Why Paraguay?

To be hugged by a rodent of unusual size (ROUS)?

Feeding the Capybara - Concepcion, Paraguay
A capybara named Mimi with Audrey outside Concepcion, Paraguay

Despite all the itinerary changes we made during our Latin American journey, we never took Paraguay off the table. Maybe that’s because we knew virtually nothing about it. We hadn’t met anyone who’d been. That few others traveled there was an indication that we should.

As we crossed into Paraguay from its western border with Bolivia at 5AM, we carried little information on the country: the virtually non-existent section of our guidebook, notes from an American diplomat who had served there in the 1950s, and fragments of suggestions from our network of contacts.

Never had a country offered so few “must-see” destinations and “must do” activities. But for us, that was part of Paraguay’s allure. It was a land of the unknown, perhaps the misunderstood. A land less visited.

In South America no place puzzles quite like Paraguay. For such a small country, a collection of historical hangnails: a gaping rich-poor gap, a series of crippling wars, and the world’s least visited UNESCO World Heritage site. But Paraguay is different, and it has its moments.

So we offer a metaphor for it: the land of the unconnected dots. Here are just a few.

If prose, culture, background and history about a little-known part of the world is your thing, read on.

Tereré

From the very moment we crossed into Paraguay, we noticed large, macho men carrying thermoses and sipping from metal straws protruding from hollowed gourds full of what looked like green mud. As we observed further, we noticed everyone sporting the same: a thermos, a cup (called a guampa), and a metal straw with a sieve-like spoon at the end (a bombilla).

This is tereré, the Paraguayan national pastime.

Thermoses for Terere - Ciudad del Este, Paraguay
Thermoses for Terere in Ciudad del Este, Paraguay

Most people who have traveled in this region know yerba maté, a hot water infusion made with dried herbs. But Paraguay’s version – tereré – takes yerba maté and serves it instead with cold water and an array of crushed fresh herbs.

And like a briefcase or purse, the design of one’s thermos and guampa – from artisanal leather to rhinestone studded denim – is a point of personal expression.

Tereré herb and root stands dot markets and street corners. Herbs are the secret to great tereré. Vendors not only possess a green thumb to grow them, but they are also experts in traditional herbal medicine. Explain your ailment – from stomach problems to headaches – and an herb vendor will use a mortar and pestle to grind up just the right combination of herbs to ease your pain.

Herbs for Terere - Asuncion, Paraguay
Herbs for Terere in Asuncion, Paraguay

Sadly, however, all those fresh herbs never make it into the food.

Our favorite tereré experience: at a bus station in Encarnacion hanging out with a healthy cross-section of Paraguayans, young and old, as they waited for their buses to depart. The ice was served up out of thin cylindrical plastic bags, and the water came straight from a tap jutting out of the ground. Bonus: we didn’t have to hug the bowl.

Paraguay’s Mennonites

Smack in the middle of nowhere, South America our bus ground to a halt. Enter three men: white skin, tanned, steel-blue eyes, and dressed in denim overalls. They looked like they might have walked out of the background of American Gothic. It was a strange sight to us, but apparently an unexceptional one in Paraguay.

We had read previously of the Mennonite colonies clustered in the Chaco, a chunk of difficult, dry land in western Paraguay. How and why did they end up here?

German, Russian, and Canadian Mennonites moved to the Chaco in the 1920s and 1930s to escape persecution in their home countries. The Paraguayan government gave them great freedom and autonomy, and even some land. But there was a catch: the land was perceived as unsuitable for farming and was virtually uninhabitable. In the beginning, thousands of Mennonites died from disease, but in an ironic twist, the Mennonite colonies are now responsible for a significant portion of the country’s meat and milk production.

Each Mennonite colony also has its own unique relationship with technology and modern conveniences, too. Peter, a German proprietor of a tourism farm outside of Concepcion, shared stories of how some of the more conservative Mennonites buy high-quality tractors to help with harvesting. But their beliefs run deep to hard work, so they don’t want things to go too easily. As soon as their new tractor arrives, they remove the rear wheels and attach a sled.

