Asuncion was founded on 15 August 1537 by Juan de Salazar y Espinosa, making it one of the oldest cities in the Americas. The tree-lined streets and colonial squares make the historic centre very appealing. A city tour of Asuncion will take in the key buildings and landmarks of the capital including Independence House, the Cathedral, Government Palace and the National Heroes Pantheon. If you have time, a visit to the Conmebol Football museum might be of interest for those with a passion for the sport.
The Museo Jesuito at San Ignacio Guazu provides a useful introduction into the life of Ignatius Loyola and the Jesuit presence in Paraguay from 1609-10 until their expulsion in 1767.
Ignatius Loyola was a Basque soldier with a liking for gambling, dueling and women who underwent a spiritual conversion whilst recovering from wounds received during the Battle of Pamplona (1521). Taking a vow of poverty and chastity he helped to set up the Society of Jesus in 1540.
A visit to some of the local towns and villages around Asuncion provides a rewarding introduction to the history, handicrafts and culture of Paraguay. We recommend visiting the steam train workshops at Sacupai, the lace-making centre of Itaugua and the popular town of San Bernardino which was founded in 1881 by German immigrants on the eastern shores of Lake Ypacarai. It is a pleasant little place (population about 10,000), with tree-lined avenues, attractive buildings and handicraft shops.
Although Yaguaron was founded in 1539, the church of San Bernardino which dominates the centre was only started by Franciscans a hundred years later (1640) and was not completed until 1775. The church was restored in 1885 and underwent further conservation work again at the end of the 20th Century.
Yaguaron is also home to the Museo de Dr Gaspar Rodriguez de Francia, Paraguay’s first dictator.
Aregua is a charming colonial town which has attractive houses with terra-cotta roofs. It was founded as early as 1541. It has an array of shops piled high with ceramics in abundance. Hand-painted pots, ornaments and objects for house or garden vie for space with statues of angels, shepherds bearing gifts, camels, lambs and other religious icons, toucans, parrots, and, for reasons best known to themselves, rather kitsch representations of Snow White and her ‘vertically-challenged’ friends and other such cartoon characters.
Concepcion was founded in 1773 on the east bank of the River Paraguay to defend Spanish territories in South America from Portuguese expansion in Brazil. By the beginning of the 20th Century it had become Paraguay’s second city (now superceded by Ciudad del Este). It is a pleasant city with an interesting craft market in the Plaza Agustin Fernando de Pineda (named after the founder of the city). To the East of Concepcion lies Cerro Coro, where Francisco Solano Lopez was killed ending the tragic War of the Triple Alliance (1864-1870) in which Paraguay lost over half its men and around 30% of its women.
The ruins of the Mission of La Santísima Trinidad del Parana are very interesting. The mission was founded in 1706 and completed in 1712, one of 30 set up by the Jesuits in the country. The Trinidad Mission was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1993.
All Jesuit missions were laid out in a uniform plan with buildings grouped around a central grass square. Most of the buildings were made of wood and adobe bricks but the churches were made of stone. They also had hospital blocks for the sick and the elderly. They were designed to be autonomous and self-sufficient.
The smaller missions usually had two priests, larger missions had more to administer a population which varied from 2,000 to 7,000 Indians. They were assisted by a council of eight to twelve native leaders (known as a cabildo) who met on a daily basis to monitor the progress of the town and its inhabitants.
Encarnacion lies on the Western shore of the Parana River, opposite Posadas in Argentina. The city is famous within Paraguay for its carnival, which takes place over four consecutive weekends in the run-up to Lent, rather than the usual three or four days celebrated in other parts of the catholic world.
Encarnacion is reinventing itself following the construction of the Yacyreta Dam in the 1990s which involved flooding over 1500 sq. km and displacing around 100,000 people. An infrastructure project known as the Yacyretá Dam Completion Plan required new housing and compensation for those who required resettlement, efforts to mitigate environmental concerns, conserve wildlife habitats and the construction of a 28-km road and an attractive promenade alongside the river. This has become very popular with all ages.
The sparsely-populated Chaco region with its rich bio-diversity offers great potential for tourism. The region includes palm savannahs, lagoons, flooded wetlands and contains 701 recorded bird species, 167 mammals and a hundred different types of reptile and the northern part of the Chaco and contains ecosystems and habitats of great importance. Numerous threatened species find refuge here, such as guanacos, jaguars, tapirs and giant armadillos.
There are also some twenty indigenous groups in the Chaco, communities which have a low impact on the environment with subsistence agriculture and sustainable practices when it comes to hunting and harvesting. But their way of life is under threat. Intensive farming has proliferated in recent years with parts of the chaco being converted into grazing lands for vast herds of cattle on a totally unprecedented scale.
Filadelfia is the gateway to the Chaco. There are approximately 20,000 indigenous people in the Chaco and large communities of Mennonites, Anabaptists with German origins who began arriving in the 1920s. Mennonite culture emphasizes hard work, a simple life, and strict adherence to religious beliefs. The Mennonites produce around 80% of Paraguay’s milk, butter and cheese and, unlike the Amish, embrace the use of technology when it improves productivity and they dress in plain, functional clothing.
However, the Mennonite use of land is not without controversy and their methods have come under criticism: Mennonites have been accused of employing indigenous (Enxet and Ayoreo) workers and paying them less than the minimum wage or obliging them to accept notes of credit which can only be exchanged for goods in Mennonite stores in a form of debt servitude.
Ciudad del Este is sprawling, chaotic and, as a frontier city on the border of both Argentina and Brazil, has a swaggering reputation for lawlessness, smuggling, contraband, criminality and corruption. Indeed, they say that anything can be bought or sold in the markets here: counterfeit CDs, stolen cars, fake designer goods and electronic gadgets openly on display in the markets are one thing, but AK-47s, drugs and explosives available on the quiet are another.
The Monday falls consists of three main waterfalls, span 120 metres (394 feet) and drop around 40 metres (130 feet). If it were not for the Iguassu Falls, which are just 24km away (15 miles) as the crow flies, the Monday Falls would be a major tourist attraction. While the Iguassu Falls receives a couple of thousand visitors per day, the Monday Falls are lucky if they top a hundred.
The Monday Falls are 10km (6 miles) from Ciudad del Este.
The Itaipu Dam is the power source that drives Paraguay and provides southern Brazil with clean energy. The dam is 7.9 kilometres wide and 196 metres high (5 miles, 643 ft) and the reservoir created by the dam covers 1350 km2 (521 sq miles). Each country owns ten turbines. A staggering 700,000 litres of water flows through each turbine per second and Paraguay only uses two turbines to generate over 70% of the power needs of the country. Under a long-standing agreement surplus electricity is sold to Brazil at a heavily discounted rate. The Itaipu dam produces approximately 17% of Brazil’s energy.
Paraguay produces a surplus of clean energy from the hydro-electric plants at Itaipu, Yacyreta and Acaray, making it the world’s largest exporter of hydro-electricity.