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The International Writers Magazine: South American Journeys

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Horatio Quiroga's San Ignacio:
Home to Madmen and Missionaries

Marc d'Entremont
"Destiny isn't blind.  Its fatal relationships obey… a still inaccessible harmony ... a superior happiness hidden in the shadows, which we don't notice yet."
Past Love, Horacio Quiroga, 1929

A four hour bus ride on Argentina’s Ruta 12 south of Puerto Iguazu, and within sight of the Rio Parana, is San Ignacio.  The town probably would no longer exist if it were not for the ruins of the great Jesuit mission, San Ignacio Mini (1696-1768), a UNESCO World Heritage site that attracts thousands of tourists each year. 


The jungle forest nips at San Ignacio's hems, encroaching with a wild profusion of green, punctuated by brightly flowering plants.  It would consume the town, just as it covered the great mission, if the population of 6,000 didn't keep it at bay.

Ignacio With the exception of the Mission, San Ignacio is an anachronistic community for modern Argentina - out of place and, perhaps, from another time.  Barefoot women and children - soles stained the brick red of the clay - walk next to brightly clad tourists on the cool, moist stone paved streets in a South American winter.  More than half the population is native Guarani engaged in the crafts of weaving, basketry, pottery making and wood carving that has been handed down through the ages.  Slightly shabby multi-colored craft stalls line the walls of the old mission and dozens of shoeless children ask well-heeled tourists for "cambio" (change) or offer small pieces of wrapped candy, paper, pencils and other trinkets for sale - a far cry from the sophisticated society the Jesuits created over 300 years ago. 

To walk Avenida Sarmiento and its few paved side streets takes less than an hour - stopping to admire the colonial style church and fading, once grand homes with largely unkempt gardens. Pools of red water and slippery clay replace the stone paving, and the road descends towards a row of improvised houses melded into the jungle's edge.  At night the silence of the surrounding rural countryside lays over the town like a soft, moist blanket.

A mere 75 years after the founding of the Society of Jesus - the Jesuits - the Order embarked on a bold social experiment in benevolent theocracy not equaled in history before or since.  Horrified by the wholesale destruction and enslavement of the indigenous peoples by Portuguese and Spanish colonists in the New World empires, the Jesuits persuaded Philip III, King of Spain, in 1609 to grant the Society a vast region which today comprises southern Brazil, Paraguay, Uruguay and northeast Argentina.  This was the homeland of the Guarani, an ancient culture of hunter-gatherers.

Over the next 150 years, the Jesuits established a series of missions, each encompassing a large church, hospital, school, craft workshops, housing for all and irrigated agricultural and pasture lands.  The Guarani were not forced to move into the missions, but thousands did.

Ruins The ruin of San Ignacio Mini is considered the best preserved of the missions.  Its rescue dates from influential poet Leopoldo Lugones’ 1903 expedition to establish beyond doubt that the jungle encased sandstone mounds were indeed the ruins of the great mission. 

In his entourage was 25 year old Uruguay writer, Horacio Quiroga, working for Lugones as a photographer.  Escaping family tragedy at home, Quiroga's photos are the first to document the great missions.  This experience would forever intertwine his destiny with San Ignacio.  If you wish to enjoy San Ignacio Mini in solitude, it is best to visit early since by 11:00 am hordes of tour busses arrive.  Or go after 4:00 pm when the busses leave.  Meandering down Avenida Rivadavia, San Ignacio's tourist strip, at 6:30 am in a soft winter mist, I wandered past cafes and small hotels of dubious construction.  Politely, as well as judiciously, interacting with the barefoot children sent over by their mothers sitting under the tree of a little plaza, I settled into an outside chair at a small cafe directly opposite the Museo Jesuitico de San Ignacio Mini, a handsome Spanish neo-colonial building.  A warm tostado de jamon y queso and cafe were soothing as the rising sun tinted the museum's white walls a soft peach.  The museum is well laid out with bi-lingual descriptions which explain the workings of the mission as well as containing remarkable art work and musical instruments produced by the Guarani.  Guided tours are available, but it is easy to wander the mission grounds and buildings with multi-lingual signs providing information.

In the early morning silence the massive red sandstone walls of the mission church loom at the end of a long tree lined avenue in the middle of lush green grass.  In neat rows flanking the avenue are remnants of long stone buildings - the homes and workshops that formed the village.  All residents of the mission worked in the "tupambae" lands, property of the community, 6 hours a day (the average European was working 12-14 hours) and all products produced were divided among them and the Jesuits.  The Guarani became highly skilled in handicrafts, sculpture, woodcarving, metal work, jewelry, and produced such advanced products as watches and musical instruments.  The Jesuits even used the Guarani's natural singing and musical talents to create new liturgical compositions sung and played by all-Guarani choirs.  The stone walls stand now as vertical rock gardens in hues of green, blue, reds and gray providing growing space for a multitude of ferns and lichen.  There had been space for reflective gardens and irrigation canals for agriculture.

