To travel to Paraguay, I flew from Panama to Asuncion directly – one of the few direct flights available to Paraguay’s capital! Nestled in the center of South America, Paraguay is a bit of a paradox – a land-locked country that’s actually largely surrounded by water in the form of three rivers. Contrary to what I’d imagined, it’s actually a bit of a shipping hub thanks to these rivers and being in the center of the continent. Asuncion, the capital, is pretty much the main city of the country. With a landmass of over 400,000 square kilometers, it has fewer people than London, and most of them seem to be concentrated in the city. In other words, head outside of the capital and you encounter largely unencumbered countryside – chaco to the north, and rolling grassland to the south. This was definitely not the landscape I imagined when I thought of traveling to the center of the continent. Where was the jungle??
My reason for this slight geographic detour was to visit my friend Elise, who works at the US Embassy in Asuncion. Elise kindly took the week off to show me around the country, and in true American fashion, we set out on a glorious road trip of the southern region. Our main goal was to visit the Jesuit Missions which dotted the southern border. The Jesuits settled in Paraguay in the 17th century and built a series of missions along the river that constitutes the Southern border. I won’t go too deep into the fascinating history (see here), but in short, they were expelled from the land by the Pope basically because they were ‘too successful’ and ‘too nice’ to the local Guarani Indians who they were educating. Most of the missions lie in ruins, but we got to see the one remaining outpost that actually never really ceased to function – it still holds religion classes in its halls for the local population, and many of its relics and icons were preserved over the years by the same people.
One of the Jesuit priests, Buenaventura Suarez, had been a keen astronomer. (More about him here.) He built a sundial for the mission that still accurately functions to this day, and the observatory across where he had made his observations still exists, across the road from the mission. Apparently, he built a telescope using local materials, including bamboo and quartz. Using this, he was able to make observations that predicted solar and lunar eclipses, including the day and time that they would start and end, well into the next century. Apparently his predictions were so accurate that they were used by the Paraguyans to plan their battles for when to attack based on them. (They ended up winning, so predictions must have been good!)
We got to see a demonstration in the planetarium of how the night sky moves in the Southern Hemisphere, and our guide shared stories that the native Guarani Indians used to explain the constellations. According to them, the Milky Way is actually the Trail of Tapirs. Tapirs are a strange native animal (more on them in a minute) that takes a set path between its burrow and watering hole each day. The leaves on the path get ground down and can start to shine. Hence, the Milky Way looked like one big Tapir Path in the Sky to the Guarani. After the presentation, we got to go look through a telescope at the night sky, and what a treat! We saw Saturn’s rings in their glory, and the amazingly rocky surface of the moon.
Right – about those tapirs. So Paraguay is home to some very strange critters, including large beaver-like creatures that resemble Rodents Of Unusual Size in The Princess Bride, an elegant animal with long graceful legs and the face of a fox, anteaters, sloth-like creatures, and then – my favorite – the tapir. Tapirs are kind of like a cross between a pig, a cow, and an elephant, if you can imagine it. They are stocky like a pig, but bigger and with hair and cloven hooves like a cow, and with round ears like an aardvark. But they have a pensile nose like an elephant, only shorter. We were privileged enough to get to pet a napping tapir, and I swear, she couldn’t have been happier! We scratched and petted her, and she sighed and snored, not paying us the smallest bit of mind. One of the friendliest animals I’ve even encountered! It’s amazing that there are any left because according to the Guarani, their meat is delicious, and based on my experience, I sincerely doubt they’re that difficult to catch and kill…
As I mentioned, the Paraguay landscape in many ways reminded me of Texas, with rolling grassland being grazed by cattle. The major difference that constantly reminded me that Dorothy, we weren’t in Texas anymore was the ever-present scattering of palm trees amidst the pampas. The towns we passed through had traditional Spanish-influenced architecture in the homes, and very little commercial activity – nary a chain business in sight. In fact, it was difficult to find restaurants where we could grab a cooked meal – most places were ‘chiparias’ that were more akin to bakeries than restaurants. (Mmmm…chipa!) In other words, tourism really hasn’t come to the country yet. These small cities in Paraguay are so unused to having foreign visitors that, one time when we filled up at a gas station, the young attendant asked us where we were from and chatted with us. As we were about to leave, he said, “Thanks for coming. I’m so glad to see you. You made my day!” (And it was clear he meant it.) So, if you want to see an ‘untouched’ part of South America that isn’t yet spoilt with endless shops catering to tourists, travel to Paraguay!