Visiting the Jesuit Missions in Paraguay

Paraguay's most compelling architectural attractions are the ruins of some 30 Jesuit missions in the southeast part of the country. Although Spanish missionaries came to what is now Paraguay in 1588, little remains of their earliest dwellings. What you'll find are fascinating traces of 17th-century reducciónes (literally, "reductions"). Here the Jesuits organized the indigenous Guaranís—a nomadic people—into farming communities, and worked with them side-by-side, providing vocational training and religious and secular education.

You can do a mission tour in your own car—if you don't mind negotiating some unpaved roads. The benefit of having your own car is that you can take it easy and spend a few days exploring. If you prefer not to drive, you can opt for a hurried day with an Asunción tour operator. The sites you'll see run the spectrum—from the well-preserved San Cosmé y Damián, where many of the structures still serve the community, to the never finished, but intriguing, abandoned structures at Jesús.

Franciscan missionaries attempted to fill the void left after the Jesuits were expelled from the Spanish empire in 1767. They centered their efforts in Yaguarón but met with less success in maintaining the reducción communities established by their predecessors.

Iglesia de San Buenaventura. The town's restored 18th-century Iglesia de San Buenaventura was the centerpiece of Paraguay's post-Jesuit Franciscan missions. Inside, you'll find brightly colored wooden statues carved by Guaraní artists. 11 km (7 mi) south of Itá on Ruta 1, Ciudad del Este, Alto Paraná. . Free. Tues.–Sat. 8–11:30 and 2–5, Sun. 8–11:30.

You'll pass through San Miguel, where locals tempt you with handwoven woolen blankets, rugs, and ponchos, and San Juan Bautista, with quaint colonial houses lining cobblestone streets, before reaching Santa María. Nearly 7,000 Guaraní lived here in the early 18th century, and some of the original houses have been restored.

Museo Jesuítico. The Museo Jesuítico has some 70 Guaraní carvings and statues; the latter represent the life of Jesus. (The museum keeps no fixed hours; if the door is locked, you may have to ask around for the priest to let you in.) Santa María, 37 km (22 mi) south of San Miguel on Ruta 1, Ciudad del Este, Alto Paraná. 0781/283–222. G10,000.

The ringing of bells from the red sandstone bell tower, built in 1698, can still be heard in the town of Santa Rosa, one of the era's largest reducciónes.

Just as Ruta 1 reaches Coronel Bogado, a 25-km (15-mi) paved highway leads to the village of San Cosmé y Damián, near the banks of the Río Paraná.

Mission Buildings. Follow the signs along a dirt track to the red sandstone mission buildings, currently in use as a Jesuit school. They once held an astronomical observatory. Many original houses are still in use. San Cosmé y Damián, 95 km (59 mi) southeast of Santa Rosa, Ciudad del Este, Alto Paraná. . G2,000. Dec.–Mar., daily 7–7; Apr.–Nov., daily 7–5:30.

Trinidad. The region's most impressive ruins, superior even to those of Argentina and Brazil, are at Trinidad. The red sandstone reducción, built between 1712 and 1764, stands on a hilltop, enabling its full size to be appreciated. After the expulsion of the Jesuits, much of it was destroyed by an unscrupulous local official who ripped out stones to build his own residence, causing the structure to collapse. Many of the church walls and arches remain intact, even though open to the elements. Note the elaborately carved doors and wall friezes depicting angels playing the clavichord, harp, and other musical instruments. The only building with a roof is the sacristy, with intricate relief work above the main entrance. Also surviving are the school and cloister foundations and a sandstone tower. Restoration is ongoing. 28 km (17 mi) northeast of Encarnación, Trinidad, Itapúa. . G20000. Dec.–Mar., daily 7–7; Apr.–Nov. daily 7–5:30.

Jesús del Tavarangue. The Jesuits began construction of the hilltop church of Jesús del Tavarangue a mere eight years before their expulsion from the New World. Though never finished, this is the most distinctive of the region's mission churches. Moorish-style arches make up the building's three entrances and lead to what were to be three naves and three altars. Vegetation and earth have covered much of the nearby reducción community. Painstaking excavations are under way. Ruta 6, 10 km (6 mi) north of Trinidad, Ciudad del Este, Alto Paraná. . G2,000. Dec.–Mar., daily 7–7; Apr.–Nov. daily 7–5:30.

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