The Guarani Missions of Argentina and Paraguay
A trip through South America, as spectacular as it is, can often feel like one long story of conflict and open war between the continent’s native peoples and European colonists. Even today, there is a very palpable tension between these groups.
So as we were passing through northern Argentina along the border with Paraguay on our way to Iguazú Falls, we were happy to discover a slightly different story. In the 17th century, Jesuit missionaries entering the area took a rather unique approach to conversion. They set out to create what some have termed a “Utopian” blend of native and European culture in methodically constructed communities referred to as reducciones.
While I assume the stories of these Guarani missions have been simplified and polished up over the centuries, it is indisputable that the Jesuits were attempting something very different. They granted WAY more autonomy to the Guarani than other missionaries of the era encouraging self-governance in a way which was HIGHLY unique in the 17th century. Each reducción was an obsessively structured village centered around a grand mission and a central plaza. Each settlement included workshops, perfect rows of housing, a hospital, and a big house where widows could live.
Thomas and I visited the ruins of Argentina’s best preserved Jesuit Guarani mission San Ignacio Miní. The gorgeous red sandstone remains testify to the amazing achievements of the Guarani with beautiful carvings and advanced stonework that would have been unparalleled in similarly sized missions of the time. The Guarani cultural influences are also very apparent in stylized reliefs featuring plant and shell motifs. We would have loved to have visited more Jesuit Guarani missions in Paraguay, but the country’s whopping US$160 visa for Americans at the time seriously dampened my interest.
If this story of Jesuits and Indians living together in harmony sounds a bit familiar, you might have seen the 1986 film The Mission starring Jeremy Irons and Robert De Niro. Unfortunately, as in the film, the Jesuit reducciones were in constant conflict with Portuguese slave traders who viewed the Jesuit missions as a great source of slaves.
The Jesuits did attempt to use their influence with the Catholic church to protect the reducciones, but when the Jesuit order came into conflict with the church and associated colonial powers, those protections ceased. The Guarani missions were taken over and the Guarani were either enslaved or escaped into the jungles.
Visiting San Ignacio Miní
We visited the mission independently as we traveled from the Iberá Wetlands via Corrientes to Iguazú Falls. Many tour agencies in Puerto Iguazú offer day trips to the mission as well. Be warned that cost of an entry ticket to the site was a staggering 150 pesos when we visited in 2015 (US$19 at official rates and US$12.50 at blue market rates during our visit). While the site represents an important piece of history, the entry fees are completely out of proportion with the scale of the ruins. We do hope Argentina eventually adjusts the fees to make the site more accessible.