Destination Paraguay

Paraguay Special Report 2019 By Didhiti Ghosh*

Destination Paraguay

Paraguay is a country of remarkable contrasts: it's rustic and sophisticated; it boasts spectacular natural reserves and massive human-made dams;

Travelling for some people is a colourful opportunity to explore new places, and for others, it is just a break from their monotonous schedules. Some travel to seek an adventure out-of-the-box while others travel in search of peace and serenity. However, for a majority of Indians, travelling has become more of a tranquilizer to the anxious bustling life than gaining new experience.

India is fast gaining popularity as a tourism destination amidst inbound travellers with top-notch markets. Research conducted by ICICI Lombard based on the Indian population shows that a majority (50%) of them travel in search of adventure, while some (42%) travel to spend quality time with their loved ones. Other major reasons to travel include self-discovery (41%), exploring different cultures (38%), and establishing status and prestige (38%).

An article in Forbes notes: Encouraged by its pace-setting 7 percent GDP global growth rate, rising personal income levels and changing lifestyles, huge middle class as well as the availability of low-cost airfares and diverse travel packages, India is rapidly becoming one of the fastest growing outbound travel markets in the world, second only to China. If expectations are realized, the UNWTO predicts today’s 20 million outbound Indian travellers will more than double to 50 million by the year 2020.

Latin America: A Blooming Tourist Destination

Andean peaks, Amazonian rainforest, Patagonian glaciers, Incan ruins, colonial towns, white-sand beaches and vertiginous nightlife: the wonders of South America set the stage for incredible adventures. Data from Statista reveals the numbers behind Latin America’s blooming Tourism Industry. Ranked fourth in this list, Latin America’s Travel and Tourism Industry made a total contribution of more than 371.8 billion U.S. dollars to the region’s GDP – including 135.6 billion directly contributed by the industry. By 2026, the total GDP contributed by the Latin American Travel and Tourism Industry is expected to rise to around 600 billion U.S. dollars.

The nostalgic visitor’s eyes define the region from a different yet exquisite angle. South America is a continent of streaks and highlights: Rio’s beaches, Peru’s Machu Picchu, the Galapagos in Ecuador, Monday Falls in Paraguay and the Iguazú Falls which can be reached from Foz do Iguaçu in Brazil and PuertoIguazú in the Argentina, or from Ciudad del Este in Paraguay. South America’s diversity doesn’t end with landscapes; one will find colonial towns where cobblestone streets lead past gilded churches and stately plazas little changed since the 18th century.

La vida musical or musical life is the LatAm tourist’s treasure trove. Not much compares to hearing the rhythms of Colombian salsa, Brazilian samba, Argentine tango and Andean folk music in the place where they were born. Buenos Aires’ sultry milongas (tango clubs), Rio’s simmering garrafeiras (dance halls), Quito’s salsotecas (salsa clubs) – all great places to chase the heart of a Saturday night. Yet this is only the beginning of a great musical odyssey that encompasses the Peruvian trovas, the soulful Ecuadorian passillos, the fast-stepping Brazilian forró, an act of whirling Venezuelan merengue, a pinch of steel-pan Guyanese drumming and what not.

Paraguay – the Heart of South America

There is one country, though, that escapes most travel itineraries. Paraguay, which is known by many as the heart of South America, still has an air of mystery to it (like serpentine climbers harbouring heaven’s magnum doors).

Lesser-Known Paraguay brims with unique contrasts, cultural cross-overs and authentic travel experiences, as though awaiting profound discovery by the robust traveller. The virgin country is tucked away unassumingly in its unique geographical location, and for backpackers with an old-school map and an open mind, it offers untamed natural beauty, scorching summers and a fascinating colonial story just waiting to be discovered. Much of the landscape is wild and waiting to be explored yet. The country supports its economy through its incredibly abundant natural resources; additionally, the bordering is home to the largest reservoir for drinking water in the world at Guaraní Aquifer. The Itaipú Dam is also the biggest producer of hydroelectric power and one of the largest exporters for soya beans and beef in the world.

However, it is still comparatively cheap and prices are on the lower side when compared to other South American countries. This means more savings for the Indian traveller.

And there are a host of reasons more why India should welcome the mellow country as a tourism partner. Considering the unique psychosocial heritage, Paraguayans are loyal and devoted to their family, similar to the Indians.

