The darkness enveloped us as we walked through the cobblestone streets of Trinidad in the South American country of Paraguay. We were making our way to the Jesuit ruins, a UNESCO Paraguay World Heritage Site.
It’s April 2013, and my family and I are visiting a friend of mine living in rural Paraguay. On our way to our friend’s village we decided to make a stop in Trinidad to visit the Jesuit ruins.
We’re told the best time to see the Jesuit ruins is at night. They hold tours every Sunday. In the evenings, the ruins are lit up with lights. It truly is a beautiful sight.
This post was updated on March 19, 2020.
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Visiting the UNESCO Paraguay site
Visiting the UNESCO Paraguay site is a must for travelers coming to Paraguay. It’s a great way to learn about the country’s colonial history. The Jesuit Missions of La Santísima Trinidad de Paraná and Jesús de Tavarangue, as the ruins are called, is located in southwestern part of the country.
From the capital city of Asuncion, you can take a bus down to the city of Encarnacion. There are nice coaches that are relatively inexpensive in fares. From Encarnacion, take a smaller bus to the town of Trinidad. The Paraguay guidebook from Bradt Travels will have more up to date information for getting around Paraguay.
The town of Trinidad is very small. There are only a few lodging options in Trinidad. If you want more options, you can look for accommodations in Encarnacion. However, just know that the city is about an hour’s drive from Trinidad, so plan your visit to the UNESCO Paraguay site accordingly. There are also several Airbnb lodging options in Encarnacion.
The history of the Jesuit Missions
The first European settlers to Paraguay were the Jesuits missionaries, a sect of the Catholic religion. These missionaries became fully integrated with the Guarani, the native people of Paraguay. The Jesuits were translating the Bible into Guarani. They were actually pretty successful at converting many Guarani to Catholicism.
But this success proved to be a threat to the Spanish empire. And eventually the Spanish came and massacred all the Jesuits and Guarani who lived in these Jesuit communities.
Once the Spanish came, they tried to take over what the Jesuits had started. But without the Guarani’s respect, and having used force to overtake any resistors, the Spanish were not able to achieve the same level of success and loyalty that the Jesuits had.
The 1986 movie, “The Mission,” is actually an accurate portrayal of the things that happened at this UNESCO Paraguay site. It’s a great primer to understanding the missionary history of South American countries like Paraguay.
Walking through the ruins of the mission
Different parts of the ruins of the UNESCO Paraguay site played different roles for the Jesuits. One section was where the schools were. Another section was the market area. And yet another part of the ruins was where the priests lived.
Many of the buildings at the site are partially intact. In most cases, they consist mainly of the foundations and parts of walls. Yet you can still get a feel of what it might have been like being in the UNESCO Paraguay World Heritage site in its heyday.
The grounds of the Jesuit ruins consist of stone structures. At night, these structures are backlit by lights. Small lights also cover the grounds, similar to yard lights one would put along a garden path. During the night tour, the sounds of flute music float through the air, carried by speakers placed throughout the grounds. The scene is quiet and serene, but also quite awe-inspiring.
There is something inspiring about the Jesuit ruins, regardless of whether or not it is a UNESCO Paraguay site. Even in the darkness, you can feel the tranquility and serenity that the Jesuits must have felt hundreds of years ago.
The role of religion throughout history
There is something universal in the way humans have expressed their belief in a higher entity throughout the course of history. Whether it’s the Vatican, the Ka’aba, the Mayan temples, or Stonehenge, the format and execution may vary, but underneath it all is this belief in a higher power. There’s also a desire to share that belief with the world.
Having gone to a Jesuit high school, I am familiar with that sect of Catholicism. And I have always admired their values of service and education.
It always saddens me that something as well-intentioned as religion can be corrupted by power and greed. The greed of the Spanish led to the downfall of the Jesuits in Paraguay. And throughout history, the greed of successful religious leaders have led them to ignore the plight of their followers for the pursuit of expansion of their influence.
I thought about this as I stood amidst the Jesuit ruins at this UNESCO Paraguay site in the middle of South America. Communities will come and go. History ebbs and flows. We become either the victors or the victims.
Sharing the histories with the world
There is no real influence that I, as a single individual, can have on history. But as a person, I can at least see the mistakes of the past and learn from them. I can visit sites like these, and other UNESCO sites. And I can share the history of these places with others. It’s one of the ways that I can practice sustainable and responsible tourism.
There is no way to bring back the lives that were lost in those ruins. But at the very least, this story is a humble consolation to honor them. I’m glad we took the time to visit this UNESCO Paraguay site. It certainly was a must-see!
Learn more about the history of the Jesuits in South America here.
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