“No,” I say. An orange sun abruptly sinks under the tree line on the river’s west bank, and within 15 minutes an orange moon pops up over the opposite horizon, paling as it rises. I duck inside the pilothouse. The captain predicts we’ll reach Puerto Leda in the dark hours of early morning.
THE REVEREND SUN MYUNG Moon, who died in September 2012 at age 92, about a year after my trip to Puerto Leda, founded the Unification Church in South Korea in 1954. In addition to overseeing the church, which he said aimed to fulfill Jesus’ unfinished mission by establishing a new “kingdom of heaven on Earth,” Moon managed vast commercial interests and called himself a messiah. He was frequently accused of cult practices, in part because some of his hundreds of thousands of followers turned over very personal decisions—including the choice of marriage partner—to him. More than a decade ago, Moon told some members of his church that he wanted them to lay the foundation for a new Garden of Eden in one of the least hospitable landscapes on the planet—northern Paraguay.
Moon was notorious for attention-grabbing gestures: conducting mass weddings in Madison Square Garden, taking out full-page ads in major American newspapers to support Richard Nixon during Watergate, spending 13 months in federal prison for tax fraud and conspiracy in the early '80s. But during the final years of his life, his Eden-building project kept chugging along well out of the public eye, germinating largely unseen in this remote wilderness of mud.
In 2000, Moon paid an undisclosed amount for roughly 1.5 million acres of land fronting the Paraguay River. Most of that property was in a town called Puerto Casado, about 100 miles downriver from Puerto Leda. Moon’s subsidiaries wanted the land to open commercial enterprises ranging from logging to fish farming. But a group of Puerto Casado residents launched a bitter legal battle to nullify the deal. While that controversy continued to divide Paraguayans, the Puerto Leda project proceeded under the radar. Moon turned the land over to 14 Japanese men—“national messiahs,” according to church documents, who were instructed to build an “ideal city” where people could live in harmony with nature, as God intended it. Moon declared that the territory represented “the least developed place on earth, and, hence, closest to original creation.”
Moon wasn’t the first utopian to favor Paraguay. Examine many European maps drawn between 1600 and 1775 and you’ll find something labeled Lago Xarayes at the head of the Paraguay River. Conquistadores journeying up the river confronted the inundated plains and confused them for a massive inland sea. Tribes spoke about a Land Without Evil on the far side of Xarayes, and the Spaniards believed that the same area hid a gateway to El Dorado, the lost city of gold. By the 1800s, most mapmakers correctly recognized the Xarayes as a mirage and relabeled it as part of the Pantanal.
Still, the dream lived on for some. In 1886, a German anti-Semite named Bernhard Förster and his wife, Elisabeth Nietzsche—Frederich’s sister—founded Nueva Germania, a colony located about 115 miles southeast of Concepción that was designed to spawn generations of Aryan Übermensch. After three years of feverish struggle in the jungle heat, Förster mixed himself a cocktail of morphine and strychnine, drank deeply, died, and left the place in a state of irreversible decline. The next century brought utopian colonies of Australian socialists, Finnish vegetarians, English pacifists, and German Nazis. They all failed.
So how are Moon’s followers—or Moonies, as they don’t like to be called—holding up? Hard to say. I’m aware of two other journalists who’ve seen Puerto Leda. One, a British Catholic missionary, visited after the first colonists arrived and was unable to fathom their motives. Maybe they were smuggling drugs, she insinuated in a church magazine. The other, a Paraguayan newspaper reporter, visited in 2008 and published a few articles praising the Unification Church’s philanthropic work, which includes building schools in rural areas. The reporter championed the ecotourism potential around Puerto Leda but included no details about the people living there.
A few weeks before my trip, I got in touch with a Unification Church office in Asunción. The initial response was warm: I’d be welcome to visit, a representative said. But by the time I arrived in the capital, things had gotten complicated.