Submitted by Claire Autruong on December 12, 2015
For most travelers, Paraguay is a mystery. Not a planned destination for most, even within its own continent, often lost amid itineraries full of stops at its more popular neighbors Argentina and Brazil. But for the adventurous traveler who wishes to explore pockets of the world where few of their peers have ventured, Paraguay offers a dazzling array of fascinating culture, beautiful landscapes, exotic wildlife and friendly people.
Despite being rich in natural resources, Paraguay is one of the continent’s poorest countries, a legacy of the devastating Triple Alliance War in the 1800s (before which Paraguay was one of the richest countries in the Americas), political unrest and economic difficulty. As with visiting any under-developed country, travelers should do their research and make conscious choices to be observers to the local culture and way of life.
Paraguay is a country of extremes. Some have become wealthy on Paraguay’s the resources of Guarani Aquifer, the world’s largest drinking water reservoir; the hydroelectric power of the Itaipú Dam; and on large exports of soya beans and beef. Others, like the beggars in the streets of Asuncion, exhibit extreme poverty. Huge dams stand in stark relief against enormous vistas of preserved natural habitat. Travelers can see Jesuit ruins on the way to modern, urban cities. Passing through territory where German, Russian and Canadian Mennonites settled after World War Two after fleeing persecution, it’s possible to see a horse and carriage idling beside a modern sports car. For those who prefer a dash of the undiscovered, or who are looking for an economical South American destination that’s a little less-traveled, Paraguay’s charms beckon.
When to Travel – Weather
Another of Paraguay’s extremes can be found in its weather. Summer heat can reach heights of 109 Fahrenheit, while the winter sees temperatures as low as 40 F. Paraguay’s summer happens between December and February, and torrential downpours are common during those months, so travelers who do not want to prepare for rain at least every third day should be aware of the rainy season.
Spring (September-November) can be a great time to visit Paraguay if weather is a major concern. Temperatures in most areas of the country should be moderate, in the 50s and 60s F, though rain can still be common in the later spring months.
Unless travelers are looking for a chilly adventure, August and the winter months should be avoided. Paraguayans even have a saying about August, “Agosto, vaka piru ha tuja rerahaha,” which roughly translates to “August, the month that takes away the skinny cows and the elderly,” because August weather is typically so harsh and stormy.
Food and Drink
Paraguay’s culture combines influences from Spanish colonization with the aboriginal Guaraní way of life, and the cuisine of the land is no exception. Although dishes and drinks often bear names in both Spanish and Guaraní in the bilingual country, common foods and preparation styles stay consistent across most of Paraguay.
The first thing most travelers will notice is tereré, the traditional Paraguayan beverage going back to the very earliest cultural memories in this land. A mixture of yerba herbs and cold water, tereré is highly refreshing and popular with Paraguayans of all ages and backgrounds. Locals will transport their tereré throughout the day in a guampa, a thermos and cup combination with a spoon and straw (bombilla) for enjoying tereré on the go. The containers are often decorated to be unique to the owner, and drinking tereré is a very social pastime. Seasoned South American travelers will note tereré’s similarity to yerba mate, though tereré is served cold and with fresh herbs.
Paraguayans’ daily diet is relatively straightforward and consists of common staples like the mbeyú, a pancake-like starch cake made with cheese and yucca starch, or mandioca, in a hot pan.
Chipá bread is also present at many meals, a delicious treat kneaded with mandioca, cheese, eggs, anise seed and milk into a rounded shape with a hole in the middle. Ostensibly a special occasion food, Paraguayans are social and enjoy breaking out the chipá a few times a week for meals that have turned into gatherings.
Other staples of the Paraguayan diet include empanadas (fried pastries filled with combinations of egg, meat, chicken, cheese, ham and corn), which Paraguayans sometimes eat like a sandwich between two pieces of bread; arró quesú, a Paraguayan version of a risotto made with white rice and Paraguayan cheese; asado, a hearty barbecue with plenty of meat of all different kinds; mandioca in various forms, common in Paraguay because it grows locally and the starch makes it filing.
