An absolute mission to visit the Jesuit missions of La Santisima Trinidad de Parana and Jesus de Tavarangue8th Feb 2019
Tomorrow I will visit the Jesuit Missions of Trinidad and Jesus in southern Paraguay. They are jointly No. 380 in The Ultimate Travelist Challenge and I am unsure of what to expect. Wikipedia tells me that they are the ruins of miniature city-states that were setup by Jesuit missionaries in the 17th and 18th centuries – doesn’t exactly send tingles of anticipation down my spine. Next stop; Google Photos – maybe there is something special about the architecture or setting? No, that doesn’t seem to be the case either. I knew that undertaking this challenge would take me to some places that I wouldn’t ordinarily be interested in, this seems to be the case here.
I started my journey, earlier today, having a difficult conversation with a bus driver in Puerto Iguazu. I was under the impression that the bus would be travelling north, through Foz de Iguazu in Brazil, then Ciudad del Este in Paraguay before heading directly south, through Trinidad – my destination – before terminating in Posadas, Argentina. After boarding the deluxe double-decker bus I politely enquired if it would be possible for me to jump off at Trinidad, please?
Either Google Translate had thrown me over a waterfall or something else was amiss. The driver looked at me in puzzlement. Surely he knew where Trinidad was, I pointed to it on the map, it was on the route. He discussed animatedly with his ticket collector amigo and I picked up that the bus wasn’t in fact going that way, but instead was going directly south, maintaining its presence in Argentina, to the east of the Parana river.
This was going to be a longer day than expected, but the bus driver managed to inform me that I should be able to catch a bus in Posadas for the last leg north to Trinidad. OK, no problemo. I settled down in the amazingly comfy seats that seem to adorn all the long-distance buses here in Paraguay and opened my laptop to do some writing.
I had barely typed a word when the noises started. Is someone in pain? No, it’s not pain. It’s two people. Two people who seem to want to let each other know in excessive volume how much they are enjoying each others close company. Company that they are sharing two rows behind me. Oh God, good job I missed breakfast.
I tried listening to a podcast but any gap in volume in my ear buds was replaced by moaning and groaning from the rear. Work was now impossible, so I closed my laptop, turned up my headphone volume and put on my beanie hat which had the dual benefit of blocking out external noises and pushing my ear buds further in.
It was working, but when Ticket Collector Amigo came along to, well, collect my ticket, I had to complain in my very British way by glancing over my shoulder and pulling a disgusted face. TCA didn’t understand at first so I repeated the manoeuvre with a more obvious gesture. He looked towards that back of the coach, shrugged his shoulders and said “This is Argentina”.
Podcasts are a big part of my life now and they really helped me through a difficult time on this coach. God bless Joe Rogan and Tim Ferriss. The rest of the 6hr journey passed without incident, at some point the mutually affirming couple were fully affirmed and I even managed to do some writing in between breaks to peer out of the window at the passing Argentinian countryside.
I jumped off the bus in Posadas, grabbed my bag and waded into the terminal to try to figure out how to get the bus to Trinidad. Having not even taken two steps my friendly bus driver accosted me. “Amigo, Trinidad, si? En Paraguay, si?”. “Yes, si, gracias” I stammered, and with that he all but dragged me through the terminal saying “Come, informacion turistica, this way”.
We went up some steps, pushed through some people, “Desculpe, desculpe” I offered as we motored through the packed terminal and down some steps on the other side, bursting into the Tourist Information centre. What followed was one of the fastest conversations in Spanish that I have ever witnessed of which I understood precisely one word – Trinidad.
We were off again, my friendly driver was all action. Out to the bus bays, he boarded one bus which had Encarnacion written on the front and enquired within in his rapido espanyol. This didn’t seem to be the correct bus but the one next to it was. He told me to take this bus to Encarnacion then get another bus, headed to Ciudad del Este which would drop me off in Trinidad. He also explained all this to my new bus driver who would be my carer from now on.
