Craig and Linda Martin are world-travelling Kiwis, blogging and podcasting at the award-winning Indie Travel Podcasts. ...Find out more!
Encarnación, Paraguay is most well-known for the Jesuit ruins located about 30km out of town. We'd received a glowing review of them from the clerk at the information office in Ciudad del Este, where we had entered the country, and had decided to see them for ourselves.
The bus from Ciudad del Este was straightforward: five hours, no air-conditioning, with lots of stops to pick up passengers and food vendors. No need to disembark to buy your snack, people selling chewing gum, bread, drinks and meat-on-sticks got on frequently to sell their wares.
We arrived in scorching heat and looked around for a tourist office. None was to be seen so we took the recommendation of a ticket vendor and checked in at a small family-run hotel across the road. The proprietor gave us a map of the city and explained how to get to the ruins, drawing another map on the back of the paper: "Take a bus to Trinidad, it's about 30km. Then take another bus from the crossroads. They don't run very often so you might have to wait. One of the ruins is at the end of the line. Then catch that same bus back, walk for a kilometre along here and here (indicating his map) and you'll be at the other one." It sounded complicated. Actually, it wasn't.
Well, our original plans were scuppered by the thunderstorm that hit the city the next day (a Saturday) and since Paraguay seems to shut on Sundays we decided to wait until Monday to head out to the ruins.
Catching the first bus was easy; we asked around for "Trinidad?" and there was one waiting for us. A fellow passenger indicated where we should get off about 45 minutes later, and we saw another bus waiting for us at the intersection our hotel manager had drawn on his map. It was just starting to leave as we got to the intersection, but a bit of running and handwaving achieved its aim and we found seats at the back as it trundled off along the dirt road.
The ruins of Jesús really were the end of the road, and we were the only passengers left on the bus to disembark there. The driver warned us that we had either half an hour or a long wait: after the bus at 11am, there wouldn't be another until 1pm. We thanked him and headed towards the ticket office.
A young woman greeted us outside the gates, asking if we had our tickets. We didn't, so she walked the long way around the back of the building to let herself into the office so she could sell us some. The 25,000 guaraní ticket allows entrance to the three Jesuit ruins in the vicinity of Encarnación; we'd decided to just visit two, since the third was a good 40km out the other side of the city and we had no idea how to get there.
Construction on the church at Jesus de Tavarangüe began in about 1756, and it would have been the largest in the region had it been finished. As it was, the ruling Spanish saw the Jesuits as a threat, as they were rapidly growing in number and amassing wealth, and the Jesuits were expelled in 1767; leaving behind the ruins of their 30 principal missions, and abandoning the native groups they had been educating. Many of these people returned to their old ways in the forest, and today the Paraguayan government is trying to repeat the work the Jesuits started 300 years ago.
The church at Jesús, having never been finished, is in a similar state today as it was when it was abandoned. The walls stand straight and tall, central pillars stretching skywards. The grass that carpets the church is bright and green; but it's easy to imagine how dark the inside of the building would have been if the roof had been added: the windows are high and small, and wouldn't have let in much light.
We wandered quickly around the other buildings, including the workshops and the natives' houses, before setting off at a quick jog for the entrance. We would have liked more time, but two hours more seemed a little excessive. The bus arrived on time and waited for Craig to come out of the toilet before taking off, ferrying us back to the intersection where we had got on it earlier in the day.
From there, we crossed the road and followed the signs to Trinidad, the second of our ruins. Unlike Jesús, which was all-but-abandoned, Trinidad had several dozen visitors; mostly the members of a school group, who disgorged themselves from two large coaches.
The complex at Trinidad was used for some 60 years before the expulsion of the Jesuits, and was larger in size and scope than Jesús. It was clear that more visitors came here than to its smaller neighbour: the ticket office was staffed by two people, and several handcraft stalls lined the way from the office to the main entrance.
Like Jesús, the buildings at Trinidad are roofless: this time, as the result of a large storm a hundred or so years ago which left the complex in ruins. The bell tower still stands though, and thanks to a restoration effort, can be climbed. The crypt under the church can also be visited; thankfully, it's empty.
We explored the ruins for an hour or so before heading out to the nearby restaurant for an expensive lunch. On the way, we were stopped by a tour guide, who offered (for a small extra charge) to take us to the quarry where the Jesuits had obtained the rock for the construction of the mission. Over lunch, we decided that this could be a good idea, and she led us the kilometre or so to the quarry, where we paid and received another ticket to go with our other one. Perla (the guide) explained not only how the Jesuits had quarried and transported the rock, but some of the history of the Jesuits themselves and the missions. We'd chosen not to have a guide at the previous two stops, so it was great to learn a bit more about the sites we had seen. From the top of the hill behind the quarry we could see the ruins of Trinidad 800 metres away: not far, but quite far for a fireman's chain passing blocks from person to person, which is how the stones were moved from one place to the other.
Perla left us to have a look around the quarry by ourselves, but we met her again by the entrance, drinking tereré (cold mate tea) with a colleague. They invited us to join them, and never ones to pass up a cultural experience (and drinking tereré is THE Paraguayan cultural experience), we said yes and rested in the shade with them for a few minutes before heading off to wait for our bus back to Encarnación, which wasn't nearly as accommodatingly quick in arriving as the others we had taken.
All in all, getting to the Jesuit ruins was a long process that involved a fair bit of sitting on buses and waiting around, but it certainly wasn't complicated. Though I was glad I didn't have to do it in the rain.