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Published: July 25th 2013
Being within a few kilometers of Paraguay when I visited Iguazu Falls was enough to spark my interest in this landlocked country of which I knew very little. It took another 24 hour coach trip to reach the capital, Asuncion - we initially retraced the route back to Iguazu, then crossed the Parana river into the Paraguayan border city of Ciudad del Este, where were immediately immersed in rows of shopping centres, which are frequented by Brazillians and Argentinians for their cheap electrical goods.
The remainder of the journey was mostly through flat farmland (Paraguay is 1 and 2/3 times bigger than the UK, but with only a tenth of the population). The coach was boarded on occasions by people selling "chipa", toroidal shaped breads with cheese and aniseed - a Paraguayan speciality of which I became a fan. I managed to find my way using public transport to my hostel "La Casita de Abuela", which was recommended to me by a friend. This turned out to be an excellent choice, as the manager, Javier made me feel more at home than in any other hostel I've stayed in. On arrival, the only other guests were four friends from France:
Adé, Vincent, PJ and François. We were also joined at times by volunteers from the US government agency, Peace Corps, who had some interesting stories to tell from the communities they were working in. The only difficulty was knowing which language to speak and it was common to hear English, Spanish and French in a single sentence. It was also interesting to hear the Peace Corps members practicing the indigenous language (Guarani), which they had to learn as it is more widely spoken than Spanish in Paraguay and many people in their communities do not speak Spanish.
Before travelling to Paraguay, I joined the travellers' website, Couchsurfing, and left a message in the hope of meeting up with Asuncion residents to practice my Spanish and gain some local knowledge. One of the respondents was Natalya, who showed me around the centre, then took me to the nearby town of Luque, where Paraguay's best regarded guitar-makers are based. Here, I picked up my new travel companion - a hand-built guitar - for a fraction of the price it would have cost back home. I was able to put it to use immediately, playing with some of the other hostel residents,
Left to right: Edu, François, Julia, PJ, Barbara, Sunny, Sam, Felipe, Adé and Vince.
in particular, Peace Corps volunteer Julia, with whom I rattled off a few Bob Dylan covers.
Asuncion suffered from a severe pothole problem and the exhaust fumes were choking (most cars appeared at least 10 years old) - that is except for Sunday, which was the quietest I'd ever seen a major city centre. Drivers were also very possessive of the roads, often swerving toward you if you dared to step off the pavement. There were some development projects, however, such as the costanera, by the river, where an artificial beach had been created (although the water was too polluted to swim in, as indicated by the numerous danger signs). Overall, Asuncion felt like a very friendly and safe place, in comparison to some other South American cities. Britishness also appeared to be the height of fashion, from the sound of Britpop in most bars, to the clothes outlet "Shopping Britanico", where the trendy youth bought their clothes before spending the evening in the Britannia Pub, which was sadly lacking in real ale. Paraguay also has a tradition of sharing drinks and I never quite got used to someone picking up my pint!
Through Couchsurfing, I also met
Laura, a fan of local football team Olimpia. I joined her and friends in a bar to watch them play in the quarter final first leg of the Copa Libertadores (the South American equivalent of the UEFA Champions' League). We saw them defend valiantly to secure a 0-0 draw against Fluminense in Brazil. Laura invited me to see the second leg at the Defensores del Chaco stadium in Asuncion a week later. The prospect of seeing my first live match in South America was too exciting to pass up and I jumped at the chance. The atmosphere was far more vociferous than anything I'd experienced at British games and I'm sure that helped sway a few refereeing decisions, as Olimpia progressed with a 2-1 victory, despite some very rough challenges in their penalty area in the closing stages.
I spent two weeks in Asuncion, which is the longest I've stayed in one place this year. It was great to have a break from travelling for a while and become established somewhere and I was
lucky enough to meet some nice people who I will certainly stay in touch with.
I left for Paraguay's third city, Encarnacion, at the southern end of the country. My main reason for staying here was to visit what is supposedly one of the least visited UNESCO World Heritage sites, the Jesuit ruins of Trinidad. It became apparent why this was the case, as I didn't see any signs when on the bus and found out we'd travelled several kilometres past it when I asked the driver. I was joined on the return bus ride by Cesar, who was on his way to Encarnacion to visit a friend, but decided to get off and see the ruins with me. In addition, we visited the site nearby where the stones for building the site were excavated.
In the evening, I met up with Cesar and his friend and we visited the costanera, which offered attractive views of the Argentinian city of Posadas across the river. Unlike Asuncion, the road infrastructure in Encarnacion was modern without potholes and there were three beaches. However, where one might have expected a row of hotels, there was only barren land and the area
was eerily quiet. I was told this was beacuse the government is charging a premium for land that developers are unwilling to pay.
On asking a Paraguayan how they are, the answer is often "tranquilo" which reflected of the personality of most people I encountered in the country - more conservative than their Brazillian and Argentinian neighbours, but warm, friendly and peaceful, which made for a very pleasant stay.
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