Category: Paraguay

Thoughts on Paraguay

dscf1334We had hoped to discover a different South America in Paraguay – but we were probably 10 years too late – the car, motorbike and smartphone have changed the country so much. In fact for tourists it’s probably at that worst possible stage; neither a sleepy backwater or tourist-friendly. For instance, we never saw a horse-drawn cart and finding hotels was hard work.

With no wow sights it really was a case of making the most of our time here; we did that with our days at Hotel del Lago (a historic hotel lost in time) and then the estancia.

Here are some observations:

  • there’s a refreshing lack of interest in strangers. As we wandered around it was as if we were invisible. And almost no one spoke English.
  • you hardly see anyone over 4o – but you do see a lot of very young mothers with babies.
  • Paraguayans don’t seem to be able to go anywhere without carrying their terere (iced herbal tea) flask – it’s almost like a comfort blanket
  • there’s an obsession with cleaning floors – whenever we entered a hotel room we opened the windows and put on the air-con to get rid of the disinfectant smell
  • all their loos have plastic padded seats; they were very comfortable
  • there’s no concept of council built pavements – it’s down to the property owners and none of their sections join up
  • it feels less nationalistic (than say Argentina) – maybe because they lost many wars and were plundered so often
  • it’s a country without tourists – apart from Argentines who come for the cheap goods and block up all the border crossings
  • despite British engineering prowess there are no working railways left – apart from a tourist one in Asunción and the bridge link in Encarnacion.

Nothing is quite as it seems in this country. Hilary has just read At the Tomb of the Inflatable Pig by John Gimlette, which gives a very readable account of Paraguayan history and why things are as they are; especially the smuggling and undercurrents to everyday life.

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Trinidad Jesuit Mission

dscf1553We got to this little-visited UNESCO world heritage site by local bus from Encarnacion. Built in 1709, it’s considered the best preserved Jesuit Mission in Paraguay

For us it was an introduction to the story of the Jesuits in South America.

At least they were not all about subjugating and converting the natives/first nation people. In their self-sufficient Missions the locals – living alongside the Jesuits – saw real improvements to their standard of living and education. But this progress wasn’t allowed to last for long. The Spanish, fearing the power of the Jesuits, expelled them in 1767.

The ruins give a clear sense of how impressive this ‘model-community’ would have been. And in the carvings – especially the heads – we saw the fusion of European and native art.

Encarnación

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We’ve followed the River Parana down to probably Paraguay’s most attractive city.

The recent raising of the Yacyretá Dam’s water level has created a new waterfront at Encarnación complete with lots of modern bars and restaurants and an artificial beach. Great when otherwise the nearest beach is something like 14 hours away by bus. Across the lake is the skyline of Posadas in Argentina.

We walked to the main square. Very young mothers watched their children playing on the swings. Couples took selfies of themselves and drank tereré, or what we’d simply call cold herbal tea. Teenage boys were transfixed by their smartphones. And on another bench a middle-aged couple observed life happening.

At the ‘Triple Frontier’

img_1564International Tripoints are points where three country borders meet. There are 176 across the globe (according to Wikipedia) and this picture shows one of them.

In the cool of the morning light, it was a lovely place for Roger to visit whilst Hilary was reading in bed.

In the foreground is Argentina, to the back left Paraguay, and to the back right Brazil. Below is the convergence of the Rivers Parana and Iguacu. On the skyline – in the far distance – you can just see the skyscrapers of Cuidad del Este.

At the Itaipu Dam

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Construction of the hydroelectric site started in 1971 with the first power generated in 1984

We took a free tour around the Itaipu Dam built on the Parana River between Paraguay and Brazil. It was a massive joint venture between the two countries; both at the time headed up by dictators.

China’s Three Gorges Dam has greater potential capacity to generate electricity but because the Parana River has less seasonal flow differences, Itaipu usually produces more electricity each year; much to the Paraguayans delight!

In a promotional video we learnt of the CO2 saved, but we weren’t told of the loss of the Guaira Falls – the world’s biggest by flow until they went under the Itaipu reservoir.

