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Misión Nueva Pompeya

Nueva Pompeya: Altitude: 143 m / 469 ft, Population: 1,772, Phone Code: 03715

Misión Nueva Pompeya is in the very heart of El Impenetrable. From JJ Castelli, Ruta Provincial 9 cuts across the silent, thorny wilderness. As the highway enters Nueva Pompeya, it passes a small, triangular plaza with groups of orange and white columns, and the only gas station.

Nueva Pompeya is a town with unnamed dirt streets. Four blocks west of the highway is the main plaza. In the center is a peace pole with “May Peace Prevail on Earth” written in Spanish, Wichí and two other indigenous languages. This square has been the focal point of the town since the Franciscan religious order founded it. Along the west side is their mission complex. Around the other sides are the city hall, hospital and other institutions. The new church, run by the Maristas, is a half-block north of the plaza.

At the end of the 19th century, the Argentine military carried out a campaign of “pacifying” the Chaco indigenous peoples. In March 1899, caciques (leaders) Matoly and Donato of the Wichí and Q’om nations led an attack on Fortín de Santo Domingo, burning the fort and killing four soldiers and 17 colonists. The natives were pursued by the army and 500 captured. Father Barnabé Tamboleo convinced the military to turn the captives over to his care. With them, the priest founded Misión Nueva Pompeya near the south bank of the Río Bermejito.

The mission set to work educating the Wichí, a traditional nomadic people, in the ways of cattle raising and farming, and Christianizing the indigenous. It also established a school, carpentry workshop and other infrastructure. The indigenous lived in constant fear of the military, fleeing when rumors wafted that the soldiers be coming. The military left in 1919. Nueva Pompeya, though, was constantly plagued by other problems, like droughts and a sure source of potable water. Finally, in 1949, the Franciscans left Misión Nueva Pompeya.

The history, then, falls into unknown territory. Everyone in town has their versions of what happened during the following decades. More Europeans came in the 1940s to farm and set up general stores. Rumors abound about the Wichí forcing the priests to leave (and even leading to the untimely demise of the last Fathers, or so legend goes). Some residents say the Franciscans came from Salta to remove the chapel screens, bells and other furnishings of the church, while others say locals took them. In the 1970s, residents found torture devices in the basement of the mission. These may have been of the Franciscans who used the implements, or perhaps the military who occupied the missions’ ruins in 1955 or the 1976-1983 dictatorship.

When the mission ruins were renovated in 1997, all the torture contraptions were removed. The muslero roof tiles, formed over the thighs of workers, were replaced. The public library now occupies one series of rooms. In another chamber is a shop where local crafts may be purchased. The view from the top of the bell tower is said to be fantastic (if the librarian can find the key). The Wichí consider the mission sacred grounds, as many of their people died there.

Almost one kilometer (0.6 mi) from the plaza is the Río Bermejito, or Río Chico. On its shore is a beach where locals cool off on hot days and fish. Misión Nueva Pompeya makes a convenient center from which to visit other El Impenetrable attractions. Private drivers may be hired for day trips to Fuerte Esperanza (50 km / 30 mi south) and Loro Hablador (90 km / 54 mi south) nature reserves.

To the North, Ruta Provincial 9 and Ruta Provincial 3 ply across El Impenetrable. These routes are accessible by public transportation and lead to Wichí villages like El Sauzalito (95 km / 59 mi).


Other places nearby Misión Nueva Pompeya: Fuerte Esperanza, Villa Río Bermejito , El Sauzalito and JJ Castelli.

By Lorraine Caputo

Upon re-declaring her independence at age 29, Lorraine Caputo packed her trusty Rocinante (so her knapsack's called) and began...

22 Jul 2011

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