The economic analysis provides additional niches for harbouring a strong partnership between the two countries. India’s recent travel statistics demonstrate that when travelling abroad, Indian tourists are among the world’s highest-spending globetrotters. Their spending power has been estimated to be four times that of the Chinese and Japanese. In fact, the Tourism Industry contributes to 6.88 percent to India’s total GDP, and the same has brought an earning of over $27 billion, apart from raising foreign exchange earnings by 20.2 percent (TripAdvisor, 2017). The Tourism Sector is now contributing to a boosted employment rate in India which shot up by 12.36 percent in the past 2 years.

Why Paraguay?

Paraguay is a country of remarkable contrasts: it’s rustic and sophisticated; it boasts spectacular natural reserves and massive human-made dams; it is a place where horses and carts pull up alongside Mercedes Benz vehicles, artisans’ workshops abut glitzy shopping centres, and Jesuit ruins in rural villages lie just a few kilometres from interesting colonial towns. The steamy subtropical Atlantic Forest of the east is a stark contrast to the dry, spiny wilderness of the Chaco, the location of the isolated Mennonite colonies.

In the words of an avid traveller, Asunción, the capital of Paraguay is a multicultural centre with its pink palace, great museums and old-school charm that resembles something from a Graham Greene novel. Cobbled streets wind through the city to the green curve of the Paraguay River, fading baroque buildings are painted in tropical yellows and reds, and every plaza is filled with pink blossomed Lapacho trees that leave a carpet of flowers on the ground.

On a more historical note, Paraguay is the only South American country that achieved independence without a war - it is the only country that right after independence was led by a dictatorship. José Rodriguez de Francia was declared as the Supreme Dictator by the Congress itself and he ruled for almost 3 decades (1814 to 1840). Then, it was the first Latin American country to rise as a promising economic and military world-power, thanks to the protectionism and able leadership of Carlos Antonio López who became President in the year 1844.

Here are 10 additional boosts to mark the country for the next tourist destination:

1. Paraguay is a land of cowboys and Indians

Cowboys in big sombreros (hats) ride bucking broncos at local fiestas: one should try the January festivals in Santiago. Indians in feather headdresses sit outside the Panteón in Asunción; the traveller must visit their reserve by the Puente Remanso Bridge.

2. Spectacular National Parks

Paraguay’s natural beauty encompasses everything from desolate wilderness to crashing waterfalls.

3. Paraguay’s tablecloths take 18 months to make

To singlehandedly craft one of Paraguay’s intricate ao po’i lace tablecloths takes almost a year and a half. One must make it a point to see locals at work in delightful Yataitý.

4. Motorsport madness

If one’s an adrenaline junkie, stick around for the Trans-Chaco Rally, held across October and November in the north of the country. This three-day motorsports event is considered one of the toughest competitions in the industry and it easily draws thousands of spectators.

5. Fabulous festivals

As in much of South America, Paraguay’s festivals are vital for its national identity. Every spring, before Lent, a version of carnival explodes onto the streets in Encarnación.

6. Paraguay has America’s biggest feline

With luck and patience, one might just see puma, jaguar and tapir prowling on the plains. Paraguay’s jaguars grow up to 1.85m. This handsome beast can be seen in the Atinguý refuge or in Asunción’s Jardín Zoológico (Zoological Garden).

7. Delicious local food

Paraguayan food is simple, hearty, tasty, and almost always made from two abundant staples: manioc (or cassava) and corn. This ultimate street food is Latin America’s answer to the Cornish pasty: miniature pastry parcels stuffed with sweet or savoury fillings.

8. Pocket-friendly shopping

Though not likely considered one of the world’s top shopping destinations, Paraguay has some incredible bargains to offer. Ciudad del Este, just across the border from Brazil, is Paraguay’s tax-free shopping haven - it’s the best place to go for cut-price electronics, perfume, and designer label items.

9. Traditional markets

For authentic souvenirs in Asunción, as well as everything else under the sun, look no further than the famous Mercado Cuatro. At this bustling bazaar, one will find fresh produce and ripped DVDs alongside colourful birds and spices from all over the world.

10. Paraguay has green gold

Colonisers expelled Jesuits from Paraguay, believing they’d hidden gold in their missionary towns. But they found only “green gold” – the yerba mate tree, used for tea. The curious tourist must visit the evocative ruins of Trinidad, one of 30 towns destroyed by gold hunters’ greed.

Best places to visit in Paraguay

There are several UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Paraguay waiting to mesmerize the Indian tourist – the city of Asunción is the national capital while the busy Ciudad del Este is home to the famous Iguazú Falls. Some other key cities in Paraguay are Aregua, Pillar, Concepción and Villeta (with little violet).

