Asunción, Paraguay. Photo by Canva

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Land-locked Paraguay is one of the least visited South American countries, but the capital city of Asunción is worth at least a two-day side trip after visiting its neighbors Brazil, Argentina, or Bolivia. 

Asunción is an easy one and half hour flight from Buenos Aires, and then a short taxi or Uber ride to the city. Yes, Uber exists in Paraguay and is inexpensive. It is just as convenient to depart to North America from Asunción as it is from Buenos Aires. From either city, Copa Airlines will likely route you through Panama on your journey north.

Roa Bastos, Paraguay’s most famous novelist and a Spanish literature award winner, described his country as “An island surrounded by land.”  The country lies in the heart of South America, or in Spanish, en La Corazón de Sud America. It is larger than you might think and in square miles is almost as large as California.

While Paraguay might not boast about its checkered past of wars against its neighbors and a seemingly revolving door of dictators, it can boast about its current political stability, its 3% inflation, where Argentina is at 150%, and its stable currency. 

The dollar stretches far in Paraguay and its crime rate is relatively low. A recent in-depth online article about Paraguay’s economic climate discussed the burgeoning attraction of foreign investment.

Lest one think Paraguay is an impoverished country, there are neighborhoods in Asunción with grand and beautiful mansions, malls with the most fashionable boutique stores in the world, and three hydro-electric power plants (one owned with Argentina and one owned with Brazil) that make Paraguay reportedly the world’s fifth largest exporter of energy. 

Where to Stay in Asunción, Paraguay

The Lobby of the Palmaroga Hotel.  Photo by Damian LaPlaca
The Lobby of the Palmaroga Hotel. Photo by Damian LaPlaca

The recently restored Palmaroga Hotel, with its neoclassical lobby and floors adorned with old-world mosaic tiles, is centrally located in Asunción.  Its rooms are large enough, the beds are comfortable with down comforters, and the lobby is bright with high ceilings. 

The hotel possesses an energetic atmosphere and exudes the warmth of a colonial era. Palmaroga serves breakfast, lunch, and dinner, and the dining room seems always to be full. The hotel is a good launching point to see the former downtown of Asunción.

What to See: Palacio de Los López

Palacio de los López, the "Whitehouse" of Paraguay. Photo by Damian LaPlaca
Palacio de los López, the “Whitehouse” of Paraguay. Photo by Damian LaPlaca

The hotel is within walking distance to the Palacio de Los López, the White House of Paraguay. To get there, you may pass newer hotels gleaming with façades of glass or marble located next to decaying old buildings prime for redevelopment. 

Pinkish in color and brightly lit at night, the Palacio is rectangular with two floors. Arches run continuously the length of both sides of each floor. Have a local beer with tourists and locals at the outdoor patio of Bar Casa Clari, which literally enjoys a close-up, bird’s-eye view of the Palacio. Imagine the impossible: an outdoor patio restaurant serving beer and food with an unimpeded view and within shouting distance of the upper floors of the White House.

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Where to Eat Lunch in Asunción, Paraguay

After Bar Casa Clari, save room for lunch or an afternoon treat at nearby Bolsi, a long-running institution in Asunción. The feel is old-school cafeteria, with fixed stools surrounding a U-shaped interior. Your seatmates may suggest Bolsi’s delicious croquetas. 

With a large selection of traditional Paraguayan dishes, Bolsi is also a great dinner option.  The next day, try Lido Bar in centro, with counter-style eating. Another local favorite, Lido has a wide offering of milanesas, sandwiches, pastelitos and empanadas. You can’t go wrong with an empanada in Paraguay.

Where to Eat Dinner in Asunción, Paraguay

The Highly Rated Tierra Colorada Gastro Restaurant. Photo by Damian LaPlaca
The Highly Rated Tierra Colorada Gastro Restaurant. Photo by Damian LaPlaca

For upscale dining, take a $5 Uber from Palmoraga to Tierra Colorada Gastro, which made Latin America’s 50 Best List in 2016. The ride is a 25-minute, inexpensive sightseeing extravaganza through the center of the city.  

Beef is king, and your waiter may suggest pot roast for the first-time patron. The meat is so tender it flakes off your fork. As in Buenos Aires, Malbec is the red wine of choice. For an alternative, Mercato La Caoba has indoor and outdoor seating, offers Mediterranean fare, and leans heavily towards solidly good Italian food. 

Adventures in Asunción, Paraguay

The Paraguay River by Plane. Photo by Damian LaPlaca
The Paraguay River by Plane. Photo by Damian LaPlaca

Santiago, a 24-year-old commercial pilot for a construction company, moonlights as an Uber driver. He arranged a private, though expensive, early morning flight with a pilot buddy who owns his own 4-seater Cessna.  

For over an hour, our pilot Benicio and Santiago showed off Asunción from the sky, pointing out the Paraguay River, Ypacarai Lake (dotted with summer homes with pools), and the stunning greenery outside the city.  We briefly traversed Argentinian air space.

Benicio dipped low over a treeless green field as though he were strafing it. “You said you wanted to see Asunción!” Santiago bellowed.  If you are not lucky enough to meet Santiago by Uber, find and book a ride in a sail plane, assuming you have the courage to fly in a plane without an engine.

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For Shopping

delSol Shopping is a luxury mall that rivals any American mall with high-end European, American, Paraguayan and other South American stores.  A tourist office on the second floor hands out pre-printed glossy brochures to boost its fledgling tourism.  Paraguayan artisanal markets can be found in the mall and throughout the city center. 

If You Go:

Interesting Paraguayan tidbits: saltshakers are placed on dining tables, but you have to ask for pepper. Classic British and American rock is heard on radio in hotels, bars, restaurants, and Uber cars, though English is not widely spoken. 

Most Uber cars are dated but the driving is safe. In public places you might get the occasional look because North Americans are not often seen, but Paraguayans are friendly and appreciate your presence. In the airport, you can find an attractive handmade leather fedora or Panama-style hat at an artisanal market for $30.

For further reading: At the Tomb of the Inflatable Pig (2003), British lawyer John Gimlette chronicles his travels throughout Paraguay as a teen and then an adult. You will learn the names of dictators and their violent overthrows by successor dictators.  Bolsi and Lido Bar were among his favorite spots.

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Author Bio: Damian LaPlaca enjoys traveling, sailing, and cooking. He has been published in Cruising World, Sail Magazine, Caribbean Compass and in The Weekly Journal, the English language arm of El Vocero, a leading newspaper in Puerto Rico, where he lives. He is a recovering lawyer.

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