Paraguay might lack the well-known sights of South America’s big hitters. However, Chris Moss finds an unmissable and forgotten world amid Chaco's wetlands and wildlife
Getting lost in the details was easy. I was quickly absorbed by the movements of a single species, holding my breath as the young caiman slinked off into the deep, reed-filled pond by the roadside. It was lumbering but stealthy, and immediately invisible to me – though no doubt its eyes were there, somewhere on the surface, spying, waiting.
Caiman in a pond (Dreamstime)
Out of the corner of my vision a wattled jacana stepped gingerly across a line of small lily pads, seemingly walking on water. It was foraging, pecking for bugs, busy and distracted. I caught the blurred sight of a flycatcher, zipping along the surface, and focused to watch it flying at pace, picking up food as it went, tireless and comprehensive.
But then the jacana was disturbed by something – possibly me, shifting my binoculars – and took off, its chestnut-coloured coverts revealing lemon underwings. I put down the bins and tried to take in the whole: the lush reeds, the glistening lagoon, the emeraldcoloured islets and banks fringed with trees.
I’d imagined the Chaco, deep in Paraguay’s untamed western region, to be a dry, desolate place, but here was an immense, unvisited wetland, stretching to the roadside – though it did feel like the middle of nowhere.
The landscape had the aspect of the Pantanal, the world’s biggest wetlands, which stretches deep into Brazil and eastern Bolivia, and with which the Chaco is contiguous. I wanted to linger, but my guide Norbert was keen to press on and show me more. We walked back towards the pick-up.
“You know, we Mennonites used to call the Chaco the ’green hell’,” he said, explaining the history of the Protestant sect and how his colony had escaped to the lawless wild of Paraguay. “When the first pioneers arrived, they found it tough to tame, and resistant to cultivation. I think that nicknames like that still keep people away.”
I looked around. Not a soul in sight for miles and miles. Not a house. Not a lodge. Not even another car. In many ways it typified the rest of the country – the forgotten destination of South America. Well-travelled writers rolled their eyes when I said I was coming here. They pointed to the fact Paraguay was land-locked and mountain-less; that it lacked world-renowned sights, where its neighbours were rolling in them. But I had other ideas.
A juvenile heron in the wetland (Dreamstime)
I had entered Paraguay ten days earlier, crossing its southernmost border with Argentina. From there, I headed to Encarnación, a god-fearing city clinging to the northern banks of the mighty Paraná river. I knew little about it, except that the author Graham Greene had visited in 1967 to write about dictators and Catholicism. The former were gone, but there was no escaping religion here.
Just north of Encarnación lay what was once the heartland of the Jesuit reducciones, or missions – self-sufficient communities backed by Spain and the Catholic Church. Established in 1609, before Paraguay, Argentina and Brazil even existed, 30 missions were built in an effort to evangelise the native Guarani people, to protect them from Brazilian bandeirantes seeking slaves to work the coffee plantations, and to advance the interests of Spain.
On my first morning I visited two local missions, La Santisima Trinidad de Paraná and Jesús de Tavarangue. The latter was completed in 1712 and is one of the larger reducciónes, its importance not diminished by its skeletal look. There was no roof, the walls were broken and the angels had lost their heads, but it’s still possible to imagine what the first visitors beheld: a great red-brick cathedral in the wilderness.
Jesuit Ruins in Trinidad Paraguay (Dreamstime)
The pair were inscribed into the UNESCO World Heritage List in 1992, even though Jesús de Tavarangue was never finished – its name translates as ‘Jesus of the town that might have been’ in the native Guarani language. The Jesuits were expelled in 1767. By then, the reducción system had grown too successful and the Spanish and ecclesiastical authorities were becoming timorous of these autonomous states within a state.
I walked across the plaza of dark-red earth and wandered into the nave, admiring the mudejar-style arches (an Italian architect had been brought in to make this one special) and scaring the guira cuckoos and parakeets that lived atop the unfinished belltower. It reminded me of the dying empire in Percy Shelley’s poem ’Ozymandias’.
Santa María de Fe had also once been a reducción. The small town was laid out over the original site of the mission and has kept something of its colonial character, with red-brick cobblestones, low-slung adobe buildings and a beautiful tree-filled plaza. I checked into the local hotel – also called Santa María – and then set off for the local museum.
The Jesuits offered the native Guaraní an alternative to the hardships of semi-nomadic existence, teaching them how to grow tobacco, maize and yerba mate (the green tea ubiquitous in southern South America). But they also instructed them in music and the arts. The museum was full of carefully carved saints, Christs, apostles and beatific-looking Marías, brought to life with natural dyes.
The hotel manager, María – evidently the only name around here – offered to accompany me on a walk around town. She showed me a wooden crucifix, erected by the Jesuits in 1647. We walked past the church, up to a miniature Calvary on which stood three more crosses.