For special occasions, Paraguayans might indulge in more decadent versions of their everyday meals, or throw in a dessert like dulce de Guabaya or dulce de Mamon, two sweet desserts made with guava jam or papaya served with caramel. A typical meal during the San Juan festivals at the end of June might include thinly sliced or even braided meat (chicharö trenzado).
For drinking, besides the aforementioned tereré, which truly functions as the national drink, pulp is a popular Paraguayan orange soda that can be found all over the country. The Paraguayan hard liquor caña can also be found throughout the land, distilled from sugar cane and reminiscent of rum. Local beers such as Brahma or Pilsen are also widely available, as tereré is not usually enjoyed after dark.
Popular Vacation Spots
Asunción – The capital of Paraguay resembles a quieter Latin capital by day and a wilder, younger city by night. The brutally hot tropical weather means residents fall naturally into siestas in the middle of the day during the hottest hours and a lifestyle of late meals and even later partying when it’s cool out. A majority of the Asunción’s population is under 30, and a vibrant club scene thrives in the city. There are plenty of modern conveniences here for travelers, including hotels at every star rating, restaurants for every budget from “very budget” to “what budget?” and plenty of excellent day trips close by, making the city a great base.
Day trips around Asunción include the outdoor recreation town of Estancia, where tourists can enjoy horseback riding, swimming, hikes and fishing; the lakeside town of Aregua; and the Circuito de Oro, where visitors can see several different historic towns In the area immediately around Asunción.
Iguazú Falls – One of South America’s crown jewels, the majestic Iguazú Falls marks the border between Argentina, Brazil and Paraguay, and can be accessed and seen from all three countries. The falls are stunning from all three sides, but the most economical option can be staying in Ciudad del Este and visiting the falls from the Paraguayan side. There are plenty of cheap lodging options and buses out to the falls. Once there, it’s easy to see why they’ve become such a destination – the 1.7 mile-long winding collection of thundering waterfalls are done no justice by photos or videos. Travelers standing on the wooden platforms can get the full sense of their scale, grandeur and noise.
Encarnación – The beautiful city of Encarnación is modern and pleasant, featuring the Jesuit missions La Santisima Trinidad de Parana and Jesus de Tavarangue, both of which are on the UNESCO World Heritage List. Easy to access by bus from Ciudad del Este and Asuncion, Encarnación is highly walkable and features visible Spanish architecture throughout the plazas and Jesuit missions. The missions in and around Encarnación are some of the most impressive and important in the country, and can be viewed by taking the “Jesuit Road” organized tour. Encarnación also features a pleasant artificial beach along the river, where locals and travelers alike can swim in the apparently safe and clean river water, or rent jet skis and boats.
San Bernardino – In contrast to Jesuit missions and small rural towns, the balneario resort town of San Bernardino is Paraguay’s liveliest locale, a destination for young and wealthy Paraguayans teeming with water recreation, restaurants and nightlife. Although Lake Ypacarai is no longer blue, people take advantage of its waters throughout the summer (December-February).
Paraguay’s local currency is the guaraní (PYG). Prices in Paraguay tend to be low and economical travelers will be able to get by on as little as $10-15 USD a day if staying in hotels and even less if camping. The guaraní has recently been one of the lower-valued currencies in the Americas, and Western currency goes far with current exchange rates. Notes come in denominations from 2,000 to 100,000 and coins are issued in 50, 100, 500 and 1,000 denominations.
A passport and visa are required to enter Paraguay. U.S. Citizens can purchase a visa upon arrival at the airport for a fee (currently about $160 USD). Travelers leaving Paraguay must also pay an airport departure tax, so be aware of those fees and whether or not they are included in existing airline fees.
In addition to the name of the currency, the local language and culture of the indigenous Guaraní tribe is also called Guaraní. Most Paraguayans speak both Spanish and Guaraní, with the latter much more widely spoken outside the capital and other large cities. In outlying areas, travelers should not count on many locals being able to speak English.
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