Paraguay: Destination of the week
Often overshadowed by its bigger neighbors, this South American country offers waterfalls, bird-watching and nature preserves.
Wed, Sep 28, 2011 at 06:02 PM
BIG WATER: Iguazu Falls sits in the borderlands between Paraguay, Argentina and Brazil and is part of Iguazu National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. (Photo: Getty Images)
Paraguay is often overshadowed by its neighbors. South America's tourism headliners, Argentina and Brazil, both share borders with the small, landlocked nation. Without a palm-fringed seaside or a large tourism infrastructure, Paraguay is often overlooked as a travel destination.
However, in many ways, Paraguay is the ideal South American destination for nature tourists and environmentally conscious travelers. It is one of the world's largest hydroelectric producers, with the huge Itaipú Dam standing as a prime example of a non-carbon-producing energy source. A system of national parks and nature preserves shows a growing conservation effort.
Paraguay has a diverse collection of landscapes, with most major South American ecosystems represented within its borders. The expansive Gran Chaco, a mostly uninhabited, semi-arid savanna, covers the western half of the country, while eastern Paraguay is characterized by lush forests, cities and wide rivers. Throughout the country, there are chances for nature-oriented sightseeing in places that have not yet experienced an eco-tourism boom.
Another reason to opt for Paraguay is its prices. It is one of the cheapest places in South America to visit. Decent hotel rooms, even in the capital city of Asuncion, can run between $15 and $30 per night. Prices for food and transportation are also low. The combination of low prices and abundant nature make this a great, green destination.
Getting around urban Paraguay is as easy as hopping in a taxi, renting a motor scooter or simply walking. Public transportation consists of a bus network that runs nationwide. Spartan local buses offer a chance to see the nation up close and to interact with Paraguayans, but the pace of these buses can be slow and the comfort level low. More comfortable express buses (called ejecutivo) with onboard lavatories and DVD players can be used for quicker, more comfortable long-haul travel. Package tours run by eco-tourism companies usually provide transport via bus and boat and sometimes by air.
Asuncion has many hotels, and there are more options around eastern Paraguay in Ciudad del Este and other urban centers.
The Casa del Monte, near the historic town of Atyra (about 40 miles from Asuncion), is a good example of a Paraguayan eco-resort. The onsite spa at del Monte offers treatments and health regimens while the restaurant can serve organic and vegetarian cuisine upon request.
The Hotel Westfalenhaus is a unique option for people staying in Asuncion. An extensive onsite garden and a spa featuring traditional treatments are attractive features for green-minded tourists. Other small-scale sleeping options in Asuncion include the Black Cat Hostel and Paraguay Hostel. Both of these youth-oriented venues feature shared rooms and kitchens that all guests can use.
Options in Ciudad del Este include Casa Blanca Hotel and Spa, an upscale resort in a natural setting on the banks of the Parana River. This is an ideal location for those who are visiting Iguazu Falls and the Itaipu Dam.
Like its South American neighbors, Paraguay's cuisine is heavy on meat. Non-vegetarians can find plenty of places serving domestically sourced meats from Paraguay and neighboring Brazil. Vegetarian options are available in larger cities, especially in Asuncion. One of the most popular meatless places in the capital city is La Vida Verde, a Chinese buffet with plenty of reasonably priced vegetarian dishes. For those who want to indulge in more fleshy fare, Churrasquería Acuarela, a Brazilian-style barbecue restaurant, is a good option. The meat served here was bred locally in Paraguay and neighboring Brazil. La Pérgola Jardín is another place to find fresh food. This restaurant is decidedly upscale, but still reasonably priced by big-city standards.
There are plenty of markets in Asuncion, some with stalls offering ready-to-eat snacks and food. Mercado #4, on Sivio Pettirossi Avenue, is a large market where virtually everything is sold. Lots of the goods are pirated, though you can also find decent eats and some locally made crafts here.
