Paraguay - The author’s take


Author’s take

‘Paraguay is fabulous. I was deeply taken with the place, the scenery, birds, people, frogs, toads and wood sprites.’ Simon Barnes’s comment in The Times of 14 June 2008 may surprise a lot of people, for whom Paraguay is a blank on the map. And there are literally a lot of blanks if you search Google maps, although they are being filled in bit by bit. You find, for example, contours marked on western Brazil up to the border, and then as you cross into Paraguay they turn into flat grey. You go to a beach resort like Cerrito and not a single street name is given. You go into the heart of Asunción, the capital city, on Google Earth, using the ‘street level’ function, and you are skating across flat ground with just three or four drawings of buildings (not even photographs) standing up here and there. You come across backpackers who say, ‘Don’t go to Paraguay – there’s nothing to see’, but it is just that they do not know where to look.

You do not want to tell other people about it, for fear of spoiling it for yourself. And yet, at the same time, you do want to spread the word because you love it so much.

Paraguay is one of last holiday paradises waiting to be discovered, with 300 days of sun a year. Only two special interest groups have so far discovered Paraguay in a big way: Brazilian fishing folk, who come over in their busloads to the remotest places in the south, on the banks of the Río Paraná; and US pigeon shooters, who come over in their privately chartered planeloads to the remotest places in the north, buried in the midst of the Paraguayan Chaco. Apart from these people, there is no tourist rush to Paraguay. It is, to a large extent, pure, virgin, undiscovered territory. You do not want to tell other people about it, for fear of spoiling it for yourself. And yet, at the same time, you do want to spread the word because you love it so much.

Gaucho estancia Tuiuiu Paraguay by Marco MuscaraA gaucho in the Estancia Tuiuiu, Gran Chaco © Marco Muscarà

True, Paraguay is poor country. It is one of the poorest in the continent of South America, generally classified as a close second to Bolivia. Paraguay has only a third of the per capita income of Brazil and Argentina (UN figures for 2012). No-one would want to visit Paraguay who was uncomfortable with this fact. If you only wanted to see gleaming buildings and travel on motorways, you would not go to Paraguay. Yet for some travellers, the poverty is a reason to come, rather than to stay away. They may come out of a desire for solidarity, in the spirit of liberation theology, whereby the poor can teach the rich the message of the gospel. Or they may come out of a curiosity to see the kind of culture you can no longer find in Europe or North America. 

When Simon Barnes came, he was taken by the wildness of the nature reserves and the richness of the birdlife, one of Paraguay’s main attractions. But there are other key characteristics that mark the country. If you ask people who know something about Paraguay, even if only a little, what words they associate with the country, they may well mention poverty, the Guaraní language, the indigenous people, the Jesuit Reductions, the harp, craft, football, tereré and mate

At the turn of the century, tourism was at a very low ebb, following the murder of a vice-president in 1999. The country teetered on the brink of a coup both in 1999 and in 2000. After that the Argentinian economic crisis hit Paraguay hard – many families here have relatives sending money back from Buenos Aires – and there was no money for investment in anything. Paraguay was a country in deep recession, where the poor were getting poorer and the rich were getting poorer too. Craft shops in Asunción struggled not to go bankrupt. Even professional people were saying, ‘I have never known it as bad as this’. The campesinos, as always, suffered the most.

But from 2004 onwards, the economic crisis levelled out, and there began to be increasing movement on the tourist front, with the appointment of a series of good ministers of tourism (women who were professionals in tourism rather than politicians). There was investment in two major tourist programmes, the Ruta Jesuítica and the Camino Franciscano; the publication of local tourist materials such as guides, maps, leaflets and reviews, none of which existed five years earlier; and the sprouting up of new hotels, especially in Asunción.

The number of foreign tourists has risen every year since 2003, by between 2% and 15%, and reached 610,000 in 2013. Of these, 88% are from other countries in Latin America, and of the rest the highest numbers come from Spain, Germany, Japan, Italy and France. More than half of tourists come for business or for professional events, and one third for holidays and sightseeing. Accommodation for tourists in hotels rose 34% between 2007 and 2012, and was predicted to double between 2012 and 2016.

It will now be much easier for people of other cultures and other continents to come and search, nomad-like, for the land without stain, here, where it was first dreamt of, in the lost paradise of Paraguay.

Paraguay’s interest in promoting tourism has been reflected in recent years by the nomination of some famous personalities as ‘embajador turístico del Paraguay’: Arnaldo André (a film and television actor), Roque Santa Cruz (a footballer), and – most recently and most dramatically – an orchestra from one of the poorest barrios of Asunción, which plays on musical instruments knocked together out of old tins and boxes. Known as La Orquesta de Instrumentos Reciclados de Cateura, this group has rightly become quite famous internationally. You can listen to their beautiful music on YouTube. In the Cateura barrio, where they live, people scratch together a living by going through rubbish bins and sorting materials for recycling; but never before has there been such an imaginative use of recycled materials as this.

The Guaraní indigenous had a dream of ‘a land without evil’ – la tierra sin mal in Spanish, or yvý marane’ý in Guaraní – ‘a land without stain, without pollution’. In their semi-nomadic existence they were always looking for this paradise. Something of the romance of the Guaraní dream under Jesuit tutelage was captured in Roland Joff.’s powerful film about the Paraguayan Reductions, The Mission. But it was not fiction; the film recounted historical events. The historians have called the creation, and destruction, of those Jesuit-Guaraní Reductions, ‘the Forgotten Arcadia’. With the help of the Bradt guide, it will be much easier for people of other cultures and other continents to come and search, nomad-like, for the land without stain, here, where it was first dreamt of, in the lost paradise of Paraguay.

Author’s story

When I decided to emigrate to Paraguay in the year 2000, I never imagined that one day I would be writing a guidebook. On my first visit to the country in 1996 I had fallen in love with Santa María de Fe, a small town in Misiones which had originally been a Jesuit mission (or Reduction) for the Guaraní indigenous people, and I waited four years for my youngest child to grow up before I could realise my dream of moving here.

It was clear what the untapped resource was, what Santa María – and Paraguay as a whole – had to sell to the rest of the world: tourism.

Paraguay was (and is) mercifully free of gringos and I wanted to keep it to myself. But there was a contradiction. I had come here to immerse myself in a poor community, inspired by the thinking of liberation theology. As well as learning from the poor, I had to respond to the needs of the poor. They needed education, and soon the Santa María Education Fund was born. However, education was not enough. People also needed work, and they needed money.

It was clear what the untapped resource was, what Santa María – and Paraguay as a whole – had to sell to the rest of the world: tourism. The contribution I could make was not only to help bring donations into the country, but to help bring in trade and people. I had to stop being selfish about the wonderful place I had discovered. The Santa María Hotel was started; and the Bradt Guide to Paraguay began to be written.

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