Little did we know about Paraguay except for the fact, that it is by far the most unacknowledged by travelers part of South America. Information you find is a little bit confusing as on one hand it is the most secure country in SA and on the other hand Brazilians would swear it is deadly dangerous. I think this coming from them is a big statement haha We spent the most amazing 15 days in Paraguay. You are probably wondering what there is to see? So here is a list of our 5 top things to do in Paraguay!
The bridge linking Brazil and Paraguay is also supposed to be a dangerous place to walk along and we were unsure if we want to cross it by foot or if we should take a bus/taxi. When we got to the Brazilian immigration point we saw trucks full of soldiers, DEA and INTERPOL agents. ‘What the hell is this place?’ – we thought. We asked the woman who was stamping us out if it was ok to walk alongside the bridge and she just looked at all the military around and smiled. Sure it was, at least that day 🙂 Later on we read online that a few days later after our crossing all those agencies made a major bust of the leading drug cartel in a region confiscating 1500kg of cocaine and arresting 20 people. I guess that was what they were waiting for;-)
1# Top things to do in Paraguay – Ruta Jesuitica
We read somewhere that Ruta Jesuitica is the least visited Unesco site in the world. Wondereding if it was because of its location (off the gringo trail) or the general looks of it. It makes you feel special straight away for making an effort to come here anyway. We used Encarnacion as a base for visiting nearby Jesuit ruins in Trinidad.
It was boiling hot when we got there but air smelled of flowers and fresh grass. Love spring season and after so many months spent in ‘always summery’ Asia it was simply fantastic. When they say you have great chances to have Trinidad ruins to yourself – it is very true!!! It could be one of the advantages of this highly unappreciated site. We bought a combo ticket for all the major ruins and began our exploration. We cannot even express how much we loved this place. People say they are only ruins but when you put some imagination behind it you can see its former splendid and beauty. Surprisingly a lot of main buildings remained well preserved and you can see beautiful carvings, alcoves and statues. Jesuits built an astonishing settlement here back in the 18thcentury and their accomplishment is easy to notice. Because it is located quite far from any major town or busy road it is also incredibly peaceful. There was nobody else around, just us.
I was really positively surprised and hungry to see more. We knew that getting to the next ruins of Jesus would be more tricky but we managed to find a moto-taxi (rickshaw) whose driver agreed to take us there and back for around 10$. Suddenly we felt like we were back in Asia, taking a rickshaw ride through the beautiful untouched landscape. Jesus proved to be another beautiful example of Jesuit architecture although not as fabulous and as deserted as Trinidad. Apparently the third one – San Cosme is even more stunning. Unfortunately buses to San Cosme go only in the afternoon so we would not have been able to come back the same day and nobody was able to advise us if we could stay there. Only later we found out that every Jesuit site has a hostel and a camp site attached to it (some government program) so there is always place to stay for visitors.
2# Top things to do in Paraguay – Asuncion, the Mother of All Cities
We stayed in the New Downtown area of Asuncion. It is called new because there was a shift of development in the capital a few years back when city council put enormous taxes on properties in the historic area and all the young and wealthy moved out south. Trendy bars, restaurants and shopping centers followed accordingly creating new and safe neighborhood. The colonial mansions in the historic area were left crumbling and favelas started to build up around them.
The thin line between extravagantly rich and very poor is already visible. Just 100m away from New Downtown people live under the bridge – so sad, but very real in Paraguay. We spent many days with a local couchsurfer – Chalo – talking about culture, history of Paraguay, food and drinks. He gave us a lot of tips of what to try to and what to eat as well as he took us to a local grill bar and helanderia for dulce de leche delights. We had a great time sitting in a garden, drinking terre (ice cold yerba matte) and sharing experiences. The relaxed way of Paraguayans is easily appreciated – they are walking slowly around with their beautiful terre thermos and smiling all the time.
Chalo explained to us what role Paraguay plays in the South America’s drug business since apparently this small and generally unnoticed country, with a very corrupted government acts as a major distribution centre for drugs, moving majority of its quantities south of Bolivia (production centre). The north of SA and Central America is controlled by Colombia. Even though drug addiction is not a big social problem here, many people live/get wealthy of this trade.
The visit to the historic center was great too. On the way there, alongside the Av. Marsical Lopez we noticed the most amazing colonial buildings ever. One of them could have been easily our dream house … so stylish and grand. We started our tour near Estacion Ferrocarril (train station) where we visited the best railway museum ever. Little did we know then that it was actually here in Asuncion where the fist South American railway project began. Not so surprising when you find out that Asuncion used to be called ‘Mother of All Cities’ as it was of a great importance during the colonization time. When Spaniards were kicked out of Buenos by Guarani – native Americans, it was here that they founded their strategic city.
