After schmoozing with Brazilian celebs last week my wife and I decided that we (I) deserved a hard-earned break somewhere far away from São Paulo. Somewhere where people wouldn’t recognise me in the street.
And so we took advantage of the long holiday weekend to travel down to Foz do Iguaçu in the south-west of Brazil.
Map copyright PlanetWare.com
From Foz, which is close to both the borders of Paraguay and Argentina, you can visit the extraordinary Iguaçu Falls – we intended to view them from both Argentina and Brazil.
However, this is South America so, you know, the best laid plans of mice and men and all that.
Saturday was lost to an epic storm whilst Sunday was even more disastrous. At the entrance to the Argentinian side they wouldn’t accept Brazilian Reais or payments by card. Then, the ATM wouldn’t give us any money.
Frustrated, we crossed back over the border and instead went to the Brazilian side where they accepted Reais, Argentinian Pesos, Dollars, payments by card and even bloody Euros.
Brazilian inefficiency? Who would dare ever speak of such a thing? Pah!
And the view wasn’t too bad either.
And with the falls out of the way it left Monday free for a little romantic trip that I had been planning for some time.
Now, you probably don’t know much about Ciudad del Este in Paraguay but in the Footprint South American Handbook 2012 it describes the city as being ‘the biggest shopping centre in Latin America’. It also says that Paraguay’s Number 2 tourist destination, a place with ‘stunning views’, is just a short distance from the city centre.
After reading this I thought that Ciudad del Este and the Itaipu Hydroelectric Dam sounded like perfect places for a romantic day trip. We could do some upmarket shopping and visit the number 2 tourist destination in Paraguay. Number 2!
Geez, I thought, my wife is lucky to have a romantic husband like me.
“Andy”, my wife said, “the guide also says that Ciudad del Este ‘is a counterfeiter’s paradise and can be quite dangerous’ and, ‘Almost any vehicle advertised for sale, should you be tempted, