Across the Rio Parana

Trip Start Sep 22, 2007
Trip End Nov 10, 2007

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Flag of Paraguay  ,
Sunday, September 30, 2007

A dusty white 4WD jeep waits for us outside hostel Don Gustino in Colonial Carlos Pellegrini. Our driver will take us 100km north to a small town where we can catch a regular bus to Posades. From Posades, we originally planned to head north to San Igancio Mini to visit some well-preserved Jesuit ruins. Last night though, we decided to give the Argentinian side a miss and cross the border and visit the Missiones in Paraguay instead. 

It is a long day of travelling. Our first slight problem is that with the 2 bubbly Australians (Lisa and Tess), a reclusive Slovenian (Yerbie) and us, there are 5 passengers plus driver for the 5 seater jeep. The driver is quite happy to squeeze as many people as possible in the jeep and there is already a mysterious guy sleeping ontop of our rucksacs in the open air vehicle boot. To have a more comfortable ride, which strangely costs the same price per person, we briefly consider leaving behind Yerbie. However we donīt fancy leaving him behind on his own and as he is the tallest we decide to let him sit in the front and squeeze the 4 of us into the back seat.

The 3 hour journey is a tight but we enjoy getting to know oneanother. The scenery is fantastic with red mud, grasslands and blue skies. Occasionally we see pink storks taking off into flight. As each minute passes, I begin to realise the magnitude of the Esteros del Ibera park. It is a giant wildlife santuary of pure natural beauty.  

After the jeep, we take a really hot bus from a small town to the larger transport hub of Posadas (Argentina). Here we jump on a local bus to take us across the border. The temperature is getting warmer as we head north. 

We know very little about Paraguay except that it is the 3rd poorest country in South America, and full of corruption as bootleg goods are passed across into Brazil. The country sounds appealing as it is rarely visited by travellers and close to border town of Encarnacion, there are the Jesuit ruins. Definately well worth investigating.    

At the border, the first thing we learn is that the two Aussies are supposed to have a visa. It takes Tess, a fully trained lawyer, completely fluent in Spanish only 5 minutes to obtain an illegal entry stamp. They pass over 15 US dollars and then wonder where their visa costs are going when they read in their books that it should cost 45 US dollars. They promise to the handsome immigration officers that they will only visit the Jesuit ruins and they will leave the country at the same point as their entry. It all sounds highly dubious but we donīt ask any questions.

Another bus takes us into the centre of Encarncion. Itīs late afternoon on a Saturday and the town is buzzing with plenty of traders selling watches, jewellery and clothes. The ladies remind me of the slim Venezuelanīs and they look beautiful.

We walk in some intense heat to a number of hostels where our travel guides promise swimming pools and comfortable air conditioned rooms, but after 2 hostels we realise that these places are expensive and they do not look like the sort of places where we donīt think that we will be very comfortable. We all feel quite disappointed with the useless recommendations.

Tess and I investigate other better options. After visiting just about every hotel in town we realise that everything not recommended in our books turns out to be quite good. We end up chosing Hotel Piranha. The owner is extremly friendly. The rooms are like stepping back to the 1960s with frilly bedspreads, a bakelite phone, a valve TV and a giant turqoise blue ceiling fan. Itīs basic but quiet and cheap (8 pounds per room). 

John and I make our 1st mistake of the trip. At an ATM machine, we try to withdraw the equivalent of 30 pounds. There are 10,000 Guarani to the 1GBP so this equates to 300,000 Guarani. John selects the "English" language option and we proceed with some Spanglish (half Spanish, half English) options. The keyboard has the digits 1 to 9, and due to the high demand for the number "0", a key with "000". A double press of the "0" key results in a sum of 3,000,000. We press the "correct" button to reset the value, but we quickly realise with the familiar whirrling sound of the machine, that we have agreed a figure of 3 million Guarani. A wedge, several inches thick of soft used notes slots out from the bottom of the machine and we realise that we have just withdrawn GBP300 for a 2 day stay in Paraguay.

Fortunately for us, Paraguay is a relatively safe country. Itīs one of the few countries in the world where Iīve read in the Lonely Planet that women can walk around at night in safety. We donīt spot any other backpackers during our time, but everyone is extremely friendly and accomodating. This seems a little odd for the 3rd poorest country in South America.     

In the evening we decide to give our guide books another chance and visit "Hiroshima" a Japanese restaurant. We discover that Paraguay is actually an hour behind Argentina and we have actually turned up for dinner at 6.30pm, an unspeakably early hour for eating in South America. We are all tired but have an absolutely fabulous Japanese meal which fully restores our confidence in our guide book. We tuck into 2 platters of raw sashimi, 4 main course plates, warm sakes and several beers (served in champagne style ice buckets by a waiter dressed in full diner jacket). The bill comes to less than 5 pounds per person.  The food is so good that we end up eating there the next evening too.

