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]

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]

New BBC America cooking show combines travel and adventure

It was only a matter of time before all the eating of rats and scorpions on “Survivor” grew tiresome. Perhaps that’s why producer Kevin Greene and “Chopped” producer Chachi Senior created a new cooking series for BBC America that combines exotic locales with dodgy outdoor adventures. There’s just one little catch: there’s no kitchen.

No Kitchen Required” takes 2008 Food & Wine “Best New Chef” Michael Psilakis of New York’s FISHTAG and Kefi, private executive chef Kayne Raymond (aka the resident beefcake), and former “Chopped” champ Madison Cowan, and drops them into ten remote locations to perform some serious hunting and gathering.

After being plunked down in Dominica; Belize; New Zealand; Fiji; Thailand; Hawaii; New Mexico; Louisiana, and Florida, each chef is handed a knife (“Pack your knives and go,” is not a sentence you’ll hear uttered on this series) and a few key ingredients. They’re then left to fish, hunt, forage, and otherwise scrounge up the remaining ingredients to “create a locally-inspired meal that will be judged by the community.”

Despite the gimmicky and somewhat contrived nature of the challenges, there’s a lot to love about this show. It’s fun, innovative, and despite my raging addiction to “Top Chef,” I’m happy to see a cooking show that finally requires the use of local/seasonal ingredients (let’s hope there’s no blow-darting of endangered monkeys or serving of shark fin). Weaving the regional and cultural element into the concept is genius. Braised nutria, anyone?

The series premieres April 3rd.

[Photo credit: © Gilles Mingasson for BBC AMERICA]

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]

Start exercising while you’re on vacation

Walking or cycling are the best cardio exercises while you are on vacation. That’s the first exercise tip on this video I came across while I was looking for the video on the Push-up Bandit in Santa Monica. The recommendation is to put your car keys away. As the narrator states, bicycling and walking on vacation offer a close-up experience of your surroundings. Considering that this is the time of year where packing on pounds can come easily, this video has a certain timeliness quality.

Despite the tropic theme, as noted by the palm trees and sand, and the incredibly built hard-body of the narrator that sort of distracted me at first, the exercises are doable if one has the notion to exercise while on the road. As the guy who makes these videos points out, you don’t need a gym to stay fit. He also give effective explanations on how to achieve success even if you are a beginner. Perhaps I was distracted by the biceps because in Columbus, one doesn’t see such a scene all that often, if ever.