A Paraguayan trilogy - far from the madding crowd!
15.09.2011 - 20.09.2011 20 °C
Once again bucking the trend, I decided against the usual backpacker route of Posadas (Argentina) to Encarnacion (Paraguay) and opted instead for the far less known and less travelled Clorinda / Ascuncion border crossing further north. In fact, there was so little information about this border crossing online and in the guide book that I was a little put out to discover a few other tourists on the same bus from Salta to Clorinda as me, having expected (as with a lot of my travels) to be the only tourist on the bus. Order was however restored when, 13 hours later, upon arrival in Resistencia, every other tourist disembarked and I was, after all, the only tourist left on the bus. So odd was it that I was continuing on to Clorinda that the ticket inspected shook me out of a peacful rest, at 5 in the morning, and ordered me to get off the bus. Had it not been for the fact that it was still dark, and I wasn´t due to arrive in Clorinda until 9am, I probably would have unknowingly got off with all the other tourists to only later discover my mistake after the bus had continued on its way. As it was, I informed the driver of my destination, to which he asked to confirm it on my ticket, and then, with some surprise, allowed me to remain in my seat. At 9am we finally arrived in the small town of Clorinda, and I began to realise why not many people use this border crossing. I had originally planned to get a direct bus from Clorinda to Asuncion (just across the river), which I had read online was possible, however the ticket inspector told me as I was disembarking that there was no direct bus. As there is no central bus terminal in Clorinda, having just been dropped off at the deserted side of the road outside the bus company office, I had little choice but to take his word for it. Luckily, shared taxis wait by the bus company offices and the taxi driver quickly spotted my tourist appearence and lost demeanour and rushed over to offer me a ride (although probably at a slightly inflated price than his usual local customers). The worry of being overcharged was soon put at ease though when a local Paraguayan woman, who was also headed to the border, got in and offered to share the cost with me.
It was shortly after this, not 5 minutes out of Clorinda, that the inevitable happened. The one thing that I´ve so far (amazingly and thankfully) managed to avoid on all of my travels, despite countless reckless drivers and speeding buses. I finally found myself involved in a traffic accident! Casually daydreaming whilst gazing out of the side window of the taxi, still hazy from 25 hours without sleep, I was suddenly brought back to reality by a quick and anxious intake of breath from the woman to my side. Immediately looking around for the cause of her distress I peered throught the front windscreen just in time to catch the flash of a moped desperately trying to make its way across the road in front of us. With a momentary screech of wheels against the tarmac, it was evident that we were not going to avoid a collision, as the taxi slammed heavily into the rear end of the bike, sending it and rider crashing across the road, into the opposite lane and into the path of oncoming traffic. As a miracle would have it, there were no speeding buses of careless drivers on the other side of the road at this early hour and the female rider somehow managed to avoid being crushed beneath the wheels of one of the many early morning border crossing trucks. Instantly a group of bystanders rushed to the woman´s aid, while shockingly, despite our many protests, our driver did not! As the taxi continued on its way, with only the dents and scratches to indicate any incident, we thankfully saw the woman helped to her feet, and despite a severe limp and shattered bike scattered across both sides of the road, she seemed not to be gravely injured. We heaved a sigh of relief as the scene gradually disappeared into the distance.
We soon reached the border crossing into Paraguay and the taxi driver hastily dropped us off and sped along on his way, the recent accident having had no effect of the speed of his travel. It was at this point that I was extremely thankful to have a local woman who was able to show me the way as there was no signage, in any language, as to where to go. There was also a distinct lack of people crossing the border by foot, although a mass of congested trucks and lorries blocking the roads at every turn, making the entire scene even more confusing for the unfamiliar tourist than it already was. The helpful Paraguayan woman pointed to the bridge which separates Argentina and Paraguay and we made our way towards it, all to the sounds of my continual reminders that I needed to get an Argentinian exit stamp before entering Paraguay. The woman seemed unconcerned and continued to instruct me to follow her. Finally, across the bridge, we came to a large sign "Welcome to Paraguay", at which point I once again mentioned that I hadn´t officially been stamped out of Argentina, to which she rolled her eyes, possibly thinking "if this stupid tourist mentions exit stamps once more, I´m going to throw him into the muddy river", and waved towards a control point ahead of us. As it turned out, the Argentinian and Paraguayan immigration desks were located in the same hut on the Paraguayan side of the river, and from there it was extremely straight forward.
