Published: April 14th 2012April 14th 2012
Ate too much Chipa Guasu...now I'm Paraguayzed. Or, if you prefer: Now that I've been there, I'm the Para-guy.
For some reason, not many people include Paraguay on a South American itinerary. It may be down to its relatively nascent tourist industry, and the fact that there is very little information available online about what to do there and how to get around. Paraguay is on the way up, though, and for me, the lack of detail was an incentive to visit. Officially, Paaguay is the second poorest country in South America, which is the second poorest region in the world after Africa. Unofficially, it is nothing like that in appearance. The distribution of wealth is pretty limited, true, but much of Paraguay is quite up-market and modern. The countryside away from the important routes is mud roads and wooden buildings; these are the people who live well below the poverty line. However, due to huge underpopulation, there is a lot of land available for crops and livestock.
Paraguay's population density is low partially due to the vast expanse of the Chaco, a fairly inhospitable area to the north west. Another, more important reason
is the history of conflict. Paraguay has been involved in a couple of hopeless and pointless wars due to half crazy, all dangerous dictators. At one point, 95% of the male population was killed in a conflict. 6 year olds were manning the front lines, replacing the fallen. As a result, the population pyramid today is heavily weighted towards the bottom. A reasonably open and democratic government is overseeing positive change, and Paraguay, having lost so much territory and so many people, is concentrating on internal issues and not on invading anyone. Despite the relative poverty, it is a clean, safe and welcoming place to travel. And the thriving black market, fuelled by low or non-existant tax, accounts for why the country seems so much wealthier than GDP should allow.
We entered Paraguay from Posadas, a quick and easy bus across the international bridge. The Paraguayan city of Encarnacion was our first stop. Encarnacion is quite similar to Posadas, very Argentine due to the shopping crowds that cross over. It is full of electronics shops, and some places that seem odd at first, like dentist supply shops. Obviously, Argentine dentists come and buy their chairs, picks, drills
and other instruments of torture, much cheaper than at home. The bus dropped us at the main terminal, and we walked around to check out the hotel options. The first few were not great...pretty grubby, and expensive to boot. There was also a really lovely hotel down near the artificial beach (more about that anon), but it was way out of our price range. Towards the centre, we finally chose a clean place called Hotel Parana, with some very friendly staff. Many Paraguayans are surprised to meet anyone other than Argentines or Brazilians, and you get a big welcome.
After settling in, we ambled down to see the man made beach in Encarnacion. A landlocked country (well, since Argentina and Chile beat the crap out of them and took their only coastline - Paraguay initiated the violence though), Paraguay has taken advantage of the clean river along its border by putting in the sand. There is a shallow area to paddle in, and beyond a safety line, jetskis of the rich and famous plow the waters. On the beach, a Japanese restuarant called Hiroshima Grill has a small shack selling sushi and other snacks. It's a really
nice idea, this beach, and a pleasant place to hang out in the sun. In the evening, we dropped over to Hiroshima Grill's main restaurant, and enjoyed a pretty decent Japanese dinner. Japanese immigration to Paraguay was quite common in the 1930's, incentivised by the Japanese government, so there is a fairly large Japanese population, along with Korean and German immigrants.
After a pleasant sleep in Hotel Parana, and a breakfast served by a man in a tuxedo, we set out to see Paraguay's flagship attraction: the Jesuit ruins. Their first foray into tourism involves a national route over good roads to see the missions built by early Jesuits. They are trying to sell it as a road trip, rental car kind of holiday. Personally, I don't think that visiting 70+ similar ruins would do much for me, but visiting the major ones is a must, especially if you've seen the movie "The Mission". Which I hadn't, but still. It was pretty simple to get the bus going to the ruins, the locals very eager to help you and let you know where to jump off. From the stop, it is a short walk to the Jesuit
'capital', Trinidad. I had pictured the ruins as being in an arid region for some reason, but in fact the area was lush and green. The Jesuits built a huge cathedral, a main square, several dwellings for Guarani locals, smaller chapels and outyling functional buildings. They are all in red brick, very square and ordered. The ruins really are just that, having fallen into disrepair after abandonment. You can really see the grandeur that once was though, particularly in the carvings and statues that adorned the walls. Most of the statues are headless, perhaps due to vandalism; many of the heads are stored in a small museum in a part of the cathedral where the roof is restored. You can also visit a small crypt where important Jesuits were buried, right under the floor of the cathedral.
