Country number: 139
Territory number: 160
When? Christmas & New Year 2016/17 . Coming from Buenos Aires. Next stop El Salvador.
How? Walking in Asuncion and a day tour in a car with a guide
Well it’s very different here. 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. Not a mountain in sight.
Asunción doesn’t seem to have a centre but is a sprawl of factories, low rise housing and slaughter houses along the river though that’s now been through two incarnations. It was the Plate, then the Parana now the Paraguay. Or should that be the other way round? Anyway six and a half million people in the country, fourteen million cattle.
This is much more a developing country. 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 towns 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 9 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 the city – more ritzy shops, a lot of embassies, two more pink palaces and a cathedral. The old city and downtown clings to the river. But all the building is on one side so the centre of town is now nowhere near Downtown. Much more interesting is the trip out to the big ‘ Blue Lake’ and the lakeside towns of Aregua and San Bernadino. This 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).
On the way, near the airport, we pass the edifice that is locally most worshipped – the headquarters of the South American football association. 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 would have to play Argentina –and suffer the Hand of God. There are the usual low mud houses and cobbles, always delightful. But Aregua is unique. The pottery here is – well -astonishing. The locals take Christmas very seriously 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 – like 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 do it goes on. Kitsch isn’t really the word. Maybe bizarre- each to his own!
The lake is tranquil though not so blue on the ground and San Bernardino has an interesting history. It was founded by some Germans who emigrated on the promise of free land after the local population was decimated out in the nineteenth century 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. The Germans lived on the lake happily until they were booted out at the end of WW2 – Paraguay didn’t want to offend new friend the USA.
One more wander downtown to make the most of my time before sunset. I get lost again. It’s grubby and there is litter everywhere, but fortunately the locals are friendly.