When backpackers draw up a list of ‘must sees’ on their South American trip there’s a good chance Paraguay isn’t on it. I’ll be honest it wasn’t on mine. But it felt rude not to take a squizz at the landlocked nation considering we were only a few hundred metres away in neighbouring Brazil.
Like most foreign visitors I was in the area to gawp at the wondrous Iguacu Falls on the Brazilian-Argentine border. However this border jigsaw also includes Paraguay. The intrigue and uncertainty surrounding Paraguay were the main reasons behind a day trip to Ciudad Del Este, a run down tax free shopping city on Paraguay’s eastern edge.
I walked across the footbridge that separates Brazil from Paraguay with the swirling Rio Parana running beneath. I was accompanied by hordes of Brazilians on the hunt for a bargain. Alarmingly, I left Brazil and entered Paraguay on foot without passing a single immigration official! Once firmly inside Paraguay ‘life’ quickened, everything including pedestrians whizzed around at break neck speeds.
Ciudad Del Este is built on a slope. At the bottom of the slope is the footbridge and the Rio Parana (river) signifying the border. The slope is packed with gigantic shopping malls all trying to capitalise on their ability to sell branded electrical goods tax free. Everywhere else in the urban mess, markets traders fill gaps on the pavements selling anything they can get their hands on, flavour of the month seemed to aviator sunglasses and Hollywood DVD’s.
I stepped into the ‘Americana’ mall for a brief look – two hours later I emerged with a ‘well haggled for’ memory card for my digital camera and a personal CD player for those notoriously tiresome South American bus journeys. I was pleased with my bargains but possibly more so at my ability to negotiate prices in Spanglish. I wasn’t pleased with the headache I received due to the sheer volume of people rushing around at a frenetic pace. I also had to deal with the monotonous scene of every shop selling the same products row after row, mall after mall. Browsing was impossible. No sooner had you entered a shop before cash hungry Paraguayans were piecing together camera and accessory deals. It was all too much for me, a guy who only buys practical and necessary items – I guess shopping just ‘ain’t my thing baby’.
Back on the chaotic streets the comfort of the air conditioned malls seemed a distant luxury. Hawkers approached offering perfumes and after shave lotions. As I declined their offers they all mumbled ‘coke’ which was slightly confusing considering they didn’t seem to be carrying any of the popular sugary soft drink! Other last ditch efforts included ‘te gusta marijuana amigo?’ and ‘tu quieres droga’s?’ as the shifty hombres all took on a totally different persona. Having drugs proffered to you in broad daylight on streets jammed with people gives you the impression that anything goes in Ciudad Del Este.
The drug pushers had unnerved me so I sought refuge in a utopia of copied CD’s. Now that I had a new personal CD player I had to bolster my album collection and bought well into double figures. At these prices, shopping was becoming my ‘thing’. My Paraguayan copies saved me about £200 on their legal equivalents back home!
The stubble chinned, greasy yet sweet smelling perfume vendors obviously do a good drug trade with gringo backpackers judging by their persistence (unwanted). I began the downhill walk back to Brazil. Several hundred Brazilians had decided to do the same. I ignored the massive queue of moped taxis hankering for my gringo dollar and crossed the bridge with the crowds of happy Brazilians laden with microwaves, DVD players and other electrical appliances. This time the border officials were present but they didn’t even leave their chairs as I re-entered Brazil.
Later that afternoon I left Foz de Iguacu in Brazil and crossed into the Argentinean frontier town of Puerto Iguacu. Reassuringly, I was given the appropriate stamps on this occasion and made my way to the point where Paraguay, Brazil and Argentina meet. It was a political geographer’s dream. At the t-junction where the Rio Iguacu joins the Rio Parana I was stood in Argentina facing Brazil with Paraguay to my left.
The three way border was actually a scene of tranquillity and not the hive of import/export activity one might imagine. However if the Ciudad Del Este experience was anything to go by these borders must play host to a seedy underworld of smuggling and trafficking but I guess for the unsuspecting tourist, what you can’t see can’t hurt you!