Why Ditching Preconceived Notions Can Make For Better Travel

Bora Bora beach
Michael Stout, Flickr

Raise your hand if you’ve ever had heightened expectations or an ill-informed idea of a destination prior to a trip.

Me too. Many things influence our preconceived ideas about a place: daydreams, prejudice (I’m using this word in its traditional sense), and prior experience, as well as literature, the media, television and film. Example: Most of us entertain certain romantic notions when planning a trip to Hawaii or Paris.

Stereotypes exist for a reason, of course. But with every trip, I’m reminded of why preconceived notions are best left at home (unlike your passport). Besides avoiding the inevitable disappointment if your holiday is more “The Hangover” than “The Notebook,” there are other good reasons to approach an upcoming trip – be it business or pleasure – with an open mind. Read on for ways to recalibrate your expectations, and ensure a richer, more rewarding travel experience.

salar de uyuni rainy season
Juan Gatica, Flickr

Lower the bar
When you set unrealistic standards – whether for a hotel room, honeymoon, tourist attraction or country – you may be robbing yourself of fully enjoying the experience. If you’re convinced you’re going to meet your soul mate by parking it at the bar of a tropical resort, you may be bummed out with the outcome. Likewise, don’t assume your business trip to Delhi is going to leave you despairing at all the suffering in the world. Often, the best moments in travel come when we’re not trying too hard.

On a recent trip to Bolivia, I did a four-day tour of the Southwestern Circuit, from the craggy spires of Tupiza to the blinding expanse of the Salar de Uyuni (the world’s largest salt flat). Our small group really clicked, and for three days, it was non-stop laughs. On our final day, when we arrived at the salt flats at sunrise, a young woman in our group was devastated that the weather was dry. She’d spent years dreaming about visiting during the wet season, when mirror-like pools stretch seemingly into infinity.

Never mind that rainy weather means key sections of Uyuni are inaccessible (including the stunning Isla del Pescado, a cacti-covered “island” in the midst of the flats), and that we’d lucked out by missing the last of the season’s storms. This poor girl was inconsolable, and later confided that her trip was ruined. I felt for her, but her dashed dream served as a strong reminder to dial down the expectations. She was so distracted by what wasn’t there that she missed how absolutely captivating the salt flats are when dry.

bungee jump
Peter Bekesi, Flickr

Push past your comfort zone.
While you should always keep your wits about you and listen to your intuition whether you’re traveling or at home, there’s a difference between trying something new, and being foolhardy. On that same trip to Bolivia, I was presented with an on-the-fly opportunity to try rap-jumping - from a 17-story building.

I’m not afraid of heights, but the idea of climbing out the window of La Paz’s tallest hotel and rappelling face-down to the busy streets below had me shaking. But I trusted the company and equipment (full disclosure: I’d already done prior research, and spent time with their guides). Accidents can still happen but I felt I was in good hands. I had a blast.

Be receptive to changes
As a control freak, it can be hard for me to admit defeat in the face of time constraints or other issues that affect my travel itinerary. For the most part, I’ve learned to roll with it. If not for the monsoonal deluge on the day I planned to take a cargo boat on a three-day trip up the Rio Paraguay, I wouldn’t have ended up at a dreamy agriturismo in the nearby countryside.

plane tickets and passport
mroach, Flickr

Reduce anxiety
On a recent business trip to El Paso (which required me to visit several factories near the border), I was pleasantly surprised by everything. Although my hotel was just 10 blocks from the aforementioned border and adjacent to the rail yards, the neighborhood was perfectly safe and I enjoyed several evening strolls around the nearby arts district. I also learned that El Paso is ranked the nation’s safest city of its size. I could have saved myself considerable angst if I hadn’t let media hype about Ciudad Juarez seep into my imagination.

I had a similar experience years ago in Naples. I’d always longed to visit the city but was put off by fearmongering fellow travelers and (ahem) guidebook writers. I was positive I was going to get shanked while in pursuit of the perfect pizza, but my desire to see Naples trumped my fear. As it turns out, I felt very safe as a tourist, even at night in the notorious Forcella (not as dodgy as it used to be, and the home of some of the city’s best pizza, which I’d take a shiv for, any day).

