Why go to Paraguay? Why not? Paraguay is different from Argentina and Brazil with whom it shares a border at Cuidad del Este, just a stone throw from Iguazo. Crossing the border is chaos, traffic is clogged and it’s everyone for themselves – big white Troopies with bull-bars make some people think twice – or at least look twice! An avenue of high-rise shopping centres covered with billboards is a stark contrast to the Brazilian side of the bridge / border which is orderly and calm. A non-stop, frantic ‘herd’ of people were crossing the border in both directions – those going to shop and those who had already shopped – presumably cheaply. With no intention of joining the crowds, we headed north out of the city as fast as we could to visit the Itaipu Dam.
Itaipu Dam is an enormous hydroelectric scheme that provides 80% of Paraguay and 15% of Brazil’s entire power needs. To put this into perspective, Paraguay’s population is about 7 million and the power station also provides power for most of Rio and Sao Paolo in Brazil. Imagine one power plant providing power for all of Australia! The statistics are mind boggling. Until the completion of China’s 3 gorges dam, according to Wikipedia, it was the largest dam in the world. It produced the most electricity of any hydroelectric plant in the world in 2016 and surpassed the 3 gorges dam in production in 2015 & 2016. OK enough statistics.
The next morning we left the highway and headed South, the country changed to rolling hills and plains of deep red loamy soil. Obviously excellent soil, as the fields of maize, soy-bean and Acai that disappeared off to the horizon attested to. Each small town we passed through was lined with car yards, farm machinery yards, tyre repair shops and fuel stations. But the poverty was also obvious by the shanty town dwellings on the outskirts of the towns, along the sides of roads and the temporary housing (tarps, pallets and sheets of tin) presumably housing itinerant farm workers.
We took to the backroads, heading for Parque Nacional San Rafael that has one of the last stands of Atlantic Rainforest left in Paraguay – the rest having been cleared for broad acre crops. These back roads showed how they deal with high rainfall and sloping land – at times the crops were growing 3 metres above us and the gutters on the side of the road were up to 3 metres deep! It obviously works.
Partly restored Jesuit Missions are a bit of a feature of the landscape in this part of Southern Paraguay as they were across the border in Northern Argentina. Built during the 1600’s and then totally abandoned when the Jesuits were expelled in 1767 by the Spanish King, the extensive collection of buildings, including the magnificent chapels were so significant that even partially restored as they are now, you can see how imposing they would have been in their time. We guess if you’re going to indoctrinate people and dramatically change or in some cases totally destroy their culture, you need to be convincing and make a big impression!