Concepcion: Paraguay’s Pearl Of The North

concepcionI arrived at the Concepción bus terminal at 11 p.m. amid cracks of thunder so loud they would have triggered car alarms, if the town’s horse-and-carts, scooters and clapped-out old junkers were equipped with them. As it was, there was no real taxi, so I just had to trust that the obese guy with the beady eyes and crappy Korean import really was a cabdriver. He considerately allowed me to carry and toss my 40-pound backpack into the car, and then we peeled out of the parking lot, radio blaring.

Fortunately, he took me straight to my destination – a “cheap” hotel I’d heard about that I immediately deduced was pulling double-duty as a brothel (it was). But it was late, I’d just landed in Paraguay at 2 a.m. that morning, and then spent 10 hours on a bus from Asunción. Theoretically, it takes seven hours, but welcome to transportation in Paraguay; the original bus broke down and we had to wait on the side of the road for a replacement vehicle. I was exhausted. I paid eight dollars for a room, trying to ignore the creepy guys chugging beers in the adjacent bar area. As I crossed the courtyard, the skies broke open and a monsoonal deluge poured down.

Soaked to the skin, I unlocked my room and discovered that it more closely resembled a prison cell. As a tidal wave of rainwater flowed from beneath the door, I frantically moved my pack to the bed (is there such a thing as crabs-to-pack transmission?), and put away my phone charger, which I had just been about to insert into an outlet. My impression of rural Paraguay was off to a bumpy start.

%Gallery-187342%concepcionThe reason for my high-tailing it to Concepción, a key river port known as Paraguay’s “Pearl of the North,” was so I could catch the Aquidaban (right). This cargo/passenger boat sails up the Rio Paraguay and back, all the way to the Bay of Asunción. The boat departs from Concepcion’s port every Tuesday between 9 and 11 a.m. The following day was a Tuesday, and my entire itinerary was planned around my two-day voyage up-river to the Brazilian border port of Vallemí. I was on a very tight timeline, but I was definitely interested in Concepción itself, which I’d read was a charming colonial town, and the last accessible major port by road (once you get into rural Paraguay, all bets are off with regard to road conditions, which are subject to flooding; this is not a country you should visit if you have time constraints).

Feeling claustrophobic in my flooded cell, and wanting to escape the donut-hole-sized drowned cockroaches, I decided to go for a walk. Concepción, being a port, was lively despite the hour. The karaoke bar of my “hotel” was hopping, and filled with all manner of dodgy individuals, as well as a handful of scantily-clad women (the brothel assessment was later confirmed by a local who runs an agriturismo nearby).

As I wandered the street, I struck up a few conversations with shopkeepers and a semi-automatic-toting security guard (due to the region’s agricultural prosperity, Concepción has an exorbitant number of banks), and found them all to be every bit as friendly as Paraguayans are reputed to be. Finally, I trudged back to the cell, and set my alarm for 6 a.m., as I’d been told to get to the Aquidaban’s ticketing office early. I already knew the handful of passenger cabins were booked, so I’d be sleeping on the deck, and I needed to find a place to buy a hammock before departure.
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I awakened to the sound of torrential rain, and instinctively knew my riverboat trip wasn’t meant to be. But I’d traveled so far – from Colorado, dammit – that I needed to at least go through the motions. I put on my flip-flops and began the ten-minute walk to the port. All of the streets were flooded, the water hitting me at mid-calf (right). Gringos are a rare sight in Paraguay, so the few vendors and dockworkers that saw me did double-takes. What the hell was this crazy gringa doing, wading in the pouring rain at sunrise?

Naturally, the ticket office was closed when I arrived at the port (read: a muddy river bank), but the Aquidaban was there, and already being loaded with cargo. I took one look at the heaping deck, and then imagined two days sitting in torrential rain, with no dry place to stash my pack or sleep. Thanks, but no.
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Sadly, I made my way back to the cell, trying to formulate a new plan. En route, I passed a lovely, colonial-style accommodation I’d read about in my guidebook but deemed as too pricey because it wasn’t a “bargain” (sometimes I take things too literally). I walked into the Hotel Victoria and asked how much a single would set me back. The answer? A whopping $12. Sold. Although it was stark, I loved it. There was a large, comfortable bed, lots of light, an armoire, ceiling fan and spotless bathroom. It had the moody, tropical feel of a Graham Greene novel. I quickly retrieved my soggy belongings from the whorehouse other hotel and checked in.

The rest of the two-story Hotel Victoria is even more impressive, if you like vintage properties (it was built in the 1950s, and is still owned by the same family). The pretty, terra-cotta-tiled courtyard is festooned with potted ferns and slender, leafy trees; there’s a cozy sitting area next to reception where I could read and play with the resident cat; the staff are incredibly sweet, and the large, airy dining room became my makeshift office for the next couple of days. In a black-and-white tiled alcove, I set up camp with my computer, at a table located in front of a set of French doors (below). Every so often, some of Concepción’s resident horses, donkeys or mules would cruise by (these animals roam the streets; given the number of carts in use in town, I assume they had owners, although god knows how they keep track of them).
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Since I had to make some immediate changes to my itinerary, that was my first order of business. And was I ever fortunate that I’d made the decision to bail on the riverboat. As is wont to happen in Paraguay, the road from VallemÍ to Concepción washed out, and was closed for at least several days. I would have been stranded, which would have been disastrous because I had a critical assignment elsewhere in a few days time.

With my plans settled, I now had two days to enjoy Concepción. The town is located within the department of the same name (the country is divided into these administrative districts), in central Paraguay. The region is prosperous from cattle-ranching, and the great swath I traveled, from Asunción north to Concepción and back, was flat, green, and decidedly tropical. The region extends north to Vallemí.

