It might be forgiven if most Americans have never heard of the deadliest war ever fought in South America. When it happened we were busy with a deadly Civil War of our own, and our news in the early summer of 1864 was dominated by events in the Shenandoah Valley and the Battle of New Market.
But far from our Civil War another conflict raged which nearly wiped an entire South American country off the map. In the waning days of that conflict the country’s leaders, afraid they were actually going to lose the war, took that nation’s treasure of gold and buried it somewhere in the South American hills. There may be a fortune in gold coins and gold relics out there that would be worth billions in today’s dollars and no one has a clue where it might be buried.
It would take most of us a minute or two to find Paraguay on a map. It’s not exactly the garden spot of South America, wedged in between Brazil and Bolivia, and sharing a border with the northern tip of Argentina. It is barren, rugged country and much of it is simply inaccessible. But in 1864 Paraguay was engaged with a trade war with its neighbors when the nation assembled a 50,000 man army and tried to annex part of Mato Grosso and the Rio Grande do Sul in Brazil. But the key strategic mistake Paraguay’s dictator made was ticking off all his neighbors and the tiny nation soon found itself at war with the combined forces of Brazil, Argentina and Uruguay, outnumbered roughly ten to one.
War was pretty simple back in those days and basically involved standing out in a field shooting at each other until one side ran out of bodies. A wound was as good as a kill in that stifling heat and casualties were crippling. By the time the war ended six years later Paraguay had basically ceased to exist. Its prewar population of roughly 525,000 was more than halved, down to 221,000 by 1871.with just 28,000 men left in the entire country. As if the war casualties, disease and malnutrition weren’t bad enough, a fair number of the nation’s citizenry were tortured and murdered by their own government in the closing days of the war. Paraguay’s borders changed after the war but the country continued to exist because, basically, no one else wanted it.
As a final insult before they fled the country, what was left of Paraguay’s leadership buried all the gold in the treasury in an effort to keep it from being plundered. The historical accuracy of the claim is widely supported and searching for the treasure, rumored to consist of British pound gold coins and ornamental pineapples forged from solid gold, is kind of a national pastime.
Treasure hunting in Paraguay is a spectator sport. Everyone from sports stars to military leaders eventually ends up leading an expedition to hunt for the treasure, and local vendors do a booming business in metal detectors. Unfortunately, many of the most likely spots to search are in historically significant areas and people digging up some lost corner of their national park system is a frequent occurrence there.
In Paraguay’s native language the treasure is known as plata yvygüy. There’s one overworked office in the Paraguayan government tasked with authorizing explorations for the treasure, and it gets tiring saying “no” all day—but that’s the job. The government is doing its best to protect the nation’s historical areas from being destroyed by treasure hunters. Like the Paraguayan army of the mid-1860s, it’s fighting a losing battle.
What complicates the job of the preservationists is that Paraguayan law says that whoever finds the treasure gets to keep part of it. With that incentive in a dirt poor country saddled with searing heat, dismal scenery and a near total lack of anything else to do it’s pretty much a given that the hunt for plata yvygüy will continue. The nation’s national parks and wilderness areas will continue to sprout mysterious craters every weekend as treasure hunters frantically dig, then flee each frustrated excavation.
All the same, most historians in that country agree that, at a minimum, affluent families fleeing Asuncion probably did bury family heirlooms including jewelry, watches and porcelain in their flight out of town. That alone would keep the search going 150 years later. For the locals, golden pineapples are the stuff of legends that power their dreams.