San José de Chiquitos
History and Background
With roughly 11,500 inhabitants and located a little more than halfway between Santa Cruz (180 miles or 290 kms) and Puerto Suárez, it is an important
stop along the Santa Cruz-to-Brazil route by train and road (the latter recently was paved to Puerto Quijarro), a major ranching centre,
and the gateway to two national parks, Santa Cruz la Vieja (Bolivia's smallest) just outside
of town, and the massive Kaa-Iya (Bolivia's largest) to the south, in neighbouring Cordillera Province.
Where to Go
Be forewarned: The complex is in dire need of restoration on several fronts. As of early 2013, the bell tower - in spite of the alluring text above - is technically closed (which didn't stop me, although I don't endose the idea of ticking off the elderly German missionary priest who will not be pleased if he finds you trying to scale it). Meanwhile, the colegio (see below) seems to be permanently frozen in half-finished mode...which, this being Bolivia, shouldn't surprise anyone. Its walls, along with those of the ossuary, are being dried and preserved, a painstaking process that will take years to finish. For more information on what's happening in this regard, check with San Ignacio-based Plan Misiones, at 962.2257, or email them.
Check out the interior courtyard as well. Apart from the old colegio (presently functioning as a music school), there is an interesting-looking sundial conspicuously placed at the centre. A vestigial reminder of the complex's old mission days? Not quite. The sundial, for all its weathered look, is rather new. The original was moved years ago, when the railroad came to town and some civic-minded residents hit up the Bolivian railroad hierarchy for funds to build a charming new one of grey cement, which of course looked better than the priceless, historic original. Meanwhile, the real one sits hidden in a corner, a stone's throw away.
If you're thinking of purchasing some handicrafts and the like, ring the Asociación de Artesanos Chiquitos - San José (972.2305) and hope that someone's in the office that day. Its a half block off the plaza principal and has wonderful items across the board, from fabrics to shirts, carvings to walking sticks, and the famous abuelo masks that feauture prominently in the region's folklore and traditions. These and other local artists carry on a centuries-old tradition with little in the way of resources and even less recognition from the outside world. They are happy to share with visitors the stories and legends they weave into their creations. If you like what you see - and who can resist an authentic abuelo mask or cane to bring home? - please buy from the people here who make them. The all-female Asociación de Artesanos Chiquitanos (ARTECHI) is another sure bet, and they're generally easier to get hold of, too. Artesanías San José, on the main plaza, also has interesting regional items, and remarkably is open during the afternoon siesta (from 1230 to 1500 or so).
Check the Escuela Taller de la Chiquitania, a recent accomplishment of the collaboration between Plan Misiones and a slew of Bolivian and European non-profits. This is an excellent opportunity to see how the next generation of Chiquitano artisans and preservationists are moving up through the ranks and handling the delicate infrastructure that is required to keep the complejos misionales from falling apart. The school awards 50 scholarships to young people from all of the major towns of the Chiquitania and brings them together to learn to preserve their artistic heritage.
San José de Chiquitos used to have a sizeable Ayoreo population (in addition to its namesake Chiquitano inhabitants) and several artesanías sell beautiful, rugged hammocks hand-woven by Ayoreo women using centuries-old techniques. These are every bit the equal of the better-known Guarayos hammocks found in Santa Cruz.
As with the other Jesuit former missions of the Chiquitania, the area's unique music retains a prominent place in its culture. San José de Chiquitos boasts at least two schools of music and an orchestra, a sub-set of the well-known Gran Orquesta de las Misiones de Chiquitos. It performs frequently, and always during the acclaimed International American Renaissance and Baroque Music Festival "Misiones de Chiquitos", held towards the end of April-beginning of May in even years (e.g., 2012, 2014).
There is also a small gift shop and display area in the casa de la cultura (see below) that holds some interest - maybe - to the student of anthropology. The church has a small museum, and the Museo Ayoreo-Chiquitano, co-founded by the non-profit conservation organisations Hombre y Naturaleza and Fundación para la Conversación del Bosque Chiquitano.
If your taste in music runs to modern and you've brought your dancing shoes, you're in luck...or in hell...depending upon your outlook. There are three discotheques in town: Don Joaquín, La Pascana Disco, and the ominously named Karaoke 5 Mentario. This last one perhaps needs explaining. The number five is "cinco" in Spanish, which forms a clever play on words: cinco + mentario = "sin comentario", which translates as "without comment". Whether this refers to the discotheque itself or what goes on inside is best left to the imagination. In any case, if you hit the clubs, don't bring glow sticks or rave material. You will not hear house, jungle, trance, or anything even close, but instead an unimaginably warped version of some 70s disco number crooned in Spanish. You have been warned.