Obviously, my fleeting impressions of these two cities could easily be debunked, but the point is that I let a lot of rampant paranoia do my pre-trip research for me. If you go looking for trouble, you’re sure to find it. But I also believe in the travel adage that you’re just as likely to get hit by a truck while crossing the street at home. In other words, be smart and be safe, but don’t let fear stop you in your tracks. There’s a whole world out there waiting for you.

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.
concepcion
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.
concepcion
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).
concepcion
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).
concepcion
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.
concepcion
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]

International Budget Guide 2013: Asuncion, Paraguay

Asuncion
Why is 2013 the year to get to Asunción, Paraguay’s, lovely, riverfront capital? Because this landlocked tropical nation sandwiched between Boliva, Brazil and Argentina is modernizing at warp speed. Tourism is still a rarity (expect curious looks, especially if you venture into the countryside – and you most definitely should), but the city offers enough inexpensive, low-key pleasures to make spending a few days more than worthwhile.

While not as cheap as, say, La Paz, Asunción is still ridiculously affordable, especially if you’re not looking for luxury accommodations (lodging and cabs are pricey, compared to everything else). Spend your days in the laid-back downtown, or centro, visiting the shops, market stalls and restaurants; stroll La Costanera, the two-mile riverfront walkway in the centro; take a small boat to the nearby island of Chaco’i to check out the bird life; hit the town (Asuncion has quite the nightlife, because that’s when things finally “cool off”); or just do as Asuncenos do: kick back in the Plaza with a refreshing tereré (cold mate tea, often spiked with fresh medicinal herbs called yuyos) and watch the world go by (empanada in hand).

Although Paraguay is reputed to be South America‘s second poorest country, Asunción’s centro has the feel of prosperity. The country is rich in cattle ranching, soy exports and other agricultural food crops and is the continent’s only officially bilingual nation, thanks to the prevalent indigenous Guarani culture. (In most places, including Asuncion, Spanish is the dominant language over Guarani; you won’t, however, find English widely spoken, so bring your phrasebook.) Paraguayans are also legendarily hospitable, so don’t be surprised if you find yourself getting invitations to dinner or making friends at the drop of a hat.

Asunción calls to mind a smaller, saner, safer Rio de Janeiro, except that it’s located on the Rio Paraguay, instead of the Atlantic. Multi-colored, colonial and gothic-style buildings from the 19th and early 20th centuries (both beautifully restored and in varying stages of glorious decay) make up the majority of the centro – although modern, upscale shopping malls and hotels are popping up, as well.Asuncion
It’s a city of flowering trees (lapacho, palo borrachos, jacaranda, chivatos…) and gardens. There are street vendors, markets and stalls of handicrafts, as well as parks, plazas and historical buildings and other cultural sights, mostly around the centro. Many of the outer neighborhoods, such as the area by the main bus terminal (Terminal de Omnibus, 30 minutes from the centro) are more what you’d expect from a major South American city: buses belching exhaust, ramshackle street stalls hawking everything from T-shirts and newspapers to termos, guampas and bombillas (equipment for drinking Paraguay’s ubiquitous yerba mate, and its cousin tereré) and generic restaurants and shops.

Don’t forget you’ll need a tourist visa if you’re visiting from North America; details are provided in the Getting Around section. For the purposes of this guide, all accommodations and dining, as well as most of the shopping activities, are limited to the centro, for the sake of both convenience and interest.

Budget Activities

Asuncion

Shop the mercados
Paraguay is renowned for its exquisite handicrafts (artesanias), and at the current market prices, you’ll most definitely want to bring a spare duffel (or purchase a hand-woven cotton bag) to tote home the goods. Delicate, web-like nanduti lace and finely woven ao po’i lace inset with encaje ju (a different form of lace often used as trimming) are turned into everything from tablecloths to clothing ($7 will get you a pretty table runner). Paraguayan cotton is also turned into beautiful, hand-woven hammocks, rugs and blankets.

There are hand-tooled leather belts, bracelets and purses, and leather-lined termos and guampas; all are high quality and super-affordable (just $1.25 for a cute little change purse). Silver filigree jewelry is another great souvenir, as are indigenous crafts from the local Maka Indians, such as woven bracelets and purses. The best place to find these goods is at the Plaza de la Libertad artesanias stands (closed Sunday), as well as the stalls along the main business drag of Calle Palma around the corner. Do note that siesta is from noon to 3, and most businesses shut down during those hours; the aretsanias stalls are about the only thing that stay open, besides department stores and some restaurants.

