Filadelfia, here I come

Trip Start Dec 03, 2005
Trip End Jul 19, 2007

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Flag of Paraguay  ,
Thursday, August 31, 2006

Getting to Filadelfia via the Trans-Chaco actually turned out to be easy in a hard way in the end. I realised that sometimes you just have to stop fighting for what you think you can do and just accept what you actually can do within the limitations of what there is on offer. The internet won the information battle in the end and it would seem the immigration post at Boyuibe has been closed for some time and moved to Ibibobo as the Santa Cruz - Villamontes route is now paved which makes it the route of preference.

There are only two buses that ply this route and both leave at 3am. Luckily the lady at the station was very friendly and helpful and when she found out I was homeless for the night she offered me a mattress on the floor of the courtyard outside her mother-in-laws house which was where the bus would stop later.

So I left my bag at the station and headed off to explore Villamontes. There wasn't really that much to do here but luckily I met up with a lovely lass, Rosario, and we did lunch together. It would have been good to see the museum for the Bolivian point of view on the Chaco War but the guy on duty seemed to take his siesta seriously and didn't open again in the afternoon. I had to commit the worst of sins and actually get a book out to read. Horror of horrors!

At a groggy 3am I woke up as the first bus passed by. Typically this was not the one I had a seat on. My one finally did arrive, only two hours late! But it did arrive which is what counts. On I got only to discover someone sleeping in my seat and the only one free was right at the back beside the toilet. Normally this wouldn't be such an issue but picture a dirt road, actually more like a dust road and one that is not smooth, dodgy suspension and a toilet bowl with chemicals and what-not swirling around. Not very pleasant. Ho hum.

The whole bus trip was a tad nerve wracking really. The bus was going to Asunción and I wanted to get to Filadelfia which wasn't on the route. I had to get off at the nearest crossroads where a bus would pass by at 18.30. With the bus being two hours late already I wasn't feeling too confident about getting there on time and from what I had heard from talking to people there were no hotels or hostals nearby. It didn't help that we had to stop at least four times: one - to exit Bolivia, two - a random stop at a military post in Paraguay, three - narcotics control and four - entry to Paraguay. The immigration guard wasn't too sure if the Republic needed a visa so asked me to "wait outside" while he fleeced all the Bolivians of around USD$5 each. Second to Venezuela I had heard a lot about corruption along the borders in Paraguay and was expecting the same as the Bolivians. The only problem was that the only US currency I had had to do me until I got to Asunción (there are no international ATMs in Filadelfia) and I was sure he would fleece me more being of 'foreign' foreign extraction. In the meantime, three French chaps breezed in and out with no problems while I was still waiting. Eventually, with just three people left in the queue, I got the nod to head back in. Palms sweating and nerves running high, waiting to hear that either I couldn't enter, full stop, or I couldn't enter without a little bit of help from Mr Dollar, I went back in. Somehow, he had decided that the paper referred to the entire island of Ireland and I didn't need a visa and stamped my passport. As we shook hands to say goodbye he wished me a safe trip and I headed off to board the bus again. Time was pressing on.

Somehow, despite all these stops and delays, the bus made it to the crossroads with thirty minutes to spare. How relieved was I? Now, imagine an average crossroads and you can see just two routes crossing. Imagine it like a '+' with the bottom being the south. Well, I came from the west, Asunción was east and Filadelfia headed north. Not being sure where the bus was coming from I asked a local where I should wait and they said on the south section. Having learnt that you should always double check, I asked two more with the conversation going something like the following:

Me: "Where should I wait, here or there" (pointing)
Them: "Yes"
Me: "So which one, the corner over there?"
Them: "Yes"
Me: "And the bus comes from over there?" (pointing south)
Them: "Yes"

So feeling confident the bus was coming from the south, I waited there only to see it whizz by going from east to north! Aaaaaaaagggggghhhhhhhhhhh!!! This was the first time in the whole trip that I was lost for what to do - no accomodation for the night and no bridge in sight. So I had to put plan B into action. Having practiced my lines ("hello handsome") and put my eyelids into overdrive I headed for the local police station to see if they would have a bed on offer, it would be an experience at least, or maybe even if they could offer me a lift. After some chatting, Victor, Juan and Ani all escorted me in the local mean-machine to Filadelfia! How cool were they and how lucky was I?

