Saturday, June 25, 2016

Uruguay vs Paraguay: Battle of the Guays!

The Guays:  Uruguay and Paraguay.  Two countries both relatively little known outside of South America, but that is pretty much where their similarities end.  Uruguay is one of the most successful countries in Latin America, after Chile.  It’s safe, clean, relatively wealthy, and has drinkable tap water.  Uruguay is on the tourist trail, thanks to its close proximity for day-trippers from Buenos Aires, and is therefore a very tourist-friendly destination – with easy transport, little corruption, a plethora of accommodation options, and plenty of shopping.  The country is politically and socially liberal – with marriage equality and legalized marijuana – and would be a nice place to live. 

Paraguay, on the other hand, was once the most successful country in South America, but that was in the first part of the 1800’s and its fortunes have long since crumbled.  A war with Brazil and Argentina saw a huge chunk of its land get taken and many of its working age men killed in combat.  A subsequent war with Bolivia was won by Paraguay, but at a cost.  The country then stagnated.  By most statistical indicators, Paraguay is only second to Bolivia as the least developed and least prosperous country in South America, though Venezuela is now racing to the bottom.  The country is conservative, not easily accessible, and doesn’t offer much in the way of prominent tourist attractions.  Despite the economy growing steadily and relatively quickly over the past few years, Paraguay has failed to register on the radar of most tourists, and the country can hardly be described as tourist-friendly.  Whether their lack of preparation for tourists is the cause of their low tourism numbers or vice versa, one thing is certain:  I can easily see why Paraguay gets overlooked with all of the more alluring alternatives nearby.

I only visited the capital cities of the two countries:  Montevideo, Uruguay and Asuncion, Paraguay.

A few highlights of my time in Montevideo:

The city:
I started my whirlwind 2-day tour of Montevideo at Plaza Independencia – one of my 103 Things!  A statue of national hero Jose Artigas is at the centre of the square and his mausoleum is underneath.  The mausoleum is impressive with famous quotes by him carved in the centre of the room and main events in his life carved around the sides.  Walking around the city, I stumbled upon several pretty well-maintained plazas, a nice waterfront promenade, and some fun street art.  I looked at one of their prominent churches (because this is Latin America and church visits are obligatory) and had lunch at the Mercado Agricola de Montevideo – a small yet posh indoor market with a nice food court.

Guided tours:
Museums and tours, however, occupied most of my time, and many of them were free which made me super happy.  The country’s main theatre – Teatro Solis – offers free guided tours in English on Wednesdays.  It is fabulous.  Also fabulous is the guided tour of the Palacio Legislativo (their Congress or Parliament).  The tour guide was knowledgeable, the group was small (me and only two other people), and the building is beautiful.  I love going on national capitol (and state capitol) tours whenever I get the chance, and this one makes the books for one of the best I’ve done.

The Museo de los Andes was the first museum I visited and it was my priority since it’s a little bit different than your typical museum. The museum outlines the 1972 plane crash of a Uruguayan rugby team that was later turned into the movie “Alive”.  The museum details how some of the men survived in terrible conditions for more than seventy days, and (most notoriously) had to eat their fallen comrades to survive.  This one is a must for anyone visiting Uruguay.

Elsewhere in Montevideo, the Museo del Gaucho is tiny and has limited information in English, but does offer the opportunity for a few selfies.  It was the worst museum I visited in Montevideo but pretty much better than any I visited in Asuncion.  I also visited three modern art museums in the city.  The Subte Centro de Exposiciones is an underground exhibition space that only has temporary and rather trippy exhibitions.  The Museo Nacional de Artes Visuales (MNAV) has a decent size collection of newer works but I was mainly focused on their excellent political cartoon exhibition.  Finally, the Espacio de Arte Contemporaneo doesn’t have as much as the MNAV but is super cool as it is in an old prison.

After Montevideo, I took a ferry back to Argentina and then immediately flew to Paraguay.

A few highlights of my time in Asuncion:

The city:
Unlike Montevideo, Asuncion’s streets aren’t well-maintained, and its plazas are a bit shabby.  The city features both bad and good: slums near the river and some fancy shmancy areas with tall new glass buildings and a mall for the elite.  As I mentioned before, there is nothing major for tourists to see but I was determined to check out nearly everything recommended in the Lonely Planet, which I did successfully in the span of… one morning.  That’s all it took.

Unlike, Uruguay – which offers a lot English information and excellent guided tours in English at their main attractions – Paraguay offers no English whatsoever.  The city’s main attraction, the Panteon de los Heroes, was closed for refurbishment.  The Casa de la Independencia is a small house where Paraguay became the first country in South America to declare its independence from European colonial powers.  Displays are minimal and only in Spanish.  The Palacio Lopez – the seat of government – is not open to tourists, and the Museo Naval Humaita is on a boat in the middle of a river with no clear way to access it.  The Manzana de la Rivera museum has no information – just walk in and do your best to figure which rooms are offices and which rooms have exhibitions.  The city’s most museum-like museum was the Museo del Barro.  It has some old stuff and some new stuff, and kept with the trend of just walking in and figuring it out.  Why don’t any of these museums have front desks?  Who opens and closes these places?

Slightly better attractions:
The Cementerio de la Recoleta – resting place for Paraguay’s wealthiest – was almost as grandiose as the cemetery of the same name in Buenos Aires.  The city’s main cathedral was quite refreshing as it isn’t nearly as gaudy or tacky as the cathedrals in countries with more money.  The Museo del Congreso Nacional – in the old parliament building – has a front desk with an attendant who told me where to start and which route I should take through the museum.  I was like “YAY!”  My threshold for good museums had gone down so much in my morning of museums that I was stoked just to see someone at a desk.  My favourite of the museums was the Estacion Ferrocarril – the old train station.  As it was the only museum I had to pay for in Asuncion, it also had an attendant.  The entrance ticket was an old wooden train ticket and the old man who gave it to me pointed me in the right direction.  The museum has relics of Paraguay’s railroad – the first in South America – and it was super cool to walk through one of the original dining cars.  I was also super excited to see English explanations on the signage but was completely unimpressed when I realized that the English text was the same on all the signs.  Someone just copied and pasted the English text from the first sign onto all the rest.  Crikey.

As I had a friend in Asuncion, I had a better access to local cuisine.  My friend’s mom made me mbeju – sort of like a pancake made of cassava flour and cheese.  It was really good, but most likely the heaviest thing I’ve ever eaten.  Just one and I felt full.  I had some mate (local tea) and chipa, sort of like their version of cornbread.  The most interesting of them all was the “sopa paraguaya” or Paraguayan soup.  But it’s not soup.  It’s bread.  It looks like cornbread and has a similar texture to cornbread but it tastes like… soup.  It’s weird.  But it’s fucking delicious. Legend has it that someone once was supposed to cook soup for someone important but left it too long and all the liquid evaporated leaving the bread-like remnants behind.  It’s the only solid soup in the world, and I questioned my friend on that.  “How the fuck can you have solid soup?”  And then I ate it and promptly realized that solid soup is apparently a thing in Paraguay.  What planet am I on?

After visiting both Uruguay and Paraguay (well, at least after visiting their capital cities), I’ve come to my conclusion:  Uruguay is definitely the better of the guays.  Paraguay was definitely interesting, but it’s just not a place for tourists.  After the Guays, I was stoked to head back to Argentina for the third time, and this time actually stay for a few days to explore.  But first, let me take a selfie… in each city.

To see more photos of my time in Montevideo, follow this link:

To see more photos of my time in Asuncion, follow this link:

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