Locals are swift to take advantage. When their Mennonite neighbors have purchased a tractor, they show up in droves hoping to buy the wheels at cut-rate prices. Yet another win-win.

Asuncion

Paraguay’s upside-down capital city. Some interesting historical building, homes, shops and government offices remain, but the city center feels as if all the people who cared left. The evenings are cricket quiet after workers flee to the outskirts and suburbs.

In perhaps the most perfect illustration of the gap between power and poverty, Paraguay’s Parliament building stands adjacent to a patch of dengue-ridden slums at the river’s edge. It’s odd at first to see politicians going to work in their freshly pressed suits while kids from the slums play just a few meters away. But there’s something vaguely refreshing about politicians having to stare at the poverty their policies and notorious corruption no doubt exacerbate.

The bright spot: Asuncion’s outdoor markets. In Mercado Cuatro – a labyrinth of shops and covered markets – you can find Korean newspapers and restaurants catering to Korean locals. Best of all is the Abasto market on the edge of town, where we were greeted with curious looks and friendly smiles — and surrounded by some of the largest watermelon stacks we had ever seen.

Escher Watermelon Fisheye - Asuncion, Paraguay
Escher Watermelon Fisheye at the Asuncion market.

Finally, after having been to Buenos Aires, we can say without an ounce of irony that Asuncion features some of the best gelato in the region. Head out to the Asuncion suburbs to Quattro D (Mariscal Estigarribia 932), order the Italian chocolate gelato and maracuya (passion fruit) sorbet and you too will be a believer.

Trinidad and Jesus – A Lonely UNESCO Site

Although the Jesuits established reducciones (townships) throughout southern Paraguay in the 1600s and 1700s, the most famous are the now-UNESCO sites of Trinidad and Jesus outside of Encarnacion. In their day, Trinidad and Jesus were each an exercise in sustainable communal living. In stark contrast to the tradition of keeping the local indigenous Guaranis as slave labor, the Jesuits actually educated and trained them as members of the community.

Unsurprisingly, the Jesuit approach to the Guarani angered and threatened many colonialists and settlers whose businesses depended upon slave labor. Eventually, the Spanish government expelled them in 1767. All that remains now of this progressive slice of history are the skeletons of rubbled settlements, churches and courtyards strewn across a large green field.

The Least Visited of All U.N. World Heritage Sites - Trinidad, Paraguay
UNESCO Jesuit Ruins in Trinidad, Paraguay

If you find yourself in Paraguay, Trinidad and Jesus are worth a visit Having said that, they are probably not worth a major detour – unless you happen to be on a life mission to box-check every last UNESCO site on the planet.

The Triple Alliance War

Like all wars, Paraguay’s war with neighboring Brazil, Argentina and Uruguay from 1864 to 1870 falls victim to competing historical narratives as to why it started. The one that prevails: Paraguay started it, the others finished it, and the British played a supporting role.

Some Paraguayans explain it a little bit differently, though: “We were invaded because the others were jealous of our intelligence. We were educating our men in Europe and they were afraid of our independence.”

The circulating story we prefer — perhaps because it provides comic relief to something so tragic — is the one that suggests the war began because of a toothache. As the story goes, Francisco Solano Lopez, Paraguay’s leader, had a toothache that caused such intense pain that it drove him insane — so insane that he decided to declare war on all of his neighbors to the east and south at once.

No matter what the reason for the war’s beginning, it ended with devastating consequences for Paraguay, including the death of up to 90% of the country’s male population. Some Paraguayans believe that the Triple Alliance War continues to cast a shadow on the country’s collective psyche to this day.

On a lighter note, we were also told that Paraguayan men were encouraged to spread their seed in a patriotic duty to repopulate the country. But patriotism has its side effects: every Paraguayan woman expects her husband to cheat; she just doesn’t want to know about it.

Capybaras, Toucans and Frogs

Before you’ve absorbed all that’s heavy about Paraguay, steal off to Granja Roble outside of Concepcion, Paraguay. Spend time with Peter – he’s incredibly knowledgeable about Paraguay and has an interesting story himself of how he got there. Take a boat or some inner tubes down the river, and have him show you these denizens that lurk in an around the oasis he’s created.

