Paraguay Expat Health Insurance Guide
Welcome to Paraguay, one of the least-known countries in South America.
Unlike its more showy neighbours like Brazil or Argentina, Paraguay lacks a fully-formed tourist industry. This can either be seen as a good thing or a bad one. On the one hand Paraguay boasts very few world-famous sites for tourists to tick off their bucket list. On the other hand Paraguay provides an opportunity to experience authentic South American life rarely glimpsed elsewhere.
Whatever your opinions, a visit to Paraguay is sure to be an adventure in the truest sense of the word – and one that you’ll remember for the rest of your life.
Paraguay is described as possessing a “subtropical” climate, predominantly controlled by large annual differences in rainfall. The wettest months are found between March and May, and again through October and November. In these months, rainfall can be heavy and sudden, leading drainage systems to struggle. At these times of year, roads may transform into rivers within minutes, making travel somewhat problematic.
Paraguay is unusual in that it offers very few mountains; the typical geography in Paraguay is flat pampas through which the winds can whistle at an amazing rate. Unimpeded by ridges and peaks, the wind has been known to reach 100mph on more than one occasion. Flowing up from the Amazon bowl between October and March the wind is pleasantly warm. This all changes between May to August, where the wind direction changes and cold air from the Andes starts to flood in.
This change in wind direction can also lead to significant changes in temperature. The hot, dry months of December and January can see temperatures top 30’C. On the other hand, it is not unheard of for temperatures in winter to drop below zero as the Andean wind whips in.
More than 80% of Paraguayans are classified as “mestizos” – a mixture of Native American and Spanish heritage. Generally speaking, Paraguay is considered a very poor nation, with repeated surveys suggesting that between 30% and 50% of its inhabitants are considered “poor”. Worse, just under 20% of the population is said to exist in “extreme poverty”.
This lack of money can be felt all over the country. Public services, for example, have historically been under under-funded. Crime, too, is not uncommon, even towards tourists. Illiteracy runs high, with an estimated 51% of indigenous people in Paraguay being unable to read and write. Only a quarter of these people have access to fresh drinking water.
All is not lost, though. The people are friendly, and the economy is growing. Furthermore, as more and more adventure travellers are starting to uncover the wonders of Paraguay, so these tourist dollars are helping to make a real change to the lives of these people.
The flat land for which Paraguay is so famous isn’t barren; indeed, the “Chaco” as this area is known is rich in agriculture. Today, Paraguay is the 4th largest producer of soybeans and the 8th largest exporter of beef in the world.
There are two languages commonly spoken side-by-side in Paraguay. The first of these is Spanish, which is typically used in business and the media. The second is a native language known as “Guarani” which is more commonly spoken in everyday conversation. Note that the use of Guarani doesn’t necessarily represent Amerindian ancestry; the language is now used nationwide by Paraguayans of every ethnicity.
As a side note, English may be spoken in some of the bigger cities. Many doctors, for example, are highly educated and speak fluent English. In more rural areas however it will generally be necessary speak at least a few words of Spanish or Guarani if you are to make yourself understood.
It is important to remember when visiting Paraguay that the country has largely been ignored by tourists over the years. As a result, the tourist industry here is tiny and expats and travellers alike will generally have to rely on local transportation. In contrast to many other countries which thrive on tourism, you are unlikely to find many transport companies focusing specifically on overseas visitors.
Buses are the most common form of transportation, offering regular passage right across the country. Note that different bus companies run different routes, so deducing which bus you need to get on can be somewhat problematic. To avoid problems, try asking your hotel.
As mentioned, these buses are not designed specifically for tourists; they are local buses often filled to the brim with Paraguayans and their cargo. Travellers should take care as thefts are not uncommon on public buses, especially in the case of “wealthy” tourists. Aim to keep valuables out of site during travel, and ensure you keep a close eye on your luggage at all times.
