Times are hard, money is tight and credit is in short supply. But life is short too, so don’t pass up Paraguay. Frederic reports on one of South America’s best-kept secrets
Paraguay: what does it mean to you? A mixed dream of jungle smells, wildlife and tremendous adventures perhaps. Who knows exactly where it is? Some will guess South America.
In fact, Paraguay is a small country in this huge continent, stuck between Argentina towards the west, Brazil in the east and Bolivia in the north. It’s one of the only two countries in South America – the other is Bolivia – that has no access to the sea. With no sandy beaches where tourists can lay under palm trees and a lack of international knowledge about the country, Paraguay faces a big problem in attracting more tourists.
For a few years, the authorities have been hoping that Paraguay would be included in the route of the famed Dakar Rally. The Chaco, the Northern desert region with amazing sand dunes and wild landscapes should be a good option for the next Dakar, or maybe for the one after. Such an event will showcase the country to the world. So what might get highlighted?
Mrs Liz Cramer, the Paraguayan Tourism Minister explained to CD-Traveller that Paraguay authorities know that Paraguayan tourism is only niche tourism and that it will not change in the short term. That, at least, should protect the country from the over-development of tourism, one of the least desirable effects on the rush to attract more visitors that some countries have had to endure. Paraguay expects a more respectful tourism to what it possesses.
There are no direct flights from Europe meaning tickets aren’t particularly cheap. Coming from Europe you have to fly via another main South American destination such as Argentina, Brazil or even Peru. So many visitors add Pargauay on, having visited a neighbouring country first. And that is probably how your travel agency or tour-operator will suggest a visit to Paraguay to you – as an extension to a holiday in one of the other South American countries.
What is there to draw the visitor?
For a large majority of European travellers, the Iguazu Falls is what attracts them to go on to Paraguay. They are to be found at the junction of three countries: Argentina, Brazil and Paraguay. Whichever guidebook your read, the Iguazu Falls ranks as a ‘must-see’. You can view them from either side and they are positively breathtaking. As the American, Eleanor Roosevelt, said the day she discovered the Iguazu Falls: “Poor Niagara!” You can walk on a platform listening to the rushing waters below and, at the same time, get as wet as though you were taking your morning shower. But, looking at the huge water falls, is something really impressive. It’s one of the best places in the world to measure the strength and the violent beauty of nature.
Most tourists stay at a Brazilian or Argentinian hotel resort for a minimum of two days ,so that they can visit both sides of the falls. Many also head to Ciudad del Este, the Paraguayan border town, which is a huge tax-free city with large duty free malls that attract many tourists looking for the latest brand computer or a new cell phone. It also attracts Brazilian smugglers in their thousands!
After that, why not go west for a two or three days to Asuncion, the capital of Paraguay. The route will take you in the path of the Jesuits on the ‘Ruta Jesuitica’, and then in the path of Franciscans on the ‘Camino Franciscano’.
In the 17th century when the first explorers from Europe were coming to Paraguay, the Jesuits came to convert the locals. Here, they built a sort of Jesuit country base around a group of nearly 30 towns. This network enabled them to protect the Guarani, the indigenous people, from the Portuguese slave-traders coming from Brazil. You can find these missions split between Argentina, Brazil and Paraguay. The Paraguayan ones are among the most beautiful and they are less visited than in other countries: we didn’t see any more than a couple of tourists during our long stay. Compared to those elsewhere it was unspoilt, peaceful and felt like paradise.
These famous Jesuit missions, known as the Jesuit Reductions, were stone or wooden built towns sheltering a population of thousands of Guarani people. Yet they were under the authority of only two or three Jesuits. Around a huge square, the ‘plazza’, on three sides were built the Casas de los Indios, where the people lived. On the final side, between a cloister and a cemetery, stood a church. The pattern is the same wherever you go.
This ideal town arrangement is still completely visible in the marvellous stone Reduction of Trinidad which has been proclaimed, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Entering on Trinidad plazza, a huge green grass carpet which is bordered by the ruins of Indians houses, you cross over the grass to reach the church. There, you realise that these uncommon priests were also architects, doctors, artists and much more. Among many activities they learned the Guarani language, compiling the first Guarani dictionary. They also taught Guaranis stone sculpture, woodcarving and fresco art. Inside Iglesia Mayor, the main church, there is a famous carved pulpit above which 40 angels can be seen above the sanctuary playing the music of heaven. A few remaining statues testify of the artwork of Guarani people.
Trinidad is a good place to stop for the night. Pick either a hotel or in one of the Estancias which are huge farms where visitors may also stay. Wherever you stay, most will suggest a horse-riding tour. If you stay overnight, be sure to ask for what I can only call a light show. The site is nicely illuminated and you just walk among the ruins at your own pace. The feeling is more impressive under the stars. It’s so peaceful, you feel in total harmony with this strange beauty.
To read the second part of Frederic’s Paraguay piece, don’t forget to log onto CD-Traveller tomorrow!