Paraguay - Background information

Natural history
People and culture


Abridged from the History section in Paraguay: the Bradt Travel Guide

The original inhabitants of what was to become Paraguay were the indigenous, principally the Guaraní, though there were also other peoples, including warlike tribes such as the Guaicurú. The Guaraní lived a semi-nomadic agricultural life, cultivating maize and mandioc, and hunting deer, monkey, coati, tapirs and anteaters. They made pots and baskets, and from time to time travelled in long wooden canoes. They lived in long huts or chozas made of branches and adobe, with up to 60 related families in each. When they moved on, every couple of years, they dreamt that they were pursuing the yvý marane’ỹ (Spanish la tierra sin mal, ‘the land without evil’). Later, when they were evangelised, this legendary paradise became identified with the promised land.

The conquest

The New World was carved up in advance by the 1494 Treaty of Tordesillas that gave Portugal everything to the east and Spain everything to the west of a north–south line running 370 leagues west of the Cape Verde islands (approximately through where São Paulo is today). But the treaty could not cope with the changing situation on the ground and incursions were frequent. The first European to discover Paraguayan territory was the Portuguese explorer Alejo García, who crossed the land from Brazil to reach the Peru of the Incas with their famous gold. He filled up his boat with precious metals, but was murdered by hostile indigenous on his way down the Río Paraguay, approximately at San Pedro de Ycuamandyyú in 1525.

The conquest of Paraguay began with the Spanish expedition led by Pedro de Mendoza, who established the first (short-lived) port of Buenos Aires in 1536, and sent his lieutenant Juan de Ayolas upriver. Ayolas stopped briefly in Lambaré (on the outskirts of the future Asunción), where he left his deputy Domingo Martínez de Irala, before going further north. Ayolas never returned, and Irala, who was more a politician and a diplomat than a soldier, made this area the headquarters of the invasion.

The invaders were allowed to have relations with the Guaraní women, so laying the foundations for a mestizo bilingual society in which children learned Spanish from their fathers and Guaraní from their mothers.

Irala made a pact with the Guaraní, who were more pacific than the tribes around Buenos Aires. The invaders were allowed to have relations with the Guaraní women, so laying the foundations for a mestizo bilingual society in which children learned Spanish from their fathers and Guaraní from their mothers. Juan de Salazar y Espinoza is regarded as the founder of Asunción in this period, because of the fort he established on a bend of the Río Paraguay on 15 August 1537, the feast of the Assumption.

The first Buenos Aires was abandoned, to be re-founded from Asunción towards the end of the century, and the new town growing up around the fort (with its first cabildo or town council inaugurated in 1541) was seen as important for its strategic position on the river which led towards Peru and its gold. The hope was that this river would become as important for silver as Peru had been for gold: hence, the Río de la Plata (river of silver). In 1556 the encomienda system began, in which the initially peaceful coexistence of Spanish and Guaraní was seen in its true colours, as cruel exploitation. The men were sent to work in the fields of the Spanish, who treated them harshly as though they were slaves, and the women cared for the homes and the sexual appetites of the Spanish in Asunción.

Natural history

Paraguay has a very rich biodiversity, due to its being located in the subtropics, and having five distinct ecoregions – the Chaco (subdivided into dry north and wet south), the Pantanal (on the west bank of the Río Paraguay in the far north), the Pampas (or savannah or grasslands, eg: in the Misiones area), the Cerrado (mixed dry woodlands and grassland, in the north of the eastern region) and the Atlantic Forest (now largely deforested, but in the east of eastern Paraguay). There is a great extent of wetlands, encouraging a wealth of species, not only in the northern Pantanal, but also to the east of the Río Pilcomayo where there is the Tinfunque reserve, and to the east of the Río Paraguay in the departamentos of Ñeembucú, Paraguarí and Central.

Chilean flamingo Laguna Capitan Paraguay South America by Marco MuscaraA group of Chilean flamingos at Laguna Capitan © Marco Muscarà

The Chaco (which is mostly in Paraguay, with a part in Argentina and a part in Bolivia) is considered to be the world’s largest natural area after the Amazon. The country is beginning to receive more attention as a tourist destination by those who want to see nature in its pristine state, in all its splendour.


Howler Monkey Paraguay by, Shutterstock Howler monkey ©, Shutterstock

More than 398 species of fish, 173 species of mammals, 177 species of reptiles, 87 species of amphibians and 713 species of birds have been recorded in Paraguay. There are as many as 57 IBAs (Important BirdAreas). It is also extraordinarily rich in butterflies: there are at least 381 species. For comprehensive information look at the Fauna Paraguay website.


