Paraguay seems to be a bit of an enigma. I’m still not quite sure what I make of the place - certainly very different to all the other South American nations. Few tourists make the effort to visit the country, yet this is undoubtedly one of the main appeals for me. The lack of basic tourist infrastructure (hostels, public transport to the more isolated sites of interest) is a bit of an annoyance, but Paraguay seems to be more authentic than the more touristy areas nearby in Argentina or Brazil. It’s the only country in South America to have an indigenous language as an official language (Guaraní), and the towns (at first sight) seem less filled with American superbrands like McDonalds.
The crossing from Posadas to the Paraguayan city of Encarnación was, as all border crossings on this continent are, needlessly long and tedious, though this time the customs officials were relatively quick - it was more the heavy traffic and sheer weight of people trying to get on the buses that made the journey from one side of the Paraná to the other last 2 hours. At the Paraguayan customs, I visited a Tourist Information office, which, if I
believe my guide book, will be the only one I will find in the country outside of Asuncion.
I had high hopes for Encarnación. It is known as “The Pearl of the South” and is the wealthiest city in Paraguay after Asunción. Despite this, it is a complete vacuum of anything of interest to see or do. For the first time since I left Buenos Aires, the weather was hot and sunny, so I tried to go down to the riverfront, but due to some sort of massive building development, I couldn’t even get remotely close, though I did get very muddy trying to go round the side of these works. A stark contrast from all the Argentinean cities where the riverside boulevards were the heart of their respective cities.
It is also strange for the temperature to be in the mid twenties, whilst on the other side of the river I had been wearing my coat whilst out for most of the day. It must just have been a cold spell for the last week in Argentina.
There are virtually no hostels within the whole of Paraguay (as there are so few tourists), but luckily hotels are
cheap enough. The one I stayed in, the Hotel Itaipu, right in the centre, set me back 40,000 guaraní a night (which equates to 5 pounds) for a private ensuite room, though with a slightly “rustic” feel. As Paraguay is so much cheaper than neighbouring Argentina, near the International Bridge are large market areas filled with merchants selling everything from clothes to electronics - most seemingly of poor quality. But this end of the city was really rather dirty and polluted. Given that Encarnación is Paraguay’s third city, I would have expected more in the centre, but instead there were only 2 main streets, and hardly any shops, restaurants or bars. Walking around at 9pm on a Friday evening, the whole city seemed eerily quiet.
Most of this area of Paraguay is given over to farmland, but there is one big national park where the native Atlantic Forest is preserved. However, I decided not to head there as the transport makes it virtually impossible to get there without hiring a car, but fortunately near Encarnación is a small patch of preserved Atlantic forest which is actually part of an upmarket hotel, the Hotel Tirol, which is visited by the
King of Spain amongst other people. My guide book said that you can pay 10,000 Guaranís to explore their forest, but the people at the hotel were very friendly and let me in for free. I actually managed to get into reasonably deep forest, and it was nice to be outside of cities for the first time since being in the Peruvian jungle. I even managed to spot some capuchin monkeys in the far distance (at least I think that’s what I saw) as well as a few species of bird which I didn’t recognise. So all in all, a very nice morning spent there, and there are actually buses running past the entrance, so getting there and away was not an issue.
The main attraction in the area are the Jesuit ruins, similar to the ones I visited across the border in Argentina. The ruins of Trinidad, an hour by bus from Encarnación, were easy to reach as they’re just off the main road to Paraguay’s second city, Ciudad del Este. Although the ruins were probably better than the ones in Argentina, the lack of guides and information around the ruins made the visit a bit difficult as
I had no idea what I was looking at. Nevertheless, it was still worth the visit. The other nearby mission, Jesús, has the unfortunate record of being the least visited UNESCO world heritage site in the world. I would have visited it, as it was included in the ticket I bought to get into Trinidad, but due to the lack of public transport to get there, it was not worth the hassle. So I instead headed back into Encarnación to have a laid back Sunday afternoon.
From Encarnación it was a 5 and a half hour bus ride to Asunción, from where the next blog will come.
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