As you may already know I live in Buenos Aires for a good part of my year and 2012 was no different, I spent a total of 5.5 months, and while I am there I don’t do too much traveling.
Well this past November it was decided that we would go to Asuncion, the capital of Paraguay, to visit Fernanda’s grandmother.
This trip had been in the works for a long time but I ended up overpaying for it anyway because we could not get any definitive dates of travel because Fernanda was waiting to hear the schedule of her Engineering exams for the semester. By the time we knew our travel dates the 2 hr flight between Buenos Aires and Asuncion had skyrocketed in price to a ludicrous $530 per person round-trip.
The fact that only two airlines fly from Buenos Aires to Asuncion – Aerolineas Argentinas and TAM Paraguay – and that I waited until the last minute to book did not help my cause.
But the fact that I had no frequent flyer miles to leverage into a nearly free reward flight was the equivalent of a walk of shame for me. With my tail tucked between my legs I booked the pricey flight out of Ezeiza and started planning the hotels.
For all the pain of booking a flight, the hotel search was an absolute nightmare that ultimately lead to me posting this gem on how Hotels.com hijacked my credit card.
But once I got to Asuncion I had a great time.
First Impression of Asuncion Paraguay
When I first got to Paraguay I immediately changed some of my USD to Paraguayan Guarani, I lost about 400 Guarani per USD over what independent Casas de Cambio would give me, but it was just enough to pay for a taxi.
When we got out of the airport it was beautifully landscaped and the design of the terminal reminded me of those all-inclusive hotels you might find in Cancun that mimic a pyramid.
We found a taxi and the first thing I did was make use of the power windows to take in the vista- If you have ever been in Buenos Aires you know that the taxista who has power windows is a rare bird.
I had researched about Paraguay’s past and present and it is a country that has a disproportional amount of story lines relative to how tiny it is.
For instance, after my trip to Paraguay, The Economist had an detailed write up of the War of the Triple Alliance that Paraguay fought against Argentina, Brazil and Uruguay. If reading that story does not make Paraguay sound extremely fascinating then I don’t know what will.
Now, back in Paraguay, I had become more interested in learning about the food, culture and history of this mysterious country.
We drove from the airport straight to the suburbs of Luque to meet the family at Fernanda’s grandmothers house before going to our hotel. The country roads were mostly dirt or gravel but that did not stop buses from screaming down every side street.
When we first pulled up to her grandma’s house I knew this was my type of country.
Flying TAM Paraguay Buenos Aires to Asuncion
Let’s play the gate change game, where you keep switching gates on you until 30 minutes before take off. It felt like a game of musical chairs where every time we got to one gate the gate agent came over, made an announcement, and we were herded to another gate.
As fun as that was it was nice when I finally got to board the flight and get ready for takeoff.
Taxi and takeoff was uneventful and because this flight had just dropped off all its passengers on the Sao Paolo to Buenos Aires leg it was pretty empty for the continuing service to Asuncion.
TAM Paraguay, the subsidiary of TAM, had an attentive and friendly flight crew. They were one of the most polite and youngest I have had on one of my flights and it made me think that they were probably young bloods being broken into the industry.
The food on my outbound was human jet fuel, good enough to be edible but not meant for a delicate palette:
The flight back home to Buenos Aires was packed and I think that had more to do with some of the passengers that were on the continuing service to Sao Paolo then the allure of Buenos Aires itself. I was seated across from one of the guitar players of the Guns N Roses cover band from Kilkenny and he turned out to be a real chill dude. Funny how those things can happen.
The exit doors opened into the nights air and as we headed down the staircase we were stopped by airport officials as we waited 20 minutes for an bus to take us to the terminal.
Ibis Hotel Asuncion
Guava Jelly, ‘Nuff said. I can’t tell you how many times I have looked for guava jelly in New York grocers and never found any.
It has become the stuff of legend to me ever since I dined at the Hula Grill Waikiki while staying at the Outrigger Waikiki on the Beach several years ago. Paraguay has tons of the stuff, literally overflowing the condiment baskets in the Ibis hotel was stacks of the jelly gold. I hit the jackpot.
Ibis could have gotten everything wrong for the rest of my stay there and I would have been the happiest guest they ever had, that’s how much I value guava jelly.
When I went to check-in the front desk staff took my credit card, activated two room keys and sent us on our way. I liked the quick but not rudely.
The Ibis hotel was a great find for us because if you have ever looked for hotels in Asuncion you will immediately realize Hotels are expensive. The Ibis has stable pricing of around US$80 per night plus US$5 a day for breakfast buffet, the Sheraton Hotel right next door goes for US$162 per night, which was the best deal I could find for a legit hotel category room.
For its location (A) between city center of Asuncion (B), but closer to the trendy Villa Morra barrio, and the family in Luque it was the best deal.
There are plenty of rooms at bed and breakfast style locations if that is the type of service you want but I will warn those looking for super budget accommodations that there are not many hostels because the backpacker market tends to skip Paraguay.
I enjoyed my stay at the hotel and the breakfast buffet was packed with medialunas, alfajores, fruits, and eggs if you got there before 10 am.
The service in the hotel was stellar and the front desk crew answered all of our questions about how to walk from the hotel to Villa Morra. I did notice that our room door was left ajar, visibly so, by one of the cleaning staff which was not reassuring. We informed the front desk and thankfully it did not happen again.
