Whereaguay? First impressions Of Paraguay, South America’s Most Underrated Country

terereEver notice how die-hard travelers tend to compare places to other places? Like, constantly? It may be annoying, but it goes beyond mere aesthetics. It’s often a reference point; a way to describe not only the feel of a destination, but the spirit of its people.

I arrived in Paraguay (yes, you’ll need a map) at 4 a.m. yesterday. Despite having traveled much of South America over the past decade, I confess that until six weeks ago, the only things I knew about Paraguay were that it’s often confused with vacation hot-spot Uruguay, and that no one appears to go there.

The question of why Paraguay gets dissed by travelers is one our Gadling editor, Grant Martin, wanted me to explore. And while I’ve only been in the country for roughly 36 hours, I’ve already been asking myself the same thing. What on earth is keeping Paraguay from being the new Brazil? This place is amazing.

Paraguay is roughly the size of California and is sandwiched between Brazil and Argentina. To the north lies Bolivia. The country is divided into departments, and the Rio Paraguay snakes up the central half of the country (its waist, if you will). The river has traditionally been crucial to economic trade and transportation, given the country’s monsoonal climate. Now, however, new roads are being created or paved, and it seems the era of the riverboat may eventually come to an end in Paraguay. Based upon my brief experiences traveling here, however, let’s just say the age of modern transportation hasn’t yet arrived. One sees many horse carts in the streets of Concepcion, besides cars (although scooters are the main form of transit).

Given its location, comparisons to parts of Brazil are inevitable. Paraguay is very flat, and has a similar sweltering climate and verdant tropical countryside that includes plantations and cattle ranches. The lively capital of Asuncion, with its flowering trees and crumbling colonial decadence bring to mind both Rio and Hanoi.

Many of the villages I passed during an 11-hour bus ride yesterday reminded me of Thailand, because of the late-night buzz of scooters and street food vendors. Every Paraguayan drinks bottomless quantities of yerba mate and tereré (cold mate tea, often spiked with medicinal herbs, above), more familiar to those who have spent time in Argentina. Yet the empanadas, a staple here, make that country’s version look woefully anemic.But that’s where the comparisons end. In the brief time I had to prepare for this trip, I repeatedly read that what makes Paraguay different are two key things: it’s South America’s only bilingual country (the second language is Guarani, which refers to its dominant, omnipresent indigenous culture), and the people are renown for their warmth, hospitality and generosity. This, I can already verify, yet it’s only part of what’s already charmed me about this oft-overlooked, yet complex country.

Paraguay, like all of South America, has a history of political turmoil and indigenous conflict. Originally a Spanish colony, in 2011 it celebrated its bicentennial as an independent nation. And despite the lack of vast natural resources found in neighboring Bolivia, Brazil and Argentina (not necessarily a bad thing, as you’ll learn in my forthcoming post on the silver mines of Potosi, Bolivia), Paraguay gets by.

It’s allegedly the second poorest country in South America, after Bolivia (see where all those minerals get you?), but retains the strongest indigenous culture. Most of the populace has some mixed blood because the Spanish saw no reason to wipe out existing tribes to plunder natural resources that didn’t exist. Rather, they took many of the Guarani women as wives, and today Paraguay has a very identifiable mestizo culture, as well as strong folkloric beliefs and distinct indigenous crafts such as ao po’i lace and ceramics.
paraguay
Despite my initial enchantment, I believe it’s not only naive, but irresponsible for travelers (or writers) to think they can know a country or culture in just a few days, weeks or months. Perhaps we can never really understand if we’re not of it. But that shouldn’t stop us from learning about a place and developing informed opinions.

As travelers/tourists, we should ideally resist the urge to make snap judgments. Why, for example, do all of the many banks in Concepcion, the river port I’m now in, have casually armed guards out front? It’s like walking through an artillery; Paraguay is obviously very dangerous (for the record: it’s not). My assumption is that because Concepcion is the last town along the Rio Paraguay that’s “easily” accessible by paved road, it’s a critical point of commerce. The department is a crucial agricultural and cattle ranching region. Hence, the “don’t-fuck-with-us” posturing.

Semi-automatics aside, Concepcion also conjures for me romantic images of Indonesia, Hawaii and Brazil. And Asuncion seems a glorious city of flowering trees, gardens and decaying colonials. There are street vendors hustling chipa (the staple bread made with corn flour and cheese), handcrafted jewelry, fruit, tereré and yuyos (medicinal herbs), but overall, it’s the tranquilo pa (Guarani for “it’s all good”) attitude and the warmth of the people that have got me hooked.

Ten days isn’t enough to know a country, but sometimes, it takes just 10 seconds to know if it’s won your heart. Paraguay has mine.

[Photo credits:terere, Flickr user julianboliche; horse, guard, Laurel Miller]