Filadelfia, Paraguay

This is the first post in a series on Paraguay’s Chaco region about its largest town, Filadelfia. The others will feature articles about the region and its Mennonite and indigenous communities. Enjoy photos and stories from one of Paraguay’s most intriguing places.

A visit to the Chaco, the remote western half of Paraguay located in the heart of South America, is like a trip back in time. It truly is the “Wild West” of South America. From the timeworn, semiarid terrain to the eclectic mix of Germanic, Spanish, and indigenous influences, the Chaco is out of this world.

2008_08_31 Paraguay Filadelfia (1)

The heartbeat of the Chaco is in Filadelfia, the capital of Boquerón Province, about five hours northwest of Paraguay’s capital, Asunción. It lies just off the Trans-Chaco Highway headed toward Santa Cruz, Bolivia. The town of 10,000 was founded in the 1930s by Russian Mennonites of Germanic descent who emigrated from the former Soviet Union to avoid persecution under Stalinism. Mennonite influence dominates the town with the prevalence of Plattdeutsch, a Low German dialect, blond-hair and blue-eyed residents, and delicious German cuisine and pastries.

2008_08_31 Paraguay Filadelfia (2)

2008_08_31 Paraguay Filadelfia (3)

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In 2008, we visited Filadelfia and stayed in one of just two hotels in town at the time, a decent place with a so-so German-style buffet. Along the main street, Avenida Hindenburg, we stopped to see the monuments that commemorated the city’s 25th, 50th and 75th anniversaries and the Mennonite pioneers.

2008_08_31 Paraguay Filadelfia (7)

2008_08_31 Paraguay Filadelfia (8)

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We stopped to explore the town square, one of the nicer ones I’ve seen in Paraguay. The manicured lawn and gardens were a beautiful escape from the gritty, industrial atmosphere of the rest of the town. The aptly-named bottle trees (ceiba insignis; in Spanish, borrachos) stood like giant guardians. The untrained ear might have mistaken the Mennonite school next door for one in Germany were it not for the dry, windswept Chaco landscape on campus.

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2008_08_31 Paraguay Filadelfia (11)

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We toured the Jakob Unger Museum adjacent to the town square. Named after a local specimen collector, the museum was filled with virtually every kind of animal found in the Paraguayan Chaco. It also housed a mish-mash of Mennonite and indigenous artifacts from Filadelfia’s past. Our young son enjoyed learning about armadillos, rheas, and cheetahs — up close and personal. We played a game of “which animal can hurt you” to help him learn respect for wildlife.

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2008_08_31 Paraguay Filadelfia (16)

2008_08_31 Paraguay Filadelfia (17)

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Filadelfia was a beehive of activity when we visited. The town’s epicenter was a small strip mall that catered to the Mennonite community with a large German-style supermarket and boutique stores selling everything from wood furniture to ceramics. Smaller commercial enterprises on the outskirts of town served the local indigenous population and migrant workers, primarily “Brasiguayos,” or Brazilians who emigrated to Paraguay. Around town were numerous plants and factories, predominantly Mennonite owned and operated, that processed agriculture products from milk to honey. The ice cream was some of the most delicious I’d ever tasted.

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2008_08_31 Paraguay Filadelfia (20)

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The region is Paraguay’s dairy heartland, but all this productivity has come at a cost. The Chaco is very dry, with frequent droughts and water management issues exacerbated by large farms that need irrigation. Although Filadelfia and surrounding communities such as Loma Plata and Kolonia Neuland use power from the Itaipu Dam, one of the world’s largest dams located in eastern Paraguay, coal and wood were still widely used as fuel when we visited. As a result, clear cutting to increase pasture lands for cattle and for fuel has contributed to deforestation in the area.

2008_08_31 Paraguay Filadelfia (22)

2008_08_31 Paraguay Filadelfia (23)

Those who live in the harsh climate of the Chaco work hard to make the desert bloom, but they also find time to relax, have fun, and enjoy life. Filadelfia has several Mennonite churches, and many indigenous and Brasiguayos are Catholic. Soccer (fútbol) is a passion for many locals, as it is throughout Paraguay, and each year at the end of September, the Trans-Chaco Rally passes through town. Visiting Filadelfia during the rally is arguably the best time to go, but be sure to book your hotel room early! There aren’t many.

