The Colorful Expressions of Paraguay: Culture, Language, and Destinations
Sometimes, the beauty, strength, and enigmatic nature of Paraguay gets overlooked by quick travellers. But many unique elements distinguish this landlocked country aptly named “the heart of South America.”
Unlike other Latin American countries, the Guaraní indigenous language of Paraguay is the most common one above Spanish, and unlike any other country in the world, its flag has a front and back with two different national emblems.
Paraguay is full of fascinating contradictions.
It has no coast but a large navy. Almost every Paraguayan is Catholic but catholicism is not the official religion. It’s considered the world’s happiest place but was also home to Nazi communities once.
Surprisingly, Paraguay’s history of political oppression and poverty hasn’t weighed down its ranking as the world’s happiest (and cleanest) place. In fact, it has one of cleanest electricity sources in the world, generated 100% by hydropower. Not surprisingly, it has the largest hydropower power plant in the world, too.
This tropical land with no mountain ranges or wooded hills has a lot to offer. Deepen your knowledge about this magical place and find out why the local mennonite community is different from any other, learn that a shrub is the base of its cuisine, discover what instrument the natives customized, and the top 5 places to visit on your next trip to Paraguay!
¡Vamos a Paraguay!
Let’s go to Paraguay!
A Brief History of Paraguay
The Republic of Paraguay is a landlocked country between Argentina, Brazil, and Bolivia, inspiring its nickname as “the heart of South America.”
Despite its landlocked status, it has the largest navy of all non-coastal countries around the world, which operates within the Paraguay River and the Paraná River. They can reach the sea only by traveling through Argentina.
After Spanish conquerors (conquistadores) built up Asunción, Paraguay became a center for Jesuits missions, where they evangelized the indigenous Guaraní people.
Many Catholic countries and empires distrusted the Jesuits, so they expelled them from their territories and colonies, including Paraguay in the 18th century. What followed was its independence from the Spanish in 1811, but it wasn’t recognized until 1842.
What came later was a series of authoritarian leaders who imposed a paternalist and nationalist government that supported isolation policies—starting with José Gaspar Rodríguez de Francia, also known as The Supreme (El Supremo). He wanted to recreate the utopian state of Rousseau’s Social Contract, and cut all kinds of ties including commercial ones with other countries.
Part of his legacy was that he narrowed the Catholic church and the colonial elite’s power by forcing mestizaje. He made marriage mandatory between colonial citizens and natives, blacks or mulattoes, with the aim that different races mix into one.
After his death, Carlos Antonio López became the leader of Paraguay. He was responsible for the country’s modernization and reopening to international commerce. His family’s regime was strict and controlling when it came to production, distribution, and exportation. But this level of protectionism had upsides too: the Paraguayan people were self-sufficient since they exported valuable goods, and taxes and laws to import were very rigid. They also avoided debt and abolished slavery.
National and International Conflicts
Paraguay was afterwards involved in national and international conflicts like:
- The Paraguayan War that started in 1864 against Brazil, Argentina, and Uruguay, where they lost a significant part of their population and territory
- The Civil War of 1922
- The Chaco War that started in 1932, where Paraguay prevailed against Bolivia when they fought for the territory of the Chaco region
- The February Revolution that is the military coup of 1936, marking the end of the Liberal Party ruling and the start of military dictatorships
- The Civil War of 1947
- Military coup in 1954 by Alfredo Stroessner
- Military coup in 1989 against Alfredo Stroessner
The 35-year long regime of dictator Alfredo Stroessner, ended up in a military coup organized internally in 1989. Finally a democratic era started and continues until today.
Paraguayan Culture and Society
The Paraguayan culture can be easily explained by the intertwining of the Spanish conquistadors and the indigenous Guaranís. You can see it today in their embroidery, lace making, music genres, and culinary heritage.
Guarania and Paraguayan polka are the traditional music genres. José Asunción Flores created Guarania in 1925 and still today is the most famous music of all Paraguay today. You can identify it due to its slow, poetic, melancholic melodies, and it is the musical expression of the Paraguayan general sentiment and personality.
The Paraguayan polka or Paraguayan dance (danza paraguaya) comes from the Czech polka but has variations or subgenders. Modern rhythms started coming in the 50’s and finally developed in the 70’s.
