Feb, 2016: When we first arrived in Asuncion back in early 2016 the city was still recovering from the 2015 floods which saw ~120,000 people displaced from their homes in Paraguay, Brazil, Argentina and Uruguay. The highway leading into town was lined with half submerged homes and the city’s main squares played host to a shanty town of shacks made of plaster board and black plastic. While people were super friendly I couldn’t help get the impression of a decaying and potentially dangerous city (and country) with minimal on offer for us travellers. Fi and I both wondered if we had made a mistake in coming altogether. BUT, as I sat in the backyard of our hostel five weeks later watching a hummingbird feast on the nectar of a papaya flower I knew my lasting impression would be of a highly underrated country full of beautiful friendly people, crumbling beauty and very quirky history.
From warm and welcoming locals and fourth generation German’s, to crazily awesome expats we met some absolutely diamond people in Paraguay and without doubt they made our stay! There was the Literature major from Asuncion who had returned from the US to teach English to his fellow Paraguayans and who introduced us to the amazingly atmospheric Bar Lido with it’s delicious empanadas and fish soup. Then there was the chef / cleaner / ‘mother-duck’ at El Roble who gave Fi and Alexis beautiful warm hugs and kisses each morning when we stumbled in for fresh baked bread and cheese, coffee and fruit. There were the Paraguayan families who sat out on their porches drinking from their ubiquitous Terere (iced tea thermos); at first appearing surly with an almost accusatory glare but breaking into a warm grin and a wave in return for a simple hello and good morning. There were the passionate Futsal fans in Concepcion screaming on their local heroes and then the laid back campesinos slouched in their saddles as they pushed another herd of cattle along the side of the road. There was Javi the super warm owner of our hostel in Asuncion who would shake your hand and give you a hug every time he saw you and Lucas from Argentina who had amazing tunes but could say no more English than ‘very good, very good, very good’. There were many characters and faces which I can never manage to capture appropriately on film or in words. They will definitely be happily remembered though!
On the history front…one evening while staying at El Roble in central Paraguay, our host Peter asked if we would be interested in watching a film about Paraguay. This turned out to be a recently filmed Anthony Bourdain documentary about his family’s misadventures in Paraguay and for which Peter had acted as a part time fixer / historian / super cool actor. While I’ll let you suss out the doco yourself (‘Parts Unknown’) one little nugget I picked up on was Paraguayan governments’ (past and present) penchant for welcoming random foreign communities into their country tempted by patches of dirt promising a lot but delivering bugger all. Here is a brief summary:
- There were the French who came to establish New Bordeaux on the banks of the Rio Paraguay (mid 1800s) but who arrived to the unfortunate realisation that central Paraguay in summer is absolutely nothing like the rich rolling hills of Bordeaux in the mother country.
- Then there were the group of 238 Australian socialists who sailed across the Pacific in the late 1800’s seeking to escape the tyrannies of the Victorian era Government back home and establish a South American utopia just outside of Asuncion. While they did indeed establish New Australia (the community still exists at least in name), it soon fell apart as the virile young Aussie lads apparently became more interested in chasing the local lasses than community building. Eventually infighting took over and people returned home.
- Then there were the Moonies who are a religious cult lead by a charismatic South Korean guru who actually paid for a patch of dirt back in the early noughties on the River Paraguay (and are still there). Once again this glorious venture of ‘nation building’ hasn’t got very far and while there is apparently a decent amount of wealth locked up in their town there is only a handful of Moonies still left. These silly sods are still battling with local authorities to prove why they should have such prime, river front real estate when so many local Paraguayans have so little of their own country.
- The only foreigners who seem to have thrived (relatively speaking) are the Mennonites. The Mennonites are a group of conservative Christians of largely German descent who arrived in Paraguay in the early 1900s to establish a number of communities in the isolated Chaco region of the country. They were welcomed by the Paraguayan government of the time to help bolster a population decimated by the Triple Alliance War (Paraguay versus Uruguay, Brazil and Argentina) and to help settle an area of the country which at the time was thought to hold oil. Some of these communities live like hermits in secluded communities (apparently comparable to the Amish) while others have made a go of it and now supply a good deal of Paraguay’s dairy products.
Now that the current president has well and truly declared Paraguay open for business with near zero export tax it will be interesting see who will be the next wave of foreign nationals coming to have a crack. Perhaps we met an example of this next wave in a young American dude who was staying in our Asuncion hostel. He had been in Paraguay for a week for the sole purpose of buying Paraguayan citizenship for USD5K with the help of Paraguayan lawyer and a local fixer. Such easy access to Paraguayan citizenship makes it easier to invest and do business not just in Paraguay but also to the rest of the trading blocks in South America. Hopefully people like our American friend will have more success than those before him and in doing so actually manage to give something back to the local Paraguayans who have to put up with them.
For our final week in Paraguay, we booked into the super friendly Casita de la Abuela Hostel (Grandma’s Little House) in Asuncion and as only ever really seems to happen when you’re travelling almost immediately made a little family of close knit friends. It was great to spend more time getting to know Asuncion and hanging out with the crazy crew at the hostel. Definitely the highlight of the stay was having a Sunday BBQ where we feasted on marinated pork flank and chicken breast, juicy hanger steak and succulent sausages all served with ever so slightly spicy chimichuri and washed down with never ending beers which never seemed to quench our thirst. There were so many other awesome moments with lots of laughs at the hostel meaning Fi and I were more than a little sad to say goodbye. The epitome of this was when Oscar the Ukranian who worked at the hostel saw us off early on our final morning with a parting gift of an 8% Russian beer and hugs all around.
As we headed to the Asuncion bus station for a 24 hour mission to Brazil our initial apprehension about Paraguay was gone, replaced with that warm and fuzzy feeling of an amazing place discovered and awesome characters met.
Asuncion travel and feasting tips:
- For a good laugh and interesting look into Paraguay’s history, we thoroughly recommend reading At the Tomb of the Inflatable Pig by John Gimlette
- We loved staying at La Casita de la Abuela in Asuncion (USD25/private double/night, 1074 Hernandarias). The owner Javi is a total legend.
- Bar Lido (Palma esquina Chile) across the road from the Pantheon de los Heroes is an Asuncion institution and a must do for any visitor. Perch up at the bar and watch the hoards of locals come and go and to enjoy their delicious fish soup and empanadas.
- Cafe Literario (456 Mcal. Estigarribia, Asuncion) is a cool little cafe / book shop / bar up near Plaza Uruguaya. Great place to hang out for an hour or two and enjoy a fairly potent G&T.
- El Poniente is a cool little locals bar with live music playing a few nights a week. The friendly young crowd spills out onto the pavement and the street and they have a decent selection of booze (http://elponiente.vitrinevirtual.net)