I don’t know if this was the last bus of the day headed over the border, but it sure did feel like it. I thanked my friendly bus driver sincerely and he bid his farewells like a long lost brother. People are kind. My new friendly bus driver helped me get stamped out of Argentina and into Paraguay and safely deposited me at the terminal in Encarnacion.
Cue the next kind stranger. This time a woman who had probably overheard at least one of my previous conversations and probably (correctly) guessed that some assistance wouldn’t go amiss. As I was wandering towards the terminal she asked me where I was headed? At least, I think that’s what she asked. She had started talking without getting my attention first which meant she was halfway through her question before my brain had kicked into ‘listening in Spanish’ mode.
I said ’Trinidad’. She smirked. I followed up with my standard Spanish line of ‘Desculpe, yo solo hablo un poco de espanyol’ – I only speak a little Spanish. I’m not sure exactly what she said next but I think it was probably the Spanish version of ’No shit’.
Wisely, she then decided to stop asking questions and just led me along. After briefly talking to a few locals sat on chairs either side of a table made out of a sheet of plywood balanced on an oil can, she pointed at a particular bus ticket office. All the different bus lines have their own office at each terminal, so it can be quite a test to know which particular office will provide you with the ticket you need. The ticket was purchased without issue and I settled down to await my bus which was over an hour away.
It was still very hot – even though the sun was getting lower – so the aircon in the office (along with the customary TV showing football – I think it might be a legal necessity for all public buildings to have a TV showing football in Paraguay) was welcome. As time passed, I suddenly realised that I hadn’t eaten much all day – this often happens on travel days when I’m hustling from one place to the next – so I wandered over the food court.
A square of small buildings with a central courtyard, the food court was deserted. I was about to turn round and return hungry when a little old lady bolted out of her kitchen and waved me over.
“Hola” I said “Tienes menu?”.
“No, no menu” she said. “Pasta?”
“Si” I affirmed with a thumbs up.
“Si” I repeated.
Now normally, she would have got three out of three but I was observing a dry-January, so I had to decline the beer and ask for water instead. The little old lady said nothing and walked away giving me the distinct impression that she didn’t approve of dry-January.
So, that was yesterday. The food came in no time at all, I inhaled it and had a pleasant short bus journey up to Trinidad. Debussing by the side of Route 6 I was hit by that amazing sweet countryside smell and the heat of a sweltering evening. I wandered the few hundred metres to my guest house listening to the noises of kids playing football in the street as the countryside slowly faded into darkness.
Visiting the Jesuit ruins
The ruins of Jesus de Tavarangue were some 12km from where I was staying in Trinidad, so I decided to visit them first. I could have investigated public transport options but I felt I wanted to walk – it seemed appropriate somehow and I’d get to soak up more of the Paraguayan countryside. So, I set off out of Trinidad at around 10am, along Route 6 for a few hundred yards then north towards Jesus.
The road was pretty with a central, tree-lined reservation that housed all kinds of Christian symbology. I was enjoying the walk, but Jesus wept, it was hot. Well into the 30’s now, my shirt was soaked through and I hadn’t even been going an hour yet. My wide brimmed hat was doing a great job of protecting me from the sun but my head was still steaming!
Plenty of cars, trucks and the like had overtaken me on the narrow road, it was so small that I had to jump into the verge each time a vehicle came by to ensure that I didn’t get clipped. I had just returned to the road following the passing of a bus when I realised it was slowing to a stop and putting on its indicators. Well it would be rude not to.
I thanked the driver profusely as I jumped on board and realised that his bus had no other passengers. I think he was a little bored as he chatted away to me for the whole journey and seemed happy to receive laughs, nods and ’Si’s in reply. He dropped me off right next to the ruins and wouldn’t accept any payment. What is it with bus drivers in this part of the world?
Arriving at the ruins of Jesus de Tavarangue
Fenced off and with a perfectly mown lawn, the ruins stuck out like a cricket pitch on a council estate. I went to the ticket office and received the news that my ticket was good for both sets ruins, plus a further one in San Cosme for the princely sum of 25,000 Guaranies. Just over £3 GBP.