As for other local cultural venues, apart from several religious and folklore festivals (which are very faithful to tradition), they are few and far between; you'll have to move outside of the town to see the rest. There are plenty of taxis perambulating about the plaza principal to help you, although you're better off with your own vehicle. Before you head out, check with the Oficina Mayor de Cultura y Turismo (972.2084): they're extremely hospitable, and will have the latest on whatever else may be happening in and around town. Located next to the alcaldía at the corner of the plaza (at the intersection of Calles Bolívar and Linares), they publish a fold-out map/guide, "San José de Chiquitos Patrimonio Cultural de la Humanidad", which (if you read Spanish) is invaluable. The town also has its very own guides...well, one anyway...the affable Luís Alberto Rodas (972.2146), who can show you what's what and where.
Parque Nacional Histórico Santa Cruz la Vieja
Less than 3 miles (5 kms) south of town, it is a wonderful spot to relax and see where the departmental capital of Santa Cruz, at that time part of the newly created Province of Mojos (or Moxos), was founded by the celebrated Spanish lieutenant Ñuflo de Chávez - although orthographic purists will delight to know he spelt it Ñuflo de Chaves - on 26 February 1561. The name was chosen in honour of his hometown in Extremadura, Spain. The settlement was not a secure one, and although at one time it supposedly held nearly 20,000 inhabitants (3,160 is a more accurate guess, at least for the year 1586), the town was forceably moved west to a location near the present-day town of Cotoca, and the site abandoned for good in 1604.
The story of how Santa Cruz de la Sierra eventually came to be located at its present location is maddeningly complicated. The general sequence of events was as follows. In 1559, Chávez founded Nueva Asunción on the right bank of the Río Grande (also known as the Río Guapay), about 62 miles (100 kms) northeast of where Santa Cruz now sits, and travelled immediately thereafter to Lima to secure his position as the region's new governor. Although technically not located in the Chiquitania, it nonetheless was the first permanent settlement anywhere near it. Later than same year, Andrés Manso founded the town of La Barranca almost immediately opposite Nueva Asunción on the left bank of the Río Grande. Chávez saw this as a direct threat to his governorship and took possession of La Barranca, which survived as a separate town until 1564. The inhabitants of Nueva Asunción soon decamped for La Barranca, and the former town was abandoned in 1561.
After Chávez founded Santa Cruz de la Sierra in its original spot in 1561, nothing of note occured until 1571, when the new governor, Juan Peréz de Zurita, appointed by Viceroy Francisco de Toledo, announced that the town would have to relocate to the site formerly occupied by La Barranca. This did not happen, and in the end Zurita was deposed by Toledo. Then in 1590, on the banks of the Río Grande further south, Governor Lorenzo Suárez de Figueroa founded a new town, San Lorenzo el Real (later known as San Lorenzo de la Frontera). This was to be the new provincial capital. The following year most of it was moved some 6 miles (10 kms) across the river and re-named Cotoca. In 1595, some of the inhabitants of Cotoca were transferred to another location 10 miles (16 kms) to the left, on the banks of another major river, the Piraí. This was originally known as Punta de San Bartolomé.
Meanwhile Santa Cruz de la Sierra languished, its population steadily decreasing. In 1604, a representative of the Audencia de Charcas, Francisco de Alfaro, visited the town and attempted to pursuade its remaining inhabitants to relocate to San Lorenzo de la Frontera, which still had a remnant living there even after the majority had left either thirteen years earlier (to found Cotoca) or nine years earlier (to help found Punta de San Bartolomé). The cruceños decided to move...but not to Cotoca. Instead, they set up their own town, christening it Santa Cruz de la Sierra la Nueva. Oddly enough, they chose to settle between two other towns also losing population, San Lorenzo de la Frontera on one side and Cotoca on the other. The situation remained thus until 1621, when Governor Nuño de la Cueva decided to fuse together the towns of San Lorenzo de la Frontera and Santa Cruz de la Sierra la Nueva, whilst leaving intact Cotoca.
However, instead of having the two towns join together on the spot, which would have been too logical, the next year he ordered everyone to pack up again and move, this time to Punta de San Bartolomé. And so it came to pass. Cotoca stayed right where it was (and still is), and everybody else merged into one town, which took the name Santa Cruz de la Sierra.
