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Tips for travel in Paraguay
As the bus drives along the bumpy dirt road, I look desperately out the window. Through the haze of the red dust being thrown into the air, I look for a sign.
Not a mystical symbol of guidance or anything that ethereal – I’m talking about an actual sign.
You see, I’m travelling in the middle of Paraguay and have no idea where I am. I know I’m supposed to be getting off at a small village somewhere but, as far as I know, it could be any of the stops the bus is making.
This seems to be a recurring theme of my travels in Paraguay. In some senses one of the hardest countries in South America to get around but, in some other senses, one of the easiest. Let me explain.
The reason I was staring out the bus window for any hint of my location was because the country’s transport system is not designed for tourists like me. It’s designed for locals who know where they’re going and it’s expected that you always know what you’re doing. I never did.
I caught many buses in my time in Paraguay and I would always ask the bus conductors to let me know when we got to my destination. They always forgot.
I would ask my fellow travellers and they would always give me ambiguous answers. Most likely it was my bad Spanish that was the cause of the confusion. Although sometimes they genuinely didn’t seem to know where they were either – they knew where they were going to but nothing in between.
There are no signs at bus stations; there are often no platform numbers; there are no helpful bits of information on your ticket; there are never maps when you get off somewhere; there are never information bureaux (even when a guidebook had suggested there might be).
And of course absolutely nothing is in English and hardly anyone is able to speak it.
What is tourism like in Paraguay?
Other countries on the continent have adapted to the needs of tourists and you can plan and research most elements of your travels.
Websites will give you bus timetables, you can book hostels or hotels online, and the writings online of hundreds of travellers before you have all the tips and information you could possibly need (admittedly, quite often also with a lot of personal drivel that you don’t need).
In Paraguay this doesn’t exist. Everything about travel must be done on the ground and in person. And this leads me to why it was one of the easiest countries to travel in.
One of the biggest troubles I seem to have with only ever planning a day or so ahead is that I get caught when things are booked out or busy.
That bus I was planning to get? No seats left because I didn’t buy the ticket earlier. That hostel I had just walked to from the station? Completely full – sorry, mate, you should have booked online like everyone else.
In Paraguay there were always seats and there were always rooms. If you turned up at the terminal you would always get on the next bus. If you turned up at a hotel, there was always a room for you.
Paraguay is cheap!
It’s also an extremely cheap country, which makes it easier to deal with problems that might arise. One time I missed the local bus to where I was going and so a young guy offered to take me on the back of his motorbike… all for just a few dollars.
That’s my lasting and most enjoyable memory of Paraguay. Not the motorbike ride – I’m actually terrified of those things and hated every minute on it. It was the experience of being the only tourist there.
I went for two weeks and spoke to only one group of native English-speakers. Most of my conversations were in bad Spanish (at least mine was bad – I’m sure theirs was fine).
I saw the true Paraguay and it is a beautiful country. Everything is relaxed, people move at a speed of comfort and there’s a genuine friendliness in the people you meet.
The cities feel like towns, with horses trotting down the streets pulling a cart as the cars speed past…
The towns feel like villages, with the locals passing their days sitting in the shade drinking tea and chatting with neighbours who stop for a conversation as they walk past…
And the villages have a tranquillity that comes from the attitude that life is not to be rushed.
To journey and travel through Paraguay is to see the beautiful landscapes of a part of South America that many tourists choose not to visit; is to experience a way of life that puts the focus on savouring the moment; and is to challenge your abilities to make your way on the road less-travelled.