Having thought the worst of the crossing was over, I was to be sadly mistaken, when yet again something happened (like the accident) that I´d so far managed to avoid on all my travels. I was finally scammed by a thieving boder money changer! Never having changed money in this fashion before, I only did so on this occasion due to the local woman informing me that the rate being offered was better than in the city. The small, greasy, scumbag before me obviously saw that I had no idea what I was doing and decided to take full advantage. Having now been awake for 27 hours, been confused and hassled by a busy border crossing, nearly had a serious traffic accident, and feeling rushed and pressurised by the friendly local woman who stood patiently waiting at the corner of immigration for me to finish, I was suddenly presented with the impossible task of calculating 250 multiplied by 880 in the few seconds that the money changer handed over the cash. I knew immediately from his behaviour that he had scammed me and asked him to wait as I worked out the exchange in my head, to which he continued shouting calculations into my ear before rushing off into the crowd. Once gone there was no way I was going to prove that he had scammed me, even if I managed to find him again, so hurried to catch up with the local woman who was waiting to meet her family the other side of immigration. I feel that the intense anger and frustration which followed was perhaps disproportionate to the severity of the crime, having only been scammed out of 2 pounds, however spent the next few hours raging over the circumstances which led to the man getting one over on me. To be fair, I was probably more annoyed at myself for not stopping the man even though I knew there was something wrong or not working out the exchange rate before handing over the cash, and the fact that I had been scammed through my own stupidity rather than the scammer´s cunning, yet had I had the opportunity to go back and smack the thieving little scumbag, I probably would have relished it.
It has to be said, after travelling for weeks in large, expensive cities, and on comfortable luxury buses, through Argentina and Chile, Paraguay hits you like a slap in the face. Boarding a cramped, hot and sweaty rust bucket of a bus for the 35km journey from the border crossing to Asuncion reminded me more of my travels through the back roads of Asia than the surprisingly comfortable journeys through South America so far. Gone were the TV screens, reclining seats, toilets and air conditioning, to be replaced with dusty open windows, crying babies, elbow jostling aisles, more passengers than seats, ticket inspectors hanging from open doors trying to drag yet more passengers aboard, singing children asking for money, and a thousand vendors selling everything from batteries and mobile phones to cheesy bread and empanadas. To be honest, I rather liked it!
With only one night in Asuncion I decided to stay the night near the bus terminal and not attempt to walk the 4km into town with my heavy backpack, a decision I was later extremely thankful for when I caught a local city bus into the centre and discovered just how far the Lonely Planet´s idea of 4km is, passing through rough areas, rougher areas, and areas even I wouldn´t want to wander with all my belongings. The city bus journey was painless however and I soon found myself in the city centre, on a gray and miserable afternoon. I can´t disguise the fact that I didn´t find much going on or much to occupy my time, and as with so many cities before, with the exception of a few museums and churches to photograph, there was little to distinguish it from any other busy city centre. Despite this, I don´t agree with several other travellers´ comments that there is no reason to visit Asuncion, as I still find it extremely interesting exploring these places, if for no other reason than to be able to compare them and truly see the different sides to the world in which we live.
