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.
So why visit Paraguay?
To be hugged by a rodent of unusual size (ROUS)?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.