I’m not normally one to use guidebooks. I’m certainly not normally one to use the maps in guidebooks. In Paraguay, though, the options for planning ahead are limited. So, I had dutifully studied the map in the <insert famous brand here> guidebook for the city I was heading to, Encarnacion.
I’d been looking at it on the bus… the bus where the air-conditioning is to open the windows, regardless of the red dirt roads and the so-coloured dust that blows in and blankets everything inside, including me and my bag. And by looking at the map I had planned how I was going to spend the afternoon exploring the city.
I had set my expectations by the guidebook. I was expecting a population of about 70,000 people in Encarnacion; I was expecting a cheap hotel near the bus station; and I was expecting there to be roads and buildings where the map said they would be. Spoiler alert – there was a letdown on the last of those expectations!
Where did Encarnacion go?
When construction started on the Yacyreta Dam in the 1980s, the Paraguayan authorities expected much of Encarnacion to be flooded by rising water levels so they moved many homes and businesses to higher ground.
But, whether it was because of engineering errors, political interference or a corruption scandal, the dam didn’t reach capacity and the water didn’t rise as high as expected.
So for decades the ‘old city’ remained occupied, the crumbling buildings from the abandoned suburbs filled and surrounded by bazaars, shops and destitute residents.
This was the area I was hoping to explore. As mentioned, it was still on my map and the author’s description of the bazaar as ‘tawdry’ was enough to excite my sense of curiosity.
When I got there, camera in quivering hand ready for all the tawdriness I could handle, I found only rubble. The lower part of Encarnacion is now just a large wasteland of dirt and construction equipment. Roads just suddenly stop, no gutter to signal the end, just tarmac and then nothingness.
The water level has still not risen, although the reports I’ve read say that it’s supposed to soon, as Argentina is putting more money into the project in exchange for a bigger share of the energy produced.
No, it seems like the Paraguayans just got sick of the crumbling old reminders and decided to knock them down. There’s nothing like a building, abandoned 20 years ago for a national project, still standing and mocking the incompetence of its would-be-flooders.
So the city had just disappeared. Well, at least a huge area almost as large as any suburb in any major metropolitan centre. It was actually a bit sad, to be honest. But that’s progress for you – move or be dammed.
The nitty gritty travel details
Buses run frequently from Ciudad del Este or Ascuncsion to Encarnacion. Both trips are about 5 hours and cost between US8-$10. I stayed at the Hotel Itapua which is directly across from the bus terminal. It was clean and comfortable with wi-fi and breakfast for $10. Oh, and there is enough which does exist in the new city to pass a day looking around. There’s not much else though.