Do you know anything about Paraguay? Anyone from Paraguay? Anyone who’d visited it? Size, capital, importance? Maybe the colours on the flag from selected football world cups? I can imagine and I had to look it up to be smarter than that. Honestly we took the detour to visit it just because it wasn’t a detour once we decided to see Iguazu and Itaipu. The plan was to enter near Itaipu in the east and see the south and Asuncion. See “nothing” but see how does this country of near to no reputation look like. Ahead we learned it’s poor, very hot and very laid back (that much that loosing your temper is very rude).
We entered at the easternmost edge in Cuidad del Este. It wasn’t poor (there are many poor too of course), it wasn’t hot (at the time) and it was certainly not laid back. It is a city of shopping for the following reasons. Just across the border are parts of Brazil and Argentina that are not busy, crowded or rich at all but there is Iguazu and that changes everything. For this particular corner. Iguazu pulls in there endless amounts of tourists, many of them want to see the falls and then spend their holiday and also shop. There is money for sure. All three cities have international airports to allow more tourists. Cuidad del Este does not have Iguazu, only Itaipu, but it has much cheaper goods. In Argentina the import tax on goods is insane, just like in Uruguay and in Brazil it isn’t a dream either. Whereas in Paraguay it is very low. Add up there are lower wages, lower regulation and costs related to it and also add the fact this city is duty free. Plus, fake goods or completely illegal goods are absolutely available there and the government doesn’t intend to stop it. One more benefit is that all three countries are members of Mercosur (although Paraguayan membership is questionable in the last years) and that allows their citizens to travel within very easily with just the ID card and no stupid hassle like outside of Mercosur. Something like Europe without Schengen. So whenever you’re in the area and want to buy more than a breakfast, you will pay an extra visit just across the river. River Parana, just discharged from the great dam Itaipu.
Cuidad del Este hits you right from the first meters after the customs, which is basically downtown. Tall buildings, major congestion easily 16h/day, everything sharply and colourfully lighted, open and willing to accommodate your money. Super busy. Endless shops of great variety of size, appearance, value, quality and type of goods including Apple stores or cheapest possible T-shirts or bracelets. Shops are even on the street, some pavements are just through a line of cheap shops and the owners or staff would approach you and try to sell you their stuff in quite an intimidating way. Much more than in the rest of the Southern Cone including the rest of this country. Between the ocean of shops there are some casinos, 5*(probably questionably) hotels, poshy apartments etc. It is one of the most crowded, one of the dirtiest (both mentally and physically) and probably the ugliest city we have seen in our lives. We went to the national bank to withdraw money, because it was supposed to be the only one charging foreigners nothing. Long queues, Schwarzeneger-like armed security guy in green, no messing about, they told us there that foreigners can’t withdraw at all and directed us to another better looking bank and it was the first ATM that allowed us to withdraw USD too.
Once we got back to the car to take off, some old crooked guy came to the car near the driver’s seat and kept standing there, did not approach us at all. So I started pulling out and then saw his face – only few teeth left and one eye fake, gave an upset face and started backing his arm and fist in order to hit me – well, the car. It took ages, literally he took at least 5s to do that motion and then punched, first the stroke was reasonably fast but the next half of the stroke went so slow that the window just did a little bounce (yes, very loose window it is) and nothing happened. However it was so weird and weirdly scary and we didn’t know what to think about it. Because after that when he saw that even a turtle would run away from him, he pulled out a phone and started calling someone. Then we got stuck in the traffic jam right away of course but the story wasn’t about to continue. Might have wanted some tip as is quite a weird custom in the continent that folks in the streets “look after” your car parked and also show you where and how to park and expect a tip. Even if their service is not welcome. But good customs are to have a hi-vis vest. Within the city you can see many many beggars, usually along the roads and usually of Guarani descend. Sadly typical picture is a few women with a lot of kids sitting nearby and one or few of the kids doing the begging job. After an hour to move barely 2km we went out to visit the Itapu dam.
