Paraguay is well known for – well – nothing, really. That is exactly why we went.
It began about six months prior to our trip to South America. I asked Becky (my good friend and soon to be traveling companion), if we should look into getting our visas for Paraguay soon. “Paraguay? Are we going there? What’s to see in Paraguay?” was her logical response. My not-so-logical answer went something like this. “I don’t know. A big desert, I think. Maybe a jungle. I don’t think many people really go there so I thought we should. I don’t want it to feel left out. Besides, it’s on the way to Bolivia.”
After a look in the South America Lonely Planet (which dedicated approximately five pages to the entire country), we realized it did have a desert, as well as a jungle. I was also right in that backpackers rarely ever went there. The only people who regularly visited Paraguay were international criminals who went there to disappear off the face of the planet. We liked this description.
It was decided we'd cross from Iguazu Falls, to Argentina, then into Paraguay, travel by bus through Paraguay to Bolivia.
For anyone considering a trip to Paraguay and Bolivia, please note that despite what any map of South America suggests, Bolivia is absolutely, 100% NOT on the way to Paraguay. They do share a rather long border. Bolivia, however, is across the Chaco desert from Paraguay. This desert has only dust roads and is seldom serviced by local Paraguayan buses. It can take anywhere from one day to two weeks or longer to cross this, depending on the weather and the possibility of the bus breaking down.
We went back into Argentina on the southern border, not because it was an uncomfortable crossing of indeterminate length along an immense desert. We wanted an adventure. No, really, it was because we were smuggled into Paraguay and were racking up a fine of 90,000 guaranis per day. We found ourselves in this situation quite innocently.
Our plan was to travel from Puerto Iguazu on the border of Argentina to Ciudad del Este on the border of Paraguay, then over the border proudly displaying our Paraguayan visas like the good, responsible, and well prepared travelers we were. If you look at a map, though, you will see the slight hitch in a tiny sliver of Brazil with the town of Foz del Iguaçu, smack in between Argentina and Paraguay.
We had decided not to go to Brazil because we didn’t have the time, we were focusing on learning Spanish. Also, Becky had a New Zealand passport; I an American one. We would have had to shell out considerable money for Brazilian visas. And we were on a shoestring budget.
We were told Brazil didn’t check passports on the Iguazu Falls border crossing as so many travelers passed through in order to see both the Brazilian and Argentine sides of the falls. Crossing our fingers, we set off for Paraguay. As advised, we did go through customs on the Argentina side, and we were stamped out of the country. Our bus then drove straight through the Brazilian border.
Arriving at the Foz del Iguaçu bus station on the border of Paraguay, we found a bus going to Ciudad del Este. We boarded, impressed with ourselves and our plan. Off we sped through Brazilian customs exiting Brazil.
This is where trouble began. I take some responsibility as I fell asleep, knowing full well it was a short ride across the border. I was fragile and tired from an experience at the hostel (another story). I woke up to Becky saying she wasn’t positive, but we may have gone through the border control into Paraguay. Looking around, we saw only a bridge with hundreds of people carrying large suspicious looking sacks, selling bananas. The scene resembled a chaotic market, we thought the border would be coming up.
At the bus station, it became clear we had missed the immigration stop point. We questioned people, using our dreadful Spanish. What should we do? We have found Paraguayans to be most friendly and helpful. Right away, we were taken up to the office of some official, who gave us mate, tea, and asked about us. We came to the subject of having no entry stamp. Everyone in the room (we had acquired a bit of a crowd) agreed this was a big problem.
We needed a stampa in our passports. We couldn’t go back across the border to get one since it was only a bridge full of people humping illegal cigarettes and clothing back and forth between the borders – a smuggler’s paradise. We were advised to get the stampa in Asuncion. The official assured us this would be easy. We were put on the next bus to Asuncion, capital of Paraguay.
The bus ride from the border to Asuncion was about six hours of dreadful heat and continuous stopping. We passed through tiny villages, dry plains, feeling privileged to the glimpses we had into the lives of the people we passed by. Unlike many countries in South America, where even the smallest towns sport an internet café and a restaurant advertising real muesli and ham and cheese toasties, Paraguay is completely free of this. Everything was untouched by the rash of businesses that spring up to provide us with our familiar western comforts. A refreshing change.
