Unexpected Argentina. On paper the words read a bit like sell copy – a tagline, proposed to a tourism board by a not especially imaginative copywriter. But it was nevertheless the two-word mantra on a persistent feedback loop in the back of my mind one week last autumn, as I traversed the length of the Argentine province of Misiones: improbably green, unaccountably wild and dense with singular intersections of culture and history that couldn’t have less to do with tango, estancias or Malbec.
Misiones, the country’s second-smallest province, is Argentina’s big anomaly, an inverted comma of land measuring some 30,000sq km, reaching up into the subtropical rainforests of southern Brazil, grazing the right flank of Paraguay as it goes. From the grasslands and timber farms of its southern reaches to the clicking, rustling, spectacularly alive rainforest that carpets its northern reaches up to Iguazú Falls – where Argentina, Paraguay and Brazil converge – Misiones passed multiple times between the powers vying for primacy on the continent from the 17th to the 19th century, and as a consequence is suffused with the histories of all of them. But the heritage that arguably most defines it is South America’s Jesuit one. Centuries before the borders between Portuguese- and Spanish-controlled territories here began to cohere into nations, Jesuit priests had set about converting the indigenous population – comprised almost exclusively of Guaraní peoples – and gathering it into mission villages. By the mid-1600s, a thriving network of reducciones, as the enormous missions they built are known, had been created, largely overseen by the Peruvian-born Jesuit Antonio Ruiz de Montoya (famously said to have personally baptised more than 100,000 Guaraní). With ornate cathedrals, vast residential complexes and advanced agriculture practices, the reducciones were home to as many as 7,000 people, and could span dozens of hectares – their orchards carved out of the rainforest, the spectacular baroque chapels and neat rows of workshops, residences and colleges fashioned from local sandstone.
While a contemporary lens reflects the sometimes exploitative nature of the Jesuit mission (subjugation and coercion were among its intrinsic components), the societies were enlightened for their times. Ruiz de Montoya petitioned the court for the Guaranís’ protection from slave traders; when in the late 1620s these grew too menacing in the north of his territory, he orchestrated a mass emigration southward, re-establishing some of the reducciones he’d abandoned and creating new ones. Some Guaraní were taught Spanish; they also learnt masonry and ironworking, and how to raise livestock and other farming techniques that eventually saw them master the commercial cultivation of yerba maté (the bitter herbal brew that Argentines still drink). The missions thrived well into the 18th century until, their autonomy increasingly seen as a threat by both the Spanish court and the Church, the Jesuits were expelled from the Americas and the reducciones eventually abandoned.
Today, the ruins of four of the largest reducciones are in Misiones, protected under the aegis of Unesco World Heritage, and they are incredibly atmospheric sites, rivalling Cambodia’s Ta Prohm temple complex for the sheer spectacle of monumental architecture slowly being subsumed into jungle. But Misiones has long been Argentina’s flyover country. Its capital of Posadas, in the south, is more often used to access the Iberá wetlands in neighbouring Corrientes province than it is to explore Misiones itself, and Iguazú has its own international airport, well connected to Buenos Aires and São Paulo. More intrepid visitors to the famous Falls might drive down to the northernmost reducciones for a day to walk around, or perhaps drive up from Posadas.
But Christopher Wilmot-Sitwell of UK boutique-travel designers Cazenove+Loyd, who had helped me sort a trip to Corrientes before a planned onward journey to Iguazú, had a different proposition: drive across the province, south to north, experiencing it in human terms. “How can you get a true feel for Rajasthan, for instance, if you just fly from city to city and miss out entirely its rural heartland?” he said. “Likewise in Misiones – it’s important to appreciate the change in the lie of the land, from the pancake-flat grasslands of Corrientes via the Jesuit missions to the much more forested and hilly Misiones. Besides the fact that it’s a dramatic journey in its own right, you avoid seeing the same terrain in two directions, as most do by visiting the missions from Puerto Iguazú.”
That theory bore out well on the ground, in a comfortable Toyota 4Runner stocked with picnic food and drinks provided by Awasi Iguazú, the exclusive new lodge at the falls that was my final destination. I was met by my Awasi guides just north of Posadas, from which it’s a little over an hour to Nuestra Señora de Loreto. In its heyday, the reduccione at Loreto was a nexus of intellectual pursuit, and said to have surpassed Buenos Aires in population. It was here the Jesuits established the first printing press in South America; having interpreted indigenous languages into the Roman alphabet, they translated and printed Bibles, liturgical texts and dictionaries into the Guaraní language.
The rows of colonnaded workshops and residences, the central temple, the college – all are a vast tumbledown game of giants’ blocks now; enormous rectangles of rust‑hued sandstone, toppled by time and furred with electric-green moss, lie across a wide plain of tall grass in the centre of dense forest. Here and there, sections of wall still stand, clutched by the muscular roots of laurels and guadua trees. Remarkably intact hexagonal tiles mark a spot where perhaps Roman-style baths sat; Doric column bases, measuring almost a metre in diameter, sink into the soil. Amid the regrown forest, the footprint of the mission is still discernible – swathes of grass through sparser tree growth indicating a former road, or a ridge in the ground concealing the base of a hundreds-year-old wall. Native thrushes and shrikes dived and nattered, and the surrounding forest was thrumming with birdsong, but we saw only about five other people in the entire two hours we spent there.
