East of Santa Cruz stretches a vast, sparsely-populated plain covered in scrub and fast-disappearing dry tropical forest, which gradually gives way to swamp as it approaches the border with Brazil. Named Chiquitos by the Spanish (apparently because the original indigenous inhabitants lived in houses with low doorways – chiquito means small), in the eighteenth century this region was the scene of one of the most extraordinary episodes in Spanish colonial history, as a handful of Jesuit priests established flourishing mission towns where the region’s previously hostile indigenous inhabitants converted to Catholicism and settled in their thousands, adopting European agricultural techniques and building some of South America’s most magnificent colonial churches. This theocratic socialist utopia ended in 1767, when the Spanish crown expelled the Jesuits, allowing their indigenous charges to be exploited by settlers from Santa Cruz, who seized the Chiquitanos’ lands and took many of them into forced servitude. Six of the ten Jesuit mission churches still survive, however, and have been restored and declared UNESCO World Heritage Sites – their incongruous splendour in the midst of the wilderness is one of Bolivia’s most remarkable sights.
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