Legends of hidden riches are part of Paraguay’s complicated relationship with its greatest historic tragedy.

With the Brazilian army marching on Asunción, preceded by its fearsome reputation, the rich families of the Paraguayan capital began to panic. Fortunes were deposited at the French and U.S. embassies. Chests of Spanish gold coins were bricked up in the walls of mansions or stashed under floorboards. Fleeing by train, the women disembarked briefly at stations along the route, digging with their hands in the scrub and burying their jewels and trinkets. By the end of the brutal, protracted war, few survived to recover these possessions.
Or so the legend goes.

For 140 years, Paraguayans have searched for plata yvyguy—buried treasure—that was lost by their ancestors during the War of the Triple Alliance, which raged from 1864 to 1870 and remains the bloodiest war in South American history. Few outside of the region remember the conflict, and the victorious allies of Brazil, Argentina, and Uruguay rarely revisit their role in a struggle in which their enemy, tiny Paraguay, lost an estimated 60 percent of its population, including 90 percent of its male population. But in Paraguay, the shadow of La Guerra Grande—the Great War—looms large even today.

The steam railroad system on which people fled the fighting is now in ruins, a reminder of a hopeful time in the country’s history as well as its current woes. On an overcast June day, in the middle of one of the country’s coldest winters on record, I set out with a photographer to follow the train tracks, retracing the desperate flight of the Asunceños and meeting the people who continue to hunt for their treasure today.

The country’s many ills are seen as stemming from a single catastrophic defeat

In 1855, Francisco Solano Lopez, the 27-year-old son of the Paraguayan president, returned from a two-year trip to Europe with an Irish mistress, a fascination with Napoleon, and a squadron of British railroad engineers in tow. Two years later, he was president, and determined to convert his young nation of under half a million inhabitants into a regional power. He upgraded the military, promoted national industry, and built one of South America’s first railroads, linking the rich yerba mate plantations of the interior to the port at Asunción.

After independence from Spain in 1811, Paraguay had seemed at risk of being swallowed up by its larger neighbors, Argentina and Brazil. But by the 1860s, it had become a middling power and a cohesive state with a national identity strengthened by the use of Guarani, the widely spoken indigenous language. However, Lopez’s bold nation building aroused the suspicion of its neighbors, and in 1864, the country entered into a bitter and unwinnable six-year struggle against the combined forces of Brazil, Argentina, and Uruguay. By its end, Paraguay had lost over a quarter of its territory and paid a scarcely believable human cost.

“Make no mistake about it, this was a war of extermination,” says famed national poet Ramiro Dominguez in his university office in Villarrica, a city in the agricultural heartland of the country. “All that was left to rebuild the country was women, children, and invalids. Ever since, a sense of injustice has entered the collective imagination in Paraguay.”

The War of the Triple Alliance is the central tragedy of Paraguayan history. Nationalists venerate Lopez as a national savior; liberals vilify him as a stubborn warmonger. But one element of the tale remains remarkably consistent across the political spectrum: before the war, a golden age of nation-builders set the landlocked country on the path to becoming a regional power. Today, the country’s many ills are seen as stemming from that single catastrophic defeat.

An inhabited railcar at Areguá station.

Those ills are manifold. Despite sporadic years of rapid growth on the back of bumper agricultural revenues, Paraguay remains a poor country with social and economic indicators more akin to Central America than to its immediate neighbors. Its per capita GDP of less than $9,000 is one of the lowest in South America; a third of the rural population live in extreme poverty. Across Latin America, only Venezuela is more corrupt. Riding the local buses during the first days of my stay in Asunción, I was surprised to note that, beyond the city center and a few rich neighborhoods, the suburbs of the capital are navigated by dirt roads.

