Paraguay is a landlocked country in South America bordering Argentina, Bolivia, and Brazil. The country is rich in natural resources: the world's largest drinking water reservoir (Guarani Aquifer) is beneath its soil, the biggest hydroelectric producer--The Itaipú Dam--is on its border with Brazil. It's also the world's fifth largest exporter of soya beans, as well as a renowned producer of beef. Despite this, it is South America's second poorest country, and it is very common to see beggars asking for money on Asuncion's corners.
Colonized for 3 centuries by the Spanish, since the 1500s, Paraguay has managed to keep a lot of its indigenous character and identity. Nowadays, the mestizos (Spanish + Amerindian) account for more than 90% of the country's 6 million inhabitants and Guarani is, side by side with Spanish, the country's official language.
In the past, Franciscan and Jesuit missions mingled with the Guaranis' dream of Yvy maraë´y, a land without evil, and produced singular societies. The ruins of the Jesuit Missions of La Santisima Trinidad de Parana and Jesus de Tavarangue, UNESCO World Heritage sites, and several villages throughout the country, are witnesses to that peaceful past.
But Paraguay also has a history of blood and tears. In the disastrous War of the Triple Alliance (1865-70), waged by the allied forces of Argentina, Brazil, and Uruguay, the country lost two-thirds of all adult males and much of its territory. It stagnated economically for the next half century. In the Chaco War of 1932-35, large, economically important areas were won from Bolivia. The 35-year military dictatorship of Alfredo Stroessner was overthrown in 1989, and, despite a marked increase in political infighting in recent years, democratic governors have been in power since then.
It was also the scene of the first ever attempt at Communism when 700 people sailed from Balmain, Sydney Australia in 1893. A split occurred soon after arrival when some of the arrivals started mingling with the local ladies who were suffering a lack of men due to the War of the Triple Aliance. Two-thirds of the immigrants eventually returned to Australia but around 2000 Paraguayans can trace their heritage to Australia.
With an area of about 406.000 sq km, Paraguay is divided between the East and West (Chaco) regions by the Paraguay River. Despite being landlocked, the country is bordered and criss-crossed by navigable rivers.
The Tropic of Capricorn also crosses the country from East to West and determines a more tropical climate to the North and subtropical to temperate climate to the South.
Paraguay has been recently ranked by several research studies as the cheapest country in the world, measured through Purchasing Power Parity. Prices, measured in dollars, euros or British pounds are very low.
Settled by disgruntled and idealistic Australians in October, 1893, this was the first attempt at communism anywhere in the world. About 700 people set up a colony without money or bosses based on the theories of Karl Marx. The tiny town with some of the descendents of the original settlers still exists about 5km West of Villarrica. Villarrica is an interesting town with a square that comes alive on a friday night. very cheap wares sold.
A second town, again with descendents, was founded by the same group of Australians at Cosme, 90km South, near Ca azapa.
Before you try to enter Paraguay, you need to check the visa requirements for your country. Most European citizens (EU) don't need visas to visit Paraguay. However US, Canadian, Australian and New Zealand citizens do need visas.
Flights go out from other South American airports to Asuncion on a fairly regular basis. There are also two daily flights from São Paulo to Ciudad del Este. Currently there are no direct flights from the United States to any city in Paraguay.
Currently, there is no train service available to and from Paraguay. In the past, Paraguay was connected by a train service to Argentina, but it has been discontinued.
Bus service is available to and from a wide range of South American cities. You can take a bus from Santiago, Chile; Sao Paulo, Brazil; Buenos Aires, Argentina; Cordoba, Argentina; Santa Cruz, Bolivia; Montevideo, Uruguay; Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Buses are very modern and some buses have seats that fully recline into beds. In Spanish they are called cama. Semi-cama recline most of the way.
A boat travels up the Paraguay River from Asuncion stopping at many ports to the north of the border with Brazil. Most of these boats weren't designed to carry passengers so expect a sticky crowded experience, but you can buy just about anything on board, even cold beer. Bring something comfortable to sleep on!
Taxis are the most efficient and reliable form of transportation, even though you can probably get there also by bus, or colectivo, as Paraguayans call it. Taxis are expensive compared to other prices in Paraguay, and in Asuncion the fares are determined by the meter. Outside Asunción there are no meters so make sure you decide on a price before you get in. Bargaining on a price may be useful, as tourists have been asked for US$10 for a five minute ride. To prevent any disputes, always ask your hotel concierge how much the real cost of the fare should be.
