San Ignacio de Velasco
History and Background
The famous Fr. Martin Schmidt was resident in San Ignacio de Velasco when the decree to expel the Jesuits was announced. Due to his advanced age, he alone was legally permitted to remain in Chiquitos, although the following year he left, crossed the ocean and died in Luzern, Switzerland in 1772.
In 1880 San Ignacio de Velasco was named the capital of what was then a much-larger Chiquitos Province, taking over from Santa Ana de Velasco. After more than a century of utter obscurity, in 1991 the Diocese of San Ignacio de Velasco was erected with San Ignacio de Velasco as its seat, and Federico Bonifacio Madersbacher Gasteiger, O.F.M. as its first bishop.Today it is the largest town on the Jesuit Missions Circuit, with a population of some 31,200 inhabitants.
Situated between Concepción to the west, San Matías to the east, and San José de Chiquitos to the south, San Ignacio de Velasco is a major agricultural, livestock, and transportation hub in the Chiquitania. It is served by most regional and national bus lines, and boasts a small aeroport. Its location also makes it an ideal spot for exploring the neighbouring mission settlements of San Miguel de Velasco, San Rafael de Velasco, and Santa Ana de Velasco, which are no more than an hour's drive each. If you want to check out these wonderful towns but don't want to make an expedition of it, there are several guides who will take you through each of them and get you back to San Ignacio de Velasco by nightfall. This is also a good option if you want to see all three and then on to San José de Chiquitos, as the road only passes through two of these three settlements (depending upon which route you take).
The last settlement of any size heading east before San Matías on the Brazilian border, in addition to being the capital of Velasco Province, San Ignacio de Velasco also serves as the primary southern gateway to the incredible Parque Nacional Noel Kempff Mercado to the far north. (But read below for directions!) It is also home to the Universidad Católica Boliviana San Pablo - Chiquitos campus, which is staffed by the little-known but wonderful Identine Missionaries.
Unless you're making the trip in reverse, San Ignacio de Velasco will be the third Chiquitos mission settlement, about 273 miles (440 kms) east along Bolivia's old Route 503/new Route 10 (if it matters) from Santa Cruz and then through San Xavier and Concepción. Top off your tank before leaving the last surtidor (petrol station) in Santa Rosa de la Roca, about halfway between Concepción and San Ignacio de Velasco. There are no others along the way. You'll pass the small town of Santa Rosa de la Roca and then the even smaller one of San Roque, where you can grab a meal of chicken and plantain for a few bolivianos, and cuñapé (cheese bread) for less than that, but not much else. After that, the tiny hamlets of La Cruz de Solis, San Antonio, and Carmen Ruiz will appear. From the last one, it's about 42 miles (68 kms) to San Ignacio de Velasco.
After dallying in the Bolivian wilderness, the town looks very welcoming. The culture is closer to that of Brazil than of Bolivia (check the wonderfully risable video for details), and the people are some of the friendliest on earth. If you look up "idyllic" in a picture dictionary, you'll see a photograph of the town...or you should, anyway. Hand-carved wooden crosses flank intersections as you approach the plaza, and in the distance is a beautiful (albeit man-made) lake, Laguna Guapomó. It offers boating, swimming, and fishing. The town, as booming as it is thanks to agribusiness interests and rare game hunting, still has a quaint, colonial feel about it...for the moment, anyway.
But for all its beauty, of all the Jesuit mission towns, San Ignacio de Velasco is the one most in danger of losing its charm. It is succumbing rapidly to Brazilian and Spanish-financed development schemes, and one day may become little more than a soya-processing and wood harvesting centre if the locals do not draw the line somewhere. As an example, until just a few years ago, visitors could witness the almost-extinct, beautiful paseo courtship ritual on the plaza principal on weekend nights, or watch centuries-old religious processions parade through the town. The first is now a lamented memory and the second may be headed in the same direction. But you'll always be able to marvel at San Ignacio de Velasco's Soviet-style cement monuments. Those monstrosities aren't going away anytime soon.
