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Signature Paraguay: The Missions and the Chaco

Day 1

City tour of Asunción.

The 15km journey to the city of Asunción from the airport in Luque takes around half an hour. Having  arrived at your hotel you’ll later be taken on a tour of the capital’s highlights. As recently as the latter part of the 20th century Asuncion was the backwater  capital of a military dictatorship, a quirky place where the centre of town was colonised by Korean shopkeepers selling contraband electronic equipment (there are still plenty of them trading there). Nowadays, in more democratic times, both artistic creativity and pride in the city’s long history (it was founded in 1537) thrive, and you will see how in your enlightening guided city tour.

The once literally crumbling, battle-scarred  buildings from the Spanish colonial era in the historic centre have been given a facelift, and your stroll around the four main plazas will reveal imposing buildings such as the Panteón, where past heroes are interred; the Casa de la Independencia, where freedom from Spain was plotted. Perched high above the Paraguay river, a sleepy tree-lined square links the striking white Cathedral with the rose-hued Cabildo, the national seat of government until 1894 when it moved to the elegant Palacio de López nearby.

Stops may include the old railway station frozen in time since the late 1800s when British-built steam trains connected Asunción with the interior. In another reference to the turbulent past, the base of a defiled statue of former president Alfredo Stroessner sits within the Plaza de los Desaparecidos (Plaza of the Disappeared).  Meanwhile contemporary younger generation is promoting diversity with a series of striking murals and art exhibitions.  

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Day 2

Visit Sapucai railway museum.

Deep in the countryside and around 90km (2hrs) from the capital, sleepy Sapucai feels like the end of the line, although the railway on which it sits once ran all the way to Encarnación on the border with Argentina.  The railway service in Paraguay may well be the first in Latin America – other lines dispute this claim but it is certainly one of the pioneering ventures on the continent. And it was the British who oversaw and engineered the building of the track (and stock) which ran from Asuncion to Sapucai, where, since the railway fell out of use, many of the old engines have come to rest, rusting away in sheds or out in the meadows around.

On your guided visit you’ll be able to wander the ghostly graveyard of rolling stock and the little museum in one of the enormous old sheds will definitely be of interest to railway buffs. Near the railway is Villa Inglesa, a jumble of tumbledown houses and once-grand villas built by the engineers, many of which are still lived in. 

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Day 3

Drive through the Chaco wilderness of pastures, wetlands and thorn forests.

Today you’ll be setting off into a true wilderness: the wildly beautiful Chaco, a remote area of barely populated marshland, lagoons, cattle prairies and semi-arid plains. The tiny population includes members of the indigenous Guarani community, and relatively affluent pioneer settlements established by pacifist Mennonites from Russia and Europe who fled military service in their own countries.

The latter includes Filadelfia (an orderly town of 10,000 souls specialising in cattle-ranching), 460km from Asuncion, which you reach by the lonely Trans-Chaco “highway” which goes on to cross the border into Bolivia. 

On both sides of the road a vast savannah unfolds, studded with thousands of fan-shaped palm trees. Occasional lagoons appear by the roadside and if you are lucky you may spot egrets, roseate spoonbills and jabiru storks.  Cross the Tropic of Capricorn and the characteristic palm forest of the humid Chaco gives way to the arid savannah of the dry Chaco, with its bottle-shaped trees and huge cacti.

Arrive in Filadelfia late afternoon, with time at leisure to relax and explore the town (there’s a bookshop, a couple of banks and a gift shop – that’s about it) and engage with its friendly High German-speaking inhabitants, some of whom also speak English. 

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Day 4

Safari tour of the salt lakes and cactus forests of the Chaco.
The Chaco

Today you’ll set off to explore the hinterland of salt-water lagoons and native Chaco forest within a couple of hours' drive of Filadelfia and the nearby Mennonite colony of Loma Plata. The beautiful savannah here is rich in wildlife, especially birds. If you are lucky you may spot exotic species such as roseate spoonbill, rhea and giant storks (jabiru) as well as a plethora of water-birds. Chilean flamingos overwinter in the Chaco between April and October.

