Paraguay’s Carnival: Cheap Fun

Watch out for snow spray in the crowds at the Carnival in Paraguay. Adam Lambert photos.
Watch out for snow spray in the crowds at the Carnival in Paraguay. Adam Lambert photos.

Carnival in Paraguay! Don’t forget your snow spray and sunglasses

By Adam Lambert

You are backpacking through South America and it is approaching February, the odds are that your thoughts switch to Carnival and Rio de Janeiro.

Dancing girls at Paraguay's carnival. Read more about this very rarely visited country in South America.
Dancing girls at Paraguay’s carnival. Read more about this very rarely visited country in South America.

The obvious questions then come to mind;

  • How is the budget holding up, can we afford to do this?
  • Is there actually a bed available in any part of the city that won’t make me feel as though I am Harry Potter’s poorer sibling under the stairs?
  • Where am I right now? Brazil is a vast country and South America is a huge continent so if we fly will we have time to back track?
  • What country am I from? Does the budget contain those pesky visa entry fees for Brazil?
  • When it comes down to it, do I really want to be surrounded by thousands of other foreigners or do I want something a little more authentic.

These were all the questions we asked ourselves as we planned to travel north from Buenos Aires to Iguazu Falls before then crossing over into Brazil.

As is typically the way for the backpacker, there is no such thing as a plan and this is why maybe you should consider Paraguay as a more than worthy alternative Carnival destination.

National Pantheon of Heroes in Paraguay's capital, Asunción.
National Pantheon of Heroes in Paraguay’s capital, Asunción.

Not Just a Brazilian Thing

Perhaps it was just our ignorance but we thought that Carnival was just a ‘Brazilian thing’ and had no idea that the whole of the continent revels throughout late January and for the entire month of February so you are pretty much guaranteed a good party wherever you may be over a 6 week period.

For example we had already ‘opened’ Carnival season in Uruguay’s capital city Montevideo and then crossed the Rio Plata by ferry to experience what Argentina had to offer in Buenos Aires.

Setting out for Iguazu in the north east we decided to break the journey up by visiting the city of Posadas with the aim being to explore the ruins of the old Jesuit Missions along the northern border with Paraguay and so begins the fortunate discovery of Carnival in Encarnación.

It was purely by chance and a random internet search that we happened upon what has been described as the second largest Carnival party and potential challenger to Rio’s crown.

Now there is no chance of this ever happening but having visited both cities I know where we felt much more comfortable and had a lot more fun. Encarnación takes Carnival just as seriously, so much so that it has a permanently built Sambadrome and openly admits that its parade is much more about the flesh than the costumes, something that I can definitely testify to.

A ticket to the Sambadrome in Rio will cost you upwards of $250; here it will set you back by the princely sum of $4, you can buy it on the day and even better you can then walk there along with everybody else to truly get into the spirit of things such is the small size of the city.

Quadruple the Population

Admittedly the city population will quadruple during this period so you may want to book ahead but we still managed to find good accommodation on the day and for a fare price.

We had also heard rumors of an all-inclusive drinks and food section in the Sambadrome for approximately $30 but we just couldn’t find the right person who was selling those tickets.

In hindsight it was probably for the best though as we found ourselves in a prime location 1 row up from the front of the stands towards to the finale point of the parade line and it was chaos, but chaos of the finest order.

Carnival parade in Encarnacion, Paraguay.
Carnival parade in Encarnacion, Paraguay.

If you are a local in Encarnación, Carnival in the Sambadrome is all about how many battles you can get into with a can of snowspray. If you haven’t got your snowspray, you may as well go home now!!

Also, if you haven’t got your sunglasses with you then you are in trouble as this stuff gets everywhere and it stings when a grandma surprises you and sprays you full in the face. Don’t worry I got her and her grandson back on multiple occasions and this one on two battle just added to why this was much more of a personal and genuine experience by celebrating Carnival here.

San Jose beach is the place to be after 3 pm in Encarnacion.
San Jose beach is the place to be after 3 pm in Encarnacion.

As for the parade itself, were the floats and the dancers as impressive as those in Rio? No, not at all, but to be honest after viewing the same sort of thing and listening to a single song being played over and over by each and every band to accompany each and every group over a period of 4 hours do you really care?

Plus, if you didn’t cover your ears and forgot your sunglasses you would probably be deaf and blind by now anyway so what difference would it make!!

