Paronella Park – an Abandoned Spanish Castle in the Australian Rainforest

Paronella Park: an Abandoned Spanish Castle in the Australian Rainforest

I want to tell you a story.

It’s probably the closest thing to a real-life fairytale I’ve ever encountered, and it takes place in the middle of the rainforest in Far North Queensland, Australia.

Our starting point is an unexpected location, though. We pull into a tarmac car park beside the highway where white cars shimmer in the heat and walk beneath a row of metal letters, their edges slightly crumbling with rust.

Paronella Park: an Abandoned Spanish Castle in the Australian Rainforest

We keep on going down a small dirt track, letting the tree branches knit themselves closer and closer together as we step deeper inside the forest. The sounds of the outside world fade away: car engines and human chatter replaced by bird calls and the breeze moving through the leaves.

And then we see it.

At the edge of a clearing is a giant waterfall cascading over soft rock and splashing to a lake below. We’ve found the centrepiece of Paronella Park – the ruins of a castle built almost a hundred years ago, which have lain abandoned for half that time.

But now the castle is coming back to life.

Paronella Park: an Abandoned Spanish Castle in the Australian Rainforest

The century-long history of Paronella Park

In 1925, a young Spaniard named Jose Paronella arrived in Australia. It was his second visit to the continent, and he’d decided to start a new life in Queensland along with his new bride, Margarita. Back in his Spanish homeland Jose had originally trained as a pastry chef, but during three years spent working in Australia he’d become a wealthy man.

Now Jose was planning to recreate a dream he’d had since childhood. Thanks to countless stories his grandmother told him about Spanish history, Jose had decided to build a replica of Spain in Queensland: his own recreation of a Spanish castle for other people to enjoy.

Paronella Park: an Abandoned Spanish Castle in the Australian Rainforest
And that’s what he did.

Despite having little experience in construction, Jose Paronella bought five hectares of virgin land at Mena Creek Falls – much of it covered in a tangle of trees and vines – and began to build.

The resulting structures which sprang up were not just his dream castle, but also botanical gardens and tennis courts, a cafe and a grand staircase, and even a ballroom which doubled up as a theatre and cinema.

Paronella Park: an Abandoned Spanish Castle in the Australian Rainforest

Because the famous Mena Creek waterfall provided ample opportunity for swimming, Jose built picnic tables on the ground beside it along with diving platforms, a toilet block and a set of changing cubicles nearby (which guests could pay to use!).

If you haven’t already realised, this man was one hell of an entrepreneur.

Before long the park had attracted curious visitors. Paronella became known as the Pleasure Gardens of Cairns, and each week there were groups of people eager to ride boats around the lake, swim beneath the water falls, and dress up on weekend evenings for dances, movies and music concerts under the stars.

Paronella Park, north Queensland - 1930s

[Photo courtesy of Aussie Mobs]

Paronella Park: an Abandoned Spanish Castle in the Australian Rainforest

A lost taste of Europe in the rainforest

Jump forward almost a hundred years though, and today’s lost world of Paronella looks quite different to Jose’s initial dream.

Now the sloping pathways lead past thundering falls and toward a steep flight of narrow stairs, their bannisters covered with ivy and twisting vines.

Paronella Park: an Abandoned Spanish Castle in the Australian Rainforest

At their base are heavy stone tables, some of them cracked and most covered with layers of spongy moss. It’s almost too easy to imagine plates and picnic baskets laid out on top; and if I squint at the falls beyond I can half-see a rowing boat filled with excited guests.

It’s as if the ghostly guests of Paronella Park’s past are still just around the corner.

An old mossy bench at PParonella Park: an Abandoned Spanish Castle in the Australian Rainforest

As we wander further through Paronella Park, I begin to see this place as more than just a set of abandoned ruins.

Of course there’s something undeniably magical about discovering a lost jungle world– particularly when it looks like a modern-day Angkor Wat – but the human touch here is undeniable too.

Paronella Park: an Abandoned Spanish Castle in the Australian Rainforest

Our guide tells us that the Grand Staircase was actually used as the main thoroughfare to carry countless bags of sand and cement around the site. I skim my fingers over the rough surfaces of the bannisters and balustrades, all of which are covered in fingermarks from Jose’s own hands.

I start imagining Jose Paronella himself, valiantly striding through tree-lined pathways as he planned out his legacy.

An extremely ambitious man, Jose seemingly always had a new invention in mind: everything from creating a hydro-electric plant to power the park to attempting an underground aquarium by slotting fishtanks into earth walls he carved out of a tunnel – and when that failed, he used the humid earth to grow mushrooms instead.

Paronella Park: an Abandoned Spanish Castle in the Australian Rainforest

When word spread about the crazy Spaniard building a castle in Queensland, a local municipal department even gifted Paronella Park with thousands of exotic and native plants, including hundreds of Kauri trees which can live for two thousand years.

Although he must have planted them with the knowledge that he’d never actually see them grow, Jose seemed certain that his park would live on despite him – and he was absolutely right.

Paronella Park: an Abandoned Spanish Castle in the Australian Rainforest

The rediscovery of Paronella Park

Jose sadly died from cancer in 1948, and after the park changed hands a few times it eventually fell into disrepair. The jungle began to reclaim it.

Paronella Park: an Abandoned Spanish Castle in the Australian Rainforest

For almost thirty years Paronella was forgotten, until a Perth-based couple named Mark and Judy Evans came looking to buy a caravan park.