You’ll also find some permanent artesanias stores in the historic La Recova region, about five minutes of a walk away, across the street from the Port. The prices may be a bit higher, but the quality can also be better, especially for lace goods. If you’re looking for historical Paraguayan artifacts, don’t miss the Sunday antiques market, held in front of the Nueva America (“na”) department store on Calle Palma and Independencia National. It runs from around 8 a.m. until mid-afternoon, and while prices aren’t exactly budget, you’ll still find deals on everything from antique, silver-plated horse bridles and rusty, vintage license plates to swords and other military artifacts from the Chaco War.

For food (mainly produce, cheese and fresh and cured meats, but also some street food) and cheap clothes, electronics and other goods, the warren-like Mercado Cuatro is a must. It’s a half-hour walk from the Plaza de los Heroes, which, along with Plaza de la Libertad across the street, is the social heart of the centro. Go early, as the mercado gets hellaciously hot and crowded, and bring a camera (always ask before snapping photos of vendors or other people, por favor). The good stuff is in the permanent stalls in the heart of the market: there’s cheese, butter, lard, all different shapes of fideos (noodles), herbs and mate. Food lovers will also want to check out Agroshopping, which is held Tuedsays in the Shopping Mariscal López parking lot in the Villa Mora neighborhood, just outside of the centro. Here, you’ll find all the many types of produce grown in Paraguay (including organic and tropical fruit crops, in season), as well as prepared foods, cured meat, baked goods and fresh fruit juices.

Your best friend while planning your trip and traveling in Paraguay will be local author Romy Natalia Goldberg’s “Other Places Travel Guide: Paraguay” (2012). Her website is equally helpful for hours and locations on the above, or anything else you might want to know about the country, or Asunción, from where to get the best chipas, to the etiquette of joining a tereré or mate circle. discoveringparaguay

Visit Museo del Barro
Paraguay’s finest museum is absolutely worth the cab or bus ride (it’s about 10-15 minutes from the centro by taxi; about $6). The contemporary building is in a largely residential area, and houses a remarkable collection of folk art and indigenous handcrafts, ceremonial costumes and ceramics from across Latin America, as well as excellent contemporary Paraguayan art. There’s also a museum shop where you can purchase reproductions of ceramic figurines and other works. Note that most of the museums in Asunción are free or charge a symbolic entrance fee (approximately 10,000 Guaranis or $2.50). The Museo del Barro is $2, although it’s free on certain days (the website has details). Closed Sunday; hours vary so check the website. Grabadores del Cabichuí 2716 e/ Emeterio Miranda y Cañada, museodelbarro.org

Other museums worth checking out for a dose of Paraguayan history or culture include the Museo de la Memoria, located in the centro and dedicated to those who suffered under the Stroessner dictatorship in the latter part of the 20th century; it’s also a human rights center. The Museo Etnográfica Andres Barbero also has an outstanding collection of Paraguayan indigenous artifacts.
Asuncion
Walking, tereré sipping and snacking
Most of Asunción comes to a screeching halt on Sundays; the streets of the centro are nearly deserted. While a handful of restaurants, bars and shops remain open, you should leave the day open for walking tours because Asunción was made for sipping, strolling and snacking.

Take a cab or bus to the Jardin Botánico, which has over 165 acres of parkland and gardens. There’s a small (admittedly, not great) zoo, two museums and over 300 plant species, more than half of which are indigenous. It’s a great place to get a taste of Asunceno life. Join in a soccer game or tereré circle or enjoy lolling on the grass. Don’t forget a hat!

