Paraguay is one of the least visited countries in South America, and it is one of only two countries on the South American continent that is completely landlocked, the other being its neighbour Bolivia.
So it is that the Gran Chaco, which occupies the western side of Paraguay, is one of those places which create fascination simply because it is ruggedly harsh. Whilst much of South America is best known for soaring mountains, mighty rivers and dense rain forest or magnificent coastline Paraguay’s Gran Chaco region can’t lay claim to any such tourist-attracting environments.
Much of the Gran Chaco is home to a German-speaking religious sect called the Mennonites. This is a rather stern, though devoted, group who emigrated to Paraguay in the 1930s from Russia, Canada and Germany. At the time they were fleeing persecution in their own countries and were seeking the right to practice their religion without hindrance. They were encouraged to take up land in the Chaco, as it was considered so poor that native Paraguayans stayed on the better lands to the east of the Paraguay River.
Language is another impediment to travelling through the Chaco. Those who speak Spanish may get by with difficulty, but the most widely spoken language in Paraguay is Guarani, and Indian language that is spoken by about 90% of the population.
The Chaco is considered to be inhospitable because it does consist mainly arid country, thorny scrub, cactus and marshes. The region suffers high temperatures and an unpredictable rainfall. The Mennonites have established farms, but there is concern for the ecological diversity of the area as the Mennonites and others are mass clearing the scrub in order to improve agriculture.
The Chaco contains 60% of Paraguay’s land, but is home to just 10% of the population. This is reflected in the fact that the largest town in the Chaco is called Filadelfia, and it has a population of just over 9,000. It is easier to reach from the capital of Asunción nowadays as an asphalted road has been completed.
The Gran Chaco is an area which mainly attracts those people who like to visit places that others tend to avoid. Believe it or not, there are some travellers who love to confront a challenge, and the Chaco region of Paraguay definitely falls within that category.