ParaguayUNESCO-Listed Jesuit Missions Are The Highlight, But There's More To This Landlocked Deviation From The Regional Gringo Trail
”… few people come to Paraguay – and even fewer still to Trinidad – meaning today I had one of the world’s least-visited UNESCO World Heritage sites all to myself…”
Image || On the Ruta Jesuítica. Sunset in the grounds of the UNESCO-listed Jesuit Mission of La Santísima Trinidad de Paraná, Trinidad, southern Paraguay. September 14, 2015.
One of the least-visited countries on the continent it may be, but there are a few compelling reasons for going out of the way to visit Paraguay, the so-called Heart of South America, a landlocked deviation from the well-trodden regional Gringo Trail. Highlights include an array of 18th-century Jesuit Missions; the quirky & friendly capital of Asuncion; & Itaipu Dam, a rather mammoth Seven Wonders of the Modern World-listed hydroelectric dam, one shared with neighbouring Brazil. And because few make the effort to appreciate the country, you might just find yourself having one of the world’s least-visited UNESCO-listed sites all to yourself, not to mention the possibility of traversing international land borders unhindered & unchecked.
What follows is a recap of travels through the country as posted from the road at the time.
AsuncionThe Quirky Capital Of Over 2 Million Terere Fanatics But One Of Few Standout Highlights
”The Paraguayan seat of government & workplace for the President… the orange hulk was commissioned to bring a touch of refinement to steamy Paraguay and was designed to evoke visions of the Palace of Versailles, the White House & Westminster, all of which I’ve seen and none of which I was reminded of while standing looking at the structure.”
Image || Placio de Gobierno, Asuncion, Paraguay. September 9, 2015.
Another South American day, another border crossing – this one from Argentina into Paraguay – & another story to tell. I could tell not many foreigners use the crossing I used today. Not because of the scarcity of other foreigners (I didn’t see one other gringo all day long) but because the Paraguayan Immigration official I finally presented myself to was clearly unsure as to what to do with both me and my Irish/EU passport. He gave us both a good once-over before, and very half-heartedly, he proceeded to try and extract money from me. At least that’s what I thought he was up to when pointing to a worn & rather random figure of 258,264 Paraguayan Guarani (PYG), a tad north of €40, that was posted on the inside of window of the ramshackle immigration hut.
Asuncion – World’s Cheapest?
After the border shenanigans, I now find myself in the little-visited Paraguayan capital of Asuncion, touted in some quarters as the world’s cheapest capital. With a population of 2.3 million, over a third of the country’s 6.5 million population, it is easily the largest urban centre in the country billed as the “Heart of South America“. It’s too soon to comment on the city itself – Rough Guides claims it to be ‘quirky’ – other than to say I doubt that it will deviate from the tried & tested Latin American norm of noise, pollution, plazas & colonial architecture in various stages of upkeep. I’ll explore tomorrow but right now I’m tired after my bus & border exploits. The heat isn’t helping (at 29°C, Asuncion is as warm as I have been in a good few months, since the heat of northern Colombia in mid-June) so I’m taking it easy in room 3 of El Nomada Hostel, a real find & probably the most friendly, laid-back place I’ve frequented in South American so far.
Oh yes, the Paraguayan capital of Asuncion is a quirky place alright. Here’s a few captures from a day walking the streets of what I found to be a rather unique South American capital.
Sitting astride the Rio Paraguay, Asuncion was once an historic centre of government for the Spanish colonies of the 1776–1814 Viceroyalty of the Río de la Plata, roughly the present-day territories of Argentina, Bolivia, Paraguay and Uruguay, the shortest-lived of the Viceroyalties of the Spanish Empire in the Americas. The city’s importance declined with the founding of Buenos Aires and thus today Asuncion’s historic centre, its Casco Historico, lacks any of the historic buildings or monuments found in other former colonial capitals. That said, it does have a few structures worth pointing a camera at, although none of which will really get the creative juices flowing.
TrinidadThe Location For Paragyau's Best-Preserved Jesuit Mission Ruins & Paraguay's Only UNESCO-Listed Site
”… I wandered around the deserted complex dodging the late evening shadows… the light was soft, the tranquility & sense of isolation glorious.”
Image || Late evening shadows in the deserted grounds of the Jesuit Mission of La Santísima Trinidad de Paraná, Trinidad. September 14, 2015.
I left Brazil today for one more night in Paraguay. Not getting stamped out of Brazil or into Paraguay when crossing the Friendship Bridge connecting the two countries means I’ll have to keep an equally low profile to try avoid the authorities when returning to Brazil tomorrow. Given today’s lax border controls I doubt that’ll be an issue.
On An Illegal Mission To Trinidad
So today was all about ignoring international border immigration laws & spending 6 hours on a bus to get here to Trinidad, a small village in southern Paraguay & the location for one of 7 Paraguayan missions, or Trienta Pueblos. Collectively these missions, visiting all of which would see you plying the so-called Paraguayan Ruta Jesuítica, are considered to be some of the most impressive creations of the religious work of the Jesuits, the religious order of Catholic missionaries that came to Paraguay in 1607 at the behest of the ruling Spanish in a bid to gather the native populations into centres called “Indian reductions” in order to Christianize, tax and govern them more efficiently.
Trinidad Mission – Jesuit Mission of La Santísima Trinidad de Paraná
One of the last of the approximately 30 Jesuit Missions to be built in this region of South America, the Trinidad Mission, formally known as the Jesuit Mission of La Santísima Trinidad de Paraná, was founded in 1706 but wasn’t completed until 1760. Accommodating 3,000 people at its height in the 1730s, today its ruins are located some 30 kilometres from the present-day southern Paraguayan city of Encarnación. A large, uniform complex of lush green manicured lawns interspersed by crumbling stone buildings & wide civic spaces, it’s the most important, complete & best-preserved of all Paraguay’s surviving missions. Twined with the nearby mission of Jesús de Tavarangue some 13 kilometres to the north, this is Paraguay’s only UNESCO World Heritage site. It’s also the country’s most visited tourist attraction, but don’t read too much into that – few people come to Paraguay – and even fewer still to Trinidad – meaning today I had one of the world’s least-visited UNESCO World Heritage sites all to myself. I wandered around the deserted complex dodging the late evening shadows. The light was soft, the tranquility & sense of isolation glorious.
– UNESCO commenting on the Jesuit Missions of La Santísima Trinidad de Paraná and Jesús de Tavarangue
The Jesuits were a religious order of Catholic missionaries who came to Paraguay in the early 17th century at the behest of the ruling Spanish, their strategy being to gather native populations into centres called “Indian reductions” in order to Christianize, tax and govern them more efficiently. The Jesuits set about the task at hand by forming various fully self-sufficient mini-cities, Trienta Pueblos, where they not only taught the natives religion, thus converting them to Christianity, but where they also introduced them to rules of public order & society, culture & education, all of which had great influence in the later development of the region. Of their 30 settlements in South America, seven of them were in present-day Paraguay with the rest in present-day Bolivia & neighbouring regions of Argentina & Brazil. Operating totally isolated from the colonial Spanish & Portuguese worlds surrounding them, the missions flourished becoming centres of importance & being both economically powerful & influential.
All was rosy in the Jesuit world for over 150 years, but in the 1760s things turned sour – they were ultimately expelled from the continent in 1768 having worn out their welcome with the colonial rulers as a result of their insular governance & protection of the indigenous community from exploitation. Their once grand settlements went into terminal decline & today survive only as ruins dotting this central region of South America, the best-preserved of which are here in Trinidad.