Routes to Parque Nacional Noel Kempff Mercado
But.... This is not the same as saying San Ignacio de Velasco is anywhere near the park; it's not. In fact, you need to turn back, heading towards Concepción, and pick up one of two roads to the park, from either Carmen Ruiz, 29 miles (47 kms) back, or Santa Rosa de la Roca, 49 miles (79 kms) back.
I repeat: there are two southern access roads to the park, both reached long before San Ignacio de Velasco. The one closest is a poorly marked dirt road located in Carmen Ruiz (on the left as one passes the town going towards San Ignacio de Velasco) that follows the Río Paragua, ending in Campamento some 106 miles or 170 kms to the north. But from here you'd still need to travel another 43 miles (70 kms) west on almost impassible tracks until reaching La Junta and then picking up the main track north again.
The better "road" - also dirt - is further back in Santa Rosa de la Roca, also on the left as one leaves town headed toward San Ignacio de Velasco. At least it is well marked. You are better off taking this route, as there is a petrol station just before the turn-off. Be forewarned: the journey from here to the park is a taxing one and there are no facilities along the way. The nearest stop is the microscopic settlement of La Junta, 99 miles (160 kms) along. However, Florida (the southern entrance to the park), 124 miles (200 kms) from Santa Rosa de la Roca, is the first place where you'll find any supplies. The two other main entrepôts, Porvenir and Piso Firme, respectively, are still another 32 miles (52 kms) and 80 miles (129 kms) north over abysmal "roads".
There is also a once-weekly bus from Santa Cruz to Piso Firme on Trans Bolivia, but this method completely sucks...unless you enjoy being tossed about relentlessly like a human ping-pong ball with no earthly hope of things getting better until you arrive. Try that for 16 hours and see how excited you are about tackling the wilderness.
If you're an idiot and have endless sums of money and all your onward travel documents in order, you can go one step further and possibly cajole someone in San Ignacio de Velasco into renting you a car (it will be a 4WD), drive all the way to Brazil, and, if you make it through Immigration and another several hundred kilometres, enter the park through the minimalist hamlets of Cabixi, Comodoro, Pimenteiras, Vila Bela, or Vilhena. And then turn around and do it all over again in reverse. See you next year.
Routes to San Matías and Área Natural de
Manejo Integrado San Matías
Bolivia's Route 10 (and 4) is the northern road - the more preferable of the two - and runs from San Ignacio de Velasco and passes through Espíritu. Here one takes a right at the fork, onto the road to San Vicente 67 miles (108 kms) east of San Ignacio de Velasco. There is a petrol station here. The only other stops along the way until San Matías are the microscopic pueblitos of San Bartolo, Ascención, and Las Petas.
Before San Matías, in Ascención, there is an unmarked righthand turn that leads to the borders of the Área Natural de Manejo Integrado San Matías, but it is poorly marked at best. (Locals will know it, however.) Likewise, in Las Petas one can turn right and cut off a few miles, picking up the same access road closer to Candelaria, which is the northern entrance to the territory.
The southern route runs from San Ignacio de Velasco, through Santa Ana de Velasco and to San Rafael de Velasco, then strikes due east. This road passes through San Antonio, Mercedes, San Jorge, and Caño Verde, where it forks left to Ascención, picking up Route 10/4. This offers quicker access to the Área Natural de Manejo Integrado San Matías, but otherwise is more time-consuming. On the other hand, the southern route is more clearly marked (especially in the early stages) as it passes through Santa Ana de Velasco and San Rafael de Velasco, which accounts for it being better known to cartographers and travellers alike. The biggest problem with this approach is that it washes out more frequently. God help you if it does when you're on it.
