This little-visited steamy landlocked country is a quirky country to add to your passport stamps. Nestled between Bolivia, Argentina and Brazil, but feeling more like an island, Paraguayans often remark that they feel isolated, far from the rest of the world.
With no direct flights, a serious financial commitment on the ticket prices, usually two changes along the way and very little on Trip Advisor in the way of temptation, you won’t find many foreign visitors here!
But if you are passing by is definitely worth a side trip into this quirky forgotten corner of South America, one of the few countries in the world where the original Indian language of Guarani (pronounced Waranny) enjoys the same status as Spanish.
Tourism is in its infancy in Paraguay and knowing what’s worth seeing and what’s not is tricky so here are our top 10 do’s and don’ts!
1. Gran Hotel del Paraguay – Yes
Asuncion is your starting point if flying in. If you can only afford one night of luxury, stay a night at the Gran Hotel del Paraguay, the one-time residence of the Irish courtesan Madame Elisa Lynch. Enjoy wall to ceiling frescos in the ballroom whilst eating your cornflakes in the morning. Elisa was an ambitious woman who seduced the country’s dictator, and there’s still discussion about whether she was a manipulative side-kick or the victim of propaganda.
2. Asuncion’s Coast – No
Yes apparently this landlocked country has a coast. Twenty-five years in the planning, the Costanera Asuncena has arrived. You need to be a long-time city dweller to appreciate this long concrete walkway and imported sand next to polluted waters. For families to promenade along and young people to meet it’s a pleasant enough place, but it’s no beach resort. With a touch more development and a clean place to swim though, this could be an attraction for the future.
3. Steam Train Museum – Yes
A time capsule of colonial days in Asuncion, only £1.50 entrance, it’s a great respite from the heat. Although not a modern visitor-friendly museum it’s worth a visit. Lacking labels and signposts, with artefacts strewn around, there is a spooky sense everything is where it was left on its last day. You can see everything in half an hour but take your time, sit in the carriages and imagine another time.
4. Bolsi and the British Pub – Yes
Well-known cultural spot Bolsi is the go-to place for any Asuncena. In a protected historical building in the city centre, Bolsi has been serving Paraguayan and international cuisine since it opened in 1960. For a local flavour possibly from indigenous times, try surubi fish soup.
Paraguayans studying English flock to Britannia Pub hoping to make acquaintances with the few English-speaking visitors who pass through the city. Informal with Union Jack flags on every available wall space, there’s a great mix of people and you’re likely to mingle equally with US Peace Corp volunteers, international business travellers, local students, English teachers and anyone else big on British culture. Lasting friendships are made here.
5. Ypacarai Lake – No
In 2013, Ypacarai Lake turned green after pollution caused the growth of toxic algae. Even now the lake is polluted, and visitors say the area around is unkempt. With swimming unadvisable, you could hire a boat, but there isn’t much to see.
6. Aregua – Yes
Linea/number 11 bus from Asuncion whisks you to Aregua, a sleepy town near Ypacarai. Its colonial buildings lend to the quaint feel, with crafts like ceramics and pottery to be found in artisan shops all over. Cafes come and go in this tiny village but there’s usually someone trying to run an international one for the day tripping families from Asuncion, ask at the artisan stalls.
7. Zoo – No
Although the botanical gardens are agreeable for an afternoon stroll, the zoo is an unsettling sight for foreign visitors. A far cry from the maintained habitats of European zoos, the zoo in Asuncion has animals fenced into small enclosures where they pace out of boredom and distress.
8. Encarnacion – Yes
For a relaxed city experience with its own massively popular beach, Encarnacion is a great stop. Located in the south of Paraguay, it’s a popular shopping spot for Argentine visitors. In January and February, carnival attracts 100,000 visitors, with colourful floats, costumes and dances.
9. Jesuit Ruins – Yes
The Jesuit ruins near Encarnacion are one of the least visited UNESCO sites in the world. The biggest, at Trinidad, is fairly easy to get to by bus, and you’ll probably have the entire space to yourself! The 17th Century Jesuits were missionaries, but they also taught the native people about literacy, music, society and laws, which is said to have improved their lives.
10. Caacupe – Yes
Catch a bus to Caacupe from Asuncion to reach this historical city high on a hill. Every year on 8th December, this city of 42,000 hosts over a million pilgrims who travel on foot then sleep in the streets for a place by the Cathedral. The Cathedral is home of a statuette of the Virgin of Caacupe, associated with several miracles, and 8th December is the Virgin’s festival. At any other time of year, the Cathedral and 18th century buildings are still worth visiting. If it’s not too hot to walk, take a 30-minute stroll to viewpoint Cerro Christo Rey east of town and for a morning side trip take a bus to the sleepy riverside village of Pirebebuy.
Caroline works at Original Volunteers (https://www.originalvolunteers.co.uk), a low cost volunteer organisation and lived in Paraguay on and off for 5 years.