With ticket in hand I realised that I was still sweating through my eye balls so stood in the relatively cool, small information centre for 10 minutes to lower my core temperature and plan my attack. I decided to skirt the outsides, taking in all the peripheral buildings before arrowing in for the big finish at the large central church.
Heading across the Plaza Mayor, which didn’t seem to be a square at all – more of a path, the church ahead was masked by several large trees. I hooked a left and headed across the field to get a good view of the side elevation. It was at this point I had an eerie feeling that I was being watched. Then I saw them. One, two, three. Four, five six! Aside from some my Nan had in her china collection, they were six of the tiniest little owls I had ever laid eyes on.
Having only ever seen owls one at a time in the wild, it seemed like these little guys understood their height limitations and were ganging up to be the size of one regular owl as they guarded the church. Too shy for me to get close to, but chirping loud enough to make sure I knew, they knew, I was there.
I watched them for a while, without quite getting close enough to take a decent picture before proceeding round the main buildings to the Casa de Indigenas – the home for the indigenous Gaurani people. The locals were collected into these ‘reductions’ by the Jesuits where they were exploited for labour and taught the Christian ways. It is thought though, that this was a preferable option for the Guarani as the alternative was likely enslavement.
The main body of the church – which was never actually completed – was about the size of a quarter of a rugby pitch. Large internal stone pillars were likely in place to support arches or roof structures. There was nothing extraordinary about the architecture, only the time and place in which it occurred. It is still the largest building for many a mile – hard to imagine how big it would have seemed in 1760.
I spent around an hour at the site in total, exploring every nook and cranny and taking snaps. Then, with the ruins in Trinidad to also see today, I left voluntarily – unlike the Jesuit order who were expelled from Paraguay around 1768 with their mission and Mission incomplete.
Back to Trinidad
Jesus de Tavarangue town seemed completely deserted but I managed to replenish my water supply with 3L of ice cold water from the only shop that was still open. I say it was open, I unknowingly woke up the girl who was in attendance to serve me. She went back to sleeping during the hottest part of the day which, of course, is what all sensible people were doing.
I, on the other hand, had places to go and as the temperatures surged into the upper 30’s I set out back towards Trinidad. Once again, I felt the need to at least attempt the journey on foot. I made sure to walk in the shade as much as possible, it really did make a huge difference, and rehydrated regularly. A short way out of town a minibus slowed and beeped. I considered my options quickly and decided not to wave him down. I’d only just begun the return journey and I had plenty of energy.
Two hours later I was deeply questioning my earlier decision. The temperatures had kept rising and my water bottles were quickly drained. I took the opportunity to stop and rest whenever there was shade and fanned myself with my hat to try to cool down. Nothing was really working. I was over-heated and my sole aim was to get out of this sun and into an air-conditioned room.
Nearing Trinidad I passed over a small concreete bridge which spanned a muddy river. This river was currently home to what appeared to be half the population of Trinidad. Sitting in a river under a tree was probably a better option than walking along tarmac in the sun. The locals always know best.
The guest house was only a few hundred metres away though so I ploughed on rather than stripping down and going for a swim. Yes, I was definitely on the brink of heat stroke. I got as much clothing off as possible, doused my neck and wrists with water and stood directly under the aircon in my room, drinking water for a full 15 minutes. It took that about of time for me to stop sweating and to be comfortable enough to lie on the bed. I fell immediately to sleep and didn’t stir for a full 90 minutes.
Maybe walking for a couple of hours in the hottest part of a South American day isn’t a good idea. Write that down.
I felt much better after my sleep, heat exhaustion had been held at bay thanks to aircon and cold water. My wide-brim hat had done a great job of keeping my head and face from sunburn, however, it was only now I realised that the t-shirt I was wearing had an over-sized neck. Thus, I had a slightly ridiculous ring of sun burn around my upper chest and the top of my shoulders which made me look like I had been wearing a sandpaper horse collar.