If timekeeping is important to you, consider opting for a taxi instead. While the taxi service here is more reliable than the rather hit-and-miss buses, this form of transport can be surprisingly expensive in Paraguay. Travellers on a budget may be shocked by the fares which are often charged by the metre and can rise alarmingly.
If you opt to hire a taxi, take note of whether the meter is running. In some cases, taxi drivers opt not to use the meter, and in such circumstances it is not unusual to find yourself being overcharged. Outside of the main cities very few taxis even have meters fitted, further compounding the problem.
The lesson is that if your taxi has a meter installed then ensure that it is used. If not, negotiate on price before entering the vehicle, in order to avoid any unpleasant surprises on arrival at your destination.
For those expats who desire the freedom and control of their own vehicle, there are a limited number of hire-car companies in the major cities. Visitors can drive on their own national passport or an International Driving License. Due to the small number of tourists received by Paraguay, carrying an international license increases the chances of it being recognised by officials.
Drivers in Paraguay should note that the police here have a reputation for corruption, and may well pull over drivers and demand a bribe. There is little that can be done about the problem, though when possible try to pay fines at the local police station and request a receipt, rather than stumping up cash at the side of the road.
Generally speaking, driving conditions in Paraguay are worse than you may be used to, with numerous traffic violations. The country allegedly has just one speed camera and few drivers have insurance. Accidents are commonplace; even more so after dark where drink driving is a nationwide problem. As a result, visitors are encouraged not to drive after dark for their own safety.
Lastly, if driving in Paraguay be aware that many roads have toll booths. Try to carry an assortment of coins with you to make paying the toll as quick and painless as possible.
Healthcare in Paraguay is generally rated quite highly. The World Health Organization ranks it 57th in the world which, for such a poverty-stricken nation, is not to be sniffed at. While there are numerous public facilities, sadly these are typically chronically underfunded and over-crowded.
A safer option for expats is to frequent one of the many private hospitals which generally offer high standards of care and English-speaking doctors. That said, costs can spiral rapidly so an international health insurance plan should be considered a necessity.
The best healthcare facilities are to be found in and around Asuncion, the capital. In more rural areas, surgeries offer very few facilities and may need to transport you long distances to a reliable urban centre. As a result, any travellers with existing medical conditions should aim to bring with them suitable volumes of medication, as access to these in rural areas is likely to be almost non-existent.
The official currency of Paraguay is the “guarani”. Currency exchange offices and banks may be found all over the main cities, though try to avoid the street-side sellers. Fake bank notes are commonplace, and many travellers have been tricked into accepting fake notes with rates that seem too good to be true.
ATMs are widespread, though visitors should aim to use those machines located within buildings. Those on the street can represent a danger of mugging; something that is sadly becoming more commonplace in Paraguay.
Credit cards are accepted in many hotels, restaurants and shops in urban areas, though less-so outside these hubs. Do not be surprised if you are asked to provide identification when paying with a foreign credit card. Fraud is rife and many businesses will seek assurances before charging your card.
Public schools in Paraguay have historically been significantly underfunded. The poverty experienced by Paraguay has understandably led to prioritization of economic reform over educational improvements.
This has led to a distinct lack of resources, combined with over-crowding. It is important to remember that this is a developing nation and as such the educational system is unlikely to compare favourably with Western schools.
Problems with the schooling in Paraguay means that even many locals opt to send their children abroad for education – or to pay for a place at one of the many international schools present here.
It is likely if you are planning to relocate to Paraguay with children that you too will be best served by one of the limited international schools present in and around the capital.
Food & Drink
Like much of South America, the basic diet in Paraguay prominently features corn, cassava and meat in the form of locally-produced beef. However this far from all that you will find here; indeed many visitors find that Paraguayan cuisine is surprisingly diverse and delicious.
Empanadas are a common staple; freshly-baked pastry filled with either meat or eggs. A dish of breaded and fried meat or fish known as Milanesa is also something of a national institution. Intriguingly, the much-loved Supa Paraguaya is actually not a soup at all, and instead comprises a mixture of corn, cheese and onion.
