The more you travel, the more you encounter destination names that demonstrate a shared history. New York used to be called New Amsterdam – the change coincided with the English, not the Dutch, taking control of the city. Colonial powers often impart familiar names on new towns with similar attributes – both Newcastle, England, and Newcastle, Australia share a coal-mining tradition.
And sometimes these names spread far and wide, only for one of those locations to become larger or more famous. Tell your friends that you’re visiting Antigua, and chances are they’ll visualise the Caribbean island – not the “toast marshmallows over lava” volcano centre of Antigua, Guatemala.
Tell your friends you have a day trip to Trinidad, and their heads will fill with reggae music, rum, and cricket. Yet our day trip today is to Trinidad, Paraguay – we can play some reggae on the bus down from Asuncion, but it won’t fit in with the immense ruins of the Jesuit Missions of La Santisima Trinidad.
The Catholic Jesuit missionaries were on the ground in South America less than a century after the New World was ‘discovered’ by Christopher Columbus. Of course, this discovery came as a surprise to the millennia-old cultures that inhabited the region – and religion formed an essential part of colonial Spain (and later Portugal, France, and England) imposing their will on those indigenous inhabitants.
In hindsight, of course, it’s easy to pass judgement on the colonial missionaries. And while there were undoubtedly a few gold-hungry psychopaths among them, for the most part these were genuine men who believed the only way to eternal happiness was through the Catholic god, and that it was their responsibility to leave the relative comfort of a monastery in Spain with a one-way ticket to a continent filled with souls that could be saved with God’s love.
They sacrificed themselves (and, let’s be fair, a large number of locals) to that aim. It’s worth viewing the Santísima Trinidad del Paraná Mission through that noble vision – there will be time for post-colonial judgement over beers in an English pub tonight.
Santisima Trinidad was founded in about 1706, and our guide takes us first to the museum on site where a scale model of the mission gives a view of its grandeur.
The ceilings and grand domes have long since fallen in, but the ruins that remain are still impressive. This is not a church, this is a village – from the central Plaza Mayor that forms a common central point in all colonial Spanish town planning, to the native houses, workshops, and cemeteries that are indicative of the Jesuit’s practical approach to spreading the word of God.
Inside the church we can even see evidence of its decoration. Though worn by exposure to the weather, when they are pointed out by the experts it’s easy to note key elements of Christian art – crosses, for example – being combined here with native art. While little was done to respect the indigenous deities, effort was clearly made to put the Christian God into the social and cultural life of the original inhabitants, not just forcing them to change their entire way of life in order to conform.
No doubt for many thousands this imposition was unwelcome, undesirable, and lethal. Having accepted that, it is still possible to admire these buildings and this village – and consider what the local Guarani people, used to a semi-nomadic lifestyle in harmony with the land, must have felt when they first saw the brick church rising out of the ground.
Santisima Trinidad translates from Spanish as “The Most Holy Trinity”, and it’s not surprising that a name at the core of the Catholic faith can be found elsewhere across the colonies. There was even a ship Santisima Trinidad – at one time the heaviest in the world, it was sunk after surrendering to the English at the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805.
We return to Asuncion after a long day trip to discover that the evening here has only just begun – it’s just too hot to enjoy a party while the sun is out. So after dinner, we head to the Britannia Pub, where english can be heard (but spanish remains the majority language). Our intention was simply a few quiet drinks, but this is not a quiet location even on a Tuesday night. Asuncion, Paraguay is a young people’s city – almost two-thirds of its 500,000 inner-city residents are under the age of 30.
As we have a chance to meet and talk with some of the locals, our choice becomes clear. We can say goodbye to this cultural immersion now, mindful of our flight in the morning. Or we can embrace it, dive into the night and consequences be damned!
I know which one I’m choosing. Who’s staying out with me?
Want to go? Need to know!
- La Santisima Trinidad is one of the 7 Cultural Treasures of Paraguay.
- Long day tours are available from Asuncion, or a self-drive option sticks mostly to the main roads of Route 1 (to Posadas) and then Route 6.
- This trip takes you to very edge of the Paraguay-Argentina border. It’s possible to keep going from here to southern Brazil, Uruguay, or rural Argentina.
What do you think about colonial ruins – can they be properly appreciated without taking into consideration the less savoury aspects of colonisation? Let us know in the comments below or on our Facebook page.