There was something of a surreal edge to our time in Paraguay. The Brazil/Paraguay border lies across a bridge from Foz to Ciudad del Este, and was the one border I was worried about crossing. Possibly the shabbiest-looking official border offices so far – a million miles from the shiny new offices at the Venezuelan border a couple of years ago. We quickly got waved through though as the taxi driver knew the guy in the office. It’s not often I’m this harsh about a place, but Ciudad del Este was a bit of a hole. It’s where everyone from over the border goes to buy cheap electronics and is also a major smuggling zone.
When we arrived at the airport it was completely deserted. The restaurant was still signposted but had disappeared and shop units lay empty. A TV was flickering in the corner but if it wasn’t for the bright sunshine it could have been decidedly eerie. Apparently no one goes anywhere in Paraguay on a Sunday.
Our hotel in Asuncion was a little knocked around and not half as grand as its title suggested but it still had a certain colonial charm, a lot like the city itself. Paraguay is visibly a lot poorer than Brazil when you travel through the countryside and the edges of the city but the centre had a lot of colonial buildings which would be packed with visitors in other countries.
At first glance, we seemed to be the only tourists in Asuncion. A, who we met in Argentina a few days later, said that lots of Argentinians were scared to travel to Paraguay. Quite a few Argentinians from the north drive to Brazil for holidays, and the most direct route is across Paraguay, but he reckoned they avoid it because of dengue mosquitos (the irony of the fact that Brazil is not exactly dengue-free itself made me think there must be more to it than just that). We felt pretty safe anyway although the streets in the centre emptied really quickly as soon as the sun dropped. The restaurants were still full even at the start of the week and the surubi at Bolsi (type of catfish native to the area) was the best thing I ate all trip. Paraguay could certainly use the tourist dollars but it seems a bit forgotten, a bit of a backwater which isn’t really on the map. Maybe it’s a result of the years when it cut itself off from much contact with neighbouring countries.
I was sitting on the wrapround balcony one evening just reading when suddenly I heard this sickening bang. Looked over the edge to see a bus had collided with a car pulling out of a side street. Luckily there were three police on the scene within two minutes who had been directing traffic round the corner. I’ve never actually been that close to an accident (maybe because I don’t drive) and I had my heart in my mouth for a few minutes but the guy managed to get out okay once someone forced open the door.
One morning at the insanely early hour of 5.30 we were picked up to drive out into the Chaco. The early morning is the best time to see the dozens of different types of birds which inhabit the savannah, diving through the sea of palms, splashing down into the marshy waters. The far north of the Chaco is apparently hellishly hot thorn forest, empty of people. In the Low Chaco we saw a few cars, but mostly miles and miles passed with only the occasional remote estancia on the horizon. We passed a school set up specifically for children from local Guarani indian communties. Kids live there for nine months a year only returning to their families for a three month break. At one point we pulled into a little layby to get some water from a tiny…well it was described a pub put it was more like a concrete hall with a bar at one end. My hello was met with stony glares… you get the feeling that not too many strangers pass through here. It’s the first place I’ve ever gone to use the bathroom and been driven straight out again by a cloud of mosquitos, and believe me I’m not precious about bathrooms in South America! Less than 2% of the whole population of Paraguay live in the Chaco and it feels like a hard place to survive.