Located in the heart of South America, Paraguay is a landlocked country bordering Brazil, Bolivia, and Argentina. Exotic and isolated, it is among the most adventurous travel destinations in the region.
Paraguayan history is a rather difficult study, and suffers from revisionism, lack of archaeological research, and the effects of warfare on the country’s National Archives. What we do know is that, prior to Spanish colonization, Paraguay was home to semi-nomadic Native American tribes, primarily speakers of Guarani dialects. Its capital, Asunción, was one of the first Spanish cities on the continent, and served as a base for conquistadors, adventurers, and missionaries in South America. Paraguay declared independence from Spain in 1811, and throughout most of its history was ruled by a series of dictators. Some, such as José Gaspar Rodríguez de Francia (often known as el Supremo) are fondly remembered, while others have left a more dubious legacy. Of the latter, Francisco Solano López, who assumed control in 1862, stands out for leading Paraguay into the disastrous War of the Triple Alliance, which decimated the country’s population and led to his own death. It took the country several decades to recover. By the 1930s, mounting tensions with Bolivia led to the three-year Chaco War, which Paraguay won at great cost; this led to a long period of political disorder, marked by a civil war in 1947, which ended with the establishment of Alfredo Stroessner’s regime in 1954. Stroessner was deposed in a military coup in 1989; the ensuing junta handed authority to Paraguay’s first democratically elected president in 1993.
Democracy has been quite successful in Paraguay, and the country has experienced peaceful power transitions since 1993. Economically, however, Paraguay lags behind other South American countries, and suffers from widespread unemployment and poverty, as well as a tremendous income gap and a large informal sector. Agriculture is the largest industry, and having seen significant growth in recent years, stands to become an increasing source of revenue. Low real estate prices and relaxed land ownership laws have whetted the appetites of several foreign countries for Paraguayan farmland, and despite its landlocked status, the country benefits from access to several free ports in Brazil and Argentina.
Paraguay sees relatively few visitors, despite its many cultural sites and very low prices–Asunción, in fact, was named the world’s cheapest city to live in by Mercer in 2008. This makes it a great place for anyone seeking total cultural immersion and/or budget travel. Paraguay is particularly ideal for Spanish (or even Guarani) language students, with several programs available at affordable prices. Paid jobs are understandably rare; English teaching is always an option, although wages are generally low. But then, so is the cost of living, so if your primary motivation is experience, rather than money, Paraguay may be right up your alley.
Spanish and Guarani are the official languages. As a rule, Spanish is confined mostly to big cities, while Guarani predominates among Paraguay’s rural population; in practice, though, most Paraguayans speak a mixture of the two, which they call jopará.