Itaipu was a major disappointment, well, for me, she didn’t care. Everything looked real neat, so much money smells all over the place, everything for free, but unlike in Brazil offering at least 5 different tours, Paraguay offers only two and poor. Technical tour taking you inside of the dam must be booked at least 2 weeks ahead and the information is near to impossible to get online, basic tour just takes you in a bus, stops at one viewpoint, drives at the lower level of the dam and then crown of the dam, no stops, nothing. At the beginning you watch a 20min video about it in a cinema they have there and you are only told the stats available on Wikipedia and a bit of propaganda, no negative or alternative views whatsoever. You are told how everything around is powered by the power produced there, electrocars in the complex etc. and then the tour bus runs on a 40year old diesel. On top of that, even though the recent rains, the water flow was pretty small and boring, probably need to wait for the rainy (winter) season. As it often goes, the dam itself looks worse than online. Quite a lot.
After that we hit the countryside direction southwest. More or less flat, green and red – it looks like some parts of less developed Argentinian countryside but with red soil more typical for Brazil. Nothing much but small food shops and car mechanics. If you don’t have a car, you need to walk or ride a horse or other animal carriage. Loads of people would sell their own or someone’s produce along the road, but what we did not expect and were disappointed by was the selection and sometimes prices. We read food in Paraguay is very cheap and rich. Neither. Standard groceries in shops cost the same like in the western world and the selection is usually very poor. Very few items of local produce. On street markets or along the road you find the local produce and sometimes it’s considerably cheaper, sometimes not so much (maybe gringo price). And the selection still – poor, poor. Watermelons, one or two types of melons, pineapples, bananas, sometimes tomatoes, lettuce, apples.. Most of them would sell only watermelon and one two more things. Literally everyone would have watermelons. As for the season probably. Later season I would expect a lot of mangos as mango trees were everywhere.
Paraguay is heavily occupied by cattle pastures and you would expect its produce to be sold on the street – very rare. Reason? Probably because of the social inequality hanging as a heavy local baggage for long time. 95% of the agricultural land, which is most of the land there, is in hands of a very small number of ranchers. And the ranchers don’t just innocently let their life’s luck to do its own, they tend to corrupt the politics to keep or even expand their position. So all the cattle and related produce goes rather to mass production and from the very little land poor people have, they can’t produce more than for their own humble use.
Cousine looks very basic and isn’t bad but you wouldn’t come home and said something like “this Paraguayan stuff, we have to cook/get it”. One thing kind of special for the country would be Paraguayan cheese. It is a pretty soft whitish in colour cheese that looks and tastes like a mix of cream, yellow and other cheese. It was developed over a century ago after the devastating war that put the country from the richest and most developed into the poorest and least developed on the continent. The cheese was developed to be as easy and as nutritious and full of extra protein as possible to feed the people. It tends to be put on meals or sandwiches. It’s quite nice, interesting, nothing special though, not that there would be any special or excellent cheeses anywhere in the Southern Cone at all.
The people are told to be very curious about foreigners as there aren’t many and sometimes approach you to ask about your travels or your country. Indeed this we experienced more than in the other countries, nothing crazy though. What is crazy is the terere culture. Just like mate in Uruguay. They are so proud of their terere culture and rival with the others doing mate and vice versa. Eventually it is the same, only mate is with hot water, terere with cold water. Kind of would have made sense to me drink terere in summer, mate in winter, but suit yourself. Both use exactly the same gear including thermo mugs.
Most roads are unpaved or paved in a way I haven’t seen before. Stone/cobble pavement from stones that look like of a volcanic origin and are rather sharp and nowhere near square or rectangular. Just edged stones and they keep paving more and more roads brand new with these stones. It seems it takes a lot of man work to set it but what does man work cost there, right. Driving on it isn’t any pleasure. Nothing looks super nice, maintained, punctuality nowhere. There are a few little German towns in the south (one is named HohenauJ). They looked a little better plus they were Christmas decorated, at least where events would gather. No idea how is it usually but there and this year most of the decorations were made out of waste, mainly bottles, mainly plastic. That was very cute, especially somewhere where otherwise waste management is extremely underdeveloped. Nevertheless we saw less litter than for example in Argentina. Most of the dirt around was the dust and mud – which is fine, but litter is still a problem too.
We were warned very much that the country is ridiculously hot plus humid and we were quite worried about both heat and mosquitos and other bugs. Only in Cuidad del Este we managed to get a mosquito net. At the end it was warm or hot but actually we were pretty lucky and no heatstroke and no bug invasion took place. Surprisingly easier than other countries before we were able to find public wifi in the towns and villages. Not often, not perfect, but still better.
