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)

News
Mia Freedman, editorial director of the Mamamia website, reads out a tweet she was sent.
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Reach for the sky: there are around 250 new buildings of 20-plus storeys planned for London alone, some 80 per cent of them residential
architecture
Arts and Entertainment
Natural beauty: Aidan Turner stars in the new series of Poldark
television
Arts and Entertainment
Shining star: Maika Monroe, with Jake Weary, in ‘It Follows’
filmReview: The ingenious film will intrigue, puzzle and trouble audiences by turns
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift won Best International Solo Female (Getty)

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment

Oscars 2015 Mexican filmmaker uses speech to urge 'respect' for immigrants

Arts and Entertainment
The Oscar nominations are due to be announced today

Oscars 2015 Bringing you all the news from the 87th Academy Awards

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Lloyd-Hughes takes the leading role as Ralph Whelan in Channel 4's epic new 10-part drama, Indian Summers

TV Review

The intrigue deepens as we delve further but don't expect any answers just yet
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Segal and Cameron Diaz star in Sex Tape

Razzies 2015 Golden Raspberry Awards 'honours' Cameron Diaz and Kirk Cameron

Arts and Entertainment
The Oscars ceremony 2015 will take place at the Dolby Theatre in Los Angeles
Oscars 2015A quiz to whet your appetite for tonight’s 87th Academy Awards
Arts and Entertainment
Sigourney Weaver, as Ripley, in Alien; critics have branded the naming of action movie network Movies4Men as “offensive” and “demographic box-ticking gone mad”.
TVNaming of action movie network Movies4Men sparks outrage
Arts and Entertainment
Sleater Kinney perform at the 6 Music Festival at the O2 Academy, Newcastle
musicReview: 6 Music Festival
Arts and Entertainment
Sleater Kinney perform at the 6 Music Festival at the O2 Academy, Newcastle
musicReview: 6 Music Festival
News
Kristen Stewart reacts after receiving the Best Actress in a Supporting Role award for her role in 'Sils Maria' at the 40th annual Cesar awards
people
News
A lost Sherlock Holmes story has been unearthed
arts + ents Walter Elliot, an 80-year-old historian, found it in his attic,
Arts and Entertainment
Margot Robbie rose to fame starring alongside Leonardo DiCaprio in The Wolf of Wall Street

Film Hollywood's new leading lady talks about her Ramsay Street days

Arts and Entertainment
Right note: Sam Haywood with Simon Usborne page turning
musicSimon Usborne discovers it is under threat from the accursed iPad
Arts and Entertainment
A life-size sculpture by Nick Reynolds depicting singer Pete Doherty on a crucifix hangs in St Marylebone church
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Escalating tension: Tang Wei and Chris Hemsworth in ‘Blackhat’
filmReview: Chris Hemsworth stars as a convicted hacker in Blackhat
Arts and Entertainment

Oscar voter speaks out

film
Arts and Entertainment
The Oscars race for Best Picture will be the battle between Boyhood and Birdman

Oscars
Arts and Entertainment
Anne Boleyn (Claire Foy), Thomas Cromwell (Mark Rylance)
tvReview: Wolf Hall
Arts and Entertainment
Tom Meighan of Kasabian collects the Best Album Award
music
Arts and Entertainment
Best supporting stylist: the late L’Wren Scott dressed Nicole Kidman in 1997
film
Arts and Entertainment
Dakota Johnson and Jamie Dornan as Anastasia Steele and Christian Grey in Fifty Shades of Grey

Film

Arts and Entertainment
Mick Carter (Danny Dyer) and Peggy Mitchell (Barbara Windsor)
tv occurred in the crucial final scene
Arts and Entertainment
Glasgow wanted to demolish its Red Road flats last year
architecture
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    HIV pill: Scientists hail discovery of 'game-changer' that cuts the risk of infection among gay men by 86%

    Scientists hail daily pill that protects against HIV infection

    Breakthrough in battle against global scourge – but will the NHS pay for it?
    How we must adjust our lifestyles to nature: Welcome to the 'Anthropocene', the human epoch

    Time to play God

    Welcome to the 'Anthropocene', the human epoch where we may need to redefine nature itself
    MacGyver returns, but with a difference: Handyman hero of classic 1980s TV series to be recast as a woman

    MacGyver returns, but with a difference

    Handyman hero of classic 1980s TV series to be recast as a woman
    Tunnel renaissance: Why cities are hiding roads down in the ground

    Tunnel renaissance

    Why cities are hiding roads underground
    'Backstreet Boys - Show 'Em What You're Made Of': An affectionate look at five middle-aged men

    Boys to men

    The Backstreet Boys might be middle-aged, married and have dodgy knees, but a heartfelt documentary reveals they’re not going gently into pop’s good night
    Crufts 2015: Should foreign dogs be allowed to compete?

    Crufts 2015

    Should foreign dogs be allowed to compete?
    10 best projectors

    How to make your home cinema more cinematic: 10 best projectors

    Want to recreate the big-screen experience in your sitting room? IndyBest sizes up gadgets to form your film-watching
    Manchester City 1 Barcelona 2 player ratings: Luis Suarez? Lionel Messi? Joe Hart? Who was the star man?

    Manchester City vs Barcelona player ratings

    Luis Suarez? Lionel Messi? Joe Hart? Who was the star man at the Etihad?
    Arsenal vs Monaco: Monaco - the making of Gunners' manager Arsene Wenger

    Monaco: the making of Wenger

    Jack Pitt-Brooke speaks to former players and learns the Frenchman’s man-management has always been one of his best skills
    Cricket World Cup 2015: Chris Gayle - the West Indies' enigma lives up to his reputation

    Chris Gayle: The West Indies' enigma

    Some said the game's eternal rebel was washed up. As ever, he proved he writes the scripts by producing a blistering World Cup innings
    In Ukraine a dark world of hybrid warfare and murky loyalties prevails

    In Ukraine a dark world of hybrid warfare

    This war in the shadows has been going on since the fall of Mr Yanukovych
    'Birdman' and 'Bullets Over Broadway': Homage or plagiarism?

    Homage or plagiarism?

    'Birdman' shares much DNA with Woody Allen's 'Bullets Over Broadway'
    Broadchurch ends as damp squib not even David Tennant can revive

    A damp squib not even David Tennant can revive

    Broadchurch, Series 2 finale, review
    A Koi carp breeding pond, wall-mounted iPads and a bathroom with a 'wellness' shower: inside the mansion of Germany's 'Bishop of Bling'

    Inside the mansion of Germany's 'Bishop of Bling'

    A Koi carp breeding pond, wall-mounted iPads and a bathroom with a 'wellness' shower