When we crossed the border and finally entered Argentina, we couldn’t believe that we had stayed in Paraguay for so long. Five months had passed from that day back in February when we arrived in Pedro Juan Caballero, in the north of the country and it was mid-July already! From the unbearable summer heat to the not-so-cold winter and from the tropical forests with the lush vegetation and the red soil to the gray dust, the savanna-like trees and the strong dry winds of the Chaco. What a country! And to our surprise, there were no tourists at all! Most travelers don’t include Paraguay in their route and if they decide to visit it, they tend to stay on the main road from Iguazu falls (Ciudad del Este) to the capital, Asuncion and then back to Argentina or from Ciudad del Este to the Jesuit ruins in Encarnacion and then directly to Argentina again. From what we read in various travel forums across the internet, Paraguay seems to be overlooked by the majority of travelers claiming that it’s boring, that there are no big monuments and great landmarks, and that people are not “traditional” or “exotic” enough to their eyes (and their camera lenses), thus there’s no interest in visiting it.
This was our second time in Paraguay and we decided to spend more time here and not make the same mistake as in 2015, when we also did what most people do, and just crossed quickly from Ciudad del Este to Asuncion. What’s more, only hours after we entered the country we stumbled upon a couple from France, riding around Paraguay on a local motorbike for more than 4 months and with no intention of leaving any time soon. They didn’t seem bored at all. They described their trip as one of their favorite and they explained to us how much they loved the relaxed, laid-back life in Paraguay and the authentic hospitality of its people. Their enthusiastic words and the fact that it seemed that we agreed in many things about life and travels, made our decision easy. So, we promised to give Paraguay the opportunity to amaze us (and we’re thankful for this). We’d stay away from schedules and itineraries, we’d ask the locals about places and routes, we would improvise…
The plan roughly: only a few kilometers per day, back and forth between places we like, more days in a place if we like it, walks, random rides around, no excessive planning (nothing more complicated than looking at the sky and seeing if it rains). And Paraguay really rewarded us for our decision to get to know it better! Oh, and let me warn you that there’s nothing objective in our story. Our life, our experiences, our bonding with the places and the people we meet have nothing objective at all.
Paraguay is not a very big country, actually it’s 3 times smaller than its neighbors, Peru and Bolivia and 7 times smaller than Argentina (I wouldn’t even dare to compare it with Brazil). It has about 7,000,000 inhabitants, unevenly distributed through the country. The vast majority of the people live in the eastern region, while the Gran Chaco (which lies in the northwest and accounts for the 60% of Paraguay’s territory) is home to less than the 2% of the population! Let’s talk about the weather now: hot as hell during summer (boiling in 40 or 50 degrees isn’t our favorite – well, maybe in some areas 50 is not that common, but 40 is!) and nice and pleasant during winter (the temperature in some places may fall as low as 0, but this will happen only a few days during the year). Oh, and there’s a rainy season, too, but believe it or not, I never figured exactly when it starts and when it ends. And it’s not my fault, I read somewhere that in Paraguay there are two options: a) dry season with rain and b) wet season with more rain.
What about Paraguayan history? Not very different from this of many other South American countries: “discovered” by the Spanish who enthusiastically made it their colony killing one or two indigenous people by mistake while trying to “civilize” them, then oppression, revolution, independence, then wars against all the neighboring countries, a dictatorship, then a democracy, etc, etc… But this is not a history class, besides, you can find all the information you need online. What else? The language. Unlike other South American countries, Paraguay never let its basic indigenous language die and today the majority of the population speaks Spanish and Guarani. What’s more, as it usually happens with all spoken languages, Paraguayans tend to use “Jopara”, a blending of the two official languages of their country, that makes it even more interesting to talk with them (and try to understand or use it!)
From the green landscape of the North, to the green landscape of the South and from the green landscape of the East, to the (guess what color) landscape of the West – gotcha! the color in the West changes to grayish and the land becomes arid, resembling to that of the African savanna – the nature of Paraguay is beautiful. As simple as that: beautiful! But its beauty is not the breathtaking, otherworldly, unique landscapes that mesmerize those who see them. Its beauty is amiable, humble, earthly, and unfortunately it’s easy to be overlooked by those who don’t pay enough attention to detail. We spent months admiring Paraguay’s nature in the tropical forests, the palm tree forests, the acacia and the baobab (“palo borracho” in Spanish) forests in the Gran Chaco. We spent months admiring the rivers, the creeks, the ponds and lakes where you can swim and cool off from the summer heat. We saw how the rivers change the landscape when it’s flooding season, how life is affected by water and how life goes on no matter what. We never got bored in Paraguay!
Paraguay is beautiful.
But its beauty is not the breathtaking, otherworldly, unique landscapes that mesmerize those who see them.
Its beauty is amiable, humble, earthly, and unfortunately it’s easy to be overlooked by those who don’t pay enough attention to detail.
