Between 1609 and 1818, territories now belonging to Argentina, Paraguay and Brazil witnessed one of the most ambitious social experiments ever undertaken: the attempt to civilise indigenous guaranis through the establishment of the Jesuit Guarani Missions.
There were 30 villages organised by the Jesuits adding up 141,182 inhabitants in 1732. All those settlements had their own school where guaranis learned art, culture and professional trades. Music, sculpture, dance and other arts flourished in the Missions. The historical assessment of this project is very controversial: some highlight the benefits that Missions brought to guaranis such as protection from slave traders, the diffusion of culture, arts and advanced agriculture techniques; others see this undertaking as an annihilation of traditional guarani lifestyle and part of the exploitative system of colonialism.
The truth is that guarani culture didn’t go extinct by any means, and guaranis kept their traditional religious practices, despite the efforts of Jesuits to convert them to Christianity. Why? The guide in San Ignacio (a guarani) put it this way: in that village population reached up to 5,000 inhabitants, and there were never more that 2 Jesuits. Today, there are still guaranis living isolated like centuries ago, and guarani language is an official language in Paraguay, spoken as much as Spanish.
In 1767, King Charles III of Spain expelled the Jesuits from Spain and all the Spanish territories. The Missions decayed short after, under the bad administration of the new secular directors, and were finally abandoned altogether.
Today, we can appreciate the remains of some of these villages, although most of them are not preserved. The Argentinian province of Misiones and the South of Paraguay host the best-preserved ruins. It is worth going there to visit them and imagine how life must have been like in the Missions.
From Iguazú I travelled to Posadas, capital of the region of Misiones, and to San Ignacio, that host the most visited mission: San Ignacio Miní. It was established in 1610 in territories now belonging to Brazil, but had to be relocated twice after attacks by bandeirantes (slave and gold traffickers). A guide explains all the details of life in the Mission, which is really interesting. There was one big main square. To one side, the church, the residence of the Jesuits, the school and a cemetery; to the other, the houses of guaranis.
After visiting San Ignacio and Posadas I crossed the frontier with Paraguay and reached Encarnación. The following day, I jumped on a bus and got to the ruins of Trinidad, equally well preserved.
The visit was very different to the one in San Ignacio. There was no guide or tour around, and almost no other visitors. However, as it has a very similar layout to the one in San Ignacio, more explanations were unnecessary.
So there I was, all by my own in the whole complex, in a very quiet environment. I stayed reading for a while up in the bell tower. I thought I was having visions when I saw a married couple and their 7 small children going up the stairs. They were dressed like 19th century (kind of like Amish but leaner), with their wicker basket and speaking American English.
‘How the hell did they arrive to such a place?’, I wondered. When they were getting down, the father asked me if I could speak English and we started talking. I told him a bit about the history of the Missions. He said they were from Massachusetts, they belonged to a religious group called Mennonites and had come to Paraguay for a few months as part of an exchange with Paraguayan families of their church. Really weird to find this family there, they were like utterly out of place.
We continued to explore the ruins separately. I enjoyed my visit to the Missions. It is somewhat original and you can imagine how life would be in that time, and think about that kind of undertaking. Visiting those two missions seemed enough to me. There is a whole circuit, but as I mentioned, they were pretty much alike at the time, and those two are probably the best preserved.
Another feature of Paraguay is the unbearable heat. To overcome that, I went for the national drink, a good tereré (iced mate).