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A Side Trip To San Bernadino

54km (34 miles) SE of Asunción

San Bernardino is a small resort town on the eastern shore of Lago Ypacarai. A trip there makes for an interesting day tour (taking no more than 7 hr.) known as "Circuito de Oro." You leave Asunción via Avenida Mariscal López, a busy highway passing Gone With the Wind-style diplomatic mansions. Twelve kilometers (8 miles) away is the bustling satellite town of San Lorenzo with its gray neo-Gothic cathedral. On the open road, you will pass handicraft stores selling a variety of ceramics and basketware, much of it tacky. In the humble town of Yaguaron, be sure to visit Iglesia San Buenaventura, one of the most beautiful churches in Paraguay. Built in 1755, it is a small white-faced chapel with spectacular doors carved by indigenous artists. The inner pillars are brightly tinted with red, yellow, and green vegetable inks. The ceiling has 60 tiny individual portraits of the local craftsmen who worked on the church (their signatures) and the altar is a gold-painted spectacle with incredible detail. The church is open every day from 6am to 4pm, closing at midday from 11am to 1:30pm. It's open mornings only on Saturdays. The caretaker, Antolin Aleman, will also show you a small museum nearby. Be sure to leave a small donation, as the church is proudly cared for by the local community with little or no help from the authorities.

Back on the road, you'll notice the flatlands become gentle slopes with the occasional rocky cliff. You pass lemon groves, roadside stalls, and the occasional wandering farm fowl. Make sure to stop at Fruteria Paraguan (no phone). This large restaurant sells delicious, syrupy fruit salads. Nearby, in Pararetá and Chololó, are several beauty spots with small waterfalls and bathing areas popular in the summer. The town of Pirebebuy has another interesting colonial church and is infamous for a strong local brew called caña. The town was the site of a major battle in the War of the Triple Alliance. Here you are truly in the rural hinterland, surrounded by little more than stray cattle and road vendors selling bottles of dark honey. Next you arrive at Caacupé, the Lourdes of Paraguay. It is a major pilgrimage center, attracting thousands for the Immaculate Conception celebrations on December 8 each year, with fireworks, night processions, and displays of amazingly agile dancers balancing bottles on their heads. Finally, you reach Ypacarai Lake and the pleasant "beach" town of San Bernardino. In the summer, its bars, cafes, and shore are bustling with people enjoying the waterside atmosphere. Enjoy a late lunch at Los Alpes restaurant and hotel, Ruta General Morinigo, Km 46.5 (tel. 512/232-399; www.hotellosalpes.com.py). It has a pretty flower-covered veranda and fountain with resident parrots. The restaurant does buffet-style lunches amid tropical decor. The direct route back to Asunción from here is 54km (35 miles).

Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.