An Interview With Romy Natalia Goldberg, Author Of ‘Other Places Travel Guide, Paraguay’

Courtesy of Romy Natalia Goldberg

Since April, I’ve been writing about my adventures in Paraguay. Gadling sent me there for the exact reason most of you are reading this post: because few people, especially Norte Americanos, know anything about this mysterious country. The lack of guidebooks doesn’t do much to dispel the myth that Paraguay is a place not worth visiting or knowing about.

As it turned out, that line of thinking couldn’t be more flawed. Paraguay is one of the loveliest countries I’ve ever visited, both for it’s scenic beauty (think virgin rainforest; tropical farmland; dusty red roads; colonial (and colonial- and Baroque-style) architecture; Jesuit missions; a vibrant ranching culture; sleepy villages; the cosmopolitan capitol of Asunción), and the generosity of its people.

My companion in Paraguay – discovered online just days before I left – was the very excellent guidebook, “Other Places Travel Guide, Paraguay,” by Romy Natalia Goldberg, which came out in late 2012. This book saved my butt innumerable times, because Paraguay is a challenging country for visitors due to its lack of tourism infrastructure and remoteness.

In reading her book, which has plenty of historical and cultural background, I learned that Goldberg is the daughter of a Paraguayan mother and a North American father. She lives in Paraguay with her husband and two daughters, and maintains a travel blog, Discovering Paraguay.

Because it was Goldberg’s book that in part helped me to understand and fall in love with Paraguay, I wanted to share her insights with Gadling readers. Read on for her take on the country’s fledgling tourism industry, intriguing cuisine, and why you should visit … stat.

You currently live in Paraguay. Did you live there as a child?

My father worked for the U.S. Foreign Service, so I lived in several Latin American countries growing up, but never in Paraguay. I visited my family here frequently, however. I’ve been here for the past five years. At first I lived in Asunción, the capital city. About three years ago I moved to Piribebuy, my mother’s hometown. It’s the closest thing I ever had to a hometown growing up. Writing the guidebook was a great opportunity to get to know Paraguay on a deeper level.

Have you always been a writer or was your book inspired by your love of the country?

The idea to write a guidebook arose while I was planning a trip to Paraguay with my husband. There was so little information available at the time. No Lonely Planet [LP now has a bare bones section on Paraguay in its South America On A Shoestring, and a forthcoming dedicated guidebook] no travel blogs, nothing. I felt the need to create something that accurately depicted the country I knew and loved. Before this I had never even considered writing.

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jmalfarock, Flickr

Well, you did a great job – your book was indispensable to me while I was there. I fell in love with the country for myriad reasons, which I’ve been chronicling on Gadling. What makes Paraguay so special to you?

To me the most fascinating thing about Paraguay is the strong presence of indigenous Guaraní culture in everyday life. The most visible example of this is the Guaraní language, which is widely spoken throughout all levels of Paraguayan society. You don’t have to go to a museum to learn about Guaraní culture, you can literally experience it just by interacting with regular Paraguayans.

Why do you feel the country isn’t a more popular tourist destination?

Traveling in Paraguay requires advanced planning as well as some legwork once you get here. Understandably, most tourists don’t want to work that hard while on vacation. But I think the biggest problem is that people simply aren’t aware of Paraguay and what it has to offer.

Do you see this changing in the near future? It seems as though the government is really working to promote it.

I do see a change. In fact, it’s not just the government. Now that Internet access is widely available here, it’s easier for the Paraguayan tourism industry to market itself to the outside world. Hopefully, they’ll figure out how to reach the type of tourists that will enjoy traveling in Paraguay.

I would characterize that genre of tourist as those who love adventure and getting off the tourist trail. Would you consider Paraguay a challenging country for tourists?

Being a tourist in Paraguay requires time and flexibility. This isn’t Disneyland. There are few English speakers, it’s hard to schedule an itinerary ahead of time, and travel within Paraguay is often delayed due to bad weather and road conditions. Of course, there are tourists who like a challenge. My goal in writing the guidebook was to help people overcome the challenges and make the most of traveling in Paraguay.

Would you like to see Paraguay become a major tourist destination? Or do you feel it would eventually change the character and culture of the country?

That’s a tough question. I would definitely like to see Paraguay become a better developed tourist destination, but not necessarily a major one. The reality is we’re surrounded by Brazil, Argentina and Bolivia, all of which are much more developed and established travel destinations. I think we’ll always appeal to a smaller subset of tourists.

paraguay tattoo
Laurel Miller, Gadling

Since few people are familiar with Paraguay, what would you tell readers who haven’t spent much time in South America/are leery of the political turmoil and crime often portrayed by the media (not to say things are or are not blown out of proportion)? I found Paraguay to be very safe; do you feel that it’s safer than other countries in South America?

In my experience, Paraguay is one of the safest countries in South America to be a tourist. The usual warnings about using common sense in crowded or touristy areas apply. But there’s no need to be on guard all the time, especially when you’re traveling in the countryside. If someone approaches you, it’s more likely out of curiosity and friendliness than a desire to do harm. As for what’s portrayed in the media, political turmoil and corruption do exist, but, to be honest, are unlikely to affect you as a tourist.

What’s your favorite thing about Paraguay?

The open, friendly attitude most Paraguayans have, even towards total strangers. Paraguayans are always up for a conversation, and they love talking about their country and culture with foreigners. There’s something about it that’s very refreshing, and I often hear from tourists who say these social interactions were the highlight if their visit to Paraguay.

I couldn’t agree with you more. I met so many wonderful people, and I’ve never experienced such cultural pride. It wasn’t boastful; it was sweet and genuine. But I have to ask: what’s your least favorite thing about the country?

It’s very hard to see so much unfulfilled potential. This is a country with a rich culture, friendly, outgoing people and beautiful landscapes. As my aunt likes to say, Paraguay still has a lot on its “to-do” list.

What’s your favorite destination in Paraguay?

I love Yataity del Guairá. It’s a small, peaceful town where people dedicate themselves to making and embroidering fine cotton cloth known as ao po’i. Some women even hand-spin raw cotton into thread and then weave it on a loom. It’s like stepping into a time machine. The New York Times‘ “Frugal Traveler” columnist Seth Kugel recently wrote a really great piece about traveling in that region of Paraguay.

I became obsessed with Paraguayan food, which I learned is a big part of the culture. What can you tell us about that?

chipera
Laurel Miller, Gadling

Here it’s all about comfort food. Hearty stews with noodles or rice, deep-fried treats like empanadas and fritters, and a ton of dishes made with corn flour, mandioca (cassava/yucca) and cheese. Chipa is the most ubiquitous; it’s a cheesy, bagel-shaped cornbread that was considered sacred by the Guaraní.

Why should readers consider a trip to Paraguay now (as opposed to, say, in five years)?

Even compared to a year ago, the tourism industry has gained momentum. There are more hostels, restaurants, and more information available in guidebooks and on travel websites. And American Airlines began a direct flight from Miami in November.

But Paraguay remains firmly off the beaten path, as you said. So people who enjoy under-the-radar destinations should come now. As for the future, a massive number of tourists will travel to Latin America for the 2014 World Cup and the 2016 Olympics. By then, there will hopefully be enough buzz around Paraguay that a significant portion of those tourists will come here as well.

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]