Paraguay's giant lily pads are back for the first time in a decade, revealing a forgotten country in bloom
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It is very rare that a travel news story involving Paraguay pops up on the radar.
Here, after all, is a country which few tourists ever see. There it sits, tucked between its neighbours Brazil, Argentina and Bolivia - its location on the map overshadowed by all of them.
It is, without criticism, one of the South American states you are least likely to visit; a niche destination you might, perhaps, only consider once you have taken in Peru and its Inca legends, Ecuador and the Galapagos Islands, Colombia and its exotic intrigue, and increasingly cool Chile - let alone the bright lights of Buenos Aires and Rio de Janeiro.
But this week has seen Paraguay bubble briefly into focus - via a positive headline with an ecological angle.
This is the revelation that giant lily pads have returned to a location from which they had vanished over a decade ago.
The victoria cruziana is an impressive sight, a floating circular leaf which can grow to up to two metres in diameter - a phenomenon which is almost as much a small boat as organic matter. In the last few months, it has reappeared on the River Salado, a tributary of the River Paraguay. Tourists have been flocking to the small town of Piquete Cue, 15 miles north of the capital Asuncion, to glimpse these waterborne titans - which disappeared from the site in 2006 due to river dredging and theft, and were thought to be extinct in the area.
"This is something that you just don't see every day, or even every year," one visitor, Agustin Gomez, told the Associated Press. "You do see lily pads all the time, but not so many. And not so enormous. Some are two metres wide."
The victoria cruziana is especially attractive thanks to its upturned rim, which can rise to about 20cm around its circumference - and due to the flower that blooms within it for just 48 hours at a time, its petals white on the first day, opening to reveal a pink-purple core on the second.
They can be spotted elsewhere in South America CREDIT: GETTY
This is not a spectacle confined to Paraguay - the plant also blooms in Argentina, while its similar sibling the victoria amazonica is one of the iconic sights of a tour of Guyana (where it dominates an upper stretch of the River Rupununi). But its reemergence on the Salado is a new reason to visit a country that often requires a little selling.
Paraguay's problem, in terms of being a destination, is that it is almost an after-thought. Indeed, it was exactly that for the Spanish Empire, which treated it as something of a backwater, preferring to concentrate its ambitions on the likes of Argentina, and its centuries-long struggle against its rival Portugal's interests in Brazil.
This attitude came to define the modern state's borders - Paraguay is trapped at the centre of its continent, one of only two land-locked nations in the whole of Latin America (the other is Bolivia, which once had territory on the Pacific, but lost it to Chile). If you want to explore it, you have to travel through, or fly over, at least one other South American country to do so.
But this isolation has also, on some levels, proved to be an advantage. Spain's relative lack of interest in a possession that it held until 1811 meant that, in contrast to other parts of the continent, much of its Amerindian culture survived. Paraguay has arguably the strongest pre-Columbian identity of any South American nation. Guaraní, its indigenous tongue, is not just thriving but recognised as an official language of the country, along with Spanish - while Guaraní villages and towns still dot the landscape.
It is this connection to its pre-colonial soul which makes Paraguay a fascinating place to tour. There is much to recommend Asuncion, where the main street Calle Palma buzzes with cafes, shops and eateries - while the Chaco, the remote semi-arid plains which take up much of the north of the country, are a feast for the camera.
But it is the Guaraní connection which distinguishes Paraguay from the rest of the continent - and which crops up regularly in holidays offered by specialist tour operators.
Last Frontiers for example, offers a nine-day "Classic Paraguay" itinerary (from £2,770, with flights) which spends time in indigenous communities as well as in Asuncion and the Chaco - while Journey Latin America (020 3131 7447; journeylatinamerica.co.uk) dispenses a 12-day "Signature Paraguay" jaunt (from £3,185, excluding flights) which follows a similar path (before dipping to Iguacu Falls, which splash and crash just outside Paraguay's frontiers, on the Brazil-Argentina border).
Paraguay will never be an A-list destination on a landmass which boasts Machu Picchu, Rio de Janeiro and the wilds of Patagonia. But for those keen to see the heart of a continent, both literally and metaphorically, it has more to offer than you might think.
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