Paraguay is one of those places that doesn’t evoke any strong stereotypes, a place that you don’t have any preconceived notions or expectations, just a blank slate of wondering why you know so little about it. It doesn’t boast any famous landmarks or must-visit tourism destinations, and few backpackers make it there on any South American journeys. The barrier is really two-fold – you don’t know anyone that’s been there to vouch for its interest or safety, and you don’t know what to do or how to get there since few roads lead you in its direction.
But then there are the travelers who dream of this kind of place, an off-the-beaten-track surprise bag to go and discover for yourself. The lack of information or infrastructure just makes Paraguay more appealing, a black hole you want to paint yourself with and wear night-vision goggles in. The country is completely landlocked by Brazil, Bolivia and Argentina, its borders defined by the muddy rivers flowing between them. Its much bigger than you expect, and all its main commercial centers are at the borders, creating an economy that depends on its neighbours.
The population is only 6.5 million, a fraction of the 195 or 40 million in Brazil or Argentina. The customs/immigration office in Punta del Este, a border town near Iguazu, Brazil, shares its office with the Ministry of Tourism, and the front page of its eco-tourism marketing pamphlet has a picture of Iguazu Falls (that waterfall is actually only shared by Argentina and Brazil, though Punta del Este is a “gateway” town to it).
From there I traveled west, through a never-ending small town that eventually turned into the capital city of Asuncion. Here I waited at the bus terminal figuring out what do while meeting and conversing with a handful of local people. All of their concerns were the same; “Why are you here? Are you traveling alone? Can you speak Spanish?” I slowly got the feeling that gringas should have a better plan than I did, so I called a couchsurfer who I had been in touch with to see if we could meet. She said no, she was busy until 4, but then we could meet at her apartment and I could crash there.
The stairs up to her second floor apartment smelled like cat litter, but there was no cat in sight, and noone was home at 4:15. I thought maybe I was late and had missed her. I waited til 5. Then her downstairs neighbour came home and saw me waiting. After calling her from his phone, she said she’d be home in an hour. Since I was in a residential area that felt quite safe with little else to do, I figured I’d keep waiting. She finally showed up at 6:30, and continued speaking only in Spanish though all our exchanges had previously been in English. She was youthful and healthy, and perhaps a little obsessed with her body and beauty. Her apartment was very clean and organized, so much that she was on the verge of being OCD about it since hosting couchsurfers obviously distressed her. She spoke a lot, non-stop almost, and I felt it was either because silence made her nervous or because living alone didn’t giver her enough chances to complain to someone who would just listen. She didn’t always complain, but she preferred to tell me about her petpeeves instead of her interests. She also liked to explain the house rules and how to use everything properly, but kept her hospitality to a minimum.
Asuncion was a beautiful town, a walkable city, with plenty of colonial mansions and a few highrises that would have impressed in the 1980’s. The mercado quarto was my favourite place, a sprawling neighbourhood of merchants selling everything you could imagine. A lady described it to me as the Wal-Mart for Paraguayans, and I guess thats accurate, minus the shiny newness and organization of everything under one roof.