We’ve returned to South America, this time to discover Paraguay. Here, the traditional heritage of indigenous tribes is alive and well, creating a fascinating culture shaped by the country’s pre-Colombian history and European colonialism.
Want to learn more about Paraguay?
- Paraguay Capital: Asunción
- Largest City in Paraguay: Asunción
- Population of Paraguay (2016): 6,854,536 (105th)
- Total Area of Paraguay: 406,752 km² (60th)
- Official Languages of Paraguay: Spanish, Guarani
- Paraguayan Currency: Paraguayan guaraní (₲) (PYG)
History of Paraguay
Indigenous tribes lived in Paraguay long before the Spanish ever arrived, however it was the Guaraní people that are mostly remembered (and still very much alive) today. Of course, European colonization would change the face of the country forever, and this began in the year 1516.
While the first explorers ventured into the land in 1516, the settlement known as Asunción wasn’t founded until 1537 – soon becoming the capital of the colony of Paraguay. Where Paraguay differed from many nearby colonies was in the Jesuit missionaries’ goals to create a Christian nation out of the existing indigenous population. While attempting to convert the Guaraní people, the Jesuits essentially protected many of them from exploitation and slavery. In the end, Christianity enveloped the country though Paraguay retained many elements of the existing indigenous culture.
Independence and Family Rule
The Spanish were overthrown in 1811, which led to the dictatorship of a man named Francia. After making Paraguay increasingly insular and isolationist, he died in 1840, which brought about a military junta until his nephew (Carlos Antonio López) took over a year later. While power was centralized exclusively on him and his family, he succeeded in modernizing the country and in opening it back up to foreign nations.
The son of López took over in 1862 following his father’s death and continued down the same path. The rule of the López family was all encompassing, however many contemporary onlookers noted the widespread security, increased industry, and low crime rate – thanks in part to the complete control of the family.
War and Early 20th Century
Between 1864 and 1870, Paraguay was thrown into the grips of a large-scale Latin American war after Brazil (supported by Argentina) invaded Uruguay (an ally of the López family). Paraguay was decimated by the conflict, with hundreds of thousands killed as well as large-scale losses in land to nearby countries. Even Asunción was pillaged by Brazil, resulting in the loss of many important historical and cultural works.
Fast forwarding to 1904, a liberal revolution was starting a new era for Paraguayan politics. Unfortunately, this meant instability and the next 50 years saw a whopping 31 different presidents rule the country (with a 1922 Civil War in the midst of all this). Another Civil War took place in 1947, and in the aftermath one man would use the situation to initiate a brutal and decades long reign.
The Long Dictatorship
After a military coup in 1954, an officer named Alfredo Stroessner rose to power – and would stay there for over 30 years (in a time known as El Stronato). While there was a degree of modernization, the regime was harsh and authoritarian. It wasn’t until the 80’s when Domingo Laino began to find followers as the main voice of discontent. After a chaotic period of civil unrest, dodgy elections, and popular unease, Stroessner was overthrown in 1989 and fled to Brazil, where he stayed until his death in 2006.
This didn’t mean an end to political struggle however. The 90’s saw a coup attempt by Lino Oviedo, the arrest of Oviedo after his nomination as a presidential candidate, and his release by the next president and subsequent controversy (as well as killings of anti-government protesters). After a few more years of conservative, Colorado Party rule (a staple of Paraguayan politics for decades), a more liberal candidate named Fernando Lugo assumed the presidency in 2008.
Unfortunately, conflict with the more right-wing Congress made things difficult, while widespread instability diminished popular approval for Lugo. As Horacio Cartes emerged as the leader of the Colorado Party, Lugo was impeached by the conservative Congress in 2012 and promptly removed from office (in what many called an effective coup d’état). With the inauguration of Horacio Cartes as Paraguay’s new president in 2013, it remains to be seen if the country can move forward politically – so recently removed from decades of dictatorship.
As with most Latin American countries, the culture of Paraguay is a mix between Spanish traditions and those of the indigenous population – in this case, the Guaraní. Unlike many nearby countries however, the indigenous traditions are much more ingrained in Paraguay, with nearly 80% of the country speaking both Spanish and Guaraní, while over 90% of the country is of mixed Spanish/native descent.
This mixed heritage manifests itself in art (especially embroidery and lace making), music, and cuisine. Popular dishes use local produce (such as corn or manioc) while dairy products, breads, and beef are also widely consumed.
The flag of Paraguay is a tricolour of red, white, and blue horizontal stripes. The colours are based on the French flag, which is meant to conjure images of independence, liberty, and other revolutionary values. The flag is rare in that the two sides are different. The obverse features the coat of arms while the reverse instead displays the seal of the treasury.
Sports in Paraguay
Sports enjoyed in Paraguay include soccer, basketball, volleyball, tennis and swimming. Soccer, however is by far the most popular, with the national team making it to eight different World Cups. One of the most well known Paraguayan players is top scorer Roque Santa Cruz, who made his name at Bayern Munich for eight seasons throughout the 2000’s.
Geography of Paraguay
Paraguay is one of only two landlocked countries in South America (along with Bolivia). Thanks to its location, it mostly features a tropical or subtropical climate. The Río Paraguay flows through the country, dividing it into a very distinct ‘east’ and ‘west’. The eastern part of the country is largely grassy plains and hills with forests, while low marshland plains dominate the west.
Cities in Paraguay
The largest city in Paraguay is Asunción (the capital). Situated near the Argentine border, it has a population of over 500,000 and is the centre of cultural and commercial life in the country (as well as the home of governance obviously). The second largest city in Paraguay is Ciudad del Este, which is home to around 300,000 people.
Facts about Paraguay
- The national beverage is mate, which you can learn more about HERE
- The first railway in Paraguay was constructed in 1858
- The famous Iguazu Falls used to be located in Paraguay before the territory was lost to Brazil. The falls remain very close to the border however
- Capybaras are found in Paraguay – think large guinea pigs
- Pistol dueling is legal, but you have to be a registered blood donor
- Paraguay has the largest navy of any landlocked country
- The Chaco plain is a large, uninhabited region that dominates the northwest
Paraguay might still be finding its footing following decades of dictatorship, but that does not diminish the proud history or unique culture of what is a truly fascinating country.
With Continental’s Countries you can stay up to date on each new Country of the Week as they come out! Check out our Travel Guide for more information on Paraguay and our Currency Spotlight for a breakdown of the guaraní.
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