With that escalating our spirits we walked around town admiring churches, villas and other buildings that have seen better times in their colonial past. We visited many other museums and finally finished in Menzana de la Rivera – complex of 8 colonial houses converted into a Culture Centre and museum.
3# Top things to do in Paraguay – Laguna Blanca
There are a few National Parks/Reserves to choose from in Paraguay and for us it was really a matter of possibility to Do-It-Yourself. We generally only take tours if we really have to so we scanned internet and our guidebook for some nice and easy to reach places. That is how we stumbled across Laguna Blanca. In fact it is one of the Paraguayan’s favorite places to chill out so we did not think twice.
We expected the journey to be long so we set off early in the morning and by 8 am we were already on the bus heading towards Parque Nacional Cerro and Santa Rosa del Aguaray. It is very important to stress out which Santa Rosa you want to visit as there are many and you may end up somewhere south instead of north-east. 6h later we were dropped in Santa Rosa – I would say Santa Rosa TOWN but it was no more than a big intersection with a bank, restaurants, a few hotels and a bus terminal around it. We liked it instantly though.
There was supposed to be a bus at 2:30 pm, but when we got there just in time we found out it had left at 2 pm. What is the point of a timetable then? We had no other choice but to overnight and catch a morning bus toward Santa Barbara that passes Rancho’s gate. We found a very cute little hotel just 100m of the main road (16$ incl. breakfast) and headed to a local empanadas café. Wow, what a treat that was we cannot even explain. Brazilian empanadas were brilliant but not even close to the quality they served here. We had like 5 each and we were happy as clams.
Santa Rosa was also the first place we visited in South America where people would stop to stare at us. It is a weird feeling when an elderly cowboy stops in front of you to check you out haha At this point we must have been pretty far from the gringo trail ….
We spent amazing 3 days at the rancho, relaxing, sunbathing, swimming with the piranhas and admiring nature. There were no rooms left so we got a tent instead. We got, what you could call a perfect view from our room hahah. It was the end of a working week and loads of people from Asuncion arrived just to visit and to have some beach time, but at night we were pretty much alone. The really amazing thing about this place was seeing horses just roaming free around us, galloping across the beach or just relaxing by the lake. I love these creatures even though I am so allergic I should not even be close to them at all. However seeing them in their semi-wild environment was astonishing. Only a few of them are used for visitors to ride on and the rest is just enjoying their free time.
We also went to explore a bit of forest, see some birds and loads of unusual plants i.e. cactuses. It is very wild and footpaths are not very easy to spot but you can get around with no problems.There are many rare species of birds and reptiles that live around the Reserve. One day we had an unexpected visit from a rattlesnake which just happened to swim between people in a lake and then appeared on the beach. Scientists who work on some reptile research at the Rancho managed to take it out of the beach and release it into the forests. Nobody seemed to be scared but rather fascinated even though this thing could have easily killed a person.
4# Top things to do in Paraguay – Mennonites Colonies
There is no direct connection with the Colonies, and we had to go via Concepcion where hotels were less than appealing (prostitutes and drug addicts around) so we decided that maybe getting on the night bus was not a bad idea. As we had many hours to kill so we left our luggage in the bus company office and went for a stroll around centre. Similarly to other small towns in Paraguay, Concepcion is not a particularly great place but it does have some nice colonial architecture and pretty riverfront that is just perfect for sunset. The overnight journey was quite frankly horrible as once again we found ourselves riding in one of those crappy, crumbling buses that broke down few times on the way. People were somehow not sleepy and they were playing loud music, smoking, drinking beer and whatnot throughout the night. Finally at around 5 am we arrived in Filadelfia and marched straight to the Hotel Florida (one of 3 hotels only). We got our room around 6:30 and got invited for buffet breakfast that was simply fantastic (room 50,000G/10$ each and breakfast 23,000G/5$ each). It improved our moods for sure;-)
When you read about Mennonites you imagine something like Amish colony and all we discovered was a modern German town in the middle of nowhere. That was only at first look as after we looked closer, spoke to people and visited some museums we got to comprehend what they are about. We visited two of the towns all together: Filadelfia and Loma Plata (first establishment in the region) and our feelings were very similar about both of them. Mennonites did a wonderful job by inhabiting this rough terrain and by managing to create such functional towns around. There are supermarkets, dairy factories, car dealerships and other institution that are needed for the town to be efficient. All the writings are in German and everybody speaks German plus Spanish plus very good English.
