Hey people! Gerrod here again to pick up where I left off from the last post we made. This time, we will be sharing our experience in Paraguay with our cousin Liz!
Lauren's cousin Liz is currently a Peace Corps volunteer, and has been in Paraguay since March. She has been at her permanent site in Caacupé since June, and we were lucky to have her to share Paraguay's culture with us.
Landing in Asunción
We arrived in Asunción at about 4 am. After getting off the plane, we went to get our visa, which cost us a whopping $160 per person!! The visa is good for 10 years though, in case we ever decide to go back.
After getting our visa, we headed to customs. We barely got through the questions that the guy behind the counter was asking us! He actually ended up using Google translate to ask us questions. We were shocked at how much trouble we had understanding his Spanish, but just attributed it to not being accustomed to the accent quite yet.
As we prepared to leave the airport following the directions that Liz had sent us, we soon saw her standing outside the security gate with a sign to greet us! It was so great to see her after so many months, and because we probably would have gotten ourselves lost, especially with how poorly we understood the customs employee!
We hopped in a cab to go to the main bus station, which Liz called "Terminal". At the bus station we caught a very old bus (or as the Paraguayans call them colectivos) to the town Liz is serving in, Caacupé.
During our journey to Caacupé, we mentioned to Liz how much trouble we had understanding the Spanish of the customs agent. Liz laughed and said that Paraguayan Spanish is different from many other countries due to the influence of the native language Guaraní.
Paraguay is a bilingual nation, with ~90% of Paraguayans speaking both Spanish and Guaraní. According to Liz, many of the smaller villages speak predominantly Guaraní, with Spanish being more common among residents of Asunción.
Shopping and Tereré
After a long bus ride, we walked a few blocks on the road before finally arriving at Liz's host family's home. We met a few of Liz's host family members, and put our things in her bedroom.
Liz's host mom made us some traditional Paraguayan cuisine for our arrival: a cornbread pancake thing called mbeju, which we drank with a sweet drink called cocido. Cocido is made with cooked sugar and yerba mate. After eating as much of the mbeju and cocido as we could, we took a long afternoon siesta.
After waking up from our very long nap,. Liz's host mom made us yet another traditional Paraguayan food called chipa guasu, which was a delicious very moist cornbread like dish. We also enjoyed a round of tereré.
Liz explained to us that tereré is very important to Paraguayans, and we would see it everywhere we went in Paraguay! Tereré is made with yerba mate and sometimes other various herbs, and is very similar to mate but is prepared with cold water and ice rather than with hot water.
The custom of drinking tereré involved one designated person filling up the cup or "guampa" of yerba mate with cold water from the "termos" and passing it to another in the circle. That person would drink all of the tereré using a very fancy straw until it made a very nice gurgling noise, and then pass it back to the filler. The designated filler would then take a turn drinking a cup or filling it up for the next person in the circle. Tereré was very refreshing, and was much-needed on the hot day.
After finishing up our termos of tereré, we took a colectivo into town to get some money out of the ATM. We also bought Lauren some new sunglasses, a phone case, and some fancy Fanta flavors or "jugo". Jugo typically means juice, but for some reason Paraguayans call soda pop jugo as well! We got three different flavors of Fanta- mandarin, pineapple, and guaraná (which tasted like red bull and is apparently super caffeinated!).
We also walked around the exterior of The Cathedral Basilica of Our Lady of Miracles, a large Catholic church in Caacupé. Liz you could climb to the top of the church, and it had a great bird's-eye view of town, but it was almost closed so we decided to wait until the next day to climb to the top!
After walking around downtown Caacupé some more, we walked back to the house. Once home, we started doing our laundry so we weren't as stinky, and then enjoyed some Paraguayan beers and homemade pizza with Liz's host family.
Beers in Paraguay were drank in a fashion very similar to tereré, by passing one open drink around the circle rather than everyone having their own drink. The family was chatting and we were doing our best to comprehend the Spanish. After being particularly confused about what was being discussed, Lauren asked Liz what they were talking about and Liz said they had been speaking in Guaraní for a bit! Go figure!