Then we left the centre and went to the edge of town to catch the westering sun. I’m not a Catholic, or especially religious, but Santa María de Fe had a harmonious quality. If it was town planning or something spiritual I can’t say, but it was tangible.
The road north to Asunción afforded plenty more religious encounters. Nearby San Ignacio revealed an unusual display of Guaraní baroque sculpture; rejecting the idea of a skinny, humiliated Christ, native craftsmen had given him muscular calves as befits the Son of God. At Yaguarón, I visited a beautiful colonial church with a fabulous carved interior and exquisite reredos altarpiece, built on the site of a former Franciscan reducción.
It wasn’t all churches. At Paraguari, I had a spot of lunch and walked around the market on the main plaza. There, men sold cassava root – the staple of Paraguayan food, used to make chipa; this moreish cheesy snack is eaten for breakfast and to fill holes any time of the day.
An elderly lady had a stall laid out with yuyos, the aromatic herbs and grasses that are used to enliven the cold version of yerba mate, tereré, which many Paraguayans prefer due to the subtropical heat. I bought myself a small gourd and flask, so I could take up the custom and stock up on antioxidants in preparation for the capital.
A woman selling mate-enhancing yuyo in Asuncion (Chris Moss)
Asunción was nondescript around its suburban edges but, once I had time to explore downtown, I could see it was a capital city on the up. On my first night – which coincided with Independence Day – its swanky, new promenade hosted a lively folk concert and food market staffed by the local embassies. I listened to the entrancing harp and guitar music while feasting on empanadas and cheap wine.
The main centre had plenty of smart cafés and bars, as well as lively restaurants. I got my fix of strong cortado (milky espresso) coffees, freshly baked medialunas (buttery, sweet croissants) and good Italian food. The main government buildings looked spruced up and recently painted, as if in anticipation of a fussy relative.
I toured the Museo de las Memorias, a museum run by volunteers dedicated to those ‘disappeared’ during the 35-year tyrannical rule of Paraguay’s former leader Alfredo Stroessner (1954–89). On a plaza close to the presidential palace stood a huge block of cement, out of which jutted fragments of a destroyed bronze statue of the late dictator – crushed as he once crushed others.
In search of some insight beyond the cold equations of history, I visited the joyful Museo de Barro. The name means ‘Museum of Mud’, but its exhibitions – of Jesuit-era silverwork, 19th- and 20th-century indigenous crafts and modern art – connected the faiths to the people, the labour to the land, and helped me make sense of Paraguay’s multi-hued patchwork of cultures.
I then spent a luminous morning at nearby Lake Ypacaraí. The bohemian town of Areguá was lovely, all cobbled streets and bucolic charm, the water shimmering and calm. San Bernadino, across the lake, was where ‘the money’ holidayed.
Around its waters were some smart new hotels, and one particularly grand old one – the Hotel del Lago, an elegant late-19th-century property still furnished in period style with lush gardens and lake views. Former guests included Bernhard Förster, who once established – with his wife Elizabeth Nietzsche – a short-lived Aryan settlement, Nueva Germania, in Paraguay, before being thwarted by the environment.
The country has long been the destination of political dreamers as well as religious missionaries. It draws them in, then spits them out. But while life – and indeed travel – here can be difficult, this also makes it more thrilling to explore. So, after an urban reboot in Asunción, I felt prepared to take the bus north-west into the Chaco – Paraguay’s infamous and wild ‘green hell’.
The journey was slow – eight hours to cover 470 kilometres – but it was a joy to see the windows fill with savannah, its wide-open stretches studded with tall caranday palm trees. Outside, horses and fat cows grazed in emerald-coloured grassland. Cowboys on bicycles rode home in their Stetsons. It was dark when I finally made it to Estancia Iparoma, a cattle ranch just outside Filadelfia, a Mennonite settlement and the main town in central Chaco. The insects were humming, a breeze stirred invisible trees and a welcome bed awaited me in the corner of the barn.
The Gran Chaco is a vast alluvial depression that spreads across Bolivia and Argentina and occupies the whole of western Paraguay. Much of it is arid, scarcely inhabited and steamily hot in summer, and the dense tangle of scrubby forest that spreads over some areas has earned it nicknames like ‘El Impenetrable’ and ‘Terra Incognita’. But it is also a major biome (one of the planet’s largest ecological regions) and one of Latin America’s last unexplored wildernesses.
After breakfast, my host, Marilyn, suggested that I take a walk around the estancia. It was warm, but not unpleasantly so, and I soon witnessed some of the Chaco’s famous birds, including brilliant white monjitas, vermillion flycatchers, turkey vultures, a falcon and two gorgeous burrowing owls seated on a fencepost. I admired a savannah hawk – stunning in its cinnamoncoloured plumage – and a huge flock of cardinals foraging out in the baked mud.
The woods of the Chaco were equally eye-catching. There were trumpet trees with bright yellow blossoms and a mighty quebracho, or ice-breaker, with a trunk as hard as steel. There were others I couldn’t name, with evil thorns and spikes to keep the nibbling mammals at bay, or else fat trunks and tentacular branches (and roots) to keep cool and tap deep water when droughts struck.
