I spot the guidebook at my favourite travel store and settle into a comfortable armchair.
It opens with: "Paraguay is fabulous," and continues "Paraguay is one of the last remaining holiday paradises waiting to be discovered."
Later, I download the visa application.
Hmm - I can understand $65 for a single entry, even $100 for a multi-entry, but a copy of my last bank statement? Better make sure I'm not running in the red or they'll think I'm going after refugee status.
An avowed adventure traveller, I've explored much of South America. But, with visions of Nazis under the bed and an evil dictator at the helm, Paraguay always gets shoved on to the back burner.
The country has survived a rough history. Most males were lost to a dumb war with neighbouring Brazil, Argentina and Uruguay in 1864. Nine presidential coups or assassinations followed before General Alfredo Stroessner, the most despotic of the lot, seized and held on to power for the next 34 years. He was finally ousted in 1989.
I fly into Asuncion via Santiago, Chile on a hot, wet, humid Sunday.
The taxi nears the centre. My heart sinks. Apart from loose dogs nosing through garbage strewn along potholed sidewalks, the streets are empty.
The guidebook foresaw my reaction. "Asuncion is not one of Latin America's lovelier cities though with time you will come to like it." The campo, (countryside), is obviously where it's at!
How to get out of town? In halting Spanish, I explain my dilemma to the hotel receptionist and go to my room and wait. I watch a story about "the firing of Wayne Gretzky from the Oilers" on TV - weird.
Two hours later, I am face to face with Franco, a smiling 30 year old with a good command of English. After a bit of negotiation, he agrees to collect me in the morning and show me his country. I can finally relax.
We begin in Asuncion. Today, the port is busy. Paraguay is landlocked. The Rio Paraguay is a vital transportation hub to the Atlantic coast.
A bunch of black-suited thugs with crew-cuts, huge abs and walkie-talkies, straight off a James Bond set, are gathered outside the Governor's Palace. President Lugo, a retired Bishop, must be at work. From all accounts he won the last election fair and square and optimism for the future is running high.
General Stroessner is remembered by a classic monument. Two blocks of concrete with bits of "himself" sandwiched in between. The meat in a concrete Big Mac. A great way to recycle the broken statue of a loathed dictator. And perhaps a warning to future politicians that people are through with crooks at the helm?
The evangelist band playing outside The Cabildo, the old senate, razzes up a thin audience with some hot harp and guitar numbers.
We pass the gleaming new parliament. According to the plaque it is a gift from the Taiwanese government to its only ally in South America.
An effort is being made to spruce up derelict colonial buildings. Indigenous squatters have taken over the Plaza Uruguay demanding the return of their land.
At the Mercado Cuatro, the city market, a woman pumps air into beef intestines to be sold as sausage casings. Want a knock-off DVD or a pair of fake designer jeans, a Blackberry, Prada shoes or a live owl? All are for sale among the labyrinth of stalls.
We leave town through the posh embassy area with street names like United States, Brasil and Peru. Children are pushed around by nannies while their mothers sip a lunchtime bottle of Chardonnay at a hip French bistro. Obviously tourist hotels are relegated to the seedy side of town.
On the map, Paraguay is a sizeable country stretching some 900 kilometres north to south. However, the Chaco, an inhospitable area of saline scrub, represents 60 per cent of the land base with 2 per cent of the population. Only the 25,000 Mennonite farmers have managed to prosper there.
Finally we enter a different world. Neatly kept farms. Plump cows and well-groomed horses graze contentedly in perfectly fenced fields. Most Paraguayan towns began as missions. (Remember the 1986 movie The Mission starring Jeremy Irons and Robert de Niro?). The Franciscans got here first, arriving in 1580. The Jesuits followed in 1610.
The race to save the souls of the Guarani people was on. First came churches, then housing for the people. Today's population is mostly mestizo (mixed). Spanish and Guarani are the two official languages. Most Paraguayans speak both.
Paraguayan culture is a fusion of two cultures and traditions: one European, the other Southern Guarani. More than 93 per cent of Paraguayans are mestizos, making Paraguay one of the most homogeneous countries in Latin America. A characteristic of this cultural fusion is the extensive bilingualism present to this day: more than 80 per cent of Paraguayans speak both Spanish and the indigenous language, Guarani. Jopara, a mixture of Guarani and Spanish, is also widely spoken.
In our quest to seek out historic churches, Franco spots a funeral procession moving through Yaguaron and smartly reckons that this one will be open for business.
We race up the hill and catch the bell ringer climbing the steps of the belfry. The hearse pulls up. We follow the mourners inside.
