*Updated Feb. 2017
Official Language: Spanish, Guarani
$1 = 5 753 PYG Guarani
Stay: On and off during 2015 and 2016
Most tourists who plan a trip to South America don’t include Paraguay in their must-visit list. Off the tourist trail, most people haven’t even heard of Paraguay in the first place. There are a couple of reasons why Paraguay hasn’t really stood out in the world compared to other South American destinations and according to my opinion they are as follows.
What attracts tourists to South America?
Tropical weather and beaches.
- Being one of the few landlocked countries in South America aside from Bolivia, Paraguay doesn’t posses that tropical vacation feeling that tourists long for even though it’s a tropical country. Temperatures during the summer can escalate up to 45C, maintaining an average warm temperature throughout the whole year. However, due to the lack of beaches and high humidity it can be more likened to a burning oven rather than a tropical paradise. So most tourist tend to prefer places like Rio de Janeiro (Brazil) or Punta del Este (Uruguay) instead.
Cultural/ historical/ natural sites.
- Culturally speaking, from what I have seen; Paraguay might be the only country in South America that even in the capital city you can still see that a strong indigenous heritage prevails and where their indigenous language (Guarani) is considered an official language. While in most South American countries indigenous traces were almost erased due to colonization or are disregarded due to modernization. So you could say that in Paraguay you can get a more authentic South American experience. However, Paraguay lacks the attractions and the tourism infrastructure. UNESCO has listed 20 cultural and natural sites in Brazil and 12 in Peru while Paraguay only has one: The Jesuit Missions of La Santísima Trinidad de Paraná and Jesús de Tavarangue. Nevertheless, it is not widely advertised nor very accessible, situated 7 hours from the capital city. Unfortunately, located only 6 hours north from the site, the world-renowned Iguazu Falls in the Brazilian-Argentinian border diverts tourist’s interests and receives hundreds of visitors everyday.
Exotic food and flavors.
- If you have been to neighboring Argentina, you will realize that Paraguayan food shares resemblance to some Argentinian dishes. Meals mainly based on beef and pasta are also very common here. However, meat and pasta are not really what tourists think of when they imagine exotic South American food. Even though there are 100% Paraguayan staple dishes, they are not very popular nor sought for their flavors.
So this is why Paraguay doesn’t really stand out compared to these other more popular touristic destinations. What I found about Paraguay is that it is more of an acquired taste. People who fall in love with Paraguay are those who come here and find a certain peace and tranquility in their way of life; the chill atmosphere, surrounding nature and its simple ways.
Understanding more in-depth…
Historically, it seems like Paraguay didn’t even stand a chance. After the colonization Paraguay went through almost 56 years of dictatorships that enforced policies that provoked the country’s isolation. Therefore slowing down development. Even though around the 1850’s Paraguay was in somewhat becoming a rich country, many proudly stating that back in the day they had the first functioning train in South America (now a long forgotten – poorly maintained museum). Under the rule of 3 generations of the Lopez family, even though it was still a dictatorship, they managed to stabilize the country and make it self-sufficient. However what followed was an almost 6-year war, the not-forgotten Triple Alliance War (or Paraguayan War 1864-1870), considered the bloodiest international conflict in the region. A war against Brazil, Argentina and Uruguay that almost destroyed the whole country; loosing 70% of its population and 1/4 of its territory in the south cutting their only access to the ocean through Rio de la Plata. Then another 4-year war with Bolivia in 1932 over the Chaco area up north where it was though that oil would be present, however they never found any.
Followed by more military dictatorships for over 50 years, it was finally in the early 90’s when Paraguay could truly start to grow and entered a more peaceful and democratic era. What could have been a prosperous developing country, strategically located in the heart of South America, now ranks at the bottom of the list. With the lowest GDP per year and the least visited country in South America. I’m not saying that there hasn’t been any growth or accomplishments in the recent years but even though its efforts Paraguay still struggles rank higher compared to the rest of countries in South America.
To understand Paraguayans, you need to understand where they come from. Looking back at how people lived during the dictatorships; isolation was imposed to create a self sustainable country. People owned the land where they built their houses, had vast space to cultivate maize and mandioca, plant fruit trees like oranges and mangoes and raised cows. All this just enough for consumption. People didn’t really have to do hard labor or work. They would just do enough for what they needed.
Seemingly that kind of mentally was passed down the generations. Even in the capital city where most development is done you will find many people just chilling in the middle of the day, sitting outside drinking terere and chatting with neighbors. Very similar to what life in the countryside would look like. Maybe it also has a lot to do with the fact that it’s so incredibly hot you don’t really want to do anything but sit and drink terere.