These two routes parallel each other for a good distance, and there are connecting roads between the two, depending upon one's ultimate destination. Thus, one can take the northerly route and later branch off onto the southerly route and still reach the same terminus, and vice versa. The two spots where these connecting roads are most frequently used are Caño Verde (south to north) and Las Petas (north to south, although this route takes you away from San Matias and toward Santo Corazón).
Where to Go
The reason for this is that the edifice is new, a reconstruction (albeit one pretty faifthful to the original except on a few technical points) rather than a restoration of the original. The Jesuit church was torn down in 1948, and construction initiated on a second one immediately thereafter, which was destroyed in 1964. A third one was finished by 1968, but that too was demolished in 1979 when the current model - begun in 1972 under Hans Roth - was deemed the better of the two. Only a few items in the sacristy remain from the first work, which is a great pity as the original church was acknowledged in its day as the most beautiful of all in the Chiquitania. In any case, the present one is physically the largest church in the region.
As with many churches in the Chiquitania, there are three altars, and for its sheer beauty, the right lateral one (the Altar of the Immaculate Conception) is one of the most moving in the country. After you're done admiring that, you could ring the diocesan office (962.2011) to ask if you can climb the bell tower (all that remains from the hideous third church); it affords a good view of the town and lake.
Once outside, as with all of the settlements, start with the plaza principal - the tranquil, postcard-perfect Plaza 31 de Julio. You can't go wrong. To get an idea of what local woodcarvers do on their days off, check out the carving of Bolivian musicians in front of the Miguel Areijer house (now the Hotel San Ignacio) on the square. Then amble over to the Casa de la Cultura (also off the plaza principal, at the intersection of Calles La Paz and Comercio). Admission is free. Also housed here is the Oficina de Turismo (962.2056 - which is the number for the alcaldía, but that's ok; they'll pass you over to the tourism folks). They can tell you what's happening around the area; in fact, the ever-present Jesús Rivero, who seems to function as something of a self-appointed town historian in search of an audience, would love to do just that. Make sure you have a good hour or two to kill first. It is open only Monday through Friday, not on weekends. Ask for their "San Ignacio de Velasco: En el Corazón de la Chiquitania" leaflet. It's accurate, free, and up to date, and that's a rare combination in these parts.
Whilst still in the centre, check the alcadía, on the same side and to the left of the heladería. Not that there's much in it to interest a visitor, but the building itself is one of the better examples of the modern Chiquitania style, with ornate vegetal border ornamentation in natural hues. It's really quite nice, and complements the older Chiquitania style employed on the diocesan buildings on the opposite side of the plaza.
If you happen to arrive when the local choir and orchestra (yes, San Ignacio de Velasco has both) are practicing - usually the last Saturday of every month somewhere in the cathedral complex - you're in for a treat. Considered one of the best in the country, the San Ignacio choir is made up entirely of children...children who happen to know how to sing in Spanish, Chiquitano, Italian, and Latin. They don't exactly throw house beats, and you won't hear Selena or Shakira, either, but you will hear Baroque- and Renaissance-era religious music aplenty. When they're not performing in town (and every other year at the prestigious International American Renaissance and Baroque Music Festival "Misiones de Chiquitos"), they're on the road...as in London, Madrid, and Paris.
San Ignacio de Velasco is home to several ateliers of note. Taller Hermanos Guasase is the best of the top-end woodcarving workshops in the region. They blow away everyone else. Located on Avenida Rosenhammer between Calles Chiquitos and Cochabamba, call ahead to make sure they're open (962.2319); the trip to see Walter and his four brothers and their coterie of expert carvers at work is worth the trek. Everything from baroque four-poster bed frames to neo-Victorian roll-top desks are available, and they will carve (and paint, if desired) everything to your exact specifications. It's all made from FSC-certified sustainably managed tropical woods, too.
