History and Background
San Xavier played a much larger part in the history of the Jesuit missions than one may think. On 10 August 1696, it was the site of a fierce battle (one of the very few that took place in the Chiquitania outside of the Chaco War) between the Piñocas - led by a combined group of Jesuits and Spanish soldiers - and bandeirantes, as the Portuguese slave traders from Brazil were known. The latter had their heads handed to them...literally, courtesy of the Piñocas. Six bandeirantes survived.
As with most of the Chiquitos missions, San Xavier was relocated on a number of occasions, in 1696 and again two years later, before settling into its present one in 1705 or 1706. It was the capital of the Jesuit missions from 1691 to 1780, when San Juan Bautista was named the new seat of power. In 1799 it was named the capital again, but relinquished it once more less than a year later, this time to Santa Ana de Velasco.
San Xavier also is the birthplace of Bolivia's charismatic but ill-starred president and hero of the Chaco War, Germán Busch Becerra (who died by his own hand while in office, at the age of 35).
It is today a town of about 12,500 inhabitants, and the first stop for most who want to make the Jesuit Missions Circuit. An easy 137 miles (220 kms) from Santa Cruz over asphalt roads, the journey can be made in less than three hours. The town is best known as a tranquil weekend get-away for wealthy cruceños, many of whom have luxurious cabañas (weekend houses) and ranches on the outskirts of town.
Those who live here tend to be affiliated with agriculture or cattle in one way or another. So it stands to reason that the town is very proud of its milk-processing plant, the Quesería PEQ (less than a mile out of town on the right in front of the municipal "stadium", heading towards Concepción). As its name suggests, it also makes cheese (predominantly mozzarella), and the area's gastronomical treat, cuñapés (a type of hardened cheese bread, perfect for long trips). Locals will tell you that the place was named Bolivia's "National Cheese Capital". Whether that's a mark of distinction or opprobrium depends upon whether you fancy Bolivian cheeses. Go buy some (its store is open every day, three blocks off of the plaza principal) and then decide.
San Xavier is a quiet place: there are no discos, theatres, or shopping malls. But there are some artesanías that sell beautiful handiwork at ridiculously cheap prices, or carve items upon request. These, along with the church, museum, restaurants, and hotels, are grouped for the most part about the main square, technically Plaza Tte. General Germán Busch Becerra, named after the town's favourite son, but plaza principal to everyone.
Santa Rosa de la Mina
Where to Go
There are additional buildings that form the mission complex (the Conjunto Misional San Francisco Xavier), for which admission is Bs. 10. Not to be missed is the dedicatory plaque from UNESCO inscribing San Xavier and five other Chiquitos mission settlements as World Heritage Sites as of 12 December 1990. It is located in the baptistery of the church. Be sure to pick up the free English-language brochure, "Welcome to the Parish Church of San Javier." It's an excellent guide, available in both the conjunto misional and the parish office.
For the less independently inclined, there are guides available in San Xavier. There is also a tourist information office, run by the Tourist Guides Association of San Javier (963.5149), headquartered in the alcaldía on the corner of Calles 24 de Septiembre and Humberto Frey Escalante. For best results, write Lourdes Morales, the head of the Unidad de Turismo y Cultura, ahead of time or call her (963.5001). Currently, the association is staffed by two full-time guides, Magno Cornelio (who you can reach by cell, at 776.17902) and Eduardo Vargas (also by cell, at 776.33203). You can find Magno daily from 0900 to 1200 and again from 1400 to 1800 in the Artesanía San Xavier store, located on the south side of the main plaza. Both guides offer three different packaged tours (as well as tailor-made ones), any of which will provide an excellent overview of San Xavier's culture, history, and must-see sights.
Speaking of the alcaldía, it's a decent place to pick up some literature, including the newest version of their "San Xavier Cultural, Turístico y Productivo".
There are several interesting spots in and around San Xavier, including the Escuela de Músical Misional, a direct descendant of the music school established by the indefatigable Jesuit Fr. Martin Schmid in 1730, who also constructed the monumental church (and two others besides). Its library holds thousands of musical scores dating back hundreds of years. Apart from their incalculable value to musicologists and historians, these - along with those in neighbouring Concepción - are used every other April (i.e., in even years - 2012, 2014, etc.) in the famous International American Renaissance and Baroque Musical Festival "Misiones de Chiquitos".
Also in town is the Museo Misiones de Chiquitos, next to the church on the south side. Here you'll see instruments (some of which are still occasionally used) that were employed in religious services centuries ago, as well as the church's original bells, religious paintings, and even bits of an old organ carried by mule all the way from Potosí in 1730 by Schmid. (It arrived broken; he arrived intact.)
