Entering Paraguay: The border town

The border town of Ciudad del Este is the entry point to Paraguay from Iguazu. But it’s also a chaotic hotbed of cheap (and often black market) shopping.

Written by Michael Turtle

Michael Turtle is the founder of Time Travel Turtle. He has been a journalist for more than 20 years and has travelled the world full time since 2011.

Michael Turtle is the founder of Time Travel Turtle and has been travelling full time for a decade.

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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!

Visiting Ciudad del Este in Paraguay

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!

Visiting Ciudad del Este in Paraguay
Visiting Ciudad del Este in Paraguay

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.

Visiting Ciudad del Este in Paraguay

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.

Visiting Ciudad del Este in Paraguay

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.

8 thoughts on “Entering Paraguay: The border town”

  1. Thanks for sharing. My wife and I are trying to map out our trip, and while Paraguay is on it we are deciding the hows and wheres. For example, the visa either before we leave, that is unless it is easy to pick up along the border. There doesn’t seem to be as much available about Paraguay or Uruguay compared to their bigger glitzier neighbors, so thanks for sharing.

    Reply
    • The border was really easy for me, but it will depend on what nationality you are. I got my visa as I crossed over with a British passport.
      The biggest thing to watch out for is whether the bus will stop at the border or not. Because most people are locals, you’ll have to make sure you tell the driver you need to stop and get a stamp – and then also make sure he does actually stop. He wasn’t very happy doing it for me but I just told him firmly he’d have to wait for me (it only took about 60 seconds to get the stamp).

      Reply
  2. Just got back from my trip to Brazil worth a side trip to Paraguay. CDE. I absolutely loved it! The handmade leather bags for$20, the indigenous traditional clothes, the embroidered tablecloths, the bamboo boxes… although we were denied visas (USA) at the border we still walked into town and spent about 6 hours there before returning to Brazil.

    Reply
    • Hi India bella ! I plan to go to CDE next year from Foz Do Iguasu. Will probably stay there for 6 hours like what you did. Did you get in trouble without any visa (USA)? But you need to have your passport an exit stamped from Brazil. Entering to Brasil is ok if you have the visa, they say it’s multiple entry once issued. Dealing with the immigration officials on the Border is where you’ll experience a very stressful entry by the local authorities. It can cost you money, a lot only to be pocketed by the border patrols guards. A lot of buses at the station on Republica Argetina and a short ride to the international bridge. Thanks !

      Reply

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