The Chaco was as expected - dusty, no houses in sight with only the odd military post here and there and full of bushes and trees. No jaguars or pumas spotted though. The strangest thing I saw was the "bottle" tree, kind of bloated in the centre with what looked like cotton pods for seeds. So called, apparently, because it seemed like a bottle to the first Mennonites who arrived. Despite it's severe dryness, the Chaco area is known for it's milk products. I suddenly had this image of Dublin and York waft in front of me except instead of Guinness or chocolate it was Dulce de Leche blowing in the wind, something akin to sweetened condensed milk but used as a bread spread and in cakes.

If Paraguay isn't on the Gringo Trail Filadelfia is even less so. I actually felt less of a tourist than the locals. Quite a lot are descendents of Canadian or German Mennonites and sport blond hair and skin paler than Snow White. I even spoke better Spanish than they did! Their primary language is German, apparently of the Low variety which I believe to be older than the version currently spoken in Germany. Very few, especially of the older generation, even understood Spanish. I was lost for words (yup, me, lost for words, can you believe it??) when I went to the local supermarket and the lady at the checkout rattled something strange off.

The old form of transport (ox and cart) has since been replaced with motorbikes and scooters which zoomed around town. Asunción, on the other hand, has more horses on the streets than Dublin is so famously renowned for (I'm sure this is entirely due to the film Commitments). Most of these came with cart and were usually transporting something to or from the markets.

Asunción itself has very little to see and all can be seen in a half day or full day at the most. If you're into lace or such like then a visit to Itauguá is a must as it is the centre for ñanduti (aka spider web lace) which is absolutely incredible. The detail and intricacy is outstanding!

Having had my fill of concrete and buildings I headed off for some peace and quiet with the aim of visiting Parque Nacional Ybycuí for a day. As it turns out, there is no choice but to overnight it in the park as transport doesn't return on the same day. There are no hostels inside the park and having no tent meant that I had to give it a miss. I was initially disappointed but reading another person's report made me feel a bit better as they said it's good point was lots of butterflies (which I had already seen in Bolivia near Santa Cruz) but otherwise it was just average.

So far I hadn't seen any other tourists but I expected that to end when I got to Trinidad and Jesús near Encarnación. Encarnación itself is just a border town selling lots of cheap goods. I arrived on a Sunday when the town is like a ghost town with everything shut for the day so didn't get to see what was on offer. But the two Jesuit ruins were open and I headed out there. Yet again, you pay an entry fee but unless you know something about them beforehand, all you get to see are the ruins. No information boards or handout and extra for a guide. Having seen both ruins (where there were more tourists, although I guess they could have been from Filadelfia) and with the town closed for the day I decided to cut my losses and headed north for Ciudad del Este to see the Itaipú dam (one of the Seven Wonders of the Modern World).

It is quite jaw dropping to think that 700,000 litres of water per second gush through the concrete tubes of the main dam! Not only that, but it's construction used enough concrete to construct a road from the dam as far north as New York! So with Ciudad del Este being another border town selling cheap goods and with nothing else to keep me busy, I left for the Argentine side of the Iguazu Falls which are apparently at their dryest that anyone can remember since 1970.

