Paraguay is the forgotten part of South America. Ignored by travellers for so long, the country has never built up its tourist infrastructure. But that is now its greatest charm. This is a country where you can truly get off the beaten track and experience the local culture.
What is it like to visit Paraguay?
The first thing you’ll notice, compared to many other parts of South America, is how few foreigners there are. In fact, for the whole time I was there, I met foreign tourists at only one place. You’ll need some basic Spanish or some very good hand actions because you won’t find much English here.
But, it is a very warm place where there is no reason to feel unsafe or uncomfortable (with the possible exception of parts of the capital, Asuncion, which can be a bit dangerous like any big city). People will always try to help you if you’re lost or unsure of something.
There aren’t a lot of large ‘sights’ in Paraguay for the average traveller. That’s one of the reasons why there hasn’t been a large number of tourists. But, as I’ll explain, there are some wonderful things to do which are much more enriching than the average landmark tours of other countries.
Cities in Paraguay
The cities in Paraguay are not the country’s most interesting places but it is inevitable that you will pass through a few of them if you are travelling around the country. Quite often, because of the lackadaisical bus system, you might pass through a city more than once because you can’t get direct routes between two locations.
That’s not to say there aren’t some elements of the cities that are enjoyable. Here are some of the larger places you are most likely to pass through.
- Asuncion: This is the capital of Paraguay and probably the main way you will come into the country from Argentina. It’s got a population of about two million people and sprawls out a fair bit. The central part of the city has a grid layout with the most interesting sights along the undeveloped waterfront. You can see photos of Asuncion here.
- Ciudad del Este: The second biggest city in Paraguay and very different to Asuncion. This is a popular way to enter the country from Iguazu Falls. It’s known for its cheap shopping (quite often of fake goods) and the border crossing is busy with Argentines and Brazilians trying to get a good deal. You can read more about Ciudad del Este here.
- Encarnacion: You can cross the border between Argentina here but I found Encarnacion to be more useful as a city to explore the south east of Paraguay from. It’s quite close to a few sites you might want to see, or serves as an overnight resting stop between journeys. It has some nice restaurants and hotels but not much else going for it. You can read more about Encarnacion here.
- Concepcion: Set on the river towards the north of the country, this city is actually quite interesting in its own right. It has a bustling market scene and gives you a good insight into the rural cultures of Paraguay. It’s also a good jumping off point to explore some of the more remote parts of the country. It is possible to get there by boat from Asuncion but it’s not easy to get information (the boats and timetables keep changing). Bus is much easier.
Most of Paraguay’s history could fit into one of three categories: colonialism, war or dictatorship.
The Spanish arrived in the 1500s and began settlements, like in much of South America. They tried to integrate with the indigenous tribes with mixed success. But, even today, many of those tribes are dislocated and fighting for land to live on. You can read my story here about meeting some of the indigenous tribes of Paraguay and hearing about their struggles.
Of all the European colonialists, the group which had the most successful interaction with the local tribes was the Jesuits. There are still ruins of their settlements in Paraguay today – in fact, the ones at Trinidad are the country’s only UNESCO World Heritage Site. You can find out more about the Jesuit ruins at Trinidad here.
In the early 1800s, control was wrested from the Europeans and the period of Paraguayan dictator rule began. The country was cut off from much of the continent politically and socially. It was also the time of two large wars. The first was the Paraguayan War from 1864 – 1870 which the country lost (along with about two thirds of adult males) against Argentina, Brazil and Uruguay. The second was the Chaco War against Bolivia from 1932 – 1935 which Paraguay won and led to an increase in land.
During the period of dictatorship, a group of Australians travelled to Paraguay to set up a socialist utopia. It was to be the first communist community in the world but didn’t end well, because of internal frictions. It’s a fascinating little story about the country and you can read more about New Australia in Paraguay here.
In recent decades, the country has slowly opened up and begun to develop economically. After World War II there was large European immigration to Paraguay and you can still find a lot of their cultural influence across the country. And from the 1980s, the leadership became much more democratic and increased its links with other countries. That’s not to say Paraguay today is free from corruption, extreme political views and disparity in wealth.
Accommodation in Paraguay
There are no hostels, in the backpacker sense of the word, in Paraguay. Hotels in all the big cities come in a range from budget to expensive and you can find anything for your tastes. In Asuncion you’ll be able to book something in advance online or find a cheap option near the bus station. In many of the other cities you should be able to just turn up and find something close to the bus station.
The rural areas will have limited accommodation options but, with so few tourists, it is rare that they are completely full. My advice would be to try to phone or email in advance but not to get too stressed if you don’t hear back. If you arrive somewhere the locals will always be able to work something out for you.
Things to do in Paraguay
Some of the best things to do in Paraguay have already been mentioned above. Visiting the Jesuit ruins at Trinidad, for example. Or checking out the chaotic shopping in Ciudad del Este or the relaxed capital of Asuncion. But here are a few other ideas, if you’re thinking of spending a week or more in the country.
- Conservation work in the forests: The Pro Cosara organisation near the city of Villarrica has accommodation for travellers. You can see the work they’re doing on forest conservation and explore the region yourself. You can find out more about Pro Cosara and Paraguay’s forests here.
- Ecotourism: Another small place you can stay to experience the nature of Paraguay is Granja El Roble, a farm near the city of Concepcion. Run by German biologist Peter Gartner, it even has a small private zoo. Peter can offer you day trips and other adventures to see the area. More information about Granja El Roble is here.
- Itaipu Dam: This construction is not particularly well-known but it is one of the seven Engineering Wonders of the World. Until China built a larger one, it was the biggest hydroelectric dam in the world. You can visit it and get a guided tour – it’s quite close to Ciudad del Este. You can read more about Itaipu Dam in Paraguay here.
Transport in Paraguay
The easiest (and probably the only sensible) way to get around Paraguay is bus. The country has an extensive bus system – but don’t expect luxury. It’s also designed for locals and not for tourists so you’ll have to make sure you ask lots of questions to ensure you’re getting on the right bus and getting off at the right place.
Taxis are cheap and available in the bigger cities. You’ll also find guys on motorbikes who will be able to take you short distances in the rural areas for a few dollars (all negotiable).
You can read my story about what it’s like to travel through Paraguay here.
Paraguay is the second-poorest country in South America. For that reason, much of the culture revolves around family and simple pleasures. You will see a lot of groups sitting around in the shade drinking the traditional tea-like drink, terere. You may get an invitation to join – which you should gladly accept. Don’t be surprised that everyone shares the same cup and straw, though.
When it comes to food, you’ll see a lot of the local snack called ‘chipa’, which is a sticky kind of bread pretzel. It’s a cheap and filling snack during the day. More substantial food will include empanadas (of course, because it’s South America!) and the asado barbeques. Typical meals at restaurants quite often involve a plate of meat, chips, rice and a fried egg.
If you are short of time in South America, I wouldn’t say that Paraguay is a must-see. But it is so different to the rest of South America’s typical tourist trail that it is a perfect place to explore if you want to see more of the continent than the average traveller. There aren’t a lot of iconic places to visit but it’s a lovely place to relax and enjoy the culture and the laid-back lifestyle that Paraguayans are so proud of.