Paraguay is one of the least visited countries in South America. But does that mean you should avoid it? Maybe there’s nothing to see there? If that was true then this wouldn’t be a very long post. Fortunately there are many reasons to visit Paraguay and include it on any South America itinerary, even if you only have enough time for a week in Paraguay or just a few days.
When I was looking at South America destinations my plan included Paraguay. For me it was a no brainer. It was on my intended route, so why wouldn’t I visit a new country? It wasn’t until I arrived that I found out it’s not a popular country among other travellers. Most miss it due to either visa issues or they simply don’t think there’s much to see. Having enjoyed the time I spent in the country, I can tell you this definitely isn’t the case. So, to encourage you to add Paraguay to any ‘best of South America tour’, here are some of the reasons why you should visit Paraguay, including what to do, what the culture is like and some interesting facts about Paraguay.
There’s no better place to start than the people. For me, the people of Paraguay are some of the friendliest I’ve met anywhere in the world. From the very moment I stepped foot in the country they were incredibly helpful to me.
Having just left the passport office at the border with Brazil I began looking for a way to get to the bus station. I was immediately greeted by several taxi drivers and agreed to go with the first who approached me. A guy with grey hair and moustache who looked to be in his fifties. As he drove me to my destination he asked where I was heading and what my plans were. We had a good chat (in Spanish) during the 10-15 minute ride to the station.
I paid in Brazilian Reals as I didn’t yet have any of the local currency (he said this was fine), and was a little surprised when the driver began walking with me into the bus station. I soon realised he was taking me to my bus, even asking people on the way to make sure he knew which platform I needed. He spoke to the guy selling tickets and asked where I could find an ATM to get some Paraguayan Guarani. It meant within minutes of arriving in the country I’d made my way to the bus station, withdrawn some cash and boarded a bus to my next destination with minimal fuss. All thanks to a random taxi driver I’d met at the border.
This was typical of my experience throughout my stay in Paraguay. Whether it was bus drivers, taxi drivers, people on the street or in shops. A waiter I met in a restaurant was similarly friendly and helpful. I was a little confused at first as, whilst I more or less understood him, what he was saying didn’t make much sense. Then it dawned on me he was asking questions about me. Where I was from, my family, etc. He was so interested in meeting someone from another country he wanted to know everything, including why I was there in Paraguay. He even offered to show me around town later and introduce me to the local area.
History of Paraguay
The history of Paraguay is incredibly interesting but not so well-known. I was reading a book whilst I travelled the country and it gave me an interesting perspective as I saw these places for myself, whilst learning what had happened there over the centuries.
The book (‘At the tomb of the inflatable pig’ by John Gimlette) explained what had transpired over the years and all the ordeals the people of Paraguay have been forced to endure. From Nazis hiding out in South America to dictators, coups and several wars. There is much more history to the country than the average person realises. The country has also been massively reduced in size over the centuries. Did you know Paraguay used to have a coast? In the intervening years the territory has been divided up between Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay and even Bolivia to the north. Paraguay was vastly outnumbered in its many battles when compared to its opponents, and the wars killed much of the country’s population. It has been estimated that around 60% of Paraguayans died in the biggest conflict, known as the Paraguayan War, which was almost 90% of the male population.
‘At the tomb of the inflatable pig’ not only has a great title but it’s also on one the best books on South America. The book is very well written by an author who lived in the country for many years. I highly recommend reading it for anyone who’d like to know more about Paraguay and its history.
No-one else goes
As I mentioned earlier, Paraguay isn’t the most popular destination in South America. Yet many people are on the look-out for something ‘off the beaten path’. Something a little different that is a change from the typical, well-travelled destinations. This alone is a perfect reason to visit Paraguay. To be able to get away from the crowds and the heavily populated tourist regions. The locals are appreciative of this too, as seen from my experience in the restaurant in Encarnación.
Knowing some Spanish will help you while travelling through Paraguay. My level was basic at the time but I was able to communicate with the locals and I felt it helped make my stay that much more enjoyable. Tourism is not as developed as it is in the surrounding countries of Bolivia, Argentina or Brazil, so you may not find as many people who can speak English outside the big cities.
