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.
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.
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.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org. The main street through the barrio is Calle Piraveve.
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
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.
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).
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.
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]