Travel in Paraguay
Paraguay seems to be the forgotten nation of South America. For years, it was closed to tourism while the country suffered under the terrible dictator Alfred Stroessner, but today, Paraguay is politically stable and Paraguayans are among the friendliest and most open people you could hope to encounter. Though it isn’t always included on travelers’ itineraries, Paraguay offers a chance to immerse yourself in a culture distinct to that of surrounding countries, and a chance to truly feel like one of the only foreigners around.
Often referred to as “the heart of South America,” Paraguay is a tiny country, about the size of California, landlocked between Brazil, Argentina, and Bolivia. Bolivia and northern Paraguay share the Chaco desert, a sparsely populated, hot and dry area, measuring 647,500 square kilometres. In the east, the Paraná River divides Brazil and Paraguay.
An incredibly diverse set of people call Paraguay home. Spanish settlers married native Guaraní brides from the 1500s; German utopians came at the end of the 1800s to start a new society; Mennonites founded farms in 1900s: and former Nazis hid out after World War II. Along with Spanish, the native language of Guaraní is still widely spoken.
In the 1600s, Jesuit missionaries came to Paraguay and built massive churches and towns that housed thousands of natives. The remains of these structures are still preserved today.
For travellers, Paraguay offers unparalleled independent adventure travel. An overnight river trip down the Paraguay River on a cargo boat is an excellent way to view wildlife and experience Paraguayan river life. If you prefer the land, head to the arid Chaco, one of South America’s last great wildernesses, for jaguar spotting. Small towns are dotted with colonial buildings, inexpensive hotels and restaurants, and numerous parks perfect for drinking the national beverage, tereré, outdoors with the locals.
City focus: Asunción
Asunción, the capital of Paraguay, can easily be enjoyed in a few days or over the course of a few months. Though the city has few traditional tourist attractions, the beauty of Asunción lies in its people as well as in its air of friendly mayhem.
Most areas of interest are easily accessed by bus, but the best part of Asunción is simply wandering through its sprawling neighbourhoods. Strange juxtapositions abound, like a mansion built to resemble a scaled-down version of the White House standing next to a shanty town. Downtown Asunción is home to the Pink Presidential Palace, the War Heroes Monument, and the National Congress Building. For shopping, nothing beats Mercado Cuatro, where pirated goods sit alongside traditional Guaraní crafts like lace and leather tooling.
Getting to and from Paraguay
No airlines fly directly from the US or Europe to Paraguay; the best bet is to fly to Buenos Aires and take a TAM flight into Asunción. Europeans will probably have a stopover in Brazil. From other countries in South America there are numerous daily flights into both Asunción or Ciudad del Este.
Many comfortable and affordable bus lines make the 18-hour journey by road from Buenos Aires; you’ll have to disembark to pass through customs and have your passport stamped. Be sure your passport is actually stamped or you’ll run into trouble on your way out. Crossing into Paraguay via Bolivia is difficult due to road conditions and you’ll find yourself in a very remote section of the Chaco desert.
No matter what you might read about being able to bribe officials at the Paraguayan border, a tourist visa is required for all US, New Zealand and Australian citizens, and can be obtained in your home country or in South America. For US citizens, a visa obtained in the US is valid for 90 days, and a visa good for the entire life of your passport is available from the Paraguayan embassy in Buenos Aires and can be obtained in 24 hours. You can also get a visa from the Paraguay consulate in Foz do Iguaçu if entering from Brazil; it’s a same-day service if you get in early enough. Europeans do not need a visa to enter Paraguay.
Getting around Paraguay
Bus is the best way to get around Paraguay and is how the majority of Paraguayans travel, whether they’re going to work or to visit relatives. Riding the bus is often a social affair; expect to chat with your neighbour and share a cup of communal tereré.
The buses are not luxurious, but usually offer a place to store your bag above your seat. Vendors regularly board to sell meat skewers, soda, DVDS, chipa (a traditional doughnut-shaped corn bread) and clothing. Don’t expect air-conditioning on anything other than the double-decker long-distance buses. Bus hijackings are very rare though pickpocketing and bag slashing do occur, especially in Asunción, so be careful.
Car and camper rental
Driving in Paraguay is very straightforward, as there aren’t any freeways, though you can expect to share the road with ox-carts and buses that operate with a take-no-prisoners mentality. Car rentals are available at the Asunción airport. Police checkpoints are common and you can expect to be stopped and ticketed for not wearing your seatbelt or not having the daytime running lights on. It is not unheard of for police officers to ask for “soda” money, especially from tourists driving rental cars. Camping in Paraguay is not common and camper rentals are not available.
Cycling and hiking
Cycling in Paraguay is gaining popularity, especially on the country’s red, flat backroads, and every Easter, the Paraguayan Geography Society organises a race in a different area of the country. However, biking in Asunción can be very dangerous.
Parque National Cerro Corá has the best hiking in Paraguay, with numerous hills offering great views of the landscape. Additionally, every December, Catholic pilgrims walk from their homes to the city of Caacupé where the Virgin Mary is said to have appeared to the Guaraní Indians.
LATN and TAM airlines offer affordable flights to northern Paraguay and the Chaco.
These services are not always that reliable, so if you’re short on time you might be better off considering other options as well.
Cargo boats heading to Concepción, Bahia Negra, and Ciudad del Este are accustomed to taking passengers and even rent hammocks for sleeping on the deck.
If you’re after an adventurous way to get around, this might just be it!
Top 10 things to do in Paraguay
Drink tereré with cat’s claw. Cold yerba mate drunk from a hollowed-out cow’s horn is served communally with a silver straw and flavoured with medicinal herbs, like cat’s claw or mint. Tereré is a national pastime for all ages and a great way to cool off while soaking up the culture.
Look for jaguars in the Chaco. The arid Chaco in northern Paraguay is also home to armadillos, anacondas, and monkeys. Several native tribes also make their home there.
Swim the Monday Falls in Presidente Franco. This national park is home to three waterfalls, the largest one being 130 feet tall. In Guaraní, “Monday” means “robbed river.”
See the world’s biggest dam (before China finishes a bigger one) in Itaipu. The Itaipu dam is one of the seven wonders of the modern world. It took over 16 years to build with the removal of over 50 million tons of rock.
Shop for knock-offs in Cuidad del Este. Where else can you watch a regular baseball hat turn into a Nike baseball hat right on the street with the aid of a sewing machine?
Float down the Paraguay River. String up a hammock made in Paraguay and watch the world float by from the deck of a small cargo ship taking Coca-Cola and tinned meat to river towns. Expect to see monkeys and excited children.
Try to make Naduti lace in Itaguá. This is a traditional Paraguayan needlework pattern made with simple thread that looks like an elaborate spiderweb.
Visit the Museum of Myths in Asunción. The museum is worth stopping by to learn about the monsters and myths that are so prevalent in the Guaraní culture, like Pombero, a miniature man who impregnates virgins.
Hike through Parque Nacional Ybycui. This park offers hiking trails, waterfalls, and pools in some of the last remaining rain forest in Paraguay. The park ranger might even make you lunch.
Learn Guaraní. Jaguar and piranha are both guaraní words, but if you want to learn more, you’ll find yourself surrounded by people keen to teach you.