I’d read some accounts of crossing the border into Paraguay as a little on the sketchy side from previous travellers’ accounts. With the city of Cuidad Del Este forming the gateway into the vast jungles of Paraguay. Known for its discounted goods, it’s a well established haven for Brazilian shoppers doing the equivalent of a booze cruise across the English channel. So it was with no great surprise that traffic was throughly backed up for a mile or two leading up to the aduanas. I decided to jump off the bus and walk instead, across the friendship bridge spanning the Río Paraná which is an impressive structure, and should have been a pleasant enough walk. Unfortunately with hundreds of idling engines and the pedestrian canopy acting as a fume catcher, I opted for a brisk walk to ensure my brain functions where all still in tact on the other side.
I’ve been completely pampered so far when it comes to borders this trip; Argentina into Brazil via Foz do Iguazú was a breeze and both sides quite pleasant. I left Buenos Aires on a ferry and arrived into a UNESCO world heritage site no less in Uruguay. Crossing back into Argentina via Concordia was equally enjoyable so I was about ready for a gnarly frontier town filled with shady characters and a challenging atmosphere. Unfortunately unless you find street traders trying to convince you two buy some knock of football shirts (which I did) a threat, then it was all rather easy. No doubt people get caught out here every now and then, as with any city but the bad reviews where unfair and the danger overstated.
So far I’ve found South America reasonably developed so perhaps it’s easy to forget the majority of the world’s urban population live in places like Ciudad Del Este. Where the pavements aren’t continous, timber and plywood are the main building materials and the dogs you see are maulled and battered because they’ve had to fight to earn they’re place. I don’t know why but I feel more comfortable travelling in the Haiti’s, Myanmar’s and Paraguay’s of this world, the other places are so easy it feels a bit like cheating. No doubt the citizens of Haiti, Myanmar and Paraguay would disagree.
Anywhoo’s with the overly opinionated drivel out the way, Paraguay. Encarnación to be more specific, probably the countries wealthiest city and during February, home to a carnaval known all over the continent. Alas carnaval was long gone but the beach is permanent, the Río Paraná being so wide between Encarnación and it’s sister Argentinian city Posadas, and the golden sands so alluring, that it’s easy to forget your actually 500 miles away from the ocean. Such was my enthusiasm for the beach, and for the rains to have finally ceased, I made watching the sunset a daily ritual.
While the town is pleasant enough the main draw is the proximity to a number of Jesuit ruins protected as UNESCO world heritage sites. Walking around these sites is a bit bizarre, created to entice the local Guarani into converting to Christianity, the Jesuits founded grand towns in the heart of the jungle. During a time when Spanish conquistadors were roaming the land putting natives to the sword en masse, the Jesuit pueblos were based on liberal ideas of equality and peaceful society. All sounds great however a lot of the frescos I saw still show the heavenly white European priests with rays of light coming from their crowns, and scores of dark skinned natives scurrying around somewhere below. Giving up a whole cultural belief system was the price the Guarani had to pay to enter the community, that being said, the alternative was butchery or servitude at the hands of the conquistadors, rough times indeed.
Very easy to look back from the comfort of current times and pick holes in what was undoubtedly a complex, advanced and fascinating misionary experiment. I had to pinch myself a few times at the insanity of walking around the ruins of a red brick, baroque style church in the middle of the Paraguayan jungle. You have to hand it to them, the Jesuits weren’t short on ambition. Unfortunately the whole thing was rather short-lived as the Jesuits were, in the words of Tenacious D, banished from the land! Just a couple of hundred years later. No doubt they had pissed of the castillion monarch in one way or another and Carlos III threw his toys out the pram as only monarchs know how. Leaving the Guarani to disseminate back into the forest, hopefully finding peace somewhere in the vast wilderness.
Incidentally, a wilderness that is now retreating in the face of mass agricultural development. With countless, gigantic processing plants for soya and maíz plantations all along the spine routes of Paraguay eating their way into the jungle. And one of the fastest rates of deforestation in the world. It’s hard not to notice that although there are still vast swathes of Paraguay that are untouched, like everywhere, they are being chipped away little by little.
I spent a few more days enjoying the warmth and tranquility of the beach, very aware that I will be heading west into the heart of the continent and it may be quite sometime before I feel sand between my toes again. Next up, the capital Asunción. Untill then.
Maribou State – Feel good ft. Khruangbin