Maize plays an important role in Paraguayan cuisine. Chipas soo, a hearty cornbread with egg and cheese, is a staple. Sopa Paraguayan, a creamy soup with mashed corn as the main ingredient, is another trademark dish. As in neighboring Argentina, yerba mate, a tea-like drink made from a locally grown leaf, is a popular drink that gives a coffee-like kick.
Iguazu Falls is a major waterfall that sits in the borderlands between Paraguay, Argentina and Brazil. This impressive natural wonder is part of Iguazu National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Iguazu is not merely another attraction that's been hyped by a small country's tourism authorities: Its mammoth size (dwarfing Niagara Falls when it comes to both height and width) and speed of the water make it one of South America's most memorable and photo-worthy natural attractions.
The Itaipu Dam is part of one of the world's largest hydroelectric complexes. It sits on the border of Brazil and Paraguay on the expansive Parana River. Aside from the impressive engineering and the fact that the hydroelectric plant is a major producer of carbon-free energy, there are other attractions associated with Itaipu on both sides of the border. The Brazilian side of Itaipu features an eco-museum and a nature sanctuary. Paraguay’s side has a zoo, a museum dedicated to the country's native Guarani people and a nursery that grows seedlings for reforestation projects. There is also a company-overseen nature preserve called Tati Yupi, which features trails though natural landscapes that can be negotiated on foot, by bike and on horseback.
The Pantanal, the world's largest freshwater wetland, is found in several South American nations. A sliver of this important geographical feature sits in northeastern Paraguay. This region is not set up for tourism, though tour companies offer expeditions there.
Gran Chaco, a massive grassland, covers over half of Paraguay but is home to only about 3 percent of its people. The Defensores del Chaco National Park is the region's largest park and one of the best places to see the landscapes and nature of this important but little-visited part of Paraguay. Wildlife in the Chaco includes puma, jaguar, tapir and a host of bird species. Certain crops, especially fuel crops like jatropha, grow well in this ecosystem. As the country's agriculture industry begins to tap the area's resources, national parks like Defensores del Chaco will become even more important in the effort to preserve the rugged landscapes and animal inhabitants of the Chaco.
The Chaco-Pantanal Reserve is a unique place, a transition zone between the relatively arid savannas of the Chaco and the wetlands of the Pantanal. This reserve protects more than 35,000 acres of land, and has accommodations for tourists, though it is also a major research destination for biologists. Endangered species such as giant otters and giant anteaters are among the animals that live there.
Paraguay's bird-watching scene is ideal for bird-seekers looking for a diverse avian population. Paraguay boasts species like parakeets, hummingbirds, woodpeckers and owls, as well as storks, herons, egrets and hawks. Tour companies offer specialized birding tours, although simply going to the country's national parks and preserves will undoubtedly lead to some sightings.
Cerro Cora National Park, with its forests and low hills, is the largest continuous protected area in Paraguay. It sits in the eastern part of the country on the border with Brazil. Guided tours are available. The park's trails pass by waterfalls and streams, and bring visitors into contact with resident wildlife, including monkeys and armadillos. Cerra Cora also has cave paintings that date back more than 2,000 years.
The Mbaracayu Nature Preserve protects 155,000 acres of forest in eastern Paraguay. The agriculture and timber industries have damaged the native Atlantic forest that once covered more than half of eastern Paraguay. The park is now home to unique tree and fern species, as well as birds and endangered mammals such as the jaguar and tapir. The park is also at the center of a grassroots conservation movement, with ongoing efforts to educate people who live in or near the park about conservation and sustainable business practices. Beekeeping and organic gardening have been introduced into local communities to replace subsistence practices such as hunting and slash-and-burn farming.
Paraguay is not on the tourist map for many people, especially because it is often overshadowed by its giant, high-profile South American neighbors. However, its cheap prices, unique culture and natural features make it an ideal place for eco-tourists and green aficionados in search of an accessible, but still slightly wild, destination.
Related on MNN: Visit our other destinations of the week.
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