We did not know much about it, and to be honest, it was not part of our plan to visit the country. And it seems to be the same for lots of fellow gringos travellers. Paraguay is not on a lot of people bucket list, but that should change!
When we decided to go and see the wonderful Iguazu falls we realised that Paraguay was just next door. There is a triple border mark in every country (Argentina, Brazil and Paraguay) close to where the rivers Iguazu and Paraguay meet. Even though it is on the other side of the river, it is not an easy ride to get to Paraguay from Argentina, as you also have to cross Brazil. A lot of borders to cross and customs officers to talk to.
Except we did not do that! We left very legally Argentina, and then simply did not officially enter, nor leave Brazil (even though we had a 30 min bus ride through the country), and suddenly appeared at the customs to enter Paraguay! One quick stamp on the passport, and we are not illegals anymore, and very free to walk into the border town of Ciudad del Este, the big city in the east of the country in case you did not guess.
There are two mains reasons for being in that town: It is full of shopping centres with attractive prices, destined to receives thousands of Brazileros and Argentinos that come and do their duty-free shopping. Or if you are a smuggler of any kind, drugs, weapons or else, then Ciudad del Este is the place to be. The town has the reputation of being the smugglers Mecca in the whole continent.
Not more interested than that in smuggling activities (even though to be fair, we must admit that we several times successfully smuggled illegal products into Chile: bananas, carrots and Merima’s corn flour, that were bought in Argentina and should not have crossed the border!); we quickly went to the bus terminal, and jumped on the first bus to Asuncion, capital of the country, some 5 hours away towards the west.
Five hours being way to short, the bus decided to prolong it to more than 7 hours, stopping at every little village (or cow, as said in Bosnia) on the way to pick up more people. From the 42 allowed seating passengers, the bus capacity extended to probably about a hundred of people. It was the first time for us in South America that we experienced this, and even though we cannot say we were surprised, we were mostly feeling pity for the people that had to stand for so long, and happy we got two seats and did not want to leave them. In case of hunger, Paraguay has thought of everything in a better manner than Chile or Argentina so far, because at each stop, some local vendors will come into the bus, try to make their way through the standing passengers to sell stuff. Stuff here can be defined among others as toothbrush, ugly socks, juices, small sandwiches, and chipas.
Chipas is the new empanadas for our time being in Paraguay. It is cheap street food that you find everywhere in case of emergency. It is a bread, in a donut shape, made from manioc flour.
And we consumed a fair quantity of them chipas during our stay.
After crossing Paraguay from East to West, we reached Asuncion. It is a big and busy city, with a very particular feeling. It has an old colonial center with old nice buildings. Some of them could need a refurbish though. The city has also a more modern part with nice big houses and gardens and fancy glass and metal buildings.
No matter the area in the city, one thing that is shocking is the amount, and the size of the flags omnipresent on every building. It seems there is a competition rewarding the person that can wrap the most of its house or building with the Paraguayan flag. And the guy that owns the company making the flags must be one of the richest in the country.
In the city we wandered around, even took a local boat ride to go and see on the other side of the river a little village with two dusty roads and some chickens in the streets. We really enjoyed the climate that was very warm, and we did not complain too much when we got drenched by tropical showers. Hot tropical rain is always better than cold Patagonian mist.
And related to the climate too, the food offer drastically changed here. Tropical and exotic things such as papayas, pineapple, guava, passionfruit, manioc and plenty of other delicious things. So we had a lot of fruit salad bought off the street for 3000 guaranis, the local money (a real bargain!). And we also tried more elaborate meals, mostly stews with lot of corn, manioc, and meat. It was a nice change from Chile’s selection of sandwiches or fries, that we consumed too much earlier.
As Paraguay is mostly ignored, or not looked at by mass tourism, Paraguay doesn’t have the infrastructure, nor the usual tourist scams, or cheap, made-in-another-country, souvenirs to sell and that felt very good, more authentic and real. And on the top of that the Paraguayans are extraordinary people. The friendliest we met so far. Ready to help out, or just happy to chat, mostly to tell us that Sweden is so cold, and so far from here!
While trying to get some bus tickets to go back to Argentina, we had the most awesome discussion. The guy at the office started to ask us to wait a bit because his computer program was dead, then he asked another office next door to connect on his laptop and check the information for us. During that time, we chatted, he told us the only thing he knew from Sweden was the Roxettes, which is a correct fact, but a bit sad for Ikea, Volvo or Abba. Then, he offered us to try Terere, the horribly-tasting national drink of Paraguay.
Terere is actually cold mate. And mate, we will probably talk more about it later, is a hot drink made from yerba mate herbs, drunk in a special manner, but consumed absolutely everywhere in Argentina, and a bit less in Chile. Bottom line here, no matter if it is mate or terere, it has a very very strong bitter herb taste. Apparently, it is something you need to drink plenty of before you start to appreciate the real taste of it. For us gringos, only a very diluted version of both is enjoyable so far.
Anyway, this guy told us all about terere and mate, as he was consuming litters of both every day. He said more than 4 litters! Apparently, it is good for everything: the blood, the belly, for staying thin…you name it! At the end, he did not have any bus tickets that interested us, but we had a taste of his terere, which he gladly shared with us (drinking from the same cup and with the same straw, so un-Swedish ).
He, and the multi instrument drifter player in the bus, and some other street vendors were really nice, happy to share a chat, without expecting anything from us else than discussion.
We stayed only a short time in Paraguay, and mostly in the capital which is a shame because it seems to us that there is so much more, and the people are so nice, that if we have the possibility to go back, we will take it without hesitation.
Who would say no to some awesome chipas and papayas? Not Merima.