Jesuit monks arrived in Paraguay in the early 1600s, with the aim of educating and converting the native people to Christianity. The ruling Spanish put certain restrictions on them to prevent them from amassing power and wealth, but by 1767 the Jesuits had built so many towns housing so many inhabitants, that the Spanish were afraid that they had too much influence in the area and threw them out. The remains of many of the 30 principal towns can be seen in modern-day Paraguay, Brazil, Argentina and Uruguay (Paraguay has shrunk a lot since then), and three of them are located close to the city of Encarnación.
The three towns are called Jesus de Tavarangüe, Trinidad del Paraná and San Cosme and San Damian. The mission at San Cosme and San Damian is located about 50 kilometres to the west of Encarnación and can be a little difficult to get to by public transport, but the others are easily reached by public bus. Both Jesús and Trinidad are UNESCO World Heritage sites.
All three ruins can be accessed on a single ticket which costs 25,000 guaranies and can be bought at any of the sites.
How to get there
From the main bus station in Encarnación, hop on any bus going towards Trinidad. Ask the driver to tell you where to get off; although it’s only 30 kilometres along the highway, the journey will take about 40 minutes. A single ticket costs 7,000 guaranies, purchase it from the driver as you board the bus.
Once you arrive in Trinidad, you have two options. You can continue on to visit the ruins at Jesús first, or stay in Trinidad to see Trinidad del Paranà.
To visit Jesús first, walk along the road in the same direction the bus was going (north) until you get to an intersection with a road heading off to the right. There’s a large sign on the highway indicating that the ruins are along that road. If you’re lucky, there will be a bus waiting at the intersection; if so, hop on and stay on until the last stop. It’s a 12km trip which takes about 20-25 minutes and costs 5,000 guaranies. Locals pay the driver when disembarking but he may want you to pay as you get on.
This bus is very infrequent, running about once an hour, but there’s a long break for lunch in the middle of the day. We caught the bus at 10am and arrived at 10.25, the driver told us that the next buses were at 11am or 1pm — we could stay for half an hour or two-and-a-half hours. It’s a good idea to ask the driver when the next departure will be so that you can plan the rest of your day.
On arrival, buy your ticket from the ticket office and head inside. The tickets have three perforated tags, one of each will be ripped off at each destination, and all of which will be date stamped with the current date: they must be used on the same day. Guides are available to take you around; this service is offered at an extra charge determined by you.
The church at Jesús was never finished; construction started in about 1756 but had to be abandoned in 1767 when the Jesuits were expelled. Had it been completed, it would have been the largest in the area. It remains in very good condition, looking more or less the same as it did when construction was left off.
When you’ve finished wandering around, head back to to entrance to catch the bus back to the intersection with the highway. From here, walk south several hundred metres until you reach a road heading left, take it and follow the signs to Trinidad del Paraná. There’s only one intersection along the way; take the right fork. There’s a ticket office here too; either buy or show your ticket there or continue along to the main gates where a ticket collector will check your ticket and tear off one of the three tags. Guides are also available here, ask at the ticket office.
Trindad del Paraná, founded in 1706, was one of the most important Jesuit towns, and features many more buildings than neighbouring Jesús. Visitors can descend into the (vacant) crypt under the church and climb the restored bell tower for a view of the buildings. This town was completed and ran as a functioning town for about 60 years before the expulsion; unfortunately a bad storm a hundred or so years ago pulled off roofs and destroyed much of the town. However, a lot remains in good condition or has been restored.
About 800m from Trinidad is the quarry where stone was obtained for the construction of the mission. Entrance is an extra 10,000 guaranies, but this includes a guide, who will lead you to the quarry from Trinidad. It’s amazing to see how much rock was taken, and to imagine the fireman’s chain of natives ferrying the cut stone from the quarry to the building site. There’s a small hill behind the quarry from where you can see Trinidad, though Jesús is now hidden by trees.
From the quarry, follow the road back to the highway, from where you can catch a bus back to Encarnación.
There’s a restaurant at the entrace to the site in Trinidad, but the food is quite expensive. Bring your own lunch and snacks with you from Encarnación, and don’t forget to bring lots of water as well as temperatures can be hot — and you’ll be outside most of the day.