I knew nothing about Paraguay aside from its location before arriving in South America. Asking around in Uruguay and Argentina, the locals shared a common theme when speaking about Paraguay: “There be dragons!!!”. Not a single person recommended I visit the country. Honestly, the best anyone had to say was “you won’t miss anything”.
My plan was always to head south after arriving in South America but the cold forced me north at least until Spring, so I found myself at Tres Fronteras where 2 rivers intersect and form the borders of Argentina, Brazil, and Paraguay. The plan was to cross Paraguay, re-enter Argentina, then head south. Since there is no direct land crossing between Argentina and Paraguay there, I first traveled to Foz de Iguacu in Brazil, then on to Ciudad Del Este, Paraguay. The total travel distance between these three countries is probably less than 10km.
The border crossing was something to remember. There were several very long queues to enter the country by car or bike, and the pedestrian bridge separating Brazil and Paraguay was overcrowded with people also trying to enter. But oddly, there seemed to be motorcycle riders all wearing yellow helmets, and usually carrying passengers, who entered and left with ease. Those bikers carry passengers between Brazil and Paraguay for day shopping. The agreement is they enter with minimal fuss, the passengers shop for the day, then return home to their own country. What surprised me most is almost no checks were performed on these passengers. Yellow helmet bikers and their passengers were just waved in; not even passports were checked in most – almost all – cases. If I wanted, I could have arrived in the country illegally by yellow-jacket bike and disappeared into the crowd like Hannibal Lector to start a new life as a face eater or florist or whatever.
When I finally arrived at passport control I was taken aside. Apparently not many “foreign” tourists cross those borders by motorbike. “Foreign” is an interesting concept in South America. Much like the EU each country is different, but agreements exist to allow for easy travel between certain countries. So a Brazilian entering Paraguay or an Argentinian entering Chile has few problems. But a South African entering Paraguay by motorbike from Brazil is far less common.
After waiting a short while, I was taken to a tiny office in the middle of traffic. There was a desk and some notebooks but no computers. I waited alone until a police officer fetched a second officer with a laptop to process my visa. After regular document processing, I was handed a hand-written slip of green paper that confirmed everything was OK. I honestly do not recall ever being handed a hand written form at a border crossing before or since.
Now, the South American countries I visited all have the certain similar problems. One of the bigger issues I knew nothing about before arriving is the high price of foreign products. Uruguay places a 70% tax on all incoming items. In Argentina many popular products sell for 2 to 3 times the price as other countries. iPhones, laptops, motorcycle parts (depending on the motorcycle) can all be found, just at ridiculous prices. Of course the bonus is food, accommodation, and local products in general (either Argentinian or one of the trade partner countries, typically in the Mercosur region) are cheap, and it’s not like I buy laptops every other week so the pros outweigh the cons for a traveler.
And this is why Ciudad Del Este is so popular. Centro (Downtown), is a massive duty-free shopping mall. I don’t just mean there is a shopping mall downtown even though that exists too, I mean almost all of downtown is filled with a variety of shops offering duty free shopping for travelers.
Centro is not much to look at. It is mostly dirty with shopping opportunities everywhere, on every pavement and in every alley. Tiny make-shift stalls stand alongside huge department stores, but they all share the same dirty roads. And much like a busy shopping mall, you will often find yourself rubbing shoulders with strangers. Trading hours are always hectic.
The range of shopping experience is huge. In one minute you can go from small-time store selling knock-off watches to a proper first world shopping mall experience with climate control and the best of everything, then back to small-time store as soon as you take a step out the door. Depending on where you go, many first world items are available for sale at familiar, non-South-American prices. This more than anything is the big selling point of the city. Travelers from surrounding countries visit Ciudad Del Este to shop, nothing more.
Changing money is equally interesting. Sure you can go to an official exchange, or do what I do an withdraw cash from an ATM. But the more popular approach is to find a seller on the street – basically a person carrying tons of cash in various currencies – and negotiate a rate with them. I got a better deal than the ATM.
The rest of the city is … I want to say under developed but that would be doing the city an injustice. Poorly developed may be more accurate. The best of the best you could expect in a city is interspersed with areas best described as dodgy. I was warned not to be out alone at night. I was warned by the host of the AirBnB I lived in that should I have any problems with the police to have them contact him because he can deal with it. Non Paraguayans warned me I may need to pay bribes if stopped by the law, and that the country is extremely corrupt and dangerous so to be on my guard.
Thankfully I had no bad experiences whatsoever. South Africans are generally familiar with dangerous cities so perhaps that’s the reason I adapted well. But Ciudad Del Este was the only city that, in many ways, felt too familiar for my liking. Argentinians and Chileans complain about their dangerous cities, but what they consider to be dangerous I always felt to be safe. Not in every circumstance of course, but as a general rule. Ciudad Del Este felt a little too much like home. I felt safe in the crowd, but I also tended to look over my shoulder and avoided more isolated areas not because there was any obvious danger, but because as a South African I knew that’s where trouble would be.
I spent a few days in the city and bought a shiny new Garmin watch at a reasonable price to track my jogging. My next destination was Asuncion and once again, I had no problems. When leaving the country I handed in the handwritten green slip of paper I received on entering. The guard glanced at it for maybe two seconds and let me through without even punching any data into the computer. I double checked if everything was OK but he seemed annoyed and just waved me on to Argentina.