San Ignacio and the Mini Jesuit Mission

The tiny town of San Ignacio is the site of the most impressive Jesuit mission in Misiones province. The site, together with the nearby Jesuit missions of Loreto and Santa Ana, was declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1984. It's a very sleepy place, but useful for lunch or a night's stay if you're seeing the missions.

Background

San Ignacio Mini ('small' in comparison with San Ignacio Guazu - 'large' - on the Paraguayan side of the Río Paraná) was originally founded in 1610 near the river Paranapanema in the present Brazilian state of Paraná, but frequent attacks from the bandeirantes(hunting for slaves as workers) forced the Jesuits to lead a massive exodus south together with the neighbouring Loreto mission. Taking their massive Guaraní population down the river by a series of rafts, they established San Ignacio on the river Yabebiry, not far from its present site, which was definitively settled in 1696.

At the height of its prosperity in 1731, the mission housed 4356 people. Only two priests ran the mission; a feat of astounding organization. Latin, Spanish and Guaraní were taught in the school, and nearly 40,000 head of cattle grazed in the surrounding land, where yerba mateand cotton, maize and tobacco were also cultivated. The mission itself once covered around 14 ha: today you can see remains on only 6 ha - still an impressive sight with the immense central plaza lined with buildings in dramatic red sandstone. For almost a hundred years, the Jesuit reduccionesoperated successfully, growing in size from a population of 28,000 in 1647 to 141,000 in 1732. But after the expulsion of the Jesuits in 1767 by the Spanish king, the mission rapidly declined. By 1784 there were only 176 Guaraní, and by 1810 none remained. In 1817, by order of the Paraguayan dictator, Rodriguez de Francia, San Ignacio was set on fire. The ruins, like those of nearby Santa Ana and Loreto, were lost in the jungle until the late 19th century when attempts at colonization forced the founding of new towns, and San Ignacio was founded near the site of the former mission. It wasn't until the 1980s that there was some attempt to give official protection to the ruins, which were declared a national monument at last in 1943.

The mission

Like other Jesuit missions, San Ignacio Mini was constructed around a central plaza: to the north, east and west were about 30 parallel one-storey buildings, each with a wide veranda in front and each divided into four to 10 small, one-room dwellings for slaves. Guaraní communities lived in the surrounding areas. The roofs of these buildings have gone, but the massive 1-m-thick walls are still standing except where they have been destroyed by the ibapoitrees. The public buildings, some still 10 m high, are on the south side of the plaza: in the centre are the ruins of the church, 74 m by 24 m, finished about 1724. To the right is the cemetery, which was divided for men and women, priests and children, to the left are the cloisters, the priests' quarters, guest rooms, and the workshops for wood and metal work, gold and silver. Sculpture was of particular significance in San Ignacio, and some of the most pleasing details are to be found in the red sandstone masonry. While the architecture is the traditional colonial baroque style found in all Jesuit public buildings, the influence of the Guaraní culture can be seen in the many natural details in bas-relief on walls and lintels: elegantly entwined grapes, fruit and flowers, together with naïve human forms and angels, so that even the buildings reveal a harmony between the Jesuit priests and their Guaraní workers. The chapel was designed by two Italian sacerdotes, and it took 36 years to build. Along the same stretch of terrace, you will see the remains of the music conservatory, library and kitchen. Many of the porticos and windows are elaborately carved, testimony to the highly trained work force and high standards of aesthetics. The whole area is excellently maintained and is a most impressive sight.

Just 200 m inside the entrance to the ruins is the Centro de Interpretación Jesuítico-Guaraní, with a fine model of the mission in its heyday, and an exhibition which includes representations of the lives of the Guaraní before the arrival of the Spanish, displays on the work of the Jesuits and the consequences of their expulsion. Next to the exit, to the left, there is also a small Museo Provincial, which contains a collection of artefacts from the Jesuit missions, some beautiful examples of stone carving, and a bas-relief of San Ignacio de Loyola, founder of the Jesuit order.

Other sights 

Galería Bellas Artes, where painter Juan Catalano exhibits and sells his works which feature geometrical motifs, or typical local scenes, mounted on wooden boards.

Casa de Horacio Quiroga - Quiroga (1878-1937) lived here part of his tragic life as a farmer and carpenter between 1910-1916, and again in the 1930s. Many of his fantastical short stories were inspired by this subtropical region and its inhabitants. The scenery is beautiful, with river views, a garden with palms and an amazing bamboo forest planted by him. There's a replica of his first house, made for a movie set in the 1990s, while his second house is still standing, and contains an exhibition of a few of his belongings.

Other missions: Loreto and Santa Ana

The mission of Loreto has far fewer visitors than San Ignacio, and under thick shady trees, the silence of the still air and the refreshing darkness add an attractive touch of mystery. The mission was moved to its present site in 1631, after the exodus from the former Jesuit province of Guayrá, and more than 6000 people were living here by 1733. It's thought that this was the site of the first printing press in the Americas, and of an extensive library, as well as being impressively productive: cattle and yerba matewere grown here, and ceramics were made. Little remains of this once large establishment other than a few walls, though excavations are in progress. Note the number of old trees growing entwined with stone buttresses. 

Santa Ana are the ruins of another Jesuit mission, not as extensive as San Ignacio, but revealing interesting architectural adaptation to the terrain, and founded much earlier, in 1633. Moved to its present site in 1663, Santa Ana housed the Jesuit iron foundry. In 1744 the mission was inhabited by 4331 people. The impressively high walls are still standing and there are beautiful steps leading from the church to the wide-open plaza.

Oberá

Oberá is the second largest town in Misiones, located amongst tea and yerba mateplantations, with factories open for visits. It's one of the province's biggest centres of 20th-century European immigration, and there are around 15 different nationalities here, including Japanese, Brazilian, Paraguayan and Middle Eastern communities, represented every September in the annual Fiesta Nacional del Inmigrante, held in the Parque de las Naciones. The town has over 35 churches and temples, but there's little reason to make a special trip. Oberá's tourist officeIPlazoleta Güemes, Av Libertad 90, T03755-21808, Mon-Fri 0700-1900, Sat-Sun 0800-1200, 1500-1900, www.obera.gov.ar, has information on local estanciasopen to visitors. There is a zooIItalia y Venezuela,with the Jardín de los Pájarosidaily 0700-1800, US$0.70, T03755-427023, which houses native birds.

Monte Aventura is a park with forest trails and entertainment for kids. If you're more interested in tea, you could head for Campo Viera, north of Oberá. The 'national capital of tea', it has about 8,000 ha of tea fields and 25 processing plants. The Fiesta Nacional del Téis held here every September with the Queen of Tea coronation.

There's a dazzling array of orchidssome 28 km southwest of Oberá on Route 14 at Leandro N Alem, a nursery and an arboretum of 36 ha with native trees.

This is edited copy from Footprint Handbooks. For comprehensive details (incl address, tel no, directions, opening times and prices) please refer to book or individual chapter PDF
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