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Monday, July 23, 2012

Tourism in Paraguay

            Something that has struck me in the time since my last entry has been what makes Paraguay such a difficult country to develop large-scale tourism. I have felt on many occasions that while the potential for tourism, particularly eco-tourism, exists, many of the potential destinations within Paraguay lack many essential infrastructures, marketing, and most importantly international recognition initiatives. This topic sparked my interest of late because of my interaction with an American tourist who has been living and traveling across South America since December.
            The other week I was sitting at home and I got a phone call from another volunteer asking if I would mind hosting a backpacker named Alex for a few days as he headed towards Cuidad del Este. Naturally I said yes after I a brief conversation and I agreed to meet him at the bus stop in O’Leary at 3:30 on Friday. It was really interesting talking to another American my age that is not in Peace Corps about his perspective on Paraguay. Living here and doing the work that I do, at times, inhibits you from realizing the dramatic differences of other countries in South America.  Alex told me that he had been through Ecuador, Colombia, Peru, Chile, Bolivia, northern Argentina, and now Paraguay during his travels. For the most part he found Paraguay to be one of the more difficult country’s to travel in despite the fact that it isn’t the poorest. Some of the things he mentioned that really hit home for me were that the food is very basic likely due to the relative isolation Paraguay experiences from international commerce particularly because it is landlocked. He also mentioned that compared to the other places he had been traveling hotels were more expensive Paraguay. That comment caught me off guard for a minute, but then he explained that Paraguay doesn’t have a large amount of international travelers passing through outside of Argentineans and Brazilians, most whom are here on business rather than vacation. As a result, the amount of hostels outside of Asuncion and Cuidad del Este are extremely limited. With regards to travel, Paraguay doesn’t have a domestic supply of oil thus forcing it to import all of its oil from other countries principally Venezuela and Colombia. Since Paraguay no longer has any form of mass transit outside of busses, which require tons of fuel, the cost to travel long distances is much higher than poorer South American countries or very comparable to the costs one would find in wealthier nations like Chile or Argentina. The last thing that really struck me was how grateful he was that he stumbled across Peace Corps Volunteers in his time in Paraguay saying that it would have been next to impossible to see the travel opportunities that exist.
            I would say that the majority of the information I receive concerning places to see in Paraguay comes from word of mouth, or from recommendations by other volunteers. At times I’ll have a Paraguayan recommend a place to go, but the concept of a vacation where one goes to site see something of note far away is an expensive prospect for many Paraguayans. Even within O’Leary, where there is a beautiful lake that is relatively easy to access and convenient for people living out here to see, very few people can say they’ve been in their lifetimes even though it is so close. Alex expressed this point several times during his stay, emphasizing that without the recommendations of volunteers in different areas he would have had no idea where to go, how to get somewhere, or where he could find a place stay for cheap. I couldn’t agree more with that statement for several reasons, but principally what stands out to me about tourism and traveling in Paraguay is the general lack of information the outside world has on the unique places that exist here.
            It isn’t a surprise most people know little to nothing about Paraguay and what there is to see. Growing up I had the opportunity to travel to South America on several occasions with my family spending time in Argentina, Uruguay, Chile, Peru, and Colombia. In all that time Paraguay never came up as a potential destination for our travels. When I received my invitation to join the Peace Corps the only things I knew about Paraguay was that it was landlocked, the capital is Asuncion, it is close to Yguazu falls, and that its world cup team made it to the quarter finals in 2010. Paraguay has no mountains, no ocean, 66% of the landmass is in the sparsely populated and rugged Chaco, which is essentially a vast wasteland too rough for farming with no natural resources. The national parks are not internationally well known, there is massive deforestation in many of the remaining areas where wildlife thrives, and the eastern part of the country is noted for being a dangerous area because of the drug trade. On paper it seems to be one of the most tourist unfriendly places on earth, but since I have been here I am constantly amazed by the amount of things there actually are to see. If it hadn’t been for Peace Corp, I don’t think I would have made it to Paraguay for the reasons listed above, but living here has given me the opportunity to go off the beaten path and recognize that every country in the world has places where you can be amazed by what you see. To this point in my service I have been fortunate to see many of those places most of which one would not be able to find in any guidebook about South America.
Salto Monday
            As I mentioned, recognition of Paraguay’s travel opportunities is very limited. I have only come across one book that is exclusively a travel guide to the sites in Paraguay. Most books are limited it to 15 pages emphasizing the major cities and certain areas outside of them principally the Itaipu dam and the Jesuit Ruins. A big reason for that is the lack of infrastructure that would provide access to many areas that could attract tourists. For example, to get to the lake Yguazu close to where I live one would have to get off bus on the largest highway in Paraguay, only 2 lanes, walk 3 km down a main road, turn left at a very small sign that indicates the entrance to the lake, and walk another 1.5 km down an even smaller dirt path to get to the lake. That is just one example of the travel challenges. Recently I went on a trip with Mike’s youth group to Salto Monday (Monday Falls) near Cuidad del Este. Using the funds the group had raised we contracted a guy who owned a van to take us to the falls. On the way we managed to get lost on several occasions even though Salto Monday is a well-known waterfall in the area. We ended up driving through more than a few residential neighborhoods, and asked 3 different people how to get there. We repeated this trend again on the way back. Once we got there it was amazing how nice the waterfall and the small park surrounding it was. There was a well built ticket both, the cost was a little over a dollar to get in, there was a good looking observation deck, a snack bar, and tons of old trees that provided plenty of shade for the numerous benches that were put in throughout. It was by no means the biggest waterfall in the world, but it was still impressive. The problem though was getting there. If we didn’t have the driver I don’t think we would have been able to make it. I’ve heard there are busses that pass by, but no one seemed to know what the bus is called, where it leaves from, or the times it eaves. It took a fairly decent chunk of change for us to get privately driven there, so it is no wonder that people from all over Paraguay don’t go out of their way to see it.

