Welcome to Asuncion, perhaps the least visited capital city in South America! Some say the city can be explored in a day, but even with several days I left feeling like there was a lot left to see and do. Without knowing what to expect, many things in the city took me by surprise, and the beautiful presidential palace is just one example. The presidential palace has existed for over 150 years, and was built with material found throughout the country rather than imports. As you can see I visited during December, when they had a massive Christmas tree on the front lawn. The photo below shows the national congress building of Paraguay, just a few blocks away.
I arrived in Paraguay late at night, but by chance I had a unique experience first thing in the morning. I was walking alone down the street and decided to photograph this helicopter since it seemed to be hovering over me. Not even a minute later all traffic came to a halt, and what I assume to be the president’s motorcade drove right by. There were dozens of vehicles and armed guards that passed only a few feet away from me. Since I had only been in the country for hours at this point, I didn’t want to risk taking a picture and getting into trouble on my first day.
I ended up spending four days in Asuncion, or three nights at the Bavarian Hotel. The prices were less than $40 a night, and for that amount I got a large room with A/C, even a swimming pool. It seemed very few people spoke English in Paraguay, and that included my hotel. Though my Spanish is terrible, its enough to communicate if someone is patient with me. I was able to explain I wanted to visit some places far from the capital, and without exaggeration the staff made nearly a dozen calls for me and created a list of all my options. I felt bad for their tremendous effort, but they were a huge help and didn’t seem to mind at all!
While I was in the capital I did what I usually do, explore! One of my first photos aside from the helicopter was of this cobblestone neighborhood. It wasn’t too far from where I stayed, so I kind of assumed my place was in a nice area of the city. While this was true, it seemed many neighborhoods in the capital had tree-lined cobblestone streets. I was surprised to see another nice area of the city that seemed to have its streets named after famous military leaders. Some of them included Charles de Gaulle, Mac Mahon, or in this example below Gen. Douglas Mac Arthur.
My first morning in the city I was trying to walk to a cafe and plan out my Paraguyan adventure. The internet showed one not too faraway, so I did a 20 minute hike and instead of a small cafe I arrived to this massive place. I wasn’t sure what it was at the time, because though the outside was designed like a cathedral, there were signs for youth centers, a store, and even a pizzeria. A local later told me that this is the Parroquia San Rafael Asunción. “They give shelter, free of charge, to terminally ill cancer and AIDs patients, also elderly they pick from the streets or those who are rejected by their families.”
The church itself appeared to be open when I visited, but the main grounds of the parish were empty. I was able to explore on my own a bit, but would have had a lot more appreciation at the time had I known all the incredible things they do here. While roaming around I found some caged parrots and toucans in one of their courtyards. The toucan earned a spot on my page for those amazing bright blue eyes.
This church near the city center was easier to identify. The Metropolitan Cathedral of Our Lady of the Assumption, or Asunción Cathedral is the most prominent Catholic church in the city. I didn’t go inside the place, which was a mistake. It’s much more massive in person than this photo, and has been in the city for well over 150 years now.
This memorial above is just a block away from the cathedral in the Plaza de Armas. The memorial itself got little attention from me, because most of that went to the people in the square. After visiting this place I later read a bad review someone had wrote online and said to stay clear of the plaza. This was due to all the makeshift tents and homeless people, as well as garbage thrown about. I found this to be completely true; the majority of the people here seemed to be homeless. Many had set up make shift tents with plastic sheets, and one even had a camp fire going. The place wasn’t as dirty as described in the review, and most importantly I didn’t feel any negative attention from my presence. Just across the street which was slightly better housing, I took this photo below where there seemed to be a neighborhood block party going on.
The majority of the photos from Asuncion are places that I just stumbled upon. Without a long list of touristy places to visit, I found walking through the city was the best way to experience it. I’m sure I missed several important places, but I also caught a few by chance. One of them was this outdoor collection of of photos showing the life of Paraguayans. Some of these ranged from every day tasks, to political crises, or performing arts. The photo below was part of that collection as a close up example.
There didn’t seem to be a big art scene in Asuncion, but that could also be because I never went looking for one. I did pass by art gallery during one of my walks and took the photo above. If you count street art, there was plenty of that as well, including this creative one below!
