When I went to Brazil in 2003, I spent my first week in Curitiba, which is the state capital of Paraná. I was asked many times whether I was going to travel to visit Foz de Iguaçu and see the famous waterfalls. However, it was on the other side of the state, and it just wasn’t feasible to fit into my schedule or budget. But if I ever make the trip back to Brazil, I definitely want to add this into the trip. While the city is on the border with Paraguay, the actual falls are across the border from Argentina. Foz de Iguaçu (or Foz de Iguazu in Spanish) is pretty much a five-and-a-half-hour straight shot to Asuncion, Paraguay. I’ve already got this planned out.
Kind of like certain dishes, everyone has their own take on how the name Paraguay came to be. Many historians and linguists have come up with a variety of translations over the years, but most of them stem from the Guaraní language and most have something to do with water or the river.
Paraguay is a landlocked country in the central part of South America. The northern part borders with Bolivia (the other landlocked country in South America), part of the eastern section borders with Brazil, and the southern and western parts touch Argentina. Its climate is tropical and subtropical, depending on where you are. The Paraguay River, which is the second-longest river in South America, pretty much divides the country in two.
The first people moved into this area thousands of years ago. Today, there are still 17 different ethnolinguistic groups still living in Paraguay. The first Europeans to arrive in the area were the Spanish when de Espinosa’s crew created what would become the capital city of Asunción. Jesuit missions popped up across Paraguay as well as other areas throughout South America with the mission of forcing Christianity among the indigenous peoples who were content praying to whatever they prayed to. Paraguay actually kicked the Spanish out in 1811. It only took three years to get their first dictator, José Gaspar Rodríguez de Francia, who wanted to set the country up as a utopian society and pushed a mixed-race (mestizo) society among other things. Although there wasn’t a lot of slavery in Paraguay, it was officially banned in 1844. In 1864, Paraguay entered the Paraguyan War against the Triple Alliance of Brazil, Uruguay, and Argentina. It was one of the bloodiest wars in Latin American history, although the actual causes are still being debated. The first half of the 20th century saw numerous back-to-back coups and presidential changes. In 1954, Alfredo Stroessner took to power, and his Colorado Party had a history of violating human rights and violence to get things done until he was overthrown in 1989. The Colorado Party that had been in power for the past 60 years finally lost its majority. However, Fernando Lugo, who won by a landslide, was impeached in 2012 on grounds of a badly executed land eviction among other issues.
Asunción, otherwise known as Nuestro Señora Santa María de la Asunción, is the capital city of Paraguay. As one of the oldest cities in South America, founded in 1537, it was named after the Catholic Feast of the Assumption (held August 15). Today, the city has over 2.1 million people in its metro area. It sits on the banks of the Paraguay River, which pretty much borders with Argentina, especially heading south of the city. Not only is it the center of government, but it’s also a center of commerce, banking, and education. It’s rife with museums, historical buildings, sports facilities, theatres, and arts galleries.
For much of the past 40-50 years, Paraguay has had one of the highest economic growth patterns in South America, and it only continues to grow. They are among the world’s leading producers of stevia, soybeans, corn, tung oil, wheat, and beef. They're also known for their yerba mate production. Agriculture is extremely important since most of the country lives in rural areas. Mining, pharmaceutical, and manufacturing industries have really began setting footholds in the country. Even at that, the country still struggles with wage inequality; estimates show between 35-50% of the country lives in poverty, and most of those in the rural areas. Clean drinking water and electricity haven’t even made it to the vast majority of the rural and indigenous population.
Nearly 90% of Paraguayans are Roman Catholic. There are smaller numbers of various Protestant denominations as well as some communities of other religions such as Baha’i, Islam, and indigenous religions.
Officially, Paraguay is bilingual in both Spanish and Guaraní. The Guaraní language is one of the largest indigenous languages in South America, native to Paraguay and Bolivia (although there are also communities in Argentina and Brazil as well). The city of Asunción has many speakers of a dialect called Jopará, which is more of a casual form of Guaraní that uses quite a bit of Spanish loan words. Because of its history and proximity to Brazil, there are also a significant number of Portuguese speakers.
From what I’ve gathered in reading about Paraguay and its people, they’re society is built around the land, their food, and hospitality. They even made it into the Guinness Book of World Records for having the world’s largest barbecue that hosted nearly 30,000 people. It’s easily a country I could spend some time in, eating my way from city to city.
Up next: art and literature