“Today, the search for plata yvyguy has become a national sport,” says Hernán Candia, a journalist, homeopath, and treasure hunter. “Many Paraguayans have discovered treasure and many live in the hope of doing so.” In 1992, Candia returned to his native Paraguay from the U.S. with a metal detector in his luggage. He spent the following six months traversing the country along the route of old military campaigns. The cabinets of his office are filled with artifacts—ink pots, old coins, and spoons—that he says date from the 19th century. Although he didn’t hit the jackpot, he became one of the primary chroniclers of Paraguayan treasure stories, publishing a series of bestselling books.

Others have been luckier, he insists. There was the discovery made by builders laying the foundations for a new building in central Asunción. Or the time an excavator operator discovered a chest full of gold in the process of installing a tennis court. Up river, several war-era Paraguayan ships rest on the riverbed, waiting for frogmen to uncover their booty. None of these finds can be verified, but that’s normal, according to Candia. People don’t want to report discoveries for fear of being targeted by hangers-on or thieves.

It’s easy to be sceptical in the absence of evidence, but the legend of plata yvyguy is far from a fringe belief. Almost every Paraguayan with whom I discussed the topic believed in the existence of buried treasure to some degree, and most knew a friend or distant relative who had made a find. In 2006, the mayor of Asunción, Enrique Riera, permitted a group of treasure hunters to dig a huge hole in one of the city’s largest parks on the condition that the state would take 50 percent of any treasure found. The brother and nephew of a former president are also keen treasure hunters, requesting government permission to excavate near train stations.

I ask Candia for advice on my own journey. On a sheet of paper, he sketches a map of Asunción and its surroundings, as well as the route of the old rail line as it existed in Lopez’s time. Luque, Yukury, Aregua, Sapucai, Ypacaraí. The names of the stations, in Guarani, grow increasingly alien as the track forges east into the Paraguayan countryside. That’s where we are headed.

Hernan shows photos of some of the artefacts he recovered, often with the help of his trusted metal detector.

Today, Lopez´s railroad lies in glorious disrepair. In Asunción, the arches of the pink central station are supported by makeshift scaffolding. Inside, guides do their best to make a tourist attraction out of two remaining wooden carriages and an old bell. A nearby workshop has been converted into a bar where the city’s middle class can enjoy cocktails in the shade of rusted locomotives.

If the enduring popularity of the plata yvyguy legend is evidence of Paraguayans’ steadfast belief in the prosperity and power of their nation’s golden age, the railroad is a stark reminder of their reality. After the war, it fell into the hands of an English company. By the 1980s, following tragic underinvestment, the country’s rail stock was still based on wood-powered steam engines. New roads offered more efficient transportation and the railroad closed permanently in 2006. A tourist train running from Asunción to Areguá spluttered on until a collapsed bridge ended operations in 2010. Over the last decade there have been various attempts to resuscitate the railroad, but they have failed for lack of funds and large sections of track have been pulled up and sold as scrap.

As we drive out of the city and into a thin drizzle, we find the old stations in various states of dereliction. Most are inhabited, however, and even those that aren’t have welcoming and enthusiastic caretakers. Ana Gonzalez lives near the Luque station. Until last year she lived in the station itself with her husband—the station caretaker—and their three daughters, but an outer wall collapsed, filling the children’s bedroom with rubble. In Areguá, Miguel Angel shows me photos of himself as a capped and uniformed young telegraph operator in the early 1990s, the final years of the railroad’s operation. His main concern now is to prevent drug users and reckless lovers from occupying the old rail cars.

Miguel Angel, unpaid caretaker of Areguá station and a former signalman, shows the station’s original bell.

On discovering I am British, the caretaker at Paraguari station excitedly points out old ticketing and weighing equipment made in Birmingham. Further down the line at Ybytymi, in the middle of a windy plain, the station’s inhabitants are all bovine. In between the cowpats, the floor of the station has been dug away, presumably as part of a lacklustre treasure hunt.

In between the stations, the landscape is lonely and bleak and covered by low, grey clouds. To follow the tracks, we are forced off the asphalt and onto a cobbled road, its stones cemented with rich, red earth. Alongside these forgotten stretches are the carcasses of 19th century buildings, their elaborate facades still evident but the rest rotting from the inside out, the roofs caved in and the walls mottled by creeping moss. There are other, newer houses, but they are still. No televisions blare, no dogs bark.

