The Jesuit Ruins
The Jesuit ruins are the best-known cultural attraction in Paraguay. Over 240 years after the Jesuits were expelled from colonial Paraguay, impressive remnants of three missions stand to this day. Santisima Trinidad del Parana is easily accessible from Encarnacion and the most visited of Paraguay’s missions. It is also the most complete. There are remains of several different buildings that made up the mission. Unlike the other ruins, a significant population does not remain in or around the Trinidad mission. Eleven kilometers away in the town of Jesus are the remains of the former Jesus de Tavarangue mission church. Further out, but worth the trip, are the remains of the San Cosme y Damian mission, set in a picturesque town of the same name along the Parana River. Paraguay’s tourism ministry has recently focused its attention on the ruins, investing in improvements to infrastructure and creating a single ticket to cover visits to all three ruins.
While most tourists gravitate towards the ruins, it is equally worthwhile to visit Jesuit towns along Route 1 where the former mission buildings are still used by the current community. These towns have what the ruins lack – examples of decorative objects that adorned each mission. The museums of Santa Maria de Fe and San Ignacio house excellent collections of large sculptures crafted by Guaram artisans working in the missions under the direction of Jesuit artists. Santa Rosa de Lima’s small Nuestra Senora de Loreto Chapel retains its original fresco covered interior. A visit to these towns is the perfect complement to a tour of the ruins, providing tourists with a well-rounded view of the missions as they once were.
Sidebar: See Jesuit Town & Ruins for a more detailed explanation of each town and ruins.
The Fransiscan Route & Golden Circuit
Lesser known, but more relevant to modern day Paraguayan culture, are the remains of Franciscan missions scattered throughout Eastern Paraguay. Unlike the Jesuits, the Franciscans were permitted to stay within colonial Paraguay and many of the original missions are now thriving towns with ornate churches and a deep-running sense of religious tradition. The crown jewel of Paraguay’s Franciscan legacy is the San Buenaventura church (generally referred to as the Iglesia de Yaguaron) in the town of Yaguaron. The interior of this large church is decorated in the Guaram Baroque style marked by ornately carved wooden altar pieces, rich colors, and generous applications of gold leaf. In addition to their churches, many Franciscan towns are known for their handicraft work. Itagua is the center of nanduti production in Paraguay, with women throughout the town crafting brightly colored painstakingly detailed lace creations day in and day out. The displays in Museo de Nanduti prove the sky is the limit when it comes to nanduti designs, many of which are inspired by the natural world. The ceramics of Tobati and Aregua are yet another example of the honest way in which Paraguayan artisans transform their deep connection with nature into works of art. Many Franciscan towns are part of the Circuito de Oro (Golden Circuit) one day tour offered by most tour operators. This tour includes visits to towns along both Route 1 and Route 2, all of which are easily accessible from Asuncion. Each town is easily reached by public transportation and makes for an easy day trip from Asuncion. Though they are close together, it can be difficult to get from one town to the other on public transportation. Travelers with time on their hands may prefer to break this up as a series of day trips from Asuncion, rather than trying to create a single itinerary. Those who prefer to travel without a tour are advised to limit their itinerary to two towns per day (three at most) in order to allow for travel time between towns.
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