Jesuit Missions of the Guaranis
The Jesuit Missions of the Guaranis are the archeological remains of towns created by the Jesuit Order.
The towns existed between 1609 and 1818, and aimed to socially, culturally and religiously elevate the local Guarani Indians. They also provided protection and economic stability. Originally there were 30 missions, spread out over Paraguay, Argentina and Brazil. The two Jesuit missions in Paraguay are now a separate WHS.
This designated site consists of five different missions:
- São Miguel das Missões (Brazil)
- San Ignacio Mini (Argentina)
- Nuestra Señora de Santa Ana (Argentina)
- Nuestra Señora de Loreto (Argentina)
- Santa María la Mayor (Argentina)
Map of Jesuit Missions of the GuaranisLoad map
Visit October 2008
San Ignacio Mini is the most popular of these 'Missions' (the locals more aptly call them Las Ruinas). I went there by public bus from Posadas. This trip takes over an hour, passing fine scenery of endless green fields and forests. I was the only one to be dropped off at the church of San Ignacio, and was given directions by the bus boy to get to my destination. San Ignacio is a sleepy little town, where the selling of souvenirs seems to be the main trade. Before entering the San Ignacio Mini complex, you first have to brave 250 meters of souvenir stalls.
Entrance was free today (normally it's 25 pesos for foreigners). I don't know why I didn't have to pay, it could have been a holiday / a protest / a malfunctioning computer / lack of change or whatever. I've been in Argentina now for less than a week, and I've seldom paid any entry fees (I rode for free in the Buenos Aires metro for 3 days). The same observation counts for the double pricing system: they do tend to differ prices between Argentinians, Other Latin Americans and Other foreigners, but aren't strict in following this through: they just assume everybody is Argentinian. Personally I can't believe the money they're throwing away (especially at the Buenos Aires metro, which could use some new paint).
Back to San Ignacio Mini - what kind of site is this? It was a small town with a church (of course), a large central square, houses for the residents (the Guarani) and other communal buildings. Now it is almost completely in ruins. The new life that has entered the ruined buildings did fascinate me the most - pretty and big lizards lazing in the sun, lots of birds, trees and plants taking over from the stones again. The site management tries to keep all ruined buildings 'clean', but I like it when nature claims it back. It's a very pleasant place to wander around for an hour or two, but I wouldn't be sad when it would disappear and become part of the jungle again.
I had the plan to visit both Loreto and San Ignacio Miní from Posadas including the light show in the evening and afterwards return to Posadas. I will highlight upfront: It worked out fine with public transportation!
Taking the bus from Posadas bus terminal which is about 5 km south of town center- easily reached by public buses- in the direction of Puerto Iguazù, I jumped off the bus in the middle of the highway 12 at a junction leading towards the really small village of Loreto. It´s about 45 minutes walk on the laterite dirt road until you reach the entrance gate of Loreto mission. I was almost the only one there at 3 p.m. on a sunny Wednesday. There is a visitor center with a 3D map of the mission where a female guide caught me and started introducing me to the mission. First of all I highlighted that I would like to go afterwards to San Igancio Miní which made her suggest that there is a 4 p.m. public bus that takes me from Loreto via Santa Ana (wrong direction) towards San Ignacio in about 45 minutes.
In that sense she was speeding up a little her presentation but she did it really well. Only speaking Spanish with some English words we managed really fine with my Spanish and Jesuit knowledge at that stage. Most interesting for me was the motivation of the Guaraní to go into a Christian Mission. Without knowledge I would have thought that the Guaraní were forced into the Mission but she explained that their chief decided for his tribe to found a mission because often the tribes were menaced by the Portugese and without fired arms they were helpless to defend themselves. Therefore they asked the Spanish to found the Jesuit missions also the get access to weapons and defend themselves from the commun enemy. Also very interesting for me was that only 2 Spanish Jesuits were responsible for the couple of thousand Guaraní in the mission. I would have thought that it was like a mixed society.
All in all Loreto is really great to experience after visiting Trinidad in Paraguay as it´s totally different. The ruins were not freed from the nature and it looks really left as it was when first re-discovered. Only some stones are added afterwards or exchanged but then they are marked as not original. Also some wooden excarvation constructions save for example the original lavatory of the mission. Additionally in the middle of the forest with ruins there are a lot of Yerba Mate trees which was also one of the key resources of the Missions to export and interesting to see where all the tea comes from that I have also started drinking being in South America.
After paying the guide an unexpeted money and hurrying to the Loreto bus station and waiting another 20 minutes until the bus actually came at 04:20 p.m. (please check with the guides ahead of your visit when there is a public bus coming that will take you to the other WHS towns of Santa Ana and San Ignacio) I arrived at San Ignacio at about 5 p.m.. I made the tricky decision to eat something in the restaurant La Misionerita right at the highway which caused me to arrive at San Ignacion Miní (another 20 min walk away from the Ruta) only at about 6:30 p.m.. This was unfortunately the time when they closed the gates for public visit and they only re-opened at 8:15 p.m. for the 8:30 p.m. for the light show. Luckily in the meantime in the park next to the mission the samba club of the town had its public practice where the teenagers of town practiced their carnaval skills like playing the drums, singing and of course the swing of the hips. Being entertained for over an hour I went back the few metres to the mission San Ignacio Miní for the light show.