There is another important ruin, Jesús, about 10km from Trinidad, but as it was low season, the moto-taxis were not running. All ruined out anyway, we returned to town. An interesting note: thes two ruins were named UN World Human Heritage sites in 2003, and are two of the least visited such sites in the world. Back in town, we
got our stuff together for moving on, and had another good dinner in Karumbé restaurant. We explored a modern part of town that we had missed before; mostly, it was shopping and new, expensive hotels. The next morning, following another tuxedo served breakfast, we took the bus to the capital. It was a shock: the bus was spotless, new, comfortable and...drum roll...had actual working reliable WiFi! It was exemplary, and not what we would experience later on Paraguayan buses, but still quite a pleasant surprise.
Asuncion is home to half of the population of Paraguay, and is the centre of everything that goes on there. We had heard about a hostel there named El Jardin from Jez and Charlotte, a young couple we met in Mendoza. As a matter of fact, they gave us a lot of ideas for Paraguay. El Jardin turned out to be a really lovely spot, with a tranquil garden inside thick walls, affording cool and quiet in a hot and hectic city. The owners, Tomas and Carolina (Swedish and Paraguayan), were beyond friendly, going out of their way to welcome us. A young, married couple, their energy and work translate into a
pretty special place to hang out. We made the hammocks and hummingbirds of El Jardin our hub, and explored Paraguay from there, always returning for a few nights.
We began with Asuncion itself. Wikitravel says that Asuncion has little of the traditional interests to offer a visitor; this is somewhat true, with not a whole lot in the way of activities, museums, etc. However, the architecture, food, culture and atmosphere are all great, so we didn't feel bored. There is construction everywhere; a 15% rise in GDP last year is being expressed in development. Despite the busy, modern vibe, it is also a kind of chilled out place; people take time doing things, and not many folks seem to be in a rush. We adapted to this pace, especially given the temperature, and ambled around, taking in the parks, grand government buildings, republican architecture and plazas, as well as enjoying the fine, inexpensive food. Local favourites include the unique Sopa Paraguaya, the worlds only solid soup. There is also a strong German influence on food and beer, so the "chopp", or draught beer, tends to be pretty special.
We went on in this fashion
for a few days, enjoying the hammocks, sunshine and food, also doing stuff like getting my paperwork sent off for my insurance claims for the stolen phone and the doctor in Argentina. There was a great party at the hostel for Carolina's sister, her birthday, and we were invited. We had some really delicious food and wine, and chatted with the party goers. Finally, we roused ourselves and decided to see some of the nearby towns, rarely visited by non-nationals. Our first stop was Aregua, formerly the lakeside location for the wealthy playboys of Asuncion. These days, it is more of an artesanal market town, selling ceramics and garden furniture in vast quantities. Recently, a private company put in a small beach and activity centre on the lakeside; it is not really very special, though, and the lake is not the cleanest either. Aregua is a nice, sleepy town, though, and is home to something immensely interesting: Casa Amarilla. The 'yellow house' was formerly either the residence of Mariscal Lopez (hugely corrupt former ruler, father of the man who led Paraguay into the war which killed 95% of the men), or the residence of the servants who staffed his house,
depending on whom you ask. These days, it is owned by a pair of brothers, one an artist, the other running the dorm and rooms at Casa Amarilla. The place is filled with art and antiques, both of which it sells, as well as small robot figures made by the artist brother. It is a photographic paradise, with so much interesting stuff to see, and a really pleasant place to spend a night. The rooms are huge, with big old style beds and a pleasing cool due to the quality construction and shade of the old trees all around. It is a work in progress, but really a uniqe and eccentric place to stay; the young lads are very friendly and chatty as well.