2008_08_31 Paraguay Filadelfia (25)

2008_08_31 Paraguay Filadelfia (24)

Stay tuned for more exciting posts about Paraguay and the Chaco!

2008_08_31 Paraguay Filadelfia

This is an update with photos of an earlier post about the Paraguayan Chaco. Click here to read the original post.

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The Chaco Experience

I just finished this article for our newsletter talking about our trip to the Chaco last weekend.  If you ever have a chance to visit the Chaco, give it a try.  It’s quite the trip (figuratively and literally).
Are you looking for an out-of-town get away?  Head to the Chaco!  We made the five-hour trek up to Filadelfia, home to Paraguay’s largest Mennonite colony, and spent the weekend touring Paraguay’s Chaco region.  The Chaco is a great destination for those who enjoy driving in the countryside and exploring Paraguay’s scenic beauty.  While not as obviously spectacular as Iguazu Falls or the Jesuit Missions, the Chaco features some hidden gems to discover with the help of a local guide.  The Chaco is a fascinating mixture of wildlife, livestock and farmland, unspoiled terrain, and an intriguing melding of Mennonite and indigenous cultures.
We spent Saturday morning in Filadelfia exploring the town square, museum, and Mennonite school.  The museum features relics from Filadelfia’s history, including Mennonite and indigenous artifacts, and a collection of preserved animals found in the Chaco.  Our son enjoyed learning about armadillos, rheas, and cheetahs — up close and personal.  In addition, we saw two interesting Mennonite monuments looming over each end of town.  Filadelfia also has several large German-style supermarkets, and boutique stores that sell everything from wood furniture to ceramics.  Locally made goods are reasonably priced.
At noon, we left Filadelfia and drove to Loma Plata, another Mennonite settlement.  After visiting the Loma Plata’s museum dedicated to commemorating Mennonite history, we took a tour of Trebol’s dairy plant.  Kids will enjoy seeing the big milk trucks and the flowing assembly lines that package their favorite dairy products.  Afterwards, we drove to Isla Po’i, and toured an experimental agriculture farm as well as the former Paraguayan military’s staging area during the Chaco War.  We continued on to Yakaré Sur, a large saltwater lagoon that provides sanctuary to flamingos and other birds in the heart of the semi-arid Chaco.  The view from the observation tower is gorgeous – one of the few places where you can survey the Chaco for miles in all directions.  We passed up visits to Fortin Boqueron, a Chaco-era historic site, and the Tagua Reserve, a reserve for the endangered tagua boar, and end the day with a short tour of Colonia Neuland.  A day’s worth of travels through over 100 miles of Chaco left all of us exhausted.
If you plan to travel to the Chaco, plan ahead.  You can make your trip more pleasant by following these suggestions.  Spend some time in Filadelfia or other Mennonite communities such as Colonia Neuland when the stores are still open.  Virtually everything closes at noon on Saturday and all day Sunday, so do your sightseeing and shopping during weekdays or on Saturday morning.  Stay at the Hotel Florida in Filadelfia.  It’s the nicest hotel in town, and the other hotel options in the area lack basic amenities such as hot water.  The Hotel Florida is popular, so reserve your room early.  Dine at the Hotel Florida Restaurant, which offers a variety of German and Paraguayan dishes.  You can also dine at the Rincon Restaurant or Girasol Parrilla in Filadelfia; however, our guide told us that their food is not as tasty as what the Hotel Florida offers.
Hire a local guide for $90 (half day) to $150 (all day) who can show you what the Chaco has to offer.  Most Chaco roads are unpaved and chock full of potholes.  Consider using the guide’s vehicle (additional $150) to spare your own vehicle from wear and tear.  If you drive in the Chaco, bring plenty of food and water, and be prepared for roadside emergencies.  Your guide can help you navigate the myriad back roads that criss-cross the Chaco.  If you want to learn more about the immense Mennonite cooperative that operates several meat and dairy plants in the area, contact the Fernheim Cooperative ( well in advance to schedule a plant tour.  The cooperative produces many popular Paraguayan food brands such as Co-op.  Following these suggestions can make an adventure in the Paraguayan Chaco an even better experience!