Tuesday, 8 July 2014

Traveling in Paraguay: An Incredibly Underrated Destination

A colourful house in the Asuncion neighborhood of San Jeronimo

During the three weeks I spent in Paraguay, I don´t think I recognized a single other foreigner. The lack of a tourism industry and the low population density (Paraguay has a mere seven million residents) allow travellers to peacefully enjoy the treasures Paraguay has to offer, while spending very little money.

  •  Asunción

According to the Lonely Planet guide, Asunción is one of the most likeable capitals in South America.  Indeed, its buildings offer beautiful architecture dating from various centuries; peaceful plazas abound, and become the site of antiquity fairs on Sundays;  and the neighbourhood of  San Jeronimo, with its colourful houses and miradors, and has been designated as part of Paraguay´s cultural heritage.

The train that ran the very first railroad in South America in the 16th century

 Asunción was founded in 1537 by Spanish colonizers,  and was the starting point of numerous colonial expeditions aimed at founding other cities, including Buenos Aires.  The railroad that connected Asunción to Encarnación was the very first in South America.

It is worth noting the tragic fact that during its participation in the War of the Triple Alliance in 1865 (Paraguay stood alone against Argentina, Brazil and Uruguay), Paraguay lost nearly half its population, including boys as young as 12 who had been enrolled in the army.
  •                An ardently religious population

The basilica in Caacupe, two hours from Asuncion

The religious fervor of Paraguayans has resulted in the construction of many impressive-looking churches (86% of Paraguayans proclaim Catholicism as their religion).  Do not be surprised to see religious sayings such as “Dios te guía” in the front window of public buses.

  • Good food, but limited for vegetarians

A Paraguayan classic: street stands selling chipa 

Paraguayans like their meat, and they cook it well.  For special occasions, the man of the family will prepare a parrilla on the barbecue:  this all-meat dish must include at least three or four different kinds of meats, all in very large quantities and grilled to perfection.
On the other hand, vegetarians may look forward to tasting chipa, by far the most common street food in Paraguay (vendors will even sell them on public buses, screaming “chipaaaa!” while elbowing their way through the standing passengers), and is extremely cheap . There are doughnut-shaped breads made of yucca flour, cornmeal, eggs, milk, butter and cheese;  just what it takes to make a delicious snack which is impossible to eat just once.
The empanadas (half-circle doughy breads stuffed with meat or cheese) are also exquisite, whether off the street or in restaurants.
  •      Beautiful, scarcely populated natural spaces
The river at sunset beside the Piribebuy village, 3 hours from Asuncion

What I appreciated the most throughout my stay in Paraguay were the stunning rural landscapes, devoid of tourists, and only a one to three-hour bus ride away from Asuncion. I have in mind Emboscada, Caacupé (known as the national religious capital because of its basilica), Altos, Atyrá (known as the cleanest city in Paraguay), and especially Piribebuy, a charming village located right beside a small river.  At every one of those places, we would buy bread, cheese, fruit and wine in town, then walk to the outskirts of the village and camp there.

  •      Emboscada:  a tourist-hotspot in the making

Cracked rocks on the site of Emboscada- am I the only one who sees
the shape of a frog here?

It think it is important for me to mention, even briefly, the very interesting and somewhat mysterious site of Emboscada, located 38km to the North-East of Asunción.
It is mostly known for the three pyramids that were built there in 1988, meant to imitate the ones in Egypt.  But what I found even more captivating were the rock formations found all around these pyramids.  They have an infinity of cracks in them, as if something had exploded there many years ago, and left these rocks as the remains of the explosion.  If you look closely, one may even distinguish certain shapes of animals in the rocks – perhaps of a previous Inca site. I just have the feeling that in ten years, entrance will be of 15 dollars to this site, instead of being free.

If you plan to do a one-destination trip to South America, I probably would not choose Paraguay, mostly because of how small it is, and thus its lack of tourism services.  But if you are doing a long South American tour, I would strongly recommend visiting Paraguay. It has beautiful natural sites, is very affordable, extremely rich in history, and a valuable getaway from the sometimes suffocating tourist industries of other South American countries.

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