Further away from the city center, I was able to get my own cultural photos when I came upon a large field that had two active soccer games. I’m not sure how serious this league was, but the players seemed to be giving it all they had. Obviously they had jerseys, a referee, and a reasonable crowd who took up some small bleachers.
In another part of the city I saw this other sport game for the first time. I’m not sure of the rules, but my assumption is it’s almost the same as soccer, just instead of scoring a goal into a net you kick the ball past the goalie and make it roll around the back of the court to score. I was worried they might be unhappy with me taking photographs, but when the locals saw me they even invited me to join and play!
I think what surprised me the most was all the modern malls and infrastructure the Asuncion had. I assumed that since Asuncion wasn’t well known it must be behind some of its neighbors, but that most definitely isn’t the case. Of course I didn’t make a point to visit any of the malls here but I saw at least half a dozen. This was a tiny one, but further north was a massive mall that looked to be multiple levels and even created its own traffic jam. The one below is another smaller one which got my attention with their Heineken Christmas tree.
There’s a surprisingly large number of places to go out in Asuncion, from malls to mom and pop restaurants, to classy establishments. There’s plenty of romantic restaurants, but this couple showed no shame with some public affection in a city park. I saw this one or two times but it was pretty minor, unlike neighboring Argentina which has almost no limits!
Like many cities in Latin America, there was a mix of rich and poor in Asuncion. Again though, I was surprised to see so many nice neighborhoods in the capital, and the poorer parts were still kept respectfully clean and felt relatively safe. The photo above looked to be a large embassy but turned out to be a massive bank. Some other impressive buildings were nearby but I didn’t photograph them.
I actually liked Asuncion for not having a long checklist of things to do. Having a plan is nice, but sometimes without one you’ll visit places you might not have otherwise. For example, my most unique experience was when I tried to cut through a cemetery. I figured I would walk straight through to the other side, not realizing I was basically entering a small city of the dead. These photos above and below almost look like homes, but these are actually nothing but tombs.
I seriously got lost in this place for nearly 20 minutes. I figured I could just walk straight through and exit onto the next street over which was my destination anyway. Instead I hiked for several minutes and finally got to a major wall. I could hear the cars on the other side, but there was no door anywhere in sight. It seemed that other than this cat and its kittens which ran off, I was the only living thing here.
Getting lost in the cemetery forced me to go through various avenues and see different parts of the grounds. Some were incredibly nice such as my initial photos. Others were small and humble like this tiny tomb above which I assume to belong to a small child. Other parts were nearly destroyed, perhaps victims of a combination of old age and even looting. The casket below looks like someone tried to break in, or maybe something tried to break out?
While we’re all feeling morbid I’ll go to my last stop in Asuncion, the national zoo. If you enter the zoo and walk straight into their natural history museum, this mummy will be the first thing you’ll see. A sign in Spanish said the mummy is about 700 years old, from the Calchaqui Andes tribe.
When I left Asuncion for El Chaco, Paraguay’s most remote areas known for tribal communities and wildlife, I had really hoped to see a giant anteater. The closest I got were multiple warning signs along the highway. The next best place I figured would be the zoo, but the only one they had was this stuffed one in their natural history museum! They also had a large collection of preserved animals, ranging from lizards, insects, and most impressively this huge display of snakes. The touching prohibited sign was a bit unnecessary since I can’t imagine many people would want to handle these.
While I failed to see an anteater, capybara, or tapir in El Chaco, I did at least get to see the tapir in the zoo. I had no idea how huge these things were. I assume them to be shy in the wild but these beasts could most definitely pose a threat if they decided to attack. Some of them can easily weigh close to 400 pounds (180 kg), or ore than double the weight of a jaguar!
The most depressing zoo I ever went to was in Niger, where caged animals seemed to barely have enough room to walk around. The ones in Asuncion were much better off in comparison regarding space. They had a very large collection of monkeys here in multiple enclosures. I’m not sure the species of either of these, but I found the one in the photo below to be my favorite.
Last for Asuncion are pictures of some happy ostriches who had plenty of room to roam around. They had to share a large field with their goat friends, and feeding them seemed to be allowed or at least tolerated. They lined the fences waiting for food and plenty of locals were happy to toss them scraps. I think I found the ostrich foot more interesting than their body, for its reptile look.