The Chaco Experience


I just finished this article for our newsletter talking about our trip to the Chaco last weekend.  If you ever have a chance to visit the Chaco, give it a try.  It’s quite the trip (figuratively and literally).
Are you looking for an out-of-town get away?  Head to the Chaco!  We made the five-hour trek up to Filadelfia, home to Paraguay’s largest Mennonite colony, and spent the weekend touring Paraguay’s Chaco region.  The Chaco is a great destination for those who enjoy driving in the countryside and exploring Paraguay’s scenic beauty.  While not as obviously spectacular as Iguazu Falls or the Jesuit Missions, the Chaco features some hidden gems to discover with the help of a local guide.  The Chaco is a fascinating mixture of wildlife, livestock and farmland, unspoiled terrain, and an intriguing melding of Mennonite and indigenous cultures.
We spent Saturday morning in Filadelfia exploring the town square, museum, and Mennonite school.  The museum features relics from Filadelfia’s history, including Mennonite and indigenous artifacts, and a collection of preserved animals found in the Chaco.  Our son enjoyed learning about armadillos, rheas, and cheetahs — up close and personal.  In addition, we saw two interesting Mennonite monuments looming over each end of town.  Filadelfia also has several large German-style supermarkets, and boutique stores that sell everything from wood furniture to ceramics.  Locally made goods are reasonably priced.
At noon, we left Filadelfia and drove to Loma Plata, another Mennonite settlement.  After visiting the Loma Plata’s museum dedicated to commemorating Mennonite history, we took a tour of Trebol’s dairy plant.  Kids will enjoy seeing the big milk trucks and the flowing assembly lines that package their favorite dairy products.  Afterwards, we drove to Isla Po’i, and toured an experimental agriculture farm as well as the former Paraguayan military’s staging area during the Chaco War.  We continued on to Yakaré Sur, a large saltwater lagoon that provides sanctuary to flamingos and other birds in the heart of the semi-arid Chaco.  The view from the observation tower is gorgeous – one of the few places where you can survey the Chaco for miles in all directions.  We passed up visits to Fortin Boqueron, a Chaco-era historic site, and the Tagua Reserve, a reserve for the endangered tagua boar, and end the day with a short tour of Colonia Neuland.  A day’s worth of travels through over 100 miles of Chaco left all of us exhausted.
If you plan to travel to the Chaco, plan ahead.  You can make your trip more pleasant by following these suggestions.  Spend some time in Filadelfia or other Mennonite communities such as Colonia Neuland when the stores are still open.  Virtually everything closes at noon on Saturday and all day Sunday, so do your sightseeing and shopping during weekdays or on Saturday morning.  Stay at the Hotel Florida in Filadelfia.  It’s the nicest hotel in town, and the other hotel options in the area lack basic amenities such as hot water.  The Hotel Florida is popular, so reserve your room early.  Dine at the Hotel Florida Restaurant, which offers a variety of German and Paraguayan dishes.  You can also dine at the Rincon Restaurant or Girasol Parrilla in Filadelfia; however, our guide told us that their food is not as tasty as what the Hotel Florida offers.
Hire a local guide for $90 (half day) to $150 (all day) who can show you what the Chaco has to offer.  Most Chaco roads are unpaved and chock full of potholes.  Consider using the guide’s vehicle (additional $150) to spare your own vehicle from wear and tear.  If you drive in the Chaco, bring plenty of food and water, and be prepared for roadside emergencies.  Your guide can help you navigate the myriad back roads that criss-cross the Chaco.  If you want to learn more about the immense Mennonite cooperative that operates several meat and dairy plants in the area, contact the Fernheim Cooperative (http://www.fernheim.com.py/) well in advance to schedule a plant tour.  The cooperative produces many popular Paraguayan food brands such as Co-op.  Following these suggestions can make an adventure in the Paraguayan Chaco an even better experience!
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