When I was travelling through South America, part of my plan included visiting Paraguay. For me it was a no brainer. It was on my route, so why wouldn’t I visit a new country? However, 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, here are five reasons you should visit Paraguay.
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. Even if I wasn’t so sure about my first encounter. I had just walked across the bridge from Foz do Iguaçu in Brazil and entered the Paraguayan passport control office. The guy behind the counter closely inspected my passport and looked at me curiously. “Leeds?” he asked, reading my hometown.
“Yeah…” I confirmed nervously.
“Leeds United,” he replied with a wide grin as he recognised the name of the local football team. (This was the second time this happened to me. The first being on the back of an elephant in the middle of a jungle in Thailand.)
I left the passport office with a smile and began looking for a way to get to the bus station. I was instantly greeted by several waiting 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, and was a little surprised when the driver got out of the taxi with me and began walking into the station. However, it soon became clear that he was taking me to my bus, even asking people on the way to make sure he knew which bus it was. He then spoke to the guy selling tickets and asked where I could find an ATM to get some Paraguayan Guarani. It all meant within minutes of arriving in the country I’d made my way to the bus station, withdrew 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, people on the street or in shops. A waiter in a restaurant in Encarnación was similarly friendly and helpful. I was a little confused at first as, whilst I more or less understood him (my Spanish wasn’t so good at the time), what he was saying didn’t make much sense. Then I realised he was just 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.
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.
The book is very well written by an author who lived in Paraguay for many years. I highly recommend reading it for anyone who’d like to know more about the country.
No-one else goes
As I mentioned earlier, Paraguay isn’t the most popular destination in South America. Despite being surrounded by other, more popular countries such as Brazil, Argentina and Bolivia, it’s not on most travellers’ itineraries. One issue is being allowed to enter the country. Visitors from the US, one of the largest tourist groups in South America, don’t have a reciprocal visa agreement and therefore prefer not to have to pay for just a few days in Paraguay. Others simply skip it as they believe there isn’t enough to see to justify spending part of their trip there.
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.
Aside from meeting the locals, there is plenty more culture on offer in Paraguay. It’s the first place I saw people drinking maté (the popular South American beverage). There are also two official languages as, aside from Spanish, Guarani is spoken and understood widely throughout the country. The Guarani people are indigenous to the region and have formed a large part of Paraguay’s history and have had a big influence on the typical local food. 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.
Contrary to many opinions, there are plenty of things to see in Paraguay too. The country is home to several Jesuit Ruins. The best of which are located close to Encarnación at La Santísima Trinidad de Paraná and Jesús de Tavarangue. The ruins offer an example of life in these former missions, and not only are they easy to reach and inexpensive to visit, but they are also UNESCO World Heritage sites.
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 looking across towards Posadas in Argentina, this is a lovely place to spend a few days away from the hustle and chaos of Asunción and Ciudad del Este. The city also has a beach, a somewhat unique feature for a landlocked country. Playa San José is popular throughout the summer months and is always packed with families. Encarnación is the best place to visit the Jesuit Ruins. Or if you’re looking for something else to do you can head across the river to Posadas, either by bus or train.
Finally, whilst Paraguay may be a smaller country than many of its neighbours, the country offers something a little different that deserves to be seen; the Chaco. 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 big cats like 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. These are just a few of the many reasons to visit not only the Chaco, but the vastly underrated country of Paraguay.