In Aregua, you can visit the lake, go to see the nice chapel on the hill, and visit Cerro Koi. We did the first two; unfortunately, Cerro Koi, home to a type of rock only found in two other places in the world, is located close to some very dangerous neighbourhoods. An oddity, I think, as Paraguay never felt dangerous to me; we were advised not to go there alone, however, so we
didn't. From the chapel, the view down over town and to the lake was quite lovely. We walked down again, and had a spectacular salad in Gulliver's restaurant. We also had a look around the old train station, a relic of better times.
After a lovely sleep, we emerged and caught the bus to the next town along the road, Ypacarai. The lake in named Ypacarai, so I thought this town might be somewhat significant...not really. It is quite nice, with a lush plaza filled with butterflies and hummingbirds, and a few restaurants, etc., but there really isn't anythint to see except the very oddly shaped church, made of cast concrete. We boarded another bus, this time to San Bernardino, east of the lake. This is the current resort for the wealthy, with jetski rental, pedlow boats, etc., down by the lake. There is a paseo, or pedestrian street, lined with bars, cafés, pastry shops and ice cream parlours. Being off season, much of it is closed. It was also a bit harrowing, as the entire thing is Coca-Cola branded; everything, from the chairs and tables to the signs and even the streetlights, bears the coke logo.
An entire town built by coke. We abandoned our exploration, and went to Hotel del Lago for lunch. Hotel del Lago recently underwent a renovation, having been derelict since the 1950's, and is really a nice place. It once was quite the destination, and they have a fantastic collection of pictures of well known visitors in the heyday. It also has some history, and has quite a few stories to tell, such as when it was home to Forster, a German architect, anti-semite and husband to sister of Friedrich Nietszhe. After a campaign of slander against him by another architect who wanted to, and succeeded in, replacing Forster, he killed himself in the hotel, eating an apple he injected with poison.
The non-poisonous buffet lunch was pretty good, and the surroundings added to the enjoyment. They also had some toucans and monkeys, caged but apparantly undergoing treatment before release. We returned to Asuncion after lunch, actually somewhat more difficult that getting out to these towns - bit of a shuffle over buses not going to the centre of town. A couple more nights in Asuncion, back at the lovely El Jardin, as we prepared to visit Filadelfia.
We set out early on the bus to Filadelfia, a German Mennonite colony in the inhospitable Chaco region of Paraguay. There is not much in the way of water there, so everyone has to collect rainwater. The land is not especially fertile, or easy to work. The heat is punishing. There are vast tracts of empty, featurless land. So, a prefect place for the penetant Mennonite mindset to call home. Despite the challenges, the three colonies, centred largely around Filadelfia, are really thriving. It is a funny place to visit; the people are mostly white, blond of hair and blue of eye, and speak German. Had to dust off my Deutsch for the visit. The Mennonites came by way of Ukraine, having fled Russia; they then fled the Ukraine, into Germany. They were welcomed there, particularly by a man named Hindenburg, for whom they named their main street in Filadelfia. Presumably, life was too easy in Germany, and some Mennonites began to colonise the Chaco around 1930. Today, Filadelfia does not have a whole lot going on, but there is a lovely hotel, and a very interesting culture to explore. The museum tells the story of the
people here, and it is fascinating to see this way of life.
The town is pretty much operated by the Fernheim Cooperative. The Mennonites are virtually all members of the co-op; children have to buy in when they come of age, if they want to be a part of it. You own shares in the co-op, and also give up 10% of any earnings to it. This is why many Paraguayans who join (it is open to outsiders, subject to higher joining fees and a probation period of 1 year to "judge your character") leave early on; tithing is a foreign concept. The co-op is non-profit, however, so all profits from farming are plowed into the community. Ferheim members enjoy benefits such as free schooling, health insurance, hospitals, veterinary clinics, discounted food at the co-op market, and many other services, all provided by the profits of agriculture. Any money left over from this can be distributed as dividends, though if more than 60% of members vote positivley, it may be spent on building something new for the community. It is a very socialist system, and very successful: most Paraguayans don't have access to these types of services.
