Stand at the corner of Asunción's Plaza Independencia and Palacio Legislativo and you'll see urban South America in all its grisly glory. The peeling pink colonial palace is besieged on one side by a filthy ramshackle slum that tumbles down to the muddy shore of the Rio Paraguay. A stubbly football pitch lies in the distance and a stained cathedral sits on the other plaza corner, surrounded by potholed streets and vigilant policemen. Dirty buses rumble between whitewashed curbs, and a hodgepodge of decaying pastel-colored mansions stand squeezed between squalid concrete bunkers.

Asunción is glorious in the sun and miserable in the rain. Like most South American cities, the downtown area is poor, polluted, and neglected, yet alive with vendors, food stalls, and chaotic traffic. Here you'll find some interesting museums and monuments, and the shade they offer is a cool respite from the sweltering heat. The northeast of the city becomes decidedly tidier but characterless, with long avenues of car dealerships and shopping malls leading to upscale and leafy Villa Morra. Here you'll find some beautiful suburban streets and parks.

With a population of 1.2 million people, Asunción has the feel of a provincial city. Founded in 1557, the Spanish had big plans to make it the gateway to Peru. The vast, impenetrable Chaco soon stopped this idea in its tracks and the city lost its dominance to Buenos Aires and Salta. Thoughtless urban planning saw the destruction of many fine buildings, and what remains gives a sense of long-faded glory. Nevertheless, it is the political, economic, and cultural center of Paraguay, with most of the country's population living there or nearby. Those same people are very friendly and welcoming, unfamiliar with tourists, and anxious that you enjoy your stay.