Published: August 12th 2012August 4th 2012
Most people who visit South America miss out Paraguay, and when Angela and I saw the centre of Asuncion, we quickly realised why. Broken down buildings, cracked pavements, groups of teenagers swilling cans of lager in a central square, Paraguay’s capital was a dirty, down-at-heel place that seemed to know the tourists were not going to come and had therefore given up any semblance of making the place look nice.
“Do you know what it reminds me of?” said Angela as we walked down a street near our hotel. Evening was fast approaching and the graffiti everywhere began to catch our attention. “A rough council estate in Northern England. I can’t believe this is the capital of Paraguay!” I had to agree. After visiting countless cities across more than ninety countries, Asuncion had to be close to the bottom. I struggled to think of a less appealing place I’d ever been to. Even Moroni in the Comores had possessed palm trees and the Indian Ocean. Plus its markets had been full of colour and life. But wandering around Asuncion’s city centre on a Saturday night and seeing mostly policemen with hefty automatic weapon, or else crowds of men huddled around
small TV sets showing football, made me think I’d finally hit rock bottom.
After a mediocre meal in what looked the best restaurant in town, Angela I headed back to the hotel, but on the way stopped off at a grocery store to buy a few essentials. “Jesus,” whispered Angela as we browsed the threadbare shelves. A few tins of this, a few packets of that, it was as if we were in Eastern Europe during the Communist days. Angela had quite fancied buying a bar of chocolate, but the only thing on offer was a packet of chocolate covered wafers. “Get me out of this god-forsaken place,” she said, a stunned expression on her face. Back at the hotel, I noticed a hook protruding from the ceiling next to the light. When I pointed it out to Angela she said, “That’s for the noose when you’ve had enough of Asuncion.”
Paraguay had been through a rough time though. Despite being the first South American county to declare independence from Spain, it quickly found itself in the hands of a mad dictator. Jose Gaspar Rodriguez de Francia was the first in a long line of Paraguayan crackpots, and
was not bothered in the slightest that others might consider him a despot. In fact, his official title had been Supreme and Perpetual Dictator of Paraguay, never a moniker to hide under the bushel with. More or less as soon as he came to power, Francia banned opposition parties, created his own Secret Police, and established his very own prison called the Chamber of Truth, where anyone he didn’t like was tortured. He decreed that any executions going down (and there were many) had to take place outside his window so he could watch the killings himself.
Politics wasn’t his only area of madness; he particularly distrusted marriage, to the point that anyone wanting to be betrothed had to pay huge taxes and had to have Francia conduct the wedding himself, which was usually enough to put most people off. The reason for this was that Francia liked a bit on the side and saw marriage as a way of curtailing his extra-curricular activity. In his time, he’d fathered seven illegitimate children, and when one grew up to be a prostitute, Francia decreed it a legitimate profession.
During his 26 years of absolute power, Francia was
the victim of so many assassination attempts that he created a bewildering array of ruses to combat this. He outlawed bushes along any street that he wished to walk, thereby rendering hiding places for assassins moot. He slept with a gun under his pillow, of which he had many, because the dictator slept in a different bed each night. No person was allowed within six paces of him and any local person that happened to encounter him had to throw themselves to the pavement immediately or risk being shot. Also, in an unprecedented act of paranoia, he ordered his own mother killed, fearing that she wanted to usurp his presidency.
The next morning, Sunday, even the weather got in on the act of making Asuncion look grim. It was overcast and grey, adding a further element of gloom to the city. We’d read that Sunday in Asuncion would be like a ghost town, but as we wandered around, we decided it was more like a scene from an apocalyptic horror film. Shambling wrecks wandered around, sometimes by themselves or sometimes in pairs, often grinning, always scary. As we walked down one deserted street, we heard a god-awful clattering behind
us and turned to see a man pushing an empty supermarket trolley down the middle of the road. When he passed us he turned to stare, an open expression on his face. We also passed a few comatose tramps curled up in doorways with cracked blackened bare feet. All it needed was a black crow sat on a lamppost and the scene would be complete.
