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.

toucan
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.

Paraguay Makes It Easier To Obtain Tourist Visas

paraguayPlanning a trip to Paraguay? Don’t know where Paraguay is? Haven’t heard of it? I feel you; it’s not the most well known destination (psst, it’s in South America). But I’m headed there in a few weeks for Gadling, and until yesterday, the biggest stressor in my life was obtaining my Paraguayan visa.

For the intrepid few who venture to Paraguay, the rewards are many– rich indigenous culture and cuisine; a sub- to tropical climate and virgin rainforest; amazing biodiversity; gorgeous campo (countryside; Paraguay has a strong ranching heritage); generous people; inexpensive everything; exquisite handicrafts; remote national parks; and Jesuit missions. Until last month, however, getting a visa (required for U.S. citizens, among others) was a bitch.

According to the Paraguayan Embassy & Consulates website, in order for me to enter the country, I had to cough up $100 (money order or cash, por favor), and two copies each of a utility bill with my current address, proof of “financial solvency (oh shit) or company letter, and round-trip tickets – this in addition to the usual passport/visa photos/pre-paid, SASE. Paraguay may be the poorest country in South America, but they sure don’t want you setting up shop there.

After several calls to my “local” consulate in Los Angeles, I was told that I could have my visa back within a week. This was all well and good, but my tickets were delayed due to a processing glitch until several days ago, and I leave on March 17. Experienced travelers know better than to expect their passports or visas to arrive in a timely fashion, especially when coming from a Latin American consulate (I’m not trying to be a jerk; it’s simply a cultural difference with regard to the concept of time). By yesterday morning, having returned the previous night from a three-day backcountry ski trip, I was seriously wondering if I was going to make it to Paraguay.

Since the L.A. Consulate had apparently decided to take a long siesta (no one ever picked up the phone, despite my calling them obsessively since late last week), I finally got ahold of someone who spoke fluent English in the New York office. And guess what I found out? You can now get a Paraguayan visa in-country, right at the Asuncion airport, for $160!

Weeks of anxiety melted away. I went to the bank, had them shred my money order, and tucked a crisp Benjamin into my passport holder. Stay tuned for my upcoming adventures in South America’s most under-rated country.

[Photo credit: Flickr user marissa_strinste]

How You Can Help Save Endangered Destinations

Earlier this year, I told you about several destinations you should see before they disappear. Climate change, environmental destruction and a number of other issues were all threatening to ruin these travel sites, and in some cases (such as The Maldives) wipe them right off the map.

A lot of you responded with feelings of sadness and helplessness about the travel treasures we face losing. Some of you weren’t content to sit by and let these endangered destinations die – you wanted to know what you could do to save them. So to help you do just that, I’ve put together a list of resources and organizations where you can get involved and make a difference.

Fight Climate Change

When it comes to problems that are destroying our environment, climate change is a biggie. Two examples I gave you before were the melting snowcaps at Jungfrau, Switzerland, and the rising sea levels in The Maldives, but of course there are countless other victims, including Australia’s Great Barrier Reef, and the flora and fauna in the Amazon rainforest.

One organization that has been tackling the problems caused by climate change is the Environmental Defense Fund. The charity pushes for clean energy policies and legislation that will lower carbon emissions. They also work with big companies to lessen their impact on the environment, and encourage other countries around the world to cap carbon pollution as well. If you want to support the cause, you can become a member of the organization, donate funds, sign petitions, or lobby your senator to take action.

Adopt A Polar Bear

Polar bears are dwindling in number fast as their icy home shrinks more and more every year. These creatures not only play an important role in the marine food chain but also in the culture and economy of people living in the arctic region.

The World Wildlife Fund is one of several groups working to save these animals from extinction. They do things like monitor polar bear populations, protect the animals from bears, and prevent oil and gas drilling in the local habitat. If you want to help save this animal from extinction you can get involved by writing a letter to congress or adopting a polar bear for as little as $25.

