First Impressions Of Asunción
Panama City, Panama
“Is it working for you?”
“No, it’s not. Is there a trick to it?”
“I don’t know. I’ve only just landed in the country. If you need some guaraní, I could try my card… see if I have better luck?”
“Ah, that’s awfully nice of you to offer. But we’ll be ok. We’ll see if they’ll take our credit card at the counter…”
One of my favorite things about traveling to a place where you’ve never been before is that you don’t know what to expect. Everything’s new and therefore unpredictable… even the ATM machines. Trying to use our Schwab debit cards at the grocery shop down the street from our hotel in Asunción, we were stymied. Both of our cards were refused on first try. Could they have been deactivated already, even though we’d yet to use them for even a single purchase? How could we have triggered a card usage red flag in Schwab’s systems already? We had back up debit cards with us but couldn’t remember the pin codes!
Lucky for us, our credit card worked at the counter, and we were able to buy our water, wine, and snacks.
Arriving in Asunción this weekend we embraced the chance to let this city wash over us, just to take it all in on its own terms as it came to us. Lief and I are traveling here this week with our Managing Editor (and daughter) Kaitlin and our Associate Publisher Harry. None of us has ever been to Paraguay before, though Lief and I have wanted to visit for years. Finally we’ve identified a compelling reason to make the trip asap—the global boom in agriculture.
Paraguay is generally overlooked by the tourist and the retiree, who, if they think of the place at all, think it offers little of interest. Paraguay is a country of farmers. Agriculture represents about 28% of the country’s economy, while nearly half the population depends on agriculture for its livelihood. We’ve arrived on the scene to try to identify agricultural opportunities appropriate for the small individual investor. We have meetings with friends of friends already doing business in Paraguay and other local experts starting this afternoon and continuing throughout the week.
First, though, we needed to get our bearings—some local currency in our pockets and some initial feel for how people do things in this part of the world.
The friendly American who offered to procure some guaraní on our behalf from the grocery ATM is the only of our fellows we’ve seen. Other guests in the hotel where we’re staying, the Granados Park, in the heart of the old colonial section of the city, are German and French.
Tourists of any description are uncommon in this little-visited outpost, and worthwhile tourist information is hard to come by. Here’s what I can recommend based on our limited experience so far: In Asunción, start with the train museum.
This city’s Museo Ferroviario is a chance to step back in time inside the oldest railway station in South America. Standing out front, we debated whether or not to invest in tickets to gain entrance inside. Turned out to be the best US$2 I’ve spent in a long time. You can wander at will among the waiting rooms and offices of the old station. Employee records, train schedules, and handwritten passenger logs from as many as 150 years ago are displayed on original wooden shelves, desks, and counters.
Outside on the platform, you can climb up into the old dining car. Inside is all wood paneling and leather seats. There’s a wraparound wooden bar and a wood stove for cooking.
“Why is this so much fun?” I asked my daughter, wandering up and down the aisle with me.
“Because you can explore at will. Nothing is restricted or roped off. No one tells you not to touch or not to sit. You can imagine a barman behind the bar, waitstaff, and passengers. We could be on our way to Argentina…”
We had the place mostly to ourselves. As we were leaving, a young Spanish-speaking couple was taking selfies trainside. Otherwise, it was us and the museum’s curator, a friendly Paraguayan who, when he noticed Lief looking up at the massive bell on the platform encouraged him to pull the rope to ring it. “Mas fuerte!” our new Paraguayan friend yelled out so Lief could hear him over the clanging.
After our train adventure, we continued walking in the direction of a hotel that friends had recommended as a good place for Sunday lunch. Our friends were right. On Sundays, the Grand Hotel de Paraguay lays out quite a spread. It’s a traditional parrilla. Beef, pork, and chorizo are cooked over open flames then hand carved for your plate according to your directions. You enjoy it all in a big dining room with an elaborately hand-painted wooden ceiling and murals on all the walls. A harpist serenades, while children run in and out between the dining room and the courtyard. We were the only non-Paraguayans in the place as far as I could tell. All-we-could-eat parrilla, salad, and dessert was US$12 a person.
We spent the remainder of our Sunday walking through parks and haggling at a weekly market. Kaitlin bought a pair of boots and a cowgirl hat, and Lief negotiated for the purchase of a pair of steer horns that will be a nice addition to the great room of the Founder’s Lodge we’re building at Los Islotes. Quite a find for US$40.
As I said, this country is largely overlooked by tourists and retirees, who don’t imagine it has much to offer. We’re just beginning to skim the surface, but here’s what I’d tell you now about Paraguay: Don’t write it off. This is a country with a past, a place with a romantic’s soul.
If that doesn’t get your attention, this might: This place is also a bargain. Everything is cheap. Right now, everything is especially cheap for anyone with U.S. dollars in his wallet. The dollar is at a five-year high against the guaraní.
Best news for us is that we’ve finally got a way to access some of the local dinero. We’ve remembered the pin codes for our back up debit cards.
Continue Reading: Fitness, Gyms, And Working Out In Panama City, Panama