After Iguazú Falls, the province’s major tourist attractions are the Jesuit missions, north of Posadas. The largest, San Ignacio Miní, is also the best preserved in the whole of the missions region, which extended beyond the Paraguay and Uruguay rivers to Paraguay and Brazil, and also into Corrientes Province. Far less well preserved – and much less visited – are the ruins of Santa Ana and Loreto, south of San Ignacio; these crumbling monuments, set amid thick jungle vegetation, are less dramatic but appealing if only because they attract fewer visitors. All three missions can be visited on a day-trip from Posadas, though it’s well worth spending a night in San Ignacio, visiting the ruins in the morning light – the best time for photographs, when the low light enhances the buildings’ deep reddish hues – and again at night. In addition to the attractive village, there’s a stunning area of forest with perhaps the finest stretch of river scenery in the whole region.
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Heading northeast from Posadas along the RN-12, the first mission site you come to is Santa Ana. A signposted, unsealed road just south of Santa Ana village leads to the mission entrance and a small visitors’ centre. Originally founded in the Tapé region in 1633, Santa Ana was refounded, with a population of two thousand Guaraní, on its present site after the bandeirante attacks of 1660.
Like all the reducciones, Santa Ana is centred on a large square, to the south of which stand the crumbling walls of what was once one of the finest of all Jesuit churches, built by the Italian architect Brazanelli, whose body was buried underneath the high altar. A lot of work has been carried out on the site, yet the roots and branches of trees are still entangled in the reddish sandstone of the buildings around the plaza, offering a glimpse of the way the ruins must have appeared when they were rediscovered in the late nineteenth century. North of the church, on the site of the original orchard, you can still make out the channels from the reducción’s sophisticated irrigation system.
The ruins of Loreto are even wilder than those of Santa Ana. This site, founded in 1632, was one of the most important of all the Jesuit missions, housing six thousand Guaraní by 1733 and noted not only for its production of cloth and yerba mate but also for having the missions’ first printing press. Like Santa Ana, Loreto has a small visitors’ centre at its entrance, reached via a 6km stretch of unsealed road (impassable after heavy rain), which branches off the RN-12. Restoration work is being carried out with the assistance of the Spanish government. When you head out from the visitors’ centre to the reducción itself, it’s actually difficult at first to work out where the buildings are. After a while, though, you begin to see the walls and foundations of the settlement, heavily camouflaged by vegetation and lichen, on which tall palms have managed, fantastically, to root themselves.
San Ignacio Miní
San Ignacio Miní
The most famous of all the reducciones, San Ignacio Miní was originally founded in 1610 in the Guayrá region, in what is now Brazil. After the bandeirantes attacked the mission in 1631, the Jesuits moved thousands of miles southwards through the jungle, stopping several times en route at various temporary settlements before finally re-establishing the reducción at its present site in 1696.
The ruins occupy six blocks at the northeastern end of the village of San Ignacio: from the bus stop head east along Avenida Sarmiento for two blocks and turn left onto Rivadavia. Follow Rivadavia, which skirts around the ruins, for six blocks and then turn right onto Alberdi, where you’ll find the entrance to the site. At the entrance, there’s a small but worthwhile museum with a series of themed rooms depicting various aspects of Guaraní and mission life, plus a detailed maquette of the entire reducción. The site itself is dotted with panels lending context to the ruins, with audio provided in various languages, including English. Free, more detailed tours in rapid-fire Spanish depart regularly from the museum. There are also popular sound and light shows each evening.
On entering the settlement itself, you’ll come first to rows of simple viviendas, or living quarters, a series of six to ten adjoining one-roomed structures, each of which housed a Guaraní family. Like all the mission settlements, these are constructed in a mixture of basaltic rock and sandstone. Passing between the viviendas, you arrive at the spacious Plaza de Armas, whose emerald grass provides a stunning contrast with the rich red hues of the sandstone. At the southern end of the plaza, and dominating the entire site, stands the magnificent facade of San Ignacio’s church, designed, like Santa Ana’s, by the Italian architect Brazanelli. The roof and much of the interior have long since crumbled away, but two large chunks of wall on either side of the entrance remain, rising out of the ruins like two great Baroque wings. Though somewhat eroded, many fine details can still be made out: two columns flank either side of the doorway and much of the walls’ surface is covered with decorative bas-relief sculpture executed by Guaraní craftsmen. Most striking are the pair of angels that face each other high up on either side of the entrance, while a more austere touch is added by the prominent insignia of the Jesuit order on the right-hand side of the entrance.