Other great places for walking are the majestic Cementerio de la Recoleta, and the newly designated (as of April 1, 2013) tourist destination of Barrio San Jerónimo. This tiny, historically relevant 19th-century neighborhood is located at the edge of the centro, just north of the Costanera. It’s part of the state tourism agency’s plan to create a destination neighborhood similar to La Boca in Buenos Aires, or Valparaiso’s Cerro Algre. The vibe is bohemian, and brightly painted, flower-bedecked houses (most of which have belonged to the same families for generations) and narrow, cobbled alleyways (where residents hid during the Chaco War) make for intriguing exploration. Right now, it’s still strictly residential, but the plan is to build restaurants, cafes and bars, and more of a cultural arts scene. Even without the retail aspect, it’s one of the most alluring spots in a city full of them. For directions, go to facebook.com/lomasanjeronimo or email lomasanjeronimo@gmail.com. The main street through the barrio is Calle Piraveve.

Hotels

Black Cat Hostel: Paraguay’s first hostel opened in late 2009, and while a handful of others have come and (mostly) gone, the Cat remains one of Asunción’s most popular accommodations for adventurers of all ages. This is due partly to the owners – Paraguayan mother-daughter team Lilia Valdez and Violeta Colman. You’ll go far to find two more genuine, kind, helpful people, and their love of Paraguay is apparent. The rest of the staff are equally wonderful and the hostel will happily provide domestic travel info and assist you with ongoing arrangements, because they understand what a challenge it can be.

The other reasons the Cat rocks? Its location, literally minutes from everything you might want to do in the centro, as well as the property itself. A former, 100-year-old private home, the hostel has large, high-ceiling dorm and private rooms with fans (AC costs extra). There’s a rooftop patio surrounded by lush greenery and historic buildings, a tiny pool, kitschy painted walls and a relaxed vibe. Bathrooms are shared, but kept spotless, as is the rest of the hostel, and breakfast, coffee and bottled water are included. If you’re not a cat person, be forewarned: resident cat Mathias rules the roost. From $11/dorm, $27/single. Eligio Ayala 129, blackcathostel.com
Asuncion
Hotel Palmas del Sol: If you feel like springing for something other than a hostel or dreary budget room, this modern, white, immaculate little hotel on the edge of the centro near the river will set you back $55 for a private double with bath. Rooms are small but cheerful and relatively bright with no frills. Breakfast is included and there’s also a swimming pool. Bonus: it’s on a quiet side street, yet within walking distance to everything. Avenida Espana 202, tripadvisor.com/Hotel_Review-g294080-d543605-Reviews-Hotel_Palmas_Del_Sol-Asuncion.html

Hotel La Espanola: This brick hotel has a grittier, urban feel due to the busy street it’s on, but it’s just a five-minutes walk from the Plaza(s). There’s a front garden with an amusingly phallic fountain statue, but once you get inside, the airy lobby and soothing, pistachio-colored walls of the dining room seem a world away from the heat and humidity. Rooms are small and a bit dark, and consist of little more than a bed, but are clean and comfortable. Breakfast and Wi-Fi included. From $24/single with bath and AC. Luis Alberto de Herrera N° 142, hotellaespanola.com.py

Eating & Drinking

Lido Bar: Asunción’s most beloved spot for Paraguayan cheap eats is essentially a diner with a snaking, horseshoe-counter (there’s patio seating as well, should you not wish to take advantage of the arctic chill of combined AC and ceiling fans). Old school waitresses bustle about, preparing fresh juice and slinging plates of plump, addictive empanadas and excellent chipa guazu (a cheesy, soufflé-like cornbread). The caldo de pescado (Paraguay’s famous fish soup) is reputedly the best in the city but whatever you order, it’s going to be good-and inexpensive. It’s also open late and on Sundays. Empanadas nearly the size of a softball are just $2.50. The corner of Calles Palma y Chile, facebook.com/pages/Lido-Bar/136901396379100

El Bolsi: While Bolsi could be considered Lido Bar’s competition when it comes to Paraguayan food, it’s closer to a North American coffee shop. The affordable, extensive menu also includes items like sandwiches, burgers, pasta and salads, but the real draw here are the fresh juices made to order (passion fruit? mango?) and desserts. You haven’t lived until you’ve had their dulce de leche mousse or tres leches cake. Open 24 hours; patio seating also available. Estrella 399, facebook.com/elbolsi

