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