The ruins of La Santisima Trinidad de Parana
The Trinidad ruins were mercilessly much closer, a mere 100m from my guest house, so I waited until the heat of the day had receded a little before heading over. The site at first glance seemed bigger, with more surrounding buildings – including a bell tower – but overall, it was really more of the same, including the customary gang of tiny little owls to keep the site safe.
The main church building had vastly contrasting elements. Some archways looked like they might collapse at any moment. Large chunks of stone had evidently calved from their original place over the last 250 years. But there were also some brilliant bits of restoration including the replacement of decorative stonework friezes.
The evening light peered through stone arches providing a wealth of photographing opportunities. I probably lapped the site three times as the changing light provided new moods for each vista. But before the sun set completely, I headed off to a place that I’d spotted on Google Maps which sounded interesting, only a short distance away, the Mirador Astronómico de Santísima Trinidad.
The atmosphere of the waning evening light at the Mission didn’t allow me leave easily, but I eventually prised myself away and strolled along the dusty, cobbled streets into town. People had started setting their evening fires, filling the air with light smoke and spinning me back to my childhood evenings when summer bonfires seemed to be a daily occurrence .
Most of the town was populated with tiny brick built buildings – small homes and the occasional shop. But up ahead was a much larger building and there was loud music emanating from it’s walls. It had no windows, but tiny groups of air bricks provided ventilation and allowed the music to blare onto the street. I was intrigued.
I looked in through the double fire doors to a large, dark gym building, complete with internal concrete viewing steps and a stage at the far end. The smoke from the fires had made its way inside and was being lasered by the light from the air bricks. If you’d added a janitor with a mop, cheerleaders with pom-poms and a 90’s grunge band then it would’ve been identical to Nirvana’s video for Smells like teen spirit.
But it didn’t have those people. It had a small group of young girls who were doing a dance-class to some kind of aggressive Reggaeton. As I peered into the smoke, I realised that half of them had turned round and were wondering who the bearded guy was gazing their way – I snapped back to reality, bid my standard ‘Desculpe’ and carried on my journey.
The Astronomico building was a strange spaceship like affair, perched on a hill just outside of town. Completely circular and with an external ramp that you could walk all the way to the roof. It did, however, provide an amazing elevated view back over the Mission to the west and more impressively a far-ranging sunset view to the east. I had made it there just in time to sit on the scorching concrete seats and watch the glowing ball of fire dip below the horizon.
Here’s what The Ultimate Travelist said:
“Testimony to the Christianisation of South America during the 17th and 18th century, the mission ruins of La Santisima Trinidad de Parana and Jesus de Tavarangue stand out of the farmland of southern Paraguay in red-brown complexes of baroque and Romanesque architecture. These mini-cities comprising churches, houses, schools and workshops must have seemed surreal to the native populations, amid a then-wilderness containing little besides mud huts.”
Get your copy of Lonely Planet’s Ultimate Travelist here.
The Mirador Astronómico de Santísima Trinidad was certainly worth a visit for sunset and I suspect with it’s elevated position and lack of light pollution (and its name!) may well be a good place to gaze at the stars. There are also further Jesuit Missions in the area at San Ignacio Guazu, Santa Maria de Fe, Santa Rosa de Lima, Santiago Apostol and San Cosme y San Damian.
Tunnocks World Tour sum up
This was indeed an absolute mission. I went well out of my way to visit these ruins and it was that journey and the many people I met on the way that made it truly memorable – especially the kind bus drivers. I think that my pre-visit questioning of whether this was something I would enjoy made me conscious of each moment which in turn helped me be totally present throughout the whole experience.
I’m glad I visited the Jesuit missions of La Santisima Trinidad de Parana and Jesus de Tavarangue but I’m not certain that the attractions themselves warrant a spot on the top 500. It may be too early to tell, but I anticipate that I will visit plenty of places that aren’t on the list that I’d rate ahead of these Missions.
Have you been to the Jesuit Missions in Paraguay? What did you think? I’d love to hear in the comments below.