This country calls itself the Corazón de Sudamérica (the heart of South America). It’s as big as California and consists of rivers, swamps, subtropical forest, savanna and scrubland. It’s also the 3rd poorest country in South America.
So, why come to Paraguay — besides this being country #151 in my quest to visit every country in the world? In 2019, Paraguay was ranked by a Gallup survey as the world’s happiest place based on smiling, laughing, enjoying life and being treated with respect. Naturally, I had to check this place out.
I based myself in Paraguay’s capital, Asunción, taking day trips in and around the city. This is a colorful city with decent hotels, interesting architecture, pretty parks and great restaurants — everything that I needed.
So, here’s Paraguay in the heart of South America — with almost no tourists. To me, this is a good thing. From a practical point of view, few tourists means no queues, better service and lower prices. I liked Paraguay because the native culture is intact. 90% of Paraguayans speak different forms of the Guarani language in addition to Spanish.
My Spanish is terrible. Yet, the Paraguayans were very forgiving of my poor grammar and weak vocabulary. Even the bus drivers smiled and helped me get on the right bus and then get off at the right stop.
Paraguay doesn’t have mega-attractions like some of its neighbors. But there are several lovely sites to visit in and around Asunción.
In the village of Yaguarón is an 18th century altarpiece that’s as intricate, ornate and remarkable as any of the famous altarpieces in the cathedrals of Prague. Yet, unlike Prague, when I visited this church, there was no fee and no crowds. I had the place all to myself … except for a dozen music students practicing for a concert. This is what visiting a beautiful, holy site should be like.
It was a pleasure walking around a city as the only tourist. I was invited to join this checkers game and lost very quickly.
One evening, I bought a ticket to hear Paraguay’s National Orchestra. At the ticket desk, I asked the chap selling tickets if I’d be hearing anything by Beethoven, Mozart or Bach? He looked puzzled at first, and then smiled and said “No”. What I was treated to was far more entertaining than any concert by a dead European composer. The concert turned out to be two hours of lively, jazzy, Latin tunes — accompanied by a chorus and dancers. By the end of the evening, the audience was dancing in the aisles.
As usual, a four day visit to this country was too short. But it was enough to get a taste for their delicious empanadas and the local beer. I especially appreciated the Paraguayan attention to keeping beer as cold as possible. In my four days here, I saw many smiles, heard lots of laughter and was treated with respect. Maybe Paraguay really is the world’s happiest country.