When we arrived in South America seven months ago we had planned our first week in Cartagena. We also planned on meeting our children in Santiago, Chile for Christmas. We knew that January would be the perfect time to visit Patagonia in Chile and Argentina, as there are only a few months to hike safely in this region. We also wanted to hike the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu, spend time on Easter Island, and visit Bolivia’s salt flats during the rainy season. Other than that we didn’t book anything, look at weather, or determine the best time to visit. I now regret that decision.
I wish that I would have done more research into Bolivia’s other National Parks. Bolivia is teeming with wildlife and has some of the most pristine wilderness in the world. Unfortunately, these areas are best experienced in the dry season and our time here is during the rainy season. I wish that we would have planned our travel to better fit the climate.
We spent several days in La Paz trying to decide if we should visit the Amazon at this time of year. We visited two tour companies that said that if we can arrange to come back to the area, it is better to come back during the dry season if we want to see animals. They recommended that we instead visit the grasslands in order to see wildlife. We finally decided that we can see these grasslands and wildlife in Paraguay and Argentina and not have the extra cost of a flight, or the danger of traveling through flood prone areas.
So, after much debate, we decided to move on to Asuncion, the capitol of Paraguay. Paraguay is landlocked between Bolivia, Brazil, and Argentina. It has large swaths of wilderness which is comprised of savanna and scrubland, swamps, and sub tropical forests.
I did some research and was amazed to learn that even though the distance between the capitols is about four hundred miles, the trip would take about twenty eight hours in a car, or nearly three days by bus. The reason for the time is that the roads are not very good, especially in the rainy season, and there is a lot of water and jungle between the two capitols. Flights were more expensive, but It was an easy two hour flight. I booked our flight the for next morning.
Asuncion is located on the banks of the Paraguay River and has the distinction of being the most affordable capitol city in the world. It is known for it’s beautiful colonial architecture and shopping. What surprised me as I looked out of the window of the plane was how much it reminded me of flying into Jackson, Mississippi. The trees, topography and farms looked very familiar. When we stepped out of the airport and were hit with a wall of heat and humidity, it felt like home too.
Not only were we not prepared for the weather, we weren’t prepared for the need for a visa to enter the country. We knew that Brazil and Bolivia required visas for US citizens but somehow we didn’t realize the need for a visa in Paraguay. Fortunately, the visa process was very easy, unlike Brazil (which we are still trying to obtain after five visits to Brazilian embassies).
To obtain a visa on arrival from Paraguay, we simply had to go to the money exchange window, withdraw $320 USD ($160 each), and pay the fee to immigration. We can now come and go in Paraguay for the next ten years. We didn’t have to fill out any forms, they didn’t ask any questions, and they didn’t even search or screen our luggage. The immigration officer simply offered a big smile and welcomed us to Paraguay. He even chatted with us in perfect English and recommended some things for us to do during our visit.
After being in Bolivia, Paraguay seemed fresh and modern. We decided to stay one night in an old hotel in the historic district so that we could see the original old town. We would then move to the modern end of town and spend a week resting and relaxing.
The historic center boasts amazing and beautiful architecture. We visited a few museums, the cathedral, and took a self guided walking tour of the area. Exploring the city, we were taken aback by the tent cities occupying the waterfront, parks, and government buildings.
We thought that these might be camps for refugees from Venezuela. However, we were saddened to learn that these camps are comprised of over 60,000 indigenous Paraguayans that are seasonly displaced by the rains and flooding. Apparently, climate change is having a devastating impact on this region. We also saw this in Bolivia where homes along the river in La Paz were falling into the river. Heavy rains that used to occur once every ten to twenty years are now occurring every other year.
It was difficult to see barefoot kids playing soccer in an empty fountain and a mother bathing her children from a hose on a city sidewalk. I was upset that a country that looked so affluent wasn’t doing more to help it’s citizens. Then, I read an article about how the government built single family homes and apartments in a nearby town, but these homes remain empty as people are reluctant to leave their ancestral homes and way of life along these tropical rivers. So instead, they live for a few months in these temporary camps until the waters recede.
The next day, we drove to the other side of town and changed hotels. It was like entering another world. This section of town reminded me of the Garden District in New Orleans. The homes were stunning and the gardens were beautiful. The roads were wide and lined with old trees. We booked a week in a fabulous hotel, enjoyed the roof top pool, and ate like we hadn’t had a good meal in months. The food was fabulous in every restaurant that we tried. So much for coming home skinnier than when we left!
I was surprised to find that Paraguay was as prosperous, clean, and nice as it is, being such a young democracy. Parts of the city was as nice or nicer than most US cities and there was a lot of new construction going on. However, there were also pockets of deep poverty.
We have found that throughout South America the malls seem to be new, shiny, and modern. The stores are filled with international designers and US brands. We could have been anywhere in the world. We were pleasantly surprised by the low prices in Paraguay. Costs seem to be about fifty percent less than at home. We could stay in a very nice hotel, eat out at nice restaurants, go to a movie with concessions and still spend less than $100 USD a day.
We were excited to meet three amazing young ladies who were staying in our hotel. They were visiting from Uruguay and they were kind enough to help us plan our upcoming trip to their country. So, after a restful and relaxing week in Asuncion, we headed to Ciudad del Este, Paraguay which is located at the corner of Paraguay, Brazil and Argentina. From there, we would cross the border into Argentina for a visit to Iguazu Falls, one of the natural wonders of the world.
In Paraguay we enjoyed food, movies, and sightseeing, and we were tanned, rested, and ready to continue touring and exploring South America.