The sequence of events is this: at the beginning of the 17th century, the Spanish Jesuits, with the approval of the Crown, began to build missions in the Alto Parana area, which is now the border area between Argentina, Paraguay and Brazil. that the indigenous Guarani could live in peace and without being enslaved, maintaining their language, their culture and their social structure in exchange for being evangelized. They were known as reductions or the republic of the Indians.

A humanist utopia in a rude and cruel world that lasted a century and a half and that, unfortunately, as always happens in these stories, ended very badly. Of the thirty missions that were created in Alto Parana, eight were in the current territory of Paraguay. Its ruins, valued, today form the Jesuit Route, one of the main tourist resources of this landlocked South American country.

The oldest of all was San Ignacio Guazu, 233 kilometers south of Asuncion, founded in 1609. It is considered the first Jesuit settlement in this area of ​​America and the example that the rest of reductions followed in terms of structure and organization social. Unfortunately, there’s barely anything left of it. The original church was dismantled with such unusual efficacy that I leave no stone unturned. And what was the mission square is today the Main Square of the homonymous population. If an original 17th century building is preserved which was the school-workshop where the missionaries taught the Guarani various trades and which today houses the Diocesan museum of San Ignacio Guazu. On display is a fine set of sculptures carved in polychrome wood by Guarani craftsmen in the 17th century. The modern church —which replaces the mission church in almost the same place where it was— nonetheless makes up a charming postcard. If you visit San Ignacio Guazu, do not miss the delicacies of the local gastronomy that they prepare in the restaurant La Arcadia, very close to the museum.

The largest and best preserved of the Paraguayan missions is Santisima Trinidad del Parana, 28 kilometers from Encarnacion, in the department of Itapua. Wandering among its pollarded stones —which were eaten for two centuries and disappeared by the jungle— in the silence of an afternoon without visitors afflicts you because of the magnitude of the enclosure and the intensity of what you experienced there. Like the rest of the missions, Trinidad del Parana was articulated around a large quadrangular Plaza Mayor. One side was occupied by the church, with its cemetery and outbuildings. The other three, the houses of the indigenous people, whose size and quality of work must have been the envy of the time and speak a lot about the humanism and respect for the Guarani that presided over the life of the reductions. 

Music was very important in the mission (hence the wink of the oboe in The Mission, the Roland Joffe film with music by Ennio Morricone that marked a generation) and there was always a choir and an orchestra. In the church of Trinidad del Parana, which was the largest built in the 30 missions and of which today only the walls of the apse remain, a frieze was found with musical angels playing various instruments of the time, from a harpsichord to a Paraguayan harp. The discovery allowed historians a greater knowledge about the day to day of the reductions and the miscegenation between European and American culture that occurred in them.

In Trinidad del Parana, up to 4,000 people lived. What is surprising is that this entire urban and productive emporium was run by just two Jesuit missionaries, who relied on indigenous helpers and local caciques. In 1993 it was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site. If you can, don’t miss the night pass (daily at 9pm), where a sound and light show will take you back 400 years in time.

Very close to Trinidad, about 13 kilometers away, stands another mission, also a world heritage site: Jesus de Tavarangue. Although it was smaller than the previous one, the Jesuits began to build a church that should have been larger than that of Trinidad, but with their expulsion from all Spanish territories in 1768, the work was left unfinished.

On its unfinished walls, a video mapping with an audiovisual documenting the evangelizing work of the Jesuit fathers in Paraguay is projected every night. The staging is sensational. Two characters dressed in period costumes guide visitors with lanterns through the darkened enclosure and leave them between the ancient walls, where music begins to play and images are projected. They take a multimedia journey through the history of the Society of Jesus in America and the creation of the missions. And it ends with a shocking plea. The voice of a current cacique reading the letter that that distant 1768 other Guarani caciques sent to the governor begging that the Jesuit fathers would not leave, since they were the only ones who protected them from slavery and promoted their culture and language. It was not so. The Jesuits left, the reductions passed into the hands of laymen, the founding spirit disappeared and many Indians emigrated or ended up as slaves to the Portuguese bandeirantes. End of utopia.

Paraguay is a very unknown country that hardly appears in the classic circuits of South America. However, just to travel this route of the Jesuit missions, it would be worth the trip.

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