Yukuty station is boarded up, but an outhouse and a pile of garbage suggest it is inhabited. As we park the car, a curtain twitches in a neighbouring house. Soon we are talking to Carlos Pont, who married into the property surrounding the station and is well prepared for questions concerning plata yvyguy. “We get plenty of treasure hunters and at night there are always disturbances,” he says. “You know the story of Lopez’s wagon? Well, people around here say they have seen the soldiers.”

Lopez’s wagon is the jackpot of all Paraguayan treasures. It is believed that a wagon full of gold ingots from the Paraguayan treasury derailed en route to Ypacaraí and that Lopez ordered a handful of troops to bury it before arranging their execution to prevent them from revealing its whereabouts. Central to the plata yvyguy legend is the belief that successful treasure hunters receive paranormal signs, often in the form of the gold’s deceased owners, or headless white dogs, or mysterious gases. In the case of Lopez’s wagon, it’s soldiers wearing Napoleonic uniforms.

Candia had warned us that Paraguayan treasure hunters could be shy

A teenage boy in a grey sweater skids his bicycle to a halt to listen to our conversation. “They’re digging just down the tracks,” he says.

As we walk along the tracks, which are barely visible under the green grass, the noise of a diesel generator grows. Hector, 19, tells us that his mother sometimes goes looking for plata yvyguy and explains the important signs to look out for. “If you are digging and suddenly you hit water or a hen appears out of nowhere, it means you have to be careful, the person you are digging with plans to betray you.”

Breaking through the clearing, we see two pick-up trucks parked next to a hole, about three meters across and five meters deep. The motor is pumping water from the bottom of the hole. A little further on, five burly men in blue overalls are sitting under a tarpaulin, eating sandwiches. A bearded man gets up and asks us what we want. At first we play dumb, asking what is going on. He says it’s private property and he has the right to drill a hole. Then we ask about plata yvyguy and with folded arms and tensed jaw he says that any respectable treasure hunter would be hunting for the wagon further back along the tracks. He refuses a request for a photo and we are on our way.

“Te hizo el ñembotavy,” says Hector, using a Guarani expression that loosely means, “he was playing dumb.” Candia had warned us that Paraguayan treasure hunters could be shy.

A sense of injustice about the great war continues to burn

Back in Asunción, filming has begun for a new movie by Juan Camilo Maneglia and Tana Schémbori, the country’s premier directing duo. Entitled Los Buscadores (The Searchers) the film tells the story of a street vendor who comes across a map for plata yvyguy in the capital. “The legend of plata yvyguy is something unique to Paraguay,” says Mangelia. “It mixes history with legend but it also has a rational foundation. It’s a very Paraguayan way of looking at the world and I’m sure it will be the subject of many more films to come.”

A sense of injustice about the Guerra Grande continues to burn. In Asunción, the newspapers fret about the growing number of Brazilian immigrants, Brasiguayos, who have come to invest in massive soy bean plantations in the country’s fertile eastern plains, speaking Portuguese and blurring the border with Brazil. From the city docks porteño slang, from Buenos Aires, is increasingly heard. Over two million Paraguayans are estimated to have emigrated to Argentina, either in search of economic opportunities or to escape the military dictatorship that lasted from 1954 to 1989.

The strong nationalist strain of Paraguayan politics struggles to preserve local culture in the face of the influence wielded by its larger neighbors. But for now, the distinctly Paraguayan legend of plata yvyguy seems safe in the hands of a new generation. As I prepared to pull away from Paraguari station, a brother and sister, aged nine and ten, ran out from one of the nearby houses, ignoring their mother’s shouts. They tapped on the window.
“Do you have a metal detector?” asked the girl.

“No, sorry,” I said.

“When you come back, bring one.”