Situated just outside Encarnación, the ruins of the Jesuit missions at Trinidad and Jesús constitute Paraguay’s only two UNESCO World Heritage sites. My Chilean amiga and I had planned to visit Trinidad at night, when the lighting makes the ruins a particularly spectacular sight, but after our gun encounter of the previous night we didn’t feel comfortable wandering around deserted ruins in the dark. Nonetheless we wanted to visit the ruins to at least have seen something more positive of what Paraguay has to offer, so we took the bus out the next morning before leaving for Argentina.
The Jesuits, of the Society of Jesus, today form the largest male religious order in the world, and recently saw the first of their members to be elected to the papacy: Pope Francis. From the time that they came to South America around 1570 to their expulsion in 1767, they brought Christianity to the indigenous people by setting up missions or ‘reducciones’ along the Paraná river where they could govern the Guaranis more effectively. An estimated 140,000 people lived in these centres at their peak, the most important ones within an area now occupied by Paraguay, Argentina and Brazil. According to a sign at one of the ruins, this “was an organization which was the admiration and amazement of those who dreamt of utopias, but which also aroused suspicions in those who were in power”. At one point, they even organised a militia to defend themselves against slave raiders. Following their abandonment, the mission buildings became the ruins of today as a result of plundering for gold, and civil war.
The Santísima Trinidad del Paraná Mission in Paraguay was established in 1706 and is the largest of the region’s missions, with a big church in the central square. There was a short introductory video at the start giving us some background on the ruins and their heritage, after which we were left to our own devices.
Having crossed the border into Argentina (Javi was allowed to pass through without an ID after a lot of begging and having to leave her police statement behind – she would have to obtain another in Argentina), getting stuck in traffic for over an hour on the no-man’s-land bridge between the two countries, we proceeded straight to the town of San Ignacio, and the following day visited the ruins of the San Ignacio Miní mission, established in its current location in 1696. Here we visited the museum and then joined the beginning of a guided tour (that we abandoned when it proved a tad too in-depth) and so received a bit more of an explanation of the layout of the mission. We entered through rows of indigenous housing into the main plaza, opposite which was the remains of the workshops, the priests’ quarters, the cemetery, and the area designated for “widows who had no relatives, orphans, elder women, some single women, and the adulteress. The main task given to these secluded women was spinning wool and cotton.”
By the way, if you’re interested in learning more about the missions through the eyes of Hollywood, there is a film from 1986 starring Jeremy Irons and Robert de Niro, called The Mission.