From Asuncion we caught a long bus down to Encarnación, a city of about 100,000 in the very south of Paraguay, just across the Parańa River from Argentina. We had two reasons to go to Encarnacion The main reason was to cross over to Argentina so we could go north to Iguazu Falls. Secondarily, as long as we were passing through, we figured we’d tour a couple of the old and long-ago abandoned Jesuit missions in the area. To our surprise the missions – UNESCO World Heritage Sites – were a great way to spend a day. More than just a place to stop over en route to the Falls, they were worthy of a trip to the area on its own.
The story of the missions is interesting; sufficiently interesting, in fact, to inspire the Academy Award-winning movie The Mission. Starting in 1609, Jesuit missionaries emigrated from Spain to build ultimately dozens of “reductions”, settlements for indigenous people. The Spanish Empire started the process to govern the then-nomadic Guaraní people more efficiently, but the Jesuits were more interested in Christianizing them than just taxing and controlling them. So in an area that now includes parts of Bolivia, Paraguay, Argentina, and Brazil dozens of these missions popped up.These religious settlements existed largely outside standard Spanish colonial experience and ultimately the authorities came to believe that the Jesuits were more of a problem than they could tolerate; they were, after all, interfering with the slave trade. Thus in 1767 the Spanish banished the Jesuits and the missions were evacuated. Scattered ruins remain and in 1993 UNESCO declared two of the best preserved sites in southern Paraguay World Heritage Sites.
Off we went to see them, not really knowing what to expect. The first one we came to was La Santísima Trinidad de Paraná, the Most Holy Trinity of Paraná (the local river). It was stunning. The mission was built relatively late in the Jesuit period and was the biggest of them all. I particularly loved the setting, up on the crest of a hill with great views over the region. And unlike so many tourist sites we had the huge space all to ourselves. Just a very beautiful and peaceful experience.
Next up was the ruins of Jesús de Tavarangue. In this case construction didn’t begin until 1760, just a few years before the Jesuits were expelled. The church was being built as a replica of the Church of Saint Ignatius of Loyola in Italy and would have been one of the biggest churches of its time, measuring 230 feet by 80 feet. The Jesuits were expelled before the mission was completed, but what remains is impressive.
So that was Encarnacion. The town itself was … OK, nothing too special. The city has recently invested in building a big parkway along the Paraná river – second in length in South America only to the Amazon River and which, after later merging with both the Paraguay and Uruguay Rivers, becomes the Rio de la Plata – opening up a big area for biking and running and all that good stuff. We found a restaurant we liked, so we were happy there for a couple of days.The plan was that the next morning we would take a bus across the river into the neighboring city of Posadas, Argentina. It was really hard to get information in Paraguay about our travel options in Argentina, but we figured one way or another we could get to the bus station there and take a bus six hours or so north to Puerto Iguazu, near Iguazu Falls on the Argentinian side. In theory we could have gone north in Paraguay to Ciudad del Este, on the Paraguayan side of the of the Falls, but it wasn’t clear that we could get across to Argentina from there without going through Brazil. And since getting a Brazilian visa is exceedingly difficult for Americans – except, we’ve read, from the Argentinian side of the Falls, where it can be done – we figured we’d first cross to Argentina, then go north, see the Falls, get a Brazilian visa, and continue on.
Didn’t quite work that way. We got the bus across the river into Argentina, got through immigration and all that, and then got on a local bus that we thought would take us to the bus station where we could continue on north to Iguazu. Instead the bus just kept taking us further and further out of town, away from everything. And by “everything” I mean in particular away from all ATMs. Since we didn’t have Argentinian pesos, we were starting to get desperate. So at one point the bus stopped at a traffic light and we just got out, walking back nearly an hour (in 90-degree heat with our luggage) into town. We got a hotel so we could get online … and discovered that we had been no more than two or three minutes from the bus station when we bailed out.
Now, a day in Posadas isn’t all bad. Again, we found a nice restaurant with great Argentinian beef and got tickets for an early morning bus up to Iguazu. The problem was that getting the visa is a two-day process. Had we made it without the overnight stop in Posadas we’d have gotten to the Brazilian consulate Thursday morning and picked up the visa Friday afternoon. Instead we wouldn’t get to the consulate until Friday morning and thus would have to hang around until Monday to get the visas. Not the worst problem in the world, but not ideal either.
At any rate, Encarnación was great, the missions were quite the site, and now we’re finally off to Iguazu.