3 ANSWERS TO: “WHY CYCLE PARAGUAY?”
Why would you cycle Paraguay? It’s usually not the first country you think of when choosing a destination to visit in South America. Quite on the contrary, it’s probably one of the last with Suriname and The Guianas. There are neither oceans nor high mountains, and even the historical sights don’t really compete with Machu Picchu (this is solely based on my gut feeling. Locals say that the Jesuit ruins in Santísima Trinidad are actually quite impressive). As a matter of fact, most cyclists I met before coming here had cycled through the country in four days, because “there’s nothing there, man”. And that’s what makes Paraguay so magical: you get to discover it all on your own.
A country with an attitude!
As a Finn, I relate quite easily with a country left in the shadow of its neighbors. People who visit my home country only for a couple of days often remain unimpressed. The landscapes are way more stunning in Norway, the historic sights way more impressive in Sweden and the parties way better in Russia. And I can’t really disagree. But then again, those are not the things that you should look for in Finland, because the spark of the country lies way beyond its appearance. And in this aspect, Finland and Paraguay have a lot in common. So, although this post is about cycling, here I am postponing my departure, with my bicycle gathering dust in a corner and in constant fear about the day César notices there’s a squatter in one of his spare rooms. Why? Read below.
1. Because the people are great
Ask any Paraguayan what’s the best thing about their country and they’ll say: the people. Ask me and I’ll say: the people. Why? Because making a qualitative generalization based on all the people I’ve met so far, Paraguayans are easygoing, hospitable, curious, kind and amazingly calm for Latinos. To me, it feels natural to start a conversation on nearly any topic with a Paraguayan and whenever I’ve been in need of help, it’s been around. Not for a split second have I lacked anything or felt like an outsider in this country, because these people really care. As a cyclist, you’ll definitely not lack tereré (cold, local herbal drink) on a hot summer day nor a place to sleep on cold winter night.
LANGUAGE: Paraguay is the only country in Latin America, where 95% of the population speak a Guaraní (an indigenous language of the Guaraní tribes). In Canindeyú, you only rarely hear Spanish, yet in Asunción it’s the other way around. However, most people throughout the country are able to speak both languages.
2. Because there is nearly no tourism
Paraguay feels fresh. Although the country has delicious food like mbeyú and sopa paraguaya (corn based, bread-like foods) and beautiful areas like the Chaco (an immense, sparsely habited area in the Western part of the country, with Mennonites and indigenous tribes living in complete isolation) or Canindeyú with its endless soy fields and red dirt roads, people just don’t come here. Why? I have no clue. But that’s good, because it means a cyclist is such rare sight on the road that you’ll most likely be offered plenty of places for shelter. As for the non-cyclists, it means you don’t have to book accommodation and travels a lot in advance.
CREATIVITY: The vibe of Paraguay is very much under the skin. Oddly enough, it feels like there’s a lot of space for creativity because of conservatism. This may sound contradictory, but somehow the country being so traditional easily provokes initiatives differing from the what I call conventional contemporary culture. It’s all bubbling under, waiting to explode!
3. Because the roads are good
There are no high mountains, the roads in the Eastern departments are in good condition and the shoulders of the roads are super wide. The only downside concerning cycling is the traffic in Asunción which can be a bit chaotic at times. It’s fun to cycle here as well, but the thing to clearly keep in mind is that cars can basically turn up in front of you anytime and anywhere (all in all, doesn’t really differ all that much from cycling e.g. in Milan, Italy). Oh, and this is the only country where I’ve ever seen a wild cat in my whole entire life!
AGRICULTURE: Paraguay is a country which lives on agriculture and the first thing you notice when cycling through, are the endless fields. This means it’s a great place to learnabout farming. When I rode through Canindeyú, I stayed with local farmers and discovered where my soy beans come from. In addition to that, I spoke to many people working with manioc, sugar cane and corn farming.
P.S. The picture in the beginning of this post is from a side road. The main roads are all asphalt.
Strangerless TIP: crossing the border from Brazil to Paraguay
I entered the country from Guaíra, Brazil to Saltos del Guairá, the border with perhaps the worst reputation in the country. In fact, a group of Northern American Peace Corps Volunteers in Arroyos y Esteros (department of Cordillera), told me they were prohibited from going anywhere near Canindeyú, which is the department where Saltos is located. To a cyclist, however, the only complication at this border is that you don’t get a stamp at neither of the borders (because this is tax free area for 50kms from the border in both directions). In Brazil you have to go to the local police office to get an exit stamp and in Paraguay you have to walk straight into the immigrations office for the entry stamp. Oh, and the ferry from Brazil to Paraguay only operates on weekdays, so if you’re on a bicycle, you’ll either have to cross a long bridge illegally or cross on a weekday (I went for the latter). I’m not sure what the procedure is at the other borders, but make sure you check it before you end up in Paraguay without an entry or an exit stamp. This could lead to either high fines or notable bribing.