Capybara, Toucan and Frogs - Paraguayan Wildlife
Mosaic of Paraguayan wildlife.

Oh yeah, and that giant rat? That’s a capybara. It’s technically the world’s largest species of rodent. The local Guarani word for him means “grassmaster” and if you happen to find them in the wild, they’ll likely be running away from your camera.

But if you visit Peter, you’ll have the opportunity to meet Mimi, the family pet whose identity crisis is served by his female name (the family didn’t realize that he was a male until long after his name had stuck). Mimi is so desperate for a mate that he skulks around and seeks one in the male pig pen out back. But the male pigs are good fighters, for Mimi returned to the kitchen each night with fresh bite wounds across his side and back, likely from pigs who had no interest in being Mimi’s bitch.

Slideshow: Best of Paraguay

If you don’t have a high speed connection or you would like to read the captions, view our Best of Paraguay photo essay.

Paraguay Photo Essays

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Comments

  1. says

    That lead photo is insane!

    I plan to head to both Paraguay and Uruguay this year for the same reason you mentioned, it’s less traveled. Love the photos, it inspires me to keep Paraguay on the list.

  2. Pete De Ritter says

    When our kids were young we took them to Brookfield Zoo. While we were looking at the capybaras a father and his young son were standing next to us. The son asked, “Daddy, what animal is that?” The father quickly glanced at the sign which said the capybara is like a giant guinea pig, it is the world’s largest rodent. With great confidence he turned to his son and said, “That’s a giant guinea pig, son.” I learned a valuable lesson. You need to be careful when you try to be an authority on anything. Sometimes it’s better to say, “I don’t know, let’s see if we can find out.”

  3. Scott says

    So what’s the best way to plan a trip there? Are there travel agencies or guides, or what would you suggest? I love all the photos and stories you posted!

  4. says

    We had no clue what a capybara was until we visited Buenos Aires and fed them at a zoo. We kept telling back home it was a “water rat.” The capybara may look like a disaster in evolution, but it is oddly adorable.

  5. says

    @ayngelina: Isn’t he cool?  Based on our experience, I’d say Paraguay is considerably less traveled than Uruguay and both very different places.  Good timing, as we’ll be interviewing a Paraguay expert in an upcoming post and we’ll also be sharing our brief but satisfying experiences in Uruguay as well.

    @Jason: Indeed.  That’s why we chose to go…and to spend as much time as we did.

    @Pete: A giant guinea pig…that’s terrific.  That just doesn’t do the capybara justice. Anyhow, regarding the lesson of knowing when to say “I don’t know.”  – I’m trying to apply it more often these days myself.

    @Hal: Excellent.  If you have any questions, let us know. You can post them here or send us an email.  And stay tuned for our interview with a Paraguay travel expert who has much more information than us. Depending upon your amount of time there, you may want to consider a boat trip up the Rio Paraguay. It’s no luxury cruise, but it certainly is an experience: http://www.uncorneredmarket.com/2010/01/trip-bitch-curiosity-itch-paraguay/

    @Scott:  Very nice to see you here.  And thanks very much for the compliment.  

    Regarding your question — it’s a good one.  It depends on what you’d like to do and of course, your budget.  I vote independent travel — because I favor it and the fact that there’s little coordinated tourism in Paraguay.  But that may be changing.  If you’d like to visit the Mennonite colonies, that’s something you’ll probably have to coordinate with the tourist office out of Filadelfia, Paraguay. Additionally, you can arrange some interesting river and bird watching trips with Peter near Concepcion in the north.

    We’ll be interviewing an expert on Paraguay travel shortly; we’ll add your question to the list as others may be interested in the same.

  6. Carlos says

    Great photos! After downloading a disappointing set of pictures today I can really appreciate what great work you do!

  7. says

    Capybaras are adorable and I reveled in chasing them around Los Estaros de Ibera when I was there in an attempt to get pictures. None like your lead photo, however! If you have not yet picked up At the Tomb of the Inflatable Pig, please do – it’s a fascinating look at Paraguay’s tangled history. Safe travels in Antarctica! Jodi

  8. says

    @Carlos: Nice to see you here. Thank you for the compliment!

