The Land the World Forgot

Trip Start Jan 15, 2006
Trip End Sep 05, 2006

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Flag of Paraguay  ,
Friday, March 31, 2006

Paraguay is a country that doesn't have much to work with. The country has no international profile. There are no guidebooks (probably because there are no visitors). They have no oil or other natural resources. The country is landlocked, flat, small and has lots of mosquitoes. Tourism does not seem to be a particularly promising business for Paraguay.

There were several large (peaceful) protests going on while we were there. I did a couple of news searches on Paraguay and could only get reports of how their soccer team fared against other national teams. The Economist provides online reports of conditions in most countries. Unfortunately, Paraguay does not rate a report.

Before we entered, many Brazilians warned us that the country was ugly and dangerous. The border town where we crossed did nothing to dispel this notion. The town was split between Brazil and Paraguay. The Paraguayan half made Brazil look orderly, tidy and wealthy. This is not easy to do.

Some of the country's problems are of their own making. In the 1860's Paraguay's dictator, a Senor Vasquez, felt that the country wasn't getting much respect from the outside world (some things don't change). To rectify this problem he simultaneously declared war on Brazil, Uruguay and Argentina. Once these three countries realized they were under attack, they promptly marched their armies into Paraguay and slaughtered 2/3 of the adult male population. One consolation for the surviving men was that the Catholic Church temporarily allowed polygamy in order to repopulate the country.

In 1932, Paraguay was once again at fighting strength, demonstrated that it could learn from its mistakes and declared war on a country of its own size, Bolivia. This was a much more successful endeavor and allowed the country to capture a very large swamp that stood between the two countries. This marshy symbol of glory remains largely unpopulated to this day.

As we spent more time in Paraguay, however, we were quite impressed with what the country has accomplished despite their obstacles. We drove about 400 miles through the countryside and the land was covered with small farms. The houses were quite small but they were sturdy and people looked like they were well fed. In Brazil there is a significant underclass that lives in small thatched shanties in the countryside. The kids are unwashed and playing in the dirt. This underclass does not seem to exist in Paraguay.

That being said, the middle class in Brazil is far wealthier than the farmers in Paraguay. The per capita GDP in Brazil is about $7K versus $4K for Paraguay. In some spots in rural Brazil you could squint at the fast food signs and pretend you were in Toledo (or some other rest stop on the interstate.)

Getting off the Gringo Trail can have significant benefits for the budget. We spent one night in the sticks and paid a total of $13 for our hotel room and chicken dinner including ice cream and a liter of beer. The downside is that you usually get what you pay for. I had a stomach ache, the bed smelled of mildew and the bathroom odor made me wonder if the previous occupants had been a drunken soccer team with poor aim. Kia spent the night fully dressed so that her skin would not touch the bed. We hightailed it out at first light towards Asuncion.

We were pleasantly surprised with the capital. The Sheraton where we stayed was new, gorgeous and overbooked. (This was just about the first full hotel we have seen on our ttravels.) We managed to negotiate a discount on a suite and felt like we were in the Taj Mahal after the previous night's lodging. Asuncion is receiving a significant amount of foreign investment. The city has many new office buildings and retail establishments. Our hotel lobby was full of US and European businessmen cutting deals. There were more Mercedes per capita in Asuncion then any other city we have visited. (For some reason, both Mercedes and Coke seem to about 90% share of their respective markets in most Latin countries.)

Paraguay's secret seems to be a very aggressive embrace of free trade and deregulation. It is not easy to invest in either Brazil or Argentina, but Paraguay seems to be willing to accept anyone who wants to do business there. The country also doesn't have significant import tariffs. One of their successful ventures has been to import large amounts of consumer electronics and other products to sell to Brazilians and Argentines who cross the border at a major tourist attraction where the three countries meet. This embrace of free trade has clearly enriched a meaningful segment of the population.

The deregulation may be a bit more troubling. At gas stations, fuel comes with lead unless you purchase premium. I am guessing that there are not many working catalytic converters in Paraguay. Marijuana is a big cash crop that is marketed primarily to Brazilians.

You may not have noticed, but Paraguay has qualified for the World Cup this year. (If you visit, you will notice.) I decided to purchase an official Paraguay Football Jersey (for the grand sum of $10) and will likely be the only person cheering for the plucky Paraguayans. This country deserves a break, even if it is only a couple of soccer victories.

For me the bottom line was that I am glad that I visited. If you are on a similar trip, in the area, you should definitely check it out. If not, no need to plan your next vacation around Paraguay.

We are headed back into northern Argentina for two long days of driving before we get to an area that is supposed to look like the US southwest with vineyards. We relax there for close to a week before we cross the Andes to meet Kia's folks in San Pedro de Atacama.
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midlifecrisis on

Re: Not wholly true
Ali -

Thanks so much for your comments. I just reread my post and agree that a Paraguayan might not find the profile to be particularly flattering. I apologize and hope you understand that my writing style uses exaggeration to create humor. I was writing for a US audience.

I took my information on the 19th century war from a couple of sources that I believe to be unbiased. Obviously, my understanding of the events could be well less than yours and I suspect that what I read may be colored by the tendency for history to be written by the victors.

I actually have a great deal of admiration for your country and its people. My view is that you have been blessed with far fewer natural resources than other countries but have made a better life for your citizens. I see Paraguay as the embodiment of the concept of 'self-made man'. (I think I wrote more about this in my entries on Bolivia.)

We did drive across the entire country. (I believe we entered at Bela Vista and we exited from Asuncion.) I did see more of your country than you would have seen by just visiting Detroit.

I wish you luck on your effort to increase tourism, but it may be an uphill battle. At least for Americans, when we think of South America we think of the beaches in Uruguay and Brazil, the Amazon, the cities of Rio and BA, Patagonia, the Andes, Argentine wine regions, the Andes and Machu Picchu.

I don't have any current plans to get back, but will certainly keep my eye on your country and keep you in mind for a future trip.



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