I liked the technique of the light show a lot, the story was a bit too much for me. All Spanish Dyslexics received headphones that worked really well for me with the English text in my ear instead of the public Sopanish loudspeakers in the dark. In the meantime a Guaraní chiefs´ face was projected on a tree telling the story of the Guaraní in the missions. Then a really thin layer of water was created in the dark forest where a story of a Guaraní boy was projected on. Really impressive technique but a bit too much of a Disney Story for me with not so many information. The same concept led me through the whole mission to the Plaza Mayor in the end telling the story of the mission and the boy. The ruins were also enlighted in a colourful way most of the time. After 40 minutes the show ended and I was able to stop a bus at the ruta that took me back to Posadas Terminal and at about 11:15 p.m. another public bus took me back to the Posadas hostel.
Having seen San Igancio Miní only in the enlighted dark it´s hard to get a full understanding, but I think San Ignacio Miní is cmparable to Trinidad in Paraguay. It´s quite big and well prepared for visiting with cut grass and nature free ruins. I liked the mixture of visiting Loreto with a guide for the information and San Ignacio Miní with the light show. However the visit of these three missions gave me enough of a picture of the Jesuit missions.
Read more from Timonator here.
Tucked away in a North Eastern corner of Argentina are three Jesuit missions. The Jesuits were granted the rights to operate independantly from the local government by the Spanish crown. Their goal was to spread Christianity to the locals. But they also protected the natives from the frequent incursions of slavers and brought some progress to the area.
Unfortunately, the right once granted to the Jesuits was eventually revoked as the king came to fear their independence. This was a trend across the whole of Europe. In the Spanish case the suppression came when the Spanish rulers tried to take more control of their possessions in the Americas.
With the Jesuits gone the whole system quickly fell apart as the economic system failed and the towns were raided frequently by slavers. Eventually, the cities were abandoned and the natives returned to their previous lifesystle. These sites turned into ruins and were absorbed by the jungle.
On my way to Iguazu from Posadas I managed to visit the three sites lined along Highway 12. They offer plenty of variety when it comes to the remains, the reconstruction and excavation..
Loreto: Nowadays covered in jungle this gives off a real Indiana Jones vibe. Some excavations were done, but they didn't do big restorations or clear the forrest. Loreto was also one of the largest Jesuit Mission, so I would definitively encourage you to make the trip here if you visit the missions.
Santa Ana: In Santa Ana they cleared plenty of the forests covering the area, so it's not as original as Loreto. But it's not as reconstructed as San Ignacio Mini either. If you want to skip one mission this would probably be my candidate as it doesn't represent either extreme. On the other hand it's easier to reach by bus than Loreto as Santa Ana is the larger town.
San Ignacio Mini: The most accessible and most reconstructed of the three sites on the Arginitian side. Placed directly in the town center there is no jungle covering the area. As I understand it some parts were also reconstructed. As such this is probably the most prominent example of the three. The most similar site is in nearby Paraguay, the Jesuit Mission of Trinidad.
For anyone travelling the area, these sites may get washed away by the grandiosity of the Iguazu waterfalls, but you would be missing out on a fine site.
In the meantime I have seen one more, San Javier in Bolivia, a Jesuit Mission of the Chiquitos. As mentioned in the review the Bolivian mission was in substantially better shape than anything in saw in Paraguay or Argentina with the original church and town planning still intact.
Getting There and Around
San Ignacio Mini can be accessed from two sides. You have airports in Foz de Iguacu (Brazil) to the North and in Posadas (Argentina) to the South. There are plenty of busses running between Puerto Iguazu (Argentina) and Posadas. Make sure to get an express bus if possible as you will stop in every town along the road otherwise.
Travelling to Santa Ana from San Ignacio Mini is fairly straightforward as Santa Ana is one of those stops along the highway from Posadas to Puerto Iguazu. Getting to Loreto, meanwhile, was a bit harder, as it's not a regular stop along the highway. There is a local bus that runs rather infrequently that you can take. Winking down a bus on the highway meanwhile (as indicated by some travel guides) is not possible. I failed for an hour so to get any bus to stop for me.
While You Are There
Obviously, if you have made it to the Jesuit Missions you need to visit Iguacu/Iguazu. It's a pretty straightforward trip from San Ignacio Mini. And due to some quirks in the Unesco process it counts twice, once for the Brazilian side and once for the Argentinian one.
I would encourage you to also travel to the nearby Jesuit Missions in Paraguay. Due to some more quirks in the inscription process it counts as a separate site. You should be able to cross the border (and river) near San Ignacio Mini saving yourself the trip back to Encarcion and Posadas, but I could't figure it out at the time.