Conserve Important Art

When we think about travel sites that are disappearing, we don’t normally think of art. But many significant artworks around the world are in fact crumbling away – Da Vinci’s “Last Supper,” which I mentioned in my prior article, is among the more famous of them. In the Italian city of Venice, thousands of paintings are under threat. The city is home to the highest concentration of historic architecture in the world, but rising waters, sea salt and industrial pollution are pummeling the cultural treasures.

Organizations such as Save Venice have been helping to preserve the city’s landmarks and restore its artwork, and to date, they’ve tackled more than 400 projects. Those looking to get involved can become a member of the non-profit organization, make a donation, or choose a specific restoration project to adopt.

Save The Rainforests

Deforestation has been wiping out the planet’s rainforests at an alarming rate. Last time, I talked about the plight of Madagascar’s rainforest, which has shriveled to less than 20 percent of its original size.

The Wildlife Conservation Society has stepped in to try and stop further destruction of the country’s natural landscape. They’re teaching locals how to grow rice without slashing and burning the forest, creating tree nurseries and promoting ecotourism so locals have ways of earning a living without resorting to things like illegal logging. If you want to contribute, you can become a member of the WCS (which includes free access to a number of New York City’s zoos) or make a donation.

Preserve World Heritage Sites

Of the hundreds of travel sites that have been given World Heritage site status, 38 of them are considered to be in danger. Natural disasters, war and even out of control tourism have all taken a toll and threaten to obliterate these historical sites. If you have cash to contribute, the World Monument Fund is a good place to start. They’ve partnered with local communities and governments in more than 90 countries to save and restore cultural treasures.

However, if you really want to get your hands dirty and do something, then you might consider volunteering at a World Heritage center. There are volunteer projects across the globe, including diving along the Great Barrier Reef to help threatened coral, conserving the Medina of Fez in Morocco, and restoring archaeological sites in Tanzania, to name a few. If you want to take part, you need to apply well in advance and you will have to share some of the travel costs. But the good news is you don’t need any experience to get involved.

[Photo credit: Flickr users Peter Blanchard; Travel Manitoba; cowman345; Frank Vassen; Fighting Irish 1977]

Photo of the Day: giant otter

Flickr user Max Waugh Photography was on a nature excursion in the Peruvian Amazon when he came upon this unique species of giant otter, popping its head above the glassy water surface. I love the photo’s close up details – the animal’s elongated neck, wiry whiskers and curious stare. With great nature shots like this one, it’s particularly important to get as close (as is safe) or zoomed in to your subject as possible.

Have any great travel photos from your recent journeys? Why not add them to our Gadling group on Flickr? We might just pick one of yours as our Photo of the Day.

Adventure vacation Guide 2012: Ecuador

Most Norteamericanos are hard-pressed to locate Ecuador on the map. Those familiar with this South American country the size of Colorado usually associate it with the (admittedly) spectacular Galapagos Islands. Yet Ecuador has so much more offer besides the Galapagos, and 2012 is the year to get your hardcore on. Why? Because the country’s adventure travel industry is blowing up–but it’s still affordable, especially if you opt for independent travel or book certain activities through domestic outfitters or U.S. travel companies that work directly with Ecuadorean guides.

Whatever your recreational interests, budget, or experience, odds are Ecuador has it: mountaineering, glacier climbing, and volcano bagging; trekking on foot or horseback; Class III to VI whitewater kayaking and rafting; sea kayaking, scuba diving, and snorkeling; surfing; remote jungle lodges and endemic wildlife, and agritourism. Need more convincing? Ecuador’s adventure tourism increasingly has an emphasis on sustainability. When it comes to protecting its fragile ecosystem and indigenous communities, Ecuador has become quite progressive for a developing nation, which hasn’t always been the case.

If you like a cultural or culinary component to your travels, there’s that, too. You can opt for an active, educational trip to indigenous-owned and -operated Amazonian eco-lodges, or play in the Pacific regions, which retain a strong Afro-Ecuadorean influence.

Agritourism is also hot in Ecuador, most notably at centuries-old haciendas, although there are also coffee and cacao plantation tours. Ecuadorean food is a diverse melding of indigenous and outside ethnic influences that’s regionally influenced: be sure to patronize markets, roadside restaurants, and street food stalls for some of the most memorable eats.

[flickr image via Rinaldo W]