17 July 2007

San Ignacio and Santa Ana

On my last day in Posadas I took the trip everybody comes to Posadas for, which is the Jesuit-Guarani missions (known to many as the Jesuit missions, but it was the Guaraníes who actually did the hard work, so...). There are three missions near Posadas: Santa Ana, Loreto and San Ignacio. They're associated to modern towns of the same name, but in San Ignacio the mission (called San Ignacio Miní) is merely on the edge of the town, a few blocks from the main square, while in Santa Ana the modern town is located a couple of kilometers away from the ruins of Nuestra Señora de Santa Ana. Moreover, both San Ignacio and Santa Ana are close to the main road (National Route 12), while Loreto is 3 km away into the countryside. I started in San Ignacio and had to skip Loreto because it would've taken me more than I expected, and I wanted to be back in Posadas before it was too dark.

There are special tours to the missions. You get ripped off and carried away with a fancy guide and all that. I asked about that first, but I was told it was a stupid thing to do — better do your own homework. So I took the bus to the Posadas terminus, and then got on another bus to San Ignacio. It was very cold and cloudy, but not raining. I told the bus driver to drop me off in front of the church, which is where most people get off anyway; then I did a 15-minute tour of the town and then headed for the ruins. San Ignacio is pleasantly small and calm. The ruins are located 300 or 400 m from the main square. At that point you're greeted by a profusion of places to eat, drink, gamble and sleep, and by a lot of people trying to sell you cheap quality books and memorabilia of the mission. You walk 250 meters farther, and you find the entrance to the historical site.

You pay AR$7.50 (good for the three missions if you decide to visit them all and keep the ticket), and you get in. Once inside, you're free to walk and wander by yourself as long as you don't break or move or try to set anything on fire. I did that, took a million pictures, then joined a group with a guide and did the tour again. There was a middle-aged couple of rosarinos with a kid who asked a lot of questions (curious, clever kid, if only just a bit bothersome) and a couple of New Yorkers that I met again later in Santa Ana.

Now, as Borges would say, comes the difficult part of my story, because there are some things you can't just describe in words but only if the other person has shared the experience. San Ignacio Miní was founded in the early 17th century and endured until the last quarter of the 18th, when a jealous Spanish Crown delivered the Jesuits to the Portuguese established in Brazil, who came upon the mission towns, burned them down and forced their indigenous inhabitants to flee or become slaves. The remains of the Jesuit-Guaraní town, which once housed up to 4,000 people, are now scattered blocks of stone, worn down over four centuries by the elements of a fierce subtropical climate. The parts of the mission not devoured by the forest are still imposing and hint at a great organization and an unmatched industriousness. Imagine yourself being sent to win the minds and souls of thousands of warring natives of a faraway land who speak a language like no other known on Earth, and get them to become sedentary and to build a town of hardwood and stone in the middle of the forest, and raise cattle and harvest yerba mate..., and even attend church every Sunday. The Jesuits did it, and the Guaraní cooperated. When they were scattered, they knew a lot of manual skills and were organized; many escaped to other settlements, towns and cities far away, and changed their names to Spanish-sounding ones, and their trace was lost. Yet Guaraní is still spoken by many in Misiones and Corrientes, and Guaraní words still pepper our very own Rioplatense dialect.

Let the proverbial pictures speak more than several thousand words...

The mission of Santa Ana is not as grand as San Ignacio. The tour guide, however, made up for it with a great history lesson. As it often happens in not-so-popular places, the guy in charge had more time to chat, to answer to common and unexpected questions, and even to hear about things I had to say. Before, however, I ventured into the ruins by myself, and was surprised to find, by the remains of the church, a humble modern-looking cemetery.

The guide was talking to a foreign-looking couple. I approached them and joined the tour. The two visitors were from New York City; he understood some Spanish, she almost nothing. The guy told me his Spanish was no good in Argentina, and he was really having trouble coping with the fast-paced Mesopotamic Argentine Spanish of our guide, who spoke almost no English. I remained silent at first, until the dialogue came to a halt when the tour guide tried to explain the religious beliefs of the Guaraníes about an afterlife paradise land — paradisíaco was too long and too complex a word for the NYer. After several minutes of me not speaking a word in English, my interjection, "heavenly place!", startled the rest of the group a bit... After that I turned into a last-resort translator for a while. I enjoyed it — practise for my English, and conversation after days of sleeping in an isolated cabin and eating alone in strange places.