One year ago on a snowy night I watched the 1986 movie "The Mission", which covers historical events that affected the Jesuit Missions of the Guaranís in much warmer South America. The film highlights the love of music the Jesuits and Guaraní shared; at many of the missions the Jesuits taught the Guaraní people European choral music, as well as how to make instruments. The film also highlights the fallout from the Treaty of Madrid in 1750, in which the Jesuit missions faced the ceding of territory from the Spanish empire, which ostensibly outlawed slavery of the Guaraní, to the Portuguese empire, which allowed it. It was with this context in mind that I visited the San Ignacio Miní mission near Posadas, Argentina, in March 2016. The Baroque ruins are in spectacular shape, and show how impressive the main church must have been when fully intact. Around the periphery of the site were the remains of long barrack-style buildings, storehouses, and workshops. The Guaraní here were not directly affected by the Treaty of Madrid, since they were in Argentine territory, but I feel for the Guaraní who had to fight for their security at the missions in Brazil.
Logistics: The Jesuit Missions of the Guaranís can be reached by bus or private transportation in Argentina or Brazil. I took a day tour with a company from Puerto Iguazú to visit San Ignacio Miní.
Last weekend I visited the Brazilian part of this WHS, that is São Miguel das Missões. I had previously visited the Argentinian ruins of San Ignacio Miní, and these two sites are probably the best preserved of all inscribed Jesuit Missions of the Guarani ruins (the Paraguayan ones are a separate WHS).
The former São Miguel das Missões church has a remarkable façade and also a very interesting museum of guarani christian art, including a bell used when the mission was active.
There are some other ruins nearby, worth visiting, but only the São Miguel ruins were declared WHS in Brazil.
As far as the sound and light show is concerned I very much disagree with Davis C. Bales opinion. I saw the show in February 2010 and found it truly amazing! Excellent lighting, great effects and a good mixture between entertainment and information. I am a media engineer and have seen many multimedia shows before. And even with that background this show really stood out. So it looks like you have to go and see for yourself wether you like it or not. :-) The only thing that wasn't so great was that the mp3 player you get for other language versions didn't work properly. But still I loved the show!
How we got there: We took a bus from Iguazu to San Igancio. What you read in various forums is true: It is really no trouble at all to simply walk into the bus station and buy a ticket to go to San Igancio. Buses leave every hour or sometimes even more often. They drop you off right in front of the tourist info which comes in handy aswell. There we booked our next busride to Salta with Flecha Bus.
Oh, one more thing: If you use long distance buses, always put your luggage in a waterproof bag or something. Water from the aircondition flows on the luggage. One of your bags was soaking (with all clothes inside dripping wet). It also helps to ask the guy who loads your luggage into the bus to put it somewhere dry while you give him an extra tip.
I visited some 20 Jesuit mission sites in Paraguay, Argentina, and Brazil, including San Ignacio, Loreto, Santa Ana, and Sta Maria la Mayor. There are other mission sites in the region that need protection and the support that inclusion on the UNESCO World Heritage Sites lists confer. At the top of the list I would include several mission sites in Brazil, particularly San Lorenzo Martir, and San Cosme in Paraguay. Other sites, such as Corpus Christi and Martires, need protection and rehabilitation.
Davis C. Bales
San Ignacio Mini is well worth the visit for anyone at nearby Iguassu Falls, whether on the Argentine or Brazilian side. Though there are guided tours available from Iguassu, driving on your own is quite easy. It is possible to drive to San Ignacio and back in the same day though spending the night adds to the experience. However, the town offers few accomodations, the best of which are hard-pressed to earn a 1-star rating. From Buenos Aires it is not so easy to reach Argentina's State of Misiones.
On certain nights there is a sound and light show. The slightest hint of rain and the show will be cancelled; the equipment is simple and not water resistent. So, as can be expected, the show is rather primitive and its simplicity could hardly be expressed as charming. Boring may be a better descriptive. The lighting is uneventful and the sound is a recorded narration (in Spanish) of the mission's history with some music of the jesuit-educated natives as a background mixed with some booms and crashes to depict the battles with they fought with the Brazilian slave traders. Not emotionally stirring!
In the summer it is barely dark when the light show begins, reducing even more the already limited effect. Needless to say, it was a disappointment and one should spend the night to experience the simplicity of the village and not for the light show. But catch it if you are already there and reach your own conclusions.
All that said, I would recommend making the effort to visit San Ignacio Mini to anyone with an interest in South American history or who enjoyed the 1986 Academy Award winning film "The Mission" starring Robert DeNiro, Jeremy Irons and Liam Neeson. Walking tyhrough the mission's grounds is walking through history. In the past 2 years I have made the trek twice by motorcycle from Rio de Janeiro and have a feeling I will return.
- Full Name
- Jesuit Missions of the Guaranis: San Ignacio Mini, Santa Ana, Nuestra Senora de Loreto and Santa Maria Mayor (Argentina), Ruins of Sao Miguel das Missoes (Brazil)
- Unesco ID
- Argentina Brazil
- Religious structure - Christian
- By ID
1984 Name change
From The ruins of Sao Miguel das Missoes
To include multiple locations
The site has 5 locations
The site has 17 connections
Religion and Belief
WHS on Other Lists
World Heritage Process
88 Community Members have visited.