Paraguay - The Road Less Traveled
Jun 5, 2006
|Strangely enough, in my travels around South America I've never actually met another traveler who's been to Paraguay. I know these people exist, I'm just saying I've never came across one. In fact, when I mentioned that I was planning on going to Paraguay, the most common response I got was ... "Why??" Well, I guess I've just become a "Why Not?" kinda gal!
So, for those who are geographically challenged, Paraguay is a landlocked country wrapped inside Argentina, Bolivia and Brazil. It's a strange combination of frenetic border towns, old Jesuit mission ruins, jungle and subtropical rainforest, Mennonite settlements, and wild frontier. It has a high indigenous population and, in fact, I think is the only country in SA (or at least of those I've visited) that has two official languages - Spanish and Guarani.
After the creature comforts of Argentina, I felt like I was back in South America once I crossed the border into Paraguay. Noisy buses were back to puffing out streams of black smoke. Streets were more crumbling and there was a more visible display of poverty. The bank notes of their national currency (called the guarani) were so torn, faded and mostly held together by layers of cellotape that I feared they'd disintegrate in my hands! But for a country that sees few tourists and has a reputation for being very corrupt, the people I encountered were all incredibly friendly, helpful, and proud of their country and heritage even though somewhat disenchanted with its present state of decline.
After saying goodbye to Iguazú Falls in Argentina, Tracy and I crossed the border into Paraguay carrying shiny new visitors visas in our passports (required paperwork for North Americans visiting Paraguay). We arrived in Ciudad del Este, one of Paraguay's busiest border towns and reputedly one of South America's most corrupt cities. Despite paying too much for a short taxi ride from the border to our hotel, we managed to navigate the city while keeping lives intact.
[ Sorry, I have to pause from my writing in order to watch World Cup Finals ... yes, that tells you how far behind I am in my writing! ]
[ Okay, I'm back, it's half time with Italy 1 - France 1, time to tap out a few more lines ]
We snooped around Ciudad del Este very little. Other than cheap knock-off electronics and questionable and very likely illegal items being traded at the border, which neither of us were interested in purchasing, Ciudad del Este didn't seem to have much to offer.
We did, however, hop a local bus to see the Itaipu Hydroelectric Power Plant, the largest in the world and one of the "7 Wonders of the Modern World". It's a bi-national joint venture between Brazil and Paraguay, officially operational since 1984, that supplies huge amounts of electrical juice to both countries.
The fact that two South American countries actually cooperated for 9 years to complete this huge construction project is, in itself, an amazing feat. And I think the following stats lend proof to it having been a huge undertaking: (1) if stacked, the volume of design drawings and pages of material lists would reach a height of a 50-storey building, (2) the total volume of concrete used would be sufficient to build 210 soccer stadiums, and (3) the iron and construction steel used would build 380 Eiffel Towers.
Small details - like the fact that they redirected the River Paraná, flooded and changed the geography of the surrounding area, and virtually destroyed countless hectares of native habitats - were glossed over and instead they made cheery promotion of their environment initiatives and successes in reforestation, animal/bird sanctuary creations, rare or endangered specifies breeding programs, experimental fish breeding programs, and recreational development in the area.
[ Okay, half time's over, time to shut down the laptop and start watching the game again ]
[ Wow, still tied at 1-1, they're going into overtime ]
[ VIVA ITALIA, 2006 World Cup Champions!! Okay, back to writing, no more interruptions... ]
Another undertaking of the Itaipu group has been the development of an interactive museum about the history of the indigenous Guarani people, as well as a Zoo housing typical Paraguayan animals, birds and reptiles.
Tracy and I visited and enjoyed both. We did, however, have a very strange and very close encounter with one of the birds roaming wild and free around the zoo property. In fact, we got "escorted" (read: chased) out of the museum by this crazed bird. There were no zoo personnel around to come to our aid, this bloody bird just wouldn't give up (he was, by the way, not some tiny little chirper but around 2 feet tall), and if we stopped running he'd pick up the chase again and start pecking ... we quite literally got "run off the property"!
Next stop on our Paraguay tour was Encarnación, another border town and our gateway to the Jesuit ruins of southern Paraguay. Jesuit missions were a Spanish strategy to civilize the indigenous population and convert them to Christianity. Some of the missions grew in popularity and size, reaching their peak in the first half of the 18th century with between 100,000 to 300,000 Catholic Indians living in 30 missions. In Paraguay, the Jesuits did wonderful things for the Guarani: they protected them from slave-hunter raids, helped establish laws, create public services for the poor, and build schools and hospitals. The Jesuits became quite famous for their resistance to the absolute power of Spain, which eventually led to their expulsion in 1767 and the closure of all missions.
Tracy and I hopped local buses and visited the Jesuit ruins of Jesús and Trinidad. There weren't many (if any!) other tourists around, so we snooped at leisure. We could certainly tell from the ruins that both of these missions had been large complexes, especially Trinidad which is now a UNESCO world heritage site and is considered Paraguay's best-preserved Jesuit mission.
