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While Paraguay may not boast all the recognition and acclaim its South American neighbours receive, this inconspicuous nation has plenty to charm its visitors with. The graceful capital, Asuncion, nestles itself alongside the intersection of the Rio Paraguay and Rio Pilcomayo. In the north, the Gran Chaco stretches across the nation, offering the traveller a perfect opportunity to enjoy the vast, relatively untouched wilderness area. Due to its large variety of flora and fauna, the Gran Chaco is a hot spot for eco-tourism.
Unlike many of its South American neighbours, Paraguay is a fairly safe destination and has remained a comparatively stable nation over the last decade.
Almost no archaeological research has been done in Paraguay, and the pre-Columbian history of the country is poorly documented. What is certain is that the eastern part of the country was occupied by Guaraní Indians for at least 1,000 years before the Spanish conquest. Evidence indicates that those indigenous inhabitants developed a fairly sophisticated level of political autonomy, with quasi-sedentary, multivillage chiefdoms.
Europeans first arrived in the area in the early sixteenth century, and the settlement of Asunción was founded on August 15, 1537, by the Spanish explorer Juan de Salazar y Espinoza. The city eventually became the center of a Spanish colonial province, as well as a primary site of the Jesuit missions and settlements in South America in the eighteenth century. The colony was economically unimportant to the Spanish crown, and the distance of its capital from other new cities on the continent virtually ensured the territory’s isolation.
Paraguay declared its independence after overthrowing the local Spanish administration on May 14, 1811.
Paraguay's history has been characterized by long periods of political instability and infighting, and devastating wars with its neighbors. Paraguay fought the War of the Triple Alliance against Brazil, Argentina and Uruguay, and was defeated in 1870 after five years of the bloodiest war in South America.
Following political turmoil during the first three decades of the 20th century, Paraguay went to war again, this time with Bolivia. From 1932 to 1935, approximately 30,000 Paraguayans and 65,000 Bolivians died in fighting over possession of the Chaco region.
Between 1904 and 1954, Paraguay had thirty-one presidents, most of whom were removed from office by force. In 1954, General Alfredo Stroessner took advantage of the strong link between the armed forces and the Colorado Party to overthrow the government; he ruled until 1989.
Although dictatorschip is over, there is social conflict caused by underemployment and the enormous gap between the rich and the poor. Positive steps to correct these inequities have occurred since the 1989 ousting of the last dictator, and the country is moving toward a fully functioning democracy. Leftist former bishop Fernando Lugo achieved a historic victory in Paraguay's presidential election in April 2008, defeating the ruling party candidate and ending 61 years of conservative rule.
Paraguay shares international borders with Bolivia, Brazil and Argentina. The country lies between latitudes 19° and 28°S, and longitudes 54° and 63°W. The (south)eastern parts of the country mainly contains of (sub)tropical forests while the (north)western parts are actually quite dry, including the famous Gran Chaco. The Paraguay River splits the country into these regions. Both the eastern region and the western region are drained into the Paraguay River. With the Paraneña region reaching southward and the Chaco extending to the north, Paraguay straddles the Tropic of Capricorn and experiences both subtropical and tropical climates.
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The Paraguayan Jesuit Missions of La Santísima Trinidad de Paraná and Jesús de Tavarangue are located near the city of Encarnacion in the extreme south of the country near the border with Argentina. These missions are a reminder of the Jesuit's Christianization of the Rio de la Plata basin in the 17th and 18th centuries. On top of that they are of artistic value as well. For this reason they are placed on the Unesco World Heritage List.
The Gran Chaco is sometimes called "the last South American frontier" as it is a huge and sparsely populated, hot and semi-arid lowland region which, although locted in four countries (including Brazil, Argentina and Bolivia) is a major part of Paraguay itself as well. The most impressive and empty parts are in the west and north of the country and getting there requires lots of time and patience.
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Most people visit the Itaipu Dam from the Brazilian side but in fact the hydroelectric dam on the Paraná River is located on the border between Brazil and Paraguay and you can easily visit it from the latter country as well. This is the largest operational hydroelectric power plant in the Americas and visiting it is possible from Ciudad del Este, which is about 15 kilometres south. Either go on a tour or travel their by public transport. Visiting the site itself is always on scheduled tours with multi language guides.
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This festival, held February 3 annually, celebrates Paraguay’s patron saint. Saint Blas festival sees its biggest celebrations in the city of Ciudad del Este, which has week-long open-air events leading up to it.