The Mennonites also provide schools and other projects for the indigeous people who live at Filadelfia. Migration to the successful town has increased recently, and the different bands of indigenous each have their own barrio, or neghbourhood, south of town. The segregation of neighbourhoods and schools is a little concerning to me, but I witnessed no displays of direct discrimination, so maybe it is nothing.
We saw pretty much all of Filadelfia in two days there, including a great tour of their agricultural processing facility. A huge plant, it processes and ships the produce from farms all around the area. The main products are cotton, peanuts (by the millions of tons - major crop here), sorgum (similar to corn, used to make bio-diesel), castor beans (used for hydraulic castor oil) and sesame seeds. They also treat the rainwater for consumption, and are responsible for a desalinisation project for more water supplies. They purchase power in blocks from Itaipu dam on the other side of the country, having previously produced their own by wood burning, and distribute it as needed. The power is so cheap from the dam that investing in solar, which would really work in the
Chaco, is not cost effective; luckily, the dam is clean power as well. The Mennonites are quite concerned with not abusing nature, even being quite retiscent about the desalinisation program, hoping not to affect the salinity balance in the soils.
Riding the bus back to Asuncion, we took in the scenery more so than on the ride up, as it was a clearer day. The Chaco is remarkeable landscape, nearly empty (population density of 1 per square kilometer, and that's counting the towns too), mostly green and with a lot of trees growing in what was once agricultural land. Nature has resurged in this area, and many unique and interesting species can be found. Hopefully, as Paraguay grows, it will protect this habitat. They had to fight for it, too: in the 1930's, Shell and American Oil thought that there was oil beneath the Chaco, and so they puppeted Paraguay and Bolivia and set them at war against each other, each company financing the armies to secure the territory for them. Disgusting, and pointless - there was no oil.
Easter in Paraguay is hugely important, much more so than Christmas, so everything shuts down.
We were quite lucky to get a bus back to Asuncion, actually. Easter Friday was dead, everything except petrol stations and prostitutes closed for business. Luckily, we had bought supplies at Fernheim co-op, and so we had plenty to eat. Their cheese is worth a mention, easily the best we've eaten on this continent. We had a couple of lovely evenings back at El Jardin; a bunch of people had showed up, and we were lucky that Tomas and Carolina saved the last two beds for us on a loose promise that we would return on Thursday. The people staying were interesting characters: Mark, an American investor looking to get citizenship in Paraguay and renounce his US citizenship; Brian a writer and journalist following the travel route of Hunter S. Thompson in South America and writing a book about him; West, son of a Wiccan family, in Paraguay to help increase awareness of environmental issues; Gemma and Darren, a lovely young English couple, just setting out on their travels; Mr Kim, an ultra friendly Korean man, visiting his brother in law, with a talent for making balloon animals. We all hung out, chatted and enjoyed each others company, swapping stories
and debating the issues of the world. Really stimulating and fun, kind of what the hostel experience is meant to be. And, there was another party...
The easter party at El Jardin was fantastic. Tomas' parents were visiting, as were Carolina's, and they made some really incredible Swedish dishes, like herring with creme fraische, vanilla and red onions, or baked potato gratin with anchovies. They had also decorated hen eggs, something I had never seen before. Everyone brought something to the table to share, Áine and I preparing a pasta salad, and we munched our way through some excellent stuff. As we were departing early in the morning, we turned in around midnight; the party carried on into the wee hours, the folks heading out to the nightclub at 3am. Waving a final goodbye to Tomas - amazingly, he got up at 05:30 to call a cab for us, what a guy - we set out to Santa Rosa del Aguaray. This is a small, highway town, with not a whole to to see. It has, however, a bus station, from which you can catch a collectivo to Laguna Blanca. Another suggestion from Jez and Charlott, Laguna
Blanca is a ranch and ecological reserve, offering dormitories and tents on the beach of the crystal clear laguna. We had a bit of a wait at the station, then there were no seats on the bus going to LB; we stood, and made it out along the bumpy mud roads. Emerging from the bus, we had been warned it was a long walk to the ranch. 3km along dusty, sandy ground in the punishing heat was not easy, but damn it we made it!
