An air of mystery hangs over this little-visited pocket of South America, a country of farmland, forest and folklore. Landlocked Paraguay has had a strange history of charismatic leaders, steadfastness and isolation.
It’s often assumed that the Spanish and Portuguese conquered all of South America, yet in Paraguay events took a strange turn when the Guaraní Indians absorbed a Spanish expedition led by Pedro de Mendoza into their culture, creating a strange hybrid society. Its music, too, marks it apart from its neighbours – instead of the grinding rhythms of salsa or tango, Paraguay prefers to sway to sentimental love songs and European dances accompanied by virtuoso harp players and guitarists.
Now, though, the differences between Paraguay and the rest of South America are becoming less distinct – politically, the country is part of the Mercosur economic union, with well-established trade routes to Argentina and Brazil. Moreover, the road to Bolivia is becoming more and more navigable – in the dry season, at least: the Trans-Chaco is now considered one of South America’s greatest road trips… and certainly the bumpiest.
Outside the capital of Asunción, head to the south where the remains of Mission settlements built by the Jesuits in the 18th century lie among lush, tropical forest near the banks of the Río Paraná. Vestiges of the fine craftsmanship of the Guaraní Indians who followed the Missions are scattered around the towns of Trinidad and Jesús. The Jesuit Museum at San Ignacio Guazú is a testament to their work, arguably one of the most significant social experiments on the South American continent.
In the north and west, the countryside turns decidedly inhospitable. The Chaco is inhabited by a handful of Mennonite communities, indigenous peoples and the odd military outpost. But where the people are few, the wildlife is plentiful – cross the marshes and the thorny wilderness where jaguar, puma and tapir prowl and the trees are filled with a wealth of twittering, glittering birdlife.
Wherever you roam in Paraguay, you are guaranteed to develop a taste for mate (a tea-like drink) – the locals love it even more than the British love a cuppa. Drinking mate is such a way of life here that it is not unusual to see a leather-clad biker speeding on his mean machine, Thermos under one arm, mate gourd in hand, pouring as he rides.