Entry and Exit:

Myself and my partner are UK and Australian citizens respectively so entry into Paraguay was free and very, very easy. From Posadas, Argentina it took us all of 10 minutes and the cost of a local bus fare to cross over the river and get off at the bus station in Encarnación meaning that you could conceivably take in this Carnival experience as a single day trip!

In fact it was so easy that if it wasn’t for us insisting that the driver stop at the immigration checkpoint we would have been trafficked in as illegal aliens; which actually happened when we left from the eastern side of the country and entered into Brazil 1 week later, but that is another story.

Also, if you are entering via a local bus remember that you may find yourself running after him to continue your journey as he has his schedule to keep!

A cozy cabana in the beach at San Bernadino, Paraguay.
A cozy cabana in the beach at San Bernadino, Paraguay.

Transport:

If you decide to explore more of Paraguay then be aware that the modes of transport are not as sophisticated as its neighbors

This is back to basics travel in cramped, rundown buses and air conditioning means sticking your head out of an open window like an excitable dog whereas the taxis are death-trap rust buckets. Given that Paraguay is South America’s hottest country this can make for some very uncomfortable and sweaty journeys. Renting a car in Paraguay from Alamo can make the travel a whole lot easier.

What happens during snow spray battles.
What happens during snow spray battles.

Note that there are higher standards of buses connecting some places but being told you are at the right desk to buy a ticket for those and actually getting on to one with the tickets you have just bought are 2 entirely different things.

Cost:

Paraguay’s transport and accommodation is far more expensive than it should be when taken on a like for like basis with the surrounding countries, but as a general rule of thumb it is one of the cheaper countries to visit in South America and the food, especially on the streets is very cheap.

The people:

Definitely the highlight for coming to Paraguay and are honestly some of the nicest and most genuine people you will come across (once outside the bus station). Given the disparity between the rich and the poor, which is very noticeable such as a Porsche driving by a family living on the side of the road, or a slum city set up behind the Capital’s Government building, everybody was willing to offer assistance and always did so with a big, friendly smile.

What to see:

We also found ourselves in the capital, Asunción and the lakeside town of San Bernardino, a weekend retreat for the capital’s more affluent citizens.

As far as capital cities rank, I think Asunción has to be number 1 for a lack of things to see and do and whereas San Bernardino is a lovely place to relax, during the week it is an absolute ghost town and is difficult to navigate around.

The Sambadrome, far cheaper than anything in Rio, and pretty much the same.
The Sambadrome, far cheaper than anything in Rio, and pretty much the same.

It is also worth noting that Paraguay is home to a number of impressive Jesuit ruins but these can also be visited in Argentina. Further afield there is definitely plenty of wide open space to explore. Paraguay’s population is around 7 million people and 4 million of these can be found in the capital alone.

If you are short on time and money you would not be missing much by limiting your trip to only experiencing Encarnación which is the stand out choice of destination and the Paraguayan tourist hotspot.

San Jose beach.

It is a vibrant and charismatic city set on the banks of theParaná River which is developing in the right direction and is bristling with young entrepreneurial spirit full of pop-up bars and boutique cafes that would not be out of place in any ‘first world’ city around the globe.

Add to this the riverside beach which steadily fills up from 3pm with the young and the beautiful and the who’s who of the city and you have a place that is much more aligned to its Argentinian neighbor lying just over the water than the rest of the nation on its doorstep. Perhaps that’s why we enjoyed it that much more.

Accommodation:

Asunción – we were close to the bus station for ease of travel but would not recommend a hotel based upon our experience.

San Bernardino – Brisas Del Mediterraneo offers shared dorms and stand-alone lakeside cabanas all with access to communal kitchen facilities. It is a little out of the way and like us you will probably need to wake up a snoozing taxi driver to get a ride out there if it is midweek. www.paraguay-hostel.com

Encarnación – we stayed in the friendly and safe Hotel Germano; conveniently located opposite the bus station for a quick exit and within walking distance of the city center. www.booking.com/HotelGermano

Personal safety:

Rio de Janeiro apart, and that was just an ‘edgy’ energy, there wasn’t one occasion that we felt threatened or concerned for our safety in South America and that included being caught up in a protest and tear-gassed in Bogotá, Colombia.

Just be street smart, mindful of your environment and use your common sense.

Adam LambertAdam Mark Lambert is officially allergic to doing a hard days’ work and found that the only cure for his debilitating condition was to travel around the world, which he did continuously for 3 years. Originally from England but currently based in Melbourne, Australia Adam is always on the cusp of the next big adventure. You can read about his escapades at www.lambystravels.blogspot.com

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