Asuncion won’t jump out and grab your attention right away like other major cities in the region. The once powerful city has recently become a sleepy shadow of its glorious past. Today, Asuncion, and much of the rest of Paraguay for that matter, manages to stay well off the tourist radar despite the frantic tourism activity in neighboring regions. You’re not going to find the massive influx of travellers in Asuncion like you will in Buenos Aires. In the same light, you’re also not going to find the same highly organized tourism infrastructure that you see elsewhere. Honestly though, the lack of tourism is partly what makes the capital of Paraguay so interesting. The city is featured by worn-out mansions, dramatic palaces that have seen better days, and plazas that long for the days that horse and carriages wheeled around classy citizens dressed in formal wear. However, you’ll also find that the city is full of a people as prideful as any on the continent. They’ll sing the praises of their city, their football club, and the culture. Asuncion takes a bit of exploration to truly understand, but once you put in that effort you’ll fall in love it the city and everything about it.
A History in Brief
After being first settled by the Spanish in 1537, Asuncion became the capital to a Spanish colonial province. Throughout the age of colonial rule Paraguay, and its capital, served primarily as a station for jesuit missions into the interior of South America, until their expulsion by the Spanish in the late 1700s.
Following independence from the Spanish, the eccentric Jose Gaspar Rodriguez de Francia became the first president. Under the eccentric doctor Paraguay quickly became one of the most powerful, albeit extreme, countries in all of South America. Rules such as the denial of marriage between two Spanish born citizens, the nationalization of the church and the abolishing of higher education isolated Paraguay from much of the continent. Despite many coups attempting to rid Dr. de Francia of his power he managed to control the country for nearly 30 years.
Despite becoming an economic and military power in the early 1800s the history of Asuncion, and Paraguay as a whole, would soon change thanks to over-aggression. The Paraguayan initiated triple-alliance war between 1864 and 1870 pitted Paraguay against Uruguay, Brazil and Argentina. After the bloodiest war in South American history, one where as many as half of Paraguays pre-war population was killed, Paraguay lost huge portions of territory, its access to the coast, and much of its prestige. To regain some territory, and maybe some self respect, Paraguay would later fight a war against Bolivia in which it won.
Up until recently, it seemed that the idea Paraguayan political stability had been an after thought. The country was victim to a constant stream of policial upheavals and coups until the early 1990s. Even politics in the country are far from stable as leftist president, and former Roman Catholic Bishop, Fernando Lugo has begun to face fierce popular criticism leading to the growing popularity of the right-wing Colorado Party and growing disenchantment among the people.
- Spanish is not the only national language as Guarani is also widely spoken. In the interior you’re also likely to encounter a large number of German speakers with Mennonite backgrounds.
- Paraguay has the largest navy of any landlocked country in the world
- Paraguay means “the water that goes to water” referring to the river leading to the ocean.
- The average player on the popular Olimpia Asuncion soccer team earns about 500US$ a month
- Nearly 95% of the population of Paraguay is mixed Spanish/Indigenous decent, also known as Mestizo
Things to Do in Asuncion
- Colonial and government buildings: If you are into photography there are actually some great buildings to photograph in downtown Asuncion. The Government Palace, Municipal Cathedral, Casa de la Independencia and Teatro Municipal all light up at night making great subjects.
- Museums: Asuncion actually has some great museums. By far the most popular is the Museo del Barro which gives a great portrayal of the human history of this misunderstood country. The natural history museum, Museo de Historia Natural and the anthropology museum Museo Etnograpfico Andres Barbero are also worth some time.
- Botanical Gardens and Zoo: The gardens are on the outskirts of town – a bus or taxi will get you there from the center easily and cheaply. They are quiet and well worth a stroll. Be on the lookout for lizards and iguanas along the paths. The zoo could be better maintained, but still gives a nice insight to the wildlife that lives in the area. Wear sunscreen and bug spray if you go.
Where to Eat in Asuncion
I wouldn’t exactly call Asuncion a culinary center of the world, and coming from Argentina you’ll likely be disappointed in the meats. However, there are lots of places to eat, and the prices for meals are very good.
- Lido Bar: Sit out on the sidewalk and enjoy some people watching while devouring a giant burger, nice steak, or a dish of pasta. I ate here twice with my bill never coming to more than 9US$ and I was ordering top fare and a beer or two.
- La Flor de Canela: If you’re craving Peruvian style ceviche this is the place to go. I stopped in for dinner one night had a great dinner and a glass of wine for 7US$.
- Taberna Espanola: Another great place to go for dinner. The restaurant has a bit of a casual pub feel and serves great Latin type food. The average meal on the menu comes to around 5-8us$.
- Cafe del Teatro: For lunch, and free wifi, head to the cafe in the municipal theather. You can get a ham and cheese sandwich or a mini-pizza for about 1.50US$. How can you beat that?
Most of the hotels and hostels in Asuncion now have wifi. You’ll find a number of phone huts and internet cafes in the downtown area. The average price for internet is about .75cents US an hour.
Where to Stay in Asuncion
- Black Cat Hostel: The busiest, and most well situated, hostel in Asuncion is the black hat. A dorm bed goes for about 8US$ but I would upgrade to a 10US$ dorm that has airconditioning as Asuncion can be hot.
- Asuncion Hostel: The newest hostel in town has also been getting good reviews, prices of a dorm are around 9US$ a night.
Getting out of Town
The main bus terminal in town will get you basically anywhere in the country you’re trying to get to. There are also frequent international buses. It’s not necessary, but I recommend you book your bus tickets in advance as to not get stuck in the back of the bus. I have listed the most popular routes below.
- Filiadelfia: Buses to the interior take about 7 hours. There are a number of buses including a night bus, don’t expect this to be the most comfortable bus in the world as the route can be bumpy and the buses on the rough side.
- Concepcion: To get to Concepcion there are buses every couple of hours. The trip is about six hours.
- Juan Pedro Caballero: To get to the border of Brazil, the Concepcion bus continues on to the shopping town of Juan Pedro Caballero which takes about 9 hours.
- Ciudad del Este and Iguazu: If you’re heading to Iguazu falls or the town of Ciudad del Este there are frequent buses that take about 6 hours to Ciudad del Este and 9 hours to Iguazu depending on the situation at the border.
- Buenos Aires: There are about 5 buses a day to get to Buenos Aires. The best option is with Dorado bus line who has a night bus that takes about 12 hours.
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