Walking along 25 de Mayo street in Asunción at 7am was Paraguay’s ace in the hole.
The city was still largely asleep, save for the excited buzz and chatter among children walking to school. This is not to say that the streets of Asuncion were quiet at this early hour – quite the contrary was actually true. Birds, cicadas, and other critters were wide awake causing ruckus, but my favorite sound came from the regularly dispersed mate vendors lining the sides of the Plaza Uruguaya. The group, largely women, sat silent aside from the pummeling of mate leaves into their mortars and pestles. A soft, rapid “thud, thud, thud,” in preparation for the morning rush, progressively quickened to a more hollow sound as the tea leaves gave way to their metronomic pummeling. It’s not easy to find a cheap cup of coffee in Asuncion. Rather, everyday Paraguayans roam the streets of the capital carrying a thermos and cup full of the national beverage of tereré, a chilled version of the mate drink so ubiquitous in surrounding parts of South America.
Scenes like this were common in Paraguay, a nation I fell hard and fast for. Asunción was as fast-paced as the country got, and for me the speed still seemed on par with a lazy dog post-feeding. Leaving the capital, the pace slowed even more to resemble an anaconda basking in the sun after swallowing an inexplicably large animal whole.
I visited Paraguay at the tail end of a larger South America trip including stops in Rio de Janeiro and Brasília, Brazil and Buenos Aires, Argentina. Traveling solo for the first time in almost ten years, I was keen on taking time to absorb sights, sounds, and smells at a relaxed pace, which Paraguay proudly displayed in ample supply. And while Brasília gave me great concrete to ogle and photograph, and Buenos Aires the tourist trappings of any other great global city, it was Paraguay that took me by surprise, and is the one place I visited I’m keen on revisiting as soon as humanly possible.
Paraguay, shockingly, doesn’t rank among the countries least visited on the South American continent by foreigners. The WTO puts it behind Suriname, Guyana, Bolivia, and Ecuador in terms of absolute numbers, but this is a bit of a misnomer. Without the droves of Brazilians crossing the borders at either Ciudad del Este and Pedro Juan Caballero, the actual number of foreign visitors would be much smaller. In fact, I ran into only two tourists in my entire time in the country, in the backwater of Yataity, famous for production of Paraguayan embroidery called ao po’i, a craft so obscure there is no English language page devoted to it on Wikipedia.
Asunción, the country’s capital, mixes modern with traditional with great ease, and no small pinch of grit. Giant Brutalist apartment and administration buildings, ten floors of concrete taller than any surrounding structure, rise without fanfare from the ground next door to Spanish colonial cuties from the 19th century. The main thoroughfares of the historic old part of town, Palma and Estrella (or, further east, Mariscal Estigarriba and 25 de Mayo, respectively), host sellers of various antiques on Sundays, and traditional Paraguayan handicrafts on others – all for very affordable prices.
Though Spanish is the lingua franca, it is still possible, common even, to hear the singsong of Guarani language throughout the country. Paraguay is the only nation in Latin America that has granted its indigenous language, Guarani, official status, and it is spoken by Paraguayans of both indigenous and European descent. This is due largely to Paraguay’s early colonial history: In the mid 16th century, under Domingo Martinez de Irala, men of European descent brought to Paraguay were encouraged to marry local Guarani women, or to keep several as concubines. Originally from France, Portugal, Spain, Germany and England, these settlers were expected to abandon lives in Europe to put down roots in Paraguay. And while treatment of local indigenous populations was about as horrific as one can expect from any colonial power, Paraguay today exists as very much a melting pot of indigenous and foreign cultures and peoples. In fact, Paraguay is home to many foreign diaspora, with sizable populations not only from the historical colonial powers, but also from Japan, Korea, Brazil, and others.
Paraguay’s countryside, too, offers a multitude of opportunities for the off the beaten path traveler. I hired a car for four days and visited several locations, both relatively urban and rural, around the California-sized country. San Bernadino, a favored spot for holiday-goers from Asunción, was my first stop. Founded in part by the sister of Friedrich Nietzsche and unapologetic antisemite, Elisabeth Nietzsche, the town is a center of German culture in Paraguay and infamous for hiding Nazi war criminals after World War 2. Next was Santa María de Fe, one of the first Jesuit colonies in Paraguay, founded in the 17th century. My final stop was Villarrica, Paraguay’s tenth largest “city,” and home to some of the kindest hosts and cutest capybaras I have ever encountered. My route was also punctuated by countless stops in towns whose residents set up makeshift handicraft stops right on the side of the freeway, as well as at abandoned train stations long unused along the route from Asuncion to the eastern reaches of the country..
In all, I spent eight days in Paraguay – truly just enough to scratch the surface of this criminally under visited country. Paraguay is a tough sell, especially with no single flagship attraction. But while there may be no equivalent to Peru’s Macchu Picchu, Cartagena’s historic core, or Argentina’s dramatic Patagonia, Paraguay is best enjoyed as a sum of its parts. With the history to satisfy any buff (and I haven’t even gotten into The Triple Alliance and Chaco Wars, two of the most devastating wars in the history of the American continents), kind people, empanadas the size of your face, and relatively good tourist infrastructure, Paraguay is ripe for the tourist picking. So when you’re thinking about booking that trip to Iguazú Falls, Rio, or Buenos Aires, consider the short flight over to Paraguay. You won’t be disappointed.