To the left of the main entrance, you can wander around the cloisters and priests’ quarters, where a number of other fine doorways and carvings remain. Particularly striking is the doorway connecting the cloisters with the church baptistry, flanked by ribbed columns with heavily moulded bases and still retaining a triangular pediment over the arched doorway.
The Jesuits and their missions
The Jesuits and their missions
The first Jesuit missions in Argentina were established in 1609, three decades after the order founded by San Ignacio de Loyola first arrived in the region. Though the Jesuits tried to evangelize other parts of the country over the next 150 years, it was in the subtropical Upper Paraná where they had their greatest success. Known in Spanish as reducciones, these missions were largely self-sufficient settlements of Guaraní Indians who lived and worked under the tutelage of a small number of Jesuit priests. Missions were initially established in three separate zones: the Guayrá, corresponding mainly to the modern Brazilian state of Paraná; the Tapé, corresponding to the southern Brazilian state of Río Grande do Sul, present-day Misiones Province and part of Corrientes Province; and the Itatín, lying between the Upper Paraná and the sierras to the north of the modern Paraguayan city of Concepción.
Enlightened slave drivers
If the Jesuits were essentially engaged in “civilizing” the natives, they did at least have a particularly enlightened approach to their task – a marked contrast to the harsh methods of procuring native labour practised elsewhere in Latin America. Work was organized on a cooperative basis, with those who could not work provided for by the rest of the community. Education and culture also played an important part in mission life, with Guaraní taught to read and write not only in Spanish but also in Latin and Guaraní, and music and artisanship actively encouraged; however, coercion and violence were not unknown, and epidemics periodically ravaged these communities.
The early growth of the missions was impressive, but in 1660 bandeirantes, slave traders from São Paulo, attacked, destroying many of the missions, and carrying off their inhabitants, leading the Jesuits to seek more sheltered areas to the west, away from the Guayrá region in particular. The mission population soon recouped – and then surpassed – its former numbers, and also developed a strong standing army, making it one of the most powerful military forces in the region. Their most important crop proved to be yerba mate, which had previously been gathered from the wild but was now grown on plantations for export; other products sold by the missions included cattle and their hides, sugar, cotton, tobacco, textiles, ceramics and timber. They also exported musical instruments, notably harps and organs from the Reducción de Trinidad in Paraguay.
Decline and fall
By the end of the seventeenth century, the reducciones were among the most populous and successful areas of Argentina. By the 1730s, the larger missions such as Loreto had over six thousand inhabitants – second only to Buenos Aires. Nonetheless, the mission enterprise was beginning to show cracks: a rising number of epidemics depleted the population, and the Jesuits were becoming the subject of political resentment. Settlers in Paraguay and Corrientes were increasingly bitter at the Jesuit hold over the “supply” of Guaraní labour and domination of the market for yerba mate and tobacco. Simultaneously, the previous climate of Crown tolerance towards the missions’ almost complete autonomy also began to change, with the Jesuits’ power and loyalty questioned. Local enemies of the missions took advantage of this, claiming that the Jesuits were hiding valuable silver mines and that foreign Jesuit priests were agents of Spain’s enemies. In 1750, an exchange treaty between Spain and Portugal was proposed, according to which Spain would give up its most easterly mission. The Jesuits and Guaraní put up considerable military resistance and the treaty was abandoned. The victory proved a double-edged sword, however; the resistance against the Crown only reinforced their image as dangerous rebels and, following earlier expulsions in France, Portugal and Brazil, the Jesuits were expelled from Argentina in 1767. Their magnificent buildings fell into disuse – lumps of stone were used for other constructions and the jungle did the rest – resulting in the ruins that can be visited today.