Paraguay is landlocked in the heart of South America, while coastal Uruguay, the second smallest country on the continent, lies some distance to the east. The indigenous languages in both countries are Guarani and Spanish, but why the shared guay? Well, guay means all things super, brilliant and terrific in Spanish. Both nations are also barmy about soccer, and we shall bear witness to this during the ongoing FIFA World Cup in Brazil.
A stopgap between Latin giants Brazil, Argentina and Bolivia, lesser-visited Paraguay is a hidden gem thanks to its isolation. The country has a well-preserved indigenous community and its economy has only really taken off this millennium.
Believe it or not, Paraguay has a bizarre Australian connection. Back in 1893 dissatisfied Australian communists set sail for the country to create a New Australia. Two thirds of those who defected returned to Australia but their legacy remained; it is estimated around 2000 Paraguayans now have Australian heritage.
Australians weren’t the only ones to fall in love with the country and the women. Many nationalities chose to settle here after World War II and there are many European enclaves in the nation. Hohenau and Bella Vista, to the south of capital Asuncion are populated by German Mennonites so everything looks, sounds and tastes German. For an even more surreal experience, there is a Korean colony near Bella Vista named Pirapo.
Its isolation has kept its culture brilliantly preserved, meaning Paraguay is an excellent place to visit if you want to get to know its people. Because it has largely flown below the tourist radar, interactions with locals are authentic and convivial. But if tourist ticks are needed, Asuncion is the historical centre while the Paraguayan access to Iguazu Falls makes for an alternate and atypical way to see this tourist landmark.
Another benefit of Paraguay’s off-the-grid status are the prices. No-one is going to fleece you for being a foreigner here. There are plenty of well-priced Brazilian steakhouses and be sure to drink terere, Paraguay’s take on the classic South American herbal drink. Don’t be shocked to find snake on the menu either. The skin is used for leather and the meat is cooked on a barbeque. And like the Peruvian preference for guinea pig, snake is more or less a Paraguay-centric delicacy.
Uruguay was Paraguay a few decades ago, in terms of tourist numbers. But while its tourism credentials have been well publicised, it is not yet flooded with visitors to the same extent as neighbouring Brazil, allowing for some intrepid bragging rights.
In Uruguay, make time for the beach – an attribute that landlocked but lake-filled Paraguay cannot boast. Lapped by the Atlantic ocean, its coastline is furthered by peninsula formations to the east and west. On the eastern side, the town of Colonia is a short distance to Argentina’s Buenos Aires across the Rio de la Plata.
Jose Ignacio is the hot coastal town to be seen at. It’s where supermodels and Latin stars come to party, even though it is mostly a sleepy fishing town. If Jose Ignacio is the ultimate barefoot destination, Punta del Este is Uruguay’s version of Monte Carlo. This is where the wealthy flock from Montevideo on weekends.
Beyond the coast, there are plenty of sightseeing magnets, such as the capital and historic epicentre Montevideo, typified by striking 19th century architecture. Colonia del Sacramento is a UNESCO World Heritage site while Tacuarembo is the place to be for an authentic gaucho cowboy experience, particularly in March for the horsemanship festival called Fiesta de la Patria Gaucha.
In Uruguay, you eat steak for dinner, without question. The steakhouses (parillas) are world-renowned. Follow your dinner with a relatively light dessert of ice cream and meringue, called chaja. The country’s passion for all things carnivorous is on display at the meat markets, or Mercados, in Montevideo. Be warned, steak is a way of life and you may be expected to eat meat for breakfast and lunch.
Australia to Paraguay
LAN Airlines now operates seven one-stop flights each week from Sydney to Santiago, Chile, with onward connections to Asuncion, the gateway to Paraguay. LAN also offers non-stop flights between Sydney and Santiago every Monday, Wednesday and Saturday in a codeshare partnership with Oneworld partner airline Qantas. For more information visit www.lan.com.
Australia to Uruguay
LAN Airlines now operates seven one-stop flights each week from Sydney to Santiago, Chile, with onward connections to Montevideo, the gateway to Uruguay. LAN also offers non-stop flights between Sydney and Santiago every Monday, Wednesday and Saturday in a codeshare partnership with Oneworld partner airline Qantas. For more information visit www.lan.com.
A participant at Patria Caucha, one of Uruguay's largest festivals
The national cathedral in Asuncion, Paraguay
The capybara, the world's largest rodent, is native to South America
Casapueblo, the famed house of Uruguayan artist Carlos Paez Vilaro, located in Punta del Este