Life in Paraguay is very simple and people are mostly happy and satisfied with their life’s and what they have. Some people can interpret this as being mediocre and lazy or being non-materialistic and ungreedy. Just like either the glass being half full or half empty. I’ll leave that up to your own point of view.
However no one will deny that Paraguayans are a very friendly and welcoming people with strong family bonds. Families do spend a lot of time together. Its most usual to see families strolling around the parks or spending time together eating asado in their backyard during the weekends.
Regardless the strong indigenous customs most people in Paraguay are of mixed race. Compared to other colonized countries in South America where natives were eliminated or considered a lower race, in Paraguay the mix of races was encouraged. After the independence it was forbidden to marry within white people to avoid racial hierarchy. That’s why Paraguay is the country with more mestizos in the region and most people have lighter skin color, being descendants of Italians and Germans. However there are still 100% natives, usually in somewhat of a more impoverished situation than the rest of the population, you can spot them selling traditional handcrafts at the airport and the downtown area.
Regarding Asian immigration. Koreans are a more dominant group than Japanese or Chinese in this country. You will find many Korean restaurants and stores around, especially in the area around Mercado 4. Another predominant immigration was of the Mennonites. Paraguay received the higher concentration of Mennonites in the region and they were located in the arid area of the Chaco which they later turned into the most productive farming industry of the country.
Population in Paraguay is relatively low still. It’s very rare to see many crowded areas even in the capital city. Sometimes other factors like the weather being too hot, heavy tropical rain, on weekends or holidays and especially on a football game night (which they follow almost religiously) it will look particularly deserted. Coming from a city with an extremely dense population like Lima, always having to make ques (at the bank, bathroom, restaurants, supermarkets, etc), it’s quiet nice the feeling of personal space that I experienced in here.
Paraguay is still a country based on agriculture. Its main industry being soybean (fourth-largest producer in the world) and cattle (8th largest exporter). Most cities outside of Asunción lack infrastructure and development. Looking at all the history of corruption, it is obvious that Paraguay suffers from a huge economic-social gap. However, poverty in Paraguay means something different from what it means in the rest of the world. Where in most places, poverty has a lot to do with being so poor that you can’t even afford food or a place to live. Here, food is very abundant and cheap. Beef and mandioca being the base of Paraguayan diet are very filling. There are also a lot of fruits, especially mango trees. There are mango trees all over the city and during the months between December and February mangoes will pile up in the sideways until they rot.
Housing is another thing. Since there was not much population back in the day and land was readily available. It’s normal to own extensive land, therefore big houses, regardless of your economic situation. While in other capital cities its most common to see crowded building areas, here there are mostly big wide houses with a backyard and even a pool.
Just like the huge gap between the rich and poor, the gap between Asunción and the rest of the country is unbelievable. Recently there has been a lot of development and international companies are entering the Paraguayan market. Along with the construction of Asunción’s World Trade Center and its first mega mall, the efforts to display a more developed and sustainable city have been continuous. However, the minute you get on the highway towards the next city, you will immediately notice the difference. These pictures were taken around 40 minutes after leaving the city.
Ta peguahê poraitê Paraguaipe
Welcome to Paraguay.
It’s very common to travel to Paraguay by bus from Brazil or Argentina. There are plenty of bus lines and roads are pretty safe and well maintained. You can enter Paraguay from Foz (5 hours) which borders with Brazil or from Clorinda (2 hours) which borders with Argentina . However coming from outside South America can be a little more hectic. Paraguay´s International Airport Silvio Pettirossi is rather small for being the main airport of the country. There are not many daily flights and most of them are only within South American countries. So that means that if you are coming from somewhere else in the world then you will most likely have to have a layover in Buenos Aires (Argentina) or Sao Paulo (Brazil). There are only a couple of direct international flights: Miami (North America), Madrid (Europe) and Panama (Central America).
Like in most South American countries traffic is very chaotic and especially here motorcycle accidents are very common. Traffic laws are very lax so you will spot things like people holding their helmets instead of wearing them, a lot of texting while driving and many accidents due to speeding in narrow streets. However, they say that its most likely that you will die from a tree falling on top of your car rather than from an actual traffic accident. Nature if very powerful here, during thunderstorms winds will knock down trees and cause flooding in some parts of the city. Moreover, it doesn’t help that most roads are unpaved so even in the city there is the need to have powerful cars. Most people will own SUVs, which is kind of shocking since you wouldn’t expect to see so many fancy cars in such a poor country. Also, tinted windows are a must since the sun can be very strong and almost blinding at some point of the day.
