The Cinderella of South America, Paraguay has suffered greatly at the hands of her sisters. She lacks the flamboyance of seductive Brazil or the class of stylish Argentina. Without the beautiful beaches of the former and the rich culture of the latter, there is seemingly little to offer even the most hardy of Gringos and so she sits, landlocked and ignored, hoping to be noticed.
But take some time to get to know her and you’ll find an understated charm and a laid-back friendliness that rewards exploration and a sense of adventure.
Here’s why you should consider adding Paraguay to your South America itinerary.
1) No-One Else Goes There
If you’re in search of an authentic experience away from well-worn trails then consider Paraguay, where there is barely even a path, let alone a beaten one. We only met three other travellers in our three weeks in the country. You’ll have UNESCO World Heritage sites like the Jesuit ruins of Trinidad and Jesus to yourself; find friendly locals who aren’t jaded by a constant stream of backpackers; and discover little known gems like Laguna Blanca: a quiet lake with white beaches and crystal clear Caribbean-style waters.
2) It’s Easy to Get Off the Gringo Trail
Getting to those elusive, less-visited spots in South America usually involves long, uncomfortable and dusty bus rides. But Paraguay is only one hour away from Iguaz˙ Falls: one of the most popular destinations on the continent. From the border town of Ciudad del Este you need only hop on a bus to, well, anywhere in the country and in a few hours you’ll be far away from the tourists and touts of the Gringo Trail.
And once you’re in, moving around is easy. Paraguay isn’t a big country if you don’t include the vast wilderness of the Chaco, and most of the population centres are concentrated in the South East so there are no 18 hour bus rides to suffer. Our longest journey was seven hours, and most of the time it only took a few hours between places we visited.
3) It’s Muy Tranquilo
Paraguay is a place to enjoy the simple pleasures, like spending an afternoon in a sunny spot in one of the many plazas and enjoying a tererÈ (cold herbal tea) with the locals. There is no hassle or touts trying to sell you things, only the slow, relaxed pace of life that is all too easy to fall into.
4) Practice Your Spanish
It’s difficult to improve your Spanish when you are staying in hostels filled with English speaking backpackers, and the locals insist on speaking English to you. In Paraguay things are different: practically no-one speaks English so you are forced to speak Spanish. The welcoming locals are really curious about foreigners and keen to get to know you, and they honestly don’t care if your Spanish isn’t perfect.
5) Crazy History
Paraguay is great for history buffs, especially if you like your historic sites without souvenir stands and tour buses. The Jesuits were a big part of Paraguayan history and there are many ruins and museums you can visit in the south of the country.
I recommend reading At the Tomb of the Inflatable Pig by John Gimlette before you visit to get a greater understanding of Paraguay’s tumultuous and often bizarre history. Did President Lopez really carry his sisters around in a box during the War of the Triple Alliance?!
6) The Alternative Pantanal
The tropical wetland of the Pantanal is the world’s largest wetland and a popular destination in Brazil for wildlife watching. Not many people know that the Pantanal also crosses Paraguay’s border, but receives far fewer visitors. For a real adventure hang your hammock on the Aquidaban cargo boat for the three day trip from Concepcion to Bahia Negra, where you’ll find pure wilderness teeming with bird and animal life.
Even if you don’t make it that far, Paraguay is a renowned bird watching destination and there are plenty of National Parks to enjoy.
7) The People
While there are wildlife reserves, historic ruins and museums to visit, the real attraction of Paraguay is the people. Our best memories are of couchsurfing in a small town where we met the locals and were taken to festivals to see crazy activities like fireball: literally football with a flaming ball. You won’t find experiences like these in any guidebook, and that’s what makes Paraguay unique.
Erin McNeaney and her partner Simon sold everything and left the UK in March 2010 to travel forever. They are currently exploring South America and writing about their travels at Never Ending Voyage. You can also follow their journey on Twitter or Facebook.