Mennonites are very well-educated and majority of them study either in Canada or Germany (depending where their ancestors arrived from) and then come back home to be part of the Co-op. Because they don’t believe in violence everybody is extremely nice and polite – maybe too much as it seems very fake at the beginning. To us it looked a little bit ‘robotic’…. too perfect society … ‘Stepford wives’ kind of thing…. Nevertheless we experienced only kindness and help from everybody. Cannot complain about that, right?
The Jakob Unger and Loma Plata Museums are fascinating, taking you through the history of their settlement. The impressive collection of articles, pictures and objects brought with the first settlers is vast. You can see their struggle to survive when they first arrived in Chaco and their hard work to create what we see today. We got guided through some of the facts by a local factory worker. If you wonder what they are we can only say what we were told that they are kind of Lutherans who at the beginning of 20th century escaped regimes to be able to live their way and have freedom of their religion (they study German to be able read Luther’s Bible). However their religion evolved a little bit more and now it excludes any kind of violence as well as hate for Jews. They believe Jewish people are the chosen ones and they deserve respect.
One more thing was really evident to us. There is this unspoken division between local indigenous people and the Mennonites. Even though they say they like native Paraguayans, they would not allow them to be part of the Co-op or their community. It is enough to look around to see the disparity between rich, blond and blue-eyed Mennonites and dark-skinned Paraguayans. The rich are leaving just next door to the poor but not together and not as equals. It looked kind of racist but who are we to judge? One guy told us that they do give them work, schools and medical health so it is not so bad in the end.
It is said that getting from Filadelfia to Bolivia is almost impossible. Well, it was not to us. We caught a night bus to the border town of Mariscal Estigarribia and then bus towards Santa Cruz. The only problem we had, was that we did not want to go to Santa Cruz but to Sucre. In this case we asked the driver to drop us off in Camiri where we could catch onward transport to Sucre. Easily done? Not really but was worth the sense of adventure!
5# Top things to do in Paraguay – Trans-Chaco
Trans-Chaco Highway is one of the most famous roads in South America. After decades of notoriety as one of the worst roads, it was paved in 2007. The road, also knonwon as Ruta Nacional 9 or Ruta Nacional Número 9 “Dr. Carlos Antonio López” is 771 km long. It links Asunción with the Paraguay/Bolivia border in the Chaco. To be able to reach the Laguna Blanca and Mennonites Colonies and then move on to Bolivia, you kind of have to take it but have a look at it as a unique experience. We loved it, it seemed like an exploration, journey to the past…you name it!
Top things to do in Paraguay – Useful Travel Tips and Info:
- Interesting fact #1: you cannot find mango or guava in a supermarket as they simply grow on every corner. Mango is considered a ‘PIG’s food’ so people don’t eat it. I will always remember that when paying my 2£ for one fruit in London;-)
- Interesting fact #2: Tourism in Paraguay has developed very little outside of Asunción, despite the potential of attractions such as Ciudad del Este’s retail area and ruins of Jesuit missions. The nation has only 11,000 beds (more than half in Asunción), 34 percent of which are in luxury or five-star hotels, and 52 percent of which are in three-or four-star hotels. Small establishments account for the rest. Just over 400,000 tourists visit Paraguay each year, 70 percent of which come from Brazil, Argentina, andUruguay… how about the rest of us? (source: http://www.nationsencyclopedia.com/economies/Americas/Paraguay.html)
- Laguna Blanca’s website: http://www.lagunablanca.com.py. Reserve your place if you arrive at weekend
- To get to Concepcion, there are 3 buses a day: 11:30 (good company Nosa, but more pricey), 13:00 Ouetence and 14:00 Santonina
- If you plan on hitching in Paraguay you have to wave your hand up and down instead of sticking your thumb up – we learnt that from a lovely old lady who probably got annoyed by the way we did it. She approached us and showed us how it is done – worked within 10 seconds
- There is a 7am bus to Loma Plata, which goes just from outside of Hotel Florida. It is easy to get a lift though.
- To get to Bolivia catch a 9pm bus to the border town, wait at the immigration point (not at a bus terminal as it could be dangerous and buses don’t always go there) and there are 2 buses between 2-3 am which go to Bolivia (fare around 30$pp). No need to book anything although you can do that in Filadelfia
- If you are not headed to Santa Cruz, get off either in Villamontes (for Tarija region) or Camiri (for Sucre). We were able to get on the 2pm bus to Sucre the same day
- Our favorite thing about Paraguay: authenticity and no tourists around !
- It cost us per day: 47$ per day for both of us. Good news that it is within a poor backpacker’s budget