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The Itaipu Dam provides 75% of Paraguay’s needs and 17% of Brazil’s. It cost $19bn to construct and employs 3,000 people.

Ciudad del Este – smugglers’ town

Our base for visiting the area, Ciudad del Este founded in 1957 – when the bridge to Brazil was built – is the second largest city in Paraguay with a population of over 300,000. What’s amazing is the fact that Forbes lists it as the third largest commercial city in the world between 1990 and 2002.

That’s partly because of the proximity of the Itaipu Dam, but also due to smuggling which is estimated as five times the size of the Paraguayan economy. And every day thousands of Brazilians use the Friendship Bridge to come shopping; spending $1bn+ per annum on cheaper goods.

The city is a melting pot with large populations of Taiwanese, Iranians, Koreans and Lebanese. Street stalls occupy every square inch of space selling all sorts of things under the sun. Ten minutes of walking in this town and we are exhausted by the noise, fumes and visual assault on our senses. Hilary termed it ‘a s*** hole’.

Travel Tips 2 – Shoes

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With only packing room for two pairs each, shoes are important on a trip like this.

Wedded to her training shoes for most of her life, Hilary had to sorrowfully forsake them for a light pair of hiking boots and a pair of sandals. She knew that training shoes simply wouldn’t cope with the rugged hiking we had planned.

So far, the Scarpa hiking shoes have been great and the Ecco sandals have proved ideal for the hot countries, beaches and evenings. No blisters or feet problems yet.

Roger is pleased with his pair of approach shoes from Meindl. With his hiking boots too heavy and large to travel, these were bought specially for the trip and were expensive. The key thing is that they are goretex and therefore waterproof.

In the evenings he’s still enjoying wearing a pair of English slippers. But these are getting smelly so will soon be replaced by sandals.

This is one of our occasional tips for middle aged gap year travellers. To see the others, click below on the link – Travel Tips

Riding through the savannah

img_9397Here we are riding out at the Don Emilio Estancia. Roger has the smaller horse as this was his first experience of riding. Hilary meanwhile has loved and ridden horses since she was 14.

Both horses are South American Criollos; descendents from the original horses brought over by the Spanish in the 16th century. The Spaniards brought the very best they had and this is still apparent down through the generations.

Life on the Estancia

Don Emilio Estancia has been our home for the last two days.

Located 6km south of the Paraguayan town of Coronel Oviedo, you approach it down a rich red dirt road past an isolated village. Oxen, bulls and horses roam the countryside. Birds sing in the forests. Cowboys ride by. This is an idyllic privately-owned landscape of 10000 hectares.

We read under the fans in the heat of the day, went swimming in the pool as it got cooler and took walks watching the setting sun. This estancia was founded one hundred years ago by a brave, pioneering family. Hard to believe it is still so unspoilt.

Thanks to Virginia, Daisy, and Deanna for looking after us so well – being the only guests we were really pampered.

Travel Tips 1 – Useful Apps

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Reading the breakfast menu at the Hotel del Lago, San Bernadino

The following three Apps have been life savers for us:

MapsMe – this is downloadable for free. When on wi-fi, we pre-load the maps of where we will be going next. It takes you to the nearest street and is as good as having your own Ordnance Survey Map. It uses GPS, so you don’t need to be connected to the internet when using it. Great for spotting which bus stop to get off in Paraguay!

GoogleTranslate – also available for free. Best to download the “heavy” version (74Mb) as opposed to the “light” version (10Mb). Hilary’s Spanish is very basic, and Roger’s non-existent, so this has proved a life saver when trying to convey more complex conversations with locals. It also has a great camera feature so as we hover over written text there’s instant translation on the screen.

Revolut – this is a prepaid Debit Card we got in advance, which you load up with sterling and then use the card to pay for hotel rooms, restaurants etc in any currency without incurring foreign exchange charges. Its downloadable App gives us real time updated bank balances when we are connected via wi-fi. Much more user friendly and cost effective than a traditional bank card because it cuts out the middle agent.

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Using MapsMe to track progress on a bus journey – good to know where to get off!

This is one of our occasional tips for middle aged gap year travellers. To see the others, click below on the link – Travel Tips