Another must-see on the plaza principal is the new Museo Yaritú, whose primary emphasis is upon the dances and other sacred rites formerly conducted by the area's inhabitants prior to the arrival of the missionaries...and still performed today, although now for Christian purposes. This is a rare example of a pre-mission culture on display in its true environment, and well worth taking in, especially during the Feast of Sts Peter and Paul (29-30 June). During this annual procession, two groups of Yaritus dance in separate circular movements, one towards and another away from the carried statues of Sts Peter and Paul. The festival is one of the best in the Chiquitania, and also offers traditional foods and drinks, dances, theatre, games, comedy, poetry, fireworks, and even the region's first fashion show.
The Yaritus and their rituals have proven so popular that there now is a group - the impressively named Agrupación de Manifestaciones Culturales "Yaritus" - that performs several centuries-old ceremonial dances in traditional costume and explains the Yaritús' fascinating cosmovision. This is wonderful cultural candy, and you can have it right where it all began. The two guides mentioned above (or the Tourist Guides Association) are the best contacts for these shows, or you can write the group directly.
After this, your best bet is the Casa de la Cultura "Tte. Gral. Germán Busch", located off the plaza principal (at the intersection of Calles Miguel Hertado and Tte. General Germán Busch Becerra). It contains many artifacts from Busch's brief but eventful life. Born in ths very house, see especially the room with his childhood bed and other aspects of his youth. You can call ahead (963.5149), but it's best to just show up if looking for information. Be sure to pick up their brochure, "Conozca la Primera Misión Jesuítica...San Xavier", that is, if you read Spanish.
San Xavier is one of the most innovative towns in the Chiquitania, and another of its firsts is Búho Blanco San Xavier, an "art space" and the only one of its kind east of Santa Cruz. It's across the pool from the Piedra de los Apóstoles and is an homage to the Japanese sculptor Isamu Noguchi. This is ultra-advanced concepting for the Chiquitania and is expected to host international exhibits, ah...some day. For more information, call (760) 23726 (cell) or 3.3583902 (from Santa Cruz), or fling an email at them.
Very close to town are two nice spots, the once-lovely (alas, now littered) overlook called La Piedra de Bibósi, with its grove of now-rare bibósi trees, and the rock formation Piedra de Los Apóstoles (all of three blocks east of the plaza principal), worshipped by the Piñocas as the home of their god Nupayaré (who they believed appeared as a sacred ostrich), and re-named the "Apostles' Stones" by the missionaries as there are, well...twelve stones. In spite of the Jesuits' efforts to extirpate pagan influences, this deity still makes his annual appearance at another of the town's Yaritú festivities, held in September during the "Day of Tradition". Christ was referred to here amongst the natives not as "the Redeemer" but as el Yiritux, meaning "He who is adored in the hills and valleys". This was how the Jesuits conveyed God's omnipresence to the Piñocas.
Everything else you'll want to see is located out of town, and all the excursions are no more than two hours' drive. There are a handful of taxis that perambulate about the plaza, but always ask the fare in advance. Otherwise, catch a ride with a local or ask if one of the regional buses will let you off at your destination.
Just 1.5 miles (3 kms) out of town to the north, heading towards the Río Blanco - not Santa Cruz - you'll come to the gorgeous Hotel Totaitú, some of the most impressive accommodations in the entire country, as well as the beautiful Laguna Soroboquí, a gorgeous spot to rest, canoe, bird watch, or camp if you're not keen on staying in town. Another 7.5 miles (12 kms) further up brings you to three hot springs, known simply as Aguas Calientes, reputed by the locals to have curative powers against arthritis and rheumatism, and situated in a setting that is as close to paradise as you'll find on earth. The flora here is straight out of the Garden of Eden, and you can camp as well. Call 770.82870 (cell) or 963 5171 for more information. If you stay on this route, you'll also see Los Tumbos at 12.4 miles (20 kms) - a great swimming spot - some inviting hot springs known as Aguas Tibias at 23 miles (37 kms), which has a nature preserve with tourist facilities, and finally, the Río Blanco at 37 miles (60 kms). Follow it further north and you'll reach the Amazon: The Río Blanco is one of its longest tributaries.
There also are several local indigenous communities to the immediate west of San Xavier, and four in particular of interest. These are San José Obrero, Las Abras, Montecristo, and San Pablo. Here, in many ways, life is almost identical to what it was in the days of the missionaries more than 300 years ago. The natives wear their traditional apparel, speak their own (now dying) language, called besiro (similar to Chiquitano), and retain their own customs. Rustic accommodations are available for those wishing to spend the night.
Places to Shop in San Xavier
Places to Eat in
Now the small print.... 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) or railway depôt (if there is one), but this list incorporates only those that one reasonably can expect to locate without trouble.
The following establishments are listed alphabetically, and are not in any other particular order. Most hotels and other accommodations have their own restaurants. Room service is generally not offered, except in luxury-class establishments.
Ready to go? For a downloadable street plan of San Xavier, click here.