintains a blog) - of the Apostolic Vicariate of Ñuflo de Chávez. It was built by Fr. Martin Schmid (who also was responsible for the churches of San Rafael de Velasco and San Xavier and possibly that of San Juan Bautista), with help from his assistant, Fr. Juan Messner, between 1752-5. Along with its nearby convent (now the bishop's offices and a rectory - which doubles as an artesanía) and excellent Museo Misional (entrance is Bs. 25 for all three buildings) all built more or less at the same time, it forms a marvellously harmonious architectural whole, and is a splendid example of what is termed a conjunto misional (mission complex). Its restoration began in 1975 and took more than seven years to complete. The awesome all-wood clock tower is, unfortunately, still off limits for the moment.
There is a wonderful book written by the late Antonio Eduardo Bösl, O.F.M., the former apostolic vicar, entiled Una joya en la selva boliviana: la restauración del templo colonial de Concepción that details its restoration process. And if you're interested in the history of the Vicariate itself, pick up Fr. Humberto Scholz's "La historia de un desafío misionero", which is available only at the parroquía.)
In the Cathedral itself, the Stations of the Cross you'll notice immediately. They are post-modern and do not form a seamless whole with the rest of the cathedral. Nor are they meant to: they are scathing indictments of something the Jesuits never saw coming - the ecological destruction that is now going on throughout much of South America, and make an eloquent argument that raping the land is a mortal - albeit often unacknowledged - sin.
There is an excellent, Spanish-only brochure detailing the history and restoration of the complex available inside the rectory (you may be nicked a paltry Bs. 5 for one, but it's worth the investment). Entitled simply "Concepción" with a photograph of the templo on the cover, this also contains an excellent historical overview of the region. The former rector of the cathedral, Fr. Reinaldo Brumberger, O.F.M., now toiling away in the Beni, wrote two interesting pamphlets, "Misiones de Chiquitos" and "El Alma Chiquitana: Historia del Pueblo Chiquitano", also available inside. These offer an honest assessment of the area's past, present, and future. Sadly, this is not always easy reading when one considers to what state the local indigenous peoples have been reduced and their still-marginalised existence today.
Tucked away inside the complex (you'll have to ask for admittance) are the Episcopal Archives, which contain more than 5,000 different Jesuit music scores dating from the missionary period. Composed by well-known European composers (including Domenico Zipoli, and even Schmid and Messner) as well as anonymous native ones, these are priceless documents that illustrate how centuries-old pieces were played, and are written in Italian, Latin, Spanish, and even Guaraní. (Zipoli, a Jesuit brother, had spent time in the Paraguay missions before settling in Cordóba, Argentina.) These were discovered by the ex-Jesuit architect Hans Roth and are gradually being translated. This repository is unique in the entire Western Hemisphere. Yet for all of its singular importance to historians and musicologists, it is almost never mentioned in guidebooks. As you might imagine, when the celebrated International American Renaissance and Baroque Music Festival "Misiones de Chiquitos" (held every other late April-early May, in even years) rolls into town, this is one of the key places to be.
It goes without saying that the entire conjunto - and especially the interior - is gorgeous from start to finish. Granted, the hand-painted angels flanking the front façade are hideous, something at which the Jesuits would have recoiled in horror. But, glaring exceptions like these aside, many would consider Concepción's missionary complex the most attractive of all of those in the Chiquitos. It's hardly any wonder it's such a popular spot for marriages.
After the mission complex, and to its right on Calle Cabo Miguel Moreno, start with the Oficina de Turismo. Call first at 964.3057; if it's closed, as it inevitably will be, go next door to the town offices - known as the alcaldía - and wake up one of the sleeping clerks, where they may have an impressively titled English/Spanish brochure, "Concepción: Patrimonial Cultural & Santuario de La Orquídea y de Las Rapaces". If not, ask for "Tricentenario Concepción: Historia Viva 1709-2009", a decent-enough trifold with information on the main sites of interest in and around town. They'll organise day tours according to your interests. If you're cheeky enough, ring the bishop's offices (964.3010), explain that you've seen the cathedral, and would now like to see the complex's workshops, too. They're open for visitors weekdays from 1030 to 1530. The guided tour is free.
You can't buy any masterpieces in the workshops - they're reserved for the ongoing restoration of the templos throughout the region - but you can elsewhere - and for a pittance - in several artesanías, including the one run by the Church (the profits of which go back to the people it serves). Otherwise, the best known in town is Taller Hans Roth (964.3174), which is well regarded for its exquisite wooden carvings of angels and leather goods. This outfit works with Mancomunidad de Municipios Chiquitanos, a Santa Cruz-based non-profit that helps provide better economic opportunities for the area's inhabitants, so you're doing a lot of people a world of good when you buy here.
Another recommended place is the Museo Misional (964.3159), located off the plaza principal in the old cabildo (town hall), which also happens to be the birthplace of the late Bolivian president, Hugo Banzar, something you probably do not want to bring up with the locals. It's open Monday through Saturday from 0800 to 1200 and again from 1430 to 1830, and Sundays from 1000 to 1230. Admission is a paltry Bs. 6, which gets you into the fascinating Hans Roth room - dedicated to the late Swiss architect who so painstakingly laboured to restore the Jesuit mission churches throughout the Chiquitania. The detail and craftsmanship here is incredible. You most definitely will discover an appreciation for the work that went into these church complexes after seeing this museum. If you're interested in colonial architecture or restoration work, this is a mandatory stop.
There is also the inevitable President Banzar room, although it is not as fascinating a spot. In the shops at the entrance as well as next door you can find, amongst other discoveries such as carvings of hybrid mermaids, authentic Guarayos hammocks (which are almost impossible to find outside of Guarayos Province itself).
