Paraguay’s natural and archaeological treasures

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In the Paraguayan summer, the red brick Jesuit-Guaraní ruins at Jesus and Trinidad are most spectacular at dusk. The sun’s rays turn the high walls orange and yellow, illuminate the cherub faces of Guaraní Indian-inspired angels and cast long shadows from the roofless church’s columns. As the silhouettes of distant hills darken, the archways that surround the central plaza’s grassy courtyard grow more mystical in this isolated place in the heart of South America. 

Iguazu Falls is actually an expanse of 275 waterfalls over 1.7 miles, with drops up to 260 feet [Credit: Abraham Mahshie]

In Paraguay, tourism is underdeveloped. Restaurants, hotels, gift shops and craft peddlers are sparse in the two most famous of Paraguay’s archaeological treasures. One afternoon in November, the two sites were also without tourists. Half a dozen tour guides wearing yellow shirts sat on plastic chairs near the entrance, talking and drinking mate, a traditional tea sipped slowly from silver metal straws. Entrance to both sites was just $5 for foreigners; a private tour with historical, religious and cultural background from a guide was just $3. 

Outside of the Jesuit ruins, red is an uncommon color on the Paraguayan landscape, which is flush with every shade of green imaginable. Paraguay receives 300 days of sun per year and 50 to 70 inches of rainfall. The country is criss-crossed by lakes and rivers, swampland, hardwood forests and the Chaco, a sparsely inhabited savannah that occupies much of the north of the country. Paraguay also boasts more than a dozen national parks that are home to 171 species of mammals and 687 varieties of birds. 

With all this natural beauty, numerous historical ruins and prices much lower than surrounding countries like Brazil, Argentina and Chile, why doesn’t Paraguay receive more American tourists? 

“We make it hard,” explains Paraguay’s tourism minister, Liz Cramer, who was so well supported by the industry that she kept her job even after a change of parties in government. “We are not focusing on the American market yet because we do not have a direct flight; we request visas.” 

Visas — also required in advance for Americans visiting Brazil — are just one hassle in visiting the country. The absence of direct flights from the U.S. and the presence of only a few international carriers that serve the capital of Asunción are also issues. Missing the fast-filling morning connection from São Paulo, Brazil, to Asunción can mean waiting 10 hours or more for the next flight; in addition, the airlines do not have a reputation for on-time departures, with frequent one- to two-hour delays. 

“We do have major problems in infrastructure,” admits Cramer, referring to roads and buses for tourists. “We know where we are, we know what we need. We know what we want to reach: Our aim is to get to 1 million tourists; right now it’s 430,000.” 

But for those who do overcome the obstacles, the journey is worth it. 

Asunción and surroundings 

The capital city has some beautiful Spanish architecture, especially the government palace, Palacio de Lopez, which majestically glistens in white on a perch over the Paraguay River. But the splendor quickly deteriorates. A short walk away, tents are pitched in plazas, pigs roam a lawn behind the seat of Congress and military personnel warn you not to stray too close to a nearby shantytown that hugs the river. Asunción’s attractions are historic buildings, museums and a few high-end areas. Otherwise, the city should be used as a jumping-off point to more appealing facets of the country. 

If spending a night in the capital, stay where Guatemalan Grammy-winner Ricardo Arjona stays, the chic 36-room La Misión boutique hotel in the trendy Villa Mora neighborhood, known for its restaurants and fine shopping. 

Opened in 2008, La Misión, with rooms from $198 to $550 per night, is a celebration of Paraguay’s history, with an elegant and smart design. Don’t miss the wall-size commissioned artwork in the lobby; a rooftop courtyard is ornately designed with replica ruins softly lit and surrounded by draping ferns. 

The view of downtown at night might even look best from the nearby heated pool; there is also a gym, spa and live shows. Each floor has a different décor, and even that isn’t enough for Argentine live-in owner Branco Vuckovich: The décor is always changing, “so that guests do not get bored,” a slender hostess said on a recent tour. 

The white-tablecloth restaurant is also a pleasure. Enjoy the langostina (shrimp) and mango salad, Surubí fish from the Paraguay River and an array of wine choices from Chile and Argentina — there are more than 24 malbecs alone on the menu. The “delicias Paraguayas” is an excellent choice for dessert: cheeses drizzled with locally made molasses and sweetened papaya chunks. 