            Another relatable example is the trek to see Salto Cristal (Glass Falls) located close to the Japanese Colony La Colmena. In order to get there one has to travel to the city of Villarica (Rich Village), which is roughly a 3.5-hour bus ride from both Asuncion and Cuidad del Este. They then have to catch another bus to La Colmena, which is about an hour from Villarica. Once in La Colmena you have to find someone who operates a taxi service to take you to the area where the falls are. Once you get there you have to walk down an extremely steep rock face. If you manage to survive your there and it’s awesome, but the trek is challenging for anyone particularly if you are coming to Paraguay as a tourist. I have been to both places, but would have never thought to go to either place if it wasn’t for my interactions with other Peace Corps Volunteers. Additionally, both are not as well known as they should be, and both are very difficult to get to both physically and financially. While many of the coolest site to see in Paraguay are like Salto Monday and Cristal there are a couple of notable exceptions of places that are internationally known. Itapu Dam and the Jesuit Ruins are both famous places that are recognized as attractions beyond the immediate region. However, a large reason for those differences is the influx of money and more international acknowledgment that has come as a result overshadow many of the other cool tourist spots like Salto Monday and Cristal, which are both lacking substantial funding and promotion.
            Itaipu Dam, meaning the sound of a stone in Guarani because of the sound it makes when water is running through the causeways of the dam, is one of the world’s largest dams, and is the world’s largest dam, according to Wikipedia, in terms of annual energy generation. It is located on the Paraná River in between Brazil and Paraguay. The amount of energy produced by the dam exceeds the energy demands for the entire country of Paraguay meaning the excess power is sold to Brazil and Argentina. The energy produced by the dam is the single largest individual source of capital for the Paraguayan government. As a result the dam has received widespread international attention including its recognition as one of the 7 wonders of the modern world by the American Society of Engineers in 1995. With credentials like that it is no wonder that the dam is an attraction to behold in Paraguay. Itaipu also has a foundation that will bus students from different schools to the dam for a tour at no cost to the school. Many people, particularly ones around me, have seen the dam for that reason. It is also one of the things many people mentioned as something I might want to see down here before I left America. Itaipu is a very modern marvel, but Paraguay also has a rich history of Jesuit missions during colonial times that especially within the last 20 years have also garnered a lot of international attention.
Trinidad de Paraná
Trinidad de Paraná
            Commonly referred to as the Jesuit Reductions because of the Spanish Empire’s desire to break down the power of the various indigenous groups in the region so they could Christianize, tax and govern them effectively during the 17th a-18th centuries, there are 4 notable sites within Paraguay where people can see the ruins of the missions, 2 of which, the Jesuit Missions of La Santísima Trinidad de Paraná and Jesús de Tavarangue, have been listed as UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Culture Organization) World Heritage Sites. As a result of the designation many archeological teams from across the world have spent time excavating the ruins. Along with the excavation large amounts of money have been contributed by the government of Spain, the Paraguayan industry of tourism called SENATUR, and a variety of NGO’s. On the grounds of the ruins there is a visitor center, small museums, tour guides in Spanish and Guarani, and a series of spotlights for night visits. It costs 25 thousand Guarani’s for a ticket (roughly $6.50), and visitors have the option of renting bikes for a day or half day to ride the 12 KM distance between the 2 locations of the different missions. Hands down the ruins are the most well organized and preserved relics of Paraguay’s colonial past. I was amazed by how interesting and impressive the ruins were when I visited. I have been fortunate enough to see a number of World Heritage Sites around the world, so my expectations for the ones here were pretty low at first. I couldn’t have been more wrong. The ruins themselves illustrate the complex history of Paraguay and provide fascinating insight into the many cultural aspects that still exist today.
Jesús de Tavarangue
            All in all I guess I’m coming to the corny conclusion that you can’t judge a book by its cover. Sadly Paraguay doesn’t have many written books whose covers can be judged, but that doesn’t mean that there aren’t many fascinating place to see if you just take the time to dig a little deeper into what’s at the end of those country roads. If you’re interested in learning a bit more about tourism opportunities in Paraguay, or reading more about the topics I discussed the following is a list to a few links that might be of interest:

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