Further up the road, past villages, timber farms and the occasional entrance to a regional park, we came to San Ignacio Miní. It’s probably the most visited of the reducciones and certainly the most tourist-savvy; a small town has sprung up around it, and street vendors peddle gourd wind chimes and sacks of yerba maté along its perimeter. But it is still awe-inspiring, both in its scale and in the sheer splendour of its ruin. More structurally intact than Loreto, it stretches across acres of semi-cleared parkland; more than a dozen residential blocks, their roofs long since collapsed, march one after the other, carpeted in dead leaves, ferns sprouting where once stone lay flush on top of stone. Walls are split by trees engulfed in the fatal embrace of strangling vines. On the site of the main temple complex, majestic archways flanked by extravagantly carved columns soar skyward; bas-relief saints sport decidedly indigenous-looking costume (the Spanish baroque style of the period was embellished here to incorporate elements of Guaraní design and culture).
But it was Nuestra Señora de Santa Ana, the least visited of Misiones’ reducciones, that made the most profound impression. Perhaps because my guide and I were the only people on the entire site; perhaps because it was late afternoon and the sun slanted at a deep angle between half-fallen walls and arches, laying its own architecture of light and shadow over the footprint of the vanquished ruin. But most likely because Santa Ana has another intriguing chapter to its story: in the early 20th century, Argentina lured waves of western Europeans across the Atlantic with generous land titles (one quickly acclimatises to the incongruity of towering blond blue-eyed locals in this native South American jungle). Those who arrived in Misiones found an almost unimaginably inhospitable landscape, teeming with deadly animals, insects and diseases. Many survived only a few years; some of these are buried in a small, long-abandoned cemetery on the site of Santa Ana, created just behind a temple-complex wall. It is one of the most melancholy places I have ever seen, half lost in thigh-high grasses and heavy with the spectres of truncated life stories, among them tiny children’s. Tombstones, some bearing enamelled cameos or photographs of the deceased, list steeply or lay fallen, facing skyward, held fast to the ground by the tireless vines. Doors to mausoleums hang off their hinges; one of them sprouts an enormous native fig, an explosion of leaves erupting where the roof once was, the mouldy stone walls riven by jagged fissures. Though the cemetery is separated by three centuries of history from the ruins, the relentless progression of nature has rendered them equal – equally forsaken, equally moving.
Long past dark on that day, after hours of traversing rolling jungle-covered hills, I’m delivered to Iguazú, and Awasi. The quality of the guides the lodge had dispatched to accompany me on my drive north was impressive, and the reputation of this micro-chain of lodges (the other two properties are in Chilean Patagonia and the Atacama Desert) had preceded it in all the best ways.
And despite perilously high expectations, Awasi Iguazú, which opened last February, hit every last mark. This is not as much to do with the pitch-perfect design of the lodge itself – though perfect, to my mind, it is, marrying the rusticity of rough limed wood with the refinement of plunge pools, ceramic-clad bathrooms, beautiful framed botanicals, huge netted king beds and indulgent allocations of personal space – as it does with Awasi’s experiential focus. This seems, rather cleverly, to be about everything beyond the falls – which, after all, are eminently accessible (and to which, of course, Awasi guides can lead excellent, informative visits). The guides have established relationships in the various surrounding parks and reserves, some of them private, so as to provide their guests with exclusive excursions into the extraordinary Interior Alto Paranà Atlantic forest that defines northern Misiones, home to thousands of endemic animals, birds, insects and flora found nowhere else.
Ponchos tied at our waists, thick leathers strapped round our ankles and calves (many of the snake species here are acutely venomous), we ventured out along new trail networks created by Awasi’s guides. I knelt on my knees like a child on the bow of a speedboat at the base of a thundering waterfall, soaked by spray, watching dozens of great dusky swifts clinging to a single wet outcropping –an incredible rippling mass of shining slate‑grey feathers and glinting white beaks. We held our bags above our heads and waded into thigh-deep water to ford a flooded trail, creepers trailing across our scalps and enormous azure butterflies, the jewel-toned jetsam of the rainforest, weaving aimlessly a few feet from our faces.
After each excursion was the promise of excellent food at the lodge, a craft cocktail at the bar, a massage in your villa or a fascinating chat with any one of the dynamic young guides. But I discovered that solitude is the best conduit to what’s irreproducible about Awasi, and about Misiones too: standing on the patio alone in the last of the daylight, the forest almost overwhelms with what was unseen heard and what was unheard imagined – toucan and ocelot, coati and capuchin monkey, perhaps even an elusive jaguar; the immensity of life here in this corner of Argentina, like the richness of its history, extraordinary and unexpected.