Within living memory, Asuncion was best known for only having one traffic light. Of all the capital cities in Latin America, this was perhaps the most side-lined, in spite of having a colourful and eventful history. The city attracted few visitors beyond backpackers making their way to Brazil or Bolivia, but now it has earned the right to be considered a worthy destination in its own right.
Parts of the city are still stuck in a time-warp of poverty, and lack public services. But the once crumbly centre (part of its charm in its day) has been spruced up, with new parks, pergolas and period street lamps illuminating its evocative corners. The always attractive riverside walk has been pedestrianised. Graceful old colonial buildings are still a draw, but political turbulence has spawned a burst of creative activity, especially among the young population, and murals, new bars, hotels and restaurants reflect a renewed optimism and enthusiasm.
Beyond the capital but still within easy reach is sleepy Sapucai, a seemingly forgotten village which was once the centre of Paraguay’s rail industry. The railways were built with the help of British engineers and the enormous train sheds - now a museum - house wagons and old machinery bearing British insignia whilst steam engines lie in their final resting places, some abandoned outside in overgrown fields.
Within 1-2 hours’ drive of Asuncion is a necklace of typically Paraguayan small towns, known as the Golden Circuit. Some have their own tradition of arts and crafts such as intricate filigree jewellery and lacework. Others are interesting for their place in Paraguayan religious or political history: sleepy rural Pirebebuy was briefly the capital of Paraguay. There are small lakeside resorts one of which, Aregua, is popular among artists and weekenders with its cobbled parade of faded mansions and pretty plaza.