So our first impression of Paraguay after going to Iguazu falls was of the border city with Brazil: Ciudad del Este. Now that first impression was definitely not a good one. Ciudad del Este is the second largest city in Paraguay yet it seemed only to be used as a place for Brazilians to cross the border and buy knock off and cheap tax free goods. When the Brazilians left, the city shut down. We saw so many people walking around with shotguns over their shoulders and in the short time we were out in this city, we saw 3 overt cases of child labour with kids no older than 12 doing shoe shining reminiscent of our time in India earlier this year. Needless to say we weren’t in the market for plasma screen TVs so we were very keen to leave the next day.
We had a week in Paraguay before flying to Bolivia and we both were thinking oh no, what have we done? Paraguay is awful. We headed to the bus terminal early, not knowing what to expect. I must say, so far, Paraguay is the one country this year where speaking Spanish is a necessity. Normally you can just google other people’s travel blogs to know which bus company to take, what the timetable is, the cost etc. But for Paraguay, there’s barely any information online. Arriving at the bus terminal was intense; instantly we were swarmed with bus ticket sellers yelling in all directions. This had never happened to us anywhere! I mean of course we’ve been hassled by vendors but never about legitimate transport tickets at a bus station. We tried to ignore the hassling and focus on looking at the bus company windows. It seemed most counters were just going to the capital, Asuncion. So I eventually asked and was pointed in the direction of the far right hand side of the station to a company called El Tigre. Fortunately there was a bus within the hour. Whilst we waited, we realised that we were the only tourists in the entire bus station. They do say Paraguay is not yet part of the ‘Gringo trail’ and this certainly seemed to reinforce that. We were unsure on what the bus standard would be. So far, South American buses have ranged between pleasant to extreme luxury but having seen the rickety old buses driving around Ciudad del Este, our hopes weren’t high. However we were pleasantly surprised as it turned out to be a double decker tourist style bus with a toilet. It was just very dirty and freezing cold given all the air con vents were broken but it cost us G$50,000 (£6) for the 6 hour trip. Mental maths of changing Paraguyan Guaranis to Pounds was great fun; G$7400 to £1.
So anyway, about us saying Paraguay was awful, turns out that was a load of rubbish. We really disliked Ciudad del Este but Encarnacion was like a different country! Encarnacion is a 400 year old city built along the river front that lies between Paraguay and Argentina. It was quite surreal being able to look out across the river and see the city skyline of a different country (Posadas, Argentina). There was a spectacular sunset looking out in that direction practically every night we were there, we also had the same beautiful view from our hotel room. Though there aren’t really tourist attractions “to do” here, we really enjoyed it just because it was such a relaxed place. We had only booked 2 nights initially but ended up staying 4. The main thing to do in Encarnacion is simply to take the time to stroll along the river front where there was a little beach called Playa San Jose, it reminded us quite a lot of the promenade walk, La Rambla, in Montevideo. By day, we didn’t see many people in the streets of Encarnacion, but in the evenings, the board walk came alive with groups of traditional maté tea drinkers sitting on benches and chatting. There wasn’t that many food options, especially on a Sunday, and Dave was distraught to have to resort to eating McDonald’s. However, we did find one amazing restaurant; Hiroshima, a really reasonably priced Japanese place. We got boat loads of sushi, literally, they served them in little boats.
One day we decided to visit the Jesuit Ruins in Trinidad, on the outskirts of Encarnacion. In the 18th century, Spain and the Catholic church, believed that the religious movement of the Jesuits was becoming too powerful and thus they were expelled from Paraguay leaving their establishments abandoned. The weather was really hot and while it was only a short 30 minute bus ride out of town, unfortunately the bus didn’t depart on schedule and waited for other passengers to hop on board until it was virtually full. This would have been fine apart from it was like a sauna on board and both of us, while dripping in sweat, were seriously doubting whether it was even worth going. Apparently the ruins are one of the least visited UNESCO world heritage sites in the world; and if I am honest I can’t say I am surprised. While they obviously hold historical importance, when you compare them to other ruins, such as the temples of Angkor, they really aren’t that impressive to the eye. However, it was quite nice to be the only ones there and potter round the grounds independently and have a picnic under the shade of a tree. There are more ruins located 12km from the main highway in Jesus de Tavarangue. However, transport options are severely limited and neither of us fancied walking in the midday heat so we decided to give them a miss and catch the bus back to Encarnacion.
One of the main reasons we stayed for 4 days in Encarnacion was because when we were researching Asuncion, the capital, the top thing to do was to visit a shopping centre… On our travels so far we’ve realised that we usually much prefer the smaller cities to the capitals. We used the same bus company, El Tigre, for the 7 hour journey, though this bus had the opposite problem of no air con working so we were sweltering. We finally arrived and were quite glad we chose to spend most of our time in Encarnacion. We used our only day in Asuncion to catch up on laundry, very exciting. When it was time to head to the airport for our flight, we asked the hostel to help us book a taxi but they reassured us that the bus was really easy, picking us up outside the hostel and dropping us at the departures entrance. We are usually all for buses unless heading for a flight but as it was G$3,000 instead of G$100,000, we opted for the bus. The guy from the hostel even put us on what he said was the correct bus. Turns out it wasn’t the right bus! It should have only taken 40 minutes but after an hour, we were concerned. I asked a lady on the bus and she said we were on the wrong bus! We jumped off and managed to get in a taxi and go back on ourselves to the airport. We were livid but we made our flight in time and all was okay.
Join us next time as we head to Bolivia!
Sophie & Dave