In Paraguay, history, nature, and engineering on display

Ruins of Santísima Trinidad de Paraná, a Jesuit mission. ST. JOHN BARNED-SMITH
Ruins of Santísima Trinidad de Paraná, a Jesuit mission. ST. JOHN BARNED-SMITH
Posted: April 22, 2012

ASUNCION, Paraguay — On a map of South America, Paraguay looks a little like the tucked-away footnote, no mountains or ocean coastline. But over my last two years as a Peace Corps volunteer, I’ve discovered a wealth of delights along the country’s southeastern border. So when my parents came to visit me on a break from the hustle and bustle of the Northeast, I decided to show them some of the startling vistas of nature, signs of man’s grand engineering, and spots of soothing tranquillity that Paraguay has to offer.

Our trip started on a sweltering day in January’s midsummer heat. In Asuncion, we boarded a two-story bus with overstuffed seats and a wheezy air-conditioner and watched the scenery flow by through cracked windows as we headed to our first stop: Paraguay’s Jesuit missions, six hours south of Asuncion near the border city of Encarnacion.

From Encarnacion, we packed ourselves into a local bus and rattled along until we reached Santísima Trinidad de Paraná, the most famous and largest Jesuit mission in Paraguay. The Jesuits built their first missions in Paraguay in 1609, but the two that we visited — Jesus de Tavarangué and Santísima Trinidad de Paraná — were founded in 1685 and 1709.

The missions are probably best known from the Robert De Niro/Jeremy Irons film The Mission about the Jesuits’ attempts to proselytize to and later protect the Guaraní Indians. The film opens with Irons working his way through the fearsome rivers to the east on his way to his missionary post deeper in South America’s interior.

The bus driver barked, “You get off there” once we arrived at the town of Trinidad, pointing at a cobblestone track. The ruins were set back from the road, an island in a manicured ocean of grass that made the houses and restaurants nearby look Lilliputian. The entrance ticket was about $5, and I hired a local guide for another $5 to give me a more accurate idea of the place, while I translated for my non-Spanish-speaking parents.

One thing was immediately apparent: Tourist attractions in Paraguay — even a UNESCO World Heritage Site — don’t get the same treatment as in the States.There were none of the signs one might see at an equivalent attraction stateside. English is not nearly as prevalent here as in countries like Argentina or Peru that see more travelers, and in some places Paraguay’s tourism infrastructure is almost nonexistent. This can be a cause for confusion and annoyance — but also provided a much more private travel experience.

The near total absence of signs, guards, ropes, or hovering souvenir vendors was a lot different than museums back home. We wandered unhindered through the ruins. Blocks three feet long and a foot thick protruded from the walls, piled up like a haphazard game of Jenga. In the middle, the rust-colored bones of a sandstone church rose dozens of feet above the ground like the carcass of a whale, long picked clean. On another side stood long rows of dormitories that held the 4,000 Guarani Indians who lived in the mission. The remains of a jail, watchtower, cloisters, a school, and workshops lay scattered around the landscape. I could almost see the workshops humming with yerba maté-leaf production, weavings or woodworking, or the mission’s two Jesuit priests walking through the cloisters behind the church.

“I really understood being in those ruins and not being watched all the time. It gave me a sense of how repressive our society has become in the name of providing the best experience for everyone,” my mother said later.

There was a quiet tranquillity and Edenic quality. “I wasn’t prepared for how poignant a presence the missions had in the landscape and in this?…?period of time,” my mom said.

For me, it was also a glimpse of what might have been. By some accounts, the Jesuitshoused more than 140,000 Guarani Indians in missions in Paraguay, Argentina, and Brazil. This “Jesuit Republic” also covered parts of Bolivia, Chile, and Uruguay, and grew so powerful that it threatened Portuguese and Spanish hegemony, repulsing slaving parties or bandits with an army 20,000 strong. How different might South America be now if the Jesuits had not been expelled in 1767, and had been able to help build a different type of republic here?

The Jesuits had passed one of the world’s biggest waterfalls on their way into Paraguay. It was there we headed next, to Iguazu. From the ruins, it was a quick trip across the border to the Argentine city of Posadas, followed by a comfortable bus ride northeast along the border of the two countries to the town of Puerto Iguazu and Argentina’s half of Iguazu Falls. The rivers that feed Iguazu form part of Paraguay’s eastern border, and the falls lie just kilometers from its easternmost city, Ciudad del Este. It would have been crazy not to stop by. Between 200 and 269 feet high, these falls are the world’s fifth tallest, and by volume, the second biggest. But even in second place, they demand attention: Eleanor Roosevelt allegedly said, “Poor Niagara!” when she saw them, though Niagara’s size by volume is twice that of Iguazu. The South American falls were named one of the “New Seven Wonders of Nature” in November.

Iguazu Falls, or “Big Water,” in Guarani, was more developed than the Jesuit ruins. At times I found myself wishing for the quiet, hands-off feeling I’d experienced in Trinidad. On my first night in town, an overeager host at one restaurant shoved menus into my hand, asking in unwelcome English, “Dane? German? U.S.?” The city was stuffed to the brim with restaurants and tourist shops, selling everything from cut agates to masterful wood carvings to artisanal shawls of merino wool by expert craftsmen and artists.

