Jesuit Mission of Jesús de Tavarangüe, Paraguay’s Monumental Ruins

The remnants of the Jesuit Mission of Jesús de Tavarangüe

photography by: Omri Westmark

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Following the Spanish conquest and colonization of much of South America, several groups of Jesuit missioners ventured to the faraway continent, where they established a series of settlements alongside the Guarani tribe, the region’s indigenous people. Fast forward to the 21st century, the well-preserved remnants of those missions serve as one of Paraguay’s most important tourist sites. Ensconced in an isolated corner of Itapúa, Jesús de Tavarangüe is among the lesser known and visited Jesuit towns, providing an authentic glimpse of the country’s bygone era that to a large extent, shaped the Paraguayan people of today.

A Bit of History

As Spain and Portugal gained control over most of South America, they have created several colonies, each of which was dotted with dozens of colonial towns. Despite their best effort to assert sovereignty over the entire continent, vast stretches of land inhabited by indigenous people remained largely out of reach.


As part of Spain and Portugal’s attempt to integrate the local Guarani tribe into the economic and social life of the colonies, a series of Jesuit Mission were founded in the 17th century across Brazil, Argentina and Paraguay. With the arrival of Jesuit missioners from Europe, around 30 communities, aka Indian Reductions, were erected all over the region’s rural hinterland.


Designated as self-sufficient towns, the missions gathered thousands of Guarani people with the aim of introducing them to Christianity as well as European values. To better communicate with the indigenous population, the missioners studied the local Guarani language, which as a result adopted the Latin alphabet.


In the span of one century, the missions not only managed to convert many Guaranis to Christianity, but also ended their previously nomadic lifestyle as newly established settlements became a magnet for tribesmen. During the mid-18 century, the population of all Guarani reductions peaked at more than 140,000 people, becoming an unignorable part of the nascent colonies.


One of these townlets and the protagonist of the article, Jesús de Tavarangüe, was originally founded in 1685 somewhere around the Monday River. The mission was relocated a couple of times until 1748, when it reached its final location near the city of Encarnación. What started as a building frenzy of sumptuous monuments and houses was cut short only twenty years later, when the Jesuit order was expelled from the region amid Spain’s concern of its growing influence.


While initially, Jesús de Tavarangüe along with other Jesuit settlements stayed afloat, it wasn’t long before the place was abandoned and left in tatters. In 1993, the ruins were designated as a UNESCO World Heritage site, ending their two centuries of oblivion.

Notable Buildings and Architectural Elements

Despite over two centuries of abandonment and incessantly stormy weather, the ruins of Jesús de Tavarangüe are well-preserved, including myriads of intricate details. As a self-proclaimed autarky, the town comprised of various buildings and zones, ranging from purely religious purposes to farming.


Perhaps the single most conspicuous edifice across the site is the mission’s church, located at the very center of the complex. Designed as a replica of the Church of Saint Ignatius of Loyola in Italy, the incredibly massive building was never completed as the Jesuits were forced to leave the region beforehand. Made of locally sourced reddish stones, the roofless structure features a couple of Moorish arches, niches glutted with indigenous ornaments and a pair of opposing pulpits, where heated debates would have taken place in front of the masses.


The unfinished church sits perpendicularly to several interconnected buildings, including the priests’ residence, the school, the kitchen, the dining room and the warehouse. Stretching alongside the wing is a paved walkway accompanied by an uncompleted colonnade, originally designed as a protective measure against the occasionally inclement weather.


Nestled slightly away from the church and its adjacent cluster of buildings, Casa de Indigenas is where the native Guarani lived. The residential quarter is comprised of multiple houses, each measuring roughly 4X4 meters. Due to their small proportions, the main space of every house served as a kitchen throughout the day and a bedroom during the night. All of the dwelling units are lined along a single corridor, where the community’s social life has taken place. Unfortunately, after years on end where the place was exposed to the elements, only the skeletal layouts remain while the rest can only be imagined.

Visiting the Complex

Skipped by the vast majority of foreign tourists, Paraguay is one of South America’s least visited countries. As you can imagine, the country’s measly number of visitors, particularly during the off-season months, is translated to nearly empty tourist attractions. And so, even a UNESCO world heritage site like the ruins of Jesús de Tavarangüe is somewhat akin to an off-the-beaten-path location elsewhere, with visitors having the entire place for themselves every now and then.


Tucked away about 30 kilometers northeast of Encarnación, the easiest way to get to the Jesuit mission is by a one-hour drive from the city center, albeit a public bus and a tour are also available. Visiting the complex entails an entrance fee of 25,000 guaranis (equivalent to 3.40 USD) for foreigners. The well-preserved ruins are confined to the 16-hectare rectangular grounds, located next to a low-key village with which they share their name.


Besides the remnants of the 18th century Jesuit settlement, the verdant premises are also home to a flock of incredibly angry birds. The southern lapwing or tero-tero as it is locally named, is notoriously known for its aggressive behavior, especially if it perceives a looming threat around its nest, which happens to be a small hole in the ground. During the nesting season, visitors are almost guaranteed a spooky encounter with these winged critters, where the birds angrily chirp while flying low towards a potential intruder as an intimidation tactic.