Settled by Russians of the rather odd New Israel sect in 1913, the village of San Javier is now the main jumping-off point for ecotourism within Esteros de Farrapos National Park.
The New Israel sect believed in the existence of a living God, who was declared in 1891 to be Vasili Lubkov. It spread across much of southern Russia, attracting official persecution. In 1912 representatives of the Batlle y Ordóñez administration visited Russia to encourage emigration, and the next year two ships brought Lubkov and 580 followers to Montevideo, and on 27 July 1913 to Puerto Viejo, 5km north of San Javier. By 1914 the community numbered about 2,000, living largely in isolation from Uruguayan society and with all property handed over to Lubkov, who enforced tight control.
What to see and do in San Javier
As you enter the village on Artigas, the Sala Cultural Pobieda is on the right just before the main crossroads with Calle Lubkov. This houses a tourist information centre and the small Museo de los Inmigrantes, with interesting photos and documents of the Russian community. Next to the Cooperativa on Artigas is the Galpón de Piedra (Stone Store), built without cement in 1914 when each family brought two cartloads of stone; it’s now the national park’s visitor centre. Alongside is the community’s flour and oil mill, built in similar style to the galpón but enlarged in concrete in 1945, and now abandoned.
Beyond this is an area of parkland by the Río Uruguay, with a slipway and jetty. Turning left at the Prefectura on the Paseo de los Inmigrantes, you’ll see two tombs to the left under a large eucalyptus tree. These belong to Natalia Gregorivna Lubkova, Lubkov’s wife, and Maxim Lavrentievich Shevchenko, the group’s ‘apostle’.
Following the Paseo to the end of Lubkov and turning left you’ll come at once to the Casa Blanca, built in 1860 as the casco (main house) of the Estancia Montserrat. This was where the Lubkovs and Shevchenko lived, and it is slowly being restored to house the Museo de la Diáspora Rusa, though it is now being used mainly for one-off events.
To the south of San Javier there are riverside cliffs and gallery forest with wetlands to the east, then another line of cliff and forest – it’s ideal for exploring by horse, but you can also walk (in about 3 hours, if you’re busy watching birds) along the river to the Arroyo Farrapos. Watch out for the spiky acacias near the start; unfortunately cows are still being grazed on islands in the national park, spreading acacia seeds there. It’s also possible to take a boat, the Manuelita II: ask at either visitor centre. Guides are also available.
Getting to San Javier
Buses between Mercedes and Paysandú run up Ruta 24, most going via Fray Bentos and a few via San Javier. The Sabelin bus company has an office by the Casa Blanca.