Cafe and Exploring Caacupé
The next day, we originally planned on waking up early and going kayaking on a nearby lake, but we were all feeling rather tired and decided to sleep in instead. Once we finally got up, we headed into town to get some brunch and coffee at Liz's favorite coffee shop in town, Amor Perfecto Paraguay - Café Colombiano.
While taking some time to eat, we tried to call the airline for our next flight, LATAM, to change our flights since the whole Avianca situation cut our time in Paraguay short. We figured there would be a fee to change the flight, but after Lauren spent forever on the phone, the LATAM employee was trying to charge us the fee and the whole price of brand new tickets!
Lauren told them it would be cheaper for us to just buy the tickets separate and skip the original flight, but they did not seem to understand. We think that this situation may have had something to do with Lauren being on the phone with a male employee who seemed completely unwilling to listen to what she had to say, and that he might have been a little bit sexist. To help us move past this insane banter we ordered some fancy Japanese siphon coffee.
Following coffee, we went back to the Cathedral Basilica of Our Lady of Miracles, or Santuario de Nuestra Señora de Caacupé to climb to the top of the church. The church is home to a very... interesting looking, but popular statue known as the Virgen de Caacupé, and on the way to the top were a bunch of murals explaining the history of the statue.
Liz helped translate the history of the murals on our way to the top and told us about a festival centered around the statue called Fiesta de La Virgen de Caacupé where people from all across Paraguay make a pilgrimage to see the statue. The festival is on December 8th every year, and people will bike or even walk to Caacupé from their city (sometimes over 50 km) as a promise to the Virgin Mary statue.
Close to the top of the church we got to walk around the inside of the main rotunda, which had a great view of the interior of the church and the statue. At the top of the church, there was a wonderful view of the small town and the surrounding landscape.
After descending back to the bottom of the church, we continued our journey through town. We walked through some of the local markets where they were selling these hilarious t-shirts of the Virgin Mary statue.
At the end of the marketplace we went to an all blue church/temple called Tupasy Ykuá Caacupé, Pozo De La Virgen De Caacupé. Next to the church there is a well and fountain, so we filled up our water bottles and grabbed a drink. I may not have mentioned this yet, but the tap water in Paraguay is totally drinkable thanks to something called an Guarani Aquifer that the whole country sits on. Before heading back home we got some killer ice cream at a chain ice cream place called Grido. Since it was so hot the ice cream was definitely well deserved.
Hangin' with Lucas Down the Stream's Way
After getting home we found Lucas, Liz's host brother, and we decided to go on a walk. The area around their neighborhood was just out of town, and felt like the countryside. Lucas led us to a small stream, where we hung out for a bit before turning back.
When we got back we made dinner using some random ingredients that Liz had lying around, including some of the biggest avocados we have ever seen! From talking to Liz and her host family, it seems that no matter what seeds you threw outside in the area where they live, the seeds would grow since the land was so fertile. Maybe we should not have been surprised by the giant avocados!
Saying goodbye to Caacupé
The next day we had intended to go on a camping trip, but when we woke up the next morning, it seemed Liz was not feeling well. She had felt a little bit under the weather since we arrived, and had been steadily getting worse. So she called her Peace Corps doctor, and we made the decision to head into Asunción instead of going camping so she could see the doctor in person.
Since we could sleep a little longer due to the change in plans, Macuna, Liz's cat, joined us for some time. As Lauren would put it, "Macuna was very cute and was lying between Gerrod's legs and then she cuddled Lauren lots and it was adorable." After some more cat cuddles, we packed up our stuff and said our goodbyes to Liz's host family.
We walked down the street after having a small snack for breakfast, and made our way to the bus stop. This bus was much nicer than the first bus we took leaving Asunción, as it had reclining cushioned seats which made the hour ride much more enjoyable.
Back in Asunción
Making Our Way Downtown
Once we arrived in Asunción we grabbed a taxi and headed to Hotel Los Alpes in an area of the city called Villa Morra, which is the Peace Corps prefered hotel in Asunción. We settled into one of the dorm rooms and headed out to take a bus downtown. Liz got off soon after we departed to go to her doctor's office.
