When it comes to natural beauty, Paraguay certainly would not be on the top of anyone’s list. The landscape of this place is often dull and repetitious, consisting of the same theme--blue sky, green grass/trees, and red dirt--with only slight variations here and there. In certain parts of the country there is a natural beauty that would compete with any in the world--for example, the vast arid desert wilderness of the western Chaco region, the dense tropical jungle areas of the Alto Paraguay, and the cascading waterfalls and cliffs of the Salto region in Paraguari. These places, however, do not represent the norm and are interspersed with huge swaths of flat land that serve as ideal grazing and agricultural land but nothing more. In the Caaguazu region, where I live, there was once unlimited expanses of forests as far as the eye could see (Caaguazu in Guarani literally means ‘big forest’). Due to intensive logging, these mighty forests have been diminished not just in Caaguazu, but around the entire country as well.
Still, there has to be something said about the Paraguay that is left, the natural beauty that remains squeezed between the cracks of civilization. This is a country roughly the size of California with only 6 million people. The largest city and capital of the country, Asuncion, has a mere half-a-million people. The way this extremely low population density has distributed itself across the landscape has left enough space for a surprising amount of biodiversity to remain.
In the western Chaco region (a little over half the size of the entire country) only 3% of the country’s entire population lives. In other words, about 200,000 people (more or less the population of my home town of Allentown, PA) live in an area the size of the entire state of Pennsylvania. Needless to say, plenty of room exists for animal populations to thrive. This part of the country truly is wilderness in the greatest sense of the world. In the Chaco, at the border of Bolivia, Brazil and Paraguay, the greatest populations of wild jaguar still live. Bird species in Paraguay (especially in the Chaco) number over 600. Very little of this, mind you, is a result of intense conservation or natural resource protection, but simply a byproduct of there being so few people in Paraguay.
In the Eastern half of the country, the same remains true, although not to such an alarming degree. Such few people spread over such a large space means that despite significant human interference, the natural ecosystems have been able to persist into the modern day. Cattle grazing, industrial-size crop monoculture, and deforestation have disrupted and destroyed huge amounts of valuable ecosystem, but at a pace and a scale which has allowed room for animal populations to adapt and survive. Locals in rural areas still regularly rely on wild game to provide protein to their diet. Animals such as Grey Brocket (Guasu Pucu) and Marsh deer (Guasu vira) as well as many species of armadillo, lizard, and Capybara (a large, marsh-living rodent type animal) are all considered regular parts of the Paraguayan food repertoire (at least in the country-side).
When I wake up in the morning and drink my coffee, I can see over 50 species of birds almost on a daily basis. Howler monkeys call with their deep, hollow, booming voices from the forests around me. Maned wolf, bush dog, and wild-cat species such as ocelots, spotted cats, and mountain lion are all free to roam here as well, carefully avoiding areas where communities are concentrated. It is not uncommon for a rancher to find a some chickens, a pig or even a cow that has been hunted and killed in the night by any one of these predators.
Insects, as well, abound in great numbers and in otherworldly sizes. Tarantulas burrow their homes underground, the biggest of which are large enough to fit one’s entire fist and forearm. Moths called ‘hawk moths’ (with a wingspan of almost a foot)have made an unfortunate habit of flying into my room at night and dying under my bed. Goliath and Hercules beetles (the type seen on all those crazy nature shows) are also regular visitors. These slow-moving, clumsy bugs are some of the largest in the insect kingdom and are surprising not only for their size (about the size of one’s palm) but also for their sheer mass. My new pet, whom I have lovingly named Manfred Duncan Wallace, is just such an insect; a huge black beetle with a needle-sharp, though humorously-wielded horn on the front of his (or her) face.
The other day while hiking the local cerro (that means ‘small mountain’ in Spanish), I walked through a rather large and scary looking spider web. As I peeled the sticky, spider thread off my face, my friend and local Paraguayan began asking me hurriedly and nervously “Te picó? Te picó” (Did it bite you? Did it bite you?). I responded calmly that no, I didn’t think it had. He grabbed my shoulders, looked me straight in the eye and in very grave and serious Spanish told me, “Mario, if that spider bit you, you need to tell me right away. It is really, really dangerous”. This of course, only served to put me on edge for the rest of our hike. Sometimes, when this place gets to feel too much like home, it is easy to forget that you are actually living in a tropical world where the lines between wilderness and civilization are thin, tenuous, poorly-defined and easily transcended in only a few paces.
Paraguay is not a wild, backwards country. It is just a large place (one of the few remaining on earth) where the human footprint has made less of an impact. There are many reasons for this, most of them historical and geographical, but the result is a place that never ceases to surprise you and whose true natural beauty remains hidden by the seeming monotony of the landscape. This is not the kind of country that will knock you off your feet with monumental vistas, but it is the kind of country where, if you are not careful, some enormous anaconda will sneak into your room, smother you, and swallow you whole while you sleep. So it goes.
From the wilderness (-ish),