“I thought it might look better this morning,” I said, “But it actually looks worse.” On every street, almost every building looked dirty and mouldy, some even looking like they had been gutted after some terrible fire. Decrepit buses rumbled up and down the uneven streets and dogs barked at us from high fences. Asuncion was the city of the damned.
In Plaza de los Heroes, a memorial to all those who had lost their lives in Paraguay’s many defeats, we thought we might find a semblance of beauty but instead we found a dirty green park with statue in the middle and another vagabond asleep on a bench. The statue’s base was covered in graffiti and someone had even managed to climb onto it to place a plastic bottle in one of
the statue’s hands.
What made this worse was that the plaza was actually commemorating Paraguayan heroes who had died during the many wars the country had been part of. The place looked unloved and forgotten, much like the rest of Asuncion.
The worst conflict in which heroes had been made was the Paraguayan War of 1864 and 1870 where the country battled with not one of its neighbours, but three. Brazil, Argentina and Uruguay were all battling their landlocked neighbour, devastating Paraguay’s economy and decimating its population. More than 60% of its population died in the war, a terrible statistic to consider. We stared at the ugly monument to the people who had been killed more than a hundred and forty years previously. “You’d think,” I said, “that the locals would look after it a bit more. They don’t seem to have any respect for their own city.”
We left the park by its northern entrance and headed towards the river. A car passed us and its driver threw his rubbish out of the window. A few metres more and he tossed some more out. Angela shook her head. “Well that just about sums up this place.
No wonder it’s so run down.”
Down towards the river, Asuncion actually took a turn for the worse. Rough tracks, shanty dwellings and people hanging around on walls made us quicken our pace. The presence of the brown-uniformed police didn’t help much. The Paraguayan police were renowned for their bribe taking and corruption. I doubted they would be much help if we got mugged. Mind you, there were plenty of pharmacies about to buy some bandages and bruise cream.
The cathedral was nice though, as was the Cabildo, a large pink building that had once housed the government but was now a museum. Just next to it was an abandoned bus. Scores of small children were messing about inside, laughing and joking and having a merry old time. Some were sitting on the driver’s seat, others hanging out of the window, and we left them to it, and walked to possibly the best-looking building in Asuncion – the President’s Palace.
The grand white building shaped like a flat letter ‘U’ overlooked the river. In front of it where plenty of Paraguayan flags and a nice manicured garden. Compared to everywhere else in the city, this was paradise.
The guard on duty at the front even allowed us to take a few photos.
We wandered back to the hotel, glad our short time in Paraguay was almost over. The hotel offered the final sting in the tail though because our checking out timed precisely with a power cut. “The lift’s not working,” I said, pressing the button to no avail. “We’ll have to carry the suitcases down the emergency exit.”
Lugging luggage down a series of never ending narrow steps, especially with people coming up in the opposite direction was never going to be fun, and by the time we got down, I was panting like a bastard. “Bloody Paraguay!” I hissed as I struggled through the small door into the lobby. “We shan’t be back.”
“I bet there are nice parts of the country though,” Angela said as we drove to the airport. “The jungles, for instance. Paraguay’s got jaguars I’ve read. I just think Asuncion is horrible. And we were right in the centre of the ugliness.” She pointed outside. “Look, this part looks okay.”
She was right. Unusually for a capital city, the outskirts were in much better shape than the
centre. A plush Sheraton Hotel, a set of car dealerships with brand new cars on their forecourt and even a modern-looking shopping mall were now on display. Still, it would never be enough to warrant people holidaying in Paraguay, I thought. All we wanted now was to get to Buenos Aires. I leaned back and thought of Argentina.
-Very good road signs
-Grubby city centre
-Not much to see
-Has a bit of an ‘edge’ to it, especially near the river
-The ugliest skyscrapers in the world
There are more photos below