“Jesuit and Franciscan Roads”, the historical marvels of Paraguay – World Meanderings (n°73)
By Annick Dournes & Frederic de Poligny
This is the second part of our reportage in Paraguay and it’s the most important page of the Paraguayan history. You will follow the Jesuit and Franciscan Roads, in the footsteps of these priests who created this country.
This road send you back in time in the 17th century when Jesuits come there to built a sort of Jesuit country with a group of nearly thirty towns to protect the Guarani, the indigenous people, from the Portuguese slave-traders coming from Brazil. These missions are nowadays split between Argentina, Brazil and Paraguay. The Paraguayan ones are among the most beautiful ones and they are the less visited. Apart from us, we never see more than a couple of tourists during our long visits to these Paraguayan sites. It was like paradise.
This famous Jesuit missions, known as the Jesuit Reductions, were stone or wooden built towns sheltering a population of thousands of Guarani people under the authority of only two or three Jesuits. Around a huge square, the “plazza”, on three sides were built the Casas de los Indios, where the people lived whereas on the fourth side a church was standing between a cloister and a cemetery.
This ideal town arrangement is still completely visible in the marvellous stone Reduction of Trinidad, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Entering on Trinidad plazza, a huge green grass carpet bordered by ruins of Indians houses, and that you have to cross to reach the church, is an instant of communion with the soul and the faith of these Jesuits who have built this town. There you realize that these uncommon priests were also architects, doctors, artists and much more. Among many activities they learned Guarani language, compiling the first Guarani dictionary, teaching Guarani people stone sculpture, woodcarving and fresco art. Inside Iglesia Mayor, the main church, the famous carved pulpit, the 40 angels above the sanctuary playing music of heaven, a few remaining statues testify of the artwork of Guarani people.
Trinidad is a good place to stop for a night rest. Your travel agent is able to propose you to stay in a hotel or in one of these Estancias, huge farms who receive tourists. Most of Posadas propose also horse-riding tours. A night stay will allow you to come back to the ruins of Trinidad Reduction for a sort of light show (ask for it in advance). The site is nicely illuminated and you just walk among the ruins at your own rhythm and the feeling is more impressive under the stars. It’s so peaceful, you feel in total harmony with this strange beauty.
Another Reduction that is also a World Heritage site, Jesus Reduction, can give you good vibrations. In a peaceful landscape, the massive church seems to be stricter and less magnificent, but still gives you the feeling to walk onto a page of mankind history.
A third Reduction, San Cosme y Damian has been partially restored. It’s worthwhile visiting the huge church with its original walls, the Colegio next to it and the famous 17th century sundial. San Cosme y Damien was very famous due to its astronomical centre where a Jesuit, Father Suarez was studying planets with locally made lenses for his telescope. At that time he wrote a book about solar eclipses and even by now his predictions still work. A small but very attractive modern astronomical observatory has been recently built and allows now night visitors to look at the stars with lot of understandable explanations. This could be a good reason to stay a second night.
The third night would be in Asuncion. If you prefer for your second night to move a bit forward to the Camino Franciscano, the Estancia Tacuaty should be a good place to stop by, a peaceful heaven in a nice country landscape. Beautiful horse riding tours are also available there.
On your way to Asuncion, you leave the Jesuit Province to enter the region close to the capital where you will find the numerous Franciscan missions that are less known than the Jesuits Reductions. Away from the ideal of Jesuits that banned all non-Indians from the reductions, the Franciscans were more open to a mixed population, so their reductions began to be more or less quickly common villages, where the best Franciscan traces you can found are churches.
There were many Franciscan Reductions around Asuncion, but if there is only one to see it’s, on my personal opinion, the church of Yaguaron. It’s the only church staying in its original form, a long white building with two light porticos running the whole length of the church and having its separated wooden clock-tower. From outside the white adobe building seems a bit simple, but the surprise is inside. A totally painted ceiling, a fabulous wooden carved pulpit, the “retablo” wooden wall behind the altar let visitors voiceless in front of such a blazing scenery. To increase your surprise, the guides like to open the church main door just enough for you to enter inside the darken church, quickly closing the door behind you. No window, no light. The guide help you to sit on a chair, and suddenly a single small spot give life to a statue in a corner. And then another one on a detail of the carved pulpit, and one more, and one more… At the end the church is totally highlighted. Now you don’t have to imagine how was every church in the Reductions at that time, you just see it.
If you have been surprised by the simplicity of the outside silhouette of the church of Yaguaron, the Romanesque front side of the Ybaroty Franciscan church in Villarica seems to be the one of an Italian church from a Tuscany village.
There are many more Franciscan sites to visit, more than twenty former Franciscan Reductions. On your way to Asuncion you can visit in one day two or three churches and one or two museums, but don’t forget to keep free time for craft shops. This region of Paraguay is the centre of craftsmanship. It’s the best place for local shopping.
Paraguayan Tourisme Office: www.visitparaguay.travel
Text & Photos ©Frederic de Poligny