31 October 2007


In the Eastern plains of Bolivia's Santa Cruz department we found the Chiquitania. This area is unlike anything else that we encountered on our trip. The landscape is a lush green sprinkled with palm trees and the large rock outcroppings are stunning. The first inhabitants of this area, the Piñocas, used these rock areas for ceremonies. The picture below shows you some of the rock formation of Piedra de Los Apóstoles. The Piñocas worshipped this area as the home of their god Nupayaré (a god that they depicted as bird like). Every year, a traditional dance still takes place on the Day of Tradition. The Jesuits were so successful in this area because they wove the traditional Christian beliefs in with the natural areas around them. Christ was referred to here amongst the natives not as "the Redeemer" but as el Yiritux, meaning "He who is adored in the hills and valleys."

The Jesuit Mission churches are not only beautiful but mesmerizing. Our first stop on this journey would be to San Xavier. The church there was built in 1749. This is the second UNESCO World Heritage Site of our trip. All of the restored churches in the Jesuit Mission circuit are under this heading and were dedicated on 12 December 1990. 80% of this church is original material including parts of the tile floor, wooden pillars, and of course, the artwork. The church at San Xavier is the only one of the circuit that is painted from top to bottom on the inside.

In the courtyard of the church complex is a recreated bell tower. They know from the remnants left behind that the original not only stood in this spot but looked similar in shape and size. The greenish colored bells pictured below are the original bells used. They were built sometime in the 1600s and carried by wagon from Uruguay during the time the church was built.

The highlight of our trip to San Xavier occurred later that night. Our guide during the day, Magno Cornelio, arranged for us to be taken to the Aguas Calientes. These hot springs are 9 miles outside of town and are reputed by the locals to have curative powers. Our driver picked us up in his red Toyota pickup and off we went in search of the springs. We rode on a horrible road full of potholes, dust, a small river, rickety bridges, and breathtaking scenery. As we watched the sun set behind the palm trees we quickly found many types of insects coming to life. The countryside lit up with fireflies and large beetles. Finally when we arrived at Aguas Calientes, we realized that we had neglected to bring flashlights. So after paying a small fee, we cautiously waded into the spring. The hot water bubbled up from the pool and in the darkness we could only make out the first few feet in front of us. Due to the cloud cover, we were immersed in darkness but our ears took over listening to the sound of exotic insects humming and bats skimming across the water. It was another one of those moments when you know you are truly alive.

San Xavier not only rejuvenated our bodies with its springs but it also was the location of our first Toco Toucan sighting. We didn't do much birding but it's hard to miss a Toucan when it is hopping about on a tree overhead. On the ride to San Xavier we also saw another life bird, the Greater Rhea out in a cattle field. The Piñocas used the Rhea's feathers during their celebrations. The men would dress as Rheas and dance around to ask for another prosperous year of hunting and food gathering.

We left the "Cheese Capital of Bolivia," San Xavier, to go to the next town on the circuit, Concepción. Once again we were lucky to have another PCV along to show us the best place to eat and the local entertainment. After settling into our hostel we walked to the Represa Concepción for a swim. The local school kids were out and swimming in full force. With a little coaxing, Rupp and I both jumped from this bridge overlooking the dam.

Due to the bus schedule we were stuck in Concepción for a day in a half. We spent this time lounging in the hammocks at the hostel, sitting in the plaza, eating ice cream, and birding. My favorite bird of Conce would be the Vermillion Flycatcher. We had a beautiful male bird that perched himself above us for at least an hour. It was great to watch him fly off, catch an insect, and circle back. There's something about red birds that make them so attractive. Even our Northern Cardinals back home get so much reconigtion and admiration, even though they seem to be so plentiful and ordinary.

The church at Concepción is beautiful as you can see from the picture above. All the roads in Conce are made of firm red clay and it makes the town quite charming. We took two trips inside and around the church before deciding that we would skip San Ignacio, the next church on the circuit, and head back to Santa Cruz. After an all afternoon micro ride, we were back at the Hotel Milan and ready for my last two days in the country.

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