We continued to ride the bus downtown while checking Googlemaps to make sure we would get off at least close to the intended stop. After getting off the bus, we walked down the street through a nice park on our way to the restaurant called Bolsi, which Liz recommended. We sat down on the outside patio and ordered some hefty burgers, mango and banana milks, and a large hummus plate to the recommendation of Liz, which was spot on.
Following our very filling lunch we tried to find a Western Union, since we had a small refund from our Galapagos cruise that we asked the travel agent to send to Paraguay. We tried using Google maps to locate a Western Union, but we found it to be very unreliable as it identified tons of places as Western Union that weren't actually a Western Union. After a very confusing encounter in a bank that had a Western Union counter, we learned that we needed some MTCN number that the travel agent did not provide us. We e-mailed our travel agent at Happy Gringo to get the number, and decided to explore some more downtown.
We walked down the road to a beach that Liz told us about called Costanera de Asunción. The beach was very tiny and was along a river, so there was not a whole lot going on.
Very near to the beach there was Palacio de López, which is the residence of the president of Paraguay. There was a large touristy "Asunción" sign near the palace that we decided to take a picture of, since it seemed like the thing to do. I tried to get closer to the fence to get a better picture angle of the palace, and I got yelled at by a military officer with a very large gun pointed at me. I didn't feel like I was too close, as I was at least 10 feet away from the fence.
Liz had given us a brief rundown of the political situation in Paraguay, and it seems they have fluctuated between democracy and dictatorship a few times. Most recently, they are a democracy which seems to have hit them pretty hard financially, and there is a lot of debate amongst Paraguayans as to whether or not democracy or dictatorship is better. I bring this up only because we noticed some of the infrastructure seemed to be lacking in the capital of the country. We saw sidewalks crumbling away, many abandoned buildings, and looking across the skyline from the beach it seemed like many of the buildings could use some repairs.
Now I'm Homebound
We decided to make our way back to the hotel, and used a website Liz showed us called caminospy.com to find a bus that would get us close to our destination. When we got back to our hotel, Liz was taking a much needed nap. After she woke up, we headed out to eat some dinner at a local cafe called El Cafe de Aca.
The food was super delicious, and we drank some jugo natural (natural juice... aka not soda!). We noticed that many people around this area of Asunción seemed to be fairly well off, as we observed what appeared to be a nanny taking care of some kids at a table next to us while their mom was having dinner with friends a few tables away.
Foods and Museums
For breakfast the following day, we decided to have a well balanced breakfast, so we went to an amazing gelato place called Heladeria Confiteria Quattro D where we got many flavors of gelato. Oh and gigantic sandwiches.
Afterwards we decided to attempt to get our money at Western Union again. The security was so tight that we had to remove hats, glasses, and phones before going through a revolving door while being watched by an armed guard. Of course the computer system was down, so we couldn't get our money. Liz was still feeling very sick, so we walked her back to our hotel and made our way to a museum in town.
On our way to the museum we stopped in a mall, and strangely all of the advertisements were only in English. I am not sure if they thought that only English speakers were going to shop there, but I am not in advertising or marketing so who am I to judge. We stopped at a coffee chain in the mall called The Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf, which seemed to be a Starbucks competitor that we must not have in Ohio.
After the pit stop in the mall, we finally arrived at the museum, Museo del Barro. The museum was full of both current and historical art, and had a large exhibit on the native population of Paraguay. Many of the native artifacts were actually found in the late 1900's! They also had a display of intricate lace that Liz had told us about called ñanduti.
We got to see some very strange clay sculptures that we dubbed "clay porn", and a lot of disturbing 16th, 17th, and 18th century Catholic artwork. The best part of the museum was that there was no entry fee!
Dinner and a Movie
When we got back to the hotel from the museum, we got to meet some of Liz's Peace Corps buddies. One of them was about to go to Peru for the weekend using Avianca... We were worried for her due to our recent experience. Later we found out that her flight was cancelled and rescheduled for a day later; go figure.