Street food: Asunción’s street vendors offer some of the best tastes of Paraguay. Whether they’re hawking fruit, mate cocido (hot, sweetened tea made with milk), chipas (baked corn flour-and-cheese biscuits – you’ll see vendors carrying baskets on their heads, calling out “Chiiiiiipas!”), empanadas, or any number of grilled meaty treats – lomito (steak), sandwiches, costillas (ribs), lomito arabe (schwarma) and even hot dogs. Delicious and so cheap, you can go out for a beer, afterwards. The Brittania Pub or 904 Bar (located kitty-corner from one another on Cerro Corá, in the centro) are fun spots that draw locals and tourists.
Asuncion

Getting Around

One advantage of having a country without almost no tourism infrastructure: Asuncion’s small, modern Silvio Petirossi International Airport is a breeze as far as arrivals and departures go. Just be sure you have your visa ready, or be prepared to purchase one at Immigration upon arrival for $160 in U.S. dollars. (Very important: make sure those bills are crisp, clean and without any visible flaws, including creases.) Buses are quite pleasant for a developing nation and the main form of transit for Asuncenos. They cost next to nothing (say, a dollar, if that). If you’re on a time constraint, however, cabs are everywhere, and you’re unlikely to need one if you stay in the centro. A trip to the Museo del Barro, by way of example, will run you about $12-$14 round trip. You can also change money or use the ATM outside of the sterile zone of the airport.

Allow roughly 20 minutes during regular hours for the cab ride to/from the airport; it will run you approximately 100 Guaranis ($24). You won’t have any trouble scoring a metered taxi in front of arrivals, or you can take the bus for $5. Look for the Linea 30 (Aeropuerto), which makes hourly stops from 5 a.m. to 9 p.m. and will drop you either mid-way between the airport and downtown, (near the Sheraton Hotel/Shopping del Sol center) or about 10 minutes away in the centro proper, along the main drag of Presidente Franco to Calle Colon (which will put you within walking distance of all downtown lodging, if you’re backpacking; you don’t want to lug suitcases over cracked and potholed sidewalks, even if they are surprisingly clean).
Asuncion

Safety

Paraguay is relatively politically stable; most rabble-rousing is internal, and comes in the forms of demonstrations. As far as large South American cities go, Asunción may well be the safest. This isn’t to say that you can throw caution to the wind, but, especially in the centro, it’s remarkable how relaxing it is to be a tourist. Compared to Lima or Rio, it’s safe to walk the streets during the day, or while returning from dinner or a club, even if you’re a solo female (depending upon your location, obviously). That said, this is still a machismo culture, and women need to remain aware at night, and in dodgy neighborhoods. Petty crime is the most common problem, so just use good judgment, and keep hotel doors locked and valuables out of sight (and locked up, as well), and don’t flaunt wads of cash or expensive jewelry. You’ll find Asunción is no more threatening – and, if anything, safer – than many major cities in the United States.

Don’t be concerned about the uniformed armed guards (both police and private security) that you’ll see around Asunción or elsewhere in the country, and do note that uniforms are required, unlike in some developing nations (it’s far more unnerving seeing apparent civilians with machine guns). While it’s difficult for Norte Americanos to feel casual about semi-automatics on busy city streets, the guards are a common sight in front of banks, change houses and upscale shopping malls. They’re there as a deterrent (as previously mentioned, much of Paraguay’s economic prosperity comes from cattle ranching and soy exports). Also, due to economic disparities, there’s a need to protect establishments (and patrons) where large amounts of cash are present, just like in the States. Tranquilo pa, you’ll find the guards are actually very friendly.
Asuncion

Seasonality

Being a tropical nation, Paraguay has a “warm” climate year-round. Fall and winter (theirs, not ours, so April-October) is the best time to visit, because things cool down a bit, although you’ll still have to contend with monsoonal rains if you’re venturing beyond Asunción, and this can mean flooding and road closures – often for days at a time. Asunción itself doesn’t get a lot of rain, and the evenings can even get a slight chill, so bring a light sweater and pants or leggings.

November through March is only for masochists, or those who enjoy vacationing in a sauna. Air-conditioning is widespread throughout the city in malls, theaters and museums but if you’re on a budget, don’t assume your accommodation (or restaurants, bars or taxis, for that matter) will have AC. Usually, it costs a bit more for a room with an air-conditioning unit, but bear in mind that this is a city made for walking, so if you tend to get wilty in any kind of heat or humidity, visit another time.

[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.
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]