Have you been to the heart of South America? No, not Rio’s beaches, Buenos Aires’ tango halls, or even Peru’s Inca ruins. Those may be some of the cultural hearts of the continent, but they’re not the geographical heart. That would Paraguay.
Landlocked Paraguay—it’s surrounded by Argentina, Brazil, and Bolivia—is an isolated country that receives few visitors. It’s history is full of oppression. First the Spanish colonizers, then the Paraguayan War, and eventually a long-serving military dictator. Though things have only started to change in the last decade, the economy has rapidly expanded and tourists have begun exploring places that aren’t well documented in that short period of time.
Encarnación is the good introduction to the country. “The pearl of the south” sits along the Paraná River in southeastern Paraguay. The San Roque González de Santa Cruz Bridge connects the city to Posadas, Argentina across the river. Argentines cross the border to go shopping. They’re enticed by lower prices, lower taxes, and, more and more, the beachy atmosphere. Encarnación has a wide beach and a lively costanera (waterfront boardwalk). Add humid, subtropical weather—at 81 degrees, it’s the coolest city in the country right now—and it’s not surprising that so many German, Ukrainian, and Polish expats call Encarnación home.
After you cross the border yourself, check in to the Milord Hotel Boutique, one of Paraguay’s first boutique hotels. Rooms have bright pops of color, pillow menus, and balconies with river views. The pool offers an escape from the mid-afternoon heat. The restaurant, with its extensive Argentine and Chilean wine list, is a place to be seen. And that tempting beach is only a short walk away.
Get to know the city by walking around the palm tree-lined Plaza de Armas. Visit the churches: the grand Encarnación Cathedral and the small Orthodox Church. The Ukrainian Orthodox Church, on Plaza Artigas, has Cyrillic inscriptions inside. Check out the religious art at the Museo de Arte Sacro. The sculptures and the paintings are housed in Villa Lina, a 20th-century Italian-style building. Ride a karumbe. The yellow, horse-drawn carriages were once taxis; they now show tourists around (for free) on the weekends. Eat Brazilian, Japanese, or Italian food. Wherever you go, the portions are big and the prices are cheap. And enjoy the late-afternoon breeze while people watching on the beach.
Tomorrow, visit the Jesuit Missions of La Santísima Trinidad de Paraná and Jesús de Tavarangue. The nearby UNESCO World Heritage Site, built during the 17th century, was one of the largest and the most impressive missions built by the Spanish in South America. It’s known for it’s rose-shaped carved stone, friezes of angels, and stone pulpit. Walk around the ruins, enjoy the view of the countryside, and listen to Guaraní folk music as the sun begins to set beyond the red bricks. Though this is one of Paraguay’s most significant historical sites, there’s been no crowds and no hurry. Expect that to change soon.