The Hidden Waterfall of Salto del Tembey, Paraguay

Salto del Tembey in Yatytay, Paraguay

photography by: Omri Westmark

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Four kilometers upstream from the confluence of the Tembey and Paraná rivers lies a series of well-hidden falls, surrounded by tracts of thick jungles. Fed by the river with which it shares its name, Salto del Tembey is part of an ecological park that once a year, gets swarmed by gobs of believers who honor a 17th century local saint for his divine intervention.

While hydroelectric power is often regarded as an environmentally-friendly alternative to fossil fuels, it comes with its own set of problems. Prior to Paraguay’s quest for cheap and clean energy where multiple dams were constructed, the country was home to the world’s largest waterfall by flow rate, the Guaíra Falls. Upon the completion of the Itaipu Dam in 1982, the world’s largest hydroelectric power plant at that time, the massive waterfall was inundated by the newly created artificial reservoir and thereby ceased to exist.


A decade later, in 1993, the Yacyretá Dam was erected over the Jasyretâ-Apipé falls, across the Paraná River, which also serves as the border between Paraguay and Argentina. In the aftermath of the dam’s construction, the water level of the river was significantly increased and thus affected the many tributaries further upstream, including the Tembey River. Nearly four kilometers before merging with the Paraná, the river boasted a series of breathtaking waterfalls, aptly named Salto del Tembey.


With the incessant supply of extra water, the once mighty fall was downsized into a 12-meter wide and 4-meter-tall cascade. Whilst the current waterfall pales in comparison to its former self, what it lacks in size, it makes up for in sheer serenity coupled with a dash of religious importance.


Roughly midway between Encarnación and Ciudad del Este, the falls are ensconced within the confines of a 22-hectare park. To get here, one must first drive along 10 kilometers of a pothole ridden dirt road, making it literally an off the beaten path attraction. Along with the mesmerizing sights of the waterfall itself, the park offers a host of activities, including cycling, boating and even camping across its wooded premises.


Aside from its role as a popular getaway for locals during the scorching summer days, Salto del Tembey is one of Paraguay’s most sacred locations, at least for one day a year. Every 8th of December, thousands of pilgrims gather around the waterfall, where they commemorate a local saint by the name of José, as part of the Virgin of Caacupé Day.


According to the lore, in 1600, José, a Guaraní man who recently converted to Christianity stumbled upon a group of troublemakers from rival tribe after leaving his home to collect firewood. Fearful for his life, José attempted to outrun his malevolent chasers. When everything seemed hopeless, he suddenly came across a feminine voice imploring him to hide behind a nearby tree, successfully dodging his grim fate.


As a gesture to his divine savior, José carved a pair of sculptures of Virgin Mary out of the tree that saved his life. One of the statues is now located in the Cathedral Basilica of Our Lady of Miracles in Caacupé, Paraguay’s most important spiritual center.