Interview with an Expat: Paraguay
South America is home to a variety of countries with a huge amount of history and a fascinating mix of indigenous and European culture. Not surprisingly, the continent is very popular with travelers, but some places still remain undiscovered. This Interview with an Expat entry features a South American country that is relatively unknown and often skipped over in favor of its more popular neighbors. Paraguay is a small but poor country that shares a border with Argentina to the south, Bolivia to the north, and Brazil to the east. Unlike the other Interview with an Expat entries, I visited Paraguay in March 2017 and found the country to be a very authentic place similar in some ways to Central America with almost no foreign tourists. If you ever have the chance, I would strongly recommend a visit to Paraguay. It is definitely a study in contrast when compared to wealthier South American countries, such as Argentina, Chile, and Uruguay.
1. Could you please tell me a little about how you came to live in Paraguay? Did you know anything about the country before moving there?
I'm living in Asuncion, Paraguay as a part of the English Language Fellows program. It's a program from the US State Department for professional English teachers to go to places in need of English language support and exposure, teacher training, curriculum design, etc. Before this opportunity, I knew little more about Paraguay than where to find it on a map.
2. Of all the South American countries, Paraguay is usually skipped over and not commonly visited. In your opinion, what are some of the must-see places and attractions in Paraguay?
It's true that Paraguay isn't usually high on tourists' lists. This is especially true of Americans since Paraguay has a high visa reciprocity fee ($160 as of 2017 - valid for 10 years). Because of this, Paraguay doesn't have much of a tourist scene. This is great for people who want to experience places as locals do. Asuncion, the capital city, has tons of bars, restaurants, and clubs which primarily cater to locals since there aren't really "touristy" places, at least not yet.
In addition to experiencing the life and culture of Asuncion, the architecture of downtown is a treasure. Sadly, the buildings have not been taken care of and are in a state of neglect, but the integrity is still visible beneath the chipped paint and wads of power lines everywhere. Outside of Asuncion, Aregua is a nice place for artisan pottery, and in July/August, the town and surrounding area are covered in strawberries! It sits right on Lake Ypacarai as well.
3. Are there any places you can recommend that are maybe off the beaten path or not commonly visited that would be unique to a visitor?
The Chaco is the region west of the Paraguay River, with mostly infertile soil and a very small population despite being a vast spread of land. Throughout the area, there are little towns that are very authentic and provide a look back at more traditional life. You can also find Mennonite colonies, which have their own unique and fascinating history.
4. What kind of weather can a traveler expect in the different seasons?
Paraguay is usually HOT and HUMID. From the end of August to April, it is pretty hot, with November to February being the absolute worst. Daily temperatures are routinely over 100 Fahrenheit (37 Celsius) in January/February. After April, it cools down a bit, but Paraguay doesn't really have a winter. It never gets below freezing, and even during those "winter" months, temperatures can reach the 80s (25 Celsius) or higher during the day.
5. What are some traditional Paraguayan dishes or drinks that a first-time visitor must try?
Because of this heat and humidity, Paraguayans spend a lot of time hanging out with friends and family in tree-covered parks or their own outside areas at home. A traditional drink is terere, which is an ice cold version of Yerba Mate, mostly known from Argentina. You cannot visit Paraguay without trying terere and stopping at a local Asado for some grilled meat.
6. How safe is Paraguay? Are there any particular precautions a traveler should be aware of when traveling to Paraguay?
Paraguay has a lot of petty crime. I would not walk the streets at night, certainly not alone. Robberies, muggings, etc. are a major issue. Public transportation can also be a problem--both during the day and night. During the day, guard your items if you're on a bus. I've seen several European tourists with purses just lying in their laps, waiting to be nabbed by a guy running out the bus door. At night, take taxis or public transit to avoid walking, and you'll be fine. I was held at gunpoint on a bus at 9:00 at night by a guy wanting my cellphone. Nobody wants to hurt you; they just view you as someone with more wealth than they have and want your stuff.
7. For people who maybe are thinking of moving to Paraguay in the future and becoming expats there, what advice would you give in order to have a relatively stress-free move? What kind of work would an expat be able to find?
Stress-free is going to be pretty difficult because there's so much bureaucracy in Paraguay to give people jobs. It is a country that hands out citizenship after only a few years of residency, though. You'll want to get a local lawyer once you get here to help you with the residency process to get your cedula ID. As for work, everything will be very, very low pay. Most of my friends make between $300 and $500 a month for full time work. Expats can do work online or have other side projects for revenue. Luckily, Asuncion can be a very inexpensive place to live if you know where to go.
8. What has surprised you the most about living in Paraguay?
I knew Paraguay was a poor country before I came--second only to Bolivia in South America. Some parts of the city are built up with expensive U.S. and European stores and restaurants, yet most people I know are working long hours every day to bring in $400 a month. The wealth gap exists in all societies and countries, not least of which the U.S., but seeing the wealth disparity in your face so abruptly really brings it into perspective.
9. How difficult would it be for a traveler or expat who doesn’t know Spanish or Guarani to get around and live? Is English commonly spoken in Paraguay? What are some survival "Guarani phrases that could help a visitor?
That would be very, very difficult. English education has not been the priority here, and while it is mandated by law now, most people graduated from high school knowing very little. This is a part of the greater problem with tourism. It's not just a lack of infrastructure but accessibility as well. On the other hand, if you know rudimentary Spanish, most people are very patient and willing to work with you to understand what you mean and want/need.
Guarani, which is the local indigenous language spoken by 90% of the population, is a difficult language as it is tonal and a nasal tone affects meaning. In order to learn Guarani, I'd recommend taking a look at Omniglot. It can give you an idea of what the language is like.
10. In your opinion, how does Paraguay differ from its neighbors, such as Argentina, Brazil, and Bolivia? In the larger picture, why should a traveler visit Paraguay? What does it offer that other countries in South America do not?
Argentina and Brazil are much more capable of handling tourists and giving tourists a memorable experience at this time because of a built-up tourist infrastructure. They are also much larger and have a great variety of activities, attractions, and landscapes that can appeal to a wide range of people. Paraguay is for the person who is likely already visiting countries in the area and wants an authentic feel of a capital city without the tourist traps and specialized fake culture that gets thrown in your face when traveling to more popular destinations.
About Jeff McIlvenna
Jeff McIlvenna is an English Language Fellow with the U.S. State Department in Asuncion, Paraguay. He's spent the last ten years overseas since graduation from college. He had spent seven years in Sulaimani, Iraq and served as a Peace Corps volunteer in Vaio, Georgia. He holds a BA in Political Science from the University of Missouri in Columbia, MO, and an MA in Education & Innovation from Webster University in St. Louis, MO.