From endless plains to stunning ruins, Paraguay has a lot to offer

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.


Getting there

There are no direct flights from the UK to Paraguay. A common approach to Asunción, is on the Brazilian airline, TAM (020-8897 0005; ) 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; ).

Staying there

Santa Maria Hotel, Santa Maria de Fe, Missiones (00 595 781 283311; ). Double rooms start at $20 (£14).

Further information

Paraguay Tourism: (00 595 21 494 110; ; ).

Suggested Topics
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

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

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    Recruitment Genius: Technical Supervisor

    £24800 - £29000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: As one of London's leading Muse...

    Recruitment Genius: Centre Manager

    £14000 - £18000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

    Guru Careers: Accountant

    £28 - 45k (DOE): Guru Careers: An Accountant is needed to take control of the ...

    Recruitment Genius: Hotel Assistant Manager

    £18000 - £20000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This hotel in Chadderton is a p...

    Day In a Page

    Fishing for votes with Nigel Farage: The Ukip leader shows how he can work an audience as he casts his line to the disaffected of Grimsby

    Fishing is on Nigel Farage's mind

    Ukip leader casts a line to the disaffected
    Who is bombing whom in the Middle East? It's amazing they don't all hit each other

    Who is bombing whom in the Middle East?

    Robert Fisk untangles the countries and factions
    China's influence on fashion: At the top of the game both creatively and commercially

    China's influence on fashion

    At the top of the game both creatively and commercially
    Lord O’Donnell: Former cabinet secretary on the election and life away from the levers of power

    The man known as GOD has a reputation for getting the job done

    Lord O'Donnell's three principles of rule
    Rainbow shades: It's all bright on the night

    Rainbow shades

    It's all bright on the night
    'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

    Bread from heaven

    Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
    Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

    How 'the Axe' helped Labour

    UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power
    Rare and exclusive video shows the horrific price paid by activists for challenging the rule of jihadist extremists in Syria

    The price to be paid for challenging the rule of extremists

    A revolution now 'consuming its own children'
    Welcome to the world of Megagames

    Welcome to the world of Megagames

    300 players take part in Watch the Skies! board game in London
    'Nymphomaniac' actress reveals what it was really like to star in one of the most explicit films ever

    Charlotte Gainsbourg on 'Nymphomaniac'

    Starring in one of the most explicit films ever
    Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers

    Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi

    The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers
    Vince Cable interview: Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'

    Vince Cable exclusive interview

    Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'
    Iwan Rheon interview: Game of Thrones star returns to his Welsh roots to record debut album

    Iwan Rheon is returning to his Welsh roots

    Rheon is best known for his role as the Bastard of Bolton. It's gruelling playing a sadistic torturer, he tells Craig McLean, but it hasn't stopped him recording an album of Welsh psychedelia
    Russell Brand's interview with Ed Miliband has got everyone talking about The Trews

    Everyone is talking about The Trews

    Russell Brand's 'true news' videos attract millions of viewers. But today's 'Milibrand' interview introduced his resolutely amateurish style to a whole new crowd
    Morne Hardenberg interview: Cameraman for BBC's upcoming show Shark on filming the ocean's most dangerous predator

    It's time for my close-up

    Meet the man who films great whites for a living