I usually prefer to take public transportation when sightseeing around but in Paraguay I prefer to take taxis. Not only because waiting for and taking a bus under this weather can be extremely unpleasant but also because their buses are particularly old. Some of them even have wood planks as floors.
What to do in Asunción?
Compared to other South American cities, Asunción can be considered to be quite safe despite the high poverty. People have a more passive attitude and crimes are rare aside from the common pick pocketing. Even though the sight of police guards holding rifles might give you the opposite idea.
You can start at the Historic Center in downtown Asunción. Admire the Colonial buildings and everything reachable on foot.
- Palacio de los Lopez
- Panteon Nacional de los Heroes
- Catedral Nuestra Señora de Asunción
- Palacio legislativo
- Congreso nacional
- Casa de los diputados
- Manzana de la Rivera
- Estacion central del Ferrocaril
- Plaza Uruguaya
- Casa de la Independencia
- Museo de Bellas Artes
- Museo Etnografico Andres Barbero
- Centro Cultural Juan de Salazar
Wide park areas are also popular here since people like to be outside and be surrounded by nature.
- Parque Ñu Guazú
- Parque de la Salud.
- Jardin Botanico y Zoologico
- Costanera which is a newly built park next to the riverside and behind Palacio de los Lopez. This used to be a slum and one of the most dangerous parts of the city. Now they have turned it into a nice area for recreation with a view towards Rio Paraguay. Very popular among families who now spend most weekends during the summer renting bikes.
If you have a chance to catch a show at the Teatro Municipal look for Paraguayan Harp or Paraguayan Bottle dance which are the most significant cultural displays. Also if you want to know more about Paraguay’s background I recommend the movie “The Mission” from 1986. It’s about the experiences of a Jesuit missionary in 18th century and their encounter with Guarani people starring Robert DeNiro.
For shopping you can go to Calle Palma in the downtown area. There you will see stands all along the streets selling traditional handcrafts and fake goods. Also at Plaza de la Independencia there is always a little artisan fair. Another option is Mercado 4, for the more adventurous. There you will be able to experience Paraguay at first hand. You will be able to find all kinds of things ranging from cloths, food, traditional handcrafts and bric-a-brac. Moreover, plenty of traditional herbs concoctions for Terere and medicinal herbs can be found here. For the more sophisticated, shopping centers like Shopping del Sol, Mariscal Lopez and Paseo Galeria are very popular, with comfortable AC and fancy boutiques from american brands.
What to bring home?
- Terere set: They sell them widely, of all colors, materials and shapes. However being realistic you most probably will never use them and they will occupy a lot of space in you suitcase. *In my case I opted for buying a silicon Argentinian design which seemed more hygienic as well.
- Ñanduti/ao po’í: A traditional embroidered lace. Very colorful and light.
- Wood ornaments: Mostly sold by the natives, they are wood carvings of typical animals from Paraguay.
- Filigree silver jewelry: Made with fine silver threads.
- Leather: Anything from belts, key chains and pouches.
What to eat?
Asado (beef barbecue) is a big part of Paraguayan’s life style, also commonly accompanied by boiled mandioca. As you will notice their diet mainly consists on meat and starch which are very filling and kind of heavy for this intense hot weather in my opinion. That is why they drink terere on the side, which helps digestion and cools off the body. In a way if there is no beef in a dish, it is not considered a meal, so vegetarian tourists will find it a little hard to find vegetarian options in this meat based country.
Paraguay’s big staples are:
- Mbeju is a starch cake made with manioc flour and cheese. Also known as Tapioca in Brazil
- Pastel madi’o which looks similar to an empanada and is made of manioca flour and filled with meat.
- Vori Vori is a traditional soup with cornmeal balls.
- Lomito, a burger or wrap usually sold at night from a food truck.
Some dishes that people usually relate more to Argentinian staples are:
I have noticed that there aren’t as many tropical fruits and vegetables as in other South American countries. However, you can find some fresh juices and fruit salads. Most common fruits here are passion fruit, mango and watermelons.
Paraguayan people have lunch usually at noon, so many restaurant close by 2 or 2:30 and then open for dinner around 6. A couple of places that I would recommend to try are:
Doña Chipa and ña eustaquia: Paraguayan staple snacks.
