In the late 16th century, the Jesuits set out to the hinterlands of Bolivia and developed thriving cultural and religious centers for the local people. Victims of their own success, they were expelled from South America in 1773. Today, you can visit some of these missions, which have been amazingly preserved and restored. San Javier and Concepción are the two closest and most accessible missions from Santa Cruz. The 5-hour drive to San Javier is a sight itself: Along the way, you'll pass through Mennonite communities and see the landscape change from lush green farmland to tropical shrubbery. The road can be a bit rough.
San Javier was founded in 1691 and at its height included about 3,000 people. The remarkable church was constructed entirely of local wood. The ornate woodcarvings painted with local dyes are quite spectacular; the gold-colored interior is just as impressive. The road to Concepción from San Javier is mostly unpaved. You will find a similarly ornate wood church (with a silver altar), cloisters, and a historic main plaza. In the workshops adjacent to the church, you can observe local artisans restoring statues and creating new ones.