Cabildo is the national cultural centre housing the old legislative colonial building. The country’s historic independence is commemorated by the landmark of Casa de la Independencia, and Panteón de los Héroes y Oratorio de la Virgen Nuestra Señora Santa María is the Paraguayan national memorial site where many heroes lie buried. The Palacio de López, also called Palacio de Gobierno or Palacio Presidencial is the Paraguayan Government House. The renovated Teatro Municipal Ignacio A. Pane hosts regular shows and there is also a nice café where one can enjoy some great food just in case the opera performances are postponed.

Here are 15 best tourist spots to visit in Paraguay:

1. Asunción – The Capital City

A curious metropolis of more than two million people, it is the beating political, economic and cultural heart of modern Paraguay. The centre clings to the eastern banks of the Paraguay River, which meanders around the downtown along the border with Argentina to the west. Here, visitors delve into what is actually one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the Americas. First raised by the conquistadores, Asunción was actually the base from which the Spanish ventured out westwards, to the wilds of Peru and Patagonia. Today, the town is gilded with the great Panteón de los Héroes, with throbbing nightlife along the Paseo Carmelitas.

2. Encarnación

The so-called “Pearl of the South” reclines carefree on the banks of the Paraná River, drawing crowds of Asuncenos (people from the capital) during the summer with the promise of pristine riparian beaches and the country’s most up-and-coming boardwalk boulevard. Water sports are popular too, with jet skis buzzing around the meanders of Parana, below the shimmering high-rises of the city’s all-new residential neighbourhoods across the bay. And when the relaxation is done and dusted, one must be sure to get a culture hit at the UNESCO-attested Jesuit ruins on the edge of the town.

3. Cerro Cora National Park

This pint-sized natural reserve is unquestionably one of the most dramatic and breath-taking sections of backcountry in all of Paraguay. Only recently established, it encompasses a great swathe of undulating savannah and highland terrain, where otherworldly hills peak above the swaying grasses and the armadillos playing hide-and-seek. Muralia peak is a great place to start here; offering sweeping panoramas of the region’s arid forestry and plains, while there are also curious cultural encounters to be had with the indigenous tribespeople and a smattering of mysterious ancient petroglyphs to evoke the curiosity.

4. Ciudad del Este

Like a Moroccan bazaar, the markets of Ciudad del Este sprawl out along the courses of the Parana River, the sounds of Middle Eastern hagglers and Taiwanese electronics hawkers echoing between the rows and rows of blinking electronics and branded clothes. Yes, there’s a reason why this unashamed hub of the Paraguayan black market is hailed as the “Supermarket of the Americas”. Thousands of Brazilians cross over to the town every day to catch bargains amidst the emporiums of Camilo Recalde, while visitors typically make a beeline for the colossal engineering masterpiece that is the Itaipú Dam – another of Paraguay’s major economic generators.

5. Ybycuí National Park

Capuchin monkeys swing through the canopies while howlers scale the tree trunks at Ybycuí National Park, a small and tight-knit protected section of what’s remaining of the Upper Parana Atlantic Forest. Most travellers make the relatively short 150-kilometer drive here straight from the capital, eager to see the gushing waterfalls that cascade down through the rocky undergrowth of the forests in steps and plunge pools. Another attraction is the ruins of a onetime iron foundry, where the forces of the hard-fought Paraguayan War once created weaponry and munitions while hidden in the hills.

6. Yaguaron

This small backwater town set in the shadow of the bulbous cliffs and rocky hills just south of the capital at Asunción began life as a Spanish mission intended as a settlement spot for the Guaraní natives back in the early decades of the 1600s. Today, the striking church that was raised by the Europeans here to make their mark still stands on the grassy fields where it did all those centuries ago. It’s one of the prime examples of the Franciscan tradition in the country and is a fine cultural addition to an exploration through the exhibition rooms of the nearby Gaspar Rodríguez de Francia Museum – the onetime home of the Paraguayan dictator, located just a stone’s throw away down the road.

7. Itauguá

Famed for its distinctive tribal art and traditional Paraguayan folk music scene, the small city of Itauguá is a great place to while away a few days as one makes way through the very heart of South America. Its inner streets come lined with swaying, shady eucalyptus trees and there are countless workshops where it’s possible to buy ñandutí – a beautiful and intricate form of Paraguayan embroidery that originated in this region long ago. Every year in March a festival is held in honour of this centuries-old art form.

