Paraguay is one of our first few stops on our nomadic journey. There are a variety of reasons for this:
- Our very good friends and their families live here.
- Carey is now a board member of a USA based charity supporting a school for poor children here in Paraguay.
- The cost of living is quite low.
Paraguay doesn’t make international news very often. Many North Americans might have heard of Paraguay, but would have trouble picking out the precise location on a map and have just about no idea about the country. I was probably in that category ten years ago before I met our dear friends who have become our second family.
The lack of knowledge and obscurity of Paraguay was illustrated in a Saturday Night Live segment during the December 14, 2013 Weekend Update with Seth Meyers where he reported, “Uruguay this week became the first country in the world to legalize marijuana. Which means that hundreds of stoned college students just booked a flight to Paraguay.” Illustrating that there are two small countries in South America that no one really knows much about.
This is our third trip to Paraguay. The first being in 2008, the second in 2012 and now this trip in 2016. I know it won’t be our last. There have been huge changes that we have noticed in just the three trips that we have made since 2008.
Paraguay is a land locked country in South America bordered by Bolivia, Brazil and Argentina. The total population is about 7 million people with about a third of those people living in the southeastern part of the country. About 10% of the total population lives in the capital city of Asuncion and its suburbs (where we are staying).
Paraguay is one of the least urbanized countries in South America with only 56% of the population living in urban areas. As a benchmark, 80.7% of the USA population lives in urban areas and over 80% of the Canadian population is urban.
As I learn more about Paraguay, one of the fascinating things to me is the uniqueness of the demographics as far as racial make-up of the country. Pre-1492 there were no Europeans in the Americas. In areas colonized by the Spanish, there was a lot of intermarriage between the Spanish and the indigenous peoples. I am not a sociologist, so this might not be worded in the right way or 100% accurate, but my observation has been in countries like Peru, there are definitely pockets of indigenous peoples, such as the Quechuas, and areas with mixed Spanish/indigenous population. Argentina is of mostly European ancestry with very few indigenous people. You can get a pretty good idea of whether someone has a lot of European ancestry or indigenous ancestry just by their physical appearance and features.
In contrast, Paraguay is estimated to be 95% mestizo (mixed European and indigenous blood), a much more homogenous group. Jose Rodríguez de Francia, the first dictator of Paraguay who ruled from 1814 to 1840 forbade Europeans from marrying one another and any European had to marry someone with either mixed blood or an indigenous person.
Even today, 80% of the population of Paraguay is bi-lingual: Spanish and Guarani. The indigenous Guarani language is understood by about 95% of the population while Spanish is understood by 90% of the population. (Note: you pronounce Guarani – Gwa da’ nee. This is the name of the indigenous people, the language they speak and the national currency of Paraguay. Right now $1 USD is worth about 5,500 Guarani. It is a great feeling being a multi-billionaire! I take out a million Guarani out of the ATM at a time – $176 USD).
The economy of Paraguay is rapidly growing. Its GDP grew by over 14% in 2013 and is growing more rapidly than its Latin American neighbors. Agriculture is a big part of the economy with soybeans and sugar exports leading the way.
Where we lived
We stayed in a great two bedroom, two bath Airbnb for our month in Asuncion. It is near a couple of cool places.
The Hipodromo – in English this would be a “horse race track.” It is still used for equestrian events, but it is also used for concerts, for example Marc Anthony performed here during our stay.
Secretaria Nacionale de Deportes – literally the Secretary of National Sports. It is a huge complex with running trails, track and field stadium, field hockey and soccer fields, outdoor exercise equipment, gymnasiums, etc. It is only a quarter mile from the Airbnb.
The Airbnb is a small house in a nice, quiet, safe, middle class neighborhood. The owner’s parents live next door and were very helpful and even brought us fresh fruit from their trees!
There is basically everything you need within a half mile. A large supermarket is about a half mile walk. There are at least three small neighborhood stores called “dispensas” within two blocks in either direction. A dispensa is a small, family owned store where the owner typically lives on the premises. They have most staples – milk, bread, rice, sugar, eggs etc. plus convenience foods like soda pop, chips, and other junk food.
Two blocks away is Avenida La Victoria, Victory Avenue. Up and down the Avenida are all sorts of local Paraguayan style mid-range restaurants. What I mean by this is that although you will find McDonalds, Burger King, KFC, etc in Paraguay, you won’t find them on Avenida La Victoria. Neither will you find high end, five star restaurants. What you will find are restaurants that sell skewers of meat, pizza, lomito sandwiches (kind of like a hamburger), empanadas, ice cream. All the places we tried were very good and very inexpensive. There were a couple of cafeteria style places. Each day they have a steam table set up with a few choices of food – two types of meat, rice, potatoes, yucca, vegetables. You pick what you want and it is sold by weight. One price for the meat and another for the rice, potatoes, etc.
We were about 2km from our friends house. We walked there a couple of times, however, it was unseasonably hot for quite a bit of our stay here. Daily temperatures in the high 90s with a heat index in the hundreds. Even a 2km walk during any time but early morning or late evening leaves you drenched in sweat. Correction, I sweat like a pig and my wife glistens a little.
Downtown Asuncion is a 20 minute cab ride away and costs 20,000 – 30.000 Guarani ($3.50 – $5.50 USD). Downtown are some art galleries and a really cool coffee shop, Café Consulado along with some historical sites such as the National Palace.
The emerging center of Asuncion is the Villa Mora area. We arrived very late our first night in Asuncion and stayed in the brand new thirteen story Aloft Hotel. It is right across the street from the new World Trade Center, a set of four 20 story office buildings. From the room of the Aloft Hotel I counted 13 high rise construction cranes. This area of town is booming!
Within a mile or two of the World Trade Center are a couple of large shopping malls and tons of shops and restaurants. Again, it is just a 25,000 to 35,000 Guarani cab ride away.
Cost of Living
As I mentioned earlier, the primary reasons we decided to come to Paraguay was to visit our friends and learn more about the school I am getting involved in. A secondary reason we came here is that it has one of the lowest costs of living for a capital city in South America. Our furnished two bedroom house costs around $600 USD for the month including all fees. We can eat out for anywhere from $2.50 to $15.00 USD per person. A few dollars will get you a meal of a sandwich and French fries and a drink in a restaurant. I had duck in orange sauce at the best French restaurant in Asuncion for about $12 USD. The same entre in the USA would have run me at least $45 USD for the same quality and ambience.
Groceries are inexpensive as long as you buy local type products. You can get American brands of food, but will pay for it if you can find it. A few of the grocery stores have “International Food” sections where you can find bags of Starbucks coffee, Kellog’s cereals, Snickers candy bars, all at high prices.
Tourism is really still in the development stage in Paraguay, both in Ausuncion and in the rest of the country. There are a few museums and historical sites, but they aren’t really publicized that well and can be hard to find. Since our last visit, they have created a costa nestra (walkway along the river) which is kind of nice. There is a burgeoning arts and culture scene that I’ll talk about in another post.
In past trips we visited Ciudad del Este which is a place many people stay before heading to Iguazu Falls a few miles away in Brazil and Argentina. Near Ciudad del Este is the Itau hydroelectric dam, the second largest in the world. For an engineer like me, the tour is excellent and very interesting. However, Ciudad del Este was not on the agenda this trip.
We did make a three day trip down to Encarnacion to visit some Jesuit ruins from the 17th century. The ruins and the city of Encarnacion itself were very interesting and deserve their own blog post.
More details to come on Paraguay, but we are set up to have an excellent time!!