After a good nights sleep, I wake to feel fully refreshed. Our Aussie friends are so enthusiastic and so full of vitality that I am reminded that I am on holiday.  I am really beginning to relax and enjoy myself. After a fantastic breakfast with 2 jugs of fresh orange and pineapple juice, served by a waiter fully dressed in a dinner jacket, I feel even better.

The Jesuit ruins of Trinidad are 28km from the town. The bus passes through fertile soil which is a rich and amber red in colour and fields of wheat. Apart from the soil colour and the occaisional palm tree, the scenery looks oddly like the British countryside. I later learn that a lot of the original forests have been destroyed to plant crops. The sky is a hazy cloudy white colour although the temperature at around 35C is definately much hotter.

The Jesuits came to the country in 1607 and were expelled in 1767. Their stay in Paraguay, Argentina and Brazil is controversial. They helped to protect the indiginous cultures from extinction and improved living conditions by always chosing fertile regions to grow crops. They also promoted the growing and drinking of yerbe mate as it was favoured to alcohol. However, they were disliked by the locals as they were wealthy. It was thought that they secretly mined for precious metals in their missiones.  

The site at Trinidad is around 20 hectares in size. The main catherdral, bell towers, living quarters, and cloisters are all built from a red sandstone. It has been a UNESCO site since the 1990s and it is mostly in excellent condition. Unlike the site of San Ignacio, across the border in Argentina, very few tourists visit and there is very little information provided.

We also visit the ruins of Jesus by catching a local taxi. No one really blinks an eye lid to see that our passenger window is made of huge strips of yellow faded sticky tape and I share the front seat with a slim local girl.

The site of Jesus is very isolated and a single ruin of a main cathedreal is totally surrounded by fields and trees. The combination of ancient stone ruins with naturual surroundings reminds me of Angkor Wat. For me, the beauty of the place not only lies with the architecture of the buildings but also its unspoilt remoteness.  

At the top of the church Tess walks along the top of the 1 metre wide thick walls to the front of the church and stands with her arms outstretched. Itīs at least a 20m drop down and we all feel a little quesy watching.

After another very sweaty and busy bus ride back to Encarnacion, John and I check out whether there are any air conditioned buses which can take us up to the border to re enter Argentina and visit Puerto Iguazu. We find a small mini bus which will leaves the next day for 40,000 Guarani (4 GBP each). 

We cool down with a huge 600ml tub of ice cream from "Los Dos Chinos" Geletaria (70p) and chill out with the rest of the town in the main plaza. There is an odd 1970s concrete monstrosity and also a Japanese garden. There are quite a few Japanese in town and we wonder why there are so many around.

On our final day we have a money count. We have only spent one third of the money we withdrew from the ATM machine. Armed with a bundle of notes, I head out to buy some warm shoes in preparation for Patagonia. The staff are extremely friendly offering to share their supersweet chilled Mateīs (the national drink) with me. I cant believe how cheap sports trainers are. I am suprised to see the trainers that I bought in Peterborough, UK cost 50% less here!! I end up buying a pair of leather Basics shoes for 22 GBP. 

We say goodbye to the girls, who, as promised, are heading back to Posadas in Argentina. Our minibus takes us through more rural countryside and 4 hours later we reach Cuidad del Este, city of the East.

Its getting late in the day, so we change our remaining Guirane with a dodgy dealer in the bus station. We jump into a taxi which will take us to Puerto Iguazu in Argentina via Brazil. 

Our taxi driver is extremely friendly but he turns a little impatient when we insist that against his judgement we do need to get a Brazilian exit stamp in our passports. We end up forcing him to return from the Argentinian border back to the Brazilian customs. He responds by dumping us off in a quiet street in Pueto Iguazu and demaning a fee of 40 USD rather than the agreed 40 Argentinian Dollares (12 USD). We have both enjoyed our time in Paraguay, but this incidence leaves a sour note in my mouth.

8 days into our travels and it seems hard to believe that we have left our home in St Neots and have now travelled through Greece, Rome, Argentina, Paraguay and Brasil. OK, we did only stop a very short time in most places (only 30 minutes in Brasil and 5 hours in Rome) but there 3 of the countries I didnt expect to visit. I am enjoying the travels and feel full of energy for more.

We have experienced a brief taste of Paraguay. Although corruption seems rife with well kept Mecedes cars driving around the towns, the ruins have been well worth visiting, the people are friendly, it seems safe and the food is delicious. Itīs has been a great stop over.

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