Enchanting Encarnación and its Crazy Carnaval

Paraguay’s enchanting city of Encarnacíon is the capital of the department of Itapúa, on the country’s south east border with Argentina.

We arrived in Encarnacíon after sadly leaving Ecuador, and spending a couple of days in Asuncíon, Paraguay’s capital. The city, according to the 2002 census, which is divided from Argentina’s Posadas by the great Paraná River, used to have an area of 588 km² and a population of 93, 497.

That was before the river flooded the city, taking lives and destroying the historic quarters in the process.

The name Paraná derives from the native Tupi language and means ‘like the sea’. Linking the two cities between Argentina and Paraguay is the San Roque González de Santa Cruz Bridge.

In 2008, the countries created a joint commission to manage the Yacyretá hydroelectric dam. Later that year the commission decided to raise water levels to 78.5 metres above sea level, the cause of much tension between Paraguay and Argentina. A group of town councillors in Encarnacíon brought legal action against the commission for ‘crimes against the environment’. The Paraná River finally flooded in 2011, after much debate from both the Argentine and Paraguay governments on how best to manage the dam and stop the river from flooding. The Argentinean side suffered little damage, but Encarnacíon took a huge blow losing a large portion of its city, including residential houses and some homeless.

These days when you visit Encarnacíon, like we did, you would never guess that the trendy beachside ‘playas’ lining the sandy shores were ever the cause of death, destruction and great loss of cultural heritage.

Down on the sand families sunbake and bathe in the small waves of the river, while along the north side of the shore, beachside bars pump music until all hours of the night serving cocktails on the sand while spectators watch inter-American beach football.

When we first arrived, for our lack of forward thinking, we had found that there was no room left at the Inn. During Carnaval time apparently, you need to book accommodation weeks in advance. We managed to find a room in Hotel Itapúa, soon after wishing we hadn’t. We were charged 80,000 Guarani a night (around $15) for a room which called barely be called that by health and safety standards. The ripped and holey welcome towel strategically placed on our bed should have been a warning sign. But we were desperate, and soon found ourselves desperately searching for a couch elsewhere for the next few nights. Luckily we found one, just before the price of the room doubled, and possibly being attacked by either the shoddy ceiling fan or the family of dangerous-looking spiders in the mouldy toilet-shower.

We had two main reasons for visiting Encarnacíon – first as a gateway to visit the beautiful Iguazú Falls, and secondly (the reason we decided to stay) is to experience the famous EncarnacíonCarnaval. In February, South America comes alive with the sights and sounds of carnival, the most famous being, of course, in Rio de Janeiro. But, we had heard that Encarnacíon packs a punch to rival Rio, if not in grandeur, certainly in atmosphere!

EncarnacíonCarnaval runs every weekend throughout February. But buying tickets to Carnaval in Encarnacíon is not obvious. There are a lot of scalpers selling them on the street for double the price. And, like most things in South America, many people have many different opinions. So we spent a morning running around trying to find the elusive tickets. Finally someone pointed us in the direction of a store called Tígo,  and we got our hands on the golden tickets for that night.

Carnaval here goes back to 1916 when the city was going through a period of massive development – with the construction of a railway track and new buildings, and the arrival of Italian immigrants. The parade started betweencalleMariscal Jose Felix Estigarribia and calleMariscal Francisco Solano Lopez (nicknamed the Street of life) on the three days preceeding lent. It became the much-anticipated event of the year, especially for young people. During the 1920’s-30’s war, depression, politics and natural disasters supressed the celebrative festival, and it wasn’t until 1941 that the Carnaval came back with force.

 

Today the carnival is a fiesta of colour, fantasy and dance to the rhythmic Latin sounds, mostly Brazilian samba, with thousands of people attending each year.

Staying with another lovely couch surfer Jazmin and her little girl, we learned all the tricks and traditions before heading out to the gran fiesta. We bought ourselves a can of spray snow, which is part of the entertainment and arrived at the gates fashionably late at 9.30pm for a party that supposedly starts at 9pm. True to Latin nature, the party didn’t actually get started until well past 10pm.

The first lot of dancers, men and women, made their way out onto the street, full of vitality and dazzling the crowd with their multi-coloured, sequin-studded costumes.

 As the fiesta rolled on, the party got started, the spray snow started to fly from every-which direction, and energised bodies were dancing along to the energetic Brazilian beats. We were no exception. We danced the night away until 2am, bedazzled by the uplifting mood that pulsated through the crowd. By the end of the night, the joyful ambience had rubbed off on every single spectator and we had learned the words to the five main party songs that repeated during the course of the parade.

If Rio is bigger it can only possibly be in size alone. It was an evening we will never forget and a soundtrack that will repeat in our brains for years to come:

Chora, Me Liga by João Bosco &ViníciusCurtição

Tirate un paso   by Los Wachiturros

And the two biggest hits of the evening, and probably the year for that matter:

Balada byGusttavo Lima           

Ai Se EuTePego by Michel Teló

The rest of our time in Encarnacíon was spent checking out the markets and relaxing by the wáter before heading off to see a lot of it at Iguazú Falls.

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  • Natasha Malinda from Melbourne, Australia
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