Paraguay is a mysterious enclave of rural plains and muddy rivers, bordered by pristine jungles and dotted with lichen-stained towns and cities. Tucked away in the tropical belly of South America, landlocked and dwarfed by Bolivia, Brazil, and Argentina, most travelers take its anonymity as a cue to skip it and continue on to more exotic places. If you do decide to go, you will be surprised to find a beautiful, humid, strikingly green countryside best explored by boat or on horseback.

Paraguay is a country that stands for paradox. The indigenous Guaraní people play sentimental European songs on giant harps. Huge Ciudad del Este shopping malls stand next to thundering, tropical waterfalls. Unpaved roads lead to a multibillion-dollar dam called Itaipú. Asunción's squalor is punctuated by architectural jewels, while German Mennonite colonies scratch out a good living on the inhospitable Chaco. In the south, majestic Jesuit ruins in Encarnación hint at a lost utopia.

Paraguay's history is brutal and sad. Everywhere you go you will find references to the 19th-century War of the Triple Alliance, a lonely, ill-advised conflict against the combined might of Brazil, Argentina, and Uruguay that almost wiped out Paraguay's male population. Paraguay's isolation was compounded by a 20th century marked by military coups and long dictatorships. It is only recently that the country has opened up. Today, Paraguay is a destination for those who want the new and colorful and can tolerate the occasional discomfort. Its greatest assets are unexplored national parks with excellent wildlife, bird-watching, and unlimited potential for ecotourism.

Waterfalls & Jaguars

Paraguay has great potential regarding ecotourism. It has 11 national parks and 7 reserves offering diverse habitats. However, poor management and little infrastructure mean you really must make an effort to get there. Just be prepared to get your feet wet and your clothes dirty when you do so. For permits and information concerning all of Paraguay's parks, go to Direccion de Parques Nacionales y Vida Silvestre, Franco and Ayolas, Asunción (tel. 021/445-970). Below are some of the best parks.

  • Parque Nacional Ybycui is 5,000 hectares (12,350 acres) of rare rainforest, steep woodland, and idyllic waterfalls. It is the country's most accessible park and is famous for its partridges and multitudes of butterflies. It is only 120km (77 miles) south of Asunción and therefore can be crowded on weekends and holidays. On weekdays, its campsites and forest trails are deserted.
  • Parque Nacional Cerro Corrá was the site of Mariscal López's last stand against his triple alliance enemies and is now a 22,000-hectare (54,340-acre) reserve of tropical forest and savannah grasslands. There are also caves, petroglyphs, and a small museum and information center. The town is 35km (22 miles) from the town of Pedro Juan Caballero, near the Brazilian border.
  • Parque Nacional Defensores del Chaco is a 780,000-hectare (1.9-million acre) enclave of spectacular bird life, including 1.8m (6-ft.) storks called jabirus. Jaguars and pumas can be found lurking in the dense thorn forest. The park is 830km (515 miles) from Asunción and accessible only by 4X4. Permits are necessary and obtained in Asunción. It is highly recommended that you go with a guide.