The following morning I boarded a very hot and stuffy bus to Encarnacion, at the southern most tip of Paraguay. Having asked specifically for a window seat, in order to combat the lack of airconditioning, I was frustrated to find that I was in the only seat where the window was just a pane of glass with no opening. Therefore the only way to get any breath of air was for the window in front to be open slightly, and as sod´s law would have it, the only person on the entire bus who didn´t want the window open was the miserable old git in the seat in front. I did find however that by placing both my palms flat on the surface of the glass I could get just enough grip to pull the window open slightly from my seat behind, which is exactly what I did every time the old man fell asleep. Inevitably he would later wake up and close it again, assuming it had rattled open on its own, at which point I would simply wait for him to drift back off to sleep and slide it open once more. This process continued for some time.
Encarnacion is described in the Lonely Planet guide as Paraguay´s most attractive city, and to be fair, I don´t think that says much for the rest of the country. Having walked around the town for quite some time I wouldn´t necessarily descibe Encarnacion as particularly striking or beautiful. In fact, I found very little in the city itself worthy of photographing and would descibe it as a pleasant, if somewhat uninspiring, place to be. With the city devided into the nicer Zona Alta, around the central Plaza, and the less appealing Zona Baja, around the bus terminal, I doubt very much that I need to reveal which area I chose to stay in. All I can say is that it was practical and cheap. Although the city itself may not hold much in the way of sights and attractions, it does however have the rarely visited Jesuit ruins of Trinidad and Jesus (a World Heratige Site) on its doorstep. Therefore the following morning, with heavy rain looming, I headed down to the bus terminal and boarded the first bus bound in that direction, slightly apprehensive that I would not know where to get off (and that the driver would forget to tell me), especially when 28km on a Paraguayan bus feels more like 50. For anyone wondering, you simply need to count down the KM markers by the side of the road until you get down to KM218 which is directly next to the path to the ruins of Trinidad. I had read on another blog that I needed to look out for marker KM32 (which is also correct), except what they failed to mention was that KM32 was written on the back of the same marker, for vehicles heading towards Encarnacion not away from it (very useful, thankyou!).
Believe the write up in the guide books though, that if you want a set of ruins (or a World Heratige Site) all to yourself, look no further than the Jesuit ruins of Trinidad and Jesus. Arriving to yet more rain, and even more ominous looking clouds on the horizon, I was the only person at the entire site, for the entire time I was there. To me, this was a good thing. Avoiding the crazy dive bombing birds swooping at my head to protect their nests (inconveniently built within the ruins) I spent the next hour making the most of the tranquil setting and photo worthy sights. The incredible crack of thunder which split the sky the moment I stepped behind the altar in the church building however, was slightly disconcerting. Were I not such a sceptic, I may read a little further into it. Perhaps behind the altar is not where I was destined to be. Who would have thought?!
Following further up the main road, I soon reached a petrol station and the turn off sign for the ruins of Jesus. This is where I encountered the most decrepid, heap of rusted junk (somehow managing to still call itself a bus) waiting to transport me to my next destination. It was during this journey (which for just 12km seemed much further) that this blog came to mind, as I thought to myself: "well, at least I can write that no wheels or doors fell off!". At which point, as if reading my mind, a loud clanking sound came from below the vehicle and the driver was forced to pull over, get out in the pouring rain with nothing but an soggy piece of cardboard in hand, and crawl beneath the bus to fix a loose exhaust. When I say loose, I mean very loose. So loose in fact that when he reboarded the bus he held the entire thing in his hands and casually threw the large pieces of metal and piping into the isle before starting up the engine and carrying on his way.
The rust bucket
Unfortunately the weather continued to worsen and I was forced to spend the following hour sheltering within the ruins (in doorways and arched windows) while quickly shielding my camera from the torrential downpour for the following photos.
The return journey to Encarnacion was fairly straightforwad, except waiting for a bus by the side of the road, when you have no idea what time it is due to arrive, can become extremely tedious. Half an hour seems far longer in such situations, and the rain certainly doesn´t help either. But at least the bus driving back to town still had an exhaust attached.