When you travel in Paraguay you can’t stop smiling and – guess what? – Paraguay smiles back at you. Figuratively and literally, too. The houses in the countryside are simple, wooden structures painted in whatever color you can imagine: blue, green, orange, pink. And there are almost no fences at all (only the big livestock units are fenced). So, be careful for cows, pigs, goats or adventurous chickens that think they can fly (and make their first attempt while you’re passing by on your Vespa). Eventually, you arrive at the capital, Asuncion and there things get more confusing: Asuncion is not similar to the other South American capitals. You’ll see traffic in its streets only during the rush hour and contrary to what you believe about big cities, Asuncion has a laid-back pace, a humane face and at the same time there’s nothing missing from its streets: big malls, all kinds of stores, street vendors, big companies, supermarkets, bars, restaurants, parks…
People. When I started writing about Paraguay, I bumped into a survey according to which Paraguay has the highest “Positive Experience Index” score worldwide. In the poll it topped the list of positive experiences, where people reported “feeling a lot of positive emotions each day”. I know that it’s a bit simplistic to claim that everything goes well in a country only by looking at surveys like this one, but I have to admit that in Paraguay from the first moment, we felt this “positiveness”. Let me explain what I mean: people in Paraguay smile! I mean that they tend to be polite and cheerful in their everyday interactions with other people. Obviously, there are bad people, corrupt people, exploiters, etc – I haven’t been shot with pink glitter, I acknowledge that there are all kinds of people everywhere – but the overall picture you get in Paraguay is that of a laid-back, slow pace, cheerful atmosphere. And this makes it easy to approach people, to get to know them, to sit side by side and share stories, dinner, some beer…
Oh, and one other thing: if you believe that Paraguayans are “exotic beauties”, “authentic humans”, “noble savages” and all those terms that travel magazines like to use, then you’ve been misguided. Paraguayans are people and it’s as simple as that. Let me explain what I mean again: I strongly believe that when we look for all those “exotic characteristics” that are appealing to the Westerners’ eyes (and lenses), we don’t really get to know the people around us. We fall into the trap of standing opposite them, perceiving them as “others” and consequently, we don’t give ourselves the opportunity to see all the things we have in common. Inevitably, this way our trip becomes more similar to a visit to an ethnological museum than to a place that lives, changes, progresses. And yes, we saw indigenous people (the Aché, who live within the Mbaracayú Natural Reserve), greeted them, didn’t take any pictures of them and went on. And – what a surprise! – they were wearing sweatpants and sneakers and at the same time they were carrying their bows and arrows because they had gone hunting (and they don’t like it when tourists go to their community just to take pictures of the “Indios”).
Another interesting fact about Paraguay and its people: the Mennonites, who are part of its population. To my opinion, a very weird part of its population. These people migrated to Paraguay before the turn of the 20th century and in the beginning of the 20th to live in religious freedom. They are of Russian, Canadian, Dutch, German ancestry and along with the Germans who came to Paraguay after the defeat of their country in WWII, they form a small but very wealthy part of the country’s total population. It’s somehow strange to enter a South American city where you can’t read the signs because they are all in German and it’s somehow disturbing to see that a very small (and white) part of the population takes advantage of huge pieces of land – always in agreement with corrupt politicians – leaving outside the locals (details can be found online about questions raised on human rights of Paraguay’s indigenous population).
Since hospitality seems to be the real hidden treasure of Paraguay, I should not leave the country’s cuisine outside! And that’s because we probably tried every recipe, cooked in every possible way. Almost all Paraguayans we met, invited us for lunch (or breakfast, or dinner, or brunch) and they prepared the most traditional dishes, such as the divine mbejú or the famous chipa, or the tasty mandi’o chyryry, or the simple vori-vori, along with the most weird beverages, such as the terere or the cocido quemado, our favorite. But I really can’t tell if it’s the food itself that is so delicious or it was our hosts’ hospitality, the warmth of their hearts, their loud laughter and their genuine interest that made the Paraguayan table unforgettable.
Now that I’m thinking about it, there are hundreds of stories, dishes, adventures, people, jokes, experiences worth writing from our five months in Paraguay. I don’t know from where to start! So, for now I’ll leave you with some pictures and with the promise that one day I will write about everything: About our friend Marcelo and his old Land Rover who took us to the Chaco, our friend Analia whom we met in 2015 and she couldn’t believe that we would meet again, about the mud and the flooded roads in the South where our Kitsos almost swam, the fishermen who took us in that night with the storm, Señora Beti and her home-made bread, about the Sunday evenings and the people’s tradition to hang out in the central street or in the gas stations listening to awfully loud music from loudspeakers in their cars’ boots, about the asado – the barbecued meat of which all Paraguayans are proud, about the Guarani myth of the creation of the world and about our attempts to learn the Guarani language, about the tatacua – the traditional ovens where people leave some caña (alcoholic drink) and some cigarettes for Pombero, the spirit of the night…
I promise you, I’ll write about all the things we loved in Paraguay, but maybe first you’ll see some of them in the videos that Stergios has been making all this time…
To be continued…
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