There are highways connecting all the major regions of Paraguay, but most of them are one lane each way. You may hit toll booths along the way. Police may pull you over for any reason and will expect bribes. Locals say that the most common way to avoid giving away too much money on the bribes requested by the 'polícia caminera' (road police) is by giving them a small guarani bill while shaking their hands when they stop your car. Also, it is advised that, when they ask you, play dumb and DO NOT admit travelling through Paraguay for the first time. Please note that you will probably only face this kind of problem with the police on the country roads. These problems do not generally occur in any of the wealthier areas of the major cities where you can keep a somewhat 'nicer' relationship with the police.
Buses are the most common public transport. There are many companies running different lines. You must check which one serves your destination.
There is a well in the city of Santani (San Pedro) that does not go dry. The town's museum also contains a large snakeskin.
Both Spanish and Guaraní are official. Most people in Paraguay speak Spanish and use of English is very limited. Outside of Asuncion and big cities Guarani is all you will hear. Due to the extensive use of Guarani, even those who have managed to learn Spanish do not always speak it very well.
In Paraguay, Guarani is almost always spoken as a mix of Guarani and Spanish, known as Jopara, meaning "mixed" in Guarani. The number system in Guarani is rarely used, and is almost always replaced with the Spanish number system.
Some basic greetings in Guarani include:
Mba'eichapa? = How are you?
Iporã = Good
ha nde? = and you?
iporã avei = good as well
In Paraguay Vos is used instead of Tu. There is a slight change in conjugation but not big enough that you won't be understood using Tu. This Vos is NOT the same as Vosotros. Tienes changes to tenés, puedes changes to podés, but usually you can get by with changing tu to vos.
In the northern, and eastern parts of Paraguay, Portuguese is spoken widely. In some places, Nueva Esperanza (80% portuguese speaking), Katuetè (60%) the majority speak Portuguese, almost always the result of Paraguayan born, or first generation Brazilian immigrants. There are many cases of Paraguayans, who were born during the era of Brazilian immigration who speak only Portuguese at home, although also fluent Guarani, but very little or no Spanish.
The currency is the guarani (PYG). As of January 2010, the current exchange rate is 4,575 Guaranies for 1 US Dollar, and 6,461 Guaranies for €1. Always check the exchange rate quotations on the internet or several major newspapers before exchanging money.
Prices in Paraguay are very low and a budget traveller will be able to get by on as little as £7/$14 a day and even less if camping. A clean, single hotel room out of Asuncion should not cost more than $10.
You'll find much of the standard South American cuisine here with some Brazilian influence as well. Also highly popular are empanadas (meat/egg stuffed in a pastry and baked) and milanesa (breaded and fried chicken/beef/fish) - these are considered fast food, and are also found in other countries in the region. If you order a hamburger at a restaurant, expect it to come topped with a fried egg. Asado (BBQ) is great, and prices are quite reasonable - 20000 Guaranis ($4.00 US) will get you an all-you-can-eat buffet at many nice places. 5000 Guarani is enough to pay for a hamburger. Paraguayan food isn't particularly spicy, so those who can't tolerate spices won't have problems here. There is a lot of traditional food. Chipa-a bread baked in an outdoor oven or "tatacua", usually made out of mandioca (manioc) flour. Mandioca is often substituted for potatoes. Sopa Paraguaya is a form of corn bread are two of the most well known. Mandioca, or Mandi´o in Guarani (It is similar to a potato, and is normally eaten boiled but can be fried). It is eaten almost everyday by Paraguayans, and many have it growing on their land. Tortillas in Paraguay are different than in other places in Latin America. It is more like a fried dough (made with Paraguayan cheese). Try Tortilla So'o if you get the chance--it is Paraguayan Tortilla with bits of pieces of meat often marinated with garlic and lime.
Tap water in Asuncion, and possibly Ciudad del Este, is potable. Tap water in the rest of Paraguay should be treated to make it safe for drinking. There have been efforts by PLAN International to bring safe, potable water to communities in rural areas (if there is such water available, it is safe to drink). Ask before drinking water in rural areas however--many Paraguayans will claim their water is safe to drink even if it's not purified.