Concepción was founded in 1773, “to protect territories to the south from attacks by indigenous tribes and the neighboring Portuguese [‘Other Places Travel Guide Paraguay,’ Romy Natalia Goldberg]”. It became a key shipping hub at the beginning of the 19th century, and began to see an influx of European and Arabic immigrants over the next 100 years, which have considerably influenced the cultural aspects of the town (I was wondering what was up with the schwarma eateries and coffee houses).
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Concepción certainly didn’t fit my mental image of a grotty, gritty, sketchy river port. It’s true that it’s on the banks of the Rio Paraguay, but it’s a tidy, safe, engaging town, full of stunning, colonial-style buildings. Some of these are fully restored, while others are in advanced stages of decrepitude, which in itself is beautiful. The aforementioned equines wander the streets, like so many dogs.

The mercado, located across the busy main drag of Av. Fernando de Pinedo, is classic rural South America. Lining the dirt streets are fruit vendors and butchers, and stalls selling everything from yerba mate to mosquito nets. In between are little eateries and food stalls preparing Paraguayan favorites like caldo de pescado, croqueteas and empanadas. The locals are warm, and I felt right at home, despite being, from what I could tell, the token gringo/a in town. I spent my days wandering, observing uniformed schoolchildren, vendors and dockworkers. I visited the historic Museo Municipal del Cuartel de la Villa Real (located in a former command post, it contains relics from the region’s Triple Alliance War of the late 19th century). I ate at a wonderful Brazilian place, Restaurant Toninho j Jandira, where the waiter chatted with me in Spanish (you will find few rural Paraguayans who speak English) about life in Concepción, and I was served more food than I could possibly have eaten in a week.
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There are really only two reasons to make the considerable trek to Concepción, and both are valid if you’re intrepid enough to visit Paraguay. The riverboats, once so crucial to the lifeblood of this isolated country, are slowly being phased out as roads replace them. During my visit, I discovered that the other riverboat, Cacique II, had stopped taking passengers, although it’s possible you may be able to talk one of the dedicated cargo boats into letting you hitch a ride. This isn’t advised for solo female travelers, however, although Paraguay itself is quite safe for Latin America.

Concepción is also just a fascinating, and relaxing, place to while away a few days. It’s rich in history and Paraguayan culture (which embraces the indigenous Guarani people and language, siestas, sipping tereré, eating, socializing, ranching, and family). It exemplifies in many regards a vanishing way of life. It’s understated and sweet, and the air is pungent with the scent of flowering trees, ripe fruit and rich, red mud. I’ve never been so grateful to have my travel plans fall through.

[Photo credits: Laurel Miller]

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.
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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]

The Meaning Of Mate In Argentina

mateWhile upon first glance many people believe the locals in Argentina are drinking tea, but the concoction is actually a blend of herbs. Mate, an infusion prepared with yerba mate leaves called “Ílex paraguariensis,” contains caffeine, herbs and proteins as well as hot water. It has been drunk since Pre-Colombian times by the Guaraníes, a local group in South America. Argentina is the world’s number one producer of yerba mate, making this a great cultural experience to have while traveling in the country.

During my visit to Argentina, I saw people everywhere carrying thermoses of hot water and mates, metal cup-like things with bombillas, which are the long metal straws poking out. In every shop and market you will also be able to find ornate mates for purchase. Luckily, I got to try mine with a local friend and learn more about what mate means to locals in Argentina.

“It’s merely an infusion, but it has a huge meaning of sharing,” explained my local friend Javier Viñuela, whose mother had prepared some mate for a group of us in her home. “As it usually happens with food, drinking mate is a way or excuse to share with friends and family.”mateHow it works is like this: the person who “ceba el mate,” or prepares it, is the first one to take a taste. After that, this person begins passing the mate to those next to him or her, who give it back to that main person to prepare again for those next in the circle. When you say “thanks” after sipping, it means you don’t want to drink anymore. For this reason, it’s important not to thank everyone each time you take a sip, but only once you’ve had enough.

Mate can either be taken bitter or sweet. For first-timers, I would recommend adding some sugar or honey, as the herbs can be quite pungent if you’re not used to it. Moreover, being one of the last to sip it can also help to take out some of the bitterness, as by then the hot water has taken away some of the flavor’s intensity.

During my first time trying it, I added sugar to help ease the bitterness. While the first few tastes were hard to swallow, once you get used to it the flavor is actually quite nice. Aside from sharing, there are other reasons people enjoy drinking mate. For one, many locals in Argentina find the drink delicious. Additionally, it’s a cheap way of “having a drink” for a long period of time with friends. And for those on a diet or having digestion issues, mate is said to be a diuretic. For the best mate, I’ve heard from many locals that Rosamonte (pictured above) is the best brand.

Gadlinks for Monday 9.28.09


Happy Monday! There’s a whole slew of great travel reads to jump start your week, so let’s get going!

  • Heading to the Dominican Republic? Here are a few things you can do that don’t involve the beach. [via CNN Travel]
  • Are you interested in heading somewhere that will lift your spirits? Check out these happy places. [via Brave New Traveler]
  • Summer may be coming to an end, but that doesn’t mean you can’t be outside. These rooftop bars hit the sweet spot all year ’round. [via Sherman’s Travel]
  • If you’ve traveled to Argentina or other parts of South America you’ve likely discovered mate, an amazingly potent tea. This article gives you the historical points of how mate came to be and provide tips on how to best enjoy it. [via BootsNAll]
  • I just returned from a long trip and, fortunately, I haven’t yet experience the post-travel blues. But if you are sad that your travels have come to an end, these creative tips might help! [via Tripbase]

‘Til Monday, have a great weekend!

More Gadlinks HERE.