Well, it's very different from Buenos Aires here in Paraguay. From the plane, the patchwork of agricultural Uruguay around the giant Plate Delta gradually gives way to the brightest green bush, networked with aquamarine meandering rivers, ox bow lakes and elliptical lagoons. It's another country that claims to be Little Switzerland, as it’s landlocked. (one of only two such countries in South America) Not a mountain in sight. To the east of the Paraguay river (Región Oriental) are grassy plains, to the west, Región Occidental or Chaco, which is mostly low, marshy plains.
Paraguay is much more a developing country. Six and a half million people, fourteen million cattle. I've left the three lane motorways of Argentina and Uruguay. for single lane tracks. There are shacks lining the road and corrugated roofs hidden all round the city and below the more affluent blocks of downtown. It's humid and stiflingly hot.
The Gran Hotel del Paraguay has illusions of by-gone grandeur. It was the country home of an Irish lady, the paramour of dictator Solano Lopez in the late nineteenth century. Its restaurant – highly embellished ceilings and chandeliers - was once the ballroom, the country's first.
The red and white painted courtyards and fountains are still charming. But the room I'm allocated is a little cell overlooking a noisy car park. After reconnoitring, I decide I've been given a bum deal and request a move. I'm now off one of the charming courtyards. It's still baking hot at nine in the evening. And I'm having to fend off mosquitoes. But I have a margarita.
Only one day to see everything, with BBB - blisters, bad back and bowels (gut rot to boot today). A whistle-stop tour of Asuncion, the capital of Paraguay. This is one of the oldest cities in South America, established in 1537, by Spanish conquistadores as the first capital of the Governorate of the Río de la Plata. So, it is known as "the Mother of Cities". Nearly half of Asuncion's population live here.
Asunción is a sprawl of factories, low rise housing and slaughter houses along the river. All the expansion means that the centre of town is now nowhere near downtown. The old city clings to the water, though that’s now been through two incarnations. It was the River Plate, then the Parana, now the Paraguay. Or should that be the other way round? Just a little further up the river is the confluence with the Pilcomayo River. The ports here are extremely important - they give Paraguay access to the Atlantic Ocean
First stop is another pink palace, the López Palace, the seat of government housing the president’s offices. It was white, until recently. Nearby, the National Pantheon of Heroes has a mausoleum and plaques commemorating Paraguayan historical figures. The Independence House Museum is a small whitewashed building. (Independence was won in the early nineteenth century.)
We also take in some ritzy shops, a lot of embassies, the Cathedral of Our lady of the assumption complex (it's huge) and the graveyard. The ornate cemeteries are always a must-see in Spanish colonial cities. Then we wander along the sandy beach by the river. This is surprisingly inviting and is where the locals gravitate, in their leisure time. I get lost, walking on my own, naturally. . It's grubby and there is litter everywhere, but fortunately the locals are friendly.
Much more interesting is my trip out to the big ' Blue Lake' and the lakeside towns of Aregua and San Bernadino.
On the way east, near the airport, we pass the edifice that is locally most worshipped - the headquarters of the South American Football Confederation in the city of Luque, in metropolitan Asuncion,. Appropriately, given all the latest news, it’s called Conmebal. My guide tells me that the Paraguayan football team were paid to throw their most famous match against England, so that we would have to play Argentina – and suffer the Hand of God.
Well, my guide calls this the Blue Lake. Apparently, it's actually called Ypacaraí Lake. This area is proper Spanish colonial in atmosphere - there are a large number of people of Guarani heritage still and they mostly speak that language too. (Unlike Uruguay and Argentina where nearly all the locals were 'eradicated ', as they say in the guide books).The Blue Lake is tranquil - though not so blue close up. Aregua has the usual colonial low mud houses and cobbles, always delightful. and my guidebook tells me it's known as the City of Strawberries, because of its many strawberry farms. But it is unique for another reason. The pottery here is - well - astonishing.
The locals take Christmas very seriously (during the seventeenth century, Paraguay was a big centre for Jesuit missions, and the native Guaraní people were converted to Christianity) and everyone buys a straw crib and decorates it with clay figurines; most of those figurines come from Aregua. The whole town is lined with bright stalls. There are the usual familiar crib figures, Joseph, Mary, shepherds etc. Lots of sheep and donkeys and other animals you would expect, mixed in with parrots and giraffes. Snow White and the Seven Dwarves. Huge statues of Christ the Redeemer, surrounded by frogs with red hats on (they're lucky I'm told) and so it goes on. Kitsch isn't really the word. Maybe bizarre - each to his own!
On the far side of the lake, San Bernardino has an interesting history. It was founded in 1881 by some Germans who emigrated on the promise of free land. This was because the local population was more than decimated in the nineteenth century by the Three Alliance War against Brazil, Uruguay and Argentina. Paraguay didn't come out if it very well - it's billed as one of the bloodiest wars ever. They lost forty percent of their land and nearly all their young people. This was the culmination of a series of authoritarian governments characterized by nationalist, isolationist and protectionist policies. A succession of military dictators, followed until Paraguay became a democratic republic in 1989.
The town was renamed after Saint Bernard to honour Bernardino Caballero, president of Paraguay between 1880 and 1886. A must see on the tourist itinerary is the Hotel del Lago, where the National Socialist German Dr. Bernhard Förster spent the last six weeks of his life, before committing suicide on June 3, 1889 by taking an overdose of strychnine. Inspired by a letter from Richard Wagner and his own anti-Semitism, he had travelled to Paraguay to attempt to create a model German settlement, Nueva Germania with his wife Elisabeth Förster-Nietzsche (sister of the philosopher) and several German families.
The remaining Germans lived on the lake happily until they were ejected at the end of World War II - Paraguay didn't want to offend new friend, the USA. The Hotel de Lago is very quiet, but they allow me to sneak into the dining room and look at the old black and white photographs on the wall. I'm driven back to Asuncion along the lakeside.
El Salvador next.
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