From the suble charms of Asunción, the laid-back capital, to the country's wild countryside and small colonial towns, Paraguay is a country full of surprises and little hideaways. Even the most seasoned travelers, however, scratch their heads when the subject is Paraguay. If the country enters their consciousness at all, it comes as an answer to the trivia question, "Which South American nations have no seacoast?" (Bolivia is the other.) But Paraguay is more than the answer to a stumper on a quiz show—this Rip Van Winkle of South American nations has finally awakened from almost two centuries of slumber.
Decades of authoritarian rule left Paraguay behind while nearby Argentina and Brazil made rapid economic strides. The country has struggled since 1989—its first year of democracy—to make up for lost time. Although intent on catching up with its neighbors, Paraguay has not completely rubbed the sleep out of its eyes. You'll marvel at the easy pace of life and the old-fashioned courtesies of the people. In Asunción, crowds are seldom a problem when you take in its architectural showplaces. In the wild countryside you'll stumble across villages where you're the only visitor.
A trip to the tranquil southern region of the ruinas jesuíticas (Jesuit ruins) transports you to a time when missionaries worked the fields alongside their indigenous Guaraní converts. Some of the world's best fishing can be had in rivers teeming with giant catfish. Anglers can test their skills as clouds of snowy egrets take flight and monkeys swing through trees along the banks. Vultures soar over the sun-scorched plains of the Chaco, an arid scrubland that covers half of Paraguay and is one of the most sparsely populated spots on earth, with less than one inhabitant for each of its 250,000 square km (97,500 square mi).
Intrigued about joining the small number of people who have visited this developing destination? Realize that tourism infrastructure is not what it is in Brazil and Argentina, although things are improving all the time. On top of that, the highway system is underdeveloped, and good accommodations are rare outside Asunción. But there's an upside to visiting one of the least-known countries on the continent: Paraguayans seem genuinely interested in finally becoming part of the international community. They'll start by lavishing attention on you, hoping you'll tell a few friends about their country once you get home.