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Published: October 26th 2007
Plaza de los Heroes
Plaza de Los Heroes is probably Asuncion's main square. It contains a Pantheon, to the left of the flags (not pictured) where many past presidents and distinguished Paraguayans are buried.
A few months before we began our trip I remember we went to Stanfords, the best travel shop in London, to ask for books or any information about Paraguay. And they had practically nothing. No guidebook, no maps, no travel literature; all they offered was Lonely Planet's South America Shoestring guide which gives 29 pages (out of 1000+) to Paraguay. So what was it that put everyone off from travelling here?
As we crossed the border from Posadas in Argentina, I read the Lonely Planet to see what we could expect from Paraguay: Friendly people, who all carry guns, and in the countryside, horrible poisonous snakes. Excellent! Paraguay, however, made a good first impression on us. The lady in the tourist office at the border was possibly the most friendly and helpful tourismo person we´ve met so far on our trip. Likewise at our hotel, where the lady chatted to us for ages about Paraguay, and told us we spoke excellent Spanish - at least I think this is what she said 😊. Even the waiter in our restaurant was very friendly. He spoke to us for ages about Paraguay and football and stuff in general.
Encarnacion is Paraguay´s
The mission covered a huge area, but much of it has worn away
third largest city, but still a fairly small place, which we used as our base for the next few days, in which time we explored the town and the Jesuit ruins at Trinidad, 30 km to the north. These are the ruins of one of the Jesuit missions from the 16th/17th century and they are now a UNESCO World Heritage Site. We had seen Jesuit ruins at San Ignacio in Argentina, where there was an excellent museum, guided tours, and many tour buses. It´s all very different in Trinidad, however: no crowds, no museum and very little information. However, the ruins are in better condition in Trinidad and there´s the site is bigger. The Jesuits built these missions to educate and "christianize" the local Guarani tribes, as well as to protect them from exploitation by Spanish and Portuguese slave traders. After the Jesuits became too powerful they were expelled by the European governments and the missions quickly fell into ruin. In recent years they´re been made into UNESCO world heritage sites, and while little remains of the missions, they are very evocative of an important time in South American history. The 1980's film "The Mission", with Robert de Niro and
Church at the Mission
This was the main church in the mission and even today you can tell it was the most important building
Jeremy Irons, gives a good account of the history.
Asuncion was our next stop. The first thing we noticed here was that almost every shop, bank and even some restaurants had armed guards on the door, which is a bit disconcerting, as I´m not sure how well trained these guys are. We made sure to always tip enough in the restaurants! Backpackers are uncommon enough in Paraguay that when you do meet some you tend to make friends straight away. This was the case with us and Richard & Eloise, a NZ/Australian couple from our hotel in Encarnacion. We bumped into again in Asuncion and watched England vs France in the rugby at their hotel.
In general, Paraguay and Asuncion seem very safe. Though reading the UK foreign office website before we left made us think twice about Asuncion. As there is no British Embassy in Paraguay I assume whoever wrote what we read on that site either googled it or made it up! All I can say is we saw nothing of what was described in our trip. Based on our experiences, Asuncion was a very safe place, and we felt fine walking around the quiet streets
after dark. Once you get used to the armed guards in many of the shops and restaurants it's no problem.
Asuncion must be the only capital city in the world without an Irish pub, but it does have a British Bar (Bar Britannia), which I guess is much the same when you're in as remote place as this. Ruth was very happy to see her hometown on a map of Wales on the wall. I was almost tempted into a can of Guinness at 4 dollars, but the home brew at 1.50 a litre was a better choice I think.
Asuncion is supposed to be the worlds cheapest capital city according to a recent Economist poll, and certainly in terms of food and drink it's good value, though we found it difficult to find cheap hotels (and there were no hostels). The food was excellent, and we tried many Paraguayan specialities. Ruth's favourite was a curried piranha soup while I liked Surubi, a type of catfish, usually the most expensive item on menus here and 1.5 times the cost of steak, but only 6 dollars in the Lido bar (something of an institution in Asuncion, and a good
place to visit).
Asuncion has the majority of sights in Paraguay, though it takes little more than a day or two to see them all. The most striking is the presidential palace which looks completely out of place down on the riverfront. I think the president who built it must have had something of a Louis XIV complex. there are a couple of nice squares too, most notably Plaza de Los Heroes, which is a great place on a busy day. For anyone thinking of visiting, I would try to avoid the weekends here, especially Sundays, when practically everything closes down.
We also discovered an Irish link with Paraguay, through Eliza Lynch, a Cork-woman, and one of the most colourful characters in Paraguayan history. She was mistress to Francisco Solano Lopez, one of the craziest (and there's plenty of competition here) of Paraguay's dictators, and became the most important woman in the country during his reign. After he met her in Paris and brought her back to Paraguay, he started the disastrous Triple Alliance War against Brazl, Argentina and Uruguay in which Paraguay lost almost 90% of its population and much of its territory. Apparently Lopez was a
bit crazy before he met her, though many historians feel it was her influence that led him into the war. That's Cork women for you!
One thing I liked about Paraguay is the spirit of entrepreneurialism. Unemployment is very high so you see a lot of people selling stuff on the streets. No bus journey starts or finishes without someone trying to sell you something, usually chipa, a popular savoury bread, but also things like newspapers, cards, and drinks. Just before we crossed the border back to Argentina, no fewer than 4 guys came on the bus for money-changing. At least it keeps the rates competitive!
So that's it from Paraguay. One week is not a long time to discover a country larger in size than Germany, but we liked what we saw of Paraguay, and would recommend it to anyone looking to explore somewhere a little more off the beaten path.
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