When you ask a Brazilian what they think about Paraguay, the answer is almost always the same. “What? No, don’t go there! Very dangerous!” But why, you ask. Surely there must be something good about the country. Their next response: “Well, they sell very cheap Chinese electronics”.
Yes, sadly, the beautiful country of Paraguay has been maligned in the Brazilian zeitgeist as a land of mafia, cheap knockoff electronics, and drugs. That’s because 99% of those people have never made it past Ciudad del Este, a stressful, neon-filled capitalist wasteland. The rest of the country is far different, as we would discover.
After a previous trip in 2015, we discovered Albania to be one of the best destinations in Europe. Cheap, spectacular, and really different from it’s neighbours. Since then, I’d imagined Paraguay as the Albania of the South- an undiscovered gem!
We spent our first day crossing the southern half of the country, from east to west, to the capital, Asunción. It’s a trip though gently rolling hills, flat plains, and small river valleys. I’d be lying if I told you it was an interesting drive, but it does have a few decent places to stop along the way.
The small town of Juan Emilio O’Leary was our first break. Yes, that’s a suspiciously Irish name for a Paraguayan town! Turns out that we Irish have left a significant mark on this country, a story virtually unknown elsewhere. I’ll tell you more when we arrive in Asunción! We followed the highway onwards. It’s kept to a fairly high standard, better than many major Brazilian roads [LINK TO BAHIA ROADS POST] in fact.
The history of Paraguay is very sharply defined by the two major wars this country has fought. The 1864-1870 war of the Triple Alliance (vs Brazil, Argentina and Uruguay) destroyed the country, and very nearly wiped it off the map. The 1932-1935 Chaco War was a costly victory over Bolivia. Virtually every town we visited bore some monument to the combatants in these wars. Locations all over the country are named for the battles and leaders during these wars.
Our stop for lunch that first day was the town of Piribebuy, briefly the capital of Paraguay, during the war of the Triple Alliance. We got a cheap lunch in the Hotel Viejo Rincon, enjoyed the town’s square, and appreciated their flag display. I’d read that the town’s museum was worth a look, but we couldn’t find it during our visit. It’s got artefacts from the town’s darkest day, a massacre carried out there by Brazilian troops in August 1869, killing over 600.
Next stop: the beach! Well, a lake beach, but a beach nonetheless. San Bernadino, on the Lago Ypacaraí, is a popular resort town only an hour from the capital. We shared the surprisingly warm winter sunshine with families out enjoying the afternoon, taking little boat trips, and listening to Phil Collins on a P.A. system.
What was behind us, as we enjoyed the lakeside view? The famous Hotel del Lago, the oldest existing hotel in the country. Famous, maybe infamous too. Designed by a German architect in a gothic style, it was where the German radical nationalist Bernhard Förster committed suicide in 1889. A lifelong anti-semite, in Paraguay he founded an extremist colony, “Nueva Germania”, far from what he believed was worldwide Jewish influence. His widow Elisabeth was the sister of famous philosopher, Friedrich Nietzsche, and through her connections with Nazism, her brothers work became endlessly associated with this ideology.
Another surprise was in store for us this evening. After passing some beautifully wild wetlands, the road to Asunción passes by Todsco, a remarkable Tesco knockoff. It would appear the strong arm of trademark enforcement hasn’t arrived here as of 2016.
In our next post- our few days in Paraguay’s capital, lots of bread, and more on that Irish connection.
Lunch at Hotel Viejo Rincon, Piribebuy: 12,500 Gs / €2 / R$8 for a typical meal.