Mammals and reptiles are harder to spot but caimans are occasionally seen sunning themselves in the lagoons and you may catch glimpses of deer in the bush.

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The Chaco

Day 5

Visit Filadelfia's Mennonite museum. Return to Asuncion.

Visit Filadelfia's museum which tells the fascinating story of the arrival of the Mennonites in the Chaco and the brutal Chaco War of 1932-35. There are photos of the colonies during the early days and exhibits include the possessions the Mennonites brought from north Europe.There is also a section with stuffed exhibits from the first study of wildlife of the Chaco by a Mennonite pioneer, Jakob Unger. You will normally be accompanied by one of the Mennonite curators, a chance to ask questions and learn more about the local community.

Drive back to Asunción, arriving late afternoon.

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Day 6

Visit historic towns on the Ruta Jesuita.
Jesuit Route - Yaguaron

Today you’ll be heading south and east to discover the marvellous ruins of the Jesuit Reductions, Christian settlements established to convert, teach and protect the native Guarani communities.  These intricate and still impressive buildings are little visited but evocative of the extraordinary era in Spanish colonial times when the Guarani were taught architecture, music and craftwork.  They are usually visited by following the newly devised “Ruta Jesuita”.

Depart after breakfast for Santa Maria de Fe, visiting places of interest en route. Yaguaron has a well preserved Franciscan church. It's beautiful throughout:  simple on the outside with white walls (the original frescoes deteriorated and had to be painted over) colonnades and a steep pitched roof. Elaborate and colourful wooden doors lead to a stunning interior which is intricately detailed with carved and painted wood.

Continuing across cattle country, you pass through typical provincial towns with picturesque old houses and shady squares. Visit San Ignacio Guasú, the first of the Jesuit-Guarani Reductions (founded 1609) and an essential stop for its excellent museum with its collection of Jesuit-Guaraní statues, carvings and art.

From San Ignacio, continue through peaceful countryside to Santa Maria de Fe.  The town's museum has over 50 statues carved out of cedar by the Guarani and their teachers during Jesuit times. Visit the handicrafts co-operative on the plaza, run by the women of the town.  Overnight at a simple hotel with a charming setting on the plaza.

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Jesuit Route - Yaguaron

Day 7

Visit the Jesuit Missions ruins of Trinidad and Jesus.
Jesuit Route - Jesus

Today you’ll travel to the Unesco-listed ruins of Trinidad and Jesus, the once-great Jesuit-established communities (Reductions). The first part of the drive is through sparsely-populated cattle country, before tomorrow you reach the city Encarnación and cross the vast Paraná river to Argentina. You enter a prosperous agricultural region settled by descendants of Germans, Ukrainian and Japanese immigrants over a century ago: there's a well-ordered feel to the small towns strung along the highway.

Arrive at 18th century La Santísima Trinidad del Paraná, the jewel of the Jesuit ruins, nestled rolling palm-studded countryside alive with the screeches of parakeets and southern lapwings. Among the highlights are the stone carvings: an intricate frieze of angels playing musical instruments survives in the ruined church, which has elaborately carved door porticos and pulpit. The vast plaza has many colonnades and the ruined houses of the indigenous indians.

The smaller ruins at Jesus de Tavarangue have a peaceful setting on high ground with panoramic views. The focus here is the church: the Moorish-influenced doorways are strikingly beautiful. Drive on to your hotel in Bella Vista, established by Paraguayan immigrants of German descent.

In the evening (Fri-Sun only, except during rain), you will be driven to Trinidad for a magical night walk accompanied by classical music and a sequence of carefully-crafted visual effects. Throughout the tour, the ground of the entire main plaza is studded by dozens of dazzling white lights representing the night sky, with other structures joining the display as the walk progresses.

