- The Washington Times - Friday, June 24, 2005

SAN JOSE DE CHIQUITOS, Bolivia — In this remote town in eastern Bolivia, an unlikely monument, the San Jose de Chiquitos temple, rises majestically above the simple red-tile-roofed houses. It’s the lonely survivor of a glorious past.

Little has changed since the temple was built 250 years ago.

Hot, quiet and devoid of most modern conveniences, the village of San Jose de Chiquitos looks lost in time, at the end of the world, but a glimmer of hope is making a difference. Colonial art specialists and architects are working to bring back some of the temple’s ancient glory, though at a slow pace.

The name of the town doesn’t do the temple justice. Chiquitos means small in Spanish, but the structure is magnificent — the first built by the Jesuits as part of a massive evangelization campaign that ensured the freedom of tens of thousands of native Indians who otherwise would have become encomiendas — slaves of the Spanish conquistadors.

The temple’s glory remains almost hidden by its relatively remote location — though San Jose de Chiquitos is accessible by train from Santa Cruz, which has an airport with connections from Bolivia’s capital, La Paz.

It’s a pleasure to see the temple after spending hours in a candlelit room with no air conditioning at the local posada. Chiquitos has no electricity between 2 and 7 a.m.

With its brown stone-covered facade and three-story tower rising from the flat horizon, the monument stands on a neat green plaza like an undiscovered gem waiting for lovers of colonial art and seekers of architectural treasures. Time, neglect and vandalism have taken a heavy toll. Doors, walls, arches, paintings, statues and altars all cry for care.

The restoration team, funded by the federal and local governments, expects to complete its job in a couple of years. “The main altar should be ready in a few more months. The rest, perhaps by 2007,” chief architect Marcelo Vargas says. That would be a record pace for the slow restoration, which has dragged on for 20 years.

The U.N. Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization declared Chiquitos and six other temples World Cultural Heritage Sites. That should have entitled the temple to aid from the government and financial institutions, but the restoration team this year has just $15,000, left over from a contribution by a state environmental agency.

The temple is one of 33 missions the Jesuits built to protect the Indians. The missions were autonomous, self-sufficient towns in the jungles and prairies covering a vast area that today is part of Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay, Uruguay and Bolivia.

Experts say the missions were the first industrial settlements in the New World. The Jesuits taught the Guarani Indians handicrafts, sculpture, woodcarving and how to make and play musical instruments. The villages flourished as centers of culture and arts, rare in the hemisphere.

“They led an anthropological revolution. The natives leapfrogged from the Stone Age to the zenith of human knowledge of that time,” says Elio Montenegro Banegas, a professor at the local Geography and History Center. “Chiquitos was also the only mission with outside walls built in stone. In 75 years, by 1767, the Jesuits built what Chiquitos is still today.”

It’s also one of the last remaining missions. Many simply disappeared, along with the Guarani groups, which succumbed to the invasion of settlers after the Jesuits left.

The Chiquitos temple survived thanks to Chiquitanos, as the people of the town are known. The Chiquitanos did not allow major changes to the temple because, even now, they consider it the symbol of their past.

“Generation after generation, they were alert to prevent changes in the look of the church. Priests wanted to change the temple and even reconstruct it, but the population was always against it. Chiquitanos maintained it the best they could. If a beam was rotting or breaking, they removed it and put in a new one, all from a single tree,” Mr. Vargas says.

Slowly, patiently, the restoration team labors to undo the damage of nature and restore the temple to its former glory. Dozens of pieces of carved wood and painting frames lie strewn in the workshops.

“Humidity always played havoc with the temple,” Lizbeth Cordova says as she patiently plasters mica layers on the carved wooden slab of one of the side altars. “Mica gives the appearance of silver. It was what the metalworkers used most to build some of the temple’s ornaments.”

Other parts of the altar will be covered with layers of 22-karat gold imported from Germany and Spain, she says.

Thanks to the solid construction and the maintenance provided by the town, wooden pillars supporting the lofty structure and the roof beams are thought to be virtually as solid as when the temple was built, 1745 to 1754.

The Jesuits said the temple “ought to reflect the best of human imagination because it was the place where God dwelled,” says the Geography and History Center’s Mr. Montenegro.

When the Jesuits were expelled by the Spanish king, they submitted a list of 120 paintings of the life and passion of Jesus Christ and silver ornaments weighing about 3,700 pounds, Mr. Montenegro says. Most of those riches have disappeared.

Restoration experts have discovered paintings concealed under a layer of plain wall paint, and the original art eventually will be uncovered and restored.

“Those are well-preserved paintings that can be recovered, and then we will admire their splendor,” Mr. Vargas says. “The fact that somebody recklessly painted the walls was a blessing in disguise.”

• • •

American Airlines flies from Miami to La Paz, Bolivia, with connecting service to Santa Cruz, Bolivia. A train runs between Santa Cruz and San Jose de Chiquitos.

Sometimes hotels are full, so a reservation should be made in advance. The Hotel Turubo charges about $15 a night and has air conditioning.

Buy some Bolivian money (about 8 bolivianos to the U.S. dollar) before leaving Santa Cruz. Fifty dollars per person is plenty to pay for hotel, taxis and meals in San Jose de Chiquitos.

Bring a flashlight, as San Jose de Chiquitos has no electricity for five hours each morning; take a blanket for the train, for sometimes the air conditioning is strong. The blanket also will help protect against mosquitos.

San Jose de Chiquitos does not have souvenir shops like those in other places. A few places next to the posada sell some locally made handicrafts and postcards. At night, small cafes are open by the plaza, and nearby is a billiards hall with two tables.

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