Paraguay

August 6th, 2000

Ok, so hands up who knows where Paraguay is? I’ll give you a clue, it’s not in Africa. (What do you mean, that’s no help? What else do you want, blood ?)

Give in ? Ok, let me tell you about it…

Introduction
The Republica Del Paraguay is a landlocked country, pretty much in the centre of South America. It gained uncontested independence from Spain in 1811 (The spanish didn’t find anything there that they wanted to keep) and since then the country has gone from one oppressive regime to another.

Democracy is now the official form of government in Paraguay, although the country is still far from being politically stable.

When the spanish first met the original Guaraní peoples they were accepted into their society and this led to a predominantly mestizo (of mixed Spanish /Guaraní heritage) society in what is now Paraguay. It also means that spanish is the language of government and commerce and Guaraní the language of choice for the majority.

Geographically Paraguay can be divided into two regions: The area east of the Rio Paraguay (40%) is green, well watered and good for agriculture; and the area west of the Rio Paraguay, The Grand Chaco is an extensive plain come desert.

Encarnation
Having already visited Ciudad Del Este to buy a new camera (believe me, once in Ciudad del Este is enough for anyone) I headed straight to the relatively uninteresting town of Encarnacion, in the south, to visit the missions.

The Jesuits & the Missions. Some Background
The Jesuits were a catholic religious order that came to South America around 1610 with the aim of setting up villages to ‘reach out’ to the native Guaraní Indians.

These villages, however, were prone to attacks by Portuguese and Spanish ‘bandeirantes’ which took the
Indians as slaves. So between 1647 and 1750 the Jesuits took a far more protective stance and actually got a papal order allowing them to arm the Guaraní for the defense of the villages.

The Jesuit aim was to make each of the Missions self sufficient and to sell surplus goods to other missions and towns. They also did a fantastic job in educating the Guaraní and taught them to read and write as well as other subjects such as: religion, civility, arithmetic and music. The Guaraní were also very creative and excelled in the workshops set up for sculpture, woodcarving, art, textiles etc.

Unfortunately this utopia couldn’t last and in 1750 the Exchange Treaty was signed between Portugal and Spain. In the Treaty, the Portugal exchanged it’s territory in what is now Uruguay with Spanish territory in what is now Rio Grande do Sul in Brasil. The latter area contained most of the missions.

The Portuguese had little respect for the Jesuits and considered them as a political “thorn in the side”. The missions were also very profitable, but not for them, and they resented the Jesuits keeping potential workers from them. The Exchange Treaty would allow them to do as they pleased when the territory became theirs. The Guaraní, seeing the writing on the wall, decided to fight against the Treaty and were, unofficially, supported by the Jesuits.

This led to many bloody battles and the eventual expulsion of the Jesuits from all Portuguese territories in 1757. The Jesuits were later expelled from French territories and, in 1764, Charles III expelled them from Spain and it’s dominions.

The film: “The Mission” does a good job describing the Jesuit Missions and the political environment surrounding their demise.

Around Encarnation are the remains of several different Jesuit Missions. In Paraguay there are Jesús and Trinidad and just over the border in Argentina there are San Ignacio Mini and Santa Ana. I decided to spend a day exploring the Paraguayan missions and then another day over in Argentina.

The Paraguayan Missions
First stop was the Mission at Trinidad. I was surprised to find it in extremely good condition. The authorities had obviously put a lot of effort into maintaining the mission and it’s grounds.

From a lookout it was very easy to see, what was, a traditional mission layout of a main plaza surrounded on three sides by Indian housing and dominated on the fourth by an imposing stone church with some
magnificent carvings. To the side of the church were the cemetery on one side, and on the other the colleges and workshops. Behind it all was the garden where produce was grown for the community.

It was all much larger and more sophisticated than I had assumed and a credit to the Jesuits and Indians that had lived there.

On a hill 11km to the north could be seen the Mission of Jesús. Getting there wasn’t so easy but I eventually hitched a lift with a couple of Paraguayans who plied me with the Paraguayan version of Mate which is served cold. It tastes quite nice but isn’t particularly easy to drink in the back of a car on an unsealed road. The driver turned out to be the former local priest and so got me free entry into the site and a free ride back to Encarnacion afterwards !! Handy.
The ruins themselves were again quite well preserved but lacked the scale of Trinidad.

The Argentinean Missions
San Ignacio Mini was a good hours bus ride from the Argentinean border town of Posadas. It is a huge complex but with a completely different feel from the two Paraguayan missions that I’d visited the day before. In Paraguay the missions were extremely well kept in open grounds, free from vegetation and here in Argentina, although well kept, you could see and sense the jungle reclaiming it’s land. I actually preferred that. You have to remember that when the Missions were in service there were no roads and no towns. They were very much hacked out of the jungle and San Ignacio really encouraged that idea.

If San Ignacio felt more authentic, Santa Ana was like the ruins where the monkeys lived in Walt
Disney’s film: “Jungle Book”. They are located about 2km out of town, and then 1km off of the main road and in the jungle.

I got there late one afternoon and found it quite spooky walking around the ruins in the fading light by myself. Although re-cleared only several years earlier the jungle was again overpowering the site.