On the move again, we crossed the border back into Argentina and continued on to Esteros del Iberá and eventually back to Buenos Aires (see my Iberá journal entry for details on this portion of our trip).
Once back in Buenos Aires Tracy left to go back home, and I decided to get a bit more use out of my Paraguay visitors visa before it expired. I returned to Paraguay, this time solo and to the capital city of Asunción.
Asunción is kind of a slow-paced capital city, but they do have a couple of pretty tree-filled plazas, some good restaurants, attractive although somewhat crumbling colonial architecture, and a beautiful government palace. I'll admit I didn't stay long, but I also didn't see too much else that encouraged lingering.
I decided to head north to Concepción, but instead of taking the 5-hour bus I decided to slow the pace down a bit and traveled up the River Paraguay for 30 hours on a cargo boat. I had checked out the boat the day before and saw that it, too, was short on charm, so I opted to pay extra for a private cabin instead of traveling in hammock class. After all, with all the cargo on board there really wasn't much room to string up a hammock, plus the nights here can get chilly especially with only a thin piece of cloth between you and the cool breeze, plus Asunción is famous for its dengue-fever-carrying mosquitoes and knowing how I'm normally a mosquito magnet, the private cabin seemed the most logical option.
It really was great to be traveling on the river again. I couldn't help but think what a richer experience I had this time compared to my first river trip in Brazil (could it possibly have been almost 2 years ago?!) when I couldn't speak the language and therefore couldn't communicate with the locals. I had so much more fun this time chatting with people along the way.
The scenery was very similar to my previous trips along the Amazon ... thick green vegetation ... wide muddy colored river ... other boats chugging along ... people getting on/off across the horribly narrow gangplank carrying ridiculously huge bags of whatnots ... the beautiful colors of sunset ... the stillness of the night.
I liked Concepción instantly, probably because my hotel room was comfortable and there was a swimming pool. After 30 hours on a very basic cargo boat, there was nothing I enjoyed more than stretching my legs as I checked out the town, and then hitting the pool. In some ways Concepción had the typical frontier town feel - it was fairly remote, dusty with mainly dirt roads, chickens and horses wandering the streets, and boats being the main mode of transport - but in other ways it was a lot nicer than that, with some wider paved streets, highway connections, and, well, the hotels had swimming pools for pete's sake!
Concepción sits on the eastern boundary of an area called the "Gran Chaco", Paraguay's wild frontier. The area covers about 60% of Paraguay, the whole western part of the country actually, but only 3% of the country's population lives here. Sort of tells you a bit about the region, doesn't it! In fact, the terrain basically consists of either hot and dusty scrub-brush plains or swampy wetlands. In the rainy season it floods; in the dry season it turns into a dustbowl. Hmmm, how nice, who'd want to live here?
Well, climate notwithstanding, Mennonite immigrants from Germany and Russia chose to do just that and developed a settlement here in the 1930's. That they survived at all shows the strength of their determination to practice their religious/communal beliefs free from persecution. It didn't help that, shortly after their arrival, they were smack in the middle of the Gran Chaco War, the culmination of a long series of border disputes between Bolivia and Paraguay. And what they also didn't know when they first arrived was that the Chaco was inhabited by a large number of indigenous but, unlike other colonization stories, it's heartwarming to know that they developed and nurtured strong relationships with the natives, and still to this day co-exist peacefully. However, I couldn't help but wonder if this situation won't change in the near future as modern mechanization continues to replace the manual labour presently provided by the Indians ....
Anyway, from Concepción I traveled further northwest into the heart of the Gran Chaco, to a place called Filadelfia, the original settlement of the Soviet refugees (eventually over the years the Mennonites developed separate German, Soviet and Canadian colonies in this region). Here German is still the main language, although I had no problem communicating in Spanish and I also heard dozens of other indigenous languages. Clothing these days is typical South American style, but I couldn't help chuckle at the skirts worn by the indigenous women ... they were long, made of thick terry velour, flared with elasticized waists, and sported the brightest-colored largest cartoon characters I've ever seen, like Bugs Bunny, Tasmanian Devil, Tweety Bird, etc! Must admit I haven't seen this style of skirt elsewhere in South America. And, no, I didn't buy one, opting to purchase a Paraguay futbol jersey instead.
The Mennonites have been busy and industrious over the years ... towns have grown and prospered, roads built, land cultivated, crops grown (like grains & cotton), large cattle herds raised, and beef and dairy products sold. Seems to be a real success story.
I tried visiting the Canadian colony at a nearby town called Loma Plata but I was apparently transport-challenged that day; if there was a bus going to Loma Plata that morning I missed it! Maybe it was just as well, as I had to catch an 8-hour bus back to Asunción where I spent another night, and then another looooong 20-hour bus back to Buenos Aires the following day.
I really enjoyed my travels around Paraguay, and was very glad that I'd had some time, although not nearly enough, to experience its many different personalities. I can't help but think that Tracy would've loved the boat trip and seeing the Chaco.....