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 ( 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!

Happy Carrulim Day

Today is August 1, an (in)auspicious day in Paraguay.  It’s traditionally the day when Paraguayans drink Carrulim, a homemade concoction of sugar cane, root, and lemon that makes a potent, sour tonic that Paraguayans claim promotes health, happiness, and protection from maladies (in Korean culture, that honor is reserved for kimchi).  It’s an old Guarani belief that manifests itself in a spirit that is passed around a group of native Paraguayans and Guarani aficionados who believe they must drink Carrulim to survive from year to year.  (The Guarani represent the largest indigenous group in Paraguay–the Guarani language and culture are ingrained in the Paraguayan psyche.)  The word “Carrulim” itself is derived from the drink’s three main components.  I have to admit that I did not have a chance to try some Carrulim today, although my Guarani teacher promised to brew some for us to taste tomorrow in class.  ABC Color, one of Asuncion‘s three main daily newspapers, published an article (in Spanish) about Carrilum Day:
Today is also notable in Paraguayan history because of the Ycua Bolanos supermarket fire, a tragedy that left over 400 people dead and 400 injured.  It is single deadliest event in modern Paraguayan history since the 1930’s.  On Sunday, August 1, 2004, while hundreds of shoppers shopped, cashed paychecks, and ate in a large food court, a fire broke out in the large supermarket in Asuncion.  The owner alleged ordered all doors chained shut to prevent looting, preventing the victims from escaping.  Those brought up on charges were acquitted earlier this year, leading to extensive rioting.  The courts initiated a second review and may overturn the previous ruling.
Today also marks the day after the Supreme Court of Justice referred Lino Oviedo‘s case to the Military Court for possible amnesty.  The former general and head of UNACE, a opposition party, was recently absolved of culpability in the assassination of former Vice President Argana and the 1999 student massacre, paving the way for President Duarte and the Military Court to pardon him for his alleged involvement in the 1996 failed coup against former President Wasmosy.  It all adds up to a possible presidential run in 2008.  If Oviedo is pardoned, he would be free to run for president. 
Pass the Carrulim.  I think I need some.