    @Jodi: Capybaras are on our desirable pet short list. And At the Tomb of The Inflatable Pig is on our reading list. Thanks!

  9. says

    We are still deciding whether to visit Paraguay in the next few months and your posts are both tempting us and putting us off (that boat/bus journey sounded horrific!). Thanks for the info and great photos.

  10. says

    I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again – I’m in awe of the portraits you get of people while you’re on the road. They’re incredible. Really awesome to look through.

  11. says

    @Erin: I really hope we don’t discourage anyone to go to Paraguay by writing about that boat/bus trip! Paraguay eally is an interesting place – kind of funky, puzzling, but also intriguing. We’ll be posting an interview with a Paraguay expert soon (after Antarctica posts), so perhaps there will be more there to tip the scales in favor of visiting.

    @Bessie: Thanks so much those sentiments about our portrait shots! I’m not sure if you’ve seen this article – we share some of our people photography tips: http://www.uncorneredmarket.com/2009/05/10-tips-for-great-street-and-market-photos/

  12. says

    Some great insights into Paraguay. Really refreshing approach, digging into the history of the country to explain how it’s helped shape the natural psyche. And I will chime in with the concensus that the photos you’ve taken are great.

  13. says

    @Felipe: Thanks for your comment — great to see you here. I suppose the psyche of just about every place, every destination is shaped by its history. But there are some – Paraguay included – which hold onto their pasts in more interesting ways than most.

  14. says

    I lived in Paraguay for 4 months when I was 18. I lived with a Paraguayan family and volunteered at a few schools teaching English to underprivileged children. I went back to Paraguay a couple of years ago for my best friends wedding. I love Paraguay! It was the country that started my passion for travel. It’s funny because when I tell people about Paraguay, so many don’t even know where it is.

  15. says

    @Kristen: Paraguay is a fascinating place, and an unusual one to cut your teeth traveling. Good for you! True that, “Find Paraguay on a map” is a test many will fail. But why? That shape is unmistakable. Where did your best friend live in Paraguay?

  16. Marion says

    Great another article claiming to have been at the Mennonite colonies and then describing us to be technology fearing Amish people. Obviously you weren’t actually there because I lived for 18 years in Filadelfia, Paraguay and if there was a man in overalls he would have been mocked to no end. Yes we are Mennonites, culture and belief, but stop comparing us to Amish or Pennsylvania Mennonites. If you would have actually been there you would have just consider us Germans, because that what we look like and are.

    • says

      Marion, I’m really sorry you feel this way. A couple of items to reiterate as point of clarification. The story regarding the tractor was told to us by another resident of Paraguay. This was not a matter of our taking a preconceived notion of Mennonites from Pennsylvania (or Amish, for that matter) or one anecdote, then projecting or drawing a generalization onto the Paraguayan Mennonite population.

      I shared one story about “some of the more conservative members” of the community. Outside of that, I share a back-story regarding the Paraguayan Mennonites that is more broad.

      Having said that, what we wrote is a function of what we’d seen and heard. I would’ve appreciated the opportunity to visit and in particular talk with some local Mennonite families in Paraguay. We tried through both phone and email (with organizations and individuals that lived there, might have an interest or might have local contacts) to set up a visit in the Mennonite community and there seemed to be very little to no interest. There are various reasons for that outcome, I’m sure, including timing and luck of the draw. But I definitely sensed a distinct lack of interest, if not a hesitation in having visitors.

      On one hand, I can understand that hesitation. Perhaps no Mennonite family wanted to “be on show”. While I appreciate that, putting a family or a community “on display” has never been our approach and I shared that with everyone we approached. Note that whenever we share (on this website and in our speaking) our experiences with different cultures around the world, we do so first from the standpoint of respect, highlighting both differences and similarities.

      On the other hand, the flip side of privacy is that others will draw pictures and conclusions based on the little data available. It’s important to understand that notions of what a community is about will be a function of what others are allowed to see and experience, however little or great that may be.

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