8. Filadelfia

Filadelfia sits just on the edge of the Gran Chaco, where the forests and undulating hills of the Región Oriental give way to the great boreal plains that form the very heartlands of the continent as a whole. That makes this far-flung town – the so-called “Capital of the Chaco” – a very different place to the small southern cities of Aregua and Itauguá. But the curiosities don’t stop there either. Filadelfia is also German-speaking, and plays host to the people of the Fernheim Colony, a transplanted Mennonite community that fled here from Stalinist Russia in the 1930s. Add to that a dairy farm and an earthy agricultural vibe, and one has got a truly interesting spot smack bang in the middle of the nation!

9. San Estanislao

Named after a Polish saint founded by Spanish Jesuits, intended to convert the native Guaraní Indian people of San Pedro in central Paraguay and infused with the cultures of immigrants from Italy, Germany and Eastern Europe throughout the last two centuries, the pint-sized yet interesting little stop-off of San Estanislao is like the history of the country writ small. In the 1800s it boomed with tobacco production, while today soy and pulses is the main crop raised in the surrounding fields. Travellers can come and see pretty tree-lined plazas and wallow in the bucolic feel of the place, all whilst meeting a lively crowd of students, beers in tow, during the later hours.

10. Concepción

Located just on the cusp of the Grand Chaco and benefitting from great river connections to the larger cities of the south, Concepción enjoyed an economic golden age before being plunged into conflict during the Paraguayan War. Today, its central streets and cobbled alleys still bear all the hallmarks of a colonial outpost that did very well indeed from its various agricultural pursuits. Visitors embark and disembark from their hop-on, hop-off river cruises up the meanders of the Paraguay River, wonder at the elegant façades and painted Spanish-style churches, and enjoy the sultry tropical airs as they go.

11. La Santísima Trinidad de Paraná

Paraguay’s historical piece de resistance can be found set just north of the fun-loving southern hub of Encarnación, rising from the rolling hills just a stone’s throw from the Parana River. A UNESCO World Heritage Site, the spot is a fine example of a South American Jesuit Reduction. These would once have peppered the Latin lands from Argentina to Bolivia and worked to convert the local Indian populations to Christianity in a non-invasive way. Nowadays, the site showcases crumbling churches and priests’ living quarters, many adorned with European artworks, others complete with a curious intermingling of Indian and Italianesque styles.

12. San Cosme y Damián

Jutting its way out into the colossal oxbow lakes and flooded plains that swell where the Paraná River weaves along the borderline with Argentina to the south, the village of San Cosme y Damián is a real sight to behold. It comes encompassed by shimmering, palm tree-spotted, yellow-sanded dunes, which ebb and flow across the landscape before plunging down directly into the waters. There is also an interesting old Jesuit mission situated nearby, while boat trips and hiking excursions across the shores are a great way to explore the otherworldly vistas and shifting sands.

13. San Bernardino

Barred off from the chaos of the capital by the great liquid curve of Lake Ypacaraí, San Bernardino has firmly established itself as one of the prime gateways for the moneyed jet setter Asuncenos. Ferries buzz across several times a day from the outer districts of Areguá, depositing folk on the waterside boulevards of Bernardino, between swaying palm trees and the artificial sand stretches that have been set up there. Of course, the town has oodles of pubs and discos to let loose in, and partiers flock to the plazas with beers and salsa-ready hips right throughout the summer high season (typically running from December to March).

14. Villarrica

Set in the shadow of the rugged Ybyturuzú highland ridges, Villarrica is a proud and historically rich Paraguayan town; a place where monuments to national heroes pepper the plazas and some of the country’s most important cultural institutions and traditions are on the line-up. The tourist can lurk the Maestro Fermín López Museum in the heart of town, which showcases collections of old munitions and arms from the Chaco War next to ancient Indian weaponry. Then there are the booming Easter celebrations, which erupt on the squares and between the gorgeous Spanish-style towers of the Franciscan church – one seriously handsome relic of the colonial era to say the least!

15. Bella Vista’s tereré plantations

The bitter herbal tea known as tereré is Paraguay’s most beloved beverage. It was exported to Europe in the 19th century and even used as currency, exchanged for boats and building materials. One must head to Bella Vista in the south of the country to take a tour of the immense plantations that pepper the countryside.

There’s a saying in Paraguay that people who visit the country always cry twice – once when they arrive, and once when they leave. Emotions might run high in this mellow niche, a nation whose beautiful, the beguiling and baffling persona is made all the more alluring by its relative obscurity. ¡Hail Tourist, nos vemos en Paraguay!

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