Travel: South America - The lost heart of South America

Paraguay is probably the most distinctive, eccentric and lovable country in Latin America. By Hugh O'Shaughnessy

The trouble with Paraguay is that we're an island surrounded by land." Thus does my friend Julio Cesar describe the fate of a country in the centre of one of the world's biggest land masses but which is the most isolated, idiosyncratic and indeed enjoyable of all the countries of the Western Hemisphere for a foreigner to visit. Isolation and otherness are in the Paraguayan blood.

Some Latin American countries are so similar that you could be forgiven for not remembering which one you were in. In Paraguay you could never think you were anywhere else.

To keep the Paraguayans from foreign entanglements 150 years ago, the dictator Francia forbade anyone to leave or enter the country. Foreigners who got here had to stay. But thank God Paraguayans are a little behind the times; it makes them kind, friendly and welcoming as no others.

Not much has changed here since Henry Pilling, the retired bank manager from south London and hero of Graham Greene's novel Travels with My Aunt, arrived a decade or two ago. Greene addicts will remember he settled here, married the police chief's teenage daughter and devoted his declining years to a life of gentle smuggling. Today, as in Pilling's time, the hot winter sun beats down and even when the tropical heavens open, the rain falls as warm water and does nothing to bring the temperature below 95F.

General Alfredo Stroessner, the man who ruled the country with a cheque book in one hand and a wooden club with projecting nails in the other, has been in exile in Brazil for a decade now but his cronies, quarrelling among themselves, still rule.

The only difference today is that you don't necessarily go to prison for scrawling anti-Stroessner slogans on the walls. The usual summer torpor is more marked this year with the economy and political scene in a slump. Greene would certainly recognise it. There was some political turbulence in the streets last month - the vice-president was shot dead, apparently at the behest of the president, but he has fled, the affair is over and there is no reason to call off a visit. The capital, Asuncin is a good deal safer than many cities in neighbouring Brazil.

And there is a lot beneath the apparent tropical torpor. This is the only country on the continent of America where under Spanish colonialism the indigenous people, the Guarani, maintained themselves. There is certainly a thick layer of declamatory Spanish civilisation which embraces a long line of generals and dictators, not just Stroessner but Mornigo, Estigarribia, Lpez, Francia and dozens more. Modern Western ghastliness has arrived in the form of Burger King, one or two shopping arcades, Citibank and parking meters.

But Paraguay remains something other, a country which despite its drawbacks is nicer to visit than any of its neighbours.

Perhaps it's the Indian influence: the Guarani language is widely spoken and written. Indeed, perhaps half the population speaks no Spanish. The pace of life is quiet; in the countryside there is a closeness to nature which springs from the fact that the Guarani were, and still are in some places, nomadic people, hunters and gatherers. "There is a Paraguayan philosophy. I tell my students to think hard about it," says Benno Glaiser, who teaches philosophy at the university. Transport, or the lack of it, provides big clues to the Paraguayan soul.

For some months now Asuncin hasn't been what it was. They've taken away the ancient tramcars which clattered up and down the hills of the capital for years after their retirement from Brussels (I always used to wonder what Paraguayans made of the notices inside them in Flemish and French which prohibited spitting.) Anyway they're gone, replaced by old buses.

But enthusiasts for antique modes of transport need not despair. Every Saturday and Sunday morning at the 19th-century station, even more ancient locomotives are steamed up with a wood fire in their bellies and sent down the track for an hour or two with one battered carriage full of happy Paraguayans to Lake Ypacarai, the country's counterpart to the Essex Riviera resort of Leigh-on-Sea.

The old locos, one of them English, are beloved of their drivers. "You get an affection for them," says Juan as he piles logs into the boiler. It burns 20 cubic metres of wood there and back. The return fare is 3,000 Guaranies (60 pence).

A car will get you there in half an hour but it's not as jolly as the train. Though it's only 13kms long, Ypacarai is the nearest the Paraguayans get to a seaside and there's enough room for good water-skiing or just lazing on the sand.

It is not so long ago that these ancient trains, together with almost equally ancient river boats, were the only means of getting to the wet tropical plain in the heart of South America that is Paraguay.

The port, too, is much as it was when Graham Greene described it in his novel. It stands not far from the foot of the Presidential Palace, the Palacio de Lpez. According to legend, in the middle of the last century its British architect, Alonzo Taylor, adopted the design from one he had prepared for Keble College, Oxford, but which sadly came second in the competition. With its tower and pinnacles and Victorian gothic look the Palacio, like the station, has a touch of the Palace of Westminster about it and sits oddly in the centre of South America.

There is not much international passenger traffic on the river these days but the river is still the main highway to many places up country. Tied up beside the quay was the good ship Guarani, which has brought its cargo of river fish, a battered car, tons of slaked lime and passengers down from Vallem, two days to the north. After the stevedores precariously manoeuvred the car from off the hold they set to bringing the lime out from the hold. Meanwhile enormous fish of species unknown elsewhere were hauled out from the fo'c'sle to the delight of the capital's waiting fishwives.

I must take that boat up to Vallem one of these days. I'm sure there would be someone aboard who, to pass the time, would teach me the first elements of the Guarani language as we chug up the great Paraguay River into the unknown heart of South America.

Fact File

Getting there

There are no direct flights from the UK to Paraguay. Here are some alternatives. Journey Latin America (0181-747 3108) has a fare of pounds 635 to Asuncion via Madrid on Iberia. Or, fly to the Iguacu Falls at the east of Paraguay; Argentina and Brazil have airports close to the Paraguayan border. South American Experience (0171-976 5511) offers a fare of pounds 462 to Buenos Aires on Aerolineas Argentinas (via Madrid), with a pounds 192 return to Iguacu.

Getting around

You can build a trip to Paraguay into the new improved Mercosur Air Pass which gives you laughably cheap transport around Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Paraguay and Uruguay, eg from Bahia, home of Afro-Brazilian culture to Cape Horn. The pass is issued with a transatlantic ticket for travel on most airlines from these countries and in different prices and distances. For instance, the 4,200km pass costs you just pounds 250.

Accommodation

Highly recommended is the ancient but spacious, comfortable and friendly Gran Hotel del Paraguay at de la Residenta 902 (00 595 12 200051)

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