Porto Xavier and the Jesuit Missions

Porto Xavier Travel Blog

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Mission at Sao Miguel

The decision to change what money I had and cut through Brazil to the Missiones province of Argentina proved to be a wise one as I never encountered a working ATM that functioned with my card during my few days in Brazil. I had also decided, after looking at my bank account that I didn´t have enough money to spend the time to travel up the Brazilian coast and see many of the things that I wanted to see, things are just too expensive in Brazil, especially transportation. I found this out right away as I had to pay some $20 for a four hour bus ride from Chui to Pelotas. At least in Chui the food didn´t seem expensive as I had my first Brazilian lunch consisting of a massive plate of milanes de carne, french fries, tomato, rice, and a bowl of black beans, and a beer for $6.

Mission church at Sao Miguel

I got on the bus not knowing where exactly I was going after Pelotas, a big bus transfer hub in southern Brazil. I had a map of the region, albeit a poor and undetailed one in my guide book, but I was headed to yet another small town, Sao Miguel das Missoes, across a network of little touristed towns and rural roads. It certainly would have been easier, and much more expensive (something I couldn´t afford to do), to take the $50 7 hour bus from Chui to Porto Allegre and then take another $50 overnight bus to a town an hour or two away. So when the bus arrived at the terminal in Pelotas I found the information desk, where no one really spoke Spanish, and found out that my only option of leaving that day, and hence avoiding having to pay for a hotel room, was to take a bus at 12:40am to a town called Cruz Alta.

Right exterior of the church at Sao Miguel
This sounded good enough except for the fact that it was only 5:30pm, a solid 7 hour wait at a terminal far outside the city. At least there were three ATMs there, though 2 were broken and the other only for local cards. After ages of waiting the bus finally came to the almost deserted bus station and about 7-8 hours later I was in Cruz Alta catching another bus to Santo Angelo. Almost 3 hours after that I hopped on another bus to Sao Miguel das Missoes.

In Sao Miguel I found the one hotel in town which was only 100 meters from the ruins of the Jesuit Mission that I had come to see. The place looked very nice, although the pool had been closed for the season which surprised me because it was very hot during the day. But on the other hand, when I checked in I was the only one staying in the entire hotel so they gave me a free upgrade to a little nicer room.

Sao Miguel mission during the evening light show
I tried the three banks in town to get some money, but with no success. On the edges of town there are the ruins a Jesuit fountain with some intricate carving work which when I arrived was being used as a water trough by a man´s cow. I had some lunch at one of the cheaper places in town but arrived too late for the normal lunch and all they could make was some type of sandwich comprised of lots of things I didn´t know the words for in Portugese. In what turned out to be a poor decision I ordered one and was treated to perhaps the worst thing I´ve eaten since I had this deep fried dried beef in northern Peru. It was grilled sandwich with hot dog inside along with corn, peas, very poor quality cheese, and mayonaise. Not quite unedible but definitely below sub-par.
The closed port at Porto Xavier

The ruins of the mission more than made up for the poor quality of the lunch. Especially in the afternoon light, set amidst a large field of tall trees and green grass, the hulking ruins of the church were very dramatic. Other than the church much of the auxilliary buildings had crumbled and only remnants of the walls were left. But surprisingly much of the church was still intact, much more I thought than that of San Ignacio in Argentina (more on this later). They didn´t have any tours and so I just wandered around the ruins, pretty much along except for a handful of Brazilian tourists and the artisan vendors. At night there was a light show which was supposed to be the big draw so I headed back after dark for that. Of course it was all in Portugese I think about life in the mission and the battles fought in the region, and I understood almost nothing.

Looking across the river to Argentina
Except for some pretty flashing lights it was basically a tourist gimmick.

I had to get up early the next morning to catch the 7am bus out of Sao Miguel to go back to Santo Angelo. Asking at the hotel and looking at a better map, there were two ways to get to Argentina from there. The first would be to take a bus to Posadas via Sao Borja, to the southeast, where despite the lack of it on any map there was apparently a bridge over the river. The other more direct option would be to take a bus to Porto Xavier to the northwest and then take a boat across the river for San Javier and eventual connecting buses to San Ignacio and the mission there. Of course I opted for the more direct (and hopefully shorter) route. In case it isn´t obvious Porto Xavier in Portugese is pronounced Port Shav-ya-air, with that cleared up I got on the bus and two and half hours later was there.

Grand entranceway at San Ignacio
Luckily outisde of the terminal I finally heard someone speaking Spanish so I asked this old woman where the port and boats to Argentina were and she directed me down the road about six blocks.