The harp is the traditional instrument of Paraguay. It came during the Spanish colonization and indigenous people turned out to be very gifted. They customized it and called it the Paraguayan harp.
Demographic of Paraguay
- 7 million people inhabit Paraguay while nearly 3 million live in the capital city of Asunción and metropolitan area alone.
- 95% of the Paraguay population are mestizos —people who have mixed European and indigenous ancestry—, and over 90% speak a Guaraní dialect besides, or even before Spanish.
- Paraguay has many foreign colonies of Russians, Belgians, Japanese, and Germans. During Stroessner’s regime, Paraguay was a safe haven for Nazis after WWII. They would flee Europe to seek a place where their ideology didn’t bother anyone, and found many of these places in South America.
- 9 out of 10 Paraguayans are Catholic, but the country has no official religion. This is to avoid giving the church too much power.
- Conservative family values are very important to Paraguayans, like in most Latin American countries. Here, the figure of the godparents is very important. People treat them with extra respect, because they give protection to the kids in exchange.
There is a large Mennonite community in Paraguay that originally came from Canada and Russia during the 1930s. Normally, the Mennonites are easy to identify since they have large families, rigid social rules, and the prohibition of technology. In contrast, the Paraguayan Mennonites do use technology, having built up their wealth because of it.
Mate and Tereré
People from Chile, Uruguay, Brazil, and Argentina drink mate, which is a kind of tea. You can drink it as a hot beverage with a hollow gourd or calabash and a filtered straw (to avoid consuming pieces of leaf) or take it cold from a tereré cup. The temperature of the drink depends on the season and weather. But in Paraguay it’s hot all year round, making it common for Paraguayans to drink ice-cold mate called tereré.
Festivals and Holidays
Travel to Paraguay on key weeks and enjoy different celebrations that go from religious to secular, from indigenous, to European-inspired.
The Day of San Blas
The Day of San Blas (Día de San Blas) happens on every February the 3rd and celebrates San Blas, the patron saint of Paraguay. It is worth it to go to Ciudad del Este to have a lovely time at outdoor events that occur throughout the week.
Meanwhile, in the Nanduti Festival watch the crafting of lace in real time. The regional crafting style of the Itagua city is what attracts tourism from everywhere. You can attend every last week of July and witness this and other artistic showcases.
OktoberFest of Paraguay
If you love Germany, you can have a 2-in-1 experience and go to the OktoberFest of Paraguay. This is one of the many immigrant communities celebrations that enrich the heart of South America. The dates align with the German festivity that happens every September.
You can also choose to experience a Latin American carnival first hand in Paraguay, which is similar to Mardi Gras in Brazil and La Ceiba Carnival in Honduras.
Sports are a big part of Paraguayan culture. Although soccer is the most popular sport—with more than 1,600 teams all over the country—other sports thrive, such as basketball, swimming, tennis, rugby, handball, volleyball, and futsal.
The Paraguay National Soccer Team has won the American Cup (Copa América) twice, the silver medal at the 2004 Olympics, and has ranked as high as 8th place in the FIFA World Rankings.
The principal ingredients of Paraguayan cuisine are corn, milk, cheese, meat, and cassava or yuca,a South American woody shrub—and the most vigorous energy source on the planet after corn and rice.
Barbecuing or asado is not only a cooking technique but also a social event, similar to other Latin American countries like Argentina, Uruguay, and the north of Mexico. A traditional asado consists of grilling different types of meat like beef, pork, chorizo, chicken, and morcilla, and pairing it with red wine.
Traditional dishes include the famous chipas, which are cheese, starch, and cassava-based cakes. If you dig deep enough, you can find more than 70 variations of this dish.
Try the pajagua mascada, also known as lampreado or lambreado. The ingredients of this Paraguayan dish are beef meat with cassava and chives. If you want it to be extra tasty you can add butter (manteca). This dish goes perfectly with a lettuce salad. Sounds delicious!
Paraguayan Language and Literacy
Did you know that Paraguay means “crown of rivers” in Guaraní, their native language?
94% of people are literate in Paraguay which is a very high index for Latin America. And what is more interesting is that Paraguayans are officially bilingual, getting into a tiny category of countries that share this special feature. 90% of them speak Spanish—of which 31% have limited language competence—and 77% speak Guaraní, which is a school mandatory language.
