Agreed, Pa- raguay is not a mass-market destination. Indeed, some in the travel industry will tell you that no one goes to the landlocked nation at the centre of South America; that there's nothing to see; and that it's poor, corrupt and run down. But in fact Paraguay is full of natural and artistic wonders little known outside the country. So insist you want a ticket to Asunción.
I don't pretend that the Paraguayan capital is the centre of the world. But it does have a new president, a bishop turned politician who has ended six decades of domination by the corrupt Colorado Party. And in the magnificent modern auditorium of the Central Bank of Paraguay, I heard a wonderful piano recital by the Ukrainian Vitaly Samoshko. The venue was buzzing with children who'd come from rural schools to see the performance.
Yet it's the south of Paraguay which has a special charge for me: a mixture of sun-scorched Lincolnshire, cowboys and the finest baroque carving and music of anywhere in the continent. Wide fields of maize, sugar cane and wheat, cut by an occasional lazy river, stretch to broad distant horizons; the pasture lands are full of contented horses, cattle, sheep, goats and sometimes ostriches. Oranges, mandarins and grapefruit fall from the trees in such quantity that they are often left to rot by people who have other things to do than collect them. The area is becoming known as a centre for the production of first-class produce; for instance, consignments of organic sugar are shipped in containers to be sold in British supermarkets.
For a century and a half from 1610, Jesuit missionaries – Spaniards, French, Germans and Italians – founded settlements all over the area. The main purpose, of course, was to convert the local population to Catholicism. But these communities – known as reductions – also helped to protect the indigenous people against Brazilian gangmasters. These men, called bandeirantes, the bearers of the flag, forced the people into slavery. Some of the reductions had to be moved several times in order to escape the attention of the slavers from Brazil – as portrayed in the film The Mission.
The whole edifice came crashing down in 1768 when the governor of Buenos Aires, acting on the orders of the Spanish crown, closed the reductions and sent the fathers into exile.
After the Jesuits were kicked out, life in the countryside became grim – especially for the Guarani people. And no time was worse than the War of the Triple Alliance which started in 1865. Before it began, Brazil, Argentina and Uruguay had signed a secret pact to put an end to Paraguay. In an operation that bears similarities to the 2003 invasion of Iraq, Paraguay and its dictator Francisco Solano López were attacked by the combined forces of the neighbours.
After some stiff resistance the Alliance came in and slaughtered most of the men and a good proportion of the women and children. The country, which had a population of more than half a million before the war, was left with only about 28,000 men when it was over.
Humaitá, a little town on the Paraguay River, was the scene of one of the worst battles. They raged around the Batería Londres, named in honour of the English military experts who helped López to arm himself. Its guns were for a time powerful enough to halt the Alliance troops. But eventually the starving and ragged Paraguayans were overcome by the force of numbers and fled.
The masonry skills taught by the Jesuits have miraculously survived. At the church at the settlement of Jesús, a stone capital of a column lies unfinished. The ruins that survive compare well with Fountains Abbey in Yorkshire or Tintern in the Wye Valley, and after two centuries of neglect and destruction are now being looked after and promoted as one of the continent's wonders. They remain in their desolate grandeur to this day. Jesús itself, San Ignacio Guazú, Santa Rosa, Santa María de Fe, Trinidad, San Cosmé y Damiá*and others are well worth a visit.
In the museum of Santa María de Fe, one of the best in the area, there is the priceless treasure of more than 40 statues carved in the 17th and 18th centuries. These are the sole survivors of the hundreds which adorned the original mission church, now destroyed. European museums have sought to borrow some for exhibitions but when the villagers learnt of the plans they camped outside the door.
"We had all the paperwork ready for a temporary loan to French museums," says Isabelino Martínez, who looks after the collection. "But the parishioners stopped that. I had to present excuses to the French ambassador."
Even 240 years after the fathers disappeared into exile, the arts of carving have been preserved. Visitors to the tiny but exquisite Santa María Hotel, which is run by the English scholar Margaret Hebblethwaite, can see the work of local craftsmen – and buy it. I commissioned a substantial plaque of a passion flower in the local red stone from Domingo at his little studio just outside the village. It was ready the next day, price less than £50, and I brought it home in my hand luggage.
There are many things to discover in Paraguay. Perhaps it's time you let your travel agent know about them.
There are no direct flights from the UK to Paraguay. A common approach to Asunción, is on the Brazilian airline, TAM (020-8897 0005; tam.com.br ) from Heathrow, via Sao Paulo. You can also travel overland from Brazil via the Iguacu Falls.
An eight-day "Highlights of Paraguay" tour costs £795 (plus international flights) from the specialist South American Experience (0845 277 3366; southamericanexperience.co.uk ).
Santa Maria Hotel, Santa Maria de Fe, Missiones (00 595 781 283311; santamariahotel.org ). Double rooms start at $20 (£14).
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