Our bus floats across the wide expanse of Bolivia’s Rio Grande on a wooden raft, its roof stacked high with luggage. It looks both precarious and surreal.
Perched on the edge of the boat towing the bus across the river, I watch as a truck edges gingerly down the muddy bank onto the next raft and hope that it’s not carrying cement.
Our group of Baroque music fans has just left Concepcion, a former Jesuit mission located deep in the jungle of the remote Chiquitania region. The evening before, we had listened to Orquesta de Cuerdas, a local youth orchestra, playing Vivaldi and works by local 18th-century composers with gusto in Concepcion’s opulently restored wooden cathedral.
We’d intended to stay another night, until striking health workers thwarted our plans by threatening to block the bridge on the road to Santa Cruz de la Sierra, the regional capital. We packed hastily, grabbed sandwiches, and bundled into our bus to bump back to the city along some dusty roads, not all of them paved. We couldn’t be sure protesters hadn’t already closed the bridge over the Rio Grande, so took the alternative raft route.
To travel to Bolivia is to invite adventure, as we discovered before even leaving home. Two weeks before a friend and I were due to fly out, the troubled Bolivian airline Aerosur canceled our flights, forcing us to book with another carrier and offering no guarantee of a refund.
After the raft trip, we arrive back in Santa Cruz, a sprawling, brash modern city that beats to the thud of pop music blaring from flashy jeeps on the street. My guidebook tells me these are known locally as “narcocruisers,” because of the probable origins of their owners’ wealth. Plush new villas sprout from the red soil on the city outskirts, often before the dust track connecting them has been transformed into a road.
We head to Los Huerfanos church near the main plaza for a concert by a German chamber orchestra called BuBo-100, followed by the Orchestra of New Spain, based in Dallas, performing at San Roque church. Both were invited to take part in the International Festival of American Renaissance and Baroque Music, the reason for our visit. The festival began in 1996 and takes place every two years.
Between the two performances, we catch Piotr Nawrot, a Polish priest and musicologist who has made reviving Bolivia’s Baroque music tradition his life’s work. He tells us he will find out in the next two hours whether he has to cancel 30 concerts in the missions because of the striking health workers.
Pale and slight, he smiles philosophically.
“In Bolivia, you have to find a way,” he says. “It means you have to be creative. Sometimes, miracles do happen.” (There was a miracle this time and the concerts went ahead.)
When we meet again later under less stressful circumstances, he speaks passionately about the legacy left by the Jesuit missionaries, including 5,500 sheets of music in the Chiquitania archives, much of it composed locally.
“The musical collections are so rich that we will not finish them in my lifetime,” Nawrot says.
In the days of the Jesuits, who were expelled by the Spanish in 1767, each church hired 40 full-time musicians who performed daily, he recounts. Before the festival began, the musical tradition was in danger of dying out as the last performers reached old age, he says.
The festival has triggered a new wave of interest in Baroque music in the Chiquitania region. In Urubicha, a town with a population of about 4,000 people that only got electricity in 2010, one in four children can now read music and plays an instrument, Nawrot tells us.
We’d seen a youth orchestra and choir perform Nawrot’s version of the 18th-century Bolivian opera “San Ignacio” a few days before at the mission church of San Ignacio. More than 170 musicians took part in a battle of good and evil waged in front of the lavish gilded altar. The audience, many of them friends and family of the performers, loved it.
The musical highlight of the week for me was the vivacious Uruguayan ensemble De Profundis, who brought the Baroque tradition to life with castanets, lots of movement and beautifully expressive singing. The group sang works by the Guatemalan Baroque composer Gaspar Fernandez, the Spaniard Manuel Blasco and a piece by Juan de Araujo from the Bolivian national archives, transcribed by Nawrot.
The last days of the trip we spent away from civilization at the Amboro National Park, in the dreamy Refugio los Volcanes, improbably built in a remote valley by an enterprising German.
The park is an ornithologist’s paradise, with an estimated 800 different bird species. Enveloped by spectacular yet hospitable sandstone mountains, we bathed in waterfalls, lolled in hammocks and took walks through the cloud forest with a local guide to spot parrots, toucans, monkeys and orchids.
It’s a place to return to. Perhaps I’ll even get to see an armadillo or a tapir the next time.
(Catherine Hickley is a writer for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. Opinions expressed are her own.)
Muse highlights include: Farah Nayeri on film in Cannes and Richard Vines on New York dining.
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