Finally we arrived in Asuncion. As it was Friday afternoon, we settled in for a weekend in the city before getting the stampa. Asuncion is not the most "happening" place. We still managed to entertain ourselves, wandering about, visiting odd themed bars, and generally enjoying the randomness of the place. The city is quite nice – people are very friendly, it is relatively clean, set on a semi-picturesque river. It also has the largest avocados I have ever seen.
Our concern about our illegal status did weigh on our minds. We comforted ourselves with the idea that it was clear we didn’t mean to get smuggled in. Surely immigration would be impressed with our honesty and organization in coming to them rather than trying our luck at leaving without an entry stamp.
Come Monday morning however, there was a different story at the immigration office. Shuffled from floor to floor, office to office, we found ourselves in front of a demonic dragon disguised as a young woman. She was the only unpleasant person we came across in all of Paraguay! She told us in no uncertain terms we should not have entered Paraguay. we could not say it wasn’t our fault the bus didn’t stop, we had also illegally entered Brazil. We weren’t sure why she was having problems with our entering Brazil, but it seemed to bother her a fair bit.
Even though we had gotten visas for Paraguay while still in the United Kingdom, and had come to immigration to resolve the problem as soon as possible, clearly we were not intentional people-smugglers made no difference to her. "No es mi falta", it's not my fault. She sneered, mimicing us. Yikes. She told us we'd be charged 270,000 guaranis each, for our time so far in Paraguay (approximately $50.00 U.S.). We would be charged 90,000 guaranis for each additional day we remained without a stamp. Getting a stamp at immigration was not possible. We would have to go to the border, pay our fine, exit and come back in.
At this point we decided our foray in Paraguay was at an end. We had to head back to Argentina, put our illegal selves at the mercy of a lonely worker at a remote border post. We slunk away from the demon woman. We figured everything would be same, except in reverse. In stark contrast to the buses of Paraguay, the bus we took to return to Argentina was the typical double deck monstrosity, complete with bathroom, attendant, wraparound windows. Like children, we ran for our usual seats; top deck, at the front – similar to traveling in your own personal Imax.
The ride to the southern border (not the one we came across) was smooth and pleasant. Only as we approached the border, fingers crossed, the bus wouldn’t stop, did we realize we had placed ourselves on display similar to blinking signs screaming “Look! Illegal foreigners trying to escape! Stop. Charge us lots of money!” We ducked. Needless to say the bus stopped, and probably would have even if we had not been flaunting our illegal selves.
At the queue for immigration, we waited silently. The officer flipped through our passports, looking for a stamp. “No stampa?”. “Si”, we smiled, “Tenemos visas,” we pointed to our virgin, unstamped Paraguayan visas in our passports. Not having stamps from Brazil (again, that concern with Brazil), and no entry stamp to Paraguay meant we had to pay a fine. “Perhaps we could pay a small fine?” we smiled and asked. The man showed us a chart and what we owed, then he wrote down what he would charge us. He lectured us sternly, the fee he requested was small. Relieved, we entered Argentina, settled in for a marathon trek to Salta where the wine was plentiful and where a couple of boys we knew were headed.
So much for the hard core trek through Paraguay. I believe Becky still has 300,000 guaranis she withdrew to pay the full fine. For the record, no banks in New Zealand, or the rest of South America wanted anything to do with those leftover guaranis.
Moral of the story. Don’t sneak out of Paraguay and don’t accidentally sneak into Paraguay. If you fail at both of these, here's some advice. Don’t tell the good people at immigration that it is not your fault the border at Ciudad del Este more closely resembles a rugby scrum than a border crossing. Don’t point out that you wouldn’t pay 30 quid for a visa, if you intended to sneak into the country. In fact, don’t even use logic. Do change money into guaranis as you WILL have to pay a fine. Do barter the amount of the fine. It is negotiable. Do flirt with the custom officials. While a fire-breathing dragon works at the immigration office in Asuncion, everyone else you meet in Paraguay will be reasonable, going out of their way to help you, generally making the psychotic episode worth the trip.
Kristen Mahan has been travelling ever since her parents tied her first pair of hiking boots at age three. She has traveled in over 40 countries – a proud vagabond. She currently lives and works in New Zealand, might stay there for a while. Kristen can be contacted at email@example.com