Following Encarnacion, I took another long and hot bus ride to Ciudad del Este, where I hit an all time low on accomodation standards (hard to believe I can get any lower, I know). Having decided for the first time not to stay near the bus terminal and instead walk the 2.5km into town in the midday humidity, I then spent the following hour wandering around looking for any hostal which was even remotely similar in price to the one shown in the guide book. This turned out to be in vain, and became increasingly annoying being told over and over that "125,000G really is cheap, sir" when you´ve only been paying 40,000 in both Asuncion and Encarnacion. In the end my seach widened and I somehow ended up right back outside the bus terminal once more before finally finding a room for 40,000. I was soon to discover why it was at this price when I entered to a cleaning lady desperately trying to mop up the flood of rainwater which had seeped through over night before I had a chance to see it. She didn´t manage it. This was nothing however compared to the curtain of mould growing down the walls and across the ceiling, the line of ants crawling across the floor, the cockroackes creeping out of the cracks in the bathroom tiles, the TV with no arial, the airconditioning unit with no remote control (therefore useless) and no fan to replace it with. None of this bothered me half as much though as the large numbers of mosquitos in the room, which against the dark mould walls were impossible to spot and kill, and left me with the choice of closing the windows and sweltering to death with no fan or opening the windows and hope for a breath of air while getting eaten alive. I chose the former option, however the number of mosquitos in the room already still managed to eat half my face while I tried unsuccessfully to sleep. Then there was the issue with the mysterious wire, with no plug on the end of it (just exposed wiring), hanging through a crack in the window. This mystery was soon to be unravelled when the water for my cold shower (which was cold because I hadn´t noticed the electrical switch until after I was out, although still got a nasty shock from the wet tap) suddenly ran out half way through. Not long afterwards, while I was resting in my bed (in not so many clothes due to the stifling heat and inability to open the windows), there came a loud banging on my bedroom door. I quickly slung a shirt on to find the owner of the hostel asking me to plug the mysterious wire into the socket on the wall (i.e. shove the exposed wires directly into an electrical outlet by hand) in order to refill the water tank outside. If this wasn´t bad enough, two hours later, while I was trying to sleep (yet again in not many clothes), there came another bang on the door, to which I once again quickly dressed only to be told that I could now remove the wires. You would think that that would all be bad enough but is obviously wasn´t as, at 4am, hours after someone outside had already woken me up by noisily pulling the wire through the window and out of the room, another employee came in asking me to plug it in again. When I informed him that the wire was no longer in my room he looked at me as though I had just inconvenienced him, and without any apology at all, slammed the door and left. Despite all this, it was still very cheap, and as I had things to do the following day I decided to stay for a second night.
Cuidad del Este
The most frustrating thing about Ciudad del Este surprisingly is not the quality of the 40,000G a night hostels but the fact that the entire town seems to shut down every Sunday. Arriving at 3pm on a Sunday afternoon, with only the thought of food and checking up on the internet (which I´m sure I don´t need to point out wasn´t available at my hostel) to occupy my time, I proceeded to spend the next two hours wandering down every main road, sidestreet and back alley in the entire city in an attempt to find anything that wasn´t closed. With the main street looking like a derelict ghost town of empty market stalls and metal shuttered buildings, I became more and more irritated until finally, rounding one final corner before deciding to give up and head back to the room empty stomached, I stumbled upon a Burger King. Say what you want about eating in western fast food chains abroad but when you´ve walked all over town unsuccessfully looking for any restaurant, cafe or street vendor that isn´t closed for God´s day of rest, a double bacon and cheese burger combo meal comes as food from heaven!