The mission was a theocratic state, yet although the Jesuits baptized all those who lived in the mission, they did not overly suppress or punish native spiritual beliefs.  Since the Jesuits were in the forefront of humanistic education, they intellectually recognized a certain commonality among religious traditions that could allow a degree of tolerance for blending some indigenous beliefs with a Christian counterpart.  This is especially true in the extensive carvings and decorative motifs on the remains of the great red sandstone church, all constructed by Jesuit-trained Guarani craftsmen.  The rooms for the mission school line a long terrace with a balustrade of whimsical carved sea horses.  An outstanding achievement was the creation of a Guarani language dictionary taught in the mission schools.  The Guarani were the first native society in South America to be entirely literate.


At their height in the l8th century about 30 missions had a population up to 20,000 residents each - San Ignacio's is estimated at 4,000.  Unfortunately, Jesuit success and prosperity drew the ire of ambitious colonizers who persuaded the Spanish monarch, Charles III, to strip the Jesuits of their property and expel the Order from all New World lands in l767.  The wealth of the missions was disbursed (stolen) and the many structures dismantled for their building stone - the remainder swallowed by the jungle. 

The Guarani returned to the forest and to a life of abject poverty and exploitation on the plantations and in Misiones' gem mines.  The history of this tragedy is accurately told in Roland Joffe's The Mission (1986) - one of Argentina's most beloved films.


Horatio Quiroga's l903 visit to San Ignacio played directly into his evolving vision of destiny.  The Jesuits more than tamed the jungle; they forcefully altered its existence, and those of its natives, through great human effort.  Yet even in their ultimate failure, the jungle didn't win, it's altered forever in ways still to be known.  Quiroga was obsessed with the primordial interplay of life and death represented by the jungle's masking of its own vulnerability to forces understood only through dreams, intuition and tragedy.


With all those lofty thoughts swirling around, I naturally started to walk the couple of miles to Casa Quiroga but was stopped by the slippery conditions of the red clay road as well as lake sized puddles.  Turning back, I went to the casino where I had seen a taxi -this may be a land of serious thought, but every Argentina town has its casino. The driver was not in the car, but I asked inside the casino. Sure enough, the driver was seated at a slot machine, a very pleasant woman.  Of course she would take me to Casa Quiroga, but would I mind waiting a few moments so she could use up her gambling tokens?  No problem, so I sat at a machine and actually won the round trip fare and tip.  The driver insisted on waiting (1-1/2 hours) while I visited Casa Quiroga.  Of course, being winter, she didn't have much business, and best for her, she got to visit her friends at the house.


While the intelligentsia of Argentina were extolling the intellectual vitality of the cities, Horacio Quiroga returned to San Ignacio in 1910 - one of the poorest rural areas of the country - to establish a 400 acre farm overlooking the Parana River.  The income from a series of low level civil servant positions, along with rural solitude, provided Quiroga the artistic freedom to paint and write poetry, novels and essays in a style too shocking, hallucinatory and graphic for even the sophisticated society of Buenos Aires, although he did enjoy literary fame the last ten years of his life.  Today he is recognized as a key figure in the artistic renaissance of pre-World War II Argentina.  Yet the inaccessible harmony of destiny would play out in his own tragic life.


Ignacio I entered the small reconstructed 1910 wooden house, darkened on this overcast day by the encircling trees and towering bamboo, and paid the less than $1.00 admission.  It was not much more than one rectangular room, authentically lit by only a few dim electric lamps.  It had the primitive atmosphere of a pioneer house.  This isolation fertilized his self-absorbed imagination, but not his farm.  His wife gave birth to their two children, became mentally deranged and committed suicide in 1915.

Moving to Buenos Aires in 1917, Quiroga published the critically acclaimed collection of short stories, Cuentos de Amor, de Locura, y de Muerte (Stories of Love, Madness and Death) and enjoyed the era of his greatest recognition. Yet he returned to San Ignacio in 1931 with his second wife, 30 years his junior and expecting his third child.


The wooden house having been reclaimed by the jungle, Quiroga constructed the current stone and brick house.  This house is sparsely decorated with original 1930's furniture, photographs of his life, personal belongings, his motorbike, books, manuscripts and artwork.  A large brick bay window allows light, and the view of the Rio Parana, to flood into the house in stark contrast to the wood structure.  Yet Quiroga's increasingly erratic behavior, exacerbated by cancer, led to the early end of his second marriage in 1935.  He had constructed a swimming pool, but, during a deep emotional depression, filled the pool with snakes.  He remained in San Ignacio until 1937 when, with the assistance of his best friend, ended his own life.  Ironically, as if the jungle reclaimed its offspring, his three children would end their lives by suicide.


On the grounds is a stately serpentine walk through towering bamboo stands with stops that recount Quiroga's life and philosophy.  Yet just standing amidst the solitude, smothered by plant life, with the wide Paraná within view, you can begin to sense the primordial forces that would drive missionary, conquistador and visionary alike.


© Marc d'Entremont, ACF, IFWTWA


Marc, a chef and member of the American Culinary Federation (ACF) and the International Food, Wine and Travel Writers Association (IFWTWA), has traveled and hiked extensively in Argentina and is the host of the web site: and

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