06 March 2015

Paraguay: The Heart of South America

I read a great post about a visitor's experience in Paraguay earlier today over at Los Viajes de Mary, an awesome blog run by a Peruvian traveler. She had a 12-hour layover in Asunción and decided to make the most of her time in the city. I translated it to English to share it with you, but I definitely recommend checking out the photos in the original post!

There are far away and mysterious continents, there are countries with names that are difficult to remember, there are cities that you don’t even know exist. For example, in South America, who has decided to learn about Suriname? Yeah, that country north of Brazil. I guess someone has been there, or maybe like me they haven’t, and maybe don’t even know its exact location on the map.

Why is it that there are some countries that are more popular than others? Is it because they don’t do a lot of advertising? Maybe because we concentrate on the best known countries simply because we follow what’s in fashion?

It’s certain that there are countries known for their history, like Peru for Machu Picchu, or for their paradisiacal beaches like the Dominican Republic, but what would happen if I told you that there are countries known for their happiness? Could you imagine traveling to the happiest country in the world?

This should be an important reason to go to a country, don’t you think? Especially in this era of global pessimism, of distrust and insecurity, to be able to have a bubble where you know that you’ll only receive happiness, hospitality, and good vibes, isn’t that a real reason to get to know a country?

This country that I’m talking to you about is coincidentally located in the heart of South America, maybe that happiness has to do with this location; maybe it’s not only the heart of the continent, but everything that happens there is done with the heart. The happiest country in the world in 2014 was Paraguay, and I had the luck to land there.

A few days before my trip, I announced on Facebook that I’d be in this country and many Paraguayans wrote to welcome me, letting me see their hospitality and happiness from the start. That’s how I got the message from Silvia, a traveler with a big heart, offering to pick me up and inviting me to see Asunción with some other travelers joining us to take advantage of my 12 hour stop. After my flight was delayed and I slept in the airport, the moment finally arrived: Paraguay and I got to know each other.

Silvia greeted me with a hug, and took me to taste Paraguayan food in “El café de acá” where a unique environment invited me to breakfast. With a hot and soft mbejú, together with a cocido con leche (yerba mate with a little milk) that gave the perfect balance to this spectacular fusion of flavors, I began my day in this country that had so much to tell me.

The first thing I saw was the Costanera José Asunción Flores, where people were celebrating Tereré Day, a traditional beverage from Paraguay that consists of a mix of cold water and yerba mate. There were many women in traditional clothing doing makeup and getting ready for the celebration, a celebration where not only the beverage was honored but the significance that it has.

Tereré is shared with friends, because it is a beverage that unites. Instead of distracting themselves with television, they come together in a circle to talk while drinking tereré. Is this one of the reasons it’s the happiest country in the world? If only we saw each others’ faces, shared more, and distracted ourselves less, how different the world would be.

If there’s anything I love to feel when I travel, it’s freedom mixed with the breeze from the sea or river on my face, and I had that mix right in front of myself when I looked at the Paraguay River. Little by little, I was understanding this country, this human warmth, and this happy people.

The 12 hours in Asunción was an overdose of stimulation and information. I walked its streets, saw its buildings, and fell in love with the architecture of the ochre, terra cotta, and white hacienda houses. I noticed that many of the houses were only one story, and this surprised me. Although there were plenty of modern buildings too, this city still preserves the magical power of being able to look at the sky without feeling like an ant on its streets.

I saw the two faces of the López Palace with the façades that have so many stories to tell. I walked around the center of the city, I saw the copula of the National Pantheon of Heroes, I saw the Independence House, I fell in love with the brick façade of the National University of Asunción that contrasted with the white Cathedral.

Although I saw and did a lot in Asunción, I can’t say that I know it all. I have a lot left. On this trip, I got so see Asunción up close, walk its streets, see its river, enjoy its costanera, but I still haven’t immersed myself. Paraguay is a country that I want to return to, to get to know it in the future without hurrying.

I ended my day in this city doing what Paraguayans do best: sharing. A lot of travelers communicated and while some could only stay for a minute to welcome me in person, others sent me messages on Facebook, and others stayed to eat lunch with me at Lido, a famous bar since 1953, where they had me try lots of traditional foods while we talked and laughed like great friends. I learned a lot that day, but more than anything this country, known as the Heart of South America, showed me that it’s possible to be happy with the simple things. Just a little tereré, lots of laughter, and a little warmth are all you need to smile and feel your heart beat. And you, do you want to be happy?