The Jesuit Missions - Getting There

Want just the background information on the Jesuit missions of Chiquitos? This is where you need to be.

A quick take on the area's amazing history? Go here first.

Looking for an overview of the beautiful Chiquitos mission churches only? Try this page.

If it's information on the towns themselves you want, they're each described individually (see a specific town's page). You also can find information on their culture and music here and here. Got a homework assignment on them? How about daily life in the missions?

This page? These are just the boring - but essential - details on transport options, time, and distances to get to these fabulous destinations along what is commonly referred to as the Jesuit Missions Circuit (or less likely, the route from Santa Cruz directly to San José de Chiquitos).

The journey - for which you'll need at least five days to do with justice - usually starts in Santa Cruz, where you have two options: travel by rented vehicle - i.e., a Jeep or other 4WD - (definitely recommended, but not cheap at about US$800 for a week's rental if you do the whole deal) or by bus (not recommended, but definitely cheap) along Bolivia's Route 9 to San Ramón, from there along Route 502 to the first Jesuit mission town, San Xavier, and then onward. The road is toll until San Ignacio de Velasco, but the fare is so pitifully cheap it's not worth mentioning. (OK, it is Bs. 20.)

Conceivably, you could take the death train to San José de Chiquitos and from there a series of buses, travelling the circuit in reverse...but only if you enjoy bone-rattling discomfort and the occasional step outside to push the bus back onto the road. Or you could hitchhike, if waiting days by the roadside watching palm fronds curl appeals to you. In other words, do the smart thing: see Gina at A. Barron's Rent A Car and get a 4WD.

Map of Chiquitania showing some Jesuit missions underscored (click on one to go to its page)

Many people make the trip only as far as Concepción, which is a shame. The asphalt used to end 15.5 miles (25 kms) out of town (at Km. 331, to be exact) towards San Ignacio (or Km. 440 if heading west from San Ignacio), but Evo finally kept a promise and the whole stretch is now almost fully paved (as of late 2011). The remaining settlements are real hidden jewels, especially Santa Ana de Velasco, San José de Chiquitos, and, if you're willing to go off the beaten track, Santiago de Chiquitos.

Even where the road remains hard-packed earth (or mud in the rainy season, when travel is all but impossible anyway), it is surprisingly easy to traverse. Yet it is not a highway by any means, and passing vehicles can be dicey in spots. Nonetheless, you'll see some monster-sized camiones hauling logs, blazing along oblivious to whatever is in their path...including you. Don't worry about the half-empty bottle of rum the driver will be nonchalantly pulling on: Of greater concern should be how you'll get around his lorry after he jack-knifes it a few miles ahead.

If you are game enough to make it to San Ignacio, you owe it to yourself to visit the three nearby towns of Santa Ana, San Rafael de Velasco, and San Miguel de Velasco, after which you can turn back to San Ignacio and thence return to Santa Cruz.

Or carry on via Route 503 to bucolic San José de Chiquitos and then turn back to San Ignacio. If you're into completely trashing your vehicle and yourself in the process, from San José de Chiquitos you can be an idiot and head back directly to Santa Cruz along Bolivia's mythical Route 4, a dirt track described by one travel guide as "one of the most horrendous excuses for a road anywhere on earth". Somewhere in some government functionary's desk in La Paz, plans exist to pave this miserable sendero, perhaps by the onset of the next Ice Age. Works has started from just outside of Cotoca, near the western terminus, but don't hold your breath.

Approximate road distances along the Jesuit Mission Circuit are as follows:

Location
Miles
Kilometres
Cumulative Distance (miles)
Cumulative Distance (kms)
Santa Cruz to San Xavier
137
220
137
220
San Xavier to Concepción
37
60
174
280
Concepción to San Ignacio
99
160
273
440
San Ignacio to Santa Ana
25
40
298
480
Santa Ana to San Rafael
22
35
310
515
San Rafael to San Miguel
25
40
335
545
San Miguel to San Ignacio (return trip)
23
37
358
582
San Ignacio to Santa Cruz (return trip)
273
439
631
1,015

An alternate route - which takes in all seven of the Jesuit Mission Circuit towns yet is paradoxically shorter than the above - is as follows:

Location
Miles
Kilometres
Cumulative Distance (miles)

Cumulative Distance (kms)

Santa Cruz to San Xavier
137
220
137
220
San Xavier to Concepción
37
60
174
280
Concepción to San Ignacio
99
160
273
440
San Ignacio to Santa Ana
25
40
298
480
Santa Ana to San Rafael
22
35
310
515
San Rafael to San Miguel
25
40
335
545
San Miguel to San Rafael
25
40
360
595
San Rafael to San José
88
142
448
737
San José to Santa Cruz (return trip)
180
290
628
1,011

If you want to know the distances between all the major towns along the Jesuit Mission Circuit (including those that are not actual Jesuit mission towns), you can download the chart here.