The welcome was not exactly warm. Service is not really a consideration in under visited Paraguay sometimes. People will be friendly, but don't expect the chipper, smiling service you're used to at home. Our tent was pitched, our bags dropped, and our sweaty selves were immediately submerged in the cool waters of the laguna. It was really pleasant, prefectly clear water, slightly green tinted due to the reeds and grass on the bed. Little fish swarmed around where you had stirred up the sands, hoping to gnaw on something interesting raised up from beneath. In the daylight, these were all the animals you could see, though apparently the laguna is also home
to some harmless, curious and small water snakes; they will come and check out what the heck you are if you stand still at night. The clouds were rolling in in the afternoon, but never mind - rains in South American come heavily, then depart as quickly as they arrived.
Or not. Three days at Laguna Blanca, three days of torrential downpours. Our tent got a bit damp inside, especially on day two, so we got another one pitched - under a roof this time! The winds were also ferocious at night, the tent walls billowing inwards and keeping us awake. Pretty poor luck - the biologists working at the Para la Tierra ecological station said it was rare to have such rain and storms, and that it was generally sunny there. Given the weather, they biologists (a group of about 10, mostly English and Dutch, researching the animals and their behavious in the nearby habitats) were most of our entertainment while at Laguna Blanca. They were a really friendly bunch, and we sat around and talked, sharing tea and biscuits with them. They actually gave us lunch one day: the lady cooking for the ranch guests
was in a huff with us because we gave out about the breakfast, and refused to make lunch. In fairness, she served us blue-mould corn bread and chocolate cake for brekkie, so we were probably better off. We played some card games, and watched a rat dissection (I miss science!), as well as visitng their small but fascinating museum. The museum houses a small collection of preserved animals, skins of small mammals, butterflies, moths, snakes, lizards and frogs all on display. It is necessary to kill some animals for study; in this way, their value to science can be demonstrated, and the case for protecting them is strengthened. Helen, one of the long term researchers at Para la Tierra, is a vegetarian, and says she has to focus on the greater good when (humanely) killing an animal for study. Sometimes remains are found, and it is not necessary to kill the creature anyway.
We chilled out at the laguna, reading, snoozing, chatting, swimming (even in the rain, the laguna is nice for a dip). One evening, we went frogging with the crew, catching, identifying and releasing some slippery characters. There is a species of frog here that
secretes a sunscreen like substance to keep from drying out; an anaconda was spotted in the area; there is a red tailed lizard species, known to science but never studied in detail before; coral snakes, a deadly but docile species, occupy the surroundings. A snake was found there that was previously thought to be endemic to Brazil. In short, biologically Laguna Blanca is fascinating and important - so go online, search for Para la Tierra, and make a donation! They don't have a lot of funding, and their work is top notch. The Laguna was a great stop, despite the weather, and is a real gem for Paraguayan tourism to develop.
We headed back to Santa Rosa, preferring to pay for a lift into town with the biologists than to risk the collectivo on the roads - now in complete muck after the rains. We rode in the back of the pickup truck, the cool breeze nice now that the weather was - naturally - improving. We slid and powered our way back to Santa Rosa, observing the small farms and settlements along the way, really, truly isolated places. The 15:00 bus to our next stop, Ciudad
del Este, departed at 16:10, obviously, but even worse - there were no seats! We decided to go anyway, and plonked down in the aisle for a bit. Sore backs and people passing to use the toilet made us prefer standing. We read and chatted to pass the time, and finally a seat became available after about three hours. We swapped in and out of it for rests, and a couple of hours later, we got two together. It wasn't all that bad in the end, though kind of irritating. We rolled into Ciudad del Este around 22:30, and got a cab to Hotel Munich; Jez and Charlotte had mentioned this place to us as well.