Safety in Paraguay
You may be wondering, as the tourism is less established, if it’s safe to visit Paraguay. Well this is another definite yes. South America has a bad reputation as a dangerous destination, but you’ll have less problems here than you might in many of the other countries on the continent.
I’ve already talked about the friendly locals and generally they’re so pleased to meet visitors from another country that their biggest priority is wanting to know about their lives. As with any country around the world not everywhere is completely safe. But being aware of your surroundings and avoiding any dangerous areas of the big cities will see you steer clear of any problems and allow you to enjoy this vastly underrated country.
You’ll find plenty in the way of culture on offer in Paraguay. Asuncion has many museums to choose from, even walking around the city you’ll see lots of interesting architecture and buildings alluding to Paraguay’s colonial past.
The Guarani people are indigenous to the region and have formed a large part of Paraguay’s history. Unlike many indigenous tribes, the Guarani are still prominent in large areas of Paraguay. This despite suffering great periods of upheaval after facing centuries of invasions, colonisation and religious missions. Guarani is also one of the two official languages of Paraguay as, aside from Spanish, it’s spoken and understood widely throughout the country. There are also several Mennonite colonies in Paraguay, a group of people who live similar lives to the Amish. The two largest groups live on opposite sides of the country. One in the East and the other in the Gran Chaco region to the West.
Traditional food in Paraguay
Many traditional dishes in Paraguay have been greatly influenced by the Guarani people. One of Paraguay’s traditional dishes is Sopa Paraguaya. However, despite its name it’s not actually a soup but made from corn bread, fat, cheese, eggs, milk and butter. Corn and cheese are prominent in many Paraguayan foods, which are typically high in starch content. Fatty meats are also popular and often used in stews and other local dishes.
One of the most popular drinks in this part of the world is Tereré. Made from the yerba mate, the herb is mixed with water to create a refreshing drink similar to tea. Whereas in Argentina or Uruguay the herb is mixed with hot water (and known as maté), in Paraguay they make Tereré with cold water. Drinking maté is a very sociable event and often done in groups. However, there are many rules and it can be confusing for anyone unfamiliar with how to drink maté.
Another reason to visit Paraguay is the cities themselves. Some of the most popular locations are the capital Asunción, Encarnación in the south and Ciudad del Este, the busy border town near Brazil’s Foz do Iguaçu.
As the biggest city in Paraguay, Asunción has a lot to offer. It’s also incredibly hot! I’ve visited tropical places, countries close to the equator and areas that have high humidity. Yet I have never experienced such intense heat as I have in Asunción. But the city has many reasons to visit. Asunción has plenty in the way of museums and, as you might expect from a country so rich in history as this one, lots of historical sites.
Among the streets packed with colonial style buildings you’ll find Casa de la Independencia. This is where Paraguay became the first country in South America to declare its independence. Another popular spot is the Panteón Nacional de los Héroes, Paraguay’s war memorial where they honour the country’s fallen soldiers. A curious museum to visit is Museo de la Estacion Central del Ferrocarril. The former central station now operates as a museum with lots of information about the interesting history of the railway in Paraguay. One of the best places to check out in Paraguay’s capital is Barrio Loma San Jerónimo. Located around 2km from the centre, this colourful neighbourhood is one of the oldest areas in Asunción and provides a very authentic and entertaining cultural experience.
Another popular city is Encarnación in the South of the country. Situated on the banks of the Paraná river, this is a lovely place to spend a few days away from the hustle and chaos of Asunción and Ciudad del Este. You may be surprised to learn that, despite being a landlocked country, there are beaches in Paraguay. Encarnación’s Playa San José is popular throughout the summer months and is always packed with families. If you want to visit the Jesuit Ruins then Encarnación is the best place to stay. From the city you can take a bus or train and hop across the river for a day trip to Posadas in Argentina.
Ciudad del Este
Located just across the border from Foz do Iguaçu, Ciudad del Este is the kind of bustling city you might expect from a border town. Visitors travel from Brazil daily in search of bargains at the local market place and you’ll find many goods at cheaper prices than you might elsewhere, particularly electronics. Ciudad del Este is the second largest in the country and a good place to base yourself if you want to visit the spectacular Iguazú Falls.
