The relatively undiscovered country of Paraguay offers visitors a rich indigenous culture, impressive national parks and colonial buildings combined with fascinating handicraft markets.
Paraguay is a small, rural country in the heart of South America, with a rich indigenous culture and a colourful past.
Home to a tiny population of just 6.5 million, it is one of the lesser known countries to travellers, though it has a great deal to offer.
The American essayist and satirist PJ O'Rourke once described Paraguay as "nowhere and famous for nothing", then visited the nation, fell in love with it and moved there.
Settled by semi-nomadic Guarani tribes, Paraguay was charted by European explorers in the 16th century. Pedro de Mendoza started a colony at Asuncion after fleeing Buenos Aires, which grew into a large and important settlement.
The Guarani and Spanish peoples co-operated relatively well and adopted each others' languages and traditions. However, the settlements dwindled after the expulsion of the missionaries in 1767 and Paraguay finally declared independence in 1811.
From its declaration of independence to recent decades, Paraguay has been held by a series of dictatorships that cut the country off from much of the rest of the world. The War of the Triple Alliance (1865-70) against Argentina, Uruguay and Brazil saw the population decimated, with two thirds of all adult males killed, followed by the bloody Chaco War with Bolivia (1932-35).
A military dictatorship led by General Alfredo Stroessner ruled from 1954 following a military coup and was not overthrown until 1989, when it fell amongst allegations of torture and corruption. Paraguay is currently a democratic republic and, although tensions, widespread poverty and corruption still exist, the country has been relatively peaceful in recent years.
The Paraguayan capital Asuncion is a faded, shabby, busy city of 600,000 in the south west of the country, next to the Argentinian border. The city has some pleasant streets lined with trees, interesting markets stocking an eclectic range of wares and several impressive colonial buildings.
Attractions near to Asuncion include the weaving town Itagua, Caacupe, with its vast cathedral, and the resorts of Aregua and San Bernadino on the shores of Lago Ypacarai. Those interested in hiking or nature tours should head for the Parque Nacional Ybycui in the south of the country, which consists of acres of untouched rainforest.
Shoppers will delights in Paraguay's markets and its traditional handicrafts, which include delicate spiderweb lace and intricate silver jewellery. The country has retained a great deal of its ancient Guarani heritage, despite the many interesting Christian missions dotted around it.
Food has a familiar Latin American flavour, with empanadas and croquetas served alongside local dishes like parrillada (barbecued meats) and puchero, a meat, sausage, vegetable, and chickpea stew. Nightlife outside the capital is largely limited to small, lively independent bars and restaurants.
The official language of Paraguay is Spanish, though the native Guarani language is still widely spoken and taught in schools. Central Paraguay tends to experience hot, tropical summers and colder winters, with moderate rainfall year round and drier and warmer weather in the north.
Accommodation in Paraguay tends to be basic and cheap, as the country has a limited tourist infrastructure in place. A number of travel companies offer tours and package deals and most visitors enter Paraguay from neighbouring Argentina or Brazil.