Paraguay is a country often skipped off a South American adventure. People go to Bolivia, Brazil and Argentina but always skip tiny Paraguay. I nearly did the same thing but since I had a short period of time to get from La Paz in Bolivia down to Sao Paolo for a flight, I decided to cut through Paraguay! Cut through… it’s horrible isn’t it! But at least I went! And here’s one reason why you should too!
Paraguay was a big change in landscape – I left Bolivia with its high altitude mountainous areas devoid of much plant life, beautiful in its way but stark and almost unwelcoming. As I entered Paraguay I was surrounded by fields of palm trees. Tall ones. As far as the eye could see, palm trees. It is much more lush than any other part of South America I had visited previously – partly due to the time of year (it was coming into spring by the time I got to Paraguay) and partly due to the large rivers that cross the country and give it its borders. The Paraguay River and the River Paraná.
Now, the main thing I wanted to do in Paraguay was to visit the Jesuit ruins down in the south close to the city of Encarnación – La Santísima Trinidad de Paraná and Jesús de Tavarangue. Why did I want to go there? Because of a film!
Have you ever seen a film which truly moves you to tears about something you can’t really understand? I mean we’ve all cried at Marley and Me (if you haven’t you’re most likely an emotionally crippled monster!) but that’s easy to understand. I have lost pets I’ve loved! Hell, I’ve lost people I’ve loved too. Loss of someone is an easily relatable emotion. What isn’t easy to understand is an entire country ravaged by war, a tribe ripped from its roots, foreign powers weighing in and imposing their beliefs on you and yours. This, for the average person is not easy to understand – and if it is easy for you then I feel for you.
The Mission is a film just like that. And sadly, not many people I know have watched it! A British film made in 1986, The Mission is, in my humble opinion, a masterpiece. Set in the jungle between Western Paraguay and North-eastern Argentina the story follows a Spanish Jesuit priest Father Gabriel (played brilliantly by a young Jeremy Irons) who heads into the jungle communities to bring the Guaraní people into the light of Christianity. The story follows the process of this priest and the people as they begin to accept him and build a mission together. Later the Treaty of Madrid reapportioned this land into Portuguese rule which was problematic because the Portuguese wanted to enslave the native people again whereas under the Spanish Jesuits they were free. The Jesuits and the Guaraní are thus forced to protect their land once again.
I won’t give any more away but suffice it to say that the story is fairly close to actual historical fact. Based on a story told in Father C. J. McNapsy’s book “The Lost Cities of Paraguay”, the story is loosely based on events surrounding the Treaty of Madrid in 1750, the suppression of the Jesuits as a result, the Guaraní War 1754-1756, and the Battle of Mbororé in 1641. It has a score by Ennio Morocone – one of the most beautiful film scores you’ll ever come across, and the film is scattered with a wealth of acting talent including Jeremy Irons, Robert De Niro and Liam Neeson.
Although the film is not set in the actual missions that I visited in Paraguay, and the historical basis of the story was also elsewhere, it would have been happening in a similar place. The Guaraní and the Jesuits built lives together in these kinds of buildings across this part of South America surrounding Iguazu Falls. Visiting Jesús and Trinidad gives you at least a sense of the lives that were lead in that period.
Both of these sites were developed in the 17th Century during the colonisation of South America by Jesuit missionaries from Spain. The sites were developed over a period of around 150 years by the Jesuits themselves and the local Guaraní tribes people who the Jesuits were trying to convert to Christianity.
Aside from religion, the Jesuits were instrumental in helping structure the future of Paraguay, Argentina and Brazil after years of fighting had left the local people living in terrible situations. If you ignore for a moment the morality of whether a foreign power should impose its rule and its religion across borders, you can see that the Jesuits helped provide a good standard of life for the Guaraní tribes who had been so worn down and depleted from the ongoing fights to defend their land and way of life from the invading Spanish.
The Jesuit missionaries formed towns which were self-sufficient and allowed several thousand of these nomadic people to settle and start to develop rules of public order, educational systems, cultural platforms etc. which are still the foundations of these communities today. They also worked to build a written form of the Guaraní language which is still widely spoken in Paraguay. Most people actually now speak a mixture of Guaraní and Spanish.
The two most famous missions you can visit in Paraguay are these – Trinidad (above) and Jesús (below). They were both made UNESCO world heritage sites in 1993 and declared a Cultural Patrimony of Humankind. They both have visitor centres and are undergoing constant maintenance so these important parts of Paraguay’s heritage are not lost to the elements.
You can visit them from the city of Encarnación on the local bus which only costs a dollar or two. Trinidad is your first stop and is about 1km off the main road. You’ll then need to take a taxi from the main road up to Jesús or you can wait for a bus but they only come by every hour or so.