Paraguay is a fascinating country. Compared to other places in South America there’s not a lot to see in terms of amazing or famous sites – scenery or architecture – but there are some hidden surprises and the culture is quite unique. It’s a difficult place to travel around as there is virtually no tourist infrastructure or tourist information. When asked about this, the Paraguayan response is that they don’t really want to develop tourism. Fair enough too. The way it works in Paraguay is to ask someone if they know someone who knows someone who might be able to take us where we want to go. Although they seem quite puzzled that we would want to go there, everyone is extraordinarily helpful.
The best thing about Paraguay is the people. They are super relaxed, warm, friendly and fun. It’s home to people from at least nineteen tribes of five indigenous language families, with a Guarani majority. There is still one uncontacted tribe – the Totobiegosode – living in voluntary isolation in The Chaco. 95% of Paraguayans identify as Mastizo, an indigenous and (mostly) European mix. Many traditional customs and cultural practices have carried over to the modern mainstream. One visible custom is the use of the Yerba Mate plant. In many countries of South America this plant is used as a herbal tea and is drunk hot instead of tea or coffee. Other herbs are added depending on what you need. In Paraguay they drink it cold and call it Terere – from the sound it makes when you suck it through the special metal straws. It’s delicious! Everyone carries a fancy thermos filled with iced water and a Terere cup and straw everywhere they go. It’s a social drink and is shared around. Paraguayans are very social people and love to sit around and chat. One story is that when a car (or truck or bus) breaks down on the road, instead of trying to fix it, they get out the cooking pot and set about having a feast. Brilliant. I’m feeling pretty tranquila (chilled) myself after a few weeks in Paraguay.
Paraguay was colonised by the Spanish in the 1500s and was of some strategic importance due to its river location. The capital city of Asuncion was built in the 1500s but sadly there’s not much of the original architecture left. It’s a pretty calm and easy small city to be in but not one I really bonded with. There are a lot of really rich people, so there are posh areas comparable to any western city, then there are a lot of really poor people camped in makeshift slums all along the river. From what we heard, the main issue seems to be political corruption. Everyone at the top takes their cut and there’s nothing left for everyone else.
This old church was pretty impressive though. Note the artwork is a mixture of Franciscan and indigenous styles.
When the Spanish realised there wasn’t anything much to steal they left an opening for christian missionaries – mainly Franciscans and Jesuits – to come in, and the running of the colony was left up to the Jesuits for a couple of hundred years. The Jesuits built quite beautiful missions where they converted the indigenous folk to chritianity. Despite the usual cultural damage this caused, in some ways the Jesuits were a better option as they protected the people from the worst of colonial excesses and slave traders and consciously tried to preserve language and culture. Some of the crafts and trades taught by the missions are still practiced. The ruins of two Jesuit missions are on the UNESCO world heritage list. This is apparently one of the least visited UNESCO sites in the world. We had no problems with running into other tourists but did have to hire a driver to take us there.
The Jesuits were kicked out by the Spanish government in the 1700s. Then in the early 1800s the Paraguayans declared their independence from Spain. Unusually, the Spanish governor said “ok then” and went home. What followed was a long period of mostly lunatic and bloodthirsty dictators, devastating wars with all of their neighbours and relative isolation from the rest of the world. The history of Paraguay is fascinating reading if you’ve got the time and the inclination. One particularly interesting story is that of the then dictator’s son Solano Lopez who travelled to Europe in the 1850s and fell in love with an Irish (supposedly) prostitute/stripper called Eliza Lynch, who he brought home to Paraguay. She seems to have been a ‘Marie Antoinette’ kind of figure who was universally hated by everyone. Interestingly, in the rewrites of history, over time she has become much revered. Although she died in Europe, there is a tomb for her in the Recoleta cemetery in Asuncion. Whether she’s actually in it or not is a matter of some conjecture. I thought this was her tomb but realised later it’s the wrong one. This one belongs to her daughter. Impressive cemetery though.