We can see the reflection of the mestizaje in Paraguay through how they speak. Cultures and languages are so intertwined, most phrases and expressions are half in Spanish and half in Guaraní.
Mixing it is so common that they even have a name for this linguistic fusion: yopará.
An interesting facet of this fusion is the finishing of Spanish sentences with Guaraní words.
Ven = “come” in Spanish
Na = “please” in Guaraní
They also substitute complete words or expressions in Guaraní, integrating them into a Spanish conversation. A common expression is “Mbore,” meaning ¡Ni loco! or “No way!”
Paraguayan Spanish Slang
On the other hand, Paraguayan slang is useful to understand if you plan to visit the country. Why? Because they use Spanish words a bit differently than other Spanish-speaking countries—sometimes in complete opposition to their original meaning.
See for yourself!
Luego means “after,” but in Paraguay it means “before”:
Me dijo luego.
He told me before.
Quitar means “to take away,” but in Paraguay it means “to take”:
Les voy a quitar una foto.
I will take you a picture.
Hallar means “to find a location,” but in Paraguay it means “to be happy”:
Literal translation: I find myself.
Meaning: I am happy.
Beautiful Places to See in Paraguay
Paraguay has plenty to offer—its vibrant cities, indigenous traditions, bicultural heritage, and homogeneous society are unique and inspiring elements that catch the eye.
On your next trip to the heart of South America, here are 5 places you don’t want to miss!
1. Iguazú Falls
The Iguazú Falls (Cataratas de Iguazú) mark the merging border among Argentina, Brazil, and Paraguay. Ciudad del Este has access to the river that flows into the waterfall. This beautiful 262 feet (80 meters) drop—meanwhile, the Niagara Falls are 203 feet (62 meters)— attracts tourism from all over the world, 1.64 million in 2019 to be exact.
It is a UNESCO World Heritage Site unlike its Canadian counterpart and according to the story, when Eleonor Roosevelt visited them she said “My poor Niagara.”
2. Yparacaí Lake
Three different cities surround the Lago Yparacaí, meaning “holy lake”: San Bernardino, Yparacaí, and Areguá.
You can enjoy the public beaches and outdoors activities around the lake. Regrettably and according to the latest news you can’t be in direct contact with the water due to contamination. You can sail, though!
Despite some ecological setbacks, national and international tourism flourishes here in the summer in search of the whole package: tasty food, breathtaking views, and kind people.
If you’re interested in Paraguayan fine arts, the Yparacaí Festival in September showcases numerous exhibitions from local artists. You can even take an acting or dance class!
Whatever you do, don’t forget to listen to the beautiful song “Recuerdos de Yparacaí” while you’re there, you will get goosebumps!
If you are into arts and crafts, you will like Areguá because it has permanent roadside artisanal exhibitions. Its architecture is also something worth seeing, as well as the historical museum La Casa de la Cultura. This city’s economy is largely based on strawberries, so you better buy some! You will also find important personalities as it holds the Paraguayan bohemian soul.
4. San Bernardino
There’s also the option of visiting the “Summer City” of San Bernardino, where endless beach attractions, restaurants, and pubs are on the to-do list. Remember that the summer time of Paraguay is from November to February, during this season San Bernardino never sleeps. Public spaces open during the day and clubs during the night.
Beautiful beaches and gathering places are the main attraction in the tourism capital of Paraguay. Get ready for the carnival and witness yet another UNESCO World Heritage Site at the Jesuit Ruins of Jesús de Tavarangué and La Santísima Trinidad. The first one was going to be an exact replica of the Loyola church in Italy except for the Arab arches. The second one was a self-sufficient town with every single facility such as workshops, schools, museum, housing places, and church. These are both noteworthy, do not miss them!.
Start Preparing For Your Trip to Paraguay Today!
Paraguay has undergone many difficult times in its history—battles, wars, military coups, deforestation—but the result is a vibrant society with kind emotions and many artistic expressions.
This captivating group of people is proud and aware of their ancestry and heritage.
Let your experience be profound by learning Spanish before visiting Paraguay! Travel easier, feel more at home and don’t miss anything from this life-changing trip. Talk to the locals and ask for opinions about places and food. Enjoy long conversations and making friends on the other side of the world.
Sign up for a free class with us at Homeschool Spanish Academy and start preparing for your trip to Paraguay!
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