You won't find Ñuflo's name in print much these days. It's worth remembering that he was as intrepid as they come. Originally based in Paraguay, he walked - as in on foot the entire way - from one side of South America to the other in 1548, arriving in Lima, and then, incredibly, back to Asunción again. He did it yet again in 1558, and this time got his reward: the Viceroyalty created the province of Moxos (which was quickly renamed Santa Cruz) and more or less left him in charge of it. These journeys and his diplomatic skills earned him immense respect. Nonetheless, just seven years after founding the town, he was killed by an Itatine warrior. Incidentally, he introduced both sheep and goats to Bolivia; to this day they remain important sources of the country's food and income.
Anyway, back to the park.... There's nearly 119 square miles (172 kms) under protection here, but the part of the park closest to the entrance is what interests most visitors. History buffs be prepared: Despite some guidebooks touting the place as a shining jewel of historical significance, there isn't much to see except a row of wooden crosses flanking the trail to a hill marking the spot where the explorer/governor established the town, and the vestiges of its street plan. And naturally, the obligatory statue of Don Ñuflo himself. What you'll remember most is the area's remarkable ambience. It is a tranquil, serene place, with shade trees lining the walk, a perfect spot for contemplation. For such a small park (by Bolivian standards), there is a surfeit of flora and fauna, although you'll have to go deep to find it. More than 70 animal and bird species (including the extremely rare panther) and perhaps double that number of tree types are present. It supposedly will cost you Bs. 20 to get into the park, but that's only if there's someone at the gate, which is unlikely.
Another 2 miles or so south will find you at the Cascadas del Suruquizo, which boast three beautiful waterfalls and springs, the largest of which, the chromatically ever-changing Laguna Leteí, is the source of much of the town's fresh water. If you've hiked the distance here from the park, it is sheer paradise to loll about in one of the pools or under the falls.
In this climate, nearly every town has its balneario (technically a resort, but in these parts, a municipal swimming pool with snack bar and changing rooms), and San José de Chiquitos has two. Some locals may steer you towards the one at El Sutó, just south of the park. It is closer than the cascades, but it is also algae-ridden and usually crowded. Don't waste your time (or the Bs. 5 entrance fee). There is another balneario closer to town - El Quebracho - where you can grab a snack and hang with the locals, although here again, the pool is less than optimal. It have three cabinas if you're inclined to spend the night.
The environs of San José de Chiquitos are ground zero for prehistoric cave paintings, and locals can point you in the direction of several of the better-known spots for petroglyphs, including Capinzal, El Diablito, Motacusito, Pope Santosch, Roca Alada, and San Pedro, all of which are located not terribly far from town. You'll need transport to reach them, however.
If you head due east for a few miles along the road to Puerto Suárez, you'll see Cerro Turubó off to the right. At 1,971 feet (657 metres), it is the highest point in the province and affords astonishingly beautiful views. The summit can be climbed easily, but not without insect repellant...and a camera. Cerro Turubó stands at the foot of the Serranía de San José, an awe-inspiring Pre-Cambrian range of low ridges that seem to stretch endlessly to the east. Time disappears here, and the sensation one has upon seeing them is of looking directly into the prehistoric past.
It is possible to enter the enormous Kaa-Iya National Park by heading due south from San José de Chiquitos, although a 4x4 vehicle is essential. This trip is not for the faint of heart or inexperienced. If you're game and have provisions, head for the hamlet of Leteí along the road to the lake of the same name. Keep Cerro Pedrito directly in front of you, and within 50 miles (80 kms), you'll be there. Want the ultimate in remote travel? Keep going and if you beat the odds, you'll wind up in the Gran Chaco somewhere in northern Paraguay, and probably by arrested by a teenage conscript doing time in one of the region's remote and pointless military garrisons. This would be a great story to tell your grandchildren...if you live to tell it.
If you read Spanish, be sure to take along - if you can find it - the latest edition of Destinos del Sureste Cruceño, an outstanding tourist guide for local sites. You may be able to find it at the alcaldía as well as in travel agencies in Santa Cruz, and occasionally at the train station there.
Nonetheless, the following establishments can be found easily enough by asking...I hope. They are listed alphabetically. Most hotels and other accommodations have their own restaurants. Room service is generally not offered, except in luxury-class establishments.
It must be mentioned that the best pizza in Bolivia, nay, in South America and possibly the Western Hemisphere, can be had in humble San José de Chiquitos. Check the incredible pizzeria Romanazzi. As one traveller put it: "It is the culinary equivalent of an endless orgasm."
If you want to see San José de Chiquitos at the optimal time, go the last week of April. Its patronal feast is the first of May, and the week leading up to it is filled with interesting cultural, economic, gastronomic, religious, and sporting events. Some of the folklore events in particular are unique and cannot be seen anywhere else.
Ready to go? For a downloadable street plan of San José de Chiquitos, click here.