Arts

As many intellectuals and artists will tell you, the Paraguayan government gives little funding to the arts. Many artists, musicians and painters have left the country to perform or work elsewhere. Nevertheless, Paraguay boasts some well-known figures.

Paraguay's major literary figures are poet-critic and writer Josefina Plá and poet-novelist Augusto Roa Bastos, winner of the 1990 Cervantes Prize. Bastos died in 2005, aged 87. Despite many years in exile, he focused on Paraguayan themes and history, drawing from personal experience. Contemporary writers include Nila López, poet Jacobo A Rauskin, Luis María Martínez, Ramón Silva Roque Vallejos, Delfina Acosta and Susy Delgado.

People & Culture

Some 95% of Paraguayans are considered mestizos (of mixed indigenous and Spanish descent). Spanish is the language of business and most prevalent in the cities, while in the campaña (countryside), Guaraní is more common. Jopará (a mixture of the two) is used in some parts of the media. The remaining 5% of the population are descendants of European immigrants (mainly Ukrainians and Germans), Mennonite farmers and indigenous tribes. Small but notable Asian, Arab and Brazilian communities are found, particularly in the south and east of the country.

More than 95% of the population lives in eastern Paraguay, only half in urban areas. Unicef reports a literacy rate of 99%, an infant mortality rate of 1.8% and an average life expectancy of 72 years. The annual population growth rate is 2.6%.

Statistically, Paraguay is the second-poorest South American country, though walking around the country's cities you might find it hard to believe. Lines of souped-up Mercedes Benz whiz around, classy restaurants are full to bursting and there are houses the size of palaces. Contrast this with the lives of the rural poor, where landless campesinos live hand to mouth and are exploited by landowners who employ long-discredited latifundio (large landholding)models. This continues to represent the country's biggest social problem.

Paraguayan towns are frequently nicknamed 'Capital of …' after their most notable features or products. Encarnación, for example, is 'Capital de Carnaval,' Coronel Bogado 'Capital de Chipa,' and Itauguá 'Capital de Ñandutí.'

Paraguayans are famously laid-back and rightly renowned for their warmth and hospitality. Sipping tereré (iced herbal tea) in the 40ºC shade while shooting the breeze takes the better part of a day. Siesta is obligatory and in some communities extends from noon to sunset, making the early morning and dusk the busiest times of day.

Though things have improved, corruption remains a part of daily life. For visitors, corruption is most likely to manifest itself in the form of police soliciting bribes or in higher prices for gringos.

Ninety percent of the population claims to be Roman Catholic, but folk variants are common and evangelical Christianity is on the rise. Most indigenous peoples have retained their core religious beliefs, or modified them only slightly, despite nominal allegiance to Catholicism or evangelical Protestantism.

Environment

The country is divided into two distinct regions, east and west of the Río Paraguay. Eastern Paraguay historically was a mosaic of Atlantic Forest and cerrado (savanna), with the unique Mesopotamian flooded grasslands in the extreme south of the country. Much of the original habitat has now been converted to agriculture, especially in departments of Itapúa and Alto Paraná, but substantial tracts of these pristine but globally endangered habitats still remain. To the west is the Gran Chaco, with a lush palm savanna in its lower reaches (Humid Chaco), and a dense, arid, thorny forest (Dry Chaco) further north and west. The northeastern Chaco represents the southern extent of the great Pantanal wetland.

Climate

Climate in Paraguay is governed by winds, a north wind bringing high temperatures from the tropics and a south wind bringing cool weather from Patagonia. Paraguay is intensely hot from November to March, averaging 95°F (35°C), with daily temperatures ranging between 77°F to 109°F (25°C to 43°C). It is coolest from April to September, though the average high in July, the coldest month, is 71°F (22°C). At this time, extremely hot days as well as cold morning frosts are not unusual.

The end of June usually experiences a week or two of hot weather, known as the Veranillo de San Juan (St John's minisummer) as it frequently coincides with the Fiesta de San Juan. Heavy rain and breathtaking electric storms are frequent from September to November and, less dramatically, from March to April. Typically the sun shines throughout the year, even when it is cold.

Wildlife

Wildlife is diverse, but the expanding rural population is putting increasing pressure on eastern Paraguay's fauna. Mammals are most abundant and easy to see in the largely unpopulated Chaco. Anteaters, armadillos, maned wolves, giant otters, lowland tapirs, jaguars, pumas, peccaries and brocket deer are all still relatively numerous here. In the mid-1970s the Chacoan peccary, a species previously known only from subfossilized remains, was found alive and well in the Paraguayan Chaco, where it had evaded discovery for centuries.

Birdlife is abundant, and Paraguay is home to 713 bird species. The national bird is the bare-throated bellbird, named for its remarkable call, but serious bird-watchers will be in search of endangered, limited-range species, such as the white-winged nightjar, saffron-cowled blackbird, lesser nothura, helmeted woodpecker and black-fronted piping-guan. Reptiles, including caiman and anaconda, are widespread. The amphibian that will most likely catch your eye is the enormous rococo toad, which is attracted to lights, even in urban areas.

National Parks & Private Reserves

Paraguay's national parks are largely remote and typically inadequately protected. Parque Nacional Teniente Enciso and Parque Nacional Defensores del Chaco are the principal parks in the Chaco, but visitor facilities are poor and you'll need to take all your food and drink with you. The most biodiverse Atlantic Forest reserve is Parque Nacional San Rafael. There is also a series of excellent and well-run private reserves across the country, perhaps the best of which is the Mbaracayú Biosphere Reserve, another substantial block of Atlantic Forest.

Environmental Issues

The disappearance of the eastern Atlantic Forest has been alarming; much of the rainforest has been logged for agriculture, especially soy and wheat crops, and mostly for the benefit of large-scale, wealthy farmers. The construction of the Itaipú hydroelectric plant was not without controversy, and a second dam at Yacyretá, near Ayolas, has permanently altered the country's southern coast (made up of gallery forest).

The country's most pressing environmental threat, however, now concerns the rapid deforestation of the previously pristine Chaco. With the Paraguayan economy healthy and new technological advances making it easier than ever to raise cattle in this harsh environment, wealthy ranchers are taking advantage of the low land prices in the western region to establish new estancias (ranches). The resulting deforestation has been rapid and has made international headlines.

Furthermore, experiments in the development of soybean strains that can withstand the harsh Chaco climate potentially pose a serious threat to the remaining natural habitats. This prospect would introduce highly profitable monocultures into this delicate ecosystem, threatening to tip the ecological balance permanently.

Sports

Paraguayans are fútbol-mad. It's not uncommon to see large groups of men in bars supping Pilsen and watching the Copa Libertadores on a communal TV. The most popular soccer teams, Olimpia and Cerro Porteño, have a fierce rivalry, though the national team has been in slow declines since reaching the quarterfinals of the 2010 World Cup and finishing runner-up in the 2011 Copa América. The headquarters of Conmebol, the South American football confederation, is in Luque, on the road to the airport. It houses an impressive museum depicting the history of the sport on the continent.

Tennis, basketball, volleyball, hunting and fishing are also popular.

Pombero

Guaraní folklore has many colorful mythological figures, but none is so widely believed to be true as Pombero. A mischievous little imp, said to be short, muscular and hairy, he emerges at night when he should only be referred to as Karai Pyhare (Lord of the Night). His presence is used to explain anything from strange sounds and missing items to unfortunate minor accidents. Pombero's penchant for young women, accompanied or otherwise, can only be overcome by diverting his attentions with a glass of caña (rum) or cigarettes, left as a gift. Place them on the roadside and hightail it out of there!