Santa Ana, we learned, was founded in the same wave of colonization as San Ignacio, and suffered the same fate. It was only the resistance of the Jesuits and the Guaraní combined that kept these lands from becoming part of Brazil or, later, of Paraguay. The guide noted, quite appropriately, that Misiones is and looks exactly like a wedge between the territories of those two countries. After the Revolution of May 1810, many parts of Argentina were left to their own devices. The Spanish were beaten, and the local political leaders (caudillos) became lords of their separate provinces, but in some places there was simply no-one, or no-one left. Misiones is part of Argentina, probably, because of a combination of luck and the fact that there were not enough troops to deal with such large borders as those of Argentina and Brazil... and of course, because whatever had flourished there had reverted to subtropical jungle in a matter of years.

The cemetery had a nice story as well. When modern Santa Ana was founded, the people recognized the religious value of the Jesuit mission's holy ground, and started burying their dead in the old Jesuit cemetery (on top, we assume, of previous native burials). In many cases, the poor had no money to build a proper tomb and just piled up stones taken from the ancient walls of the mission church. They continued to use the cemetery until 1980, when the municipality of Santa Ana opened up a new one closer to the town and offered the land for the remains buried in the mission. However, the cost of moving the bodies was not included, so many people left their relatives where they were buried, and even today they came to visit the graves to the mission.

As you can see in the pictures, the sun got out at least briefly while I was in Santa Ana. Alas, it wasn't to last, but it made for better contrast, and brought some welcome warmth to an afternoon that was getting cold fast.

I missed Loreto, but I couldn't have done it in what was left of the day. It's still winter and the sun sets fast, and I still had to catch a bus to Posadas, and another one from the bus station to my cabin, and get something to eat. I had to prepare my stuff for the next step of my journey, the Capital of the Forest — Oberá.


  1. Pablo –

    Do you know who now owns and is responsible for the missions? I know that some of them are UNESCO World Heritage Sites. Have many of the buildings been reconstructed (I notice there is scaffolding in one of your pictures) from the remaining masonry?

    I guess you could embark on a second career as a South American tour guide. Seriously. With your language skills and intellectual curiosity you’d be an excellent leader. You just have to like camping occasionally, in between sleeping in five-star hotels. And need I mention, it pays well (and in US$).


  2. no photo of the terrifying missionaries that greet you in what seems like a dungeon-complete with bars-as you first enter san ignacio? freaked me out good and proper-i guess that was what they wanted to do to the locals all those years ago...scare them into submission.

  3. John: all three missions I talked about are UNESCO World Heritage Sites since 1984. At San Ignacio I saw a sign that read: National Commission of Museums, Monuments and Historical Sites - Works Plan 2004-2007 - Government of the Province of Misiones - Jesuit Missions Programme - Restoration of the Main Gate of the Church of San Ignacio Miní - Financed by: Government of Misiones and WORLD MONUMENTS FUND - Robert W. Wilson Challenge to Conserve Our Heritage - Collaboration from: Bunge y Born Foundation, Acindar and Acindar Foundation, etc. etc. (I have a picture). So big business groups are involved, as well as the local and national governments. According to the guide in Santa Ana, nobody cared about the missions until the 1940s, then some repairs were done using modern materials, but the modern trend is to restore the original appearance and nothing else. Some walls have scaffolding but in most cases it's only because they would crumble otherwise - they're not supported by anything but their own weight.

    I lack the adventurousness to jump from one 5-star hotel to another, but getting paid to travel sounds interesting...

    Matt: really? Where was that? I think I skipped the front building (the more modern one in the picture of the entrance to San Ignacio with the blue sign in front of it). Maybe that was where the missionaires were lurking. Or maybe someone with good taste was put in charge. :) The only staff I saw was a guy sweeping the grass and the tour guide.

  4. Pablo,

    Thanks for writing about your travels. This brought memories of my visits to Iguazu and the ruins. I actually have been to San Ignacio Mini twice.


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