Easter in Tañarandy

April 3, 2012 – Condé Nast Traveller India

It’s ironic that the site of Paraguay’s largest Easter celebration, the village of Tañarandy, is named for the inconvertible tribes that once lived there. In the heart of the Misiones district of southwestern Paraguay, Tañarandy translates from Guaraní – the only indigenous tongue in South America to be recognized as an official state language – as la tierra de los irreductibles, or “the land of the irreducibles,” in reference to the 18th century Jesuit missions known as reducciones. Some interpret it as “the land of the heretics,” others as “the land of the demons.”

Tañarandy lies 225 km south of Asunción along national Route 1, slightly west of San Ignacio de Guazú, the hub of Spain’s 18th century missionary activities. Though a fairly short drive from the sweaty capital, where the lethargic tide carries vegetation down the Paraguay River and tree roots burst through the pavement, the district of Misiones looks more Tuscan than tropical. Golden hills, striped by harvest, slope gently away from the road, dotted with tall, slender evergreens and whitewashed villages bearing the names of saints. Only the muggy air and palm-lined village streets give away the region’s proximity to the Amazon.

The land here is rusty red, the same color as the terra cotta tiles draped over the sagging rooftops. Dirt roads are like gashes through the greenery. And each year on Good Friday, when the dirt road out of Tañarandy is lit by candles and torches at dusk, it glows, appropriately, the color of dried blood.

I came to Tañarandy’s Good Friday celebrations in April 2011, a guest of Graciela and Emilio, an Asunceño couple both working on indigenous rights in the capital. I passed the preceding days with them at their impeccable, tiny holiday cottage in Villa Florida, a riverside fishing village-cum-vacation spot 65 km north of San Ignacio. Their son, Marcelo, arrived in Villa Florida the evening of Good Friday with his girlfriend (a salsa instructor and, typical of Paraguayans, a beauty), and the three of us drove on to Tañarandy.

Along the road we passed pretty towns like San Miguel, where I had spent the previous afternoon shopping in the modest workshops along the main road for hand-woven cotton and wool blankets, the town’s famed handicraft. That day I had been the only visitor in sight. The same would not be true in Tañarandy.

That year, Tañarandy’s Good Friday celebrations attracted 15,000 visitors from all over Paraguay, not an insignificant number in a country of just 6.5 million, and for a tradition barely 20 years old. These festivities began here in 1992 when the painter Koki Ruiz, born and raised in San Ignacio, walked a procession with a few friends, resurrecting the Catholic tradition known in Guaraní as a jetopa, a ‘gathering’ to commemorate the Stations of the Cross.

Today the celebrations take place on a larger scale, culminating in the popular exposition of cuadros vivientes, or ‘living paintings,’ that recreate scenes from the Passion on a low hillock at the edge of town. Around the base of the hill, carts and kiosks sell cotton candy, neon-lit plastic toys, rosaries and icons to milling clusters of Paraguayan families with the carnivalesque pageantry common to South American Catholicism.

Emerging from the dense crowds into the open fields, a strip of red earth, ragged at the edges and trod dull by many feet, unfurls over the grass. By sunset, flecks of light have appeared along its length, lit by half-bent figures moving slowly up the road toward a low ridge and a copse of trees. The 15,000 candles, one for each onlooker, are made from hollowed orange halves filled with a mix of beeswax and animal fat. At the gloaming, with the candles all lit, the road is a trail of flame. Then the faint chanting of the estacioneros, still invisible over the hill, begins.

The living paintings staged at the end of the procession may be the star attraction and pride of Tañarandy, but this hushed act of devotion lies far from the elaborate kitsch of that spectacle. These flames, burning in a quiet corner of a nigh-forgotten country, represent a new and ancient rite. 2012 will mark their 20th year burning here in Tañarandy, but it took 2,000 years of ritual and faith to light them.

How to get there:
There are no direct flights toTañarandy. The best option to reach this little town is from Asunción. Carriers such as Emirates Airlines (www.emirates.com), KLM Royal Dutch Airline (www.klm.com) and Jet Airways (www.jetairways.com) fly regularly to Asunción from India. From the terminal in Asunción, buses leave for Misiones throughout the day. Virtually any bus destined for Encarnación or Pilar will stop in San Ignacio along the way. Just south of Asunción several towns along the Circuito de Oro (Golden Circuit) produce fine handicrafts.

Food and drink:
Beef is almost always on the menu, but some of Paraguay’s best-known dishes are veg friendly, notably chipa guazú and sopa paraguayo, both types of cornbread made with egg, cheese and onion. Ultimately, though, meals here are a carnivore’s delight, usually featuring simply grilled meat and sausages, boiled cassava root, and either chipa or sopa.

The essential Paraguayan beverage (aside, of course, from a good, cold beer) is tereré, a type of bitter herbal tea made from the yerba mate plant and drunk ice cold, sometimes with mint or orange blossoms. Tereré is as much ritual as drink, the gourd or horn from which it is drunk usually passed socially among members of a group.

Where to stay:
With extra time, Villa Florida is an attractive place to spend a day relaxing by the river, while San Miguel is a perfect stopover between here and San Ignacio. Else, you could opt to stay in the following hotels in Asunción.

The Granados Park Hotel
Estrella esq, 15 de Agosto, Asunción, Paraguay (+595 21 497 921; www.granadospark.com.py) Doubles from Rs 6,097

Asunción Palace Hotel
 Avda, Colón 415 esq, Estrella, Asunción, Paraguay (+595 21 492151; www.asuncionhotelpalace.com) Doubles from Rs 2,185

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