Travel: Postcard from Paraguay

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For an intriguing combination of nostalgia and adventure, there's nowhere quite like Paraguay, writes

Robert del Quiaro.

Central post offices in the capitals of Latin America were built to impress people for whom the writing of a letter or a telegram was an event of much contemplation and the sending of it a wrestling match with a sinewy arm of the state. Tall doors would revolve to admit pensioners, office boys and girls, and travellers, who all trudged over mosaics for many metres. Lately, though, cuts and shortages have slackened the states' biceps. Doors squeak and stick, brass is smeary, positions are attended only by a few distracted clerks among terse cards - cerrado, fechado, ferme - closed, in any language.

Not so in Paraguay. There, a habitual make-do grandeur and lack of cash meant that the capital's post office was improvised in an old townhouse of a single storey. Asuncin still has this delightful amenity. In rooms off all four sides of the central courtyard, packages are weighed where the mistress of the house used to chivvy the laundry women about the starch in the collars; customs declarations are handed over where the master drank his bitter tea and read the paper; ink-pads and sealing wax are stored where the children kept their rocking-horses and dolls' houses.

Customers stand at writing-desks in the covered patio, with their backs to the luxuriant central garden. When inspiration fails and you turn away from the pallid stationery, rich colours of the sub-tropics refresh the mind, and it's as though some wild and innocent tongue might at any moment chirrup a prompt from among the leaves and flowers, and even protrude to lick your stamps.

Asuncin is a low-built city laid out as a grid, always offering glimpses of green - plants hanging from house walls, lush banks of the rivers that meet nearby. The language you hear people speaking here sounds more like Chinese than anything European. Guaran was spoken - but not written - long before the Spaniards arrived. It's widely used by Paraguayans, whether they have indigenous blood or not, and the Paraguayan currency, out of extra respect, is the guarani.

To see how the country used to live - and continues to live now - get out of the city and visit the remains of Jesuit missions. They ran the region as a theocratic colony for more than a century until the Spanish empire expelled it in 1767.

Then spend time on an estancia (cattle ranch). The tourist bureau in Asuncin can arrange that - expect old-fashioned, macho-type encounters amid grand horizons, strong wrists, long whips, supple horses and sizzling steaks. Vegetarians do not thrive here.

Up the River Paraguay, when it's not in flood, there are boat trips to Concepcin, half-way across the country, and even as far as Corumb on the frontier of Brazil and Bolivia.

That's at the edge of the Pantanal, one of the greatest expanses of wetland left on the planet, with wildlife galore, mob-handed mosquitoes and slow to-ings and fro-ings in mist and sunlight of herds of long-horned cattle - a kind of Chisholm Trail up to its knees in water. Watch out for the African crocodiles that some fool of an entrepreneur has started to breed farther down the rivers. A close encounter here ... well, that would be something to write home about.

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