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Jesuit Route - Jesus

Day 8

Explore the San Ignacio Mini Mission in Argentina. Continue to Iguazu.
San Ignacio Mini

Today you leave Paraguay to head to the Iguazú Falls in Argentina. It’s about an hour’s drive from Bella Vista to the border at Encarnación. A strikingly modern bridge spans the wide Paraná river, connecting Encarnación with the Argentine city of Posadas on the opposite bank. The drive from Posadas to Puerto Iguazu takes about 4 hours, but you’ll stop an hour into the journey through eucalyptus and pine forests at the Jesuit ruins of San Ignacio Mini, one of the oldest of the Reductions (founded in 1610) and painstakingly restored by the Argentine government.

Wander in the bright sunlight through the remains of its streets bounded by the red sandstone walls of the school, the canteen, and houses. The ornately-carved church, overlooking the grand square, stands as a shell today, but it is clear it was an impressive building. There's also a small museum.

Continue to Puerto Iguazú, another 3 hours' drive with scenic stretches of the native subtropical forest which once covered the whole region. Overnight a the Sheraton hotel next to Iguazú Falls. 

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San Ignacio Mini

Day 9

Stay at a rainforest ecolodge close to Iguazu.
Yacutinga Lodge

Today is the start of a jungle adventure in the tropical forest which engulfs the monumental Iguazú Falls. Before continuing to view this, the continent’s most dramatic natural sight, you’ll spend a couple of days exploring the rainforest, walking the trails close to your lodge and spotting wildlife on its private reserve. It’s a drive of about 3 hours to Yacutinga Lodge, most of which is unpaved. 

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Yacutinga Lodge

Day 10

Explore the bird-filled tropical rainforest on a private reserve.
Yacutinga Lodge

Discover the forest from your lodge. This is one of the last intact expanses of subtropical Atlantic rainforest and the lodge is set in its own private reserve. In a couple of days there you can see lots of smaller animals like opossums, iguanas, coatis and deer. Part of the reserve was once a fruit farm, and the trees attract lots of birds such as macaws and toucans.

There are easy trails from the lodge, a raised walkway with an observation deck and a small swimming pool on the property. You can relax in hammocks in the pretty gardens.

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Yacutinga Lodge

Day 11

Explore the Iguazú Falls at leisure.
Iguassu Falls

Drive back to Puerto Iguazú and continue to your hotel, the Sheraton, which is situated in the national park right up close to the falls themselves.  This is a truly privileged location, because it gives you the opportunity to explore the Argentine side of the falls (the other side lies in Brazil) at your leisure later this afternoon (it closes at 6pm) and tomorrow morning when it reopens at 8am.

There are a number of walkways which take you above, below and even behind the falls, giving you a variety of perspectives on this stunning force of nature.

You can visit the National Park Visitor Centre, where there is a display illustrating the biodiversity of the tropical rainforest. From here, don’t miss the little natural-gas-powered train which takes you to Cataratas station where the Upper Walk begins. This sequence of causeways and passerelles links dozens of tiny, basalt islands at the top of the rock face. These walkways cross the myriad streams of the Río Iguazú as they cascade over the lip of the precipice.

A succession of lookout points allows your gaze to follow the water, as it plunges onto the rocks below. The train later continues to Devil's Throat Station. From here, a kilometre-long walkway leads you across the river to the thunderous Garganta del Diablo, which offers a spectacular vantage point peering into the thundering vortex below. 

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Iguassu Falls

Day 12

Further discovery of the Falls. Transfer to airport for connections to international flight.
iguazu devil's throat

We recommend you book flights leaving in the evening to allow you sufficient time to continue your discovery of the falls. The Park opens at 8am and if you get up early you can walk along a trail beside the railway track to get to the Devil’s Throat before the train service starts, and maybe have the place to yourself!

Transfer over the border into Brazil and drive to Foz airport, where you will take a domestic flight to connect with your international flight home. 

Please note: If you wish to visit the Brazilian side for panoramic views of the falls we may be able arrange a stop there en route to the airport depending on your flight schedule (beware, you may get wet). If you prefer, we can book an additional night to allow more time to appreciate the falls.

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iguazu devil's throat

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Signature Paraguay: The Missions and the Chaco

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Price excludes international flights at the beginning and end of the trip


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