A lot of the cooler items you'll see in town at the various shops also can purchased during the town's annual patronal feast (the weekend closest to 08 December). Recently, Concepción also has held crafts and cattle fairs at the same time, so there's more reason than ever to go. And they serve good ice cream. You'll want to keep that in mind when the temperature climbs to 40°C and stays there for hours on end.
Also in the centre of town is the somewhat-diminished Museo Antropológico de la Chiquitania. This is located a block west of the plaza, in the Casa España at the intersection of Calles 16 de Septiembre and Tte. Capobianco. The edifice is a wonderful old colonial-style building restored by Hans Roth. Open all week from 0800 to 1200 and again from 1400 to 1800, admission is free, and there is a small restaurant and guesthouse on the premises. This little museum used to have more information on the vanishing way of life of the indigenous peoples of the Oriente than any other institution outside of Santa Cruz. There are interesting displays on family and communal life, a rare collection of traditional musical instruments of the Chiquitos (still used today in certain religious processions), and even two full-scale models of dwellings used by the Ayoreo and Chiquitano.
The sometimes-there-but-often-not Hombre y Naturaleza, an ecological awareness group that runs guided tours of local sites of interest, as well as in-town trips, is supposedly located on the premises. They used to offer (and may still, if you can find them in) trips to the kid-friendly eco-ranch Finca Kolping (just outside of town); thermal springs at Zapocó (2 kms west of town); Lake Pachanga less than 2 miles (3 kms) south; and the rock formations and panoramic vistas of Santa Teresita at 5 miles (8 kms) southeast. Further afield, there's the ominously named "La Dolorida", the former estate of the ex-Nazi photographer Hans Ertl, now an ecological sanctuary 25 miles (40 kms) west of town at Km. 253 on the main road. If you wish, they may be able to take you as far as Puerto Pedrito, 37 miles (60 kms) northwest on the Río Blanco.
There are no less than 37 indigenous communities in the area, and visits can be arranged to many of them by local guides in Concepción. With some patience, they can arrange a trip to indigenous communities of Buena Esperanza, Candelaria, El Carmen, El Encanto, or Montecristo, all to the south.
Of all the many recreational areas that surround Concepción, there are two you'll not want to miss. One is Represa Concepción (not Laguna Concepción, which is much further away to the southeast), 1.4 miles (2 kms) outside of town, a wonderful spot for swimming, having a cookout, bird watching, fishing, canoeing, or simply lying on the makeshift beach. Its formal name is Represa y Balneario Zapocó, in case you're wondering. The other is Cascada de San Isidro, 10.5 miles (17 kms) out, which, along with a beautiful waterfall, offers similar amenities and guided tours for a paltry Bs. 5. Much of the flora and fauna you're likely to see in the area can be spotted here.
Concepción is famed for its orchids, considered the finest in the country and perhaps continent. The town holds an orchid festival the second weekend of every October, the Festival Internacional de la Orquídea. If you can't make it then, just seven blocks south of the square you can see them in all their glory year-round. More than 6,000 of them, across almost 100 varieties, are on display at the hothouses of the rustic but elegant Hotel Chiquitos, which also happens to have a nice swimming pool and cool rooms on the upper floor. You can call (964.3153) or contact the hotel by email for information regarding upcoming exhibitions and the like.
On the subject of hotels, stop by the lovely Gran Hotel Concepción (964.3031) off the plaza principal if you want to see what an immaculately restored, late nineteenth century, in-town hacienda looks like. You'll think you're on the set of an old movie. (It has a nice swimming pool, too, in case you're comparing amenities.) The owners also can advise you on horseback expeditions to local estancias and fishing spots.
The little-known but excellent International Kolping Society - a Catholic charitable organisation - also has an information and community service centre in the plaza, on the corner of calles Ñuflo de Chávez and 16 de Septiembre. At the other end of the same street is the Escuela Hans Roth Fé y Alegría, where the traditional arts of carving, sculpting, and painting as practised centuries ago are taught as part of the curriculum to the town's youth, thus ensuring a supply of the next generation of local artists.
Outside of the town, the views are predominantly of rolling hills and lush greenery. This shade of green simply doesn't exist outside of this area. It is vibrant beyond imagination. Passing through it, one has the sensation of travelling back to a pre-historic time, with the strange rock outcroppings and fern-like trees that abound. (In geological terms, the area is Pre-Cambrian.) Although Concepción is given over to cattle raising, most of the estancias are set back, and the views afforded from the road are unparalleled. For the first 12 miles (20 kms) out of town (headed east), you'll find yourself taking photographs at every stop. Because of the sunlight, be sure to bring a UV filter.
Thanks to its wealth of scenic beauty, Concepción is a great place from which to take day trips. If you opt to strike out on your own, you can hail a taxi from the centre (Bs. 20 per hour), or, for the more adventurous, a motorbike taxi (Bs. 10 per hour). Visits can be arranged to many of the indigenous communities by asking at the cathedral or the alcaldía. Hint: let them set something up for you rather than make specific requests.
Places to Shop in Concepción
Places to Eat
The small print: Only restaurants that have either a (sometimes vague) street address and/or telephone number are included here. All towns in the region have other eateries, usally in or near the market (ideal for travellers with cast-iron stomachs) or railway depôt (if there is one). This list incorporates only those that one reasonably can expect to locate without trouble.
Need cash whilst in Concepción? You're in luck. There's a Western Union in the Cooperativa de la Merced on Avenida Monseñor Jorge Killian as one approaches the Hotel Chiquitos as well as a Banco Unión on the main plaza.
Ready to go? For a downloadable street plan of Concepción, click here.