Paraguay was once so isolated it was called an island surrounded by land. But in recent years, this small, landlocked country has opened up to the outside world, albeit slowly. It has adopted democracy and free trade. It's friendly, safer than many of its neighbors and far less commercialized. Still, it's not often given serious consideration by travelers planning South American itineraries. Which is a shame. Paraguay has some of the most intriguing sites on the continent: the evocative ruins of the fabled Jesuit missions of the south; faintly sinister Ciudad del Este, the contraband capital of the world and gateway to the incredible Iguacu Falls; the vast, desolate reaches of the unexplored Gran Chaco; and the world’s only 19th-century train still in operation, which runs for 23 mi/37 km.

Paraguay also has an enormous variety of flora and fauna—and the unspoiled terrain to support it—for bird-watchers, anglers and nature lovers—ranging from savannah and marshland to subtropical farms, ranches and rain forest. Its stark, sparsely settled Chaco region, where most of the country's indigenous Guarani Indians reside along with pristine settlements of German Mennonites, offers good opportunities for trekking. There are several national parks there, many of which are so remote you'll likely be the only person within their boundaries at any given time

The land that became Paraguay was populated predominantly by Guarani Indians when the Spaniards discovered it in 1516. Much of colonial-era Paraguay was part of a Jesuit-Guarani semiutopian theocracy from the late 16th century through much of the 18th century, until the "black robes" were expelled in 1767. Fortunately for all, the two societies blended well, and the current population is a mix that maintains distinct characteristics of each, which is especially evident in the bilingualism of its inhabitants.

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