Note that the lack of tourism here means that few international restaurants are to be found in Paraguay outside of the main cities. When venturing further afield it will almost certainly be necessary to rely on the native cuisine, though this is generally reasonably priced and spice-free.
It is perhaps beverages that Paraguay is more famous for than its food. Drinking “Terere” is considered a national pastime, and you will see street sellers on every city corner offering the beverage.
In essence a yerba mate tea served cold, Terere is drunk through a metal straw. You will see Paraguayans at every time of day sipping on these straws, and they may even invite you over to join them. Note, though, that in such circumstances it is normal to have to share a straw.
Generally speaking the tap water is not considered safe for drinking, and you should either boil tap water or rely on the bottled variety if you are to avoid an upset stomach.
The people of Paraguay are typically very friendly and welcoming to expats and tourists. The fact that so few tourists ever make it to Paraguay can make Western visitors something of a curiosity. Do not be surprised if you attract attention and more than a few surprised glances.
Sadly, despite this national warmth, violent crime is a growing problem. Pick-pocketing, muggings and even kidnappings are becoming far more common. As a result, visitors are advised to take care, especially in the major cities and after dark. Outside of the cities Paraguay is generally quite safe and most visits are without incident.
One of the biggest dangers in Paraguay is dengue fever. Visitors should visit their local clinic for vaccination before visiting the area. As added protection, be aware that dengue fever is carried by mosquitoes. Applying repellent to your skin and sleeping under a mosquito net are therefore advisable precautions.
The other danger comes in the form of the extreme heat of summer, which can lead to exhaustion, heatstroke and dehydration. Aim to avoid going out in the sun during the hottest part of the day and ensure you keep up your fluid intake. In the hottest months it may be wise to consider joining the locals for their early-afternoon siesta, reappearing in late afternoon when the scorching midday sun is less severe.
Places to Visit
Paraguay is not a major tourist destination. Sadly, it often misses out to better-known neighbours like Argentina and Brazil. As a result you will find far fewer world-famous tourist sites here and far less development. This, however, is no bad thing.
Visiting Paraguay offers a glimpse into a world now long eclipsed in many other South American countries. In this world, the living is slower, the main industry is agriculture and the people have time to stop and chat. It also means that the country offers vast swathes of wilderness just ripe for exploring, not to mention a handful of shiny, modern, culture-filled cities.
Trinidad and Jesus
Built in the 17th and 18th century, these two ancient cities were created as small colonies by Jesuit missionaries. These days the two city-states of La Santisima Trinidad de Parana and Jesus de Tavarangue represent Paraguay’s only UNESCO-listed site. Come and explore their stunning architecture and monstrous dimensions.
Iguazu Falls National Park
Iguazu Falls may be one of Argentina’s most famous site-seeing destinations, but the majesty of this national park also tumbles over into the south-eastern tip of Paraguay. This vast protected area offers over 2000 plant species and wildlife experiences aplenty.
Itaipu is one of Paraguay’s largest man-made feats of engineering. The dam is the second largest in the world and provides hydroelectric power for much of the country. 7235 metres in length and 225 metres in height, one has to visit the dam in order to appreciate just how vast this structure really is.
Covering more than a quarter of a million square miles, the Chaco is a huge semi-arid region of Paraguay. With its flat land and rich plant life, the area is home to most of the nation’s cattle ranchers. On account of the farms to be found here, however, the population density has remained low. This, combined with the wilderness, makes the Chaco one of the best wildlife-spotting areas in all of Paraguay.
More correctly known as Nuestra Señora Santa María de la Asunción, this is Paraguay’s capital city and largest urbanization. Asuncion is well worth a visit on account of the wide range of well-preserved colonial buildings left behind by the Spanish on their departure. Follow the co-called “seven treasures” trail to take in the best of what Asuncion has to offer.
For more information on moving abroad visit www.gov.uk/knowbeforeyougo.
Of course, if you’re planning on travelling to Argentina please ensure you have adequate expat travel insurance.