And so we put Brazil in our rear mirror, for now at least. We were genuinely conflicted about leaving such an amazing country. Of course we describe Brazil in such a way but really, as Amy accurately stated a couple of days ago, we feel as though we don’t know Brazil at all. Such is its size; its diversity both geological and cultural provide a place that, much like Indonesia, one could travel for a whole year just in the same country and still have only scratched the surface. There is no doubt in our minds as we cross the border into Paraguay that we will return to this most wonderful country; to experience the diverse culture of Salvador and laze on its beaches; to explore the cobbled streets of Olinda to the north east and its surrounding colonial villages; and of course, to explore the Amazon and its great river. But all in good time and each will have to wait...
We really didn’t know what to expect from Paraguay. In fact it’s fair to say that we had no expectations whatsoever for a place where we would be spending only a small amount of time. We
have met very few people along our travels that have actually been to this country, something which can be interpreted in both a positive and negative way I suppose. Obviously we were hoping for the former experience and the opportunity to discover something of a hidden gem, overshadowed by some of the continent’s more obvious attractions! However, prior to entering the country, I had sought some advice which had in turn served to dampen some of our adventurous spirit.
One of my best friends is actually of Paraguayan descent (he is in fact the star of our blog ‘The Next Bruce Lee is born on Phi Phi’), as his mother’s family hail from Asuncion. Given his knowledge of the country, I thought it prudent to ask him what Paraguay had to offer. To describe the response I received as inspiring would be to embellish the discourse; in fact, my friend questioned why we would bother with Paraguay at all since it offered a rather pricey hydro-electric dam (which, interestingly and tragically drowned a set of waterfalls apparently more impressive than those found at Iguacu!) and naught much besides. However, being very much of the opinion that if
you don’t go, you don’t know, we decided that, since we were basically on Paraguay’s border anyway, it would be a shame not to see what secrets the country held. That and the fact that it would infuriate me to have visited all of South America except for this tiny hole in the centre of the continent! A decision was made...
After hopping on a local bus in Foz du Iguazu, we jumped off at the Brazilian immigration post, received our stamp, and crossed the Rio Paraguay on foot, something ‘the book’ says is a definite no, but as it was broad daylight and there was plenty of traffic about, we felt safe enough. Amusingly, we were passed by hoards of Brazilians carting bulging shopping bags, returning from the Paraguayan border town of Ciudad del Este, a Mecca for bargain shopping since taxes are essentially non-existent! Once through Paraguayan immigration, we made our way to the bus station in Ciudad del Este and caught a bus headed for Asuncion.
For our accommodation, we had opted for a place named Hostel El Jardin, and what a good decision it turned out to be. Owned by
a Swedish-Paraguayan couple (and their acts-and-dresses-older-than-he-looks infant son!), the place is really comfortable, with great areas to just relax, despite the fact you are in the big city. Add in the fact that breakfast is included and we were onto a winner (though sadly, it was back to life without toasted sandwiches, a sorry existence to say the least!).
Our first night in the city, the first of May, and we were immediately made aware of how seriously South Americans take their public holidays, unlike England where most bank holidays and religious “days of rest” are basically ignored by the high street stores and restaurants. Asuncion was a ghost town - the tumbleweed didn’t even bother to show up! Even the two restaurants a long term guest in our hostel had guaranteed to be open looked as if they had been abandoned years ago! We searched the nearby streets for sign of open restaurant or supermarket, not wanting to venture too far afield for safety reasons. Needless to say our search came up empty and so we consoled ourselves in the only open business in the city: an Esso petrol station, where we found cheap cinema-style hot
dogs and bags of crisps!
The following day, we decided to do a bit of exploring and also, I wanted to get a picture of my friend’s street where his grandparents still live. A decent walk away from our hostel and with great weather, we could kill two birds with one stone. Walking through the streets of Asuncion, the city blends its somewhat crumbling, rustic colonial past with more modern structures. Often we would come across wonderfully diverse colours decorating neighbouring buildings, a fusion of shades which probably shouldn’t belong next to each other but made all the more striking amongst such architecture. I don’t think Asuncion will ever be described as the most attractive city in the world but there are certainly small pockets of beauty to be found.
Other than exploring the city on foot, we did little else and sadly, found Asuncion to be a little lacking on the entertainment front. It’s not that there’s nothing there per say, but for us, nothing that particularly appealed and not being in the mood to traipse through more museums, we purchased bus tickets for Encarnacion on the Argentine border, with the intention of
seeing the Jesuit ruins at Trinidad (we do consider ourselves cultured, but sometimes, it can be one museum too many and we’ve definitely seen our share of pointless/poor displays to date!).
We have had widely varying bus rides during our time travelling but it must be said that for scenery, the journey from Asuncion to Encarnacion was one of the more beautiful. Anyone anticipating mountain scenery associated with much of this continent would be left disappointed with the extreme flatness of the landscape, but these ranging farm fields sprawling away in every direction, capturing the late afternoon sun are truly beautiful; mid-American in many ways or at least that’s how I always imagined places like Nebraska and Indiana to look like.
Encarnacion itself is like so many other border towns across the world: dull, dirty and everyone seems to be on their way to somewhere else. For us, it was a place to rest our heads for the night before seeing the famous ruins of the Jesuit community in nearby Trinidad (not to be confused with our stop in the beach town of Trinidade in Brazil), followed by our crossing into Argentina and Buenos
The religious missions found at neighbouring Trinidad and Jesus were founded by the Jesuit missioners during the colonization of South America in the 17th
century. Their development is dated as far back as 1609, from which time they were constructed over a period of over 150 years, during which time the missioners helped to implement basic social structure and order into the lives of the nomadic tribes who wandered these lands, as a means of converting the natives to Christianity as part of the Spanish strategy as well as to tax and govern them more efficiently! They did graciously allow the natives to retain their own culture (unlike other missions), but the Christian conversion was mandatory!
Despite this conversion, it seems as though the freedoms and autonomy afforded the natives by the Jesuits became the downfall of the foreigners, who it is thought were expelled from the Americas in 1767. It seems Evangelists eventually wear out their welcome wherever they set up shop – maybe they provided a little too much education?
After hitching a bus ride back to Encarnacion, we waited for our late (and again, expensive) bus to
take us across the border into Argentina, a place which we are both really excited to see and experience (I literally can’t wait to get my teeth into a steak in Buenos Aires – it seems a long time since I’ve had any significant meat, a byproduct of hitching my wagon to a vegetarian!). Though we are both a little tired from the constantly long journeys, there is too much remaining of this wonderful continent to slow down now...
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