Asunción is your best starting point to visit nature reserves, estancias (ranch houses) and the “Circuito de Oro,” a route to visit numerous nearby artisan towns and historic sites. If you want to visit the “silver town” of Luque for handmade jewelery, Itá for handmade pottery or the centerpiece of quaint Yaguarón, a historic church with the oldest standing wooden bell tower in the country, do it early. Your maximum speed behind slow-moving cars and motorcycles might be 30 mph, and shops close by 5 p.m. on weekdays. Guided tours may also be arranged through agencies in the capital. 

If you decide to drive in Paraguay, you should allow time to get lost because signage is poor. The only consistent guidelines are that paved roads (as opposed to cobblestoned roads) lead to highways, and once you get on the highway, there will be a sign telling you that you are on the highway, but not before. 

Estancia La Quinta (laquinta. com.py) is one of the best-known estancias, located 50 milesfrom the capital. It is where U.S. Embassy employees went for Thanksgiving last year, and it is where European guests and local businesses alike book retreats. 

Co-owner Olga Ferreira, who switches among English, Spanish and Portuguese as she commiserates with guests, originally bought the estancia with her German husband for retirement in 1990. They changed their mind in 2003 and have added four stone cabañas, eight suites and a luxury experience with three gourmet meals per day. 

Dining rooms of dark native lapacho wood, a pool, recreation room, beach volleyball, plenty of calm gardens with hummingbirds and butterflies, and a friendly and attentive staff make the stay as tranquil — or as active — as you like. Some cabañas have no phone or TV but rather hammocks, beer in an ice bucket delivered at your call, chirping birds and stunning views of the countryside from your elevated porch. A short walk away is a stable offering guided horseback rides at the hour of your choosing. La Quinta, pricy by Paraguayan standards at $75 a night per person, will pick you up from Asunción for an added fee. 

For a more vigorous outdoor experience including a zip line, cable bridges and rappelling down a rock wall, drive 10 minutes from La Quinta to the Mbatovi Eco-reserve (mbatovi.com.py). Inspired by its owner’s experience in Costa Rica, Mbatovi’s informative guides cover safety protocols and provide the gear for a three-hour outdoor adventure for $35 per person. E-mail ahead to ensure tours are offered on the day of your visit. 

Eastern Paraguay 

Jesuits arrived from Peru in 1607. They brought the Jesuit Reductions, settlements that stressed education, culture and spirituality for the Guaraní Indian communities the Jesuits lived among until they were expelled by the Spanish crown in 1767. Today, Paraguay is blessed with numerous ruins that can be visited along the country’s “Ruta Jesuita,” or Jesuit route. 

Driving south along Route 1, you can visit small towns, museums, estancias and reductions in Misiones and Itapúa departments (states), culminating in the stunning UNESCO World Heritage Sites of Trinidad and Jesus. If you’re limited on time, an alternative way of seeing the ruins is to approach from the east of the country. Daily direct flights from Asunción to Ciudad del Este in the far east of Paraguay bring visitors as close as possible to the most impressive and well-preserved ruins. 

A preferable option, and one that should be considered if you intend to visit Iguazu Falls along the nearby Brazilian-Argentine border, is to avoid flying into Paraguay altogether by connecting from São Paulo directly to the Brazilian city of Foz do Iguaçu across the Friendship Bridge from Ciudad del Este. From Ciudad del Este, it is a four-hour drive south along Route 6 through rolling farmland and dusty towns to the historic sites. 

An excellent overnight stop, and the closest hotel worth staying at near the ruins, also has a restaurant with a delicious German buffet. Hotel Papillón (papillon.com .py) is just 10 miles from the ruins of Trinidad. Jesus is six miles farther, and both can be seen in the same day. 

Thursday through Sunday, if you visit Trinidad at night, a stunning array of lighting illuminates the 300-year-old ruins. It is advisable to seek a guide, as he will provide you with access to a room with protected artifacts and to a lookout bell tower. If you do not speak Spanish, there is sometimes an English-speaking guide available, but there is no office phone to call ahead of time. 

If you don’t plan to make a separate trip to the region, do not miss Iguazu Falls (iguazuargentina .com). Iguazu is an expanse of 275 falls over 1.7 miles, with drops up to 269 feet. Accommodations can be found in Brazil’s Foz do Iguaçu, a metropolis with many hotels and restaurants. 

The Argentine city of Puerto Iguazu, which many believe provides a better view of the falls, is a small, touristy town of beautiful wood-framed hostels, parillas (grills) and shops. Unlike Foz, Puerto Iguazu is walkable, and you can take a bus to the theme park-like national reserve that encompasses the waterfalls. 

Iguazu is worth an entire day or two for the various vantages of the falls, for the tropical wilderness that surrounds them and for tours via boat or jeep. 

Author: Abraham Manshire | North Jersey Com [March 20, 2011]

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