Paraguay has long been seen as one of the forgotten corners of the globe,
a land falling oﬀ our conscious map of the world, a place that slips beneath
the radar of most diplomats, academics, journalists, and tourists in latin
america. even backpackers, who may spend months in neighboring coun-
tries, rarely spend more than one reluctant night in transit in asunción.
Part of the reason for this is that Paraguay is a country deﬁned not so
much by association as by isolation. it has been variously referred to as the
Tibet of latin america (in the nineteenth century it was called the “china
of the americas”), a mysterious place cut oﬀ from the rest of the continent.
The renowned Paraguayan writer augusto Roa Bastos famously remarked
that Paraguay’s landlocked isolation made it like an island surrounded by
land. indeed, hemmed in by the vast, arid chaco to the west and impene-
trable jungles to the east (at least until the 1960s), Paraguay’s access to the
outside world was limited to the River Paraná and the cooperation (or not)
of Buenos aires, for long the administrative and commercial center of the
region, and a gateway to the sea. as a result, Paraguay is exceptional in
the degree to which it has been deﬁned by isolation and diﬀerence from its
neighbors, from latin america, and from the wider world. This isolation
is epitomized by the resilience of Guaraní as the preferred language of the
vast majority despite repeated oﬃcial eﬀorts to impose spanish and the fact
that the indigenous population is extremely small (under 2 percent). indeed,
even in colonial times, the spanish simply gave up trying to impose their
own language beyond oﬃcial arenas, and instead adopted Guaraní.
isolation is also related to internal communications. Paraguay is almost
as large as France yet it has a population of only seven million. With most
people living in urban areas, it is a very sparsely populated country, and one
which has only been opened up (through massive deforestation) relatively
recently. nowhere is this clearer than in the countryside, where until only
a few decades ago isolated communities seemed to lie adrift in the “oceans”
of surrounding cattle land and forest, cut oﬀ from modernity.
it is also a land of contrasts. The itaipú hydroelectric plant, jointly owned
by Paraguay and Brazil, is the world’s largest, with an installed capacity of