This is a multi-day event culminating on Shrove Tuesday (the start of Christian Lent). It is similar to other mardi-gras festivals held in other Latin American countries, such as the one in Rio de Janeiro. There are pageants and parades through the streets, and lots of music and dancing into the night. It is held in February (although the date is flexible according to Easter), when the weather is warm.
Held May 28 and 29, this event is a traditional fair celebrating Saint John. It hails from the Christian faith, yet the festival is part religious and part cultural, with bizarre rituals such as walking over hot embers a spectacle to watch.
Running since 1970, this annual rally is held early July. It is much loved by Paraguayans and is second in popularity only to the national sport, soccer. The main stage of the rally covers the entire Gran Chaco, a vast and tough terrain. Witnessing some of the vehicles struggle past is a good way of getting a feel for the starkness of the landscape of the area.
Nanduti is the name given to a style of traditional lace crafted in the region around the city of Itagua. The festival is held in the city and has been running since its inception in 1970. Held in the last weekend of July every year, it showcases the region’s art, crafts, food, and music.
For an amazing insight into the curious immigrant communities that have shaped Paraguay, you can attend this beer festival which is modeled on its German namesake, held in Munich every year. This event is also held at the same time as its German counterpart, in early September, with the main festivities taking place in Asuncion, where German descendants of Paraguay proudly celebrate their heritage.
Paraguay's climate ranges from tropical in the northeast to sub-tropical in the south. The north generally has warm to hot conditions year-round with temperatures exceeding 40 °C during the hotter months of November to April. Although this also applies to the southwest, this area has lower temperatures during the wintermonths of June to September with Asuncion having highs around 24 °C and lows that can drop below 10 °C during these months. Most of the rain falls in the summermonths, both in the north as well as in the south.
Silvio Pettirossi International Airport (ASU) receives almost every international flight and TAM Mercosur is the main airline. Destinations are mainly to neighbouring countries and include Sao Paulo, Buenos Aires, Montevideo Santiago de Chile and Cochabamba and Santa Cruz in Bolivia. Aerolíneas Argentinas and Gol fly there to from a few cities in Argentina and Brazil. Asuncion's local bus line 30-A links the city center with the airport's terminal.
Crossings from Brazil and Argentina are relatively straightforward. To and from Bolivia is a long journey across very thinly populated area and with generally very hot weather and rough roads. Be prepared and have your documentation and insurance in order, as well as an international driver's licence.
There are border crossings from Paraguay to and from Brazil, Bolivia and Argentina. To and from Brazil, the main crossings are between Ciudad del Este and Foz do Iguacu and between Pedro Juan Caballero and Ponta Pora for onward travel to the southern Pantanal.
To and from Bolivia, there are direct buses between Asuncion across the Gran Chaco all the way to Santa Cruz, taking about two days.
Boats cross into Asuncin and Encarnacin from Argentina, and from Concepcin to Isla Margarita on the Brazilian border is possible as well.
TAM Mercosur is the main carrier with flights between Asuncion and several other cities, including Ciudad del Este.
There are no domestic rail services in Paraguay.
Several of the main roads in Paraguay are in an acceptable condition, but potholes are a main concern and some roads can be impassable after heavy rains. Many other roads are unsurfaced and in a depressing state. Renting a car is possible at Asuncion and several other towns as well as on the international airports. Traffic drives on the right and both a national driver's licence or international driving permit are accepted.
Nuestra Señora de la Asunción and La Encarnacena are just a few of the bus companies which have at least daily services to almost all major cities and towns in the country, except the more remote places in the Gran Chaco region.
There are passenger boats from Asuncion and Concepcion along the Rio Paraguay to a number of river ports north of here.
Citizens of Mercosur member countries (Argentina, Brazil, Uruguay, and Venezuela) as well as of Chile, Peru, Ecuador and Colombia do not need a passport to enter the country, only an identity card (cédula de identidad). All other visitors travelling to Paraguay are required to carry a valid passport. Visas are not required for visitors from European Union countries (including the UK), Central and South American countries, as well as South Korea, Japan, Israel, and South Africa. Visas are required for citizens of Australia, New Zealand, the United States, and Canada. Travellers of all other nationalities should check the visa requirements for their country with the nearest Paraguayan Embassy before travelling to Paraguay.
Visas must be obtained in advance through the Paraguayan Embassy or Consulate, as they are not available upon entry to the country. The tourist stamp is valid for 90 days.
See also Money Matters
The currency is the guaraní (plural guaraníes), indicated by ‘G’. Banknote values are 1,000, 5,000, 10,000, 50,000 and 100,000 guaraníes; there are 50, 100 and 500 coins, but they are relatively rare.
Related article: Spanish: Grammar, pronunciation and useful phrases
Spanish and Guaraní are the official languages of Paraguay.