Other parts of Paraguay
Outside the big cities already mentioned or others such as San Lorenzo, you’ll find life a little quieter. It can sometimes feel like going back in time as the locals trundle along at a slower pace of life. Away from main highways you’ll see red dirt roads, while travelling between major cities the only stops are small villages with no more than a few hundred inhabitants.
Contrary to some opinions, there are plenty of things to see in Paraguay. If you’re looking for South America highlights then how about a UNESCO World Heritage site? Paraguay is home to several Jesuit Ruins, the best two are La Santísima Trinidad de Paraná and Jesús de Tavarangue. Located close to Encarnación in the South-East of the country, you can easily visit the ruins in a half-day trip on public transport. The site is very open, allowing you to wander freely as you explore the area. For a set of ruins the former missions are incredibly well persevered, with the main courtyard, altar, intricate stone murals and other buildings easily recognisable. Entrance to the two ruins near Encarnación is 25,000 Paraguayan Guarani (just £3), making them not only easy to reach but inexpensive to visit.
Nature and wildlife in Paraguay
National Parks in Paraguay
There are several national parks in Paraguay, the largest of which is Cerro Cora National Park covering 5,538 hectares. Cerro Cora is an important area in Paraguay as not only is it a nature reserve but also has historical significance. The park was the site of the last battle of the Paraguayan War in 1870. The national parks of Paraguay are a great place to go hiking surrounded by all kinds of natural wonders and plenty of wildlife along the way.
Itaipu Dam and Iguazú Falls
For a demonstration of the true power of nature take a trip to the Itaipu Dam. The second largest hydroelectric dam in the world is located close to Ciudad del Este and generates immense levels of energy from the Paraná River. All the power comes from the spectacular Iguazú Falls, one of the best waterfalls anywhere. It’s possible to visit both sites from Ciudad del Este, however a visit to Iguazú Falls will probably take a whole day as border crossings are involved and there is much more to see.
Spread across three countries, the Pantanal is the largest tropical wetland in the world. Often overlooked in favour of the Amazon Rainforest, it’s an incredibly biologically diverse area. Among 2000 different plant species live hundreds of birds, fish, mammals, reptiles and amphibians. As well as wolves, eagles, giant anteaters, capybara, tapir, ocelot, and giant river otters live the largest jaguar population on the planet.
You’ll find many tours leading excursions to the Pantanal and it’s definitely something which shouldn’t be missed. The best time to go is during the dry season between July and October as when the wet season starts around 80% of the plains become submerged under the rising water.
The Chaco is a vast wilderness area abundant in wildlife and a great place for birdwatchers. Some of the animals that call the Chaco home include jaguars, capybara and anteaters. The Chaco was also the setting for another Paraguayan war. This time fought against Bolivia during the 1930’s when oil was discovered in the area.
Despite the arid plains that make up this large area of the country, the Chaco has been home to several indigenous tribes over the years and still is today. However, despite making up over 60% of Paraguay’s total land area, less than 10% of the population actually live there. Making it one of the least densely populated areas on the entire continent.
Fortunately, ecotourism offers a much-needed financial boost to the area. Visitors have the opportunity to see the local flora and fauna while benefitting locals with income. There are plenty of cultural and religious experiences available for tourists and many of the indigenous tribes sell hand-crafted products. There aren’t many places where you can gain such highly valuable cultural experiences whilst helping the local community and seeing some amazing wildlife.
Interesting facts about Paraguay
- There are two official languages in Paraguay: Spanish and Guarani
- Guarani is understood by 95% of the population
- Paraguay has the largest navy in the world among countries without access to a sea
- The first railway in South America ran from Asuncion to Encarnacion
- Paraguay is almost double the size of the UK, yet it’s population around 1/10 in comparison
- 100% of Paraguay’s electricity is produced by hydroelectricity
- The symbol in the centre of the Paraguay flag is different on each side
- Paraguay has a better literacy rate (94%) than the United States (86%)
- Instead of knocking, visitors clap when they arrive at someone’s home
- It would seem that duelling is in fact NOT legal in Paraguay (whether the participants are blood donors or not)