The one downside to the hotel room was the the rooms have no floor space and it can get crowded if you are bringing any luggage larger than carry-on size.
Asuncion and Luque Things to Do
I am an “if we get to it” traveler – as in a museum is interesting and I’ll go if I get to it – and since this was a trip to catch up with family I did not care about visiting anywhere that Trip Advisor was telling us to.
Asuncion has the tropical feel of Iguazu with the colonial architecture of Argentina and shopping centers you could find in any U.S. suburb. I really liked Asuncion and it only grew on me more the longer I stayed there. I don’t know if it was coming from the hustle of Buenos Aires, where everybody has their own agenda, that made me fall for Asuncion so hard or if it was just the natural charm. I like to think it was the latter.
The Quiet Streets of Luque
As it was we spent 5 of our 7 days in the suburbs of the city of Luque. It is a town that historically housed many pilots and their families because of its location near the airport but there was no noise pollution from the infrequent air traffic.
Traveling between Asuncion and Luque meant we had to test out the local bus system. I felt it was even more complicated than Buenos Aires, especially without a Guia T, so we used it a handful of times and it always got us where we needed to go. Not only did you have to find routes but it also depended on color and number of their sign on the specific route the bus would travel.
Luckily we found a local cab driver in the village who gave us a discounted rate to get back and forth to our hotel that made more sense than taking a the buses.
I spent my days trying to avoid the brutal Paraguayan sun by alternately hiding in the shade provided to me by her grandma’s grape vines, Mango and Papaya trees.
The one day I did venture into the sun, I went with two cousins to play on the towns soccer pitch and I almost died of dehydration while the group of 6 year old’s I was playing against were left bemused. Fun times.
The Unfinished Streets of Asuncion
On our days we in Asuncion we spent them exploring the city center of Asuncion and it’s different barrios. The city center was cramped and busy, par for the course in any dense urban area, but in surrounding barrios like Villa Morra we found quiet cobblestone side streets lined with impressive McMansions.
The sidewalk situation was a bit strange as sometimes the concrete would change to dirt, gravel or pure mud at any moment. On our walks from our hotel we frequently had sidewalks just end or turn into parking garages that forced us to walk in the street. For a couple of blocks it is no problem but for an hour or two hours it can test your hearts upper limit for BPM as buses and cars come screaming at you.
Paraguayan Cuisine and Nightlife
I didn’t spend too much time going out but when we did, we went all out.
We found out about Paseo Carmelitas, in the above photo you see what it looks like in daylight, which is a strip mall full of bars and nightclubs that bursts to life on the weekends. I would recommend any better looking for nightlife in the area to go here because your options ranged from lounges, to Irish pub or a legit night club. It’s located on the northernmost part of Villa Morra and it was a 20 minute walk from our hotel but the sidewalk situation made us take cabs late at night.
The night we went to the Irish pub Kilkenny they had a Guns-n-Roses cover band that killed it. Their guitarist even had the Slash swagger down and walked on top of tables across the entire pub.
Our first and last night in Paraguay we dined in Piegari Italian restaurant which had solid pasta dishes for a decent value. The restaurant was nice and it was conveniently short walk across the street from the Ibis and I noticed many patrons of the Sheraton had found there way there, I bet the front desk had something to do with that. I do not have my food photos right now but I will update the post with them once I do.
The only other night I ate in Asuncion we kept it close to the hotel again and went to the Tallyrand restaurant located inside the Shopping del Sol mall – pictured from my hotel window in the photo above. The Shopping del Sol could be found in any US City and the restaurant offered one of the biggest and juiciest steaks I have ever eaten. The Tallyrand was a bit more expensive and the deserts were sub-par. If you are going there with a date you can definitely split the main course and instead of getting a postre go with a nice bottle of wine.
While in Paraguay you need to eat three things; Chipa, Chipa Guazu/Sopa Paraguayo and Empanada de Mandioca. Chipa is basically a dough ball with cheese inside of it and are best eaten freshly baked. Chipa Guazu is cornbread on steroids that should not be dry but moist and delicious. Empanada de Mandioca is just a huge empanada made from mandioca which is a potato like root that makes for an amazing shell of an empanada.
I can’t even say Paraguay get’s a bad rep because I feel like it has no rep with travelers. But it should.
The lack of tourists flooding Paraguay could because its airport has so few international flights, although it does now have direct from Miami on American Airlines, making it a bit isolated or maybe the tropical climate but being landlocked when you have Brazil next door is another factor. But that’s no excuse either because Paraguay has tons of rivers and lakes that can be a nice way to cool off.
Paraguay also has a fascinating history for Nazi-hunters, for their part in sheltering many Nazi’s after World War II, which explains their some of their German roots, and the most famous one was Dr. Mengele.
For all the rumors I heard about the city center being shady and people asking for change I was only asked for money once. A group of kids came running at us and shouted “Paraguay” to me, I was wearing the Paraguayan national team soccer kit, and asked for some money.
The city has amazing food and friendly people, two things that any country I consider returning to must have, and Paraguay is high up on that list.
In the second part to this post I will discuss how to get to Paraguay from the US and other South American countries using frequent flyer miles so stay tuned.
If you have any questions, musings or rants please share them in the comments section below and I look forward to responding to each one of them.
To Your Frequent Flyer Miles Success!