San Ignacio in the Misiones Province of NorthEast Argentina is best know for the remains of the San Ignacio Mini Jesuit Mission.
Founded in 1632, the Mission (along with 29 more spread out over modern day Paraguay, Brazil and Argentina) was an attempt to provide the local Guaraní Indians with a community that would enable themselves to better themselves to Western standards and devote their lives to God, whilst at the same time allowing them to keep their traditions (only the ones deemed appropriate, of course) alive.
At its height, San Ignacio Mini was home to over 4,000 merry souls but towards the end of the 1600s, as with all good things, its fortunes began to suffer and the Jesuits withdrew from the site in 1767 and in 1816 the mission was destroyed.
Its ruins slumbered untouched in the jungle until 1903 and a full restoration process began in 1940, leaving a well-preserved historic site, named World Heritage by Unesco in 1984.
We arrived in San Ignacio in the late afternoon, after a 4 hour bus ride from Puerto Iguazu. We had 24 hours in the town, so we dropped into a tour office to see what our options were. After being told that the Mission itself would only occupy an hour of our time we happily signed up for a 5 hour jeep trip into the nearby Teyú Caupé Provincial Park. The tour, we were merrily informed, included a guided walk through the jungle to visit Martin Bormann’s house.
I paused at the name Martin Bormann. My first thought was the film director John Boorman, which didn’t really make sense, and I was just about to query this when my dad piped up, “Martin Bormann, the Nazi?”
Sure enough, it turns out that Martin Bormann (who from 1943 was the head of the Nazi Party and Hitler’s Private Secretary), fled Germany when things started to get a little bit hot and ended up, like many other Nazis, in South America. And out of the blue, we were going to get a chance to visit his house.
Teyú Caupé Park, named after a local Guaraní Dragon of legend, is on the banks of the Paraná River, South America’s 2nd longest river after the Amazon. At the start of the walk we climbed to high bluffs overlooking the river towards Paraguay on the far bank. Further into the jungle we were taken past 600 year old cacti and strangler figs, parasitic vines which take over full-grown trees and ultimately smother them.
We descended back down towards the river on a narrow path in otherwise undisturbed jungle. The occasional butterfly flitted past and lizards could be heard rustling through the undergrowth. After about 20 minutes we came across a solid-looking but somewhat delapidated wall – we had arrived chez Bormann.
The story goes that Bormann fled Europe at the end of World War II and, like many of his colleagues, made his way to South America and in particular Paraguay where the military dictator Alfredo Stroessner was only to willing to help and hide them. To confuse the trail, Bormann built his house on the Argentine side, linked it to the river bank by a tunnel and received all of his supplies from the Paraguay side, cut off from prying Argentine eyes by a thick jungle and high cliffs.
He lived like this from his arrival in 1946 until 7 years later when he mysteriously vanished, our guide’s theory being that the Israelis caught up with him and dealt with him directly, not worrying about the niceties of a trial. The inhabitants of San Ignacio were not totally unaware of him and it’s said that amongst others, local boy, author Horacio Quirago, met Bormann and only 2 years ago the last living person to have known him died aged 104.
It’s a fascinating story, and something you would never expect to come across. When I got back to Buenos Aires I started to look into Bormann’s life a little more to understand how he ended up this way.
And there I discovered a major problem with the story of the house near San Ignacio. After many years of uncertainty, rumors and unconfirmed sightings, remains discovered near Hitler’s bunker in Berlin in 1972 were DNA tested and in 1998 they were confirmed as being those of Bormann. So it looks probable (some people have suggested the body was not actually found in Berlin at all, pointing to the fact that the exhumed body contained traces of red clay not found in Berlin, but everywhere in this part of South America) that the person who lived in the house in the jungle was not Martin Bormann.
Which of course, begs the question. If it wasn’t Bormann that lived there, who the hell was it?