The estate agent suggested a small piece of land which included some castle ruins hidden in the tangled undergrowth – and just like that, Mark and Judy found themselves the new owners of a lost civilisation.

Paronella Park: an Abandoned Spanish Castle in the Australian Rainforest

When they realised how incredible this place was, the couple came up with a plan to restore the park to its former glory in whatever way they could. The paths have been cleared and the gardens reconstructed; the family’s cottage has become a museum filled with artefacts and memorabilia; and the park is becoming a popular wedding venue.

The arrival of a long-lost Paronella relative

The only thing missing from the restoration was history, as the Evans’ didn’t know what stories the park could still be hiding from them. Everyone they asked said that the park’s original owners had all disappeared – until one day, when an old lady arrived at the gates.

As Mark welcomed her to the park and asked if she’d like to visit, the woman replied,

“Actually, this was my father’s park. I’m Teresa, his daughter. I haven’t been back here for forty years.”

Paronella Park: an Abandoned Spanish Castle in the Australian Rainforest

Thanks to Teresa filling in the gaps, Mark and Judy were able to begin constructing a mental picture of the people who built Paronella Park.

A vulnerable, nature-powered park

Despite the restorations, Paronella is sadly still extremely vulnerable. The landscape which Jose chose is built on a cliff, and the propensity for cyclones and flooding in Far North Queensland means there’s always a danger of nature wreaking havoc on the park.

In 1946, it was flooded by thirty feet of water and was precipitous in the park’s eventual closing by Jose Paronella; and since Mark and Judy resurrected Paronella in 1993 there have already been three separate cyclones which have knocked down walls, taken off roofs and threatened them with extreme flooding yet again.

The entire park is powered by nature, and despite the resulting beauty it’s also extremely likely that everything could vanish tomorrow.

What’s fascinating though is how different generations view and experience this place. Jose had initially envisaged Paronella Park as a well-kept set of gardens complete with outdoor entertainment, yet by the start of the 1960s people had TVs and their own local cinemas which meant the park’s visitor numbers started to drop.

Strangely enough, allowing the forest to take over the park for a few decades has meant a resurgence in tourism. Nowadays this part of Far North Queensland is attracting visitors precisely because it’s a lost, forgotten place to be explored.

Australia’s very own Angkor Wat.

Paronella Park: an Abandoned Spanish Castle in the Australian Rainforest

If you’ve got a dream, hard work does pay off

Jose might not have expected his park to end up exactly like this, but his dream to create a place of magic in the rainforest has stood the test of time.

I’m still amazed that more people don’t know about Paronella Park. Then again, there’s something rather special about it remaining a secret.

Have you ever found a place like this on your travels? What do you think of Paronella Park?

Flora walking through the rainforest trees in Paronella Park, Queensland, Australia

NB: My travels in Australia were thanks to Visit Queensland – but the excited scribblings about Paronella Park all come straight from me. (As did the many extra hours I forced our group to wander the park because I simply couldn’t get enough…) 

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Paronella Park - an Abandoned Castle in Queensland, Australia

About Flora

Flora Baker is the founder and editor of Flora the Explorer, where she writes about her travels around the world, her volunteering exploits and her ongoing attempt to become fluent in Spanish by talking to anyone who'll listen. Follow her on Facebook, Twitter, and Google Plus.

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11 Responses to Paronella Park – an Abandoned Spanish Castle in the Australian Rainforest

  1. frederick hayward July 27, 2017 at 2:15 pm #

    Dear Flora Thank you for the blog on Paronella Park it looks amazing .real nice photos and I enjoyed reading about the park and its history.No I have as yet not come across anything like the amazing place that you reported on.Good Wishes.Frederick

    • Flora August 11, 2017 at 6:53 pm #

      Thanks so much Frederick! I’m glad you enjoyed learning about the park 🙂 It’s definitely one of the most fascinating places I’ve inadvertently come across on my travels!

  2. Ashley July 27, 2017 at 5:10 pm #

    Your writing is beautiful. I feel like I’ve been transported back to Australia, but I wish I had know about Paronella Park when I was there. What an amazing experience.

    • Flora August 11, 2017 at 8:52 pm #

      Thanks so much Ashley! I really adored Paronella, and I hope if you get the chance to visit Australia again then you can make it back to Queensland 🙂

  3. Rachel July 31, 2017 at 6:42 pm #

    Wow Flora, I totally became immersed in that story and the wonderful pictures! Thanks so much for sharing, looks like a magical place to explore 🙂

    • Flora August 11, 2017 at 9:09 pm #

      It really is a fantastic place, Rachel! Glad you enjoyed it 🙂

  4. Rebecca August 12, 2017 at 11:10 pm #

    This is incredible! I’m Australian and have NEVER heard of this place! Thanks for sharing.

    • Flora August 13, 2017 at 10:15 am #

      Ahh thanks so much Rebecca – I wondered how many Aussies knew about it! Hope you can visit when you’re next in QLD 🙂

  5. windbehindme September 12, 2017 at 10:44 am #

    This is one of the most particular places I’ve ever seen. I almost regret I haven’t a plan for a trip to Australia in the near future!

    • Flora September 20, 2017 at 8:48 am #

      You’ll have to plan one soon then!! Paronella is honestly one of the most magical places I’ve ever visited 🙂

  6. TourGuideInSriLanka November 14, 2017 at 6:47 am #

    This is a beautiful story Flora. Can’t believe this is a real life story. The photos and article is amazing. I’m glad they bringing back castle to life. Thanks for sharing this amazing story with us Flora. Keep coming these kind of stories mate. Cheers.

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