Built over a 60 year period and finished in 1700, this is the last Franciscan church remaining in its original form. A separate wooden belfry. Ornately gilded sanctuary. Ceilings painted by Guarani artisans using vegetable based paint. There is a family name painted on the back of each pew.
We leave the main highway and head into the countryside. Oxcarts saunter down dirt roads. Meandering horses nibble away at the lush, grassy verges. Tiny houses sit in immaculate gardens. Oranges and bananas are ripening.
A sign on the large gate announces the "Eco Parque Ytu." We hammer at the door of the guard post and discover a luxurious private club with well-equipped cottages surrounding a kidney-shaped pool. An escape for wealthy weekending Asuncionites.
We continue to a pretty village. Franco is unusually deep in thought. We stop at the graveyard. I follow him up a well-mown path. There is a picture along with a few words inside the small window. It is the grave of his grandmother. The words translate as: "I received love and gave it back."
"One day I will bring my family here to live in my father's village," he says quietly.
Tonight he leaves me at La Quinta Estancia. The address is simply Piribebuy-Paraguay Route Km 82.5 - Meaning it is 82.5 kilometres down the highway from Asuncion
For $60 I have a luxurious cabin overlooking rolling countryside. The price includes a superb dinner, huge breakfast and even the chance to ride a horse through the trails. Olga, the owner, recently hosted a luncheon for Latin First Ladies, including the Queen of Spain, while their husbands conferred in Asuncion, she proudly announces.
Most Paraguayan towns are the size of European villages. There is an easy unhurried friendliness delivered with a smile wherever we go. The ubiquitous guards become just part of the South American landscape. Is there danger? I never experienced any.
We spend five days visiting old churches, walking through leafy squares in small attractive towns. We visit a factory turning out "chipas," Franco's favourite snack made from cheese and manioc flour. We visit nature reserves and meet the world's largest bulls at a farm specialising in artificial insemination. With 10 million cows to service this business should be a winner.
With no seaside resorts, San Bernardino is the "in" place to own a villa. We swim in Lake Ypacari from a private club. Later, we watch as a horse tethered to a pole walks in an endless circle to blend clay and water into just the right consistency to make bricks.
In Villarica (rich town), we take a ride in a "Carumbe" - A horse cart driven by a delighted older woman. I am amazed by the number of motorbike dealers. There is even a "doggy spa."
You can't miss the German influence. Many came from "The Fatherland" in a failed experiment to start a German colony in 1887. The country still attracts German immigrants looking for a simpler life. Better hotels and businesses are German run.
While the churches are not always full, they are still the cultural heart of the country. Every Dec. 8 a million pilgrims descend on the basilica in tiny Caacupe to celebrate the feast of the immaculate conception. The church, home of the legendary Virgin of Caacupe and part of the German-based Marian movement, has been rebuilt three times in a hopeless effort to keep up with demand for space.
For people like Franco, life is hard. Every evening, he would leave me for a nighttime job in Asuncion. He always returned promptly at 9: 30 a.m. the following morning clutching his cooler of terere, a mixture of yerba mate and ice, as if it were a newborn baby.
What really makes the place tick? Ten million cows are a good start. Paraguay is a big exporter of power from two massive hydro-dams. Cuidad del Este is known for cheap electronics which somehow find their way across the border into Brazil.
Paraguay is a one-off country largely stuck in a time warp. Oxcarts plod along rural roads. Pretty towns are filled with flowers, leafy squares and gentle welcoming people. Nature reserves are outstanding and popular with weekend campers. The better resorts are run as private clubs but non-members are welcome. For a price.
If you go:
Getting there: Tam airlines flies into Asuncion from Buenos Aries, Sao Paolo and Santiago Chile. Safety: The number of armed guards around could make you feel you are in a war zone. I never had any problems or noticed any Western government warnings. That said, this is a poor country. Take precautions at night especially in major cities such as Asuncion and Cuidad del Este.
Costs: Asuncion, rated as the world's cheapest capital, attracts international conferences from around the globe. I generally paid around $40 for a clean 2 to 3 star hotel and less than $10 for a good meal. Decent restaurants are harder to find outside the city. Estancias, ranches, are particularly good value. Cheap motels are often Love Motels with rooms available by the hour.
Note: Cash machines are generally available in towns throughout the country. US currency is always changeable. Make sure you use up your "Guaranis" before leaving. They tend to be worthless outside the country.
Guide books: I found Bradt's Paraguay to be almost over-the-top excellent. Lonely Planet includes Paraguay in South America on a Shoestring.