We’ve asked the driver to show us a flavour of the city, and he obliges by driving us past the Palacio de los López, the palace that serves as the Republic’s seat of government and home of the President. Lit up like this, we can see why the driver assures us it’s best seen at night.
Our Monday morning proper starts with Terere. This is a cold version of the hot Mate drink – similar to tea, but with a distinctive herbal flavour. It’s also a communal activity; as we pass the cup around taking turns to refill and to drink from the metal bombilla straw, there are opportunities to reflect on the madness of the Rio Carnival weekend, and the much more peaceful days ahead of us in Paraguay.
We also make sure to dress lightly – this week will be cooler than last week here, but it’s still a sub-tropical summer and temperatures above 30°C (85°F) are expected.
Today sounds far more grand than it is full of effort. We have in mind a chance to see each of the 7 Cultural Treasures of Asuncion. These were chosen by popular vote in 2009, and we can’t argue with the selection.
Two of these won’t be part of today – the Palacio de los López we have already seen, and the striking Iglesia de la Santísima is actually located in the nearby town of Trinidad (no, the other one) – so we have to put that on tomorrow’s plans.
Next on the list is the easiest of the lot – we’re already staying here! The Guarani Esplendor Hotel completed construction in 1961 – had it merely been Paraguay’s first five star hotel, and so close to the government centre, that alone would have given it significance as the hotel chosen by foreign dignitaries.
Instead, it stepped beyond that function, creating an architectural form that symbolised the striking Brazilian school of that era (And is often mistakenly attributed to the Brazilian architect Oscar Niemeyer). Interior refurbishments ensure five star has evolved with the times; respect has ensured the facade remains an icon of Ascuncion, Paraguay, and South America.
We walk down the main street Senora de la Asuncion, with parkland on both sides, until turning into the Panteón Nacional de los Héroes. Often compared to Les Invalides in Paris, France, the Panteon is much smaller but similar respectful monument to the national heroes of war and peace. The most notable grave is former Paraguayan President Francisco Solano López, who also led the country in the War of the Triple Alliance – when Paraguay found itself at war with Brazil, Argentina, and Uruguay from 1864-70. The impact of that conflict, which devastated Paraguay and may have killed up to 90% of its adult male population, can still be felt in the landlocked country’s poor regional living standards.
Further along Chile (that’s the street, not the country), the facade of the Teatro Municipal (city theatre) Ignacio A. Pane stands out as a contrast of its original 19th Century spanish mission design and a more modern glass portico. The interior similarly embodies this evolution, as we shall find out later tonight.
At the very top end of Asuncion we meet our next, fifth, cultural treasure the Museo del Cabildo. This building has a storied history, from an original Jesuit home to an 1870 extension and creation of the Legislative Palace after the disaster of the War of the Triple Alliance, to its current incarnation as a Museum of Paraguayan history. It’s worth noting across the Plaza the striking glass building – not yet a cultural treasure, this is the current home of Paraguay’s legislative body … and was financed by the government of Taiwan.
Our final Cultural Treasure for today, as we turn back toward our hotel, is the Catedral Metropolitana. Designed by a Uruguayan, and built between 1842 and 1849, stepping inside the Metropolitan Cathedral of Asuncion delivers the impact of Spanish Catholic colonialism with its independent evolution in South America over the past century and a half. When Pope John Paul II visited here in 1988 he would have sensed the sparseness in comparison to the Vatican’s cathedrals; he also would have witnessed as we do the devoutness of the parish – even on a Monday lunchtime the tourists only just outnumber the faithful, a reminder of how the strength of faith still impacts this country even as it diminishes in power across much of the western world.
Stepping back out into the midday heat, we are reminded of the siesta tradition that carries on here. Remarkably, this whole walk – five of the cultural treasures of Paraguay – is barely a one mile round trip from our hotel.
And when you wake up, no doubt you will find some of our everydaydream group milling around the gorgeous hotel swimming pool.
A relaxing afternoon is followed by an easy walk back to the Teatro Municipal, for a 9pm “Concert of Dreams“. Immersing ourselves in the local musical culture is an opportunity, and there’s a certain passion to the music that can be lacking in the precision of big city orchestras. The atmosphere here is aided by the family feel, even at 9pm on a school night!
While the cultural treasures we have seen are all listed as buildings, the message from today is how much the city of Asuncion, Paraguay continues to live the culture they represent. These aren’t monuments to the past, they are spaces – palaces, museums, theatres, and churches – for today’s residents to connect the culture of their ancestors with the lifestyle of their children’s children.
Want to go? Need to know!
Here’s the full list of the Seven Treasures of Cultural Heritage material of Asunción, Paraguay
- Palacio de los López (Presidential Palace)
- Hotel Guaraní (Paraguay’s first 5-Star hotel)
- Panteón Nacional de los Héroes (Memorial to the National Heroes)
- Teatro Municipal Ignacio A. Pane (city Theatre)
- Cabildo (former Parliament, now Museum)
- Catedral Metropolitana de Asunción (city Cathedral)
- Iglesia de la Santísima Trinidad (Jesuit Church complex in nearby Trinidad) – click here to read about our visit there
We enjoyed taking in a walking tour of Asuncion, and couldn’t argue with any of these cultural treasures. Have you been? Did you see other buildings that would make stronger cultural heritage material than the seven winners? Tell us in the comments below.