The ruins of the Jesuits' 18th-century missions in Paraguay stand in splendid, haunting isolation. By Adam Lechmere
Paraguay at night is lit up like a fairground. It is one of the odder things about this extraordinary country, they illuminate everything with striplights: gateways, sheds, fence posts, trees, the eaves of houses, all are hung with flickering bulbs. A journey by night bus is magical: even in deep countryside the houses and roadsides are brightly lit. It gives the place a feeling of slightly dotty optimism, just as the official tourist slogan does. "Paraguay - Rediscover it" is certainly hopeful considering hardly any tourists have been here in the first place.

In the main tourist office in Asuncion I wasted a pleasant hour with the security guard, who was unable to tell me where everyone was. When would they return, I asked. After all, the office was open. He could not say. A small boy turned up and stared at me until he was sent out to buy a Coke. So time passed.

I was on my way to visit the famous Jesuit missions near Encarnacion in the south. The Jesuit colonisation of Paraguay was a time of enlightenment by the standards of the age. They arrived in 1588, and gathered thousands of Guarani Indians into their mission towns. These were organised on communal lines, all the workers sharing in the produce. The Guaranis were taught weaving, carpentry, tanning, boat building, masonry; they made musical instruments, and produced beautiful manuscripts and printed books. They went to work in the fields singing hymns.

About 30 missions had been built by 1767, and they had a total population of 100,000. This was when Charles III of Spain, threatened by their success and wealth, ordered the Jesuits' expulsion from all his territories. The communities quickly broke up, the Indians became peones (labourers) on the estates, and the buildings crumbled.

The best preserved of the ruins is at Trinidad, just outside Encarnacion. My bus was managed by an enormously fat boy who opened and shut the door. He kept up a running commentary with the driver and the old ladies with improbable amounts of baggage. From the window the land looked poor but well-kept. Pigs, goats, oxen and horses were tethered to the wide verges; dogs wandered about, there were very few cars.

The conductor gazed at me impassively as I got off at Trinidad. I stood on the side of the road and watched the bus disappearing. A big sign said that the Misiones Jesuiticas were being looked after by the Ministry of Public Works and Communications. I walked under the sign, up a dusty track lined with smallholdings. At the end, totally unexpected in this impoverished rural landscape, massive walls loomed on the skyline.

The ruins at Trinidad are fabulous, especially in the early morning when the sun picks out the texture of the red sandstone. The buildings rise out of the flat valley of the Rio Parana, vast ornate edifices with great columns, carved doorways and avenues of carved saints. The Jesuits built each complex around a central square with the church taking pride of place. I walked down the aisle of the ruined church and was dwarfed by the east wall, towering 50 feet above me. Small signs said School and Workshop. A grassy space the size of a football pitch was the Orchard. I tried to imagine the brothers in their sandals and habits climbing the stone steps, which now led nowhere.

The Ministry of Public Works is still restoring the ruins, and making a beautiful job of it. Broken masonry is laid out in neat rows, each stone numbered and lettered. In a small museum the statues of the saints and angels are on display, and you can see the perfect detail of the stone carving.

Just up the road, dominating another tiny hamlet called Jesus, is a further mission. This one was built in the space of five years, just before the expulsion. It is the same size as Trinidad, with the same wealth of detail, the same noble architecture.

The most amazing thing about these splendid ruins is their isolation. Tiny towns may have grown up near them, but the inhabitants take hardly any notice of the monuments on their doorstep. There are no souvenir shops, no postcards for sale. In Jesus I had to wait a couple of hours for a bus; hitching was useless, as there was no car in the village - and anyway it was lunchtime. At one house, no different from the others apart from a sign saying it was a restaurant, I was given a bowl of soup. I asked the owner if many tourists came. "A few," she said, "in the summer."

How to get there

VE Tours (0171-437 5022) has a London-Asuncion return fare of pounds 660 (including tax) on Iberia via Madrid. Other options are via Rio, Buenos Aires or Miami.