Two other highly regarded artesanías in town are Taller Familia Landivar (962.2039) and Grupo El Tipoy, the latter of which produces exclusively fabrics. All of these outfits work with Mancomunidad de Municipios Chiquitanos, a Santa Cruz-based non-profit that helps provide economic opportunities to the area's inhabitants, so you're not only acquiring some beautiful art you'll never see anywhere else, you're also doing a lot of people good when you buy from one of these groups. The handful of dollars you spend in these establishments may seem small, but in the larger scheme of things they carry great weight. You may be helping to feed a family, educate a child, or supply medicine to people who otherwise would not have these things. Please do not fall into the trap of buying from US-based distributors who turn a profit at the expense of these native artisans.
On the whole, the environs of San Ignacio de Velasco will not excite (unless you fancy red ochre earth), although abundant tropical wildlife is...or was...everywhere. Much of the fauna is rare, and getting more so by the day as foreign game hunters are willing to spend big dollars to illegally decimate the dwindling population. To date, neither the national nor local authorities have done much to stem the tide, and the killing of rare species continues, in spite of what the government would like non-gun toting tourists to believe.
If you want a nice view of the town and its immediate surroundings, climb the Cerro de la Cruz just outside of town. Or cool off at the northern end of Laguna El Guapomó at the lesser known La Piedritas, a cozy nook with a great liitle cascade and waterpool where one can rent cabins and small motorised boats. (Don't just jump in anywhere, however; there are piranha - which are not as dangerous as Hollywood would have you think - in the shallows.) There is also a nice balneario, El Paraíso, near the lake that is owned by the Diocese of San Ignacio and is free to the public on weekends. There are pools for adults and children and a small restaurant; it can be a relaxing alternative to the lake, which is usually crowded on weekends.
To the immediate south of town is El Mirador de La Cruz, which affords wonderful panoramic vistas. Go just before sunset, and you'll think you're in paradise (until you get to Santiago de Chiquitos, that is). Just a bit more than a mile (2 kms) to the southeast along the road to San Miguel de Velasco is the Sanctuary of the Divine Child (Santuario del Divino Niño). Devout locals make pilgrimages there on the first Sunday of each month, and the top (cerro) also affords some nice views of the countryside.
San Juancito is a great spot for a day or overnight trip, and has a nascent eco-tourism initiative that is operated by its inhabitants. This is one of the best opportunities in the Chiquitania to experience life in a Chiquitano village, and should not be missed. For more information on San Juancito, contact the Casa de Cultura in San Ignacio de Velasco.
Places to Eat in San Ignacio de Velasco
Places to Stay in San Ignacio de Velasco
It also should be said that the category-defying Casa Suiza - calle Sucre, tel. 763.06798 (cell) - merits special mention. The Bolivian family that runs it is wonderful, and makes tourists feel as though they are part of the family. There are several rooms for tourists at reasonable prices, and this is a rare chance to be part of the local scene as well.
San Ignacio de Velasco (along with Concepción and Puerto Suárez) is also the only place east of Santa Cruz where you'll find an automatic teller machine (cajero automático locally). It is located inside (i.e., no outside access, so go when the office is open) the local Prodem FFP, a hybrid bank/credit union/money transfer agency, on the corner of Calles Velasco and Sucre, tel. 962.2099. It is generally open from 0900 to 1200 and again from 1500 to 1800, weekdays only. Prodem allows cash advances on your MasterCard and Visa, but your card must be the credit, not debit, type!
If you have only a debit card that is not linked to Prodem's system - which of course it isn't since you're not a Bolivian with an account there - you'll have to see a teller to beg permission to use it for a withdrawal over the counter, as Prodem believes that only a human being who has no way of knowing anything about you or your account, much less a way to access the latter, can verify that your card is active and that your account has funds available. Prodem also has offices in two other towns in the Chiquitania, San Julián (just before San Xavier) and Roboré. These are primarily for local deposits and wire transfers, and do not offer ATMs or cash advances.
Ready to go? For a downloadable street plan of San Ignacio de Velasco, click here.