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Shortcut Paraguay

Paraguay didn’t really feature on our list of must-see destinations before we left, but from Iguazu we could either retrace our steps south through Argentina or take a short-cut via Asuncion, one of the oldest cities in South America, and tick another country off the list at the same time – so off we went! We caught a local bus from Puerto Iguazu to Ciudad del Este, which is on the other side of the river in Paraguay and reached via a short trip to Brazil. The bus first stopped at Argentine immigration where everyone piled off to get their passports checked, and then crossed the Rio Iguacu to Foz do Iguacu, the Brazilian town on the triple frontier. After 15 minutes or so we crossed another bridge and arrived in Ciudad del Este. There were no such border formalities this side and we had to trudge back to the border post to get our entry stamps – missing these apparently means a hefty bribe on exiting the country, so we made sure to go back!

Paraguay is the second poorest country in South America and also the most corrupt place in the world outside Africa. Ciudad del Este is also a hotbed of smuggling, crime, and general shady business, so we weren’t sure what to expect from our trip! We picked out the nicest sounding accommodation in our guidebook and checked into the Hotel Austria, which had a very Alpine feel and was the best place we’d stayed for a while, plus it was good value compared to Argentina. The people at reception were speaking German (the hotel name should have given the game away!) and were part of the large German community in Paraguay. The popular myth is that these are all Nazis that fled here after the war, although apparently they’re actually Ukrainian Germans who were here long before that!

We went to explore the town that afternoon. The whole place is basically a huge duty free shop – people come from Brazil and Argentina to pick up a tax-free (and possibly less than legit) bargain. There were shops selling electronics, perfume, sunglasses, spirits and all the usual stuff, whilst outside the streets were covered in market stalls selling knock-offs and general market type junk! The whole place was heaving with people and had a pretty chaotic atmosphere – a mixture of exited day-trippers with armfuls of shopping and Paraguayans doing their best to sell them anything and everything.

We didn’t really have the space to lug any bargains back home so while we were at a loose end I got all my hair cut off again – short hair helps with the heat! The barber did a good job although it was slightly disconcerting that he was using a series of mirrors to watch “Glee” on TV throughout! Due to the slightly lawless nature of the place, and the warnings we got from the hotel staff, we then had a quiet evening at the hotel. The Austrian restaurant was a nice change from all the steak, and we spent the evening with a few beers watching terrible films in our room!

The next morning we were on our way again, and back to the bus station for another day of fun on a coach! We made a slight error under pressure from some pretty persistent ticket salesmen and ended up on the rickety old scrap-heap rather than the shiny new option next to it, which was exactly the same price! We had a very sweaty 7 hour journey to the capital, which was only made slightly more interesting by all the different people getting on for 5 minutes at a time to try and sell whatever they’d laid their hands on. We got to try some Chipa, a kind of doughy bagel made from Manioc flour and cheese and eaten all over Paraguay. The sewing paraphernalia and TV remote controls were less useful to us!

We arrived in Asunción and found we’d struck lucky again with our hotel, The Asuncion Palace no less, which was cheaper than the handful of hostels in town and had huge rooms and a roof terrace! We duly spent a couple of hours up there watching the sun set and taking in the view. The city definitely had a more run down appearance compared to anywhere we’d seen in Argentina or Uruguay but wasn’t without it’s charm. We treated ourselves to some very good tapas that night at a very atmospheric Spanish place round the corner before calling it a day.

We had one full day to explore Asuncion, and it started quite early with what Gem was fairly sure was gunfire outside in the street. This went on for a quite a while and we soon realised it was probably fireworks! After breakfast we got an explanation from the hotel staff – apparently there’s some protest or other most days and today it was the turn of the taxi drivers. We saw them later on where they were camped out with placards in one of the main squares with all their taxis parked up and going nowhere!

The city was quite pleasant to walk around. We started at the grand Palacio de Gobierno, the presidential palace. When Paraguay was under the Stroessner dictatorship until the late 80’s you could be shot if you hung around outside too long, but it seemed safe enough now! Just down the road was the Plaza Constitucion, where the taxi drivers had taken up residence. A whole village of hangers-on seemed to have arrived with them to keep them fed and watered, along with a few TV crews and plenty of riot police. Not wanting to get too involved we kept our distance!

We also had a look around city’s other main square the Plaza de los Heroes, named for the Paraguayan military leaders from the late 19th century, who led pretty disastrous campaigns against the Brazilians and Argentines (at the same time). Needless to say they didn’t go well, but they still seem to be revered here! Some of their remains are also housed in the Panteon de los Heroes, guarded by soldiers in extravagant uniforms.

The next day our short trip to Paraguay was over and we took a very long bus journey all the way to Cordoba in Central Argentina. It had been an interesting diversion from Argentina and well worth the effort!

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