Have you ever heard of "La Chiquitania" in Bolivia? La Chiquitania is a part of the 700km-wide Bolivian lowlands between the Andes and the border with Brazil. It is one of the most under-appreciated tourist regions in South America. The main attractions of this remote area are the Jesuit Missions and the Franciscan settlements from the 18th century, along with the tropical train ride from Santa Cruz de la Sierra to Puerto Quijarro.
The Jesuit Missions of Chiquitos are located in the Santa Cruz region of eastern Bolivia. UNESCO collectively designated six of these missions in 1990 as "World Heritage Sites." Distinguished by a unique fusion of European and Amerindian cultural influences, the missions were founded by the Jesuits in the 17th and 18th centuries to convert local tribes to Christianity.
The "UNESCO World Heritage Missions" are San Xavier (the oldest one), San Rafael de Velasco, Concepcion, San Miguel de Velasco, Santa Ana de Velasco, and San José de Chiquitos. San Jose de Chiquitos is the southernmost UNESCO Mission and is easily accessible by train from Santa Cruz. All of the other World Heritage Missions are north of San José de Chiquitos and can only be reached via private four-wheel-drive vehicle.
Another attraction for railfans and people who love traveling by train is the 651-km (398-mile) narrow-gauge railway that connects Santa Cruz del al Sierra with Puerto Quijarro. Santa Cruz is Bolivia's central economic hub, and Puerto Quijarro is a Bolivian town at the Brazilian border.
The best part of the railway journey stretches from Santa Cruz to San José de Chiquitos over a distance of 267 km (166 miles). After San José, the train travels through the night and reaches Puerto Quijarro the following morning.
Most of the principal roads east of Santa Cruz are unpaved and not comfortable to travel. The train is an excellent alternative to the road as a way of visiting the Chiquitania region. Unfortunately, there is only a night train available for the return trip from San José to Santa Cruz, and there are no sleeper cars on the train. So, for your return journey, you will have to travel by bus or hire a car if you don’t want to spend the entire night on a full train.
There are passenger trains from Sunday to Friday between Santa Cruz and San José de Chiquitos. On Saturday there are no trains. The trains leave Santa Cruz in the afternoon and reach San José in the evening or at night.
Ñuflo de Chavés, a 16th-century Spanish conquistador and founder of the city of Santa Cruz, introduced the name Chiquitos, meaning little ones in English. He was referring to the small doors of the straw houses in which the indigenous population lived. Since that time, the word "Chiquitos" has been misused to designate any person of the largest ethnic group in the area known as "Chiquitano," which collectively describes over 40 ethnic groups with different languages and cultures in the region known "Gran Chiquitania."
The Tucavaca Valley lies 158 km east of San José de Chiquitos. It is a paradise region of mountains with breathtaking vistas. Not only can you enjoy spectacular views of the jungle, there are also stone formations rarely seen anywhere else. The natural vegetation in this area is still well conserved, with charming landscapes and small towns that have preserved their culture and history.
The Tucavaca Valley can be visited on a day trip from San José de Chiquitos, but due to the large distances, I recommend staying in Santiago de Chiquitos. The nearest railway station to Santiago is Roboré.
Among the Chiquitania region’s most fantastic attractions is the Cerro de Chochís and the Sanctuary Mariano de la Torre. The town of Chochís has been declared a Municipal and Departmental Cultural and Natural Heritage Site, with steps currently being taken to similarly declare it at the national level as well. Chochis is surrounded by a landscape in which high plateaus covered with green vegetation alternate with hills and solitary towers of arid rock. Chochis has its own railway station about 100 km east of San José.
Lomas de Arena is a 133-square-km area of shifting dunes and lakes about twelve km south of Santa Cruz. It is also one of the most important tourist destinations in the region. The series of massive dunes tower up to 50 meters high and are interspersed with isolated small groundwater lakes.
From Puerto Quijarro one can travel to the Brazilian city of Corumbà, which is the gateway to the famous Pantanal, the largest swamp on earth. Other exciting sites to visit in the region are the caves and the underwater lakes in Bonito.
The border crossing from Puerto Quijarro to Corumbà can be unpleasant due to the heat and the inefficient border control at both border sites. Be prepared to queue multiple times outside in a sweltering and humid climate. The border post is NOT open 24 hours. Make sure that you have all the necessary documents if you plan to cross the border there.