Time to Dance Samba in Encarnación
Encarnación. Where’s that? What, there’s a carnival there? Isn’t that in Brazil? Many people have heard about, and some have even been, to the infamous ‘carnavales’, or carnivals all over Brazil. I mean, who hasn’t heard of the revelling that goes on in Rio de Janeiro? Just the word conjures up bronzed bodies, minimal clothing, glittery bits barely covering up what needs to be covered up, loud music and lots of raucous partying. Oh, and probably the consumption of way too much alcohol. But I will let you in on a secret … Brazil’s not the only place that holds the yearly Carnival celebrations. We had the opportunity to see Carnival … Paraguayan style. Oh yes, this ubiquitous South American country, which few know about and fewer have been to, holds a pretty impressive show. Just ask us. We went!…
“Paraguay is shy but playful. If you are open she will cautiously let you in and show you both her style and her beauty.” – Ombretta Zanetti
Despite it conjuring up images of hedonism and party-central, Carnival has its origins in pagan and then Christian traditions, and is very popular in some parts of South America. Brazil, of course, has the most well known Carnival in the world. In Egypt, it originated as a pagan festival to usher out winter and celebrate the beginning of Spring. In the Catholic calendar ‘carne vale’, literally, farewell to meat is a feast before the fast of Lent. Predominantly Catholic South America went with this and turned the feast into a party, as South Americans tend to do!
Carnival usually occurs just before what is known in the Christian calendar as Lent, typically during February or early March. It typically involves public celebrations, parades and street parties, as well as other entertainment, even combining some elements of a circus. Elaborate costumes are worn by different dance schools or groups as they compete to be the best. The performers will often wear masks, allowing them to set aside their every day individuality and experience a heightened sense of social unity. The world is their stage, and they are the players! Once upon a time, the participants and bystanders would often indulge in the excessive consumption of alcohol, meat and other foods that would be forgone during the upcoming Lent. Nowadays, however, it’s really just another reason for a party … South American style!
Alex and I recently spent two months in Paraguay. Where is it? Who goes? Why would you go? You see Paraguay is totally off the South American tourist trail. It’s predominantly untouched and untainted by tourism. I came here for the first time in 1999, when I first backpacked around South America alone. I loved it! Its totally off-the-beaten-track allure was spellbinding. I felt like I had the country to myself. I came back with Alex almost 20 years later. It did not disappoint back then, and it certainly did not disappoint when I returned, this time for an extended stay. This time we rendezvoused with the country most people know so little, if anything, about. Paraguay is shy but playful. If you are open she will cautiously let you in and show you both her style and her beauty.
Back to Carnival. Like most people, I really had absolutely no idea that Paraguay hosted any type of Carnival celebrations. After spending some time in Asuncion, the capital city, and then some other outlying towns, we made our way to the beautiful city of Encarnación. It’s the third largest city in the country and sits right on the shore of the Parana River, opposite Posadas in Argentina. It kind of has that seaside town feel about it. As usual, we had no firm plans before coming here and even fewer when we arrived. It’s how we roll really!
We did notice that apart from the initial alluvial downpour when we first arrived, that something else was in the air. Yep, there was going to be a carnival in town and we were going to be a part of it. It was a fun and exciting week for us watching everything being set up and different schools practising around town. These schools have their origins in the traditions and generations before them. Make no qualms, they are here to compete and they are here to win! Carnival is, after, all a show.
As we wandered around town, both during the day as well as at night, we saw the dancers getting ready for the big event, several nights of performing, revelling and partying. It was such a buzz being an observer, as we walked from place to place, just checking out what, why and how people were doing things. It’s all so often not just about the destination, but the journey. Everyone seemed to be involved too; young, really young and old. I met a mother and daughter duo; the mother proudly told me that she was teaching her daughter the traditions of her land and that part of the way they stayed connected was through dancing together. I loved that!
Of course, all the practising culminated in several nights of dancing and competing at the Encarnación Sambadrome which was built in the last few years. They take this whole Carnival thing pretty seriously! Not only do you get to see some awesome entertainment, but it comes at a fraction of the price and in a small town where you will feel really safe. Whereas a ticket to the Sambadrome in Rio will cost you upwards of USD $250.00, here it will cost you around $4.00. In addition, it’s only a short walk from the centre of town and you can buy the ticket on the day. The road less travelled can often be so much more rewarding.
We went to a couple of shows at the Sambadrome. This is where pictures speak louder than words. There was lots of glitter, lots of flesh, lots of dancing and parading and lots of smiles. Oh, if you ever go, bring your sunglasses as chances that you will be sprayed by one of the gazillion bottles of snow spray are like 100%. It all adds to the party atmosphere. The Paraguayans certainly know how to have a good time. We too got caught up in the excitement and it was super fun to be a part of it.
Carnival Encarnación. Just Do It!
Travel Tips and Key Information
Paraguay is located in the centre of South America and is the continent’s hottest country.
Encarnación is a relaxing city in Paraguay and is located on the south-east side of the country. It’s famous for its yearly Carnaval, beaches nested on the banks of the Paraná Piver and nearby Jesuit Ruins.
Although we stumbled upon the Carnival by chance and did not book accommodation (we rarely do), I would definitely encourage you to do so if you are specifically coming for the event, as the population quadruples during this time. We ended up using a mix of Couchsurfing and Airbnb, but there are also a number of other hotels and hostels you can stay in. Check out bookings.com.
Entry and exit:
Check what the deal is for your country. Make sure that you have the right paperwork. Getting in incorrectly may not be a problem, but getting out might be. As Australians, we were required to get visas. As we were backpacking around the north of Argentina, we got our visas in Resistencia in the El Chaco province, which is only kilometres away from Paraguay. We went straight to the consulate there. I can happily say that after filling in some forms and the exchange of some money (Aussies need to pay) it was a painless experience and we had our visas within days.
This country is an enigma, and it does not stop at transport. Apart from moving between major cities, public transport in Paraguay can be hard to decipher and it’s definitely not as up-to-speed as its neighbours. If you are determined, though, it’s not impossible. You also have the option of taxis and renting a car. Regardless of the season or mode of transportation, be prepared to be hot, after all, Paraguay is South America’s hottest country!
In general, the country is rather cheap compared with other South American countries. The cost of living is not as high as in some of the continent’s other countries and there still aren’t enough tourists to warrant tourist prices … yet!
Definitely the country’s highlight! They are generally helpful, friendly and willing to help. In my opinion, they are some of the friendliest on the continent.
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Do you have more tips, advice or suggestions on what to do in Paraguay? Please feel free to share your thoughts and comments below.
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Photo Credits: ©Alex Benavides & Ombretta Zanetti Photography for very itchy feet.