Churrasqueria O´Gaucho: A barbecue style meat buffet. Churrasquerias are very popular in Paraguay, they are a Brazilian style meat buffet. Here you will be able to try all kinds of meats and cuts. Also, the salad bar and dessert bar at this particular churrasqueria is very good. Very fresh ingredients, wide variety of options and very well made dishes. (Esq. Mc Arthur, Dr Toribio Pacheco 4444, Asunción)
El Bolsi: Part of Paraguay’s historical heritage and operating since 1960, definitively a not to miss restaurant. They not only serve traditional Paraguayan dishes but have a rather extensive menu. A little too overwhelming for the newcomer I’m afraid. I recommend to try Surubi, a native river fish. (Estrella 399, Asunción)
When I first came to Paraguay this magazine Alacarta was very useful to find good and new restaurants options around Asunción.
Things to cope with…
Weather in Paraguay stays quite warm throughout the year. It’s preferable to visit Paraguay between August-December since between December to March it can be a little too warm. Temperatures reaching 45C at times. However since Paraguay doesn´t have mountains, clouds move very fast and heavy showers can suddenly appear. The heavy rain will not only cause flooding in some parts of the city but the thunderstorms often cause power cuts. Even though Paraguay takes pride on the Itaipú Dam (one of the biggest hydroelectric producer that shares with Brazil), there are a lot of power cuts throughout the city. The rainfall is not the only problem since strong winds will knock down trees on the roads and destroy electric poles and cars. During the months between June-August there are a couple of days of intense cold from the winds coming straight from the Patagonia.
Since this is a tropical country and there is a lot of vegetation throughout the whole city it is not uncommon to find lots of insects around. Notice that most foreigners might be required to get a yellow fever vaccine before entering the country. Also, you might have heard that there is a red alert about zika virus in this region (mainly Paraguay and Brazil). However Yellow fever is a different thing from dengue/malaria/zika virus and there is no vaccine for these. Most cases from these diseases come from people who live in areas near the rivers and in general it shouldn’t be considered as a serious “epidemic”. I have been coming in and out of Paraguay for many months and I have never gotten sick. Also it hasn’t stop big events like, the most recent ones, Dakar race in Asunción and the summer Olympics in Rio to take place and receive hundreds of foreign visitors.
Weekend trips outside Asunción
The popular and closest summer destinations are the towns around Lake Ypacarai. Aregua and San Bernardino locate around 45 minutes outside of Asunción functions as summer resorts for those who stay in Asuncion during the summer months. If you are in search of Ecotourism nearby I recommend Aventuraxtrema.
Probably what Paraguay is more known for would be Ciudad del Este (5hs from Asunción). The third most important free commercial zone in the world. There you will find mostly re-export of imported goods, counterfeit brands and black markets. This place receives hundreds of visitors every day especially from neighboring Brazil and Argentina. Tourists would usually do a day trip to Ciudad del Este after visiting the Iguazu Falls. So in a way you could say that those who know about Paraguay, know it for being a shopping destination. *If you want to read more specifically about travelling to Ciudad del Este then click here.
The Chaco area up north has some potential for Ecotourism as it is rich in biodiversity, similar to what you would expect from the Amazon rain forest. However there are 2 versions of the Chaco. One is the Chaco with dry arid soil most likened to a dessert located towards the border with Bolivia and mostly inhabited due to its inhospitable environment. Then there is the humid Chaco southwards towards Asunción with a more of a swamp like forest which makes it a little more favorable for agricultural development. In between is the area where many Mennonite colonies have established and dedicate to farming.
*Encarnacion (6hs south of Asunción bordering Argentina) has recently gained a lot of attention due to the construction of a man-made beach by diverting the Parana river. This is the new summer destination for many Paraguayans; celebrations like the Carnival held in February and Paraguay’s only UNESCO site (located 45 minutes away) will hopefully attract more international tourists as well.
If you are planning to visit several cities in Paraguay you might want to book a trip called “Triangulo de Oro” (Golden Triangle). A circuit that includes the most popular cities of Paraguay: Asunción, Encarnacion and Ciudad del Este.
All in all, Paraguay might not be the most exciting destination but for those who are looking for tranquility, an escape from the city life but within the city, and a different South American experience then this might just be the place. Regardless of the lack of iconic places, you can still enjoy some colonial buildings and the close proximity to nature. With not much to do but to shop, eat and chill at the pool; here you will experience “relax tourism”. To help cope with the environment I recommend to drink plenty of water, wear sunscreen and not forget the mosquito repellent, especially for those days that you want to be out and about discovering the city. Safe Travels!