Things I learnt

The Mennonites are an evangelical church. It started during the reformation in the sixteenth century. As a consequence of a disagreement with the Swiss reformer they formed a community of independent brothers in 1525. They tried to live a life by strictly following the commands of the bible. They only allowed baptism for adults who showed faith in God. The rejected military services as well as the state church. The name Mennonite comes from the preacher Menno Simons who was a catholic priest who left the church and went to live in Witmarsum in Holland. They received the name Mennonite to separate them from the rest of the protestant groups. Many Mennonites from Holland emigrated to Germany due to religious persecution. Others went to Prussia whose government invited them and also the region of the River Danube. The Queen of Russia invited them to settle in the southern region near the Black Sea where they founded the Colony Chortitzer named after the river Chortitz. From Russia they moved on to settle in America and Canada in 1874 where most Mennonites live even today.

Most of the population in the Menno Colony belong to the Mennonite Evangelical Church. Their faith in God has always marked the people of this colony. Believing that it was the will of God and in order to not lose their faith they were ready to deny the world and face the tough life of colonisation in the wilderness of the Paraguayan Chaco. The congregational life at the beginning was characterized by the strong traditional way of dressing and church choirs. The school system was poor and simple.

The Menno Colony is a community in the Central Chaco formed by Mennonites of European and Canadian descent. The population is about 9000 people. Loma Plata, the centre of the colony, is the seat of administration. Their main source of income is milk but beef, cotton and peanuts also feature strongly.

The colony was founded in 1927 with 200 families. They left Canada because the Canadian government did not allow them to administrate their own schools which they considered to be an attack on their religion. The wild and untamed Chaco along with the promises of the Paraguayan government to allow them to self-administrate according to their belief along with not enforcing military service made them choose the Chaco as their new home.

Ther first years and decades have become known as "Green Hell". They were hard and required a lot of sacrifice in the name of the colony. They had few economical resources, no roads or means of communication as well as poor medical supplies and education. As time went on, congregational life became more active. Sermons were preached and Sunday school was started. They also started their missionary work with the local indians that lived in the area. They built a hospital and a home for the senior people of the colony.

Itaipú dam
The construction and erection of Itaipú dam required close to 1,200,000 sheets of designs and lists of materials for the preparation and revision of the project. If stacked, this pile of documents would reach a height equivalent to that of a fifty storey building.

The total volume of concrete employed in the construction of Itaipú, close to 12.3 million metres³, would be sufficient to construct 210 Maracaná stadiums (Rio de Janeiro).

The iron and steel construction used would build 380 Eiffel Towers.

With a maximum discharge rate of 62.2 thousand m³/s, the Itaipú spillway possesses the capacity to launch the equivalent of 40 times the average flow of the Iguazu Falls.



For once, the Book of Lies was actually telling the truth and tourists did, in fact, seem to be rarer than jaguars. Never had I seen so many heads turn to look at me as if I was Miss World (or maybe more a person with two heads. I guess it didn't help that I had just dyed my hair the brightest red you can imagine!). After a while I decided to take up the philosophy of 'stare and stare alike'. Well, maybe not quite but I did wave my hand or say hello. Strangely enough, as quick as they had turned to stare, they turned back again although the odd one did return the greeting. The people are very friendly but it's not quite the same as Peru or Ecuador where only five minutes after hopping on a bus you're chatting to your neighbour as if they were your best friend from childhood.

The tourist infrastructure (except for Itaipú) is practically non existent and unless you have your own transport getting where you want can be a little tricky. As I depended on public transport and didn't know where to get off I would ask the driver to give me a shout when they arrived at my intended destination. Bearing in mind what I said above about drawing attention, it was rather frustrating when the driver 'forgot' to let me know, despite me sitting in one of the front seats!

Paraguay is quite different to the B.E.P (Bolivia, Ecuador, Peru) countries. I'd put it parallel with Venezuela in terms of cost and quality of life which was higher than B.E.P's but didn't quite reach Brazil's. Having said that, I found it rather sad that the poorer part of town (read slum) in Asunción was located directly below and next to the 'Palacio del Gobierno'.

Although I didn't do it justice by staying just ten days and visiting only five places I can now understand why Paraguay doesn't rate high on the list of unmissable destinations for the tourist and even more so why it doesn't feature on Gringo Trail...
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