Little-visited, little-known Paraguay is a country much misunderstood. Despite its location at the heart of the continent, it is all too often passed over by travelers who wrongly assume that a lack of mega-attractions means there's nothing to see. However, it's ideal for those keen to get off the gringo trail for a truly authentic South American experience.
Paraguay is a country of remarkable contrasts: it's rustic and sophisticated; it boasts spectacular natural reserves and massive human-made dams; it is a place where horses and carts pull up alongside Mercedes Benz vehicles, artisans' workshops abut glitzy shopping centers, and Jesuit ruins in rural villages lie just a few miles from former Spanish colonial towns. The steamy subtropical Atlantic Forest of the east is a stark contrast to the dry, spiny wilderness of the Chaco, the location of the isolated Mennonite colonies.
These are our favorite local haunts, touristy spots, and hidden gems throughout Paraguay.
This 18th-century Franciscan church is a landmark of colonial architecture that is not to be missed. The simple design of the exterior, with its separate wooden bell tower, belies the extraordinary beauty of the painted and carved interior, a masterpiece of religious art and one of the most ornate churches in South America.
A visually striking red-sandstone structure with an ornate style incorporating Roman arches, and strongly featuring the passion-flower motif, signature of the Italian architect Juan Prímoli. Founded in 1706, Guaraní people continued to inhabit the site after the expulsion of the Jesuits, until the collapse of the church dome was taken as an instruction by God to abandon the site.
A must-see for those interested in Jesuit history, housing fine examples of religious carving. The indigenous carvers were taught their trade by a Jesuit master who carved a miniature template, which was then copied full size by the students. The museum holds examples of both, glorious in their imperfections.
Asunción's most instantly recognizable building, the imposing Panteón de los Héroes protects the remains of Mariscal Francisco Solano López and other key figures from Paraguay's historical conflicts. There is a regular changing of the guard with all the usual pomp and ceremony.
The Casa de la Independencia dates from 1772 and is where Paraguay became the first country on the continent to declare its independence in 1811. Rooms are decked out in period furniture and displays contain items belonging to significant figures in the bloodless revolution.
Chaco Lodge is a forest reserve around a large salt lake famous for its flamingos. It is one of the last in the area to dry out, and is accessible only during dry weather. It's a great place to camp. Norbert Epp, the owner can arrange private trips.
Everyone's favorite, Museo del Barro displays everything from modern paintings to pre-Columbian and indigenous crafts, to political caricatures of prominent Paraguayans.
The Sambadromo (Carnival parade ground) is along Av Costanera, which is Encarnación's main strip for nightlife. Outside of Carnival season it is used for other events.
A family of Swiss immigrants led by father Moisés, the Bertonis had the idea of breeding a community of scientists deep in the Paraguayan jungle at the turn of the 20th century. With each child given a branch of the sciences to study, they made a significant impact on the (admittedly limited) Paraguayan scientific community of the time. The monument is the family home, holding a museum documenting the family's achievements, walking trails in the surrounding forest on the banks of the Río Paraná, and Moises' resting place.