Entering the falls was a little like a “cross between a nature park and Disneyland,” my parents said. Costs at the falls were correspondingly inflated, and the place was packed with souvenir shops and middling, overpriced restaurants. And as in the town nearby, there were abundant rules, signs, and fences. The entrance fee for the park was $25. And there were tours with names like “The Great Adventure” and “The Nautical Adventure.” On “The Great Adventure” tour ($50), I learned that Iguazu Park (almost 500,000 acres held jointly by Brazil and Argentina) contains 70 species of butterflies, 2,000 plant species, and 450 bird species. I spotted toucans, parrots, coatis (South America’s version of a raccoon) and tribes of Capuchin monkeys leaping through the treetops.

The “20th-century packaging and product management” (as my mom called it) faded before the natural beauty and power of the falls. The cascades of Iguazu lie like a broken chain over more than a kilometer, and the park has created boardwalks below and above the falls, so there are loads of good vantage points. “Big Water” was the Guarani understatement of all time. Water poured from every angle, falling hundreds of feet.

The most dramatic spot was the Devil’s Throat cascade, a semicircular explosion of water 269 feet high, nearly 500 feet wide, and 2,300 feet in circumference. From a distance, it looked like someone had scooped a giant half-circle out of the river. Water shot into the cauldron below, spitting a sea of mist back up high above the falls, which doused visitors and created a barrage of shifting rainbows. I stood, rooted, watching the interplay of water as it churned over the edge, zooming to the bottom, then flowing out of sight along the long canyon below.

“I wasn’t prepared for the hugeness ,” my mom said. “As with a lot of these natural landscapes … you never really understand their power until you’re right there.”

Tour boats raced beneath the falls, disappearing into the spray, drenching everyone aboard. In some places, the sound of the falls all but drowned out conversation. Every turn on the trail seemed to have its own smaller cataracts, little hidden pockets of space and water and spray. Rocks gleamed with coursing streams, birds flitted through the mist, and the plants practically glowed, vivid, verdant green

A day later, rested and restored by the natural magnificence of Iguazu, we took a ferry back to Paraguay’s Three Frontiers border crossing (the point where Argentina, Paraguay, and Brazil intersect) and Ciudad del Este, called “a great twinkling rat’s nest of booty,” by John Gimlette in his book about Paraguay, At the Tomb of the Inflatable Pig. Here we would take in another spectacle — Itaipu Dam. Although Ciudad del Este has a questionable reputation — our hotel clerk practically refused to let us out of the hotel on foot at night — we never had any problems during our visit.

We boarded yet another ramshackle, diesel-fume-spewing bus that growled its way to the entrance of Itaipu, the world’s second-largest and allegedly most productive hydroelectric dam. (According to Itaipu’s website, in 2008 the dam produced 94,684 megawatts of power, more than even China’s Three Gorges Dam.)

The missions and the falls had been pockets of natural and historical wonders, places of muted tranquillity, to linger and let the everyday world stream away. The dam was the opposite, a behemoth of concrete and steel that all but shouted, “Look at me!” — a vision of human engineering and technological audacity. It made Iguazu Falls look like an overfed creek.

At the visitor center, I watched a short video about the dam and its construction, and then boarded a tour bus (free, happily, especially after the relatively high costs of Iguazu) on one of the panoramic tours the dam offers. (Technical tours that go through the actual dam complex are available too, but have to be set up in advance via e-mail.) We arrived at a lookout point above the dam’s three enormous spillways, down which a torrent of water rivaling Iguazu spat in a frothing arc into the river below. One straight section of the five-mile-long, 65-story-tall dam was visible, stretching as far as the eye could see before whipping around a corner and heading to the Brazilian shore.

Itaipu, “the sound of a stone,” dams the Paraná River between Brazil and Paraguay, and supplies around 90 percent of Paraguay’s energy and 20 percent of Brazil’s. The 40,000 men who built the dam used enough steel for 380 Eiffel Towers, enough concrete for 210 Olympic soccer stadiums, and so much electric cabling in the project that by some estimates, it would circle the globe half over again. Really, I just had a sense of disbelief, of “How did someone make this?” It looked like the bulwarks to a giant’s castle, or something out of Star Wars, a hydrological Death Star.

My parents didn’t share my awe. “Going to the dam, it really had the quality … of the mechanization of the world and how we become enslaved to it,” my mother said. “It was very spectacular, but it had none of the kind of personal connection to it, to the place, or history of Paraguay or even landscape .”

Finally, we traveled along the top of the dam next to the Itaipu Reservoir, a lake 105 miles long and 4.5 miles wide. So much water flows in tributaries to the dam that it took only two weeks to fill the thing. Other attractions were available — two museums, a nature park and zoo, but I was content having seen the dam.

From the dam it was five hours west back to Asuncion. Along the way, I reflected on Paraguay’s supposed smallness, a place remembered for its disastrous dictators, its devastating wars, and its diminutive stature on the world stage. But it was here in this small, hidden-away place that I had found some of the grandest and most profound examples of nature, of man’s power, and of history.

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