San Rafael de Velasco
History and Background
Several eminent Jesuit missionaries (including the seemingly omnipresent Arce, Zea, Miguel de Yegros, and of course Herbás) set out from Candelaria (in southern Paraguay), reached Asunción, and then began the upward river journey in search of San Rafael de Velasco. They followed the Paraguay until what is now Corumbá in Brazil. There they turned left and followed a tributary to where they thought might be the mysterious lake that Herbás had plunged his cross into the previous year.They didn't find the cross or the lake. They were hundred of kilometres to the east of it. And so San Rafael de Velasco never became the link to the Paraguay missions it was intended to be.
Translated in 1701 and 1705, almost completely destroyed by fire in 1721, sub-divided the following year (the spun-off portion became the reducción of San Miguel de Velasco) and sending a good portion of its inhabitants to found yet another mission (Santa Ana de Velasco) in 1755, San Rafael de Velasco soldiered on, the erstwhile capital of colonial Chiquitos province.
Exactly 202 years later, the Austrian Jesuit Fr. Felix Plattner arrived, took one look at its decaying church and vowed to try to save it from utter ruin. That unlikely start led to the arrival of Hans Roth (at that time also a Jesuit), and, well...that's a tale best left for the page on the Jesuit churches themselves.
San Rafael de Velasco, at 315 miles (515 kms) from Santa Cruz (assuming one passes through Santa Ana de Velasco first), has a little more than 3,100 inhabitants and shares many of the characteristics that nearby Santa Ana de Velasco and San Miguel de Velasco possess: a timeless charm, tranquil lifestyle, fidelity to its Jesuit-inspired traditions, and - oh, yes - an absolutely amazing church. San Rafael de Velasco is roughly equidistant from both of these towns, and the last stop before the 88-mile (142-kilometre) trek south to San José de Chiquitos.
If you are going east or south from here, be sure to top off your tank at the town's only surtidor. It's a long way to the next one in either direction. Incidentally, when leaving for San Rafael de Velasco (the usual approach for those taking in the Jesuit Missions Circuit), be mindful of the fork in the road: a right turn will send you all the way to San José de Chiquitos without passing through San Rafael de Velasco; staying straight will bring you to San Miguel de Velasco via Santa Ana de Velasco.
Where to Go
The church bears some faint resemblance to that of Santa Ana de Velasco in that both employ mica on their walls to refract the sunlight, giving the interior at times a glittering effect. It is unique amongst the restored Jesuit churches in that cane and wood were used by Roth and the others when roofing the structure. Several of the carvings are original, and the almost confrontational-looking wall angels in particular are not to be missed. It is conjectured that these same figures were believed by early natives to protect them against evil spirits who otherwise would enter through the church's somewhat porous walls and windows. Not exactly what the Jesuits wanted them to think....
What you won't see in the church (but you will in that of Santa Ana de Velasco) is the organ that Schmid had built in Potosí, shipped to the mission, and re-assembled by hand. The idea caught on with the other reducciones, and to this day that of Santa Ana de Velasco is intact and in working condition. (The others have long since disappeared.)
Like San Miguel de Velasco, San Rafael de Velasco also remains an active mission, and there is a convent and workshops within the church complex. Also as with its neighbour, it boasts a disproportionate number of artisans, and is one of the best places to acquire carvings at prices even lower than those found in other towns. The reputation of these craftsmen is growing, and it is possible that in the next few years tiny little San Rafael de Velasco and San Miguel de Velasco may become the centres for the best in Chiquitano art.
You could lob a call at the Gobierno Municipal San Rafael de Velasco (962.4020 or 4022), conveniently located on the corner of the main plaza (Plaza 24 de Octubre). They will know what is happening...if anything is. if you happen to be in town on its patronal feast (24 October), you'll have a rare opportunity to see traditional dances like the sarao and viejitos lanceros performed. These are performed in the far eastern reaches of the Chiquitania only, and are direct links to its distant Jesuit past.
Another link to that past is its music. As you might imagine, when the celebrated International American Renaissance and Baroque Music Festival "Misiones de Chiquitos" (held every other April, in even years) rolls into town, San Rafael de Velasco comes alive.
Not far from town are some prehistoric rock carvings and paintings in the Santa Mónica forest, which also has an enormous variety of flora and fauna - a perfect side trip if you can't take in one of Bolivia's many national parks. These aren't well known spots and you'll need someone to show you where they are, but it's worth a visit as they are found in a pristine environment. If you're into minerals and such, the locals still extract chalk, lime, and mica from the bizarrely named Serranía de San Diablo in the same area. Closer at hand, the nearby Pozo del Yeso also yields similar materials, which natives employ in observing the time-honoured ritual of whitewashing their houses. (Santa Ana de Velasco and even San Ignacio de Velasco also retain this custom.)
A bit further south (6.2 miles, or 10 kms, out of town) are the hamlets of Santa Isabel and Santa Bárbara, which were amongst the first places to support Bolivia's independence movement. In 1815, in one of the great ironies in South American history, the future Bolivian independence leader Ignacio Warnes (made further ironic by the fact that Warnes was Argentine, not Bolivian) defeated the colonial forces led by Governor Juan de Altolaguirre, in the process slaughtering about one thousand supposedly loyalist Chiquitano, who had been duped into fighting for the Spanish crown.
The history books note that Warnes defeated a contingent of "Spanish troops" outside of Santa Bárbara, a statement that is barely truthful, as almost every "soldier" was a Chiquitano. Those few who fell under Warnes' command (almost none of whom were native Bolivians) are considered amongst the first martyrs in the battle for independence, in an event Bolivian texts invariably refer to (if they bother at all) as a "glorious battle for the armies of the Republic." The hapless Chiquitano who died without ever understanding who really was pulling their strings are not mentioned. Although the massacre - hardly a "battle" - took place a full decade before Bolivia decided to cast off the Spanish yoke, this kind of reckoning is par for the course in Bolivia.
A final cultural note: San Rafael was the setting for San Rafael, Camba Town: Life in a Lowland Bolivian Peasant Community, a now-dated but very interesting account of the stay of one of the first Peace Corps volunteers in Bolivia. It's still good reading for those who wish to know more of the life of a typical Chiquitania family and town.
Places to Shop in San Rafael de Velasco
Places to Eat in San Rafael de Velasco
Only those restaurants that have either a (sometimes vague) street address and/or telephone number are included here. All towns in the region have additional eateries, especially in or near the market (ideal for travellers with cast-iron stomachs), but this list incorporates only those that one reasonably can expect to locate without trouble.
Ready to go? For a downloadable street plan of San Rafael, click here.