The following day I set about visiting one of Paraguay´s largest attractions (indeed one of the largest of its kind in the world), the Itaipu hydro-electric station and dam just 14km upriver from Ciudad del Este. Built across the river dividing Paraguay and Brazil, it was a joint construction and still remains so, with 2000 workers on the Brazilian side and 2000 on the Parguayan. Thinking that I would get to the dam slightly earlier (and by that I mean an hour earlier) than the scheduled free tours, in order to have a look around on my own, I was disappointed to find that you are not allowed to wander around on your own, so spent a very boring hour waiting outside the closed visitors centre front doors. When the tour finally did begin it lasted just over an hour and began with a film about the marvels and the impressive facts surrounding the building and running of the dam (which they still claim is the biggest in the world even though the guide book says there is one in China bigger. Perhaps they mean in productivity terms). For example, the output of the dam covers 90% of Paraguay´s electricity and around 20% of Brazil´s entire demand. The structure stretches 8km from end to end and holds a record for electrical output at over 93 million kw/h (or at least that´s what I understood from the Spanish-only information film).
The tour then takes you out to the dam by bus and gives you the opportunity to gaze at the scale and size of the site from a large viewpoint. Unfortunately almost every photo of the dam you will see on promotional material is slightly misleading as the large overflow doors (which throw water out on the scale of a massive waterfall) are actually only used on very rare occasions when the water level rises too high. This apparently only occurs 5 or 6 times a year, and infuriatingly the guide then told us that they had been opened only the day before (obviously due to the torrential downpour which caught me out at the ruins of Trinidad and Jesus). We did ask if they could open them for just a few minutes while we all took pictures, but they refused.
Although the rest of the drive is interesting, the bus made no further stops, therefore all the photos had to be taken through the windows of the bus, which to be fair is a shame as the site is certainly photoworthy.
Returning to town with an afternoon still free I decided to visit the nearby waterfall Salto de Monday. Catching a local bus (which the tourist office had told me to catch) I was then left with the worry of not knowing where to get off. I had hoped to ask the driver, however, when a thousand people tried to cram on further down the road, forcing me to a small corner at the very back (not only inaccessible to the driver but also with no view out of the windows to search for any road signs) I knew I was in trouble. Thankfully, the one woman I decided to ask, amazingly turned around and said "yeah, that´s where I´m getting off, I live near there, I´ll show you". Now that doesn´t happen very often. It was then a 10 minute walk along a very muddy road through some very rural looking village (as the main road to the falls was closed for roadworks), but I soon arrived with no issues.
The waterfalls themselves were fairly impressive, although to be honest, with my next location being Iguazu Falls, I felt as though they were more of an appetiser than a main course. Yet again though the storm clouds rolled in and spoilt the fun. That is until lightening started streaking the sky and thunder rumbled the very earth upon which I stood, at which point I was having fun again. The approach of heavy rain could mean only three things however: One, it was going to be a very wet and muddy walk back to the main road to catch the bus before dark (as I´d left my raincoat in the hostel room yet again); Two, the damned dam would probably have it´s damned doors open once again in the morning following another torrential downpour; and Three, I would no doubt be returning to a flooded, soggy room, where thankfully I´d had the foresight to raise all my belonging off the already damp floor before I left that morning. The first and last of these predictions proved to be true, and I can only imagine that the second did too (although, to be honest, I´d rather not know). And so ended my wet and thundery week in one of South America´s least visited countries. I find their distorted view on tourism quite amusing though, for example, when I asked the driver of the rusty old bus to Jesus if he saw many tourists, he replied "yes lots, I see one or two almost every day now!". I wonder how a site such as Macchu Pichu would cope with such an vast amount of tourists as "one or two ALMOST every day."
Following my time in Paraguay I can fully understand why some people choose to miss it out entirely, yet for that very reason am really glad that I did not. If you want to escape the mass tourism of other surrounding countries, meet some great, friendly local people, see sights which may not be on the scale of Macchu Pichu or Iguazu Falls but still hold their own quieter charm, and see a country for what it is rather than for what it´s trying to be in order to accommodate all its many tourists, then you should certainly visit Paraguay. Clearly far from the madding (touristic) crowds, it is also rather chaotic in its own way, it can be noisy, rushed and dirty, but it´s certainly down to earth, and I really enjoyed it. Personally though, if every other tourist felt the same way and was here at the same time that I was, I probably wouldn´t have enjoyed it half as much.