The so-called “gringo trail” around South America makes a neat little detour around the country of Paraguay, as have I in all my years of traveling through South America, despite being within spitting distance of the border on at least three previous occasions. I always vaguely wondered what was here, and if I was missing out on something great, so when an opportunity cropped up to do some work here, I grabbed it. (There are other, more thoughtful reasons why I chose to do research here, but I’m going to leave my work out of this post).
I’ve spent the last two weeks in Asuncion, the capital, minus a short trip to Encarnacion, on the southern border with Argentina, and here’s what I’ve learned:
Paraguay is an odd cultural milieu – the country is made up of indigenous people (of whom the guarani are the main ethnic group, but over 20 independent, indigenous languages are spoken here and not mutually understood), people of European descent (mainly Spanish, but also German, eastern European, Slavic, and several others, resulting in a not-insignificant number of natural blondes), people who are a mix of all of the above (the majority), and Mennonites (who, like the Amish, live completely separately from the rest of Paraguay, working their farms and not abiding by the law of the country or paying taxes).
It is the third least developed country in South America according to the Human Development Index, ranking close to Bolivia and Botswana (for reference, Paraguay is 111th, while Argentina is 49th and Chile 41st). Although there is severe poverty, especially in the rural areas, the country is quite developed in many ways. For me as a traveler in mostly urban areas, it has many of the annoyances of a developing country without any of the associated charm. People are perfectly nice and willing to help if I ask questions, but they are not particularly open or inviting. In that sense, it’s like traveling in Europe, but with destroyed sidewalks, dilapidated buses, and lots of mosquitos.
Asuncion is probably my least favorite of the South American capitals – it truly has nothing to recommend it. Encarnacion is a prettier city, and it is near to Paraguay’s one real tourist attraction, the ruins of Jesuit reductions, which are small settlements surrounding gigantic churches. There was once a strong Jesuit presence in South America, but they were expelled in the late 1700s, leaving their churches partially built, and now relatively well-preserved and on display for tourists. That said, the entire day I spent at the two main sites, I saw just two other visitors. Nearby is an enclave of German towns, one of which is where Mengele was said to have hidden out in his later years, and where I happened on Choppfest, which is essentially their tiny Oktoberfest, where Brazilian and Argentinian oompah bands were playing German music while wearing lederhosen and residents of the area were drinking beer and dancing.
There are a few other things I would have liked to visit while in Paraguay, but let’s just say I don’t see myself making the effort to get back here to see them unless the right project pops up. On the bright side, if I ever make it to Iguazu Falls for a fourth time, I’ll no longer have to wonder what’s on the other side of the border.