San Miguel de Velasco
History and Background
San Miguel de Velasco is a small town of about 6,000 inhabitants, usually next on the list to visit after San Ignacio de Velasco (although with Santa Ana de Velasco roughly the same distance from San Ignacio de Velasco, it is just as easily the final stop after San Rafael de Velasco and before returning to San Ignacio de Velasco).
Traditionally, San Miguel de Velasco has been the grain producing area of the Chiquitania, as well as a centre for casting bronze and lead. Until recently, there were still gold mines in the area, including Las Minas de Sá, where Spanish explorers reputedly discovered sizeable quantities centuries ago. Now it's better known as a good place to find Chiquitano art, and is giving San Ignacio de Velasco a run for its money in this regard.
Like its sister communities of Santa Ana de Velasco and San Rafael de Velasco, San Miguel de Velasco is a tranquil spot where time seems to have stood still for the past three centuries. There isn't a great deal to see apart from its pristine, stunning church (which is considered by some on a par with that of Santa Ana de Velasco as the most historically accurate of all the restored Jesuit templos), but this is perhaps its best point. It will blow you away, no matter how many others you've seen. The painted roofs above the sacristy and chancel are phenomenal examples of trompe l'oiel art, executed by native artists who painted on their back, à la Michelangelo in the Sistine Chapel. The mica-encrusted walls are equally mind-blowing. Small wonder that the interior is the most photographed of all the Jesuit churches in the Chiquitania.
To get an idea of what went into this structure, consider that just before the expulsion of the Jesuits in 1767, the goldsmith Antonio Rojas was given no less than one thousand pounds of hammered gold to work into the incredibly ornate interior. It took him until 1783 to finish the job. The monumental main altar alone in today's dollars would be valued well into the millions, and aesthetically rivals some of the best European contemporaries. Fortunately, much of the original art, furnishings, and structure are intact: even the windows are estimated to have about 60 percent original glass. Merely to sit in this church is an experience that instantly transports the visitor back 250 years in time.
The mission complex has something else to offer, too. (There is still an active convent in San Miguel de Velasco, by the way.) There is a charming story regarding its bells. There are seven of them, the most in any of the Chiquitos missions, hung in the bell tower (or campanario, but in town referred to simply as "el torre"). Each had a separate signalling purpose, as taught by the Jesuits and is still occasionally employed today. They function still as a means of transmitting news within the town, and were noted by the French explorer Alcide D'Orbigny during his stop in July of 1831.
When the smallest and one of the medium-sized ones are rung simultaneously, this announces the death of an infant. One of the larger ones calls students to classes. When it is rung in tandem with two others, it signals the departure of a visiting dignitary. Depending upon the circumstances, this same single bell is used also to announce the baptism of a child, the arrival of important individuals, or - when rung by the clergy - for certain prayers, for example, to protect the town against drought or pestilence. Yet another bell is used on Sundays, when it is rung at 0400 (!) to call the townspeople to begin their day by preparing themselves for Mass. This bell also is employed during solemn religious processions and benedictions. Finally, the largest bell of all is reserved for announcing fires or other calamitous events, and to assemble the entire town to the plaza principal. Rumour has it that originally there was another, even larger bell for Sunday use, but the superstitious inhabitants thought its sombre tones brought about the deaths of their infants, and so it was removed and replaced by another of a lighter pitch.
The town is a wonderful place to stop and rest before resuming your journey, and wholly authentic. Because of its relative isolation, San Miguel de Velasco has retained a number of customs and traditions that have died out in other settlements. If you're in town on the feast day of its patron saint, 29 September - the Feast of St. Michael the Archangel (technically the Feast of Sts Michael, Gabriel, and Raphael, Archangels nowadays) - you'll see some of these in full force. San Miguel de Velasco also retains its Jesuit music, and has its very own Orquesta Misional, which plays a prominent rôle in the prestigious International American Renaissance and Baroque Music Festival "Misiones de Chiquitos". (If you've read anything about the other mission settlements, you've probably come to accept this as the norm for these towns by now.)
In keeping with its "frozen in time" feel, the pueblo is still an active mission, staffed by Dominican nuns, with three schools and a highly regarded workshop. Another reason to make the mission complex your first stop is that it also functions as a de facto tourist plaza principal, on the corner of Calle Martin Schmid and the main road. Don't be surprised if you're serenaded whilst your questions are answered: young musicians practice here for the music festival.
Where to Go
Stop by the Museo Etnofolklorico, off the Plaza 29 de Septiembre at its intersection with Calle Betania, to see the rich traditions of the area unfold before your wondering eyes. It's not the Tate, but it's interesting all the same...and free. The same building also houses a local school of Jesuit-era music and - of all things - a chess centre. Next door is the old Casa del Bastón y del Cabildo Indígena. In the days of the Jesuits, native leaders would hash things out with their kin here and then lay it out for the Jesuits' approval. A bastón (a type of ceremonial walking stick), was held by the cacique (native chief) in case things ever got out of hand...which they very rarely did. Now it's the headquarters of the municipal government, which also doubles as an excellent source for local tourism information. It also happens to be the town's casa de cultura. You can ring them up at 962.4222. If you do, ask for María Beatriz Medína. She knows the town better than anyone and is very helpful.
San Miguel de Velasco is now considered one of the best places to obtain Chiquitano art. There are a handful of cooperatives about the plaza principal and elsewhere that will accommodate your wishes nicely, and still leave you with plenty of change in your pocket. One of the best is Taller Artesanal Bolivia (962.4259), on Calle Ayacucho off of the square. It works with Mancomunidad de Municipios Chiquitanos, a Santa Cruz-based non-profit that helps provide economic opportunities to the area's inhabitants, many of whom make what little they do through its active assistance. There is also the highly regarded Centro Artesanal de San Miguel (962.4262), a few blocks out of the centre on the road towards San Ignacio de Velasco.
The handful of dollars you drop here may seem negligible, 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 the native artisans, whilst claiming how much they are trying to help them.
About 2.5 miles (4 kms) outside of town, there is a small lake where you can swim, and next to it, an interesting shrine - the Santuario de Cotoca - erected years ago in homage to an apparition of the Virgin Mary that occured in the town of the same name (located near Santa Cruz). This spot is popular on Sundays, so plan accordingly. Further out of town are some interesting caves, formerly inhabited and in many cases containing rock art, the best known of which is Las Cuevas de San Lucas in the predominantly indigenous community of Gupomocito (15.5 miles, or 25 kms, distant). Others are the mysterious La Señora y Cerro Pelao, also about 15.5 miles (25 kms) south of the town, and El Sutó at 5.5 miles (9 kms) along the road to San Rafael de Velasco.
Places to Eat in San Miguel de Velasco
Ready to go? For a downloadable street plan of San Miguel, click here.