Bad luck - the Munich was full. We tried the Austria next door; also full. I spoke some German to the lady on reception, gambling on her European looks, and it worked - she phoned around to check for rooms in other hotels. A couple more were full; later, we learned, there was a holiday in Argentina, so they were likely all coming over to buy the cheap goods in Ciudad del Este, or CDE as it is known. We finally
got a room in Hotel Venecia, a slightly run down but perfectly comfortable spot. Private room, en suite, tv, air-con - extravagant comfort following our leaky tent at Laguna Blanca. In the morning, we ate breakfast at the hotel and jumped on a bus to see Itaipu dam. The dam is the second largest in the world, currently the largest in operation: the Chinese Three Gorges dam will dwarf it when it starts running. Itaipu provides 90% of Paraguayan power, and 25% of Brazil's - no small feat. It holds the record for most power produced by a single facility in one year, over 93 million megawatt hours. There is a free tour around the outside on a bus, stopping for pictures; they also offer an in depth tour iside the plant, but you need to pay and book in advance. We took the freebie, and though we didn't quite understand some of the commentary, it was still a very interesting visit. Skipping the gift store, we headed back to CDE for a browse of the shops.
Excepting some apartment blocks, hotels, casinos and the odd park, CDE's centre is entirely composed of shops of various sizes
and characters. This is the home of the black market, which does a roaring trade. All around, you will see people discarding cardboard, manuals, etc., hoping to carry stuff back to Argentina or Brazil without paying duty at the border ("why yes, officer, I often carry a dozen laptops with me when I visit Paraguay!"). You will see people stuffing things into underpants and socks to carry across. Honestly, the products from the reputable stores are not so much cheaper than in Ireland; a Samsung Galaxy tab, for example, costs 475 euro, only about 100 euro cheaper than at home. You can get them much, much cheaper at stalls and small stores along the street, but you risk getting stolen or counterfeit goods. Good luck trying to exchange them if something is wrong. The large mall-like buildings filled entirely with electronics make up most of CDE's skyline, and the streets are hectic and a little dirty, more reminiscent of SE Asia or India than Latin America. There is a certain level of hassle, leaflets and products thrust in your face as you amble along. You can buy vast quantities of drugs, or guns, etc., in many places here, the shops
operating almost openly. Pretty much anything is available. We stuck to the up-market stores, but opted not to buy anything in the end; tempting though it was, we didn't need more stuff to carry and protect.
We did the usual organisational stuff - getting laundry done, repacking, etc. - and shoved off in the morning. CDE is not at all unpleasant, despite the reputation and bustle. We enjoyed a really nice asado, or barbecue, on the street next to our hotel the night before leaving, too - tasty chicken and pork cooked over hot coals, and very cheap. What amazed me about the place was the range of stuff available - I would be better kitted out here than at home! Whereas you might find a few accessories or things for gaming consoles in a shop at home, every last add-on on sale for them can be found in CDE. Manufacturers of PC components have broad ranges, only a fraction of which you'll find at home. In CDE, they are all there, neatly arranged on a shelf. Want a Samsung phone? All of them, every model, lined up and unlocked for you to take home and stick
in your SIM. xBox, PS3, PSP, Wii, PC's, netbooks, tablets. Sigh...I may have to fly back for a week some time.
Anyway, wiping away a silicone tear, I got to the border with Brazil. The border is not exactly tight; no wonder smuggling is so lucrative. There was a dude on the bus with a large cardboard box and a walkie talkie, presumably receiving reports about how many guards were on, etc. We got our exit stamp from Paraguay, took the bus over the Friendship bridge to Brazil, and got an entrance stamp there. The officers were friendly, but bemused...not many non-members of Mercosur, the common market of Brazil, Argentina, etc., cross over here; even fewer are crossing to stay, most simply visiting Iguacu falls on a day trip. No problems anyway - Irish nationality again allowing visa free, 90 day entry, gratis. A local bus took us onwards to Foz do Iguacu, the Brazilian border town.
Leaving Paraguay after almost 3 weeks, I was saddened not to have seen more of it. So little information is available that nearly everything is a surprise. It is really pleasant and friendly, and it has really
got a lot to offer visitors. I hope its development continues, but I hope they do it in a smart way - having seen so many places damaged by unethical tourism, I fear for any fledgling destination. We contributed to articles on wikitravel, adding many hotels, restaurants, activities, etc., hopefully removing the fear factor for some people who don't enjoy the unknown; for me, Paraguay was an undiscovered gem that I thoroughly enjoyed uncovering.
There are more photos below