The national flower of Paraguay is the mburucuyá which was portrayed by the artists of the Jesuit-Guaraní Reductions as their principal flower motif, in stone and wood carving: it has been captured in the logo of the Ruta Jesuítica tourist programme. The mburucuyá fruit – the passion fruit – has a delicious, tangy flavour: it gives a kick to any fruit salad, makes an excellent mousse and can also be turned into a fruit juice drink.

The lapacho (Guaraní tajy) is regarded as the national tree, and with its abundant pink blossom it gives a very distinctive appearance to Paraguay in springtime. The tree is tall and produces a wood which is hard and strong, and is used for pillars, door and window frames. The cocotero is the distinctive and most typical tree of the campo in the western region – a skinny palm tree with long, sharp spines and a fragrant yellow flower that appears at Christmastime, and is customarily placed before the crib. It is very abundant. Other kinds of palm tree found in the country are the pindó, the coco phoenix and (in the Chaco) the tall karanda’ý with its fan-like leaves, which produces an excellent hardwood used in building.

People and culture


The population of Paraguay is a little under seven million – a tiny population for a developing country, due principally to the loss of life and practical elimination of the male population in the Triple Alliance War, which ended in 1870 and from which the country is still recovering today. Just over half a million of that number live in greater Asunción. Paraguay, therefore, has one tenth of the population of Britain, in a territory almost twice the size. Some 57% of Paraguayans are under 35, and only 6% are 65 or over (as compared to 15% in North America). This is a young country, with an expanding population, and with room for that expansion.

The indigenous population – 112,848 in the 2012 census – has also been slowly increasing, both in eastern and western Paraguay, though the increase in the east is notably more than that in the Chaco. In 1991 less than a third of indigenous lived in eastern Paraguay, but by 2012 that had risen to 52%. In the eastern half of Paraguay, the indigenous are Guaraní, though from different subgroups, such as the Mbyá, the Áva, the Aché and the Paĩ Tavyterã. This was the area where the Franciscans and Jesuits founded their Reductions for the Guaraní. They are in most departamentos, except for the southwest part of the eastern half (Central, Paraguarí, Ñeembucú and – ironically – Misiones, where they were once so strong). 



Music came to Paraguay in a big way with the Jesuits in the early 17th century, and their Baroque compositions, principally by the Jesuit Domenico Zipoli (a contemporary of Vivaldi), were adored by the Guaraní, whose nascent musical sense had until then been expressed in rhythmic, repetitive music to the beat of a maraca (gourd filled with seeds). Soon the Guaraní orchestras were the best in the continent, and their polyphonic choirs were considered by visitors to rival music in the finest cathedrals of Europe.

Paraguayan harp Paraguay South American by Marco MuscaraThe Paraguayan harp has 36 strings © Marco Muscarà

The Jesuits introduced the harp to Paraguay, but today the Paraguayan harp has 36 strings, thanks to the musician who did more than anyone since Anton Sepp to develop it, Félix Pérez Cardozo (1908–52). He added four more strings at the bass end, so as to play Pájaro Campana (‘Bellbird’) – one of the most famous pieces in the Paraguayan folk repertoire, for which he wrote the complex setting we hear today. He also wrote Llegada (‘Arrival’), Despedida (‘Departure’) and Tren lechero (‘The Milk Train’) – one of the most exciting pieces of music for a single instrument (or a duo) that you will ever hear, full of steam shunts and whistles and clickety-clicks, produced by harp notes.

Without its distinctive music, Paraguay would lose its heart.

In terms of Paraguayan popular music today, there are basically two types: the polka – which, though lively dance music, is not the same as the European polka – and the guarania, which is the nostalgic, slower version of the same rhythm, in a minor key. The guarania was invented in 1925 by another of the great figures in Paraguayan musical history, José Asunción Flores (1904–72), with the famous piece ‘Jejuí’; he later wrote the famous romantic guarania ‘India’.

Both the polka and the guarania are syncopated: the right hand plays in 6/8 time while the left hand plays in 3/4. One of the great joys of travelling in Paraguay is hearing this fantastically lively music on harp and guitar, sometimes accompanied by accordion, played by musicians dressed in colourful ao po’í shirts. Without its distinctive music, Paraguay would lose its heart.

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