Most people in Paraguay speak Spanish and use of English is very limited. Outside of Asunción and big cities Guarani is all you will hear. Due to the extensive use of Guarani, even those who have managed to learn Spanish do not always speak it very well.
Paraguayan food is one of the most diverse in South America. Paraguayans usually enjoy typical food several times a week all year round. You'll find much of the standard South American cuisine here with some Brazilian influence as well. Paraguayan food isn't particularly spicy, so those who can't tolerate spices won't have problems here.
Paraguay has a tradition for beef which is normally good quality and cheap. Grilled meat (asado) is the thing to eat. Pasta is also popular as are the street stalls selling panchos (hot-dogs), hamburgers, empanadas and similar fast-food. Vegetables, salad and other types of meat are not that common but available. In restaurants you normally get manioc as a side dish for free (similar to bread in other countries).
You must try the Paraguayan traditional food, which includes dishes like the following:
Good accommodation will certainly not be hard to find in major towns, and will seem reasonably cheap if the parameter is the dollar or the euro. The exception, however, is Ciudad del Este. In Ciuded del Este the cheapest accommodation is near the bus station with doubles for less than €10, in an area that is also pleasant in the evening. Cheap accommodation is easy to find, but if you're after something of higher quality and have the money to back it up, then you'll have a better chance in the Argentinian Puerto Iguazu or the Brazilian Foz do Iguaçu.
Tap water in Asunción, and possibly Ciudad del Este, is potable. Tap water in the rest of Paraguay should be treated to make it safe for drinking. There have been efforts by PLAN International to bring safe, potable water to communities in rural areas (if there is such water available, it is safe to drink). Ask before drinking water in rural areas however--many Paraguayans will claim their water is safe to drink even if it's not purified.
The most common drink in Paraguay is Mate made of Yerba Mate (Mate herbs) that is similar in style to tea but the preparation is distinct. To add sugar is not common in Paraguay. The infusion is prepared by pouring dry yerba into the cup, then adding water: hot water version is known as mate (preferred in Argentina and Uruguay) while the cold water version is known as tereré and is a local favourite. When it is hot, it is more common to drink it as tereré, served in guampas, which can be made out of wood or of hallow bull horns, and is drunk through a metal straw called a bombilla.
Drinking mate or tereré is most definitely one of the social customs of Paraguay. Shops will close around noon for a siesta and for a round of mate/tereré with friends.
Gaseosa means fizzy drinks of any description. All the usual brands are available. Try the local Guarana.
Pulp is a very popular Paraguayan soft drink. You can buy it a supermarkets or order it in various restaurantes and bars. The original is Pulp Naranja, made with real orange juice.
Mosto helado is extracted from the sugar cane and very sweet,sometimes mixed with lime juice to make an 'aloja'. You can find street carts selling mosto near the centro area and in the countryside.
See also Travel Health
There are no vaccinations legally required to travel to Paraguay. There is one exception though. You need a yellow fever vaccination if you have travelled to a country (7 days or less before entering Paraguay) where that disease is widely prevalent. A yellow fever is recommended anyway for travelling in Paraguay.
It's a good thing to get your vaccinations in order before travelling to Paraguay. The general vaccination against Diphtheria, Tetanus and Polio (DTP) is recommended. Also a hepatitis A vaccination is recommended and vaccination against hepatitis B, tuberculosis, rabies and typhoid are also sometimes recommended for stays longer than 3 months.
Malaria is prevalent in the country in the border regions with Brazil. It is recommended to take malaria pills and take other normal anti-mosquito precautions as well. Dengue sometimes occurs as well. There is no vaccination, so buy mosquito repellent (preferably with 50% DEET), and sleep under a net. Also wear long sleeves if possible.
Finally, other possible health issues include diarrhea and other general travellers' diseases like motion sickness. Watch what you eat and drink and in case you get it, drink plenty of fluids (to prevent dehydration) and bring ORS.
See also Travel Safety
There are not many large cities and if you use some common sense and street smarts, you are unlikely to run into any trouble. The police are known to be corrupt, and if you are pulled over for any reason, you will almost certainly be expected to pay a bribe. In Asunción most cops are not corrupt. In the cities crime is common. Ciudad del Este is a hotspot for illicit activities, such as money laundering and counterfeiting, but that should not affect your travels. That said, you will want to keep an eye on your bags and wallet here, as you would do in any other large city. Generally, as long as you aren't involved in drug smuggling (inadvertently or otherwise), and are alert to pickpockets, you should be safe most of the time.
See also International Telephone Calls
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