Paraguay has long welcomed all kinds of visionaries, minorities, weirdos and misfits to come and set up their own semi-independent colonies. In fact, Paraguay is still one of the easiest countries to migrate to. Throughout Paraguay you find colonies of Germans, Japanese, Mennonites, Moonies and others – all maintaining their own language, religions and customs. There was even an Australian pseudo-socialist colony at one stage.
The other great thing about Paraguay is the wilderness, although it’s not easy to get to. Mostly there are no roads. Brazilian drug barons, corrupt Paraguayan politicians and global villains like the George W. Bush family own huge chunks of land and use planes to travel around. A section of the Pantanal wetlands is in Paraguay. We really wanted to visit but it’s the wrong season (wet) and there’s no possible access. Instead we decided to go to the Chaco, Paraguay’s version of the Australian outback – except they have Jaguars. In fact, they have a whole huge list of rare, strange and mostly endangered animals.
We travelled up to the Mennonite colony of Filadelfia which has the only two hotels in the northern Chaco. Mennonites apparently split off from the Amish sometime in the distant past. I had a moment of pure joy on the bus when I was able to translate for some newly arrived Mennonites. My Spanish has definitely improved and I can now have simple conversations in grammatically incorrect sentences. Hooray for me!
The Chaco itself is endangered due to the pressures of deforestation for agriculture and many animals are facing extinction from this and also from the illegal exotic animal trade and illegal hunting. Political corruption is entrenched in Paraguay and sadly these lowlifes often buy their way in. There is a wonderful German couple – Thomas and Sabine Vinke – who seem to be single-handedly trying to save this important area of wilderness. They’ve set up a conservation organisation called Paraguay-Salvaje. Unfortunately there’s no English version as yet. They also have a fantastic YouTube channel. Support them if you can by sharing their videos. We were told many times that the only thing that the baddies are afraid of is international exposure on social media. See! It does work!
We were lucky enough to have a guided tour into the Chaco with the charmingly eccentric Clemens who works with them. We didn’t see any of the really rare animals I’d hoped for but we did see an armadillo, a caiman and lots of birds.
Since we were already up north in the Chaco we decided to take the road less travelled into Bolivia. Unsurprisingly, all of the information we’d managed to find out about crossing the Paraguay-Bolivia border turned out to be wrong. Luckily Clemens from Paraguay-Salvage drove us the 100km from Filadelfia to Mariscal Estigarribia to catch the bus. We were told to get our exit stamp at the immigration office there and the bus would come by at 2.30am to pick us up and take us the 6 hours across the border into Bolivia. We got there about midnight and waited and waited. Eventually a bus came and stopped down the road about 4am. We woke up the immigration officer. “No” she said, “you don’t get your stamp here anymore it changed four days ago, get on the bus and get your stamp on the actual border 280km away”. No worries. Off we go chasing the bus. Not our bus. We watched it drive away. Ours should come in an hour they said. Waiting waiting. The hard core drug squad arrived, looking very serious. We waited on. 6am the bus arrives. It’s just coming light. We’re knackered. 6.30am we’re off down the dirt track leading to Bolivia. There’d been some rain and the mud was knee deep but our driver was determined. For the next 6 hours we ploughed painstakingly slowly through the mud, stopping, starting and sliding. I have no idea how the driver managed to get through that road. Best driver ever. After that the road dried out and we drove on along a dusty dirt track through the Chaco desert. We were caked in mud, attacked by mosquitoes, now covered in dust and sweating in the sweltering heat. We finally navigated both the Paraguay and Bolivian borders arriving at our Villamontes destination that night after a 21 hour journey.
So here we are in Bolivia! Somehow the arrival is all the sweeter if the journey there has been tough. We are ensconced in the best hotel (swimming pool, air-con and a peacock) in a poor, dusty town. Now we discover that there is a political protest in full swing. All roads to the north and west are blockaded and no vehicles are allowed to pass. There’s no way we’re going back the way we came (east), so that just leaves the south. We’re hopefully off in the morning, if we understood correctly, on a perilous but spectacular journey across the Andes in a minivan to Tarija.
More Paraguay photos here.