We went out to eat with one of Liz's friends at a Korean restaurant near the hotel called Restaurante Su. It was super tasty, and I had the dish bibimbap. Bibibop, a food chain from Ohio, modeled their food of of bibimbap, and as you might imagine it was very similar.
Following dinner we went to the movies to see the new Fantastic Beasts in a mall not far from the restaurant. We wanted to view movie with Spanish subtitles rather than the original voices being dubbed over, and while that's what we bought, we accidentally got the 3D version, much to Lauren's disgust. The movie was enjoyable and it was interesting to see how they would translate some of the UK English slang to Spanish. Most of the time it was very different, but probably good enough to get the point across.
The next day we decided to go to the botanical gardens. We took a bus as close as we could, and then walked around the perimeter until we found the entrance. Jardín Botánico Y Zoológico de Asunción was gigantic. We were expecting/looking for a traditional manicured garden with labels, similar to botanical gardens in the U.S, and while we were looking for an entrance to the "main part", we were eventually told by a guy who struck up a conversation with us that the whole place was the garden, and there was no "main part".
We stopped by a small pond to take a break, and Lauren searched for a ripe mango amongst the hundreds of mangoes on trees around the pond (she was not successful). I was able to become a gym master of that tiny pond for just a few minutes, for anyone who still plays Pokemon Go.
We walked a few more trails, but were quickly attacked by bugs. We eventually found an herb garden and a very cool tree, but after too many bug bites and the heat of the day getting to us, we decided to head back to the hotel.
Plannin', Chillin', and Finally Gettin' Our Money
When we got back to the hotel, Lauren and Liz went to chill by the pool while I tried to go to Western Union one more time. I thought it would only take a few minutes since the bank was a block away.
I headed to the first super secure bank that we tried the other day, but yet again the system was down. Next I headed further into town, where I found another bank with a Western Union sign. When I asked about getting the money, they told me they did not have Western Union and pointed me to a money exchange place across the street. At the third destination in my journey they seemed to finally be able to help. Since I never used Western Union before I needed to register for an account, and the place seemed to be run by only teenagers who spoke only Spanish.
I was able to struggle my way through most of the questions before being helped at the end by someone from the back who spoke some English. By the end of this venture I was able to secure $26 USD of the promised $32 USD refund thanks to the transfer fees that Happy Gringo and Western Union took.
Once I got back to the hotel about an hour or so later, I joined everyone at the pool. Shortly after the pool session, we planned some of our stay in Chile and booked a 34 hour bus ride through Chile. Stay tuned for that adventure.
The Last Supper
After some naps and bookings, we made our way across town for dinner. We ended up at Sacramento Brewing Co. where we met some more of Liz's Peace Corps compatriots. One couple was celebrating the end of their two years of service AND a birthday! We had some great food and drinks before heading home to pack for our flight the next morning.
Flying to Calama, Chile
The next morning we finished packing our things and headed out early to meet the same Taxi driver who picked us up the first day in Paraguay. I walked to the ATM down the street to grab some cash for our driver and we made our way to the airport after saying our goodbyes to Liz.
When we arrived at the airport the driver took our picture to text Liz that he had delivered "the package." We headed into the airport to check in and waited in another nice VIP lounge called VIP Gold. After a nice breakfast in the lounge we headed out to wait in line for our plane. I was pleasantly surprised by how organized the Asunción airport was with the boarding gates and lines; they boarded based on seat row instead of random groups.
Paraguay Bonus Information
Paraguay is considered the heart of South America, and is frequently described as the happiest of the South American countries. However, it is often skipped over as a tourist destination. It is a little more difficult to traverse, but the people are incredibly friendly and were very excited to share their culture.
Lauren intends to make a return trip to visit Liz before her service ends, and to see the Pantanal, the world's largest tropical wetland area in the world. Pantantal extends throughout Brazil, Bolivia, and Paraguay and is home to a biologically diverse variety of plants and animals. Lauren is an environmental scientist, and focuses on wetland and stream science back in the United States, so she is eager to see a tropical wetland area!
Gerrod and Lauren