In one town we had to seek a car mechanic for 3 issues. One mechanic fixed one, sent us with the second further down the road and with the last one sent us to Encarnacion, a city on our way in the south. He also connected me with an “amigo” from Encarnacion that actually speaks English (wow) and can help us. The equipment of his garage (big and with a few workers) was so basic and the guys were so nice. Both pretty usual. In Encarnacion we checked a bunch of mechanics because the first fix – side window mechanism broke again and also we had a gas issue and else. One mechanic didn’t want, one couldn’t, one didn’t have time, some were non existent (as for recommendations) and it was a lot of hassle generally. Fortunately the prices were friendly indeed. Without any ease, we fixed our stuff, even the gas issue, that the previous owners of the car left with us again. After we agreed with the English speaking “amigo” to meet up, we wanted to drive there. But the car quit starting at all. So we walked there and he helped us with his mechanic. It was Saturday and it could have been done on Monday. So we waited two nights and finally after a week and many mechanics, we were good for a while.
Encarnacion is a city on the southernmost border of Paraguay. On the shore of Parana, actually a reservoir made up there. Across is the Argentinian city Posadas. Encarnacion alongside of Cuidad del Este and Asuncion are the only cities in the country. Each therefore must be special in some way. This one is told to be the prettiest. Some parts were eventually kind of nice, nothing more. So we had some idea how does Asuncion look like. Not the best! There is an artificial beach (although looks natural) on the shore of the reservoir. It is really warm and fairly clean. And popular, well, of course, there is no sea. Lot’s of young and well doing people go to chill there.
In the city we met up with the “amigo” that turned out to be a half Swedish half American old former psychiatrist that was a brother in law of that mechanic. The mechanic and his sister, the shrink’s wife, were about half his age. He moved to live there as a family but they planned to move to Sweden.
His views on the government were very poor. His views were different from ours in some ways but I would believe the very most of his views on the local politics. Paraguay went the poorest and least developed almost 150 years ago. But in the 70’s and 80’ of the last century when most of the continent turned into a dictatorship, the Paraguayan one made the country the most corrupted and backwards. And that is valid ever since. So under these circumstances it is fairly easy for the big ranchers and oligarchs to keep the customs current. As for an example let me mention the reservoir near Encarnacion. When they planned to build the dam over Parana and flood the shores of Encarnacion, the government kept the information for themselves as long as the rich people linked to the officials could learn it and take an advantage of that. All the shore was inhabited by local poor fishermen mostly and their houses were in very poor condition. The rich people started buying out their houses of the upper part of the shore. For pennies of course. Only the upper part because they knew where exactly will the water reach so they bought out all of the properties above this line to make it into poshy summer houses or to sell it with enormous profit. The people beneath this line – weren’t left even with pennies. They were relocated to the outskirts into pretty much slum conditions and left alone. As for the Guarani, Paraguay presents itself as an enormous protector of the indigenous people, Guarani is with Spanish the official language of the whole country and the currency is called Guarani. Behind that though is zero support to the community. Our host participates in some non profit activity helping them out and one of his stories was how they went to one of the government Guarani support centres and asked about food charities. They had a big warehouse full of food support for the Guarani but they never released it. When they were asked, why, the answer was “how can we give them food? We give it to them and they will want more!” And with that the food kept rotting in the warehouse without a use. I would not dare to say the indigenous people are treated any much better in the other countries around though. Just for an example.
In Encarnacion we decided to skip the way to Asuncion as an unnecessary detour. All southeast of the country looks probably similar, the northwest is different but it was too far and too little to offer for us to drive there. There is very few people and just wide plains of swamps, pastures, bushes and semideserts. Somewhat sad, somewhat happy country. Lot’s of people that live normal live as workers or (work)shop owners don’t seem to complain and live in peace. Low crime rate, low natural disaster rate. Nothing much to see. We also tried some famous Jesuit missions’ ruins and didn’t ring the bell either. Hard to make an opinion. I believe Hanna didn’t like it much, I didn’t like it less than Uruguay or flat lowlands of Argentina or Brazil. I sort of understand why Europeans that wanted to disappear, either from the law or from the European life, went to Paraguay.