Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Paraguay

Paraguay. Not many backpackers come here even though it's conveniently located between Argentina and Brazil; two countries that lots of backpackers go to. 

I found out why. It's really boring.

There's nothing overly unsafe about it and most of its bad rap seems to come from tourists' experiences with Ciudad del Este, which I'll get to. I wouldn't say it's any worse than any other South American country I've visited.

Asuncion

After another uneventful land border crossing the bus arrives into the capital, Asuncion. There was one ATM at the bus station, which was out of order when I arrived. There are a few places you can change money at the bus station so bring some USD with you (which you should have as emergency money anyway). Basically no one outside of Paraguay wants their money so spend all your local currency before you leave.

I got a taxi to this hostel. There's a bus but it seemed a bit difficult to work out having just arrived. The hostel is run by a French guy and his Paraguayan wife. They are really nice and friendly, and the hostel is well kept. They also speak a variety of languages, which is always helpful when you're in a hostel. It is also located in a safe residential area and walking distance to the city centre. However, I did hear that someone got mugged outside the front gate so you still have to be careful obviously.

This guy is taking no chances with his shiny new truck! High tech security if ever I saw it.



The best thing about this hostel is the pool. You want a pool in summer in Paraguay. 

The whole time I was there it was like 40C. 

In the shade.

All the time. 

I'll take warm over cold any day, but I'll admit it was a struggle at times.


  
Asuncion is not that exciting for tourists and you can knock it over in half a day. It looks like Argentina but feels like Brazil. It's got a very relaxed vibe. I recommend walking around in the morning (when it's only 37C) and then spending the rest of the day chilling in the pool and planning where you're going next.







  




The most interesting place I visited was the Panteon Nacional de los Heros, which is a memorial to those who've died at war.





There are a few veggie places in the city centre (here). The only one I could find was this one, which was an Asian buffet, per kilo type place. The food varied in quality but some of it was quite tasty. I notice the latest Happycow reviewer says it now has meat, but when I went it was definitely all vegetarian. My Spanish is good enough to ask numerous questions about food. They could also tell me what was vegan and I was able to buy items that would keep for my next bus journey.

Like the Argentinians, Paraguayans love mate (pronounced ma-tae, not mate). They are always carrying flasks of iced mate around. Even kids.





Interestingly, I noticed that people in Argentina, Paraguay and Uruguay (also lovers of mate) generally have good teeth. I will assume this is because they are not consuming copious amounts of soft drinks like in the rest of South America. It makes a huge difference. Who knew!

Encarnacion

My next stop was a six hour bus ride away. This is the best bus company for long distance buses in Paraguay. There is an office in the city centre of Asuncion so you don't need to go out to the bus station to buy a ticket.

Unlike my previous long distance bus rides through Bolivia, Chile and Argentina, this one was super dull. It reminded of childhood trips driving from Victoria to Queensland through outback New South Wales. It's really flat and there's nothing to see.



Paraguay has two main tourist attractions. Iguazu Falls (which is in Brazil and Argentina not Paraguay) and the Jesuit ruins. Oh, there's also a big dam. Whoo!

If you're keen on the ruins but don't have a car, then I wouldn't bother staying in Trinidad, stay in Encarnacion. I stayed here. The location was good, but the internet was really shit when I was there.

There is a beach in Encarnacion. Across the river is Posadas, Argentina. This river was surprisingly clean.




You can get a local bus to the ruins. Basically any bus going to Ciudad del Este will take you there. Just tell them you want to get off at the ruins. It takes about 45 mins. Then when you get off the bus it's fairly well sign posted. I ended up having to walk a bit to find them, cos I'm pretty sure the bus dropped me off at the wrong spot, which was the driving entrance. There is a bus stop right outside but he decided to drop me off further away.

Your ticket gets you into three sites and is valid for 72 hours. The first one by the road is the easiest to get to and probably the best one. The second one is about 15km away. You pretty much have to get a taxi there unless you can bum a ride with someone. The third one is 50km back towards Asuncion. 

The first one. It was the most interesting.















The second one. Not overly interesting.








As I was leaving the second one, a French guy turned up and asked me if I wanted to wait and share his taxi back to the main road for the bus. I decided to wait since these ruins take all of about 15 minutes to walk around. The next day he was going to the third one and had worked out the buses already. The buses to San Cosme are much less frequent than buses to Ciudad del Este. I had already bought a ticket on the 1pm bus (which are all shit local buses by the way) to Ciudad del Este and there was a good chance I would not make that bus if I went with him. I ended up running into him a few days later at the airport in Foz do Iguaçu in Brazil. He said it took hours to get there, was the worst of the three sites (and again took about 15 minutes to look around), then hours to get back. I would have missed my bus for sure for very little reward.

