The Bolivian Amazon has always oozed mystery. The Incas believed that a powerful civilization lived in the great rainforest, and tried to conquer the area in the 15th century. The indigenous peoples of the western Bolivian Amazon, mainly the Moxos tribe, are said to have posed such a mighty resistance to the invading army, that once they realized they were unable to beat them, the Incas asked for an alliance and settled among the Moxos.
The tale of the Incas’ experience fired up the imagination of the Spanish conquerors a century later – they too were chasing a legend in search of a rich and powerful civilization in the depths of the Amazonian forest. The name of the kingdom was El Dorado (the Golden One) or Paitití (the land of the celestial jaguar), thought to have existed east of the Andean Cordillera, near the source of the Río Paraguai. The Spanish spent the entire 16th century trying to discover the elusive kingdom, but, unfamiliar with the rainforest environment, found nothing but death and disease. By the 17th century they moved their search elsewhere.
Though the Spanish were disappointed with their search in the Moxos region, the Jesuits saw their opportunity to ‘spread the word’ to the highly spiritual moxeños. The tough missionaries were the first Europeans to significantly venture into the lowlands. They founded their first mission at Loreto, in the Moxos region, in 1675. While they imposed Christianity and European ways, the Jesuits also recognized the indigenous peoples’ expertise in woodwork, which eventually produced the brilliant carvings now characteristic of the missions. They imported herds of cattle and horses to some remote outposts, and the descendants of these herds still thrive throughout most of the department.
After the expulsion of the Jesuits in 1767, the Franciscan and Dominican missionaries, as well as the opportunistic settlers who followed, brought slavery and disease. Otherwise, the vast, steamy forests and plains of northern Bolivia saw little activity for decades.