La Paz sits at an altitude of between 3600 to 4000 metres above sea level in the Bolivian Altiplano. It is the highest administrative capital in the world and home to over a million of people. It was also a first experience for us, being several thousand meters above the sea level.
Prague is one of my favourite cities – a really nice old town and home to great (and cheap!) beer. We spent Easter 2015 there – in line with our Easter city break tradition that also featured thus far Paris, Rome, St Petersburg, and Hong Kong. We found ourselves back there for a friend’s stag do, which of course cannot be the subject of a blog post here. 😉 But there was one particular sight we missed last time around – the Jewish quarter was closed due to Passover. So we used our time wisely while we waited for the rest of the party to arrive.
Our first stop on our break back in Europe was Helsinki, home to my lovely wife. Finland, somewhat on the edge of Europe and mostly famous for ice hockey and heavy metal bands (plus the late Nokia mobile phone brand, R.I.P.) is certainly not known as the number one tourist destination. In fact, whenever we tell people that Natalia is from Finland they tend to respond “we’ve been to Sweden, but we never made it to Finland”. But for me the “land of swamps” (as they call it themselves) has some unique unpretentious beauty. I might be a bit biased though – on the one hand since it strongly reminds me of my own home in the North of Germany, and well, because it brought forth my wife on the other hand.
If you ever find yourself in Santa Cruz, Bolivia, be sure to spend a couple of nights in this nature retreat. Check Chiquitin’s AirBnB listing. We had two peaceful nights in his cosy cottage, surrounded by chirping birds and beauty of the natural park setting. The family dog, Artos, also stole our hearts as he periodically visited us for cuddles while we were relaxing in hammocks.
The capital of Paraguay is one of the oldest in South America, founded in 1537. Not much remains these days of early Spanish conquistadors time. Today, it is a city where rich and poor live side by side and the culture of Western style shopping malls is growing. The city does have few interesting spots to discover but first a word about timetables. The places have the most strange opening hours. While many restaurants don’t open for dinner before 7 pm in our hotel in Encarnación the dinner time was between 3-8 pm. As you can gather there is clearly not much consistency there. Many establishments have closures during the day anytime between 12-3pm and information about opening hours is not easily found. Why oh why don’t they just display them at the door?
Museo del Barro
This little gem of a museum is definitely worth a visit (strange opening times too, closed Mondays and Tuesdays but at least info on their website). The have a lot of contemporary and ceramic art from the region. We were surprised by the amount of erotic art in otherwise pretty Catholic country. Also, the women seem to have pretty classical style, round bodies. No body image issues in Paraguay – whoop whoop.
This is the most impressive sight in Paraguay and also pretty much the only organised tourist attraction in the whole country. It is the first UNESCO World Heritage site (declared in 1993) I have visited that is virtually deserted of people. The whole area is just yours to stroll around. The ruins are from the 17th century when Jesuit missionaries from Spain arrived in Paraguay and “brought civilisation” to the native Guarani population. The ruins consists of the main church, Jesuit quarters and houses of local Guarani people. So many decorations are well preserved. We read that they are perfect example of Mestizo art, i.e., a mixture of European and South American art.
What do you know about Paraguay? If the answer is pretty much nothing then you are not alone. We didn’t know anything about this country that lacks big tourist attractions and the fame of its neighbours Argentina and Brazil.
First curious fact is that Paraguay is actually one of the safest countries in South America (according to Lonely Planet). There are many warnings about scams and organised crime in Brazil, Bolivia and many other countries but for Paraguay it just says “it is a safe country to travel”. Part of the reason could be that since there are virtually no tourists, there is no organised crime network. So we have felt really relaxed here – even after dark.
This safety is even more curious here in Asunción where one can observe a striking contrast between the rich and poor. We live in an AirBnB in a rich area (pictures below from our place) and all the houses are nice, big, Mediterranean style with gates and electric wire. And of course beautiful parks. Just few blocks away from here people live in wooden shacks, that have house numbers painted on them and one portable toilet here and now. We drove past one area in the taxi and I was shocked at how dirty and run down the houses were while happy looking kids played outside.
There are three major tracks to enjoy in this terrific park. The lower circuit (views from the bottom of the falls, 1.4 km long), upper circuit (top of the falls, 1.8 km), and Garganta del Diablo (train ride and 1.1 km walk). I recommend starting from the lower circuit so you get to admire the full length of waterfalls and get a little wet.
The Iguazu Falls will sweep you off your feet and leave your jaw dropped for days. It was by far the most impressive nature site we have seen in our travels. An area at the borders of Brazil, Argentina and Paraguay contains 275 waterfalls which vary in size and speed of water flow. And they have lush, tropical forest where hundreds of birds fly and capuchin monkeys lurk in trees.
The absolute highlight of our stay in Rio was a ride on top of Corcovado mountain (710 meters high) to see Christ the Redeemer up close. We waited for a long time to make this visit on a sunny day with good visibility. Oh, it was totally worth the wait. The awe when you see the massive 30 metres high statue of Christ with his arms open is hard to describe. Not to mention the stunning view over Rio and Sugarloaf Mountain.
The traditional way to ride on top is to take a tram from Cosmovelho station. It is quite expensive (we paid BRL74 per person for online tickets) but we found it worth it as it climbs slowly past lush rainforest and offers panoramic views over the city. But if you are on a budget, we read that there are good minibus connections from different parts of Rio for BRL30-40.