Ciudad del Este

This place has a bad reputation for smuggling and money laundering. There is no shortage of people on the internet telling you to stay away (even though most of them don't appear to have been here). In 2012 when I was here, I stayed on the Brazilian side of the river cos this place really scared me. However, now I was interested in seeing what all the fuss was about and I felt a lot more confident travelling by myself. Plus, at the Jesuit ruins I saw a poster for Saltos del Monday These falls are basically poor man's Iguazu, but they still looked nice and I wanted to see them.

I assumed these falls would be fairly easy to get to. I went into the tourist office and the woman told me which bus to get and where to wait for it. I waited at least half an hour asking all buses with "Monday" on the front if they went to the falls. I even had the brochure with a photo in case I was saying it wrong. All the bus drivers just shook their heads and said "no". I went back to tourist woman and asked her if there was a better spot. She said no so I decided to give up and go for a walk. Two minutes later I get to the next main road and see the bus I’m supposed to get. Apparently buses changes their routes all the time here so you're never sure where to get the bus from. Helpful.

So I get on the bus and ask the driver to tell me when I have to get off for the falls since I don’t know (obviously). He nods and waves me on. I know it’s about 10km away. We weave through streets and then eventually we are in some village and I’m the only person left on the bus. Then the driver remembers that he was supposed to tell me when to get off. We get to some house at the end of the route in the middle of no where and he leaves me on the bus for 20 minutes while he goes for a smoke, a wee, and do some money swapping with the other bus dudes there. 

I just sit there. Waiting.

Finally he gets back on and we drive half way back to Ciudad del Este. Then he tells me where I need to get off and points me down some road. It's now about two hours later and it’s pissing down rain.

I start walking down the road. There are no signs or anything. This really surprised me since I imagine Saltos del Monday is one of Paraguay’s top five tourist attractions. Anyway, signs would be helpful since you're basically walking down some country road surrounded by farmland and nothing.

Eventually you can hear them then you can see them.



I’m also pretty hungry now but not to worry, cos trusty old Happycow says there’s a Seventh Day Adventist veggie restaurant at the falls. I was interested to see how this compared to all the Hare Krishna restaurants I’d eaten in. I get there and it’s bloody closed for Christmas and New Year. Shit! By now I'm starving and had to eat chips for lunch since that was the only vegan thing at the café.





Anyway, the falls were nice. Like most tourist things in Paraguay, you seem to spend hours getting there for 15 minutes of looking around. Nothing is that great. The falls were empty. Just me and one family and that was it. I don’t know if it was the rain or everyone was just at Iguazu.

I figured that now I (sort of) knew where I was, getting back would be relatively easy. I walk up to the main road and straight away, some guy on a motorbike pulls up and asks me where I’m going. I tell him Ciudad del Este. Actually people in Paraguay are pretty friendly. I think there’s an inverse correlation between the friendliness of locals and the number of tourists that actually visit. Like Venezuelans, who were also randomly helpful most of the time.

Anyway motorbike dude decides to offer me a lift. I decline cos this is not French Guiana, where hitch hiking is the main way of getting around. This is Paraguay and more specifically, I’m in a lawless border town that can’t be trusted according to the internet. Plus it was raining and he did not have a helmet. I did not want to play that game.

So a bus comes and I ask the dude if he’s heading to central. He tells me I have to cross the road (which logically would be going the wrong way based on the direction I arrived from) and drives off. So I cross the road. Wait. Some teenager comes along so I ask him and he confirms the bus driver’s story. We wait. The bus comes, it goes through some rural back roads and then finally heads into town. I'll admit it was a good way to see the town and all the markets everyone talks about.

Um, I don't think that's going to fit in there.


So an excursion that should have taken about two hours took all fucking day! On the plus side the whole thing including entry to the falls cost me less than $5.

I stayed in this hostel. It was actually really nice and I got along well the woman running it. I decided to stay here for New Year's Eve since it has good views of the river and therefore, I got to watch the fireworks of both Brazil (at 11pm Paraguay time) and Paraguay. Plus it's not like Australia where buying fireworks is banned so there was random stuff going off all night. It was a pretty quiet night for me since the hostel was quite empty, and I had to get up early to travel over to Brazil for a flight.

So what did I think of Paraguay? I didn't hate it but it was pretty boring. Unless you are like me and trying to tick off every South American country, you can easily give it a miss.

Next stop: one of Brazil's dodgiest cities, Salvador.




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