I got to the port at about 11:45am, about fifteen minutes after the last boat had left for the morning, with the port and the border being closed until 2pm. So I went to a Churruscaria, a Brazilian BBQ, for all you can eat meat. After a rough opening due to my non-existent Portugese the waitres came out of the kitchen with this immense tray of 9 different sized bowls and plates with rice, beans, potato salad, onions and eggs, pickles, cole slaw, cabbage, some white root vegetable like a potato, and bread. If that wasn´t enough then came the meat, skewer by skewer of chicken, sausage, beef ribs, pork ribs, and about five different cuts of beef.

Entrance to the ruins at San Ignacio
Needless to say I left very satisfied that the 13 reals I had spent for the meal and the beer were well worth it. Then I waited as cars started to line up for the port to open at 2, but 2 came and went with the port staying closed. Then I heard the guys next to me saying that there weren´t boats until 4pm because it was a holiday. Apparently it must have been some really obscure holiday as most of the locals didn´t seem to know about it. So I waited 2 more hours and finally the port opened and I was speeding across the river in the lancha for the 3 minute trip to Argentina. I managed to make it to Argentina with about 50 reals left ($30), not bad at all really.

On the Argentine side I found the immigration and there computer was down so they stamped my passport and wrote down the details of my passport on a piece of scrap paper.

Intricate left facade of the entranceway
There weren´t any taxis amidst the long lines of traffic backed up and waiting to cross the border due to the holiday so I had to walk 3km to the bus terminal with all my stuff. Two local kids showed me the way the last several blocks and I waited an hour for the bus that I had to take to some stop called Santa Ana to change for a bus to San Ignacio. And finally, after some 600 hours of bus, boat, and train transportation, it happened, I missed a bus stop. Why I missed it was completely obvious. But after the bus passed a toll booth labeled Santa Ana and the next stop wasn´t the town I was looking for I went up to the front of the bus and they informed me that we had passed the stop a while ago. They let me off on the side of the road a few kilometers ahead where they said I could grab a bus for San Ignacio, just any bus going to Puerto Iguazu.
Right facade of the entranceway
I only had to wait about 15 minutes for a bus and I then saw why I had missed the stop for Santa Ana, because it was in front of an empty restaurant named Santa Rosa, past the toll booth for Santa Ana, totally obvious right? The bus I got on wouldn´t drive into San Ignacio so I had to get off at the entrance road to the town and walk a kilometer in the dark to the town. Finally arriving around 9pm after a long day of buses, a boat, and some walking.

I got up early the next morning to see the ruins by the light of the rising sun and hopefully catch them at a less crowded time. It worked as I arrived just after the first tour group embarked on their tour and after they finished I was the only person walking around the ruins. The entrance to the ruins was probably more dramatic than Sao Miguel with the remnants of walls framing in a large open central plaza bordered on either side by the ruins of the Jesuit residences.

Intricate carved archway at San Ignacio
The front walls of the church had much more intricately carved facades and better craftmanship than the ruins at Sao Miguel, yet much of the rest of the church had been destroyed. The front walls were glowing orange from the light of the morning sun and peaceful emptiness and solitude of the ruins were very impressive. Unfortunately I didn´t have time to take one of the tours as I had to get back to check out of my hotel before 10am but I think wandering around the ruins on my own was a better idea than going through the tour with 30-40 tourists. Having seen two of missions I hopped on a bus to Puerto Iguazu to go see Iguazu Falls and everything else the triple frontier of Argentina, Brazil, and Paraguay has to offer.  

postaltiburon says:
Incredible photos and very descriptive writing! Thanks for sharing!
Posted on: May 20, 2008
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Mission at Sao Miguel
Mission at Sao Miguel
Mission church at Sao Miguel
Mission church at Sao Miguel
Right exterior of the church at Sa…
Right exterior of the church at S…
Sao Miguel mission during the even…
Sao Miguel mission during the eve…
The closed port at Porto Xavier
The closed port at Porto Xavier
Looking across the river to Argent…
Looking across the river to Argen…
Grand entranceway at San Ignacio
Grand entranceway at San Ignacio
Entrance to the ruins at San Ignac…
Entrance to the ruins at San Igna…
Intricate left facade of the entra…
Intricate left facade of the entr…
Right facade of the entranceway
Right facade of the entranceway
Intricate carved archway at San Ig…
Intricate carved archway at San I…
The church and cross at Sao Miguel
The church and cross at Sao Miguel
Archways in Sao Miguel
Archways in Sao Miguel
Sunrise at the entrance to the mis…
Sunrise at the entrance to the mi…
Inside the walls at San Ignacio
Inside the walls at San Ignacio
Exterior walls at San Ignacio
Exterior walls at San Ignacio
Porto Xavier
photo by: AndySD