Marilyn was a Mennonite. I’d seen some of her sect in Asunción dressed in vintage clothes, the men sporting Lincoln beards, the women headscarves. Some of them, like the Amish in the United States, work the land without machines and resist technology.
But the Chaco Mennonites are modern folk, who live much like other Paraguayans, except for their beliefs. The first wave came over from Canada in the 1920s, having left Russia to escape conscription (the Mennonite creed forbids taking up arms). Marilyn’s family, like that of many others, had arrived in the following decade directly from the Motherland. It was this generation that had opened up the Chaco.
Despite the initial hardships of settling in a wilderness so unlike their homeland, the Chaco ranchers had persevered and now grew soya, tobacco, peanuts and other crops, and raised cattle for dairy and meat. But they also leave 40% of their land wild, and Marilyn’s family had conserved corridors of trees where large flocks of birds fed, nested and hunted.
Here was also the southern borderland of the great Pantanal, the world’s largest wetland region – usually entered from Brazil. On the Paraguayan side, access to its deeper region is difficult (and expensive), although an NGO-run lodge does operate deep in the region. But you can still get a taste without giving up the best part of ten days, exploring the wetlands of the Chaco. Marilyn had arranged for her brother, Norbert Epp, to show me some of the secrets of the region that lay sbeyond the farms.
Leaving Filadelfia in the early morning, Norbert wasted no time in naming and explaining the trees to me: the palo borracho, or bottle tree, with its fat belly of a trunk to conserve water; the red axebreaker, used for tannin, one of the first industries in the region.
A palo borracho tree near Filadelfia (Chris Moss)
After half an hour of asphalt we hit dirt road, passing rivers and a chain of lagoons. We stopped to observe woodstorks, rheas, snail kites, ibises, hawks, parrots, herons in their hundreds, doves in their thousands. Not since I’d last been in Poconé, in the heart of the Brazilian Pantanal, had I seen such an array of birdlife.
Arriving at Norbert’s own reserve, we entered a narrow lane and stopped to study the tracks of puma and smaller cats, along with peccary, tapir and caiman. We set off on a hike around the lake.
As ever with level, lowland forests, it was difficult to make much sense of the landscape. There were palms and dense bushland hemming us in, a meandering river to cross, and a terrain that switched from reeds to mudflats to forest every few steps. Plus, there were no footpaths, no signage, no information panels. The Paraguay wetlands are far beyond the well-trodden nature circuits of South America.
Norbert led me to the foot of a wooden observation tower. I climbed a slender ladder and, feeling now a cooler breeze, stood up and looked out. The great lake lay beneath us, calm and pellucid at the banks, furrowed with tiny waves at its centre.
On all sides were flocks of Chilean flamingos, preening or stepping daintily across the shallows, even pinker roseate spoonbills sweeping the surface for insects and snails, and an immense congregation of egrets assembled in a canopy to the west. As the wind blew and then dropped away, so the clamorous chatter of this multitude of brilliant white birds reached our ears and then ebbed.
“You know, most Paraguayans associate the Chaco with the war,” said Norbert. “Either that, or bites and spikes, spiders and snakes. The vast majority never come here.”
More fool them, I thought. And more peace and uninterrupted beauty for those of us who do make the effort.
We took out a flask and prepared some tereré, which we sipped while looking out over the sparkling lake. Over ten days, I’d seen UNESCO-listed Jesuit missions, an idyllic town unchanged in five centuries, sublime art and crafts from across one of the continent’s most ethnically diverse lands, and, here in the ‘arid’ Chaco, a wetlands to inspire even the most travel-hardened wildlife lover.
Green hell? More like South America’s green heart, I’d say, and one of the planet’s true untamed, unexplored paradises.
The author’s itinerary was arranged by Journey Latin America (020 8600 1881), who provide a ten-day tour of Paraguay, visiting Encarnación, Trinidad, Santa Maria de Fe and Asunción, from £2,696pp. The price includes flights, transfers, excursions and breakfast. Senatur (Spanish only), the Paraguayan tourist board, helped organise the author’s onward trip to the Chaco region. Norbert Epp (0491 432 944, 0981223 974) runs tours of the Chaco region, including a guide, 4WD drive hire, petrol, snacks and access to his 25 sq km private reserve and saltwater lake, a RAMSAR site that now offers glamping.
There are no direct flights to Paraguay from the UK. The author flew with British Airways from London Heathrow to Buenos Aires (14 hours), then with Aerolineas Argentinas (aerolineas.com.ar) from Buenos Aires’s city airport up to Posadas (1.5 hours; from £110 return), on the Argentina-Paraguay border. Many airlines fly to Sao Paulo and Rio (BA and LATAM fly direct from London), which has regular connections to/from Asuncion.
Main image: The Presidential Palace (Dreamstime)