Bolivia being what it is, road signs are not always where one would want them. In fact, most times they're not there at all. And when they are, they're in Spanish, and measured in kilometres. So some idea of which interim towns you'll want to see signs for and pass through (at least as far as San Miguel) may be helpful.

Location
Cumulative Distance
Notes
Santa Cruz (start)
0 miles/0 kms
head east on Avenida Virgen de Cotoca (major thoroughfare); pay initial toll after clearing novento anillo
11 miles/18 kms
turn right after surtidor about 1 km before entrance to town - turn is not marked
Puerto Pailas
17 miles/27 kms 
cross Río Grande (also known as Río Guapay) via new, two-way cement bridge
Pailón
28 miles/45 kms
buy round-trip ticket at caseta (toll booth) for Bs. 20 (good to San Ignacio de Velasco); go straight towards Trinidad - do not take right turn marked "Pto Suarez" - you will go directly to San José de Chiquitos and bypass Jesuit Missions Circuit
Los Troncos
75 miles/120 kms
 
San Julián
93 miles/150 kms
 
San Ramón
112 miles/180 kms
stay right at fork (do not take left turn - you'll wind up in Ascensión de Guarayos)
116 miles/186 kms
private resort, gateway to Chiquitania; signs are visible from about 5 miles (8 kms) out; entrance on right through gate
137 miles/220 kms
 
174 miles/280 kms
caseta at outskirts of town
Santa Rosa de la Roca
224 miles/360 kms
caseta at outskirts of town; road to Parque Nacional Noel Kempff Mercado is 0.6 miles (1 km) out of town on left, immediately past surtidor
Carmen Ruiz
244 miles/394 kms
 
273 miles/440 kms
caseta at outskirts of town; stay right at fork 0.6 miles (1 km) out of town for Santa Ana (do not go straight - you'll wind up in San Matías)
298 miles/480 kms
 
310 miles/515 kms
 
335 miles/545 kms
 

Approximate travel times by private vehicle depend upon your driving skills and the weather, but Bolivian bus companies have it down to a science...sort of. Average times to these towns from Santa Cruz are as follows:

Location
Hours
Miles
Kilometres
San Xavier
3
137
220
Concepción
6
174
280
San Ignacio
9
273
440
Santa Ana
9.5
298
490
San Miguel (does not pass through Santa Ana)
10
335
545
San Rafael (passes through Santa Ana)
11
310
515

There is now bus service from Santa Cruz to San José de Chiquitos in spite of the construction on the road between the two locations. If taking this route, rent a vehicle, as buses are infrequent and may be subject to delays.

Approaching the first Jesuit mission of Chiquitos: San Xavier

Tourist Visas
If you are a first-time visitor to the Chiquitania - or Bolivia in general - you will need a tourist visa in addition to your passport. (By the way, make sure your passport is valid for at least 90 days from the date of entry. Some Bolivian officials may not authorise a visa for you if your passport is not valid for at least this length of time.)

The long-rumoured special entry visa for citizens of the United States was more bark than bite. The was a rumour circulating that from March 2007 all U.S. citizens showing up on the border would have to have a nearly impossible to procure visa, lest your face be pressed against the window, with you on the outside looking in. However, this is avowedly not the case. It's US$125 and good for five long years, mi amigo norteamericano. This does not mean you can overstay your visit (see below); it simply means that each time you come to Bolivia within the five-year period you're good. But because Evo and his minions are mercurial fellows at best, do check the Bolivian Embassy's Web site, or alternatively, the US Embassy's Web site before heading in to be sure.

For most nationalities (including US citizens), when you enter Bolivia you will receive, free of charge, a 90-day entry permission card (and a green exit card, which you must carry with you when you travel). If you stay beyond the original 90 days, you can get two more 30-day extensions if you apply and are willing to pay the Bs. 165 fee each time. So conceivably you can max out your tourist stay to 150 days or five months. You do not need a new exit visa for these extensions; the original is still valid as long as you keep all the paperwork in order. If you do overstay your visa limit, you'll be docked Bs. 10 per day of the overstay (and another Bs. 5 per day if you have a minor with you).

When you leave Bolivia by air, there is a combined aeroport and exit tax of roughly Bs. 190 (US$25) that must be paid before your receive the exit stamp on the exit portion of your entry permission card.