Modern myths don't die easy in Paraguay, particularly when they deal with gold bullion and buried treasure.
The legend of the hidden treasure dates to the War of the Triple Alliance—often known simply as the Paraguayan War or the "Great War" to locals—fought from 1864 to 1870 between Paraguay and the triumvirate of Argentina, Brazil, and Uruguay. When the war ended and Paraguayan elites fled the present-day capital, Asunción, these officials buried the state's reserves of gold bullion and other valuables in the hopes of preventing them from being plundered.
While this aspect of the legend is widely believed to be historically accurate, a deep and abiding belief in the merit of searching for these long-buried riches is essentially a rite of citizenship in Paraguay today.
The Legend Grows
Over the years, an increasing number of treasure hunters have emerged as a subculture in Paraguay. What they seek is known as plata yvygüy in the local Guaraní language: it supposedly consists of bullion, old British pound coins, and ornamental pineapples forged from gold. The latter are considered the greatest prize of group for their unique character and rarity.
After decades of searching, only the occasional old coin—rarely gold—has actually been uncovered. Nonetheless, the thrill of the chase continues to capture the fascinations of the people of Paraguay. There is now a vibrant industry of vendors selling metal detectors in the country now.
At this point, many fantastic stories abound about the plata yvygüy, frequently becoming surrounded by myths. Many enterprising treasure hunters turn to mystics and clairvoyants for help in finding the treasure. At their extremes, some theories about where the hidden gold is located invoke shifting tectonic plates and Egyptian pharaohs.
According to the New York Times, many Paraguayans strongly believe in the mythology of the plata yvygüy—or at least in the chance (however slim) of striking it rich. The Times reports that "[i]n recent years, high-ranking military officers, mayors, a president’s brother, architects, physicians and laborers have all been consumed by the legend: planning expeditions; deciphering maps; sweeping sites with metal detectors; and cutting up swaths of land."
Many maps dating to the late 1860s and 1870s purport to show the hiding place of the gold. None has yielded any substantial finds.
The Drawbacks of the Treasure Hunt
Unfortunately, the fervor over finding the legendary treasure—which grows larger the longer the gold remains elusive—threatens both the environment and cultural heritage of Paraguay. Oftentimes, treasure hunters callously dig up public parks or their backyards, frustrate their neighbors, and run afoul of local aquifers in their quest for hitting the jackpot.
Because the legend is tied to many important historic locations, treasure seekers are frequently trying to encroach upon archaeological sites and the artifacts preserved there. While academics and local governments usually are able to step in before any real damage is done, the continued pursuit of the legend's promise of riches threatens to uproot Paraguay's delicate cultural heritage as ancient ruins and other historically significant sites are disturbed.
The truth of the matter is far simpler than most enthusiasts will give it credit for: It's most likely that much of the treasure (if not all of it) was looted by enemy troops pillaging the country after Paraguay was roundly defeated in the war. The War of the Triple Alliance decimated what existed of the nation, making it hard to believe that buried treasure would've eluded the invading troops at the time.
Nevertheless, the hunt persists.
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