Ciudad del Este Paraguay
Entering Paraguay for the first time feels like taking the wrong turn at a shopping centre and ending up in the alley with all the discount stores. Except these ones are guarded with shotguns.
Coming from Iguazu, the gateway to Paraguay is the city of Ciudad del Este. It was a bad sign that when I’d asked a woman at the tourist office in Argentina how to get there she had screwed up her face and replied with “why would you want to go there?!”
Well, as it turns out, the reason most people want to go there is for the cheap shopping. The really ridiculously cheap shopping!
It’s only later, after more travel through the country, that I was to realise how unrepresentative of Paraguay Ciudad del Este is. It’s unfortunate that it’s the first thing many tourists see – and for those doing visa runs, the only thing they’ll see.
From the immigration checkpoint, up the main street, and all through the downtown, it feels like some strange bazaar.
It seems like every free space on the roadside has been taken up by hawkers selling every conceivable thing you might want.
Of course there’s a stall at a roundabout selling inflatable pools! Why not? And of course there would be a huge pile of plastic chairs for sale on the median strip!
Cheap shopping in Ciudad del Este
Ciudad del Este is a border town by definition and by nature. This is where the black market of underdeveloped South America meets the market economies of the booming nations.
Every day the citizens of Brazil and Argentina stream across the border into Paraguay to get the goods that are either illegal or heavily-taxed in their own countries.
Ciudad del Este is a heaving emporium of contraband, counterfeit and just downright crappy. The enormous line of traffic waiting to get back across the border to Brazil runs for more than a kilometre as customs officers scrupulously check that the items being brought over the border are purely for personal use.
The authorities don’t want this spreading.
With the huge amount of commerce (black, legal or somewhere in between) comes a large amount of money. And with that comes the issue of crime. It’s been said that Ciudad del Este is one of the most corrupt cities in South America.
Who knows where a fact like that comes from? Certainly as a tourist I can’t say there are any obvious problems – but there are enough guns on the street to make me feel like there can be trouble.
Is it dangerous?
Three Paraguayan guards with shotguns protect the door to the supermarket, another two with even larger guns and bullet-proof vests stand watch outside the nearby bank. Even a rather non-descript shop down the street has a pistol-wielding young man who can’t be older than twenty.
As I said, it’s a border town by definition and by nature. The ol’ towns of the Wild West would’ve been proud of the display of firepower.
Ciudad del Este is somewhere you pass through quickly. Either for a day to do some shopping or, in my case, a night before heading further into the country.
Ahead of me is a real adventure into a land where my language skills will be put to the test, where the public transport system involves jumping out of moving buses while trying to put your bag on your back, where the wilds of nature will throw strange (and sometimes dangerous) animals at me from every direction.
And it’s a country where seeing another tourist is as rare as finding a genuine DVD in the markets of Ciudad del Este.
You can get the bus to Cuidad del Este from the bus terminals at either Puerto Iguazu in Argentina or from Foz do Iguacu in Brazil. If you go from Argentina the bus will skip Brazilian immigration so there’s no need for a visa. The bus won’t necessarily stop at Paraguay’s immigration so make sure you tell the bus driver you need to get off and get a stamp. You can get dropped off at either Centro or Terminal (if you’re planning to continue your journey somewhere else). I stayed at the Hotel San Rafael on the corner of Avenida Adrian Jara and Abay. It was conveniently located in the Centro area and pleasant enough but, at about US$25 a night for a single room, slightly overpriced for what you get.