At Santa Ana the traditional Jesuit cemetery had been used by the local village up until 1975. It was like walking into a Hammer Horror. The tombs were overgrown and decaying and the mausoleums broken open, letting whatever in, or whatever out !

In the Argentina update I spoke about the cemetery at Recoletta and how you could see the coffins through the glass doors. Well, the cemetery at the Mission at Santa Ana took that one step further. The coffins were not only in plain view but most were open and robbed.

The human mind is a strange thing isn’t it ? I remember standing at the entrance of one of the open mausoleums, with the light fading fast and an open coffin at the far end. From the door I couldn’t quite see what was inside. Now logic says “Ok, time to leave !” but like some bad horror film where the person opens the door and your thinking “What are you doing you stupid idiot ?” my morbid curiosity got the better of me. I took a step into the mausoleum and, on tiptoe looked into the coffin. I still couldn’t quite see in and at that point noticed another half open coffin to the right just above my head. I think the term “f**k that !” sprung to mind and I made a hasty retreat, back into the relative safety of the cemetery !! Go on, call me a coward, see if I care !

Asuncion
Asuncion is the capital of Paraguay and is a small yet sprawling city of 3/4 of a million people. It doesn’t really have the feel of a Capital city but it’s nice enough.

Paraguay is unique in the area for not having a Liberator (I.e. an Artigas, Bolivar etc) and because of this there seems, in my opinion, they seem to lack a national hero or focus. There is a shrine, in the Plaza de los Heroes, where the remains of their “great” generals are held. A little strange when you bear in mind that every war that Paraguay has ever started has been a complete disaster !

Two things that should be visited in Asuncion are Museum del Barro and the Palacio Legislativo.

The Museum del Barro, quaintly called the Museum of Mud in the tourist info, (The spanish word barro means both mud and earthenware !) has a great collection of earthenware and relics from many different South American cultures and epochs as well as a nice collection of Modern Art and is definitely worth a visit.

The Palacio Legislativo is on the Plaza Constitución and is the main seat of government. It stands out for two reasons:

  1. It’s bright pink and
  2. It has a large hole in it !!

The hole came from an attempted coup in May 2000 (I.e.. a few months ago) when an army general drove a tank into the Plaza and decided to take a “pot shot” at the building !! They have apparently decided to leave the hole, as a mark of their battle for democracy (On the balcony they have also installed some heavy duty mounted machine guns to give democracy a hand in case another tank turns up). The coup failed but with national elections this coming weekend (to replace the Vice-President who was assassinated last October, again by an army general) I thought that it was probably a good idea to vacate the country.

Friendly Cops ?
The bus station in Asuncion is a potentially difficult place for tourists, strangely
enough, because of the police. In one, 2 hour period before leaving for Bolivia I had my documentation checked 4 times.

Are the Paraguayan police being extra efficient ? Hardly ! The Paraguayan border with Brasil at Ciudad del Este is a strange affair where you actually have to make a real personal effort to clear immigration. You are allowed into either country for a day without the normal formalities. This means, though, that the buses don’t actually stop at immigration unless you specifically ask them to. This results in many tourists finding themselves in Paraguay without the correct immigration stamps.

What the ‘efficient’ police at the bus station are doing is looking for tourists without the correct stamps. If they find one then they are taken to an office, given a hard time and told how serious an offence it is but if they were to pay a bribe ($50 or more) then the police officer won’t take it any further. Unfortunately, the police have no official Immigration powers and so don’t give you a receipt or passport stamp. This means that when the tourist does eventually clear customs they are stopped again, officially this time, and have to pay another, legitimate, $40 to clear real immigration. Policemen in Paraguay are best avoided.

Across the Chaco
On the evening of Saturday 12th August I boarded a bus, with 5 other backpackers and lots of locals, which crossed the huge Chaco region of Paraguay en route to it’s final destination of Santa Cruz in Bolivia.

Now I’m not saying that the Chaco is simply a dry, hot dust bowl but even the Paraguayan Immigration had the sense to put the Paraguay / Bolivia border post 500km before the physical border.
It was a hard bus trip. Unbelievably hot during the day, unbelievably cold at night. There were no proper roads, just dust tracks of the finest dust you have ever seen. By the end of the journey everything was covered in a thick layer of dust. The bus got two punctures during the trip, one in the middle of the Chaco (not a good place for a puncture) and the second by the Bolivian border post in Boyuibe, not a major problem except that, with the spare already used, it was a 3 hour wait while the driver got a lift to the nearest town to find a replacement.

We finally arrived in Santa Cruz at 5am on Monday morning, and were only 8 hours late (35 hrs instead of 27hrs) which, given the terrain, was actually pretty good going.

Summary
So now you all know maybe a little more about Paraguay than you did before. The Missions are definitely worth a visit and if you need a camera or other electrical item then Ciudad del Este is probably your best bet.

The people, apart from the police, I found to be very helpful and friendly but it’s hard to list Paraguay as a “must see” country in South America, unless you’re looking for something off of the standard gringo trail that is ?

Anyway, time to go. I have an appointment to keep in Sucre !

Take care,

Iain


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