The national beverage in Paraguay is a tea called mate (served hot) or terere (served cold) and is made from the yerba mate plant. It is served in guampas, which can be made out of wood or of hallow bull horns, and is drunk through a metal straw called a bombilla. The tea is prepared by pouring dry yerba into the cup, then adding water: hot water version is known as mate while the cold water version is known as tereré. Mate is usually enjoyed in the early mornings and late evenings year-round, or during especially cold days during the winter. Terere is enjoyed year-round as well, though not during the times one would drink mate (early mornings/late evenings). Often, herbs are added to the tereré water (locally called 'remedios' or different herbs to cure different ailments). For example, adding coconut to one's mate is supposed to help with headaches. The taste is best described as earthy, like a bitter green tea, and it will take getting used to before you can enjoy it. Drinking mate or tereré is most definitely one of the social customs of Paraguay. Shops will close around noon for a siesta and for a round of mate/tereré with friends. If you can get used to the taste and participate, locals will be appreciative. This drink is also found in other South American countries such as Argentina, Uruguay, and parts of Brazil and Chile.
Beer is widely available, as are many liquors. The local beer is Brahma or Pilsen. Hard liquors are similar to rum.
Good accommodation will certainly not be hard to find in major towns, and will seem reasonably cheap if the parameter is the dollar or the euro. The exception, however, is Ciudad del Este. Cheap accommodation is easy to find, but if you're after something of higher quality you'll have a better chance in the Argentinian Puerto Iguazu or the Brazilian Foz do Iguaçu.
Although there are few Spanish language learning schools, there are however quite a few snake skin peeling courses available in most small towns. For a moderate to high price (depending on the expertise), you train with the snake skinners for one day at their personal ranch while learning the ins and outs of the reptiles local to the area. Most are non-venomous just be on the lookout for two headed ones that might get you while you have your hand around another. Most lessons go into the evening where the skinner or hunter will prepare a dinner featuring the snake meat, while preserving the skin of course. Most commonly cooked on the grill, snake is a common delicacy unique to Paraguay.
As far as languages go, however, there is a uniquely Paraguayan language called Guaraní. It is an indigenous language spoken widely outside of Asuncion. Most Paraguayans can speak both Spanish and Guaraní. The Guaraní that is spoken is not pure--instead is uses Spanish words as well (especially when the word in Guaraní is more complicated than the corresponding Spanish word). Classes to learn Guaraní are unheard of for foreigners (though in the big cities, students who speak Spanish as their first language can opt to learn Guaraní as a second language). There are books available in stores, though the best way to learn would be to speak to the locals.
Most people who live in the rural areas of Paraguay are subsistence famers. Other people who live in urban areas are marketeers. They sell fish, fruit and vegetables, and other products.
There are not many large cities and if you use some common sense and street smarts, you are unlikely to run into any trouble. The police are known to be corrupt, and if you are pulled over for any reason, you will almost certainly be expected to pay a bribe. In Asuncion most cops are not corrupt. In the cities crime is common, though not as rampant as in other cities such as Rio de Janeiro, São Paulo and Buenos Aires.
Ciudad del Este is a center for illicit activities, such as money laundering and counterfeiting, but that should not affect your travels. That said, you will want to keep an eye on your bags and wallet here, as you would do in any other large city. Generally, as long as you aren't involved in drug smuggling (inadvertently or otherwise), and are alert to pickpockets, you should be safe most of the time.
Hospitals in Paraguay range from decent to unsanitary and unequipped. If you get desperately ill, try to get to the best hospital even if it takes a bit longer - you may not find surgical gloves in the worst of them. There are many stray dogs running the streets - avoid them. They usually won't bother you. You may pick up a foot flea known locally as pique (Tunga penetrans), these will usually collect around your toes. They will lay eggs in your feet if not taken care of - the best way to get rid of them is to pierce the site with a stitching needle and pour hydrogen peroxide over the area, then dig the bug out. If you have picked one up, you may notice itching or tenderness in your feet .
It is always considered courteous for men to shake hands whenever they meet. In mixed company, or two women, it is common to shake hands and to give a kiss on each cheek. Also when meeting, people will ask not how you are, but if everything is all right, estoy bien. The response to this is always, yes everything, and you, si estoy bien y vos? Even if you are having a terrible day, when someone asks such as an acquaintance in the street, one always responds with yes, everything.
Also when given food, you are obligated to both eat it, and to say that it is good, ´rico` in Spanish. To say otherwise with a person you are not acquainted with can be considered forward and rude.
In Paraguay, due to the small number of tourists and foreigners, during a first encounter people might make jokes or start making fun of you. This is not meant in an impolite way, it is just the people acknowledging differences between you and them and should be not be interpreted offensively.
Paraguayans have little sense of the value and importance to time. Nothing runs on time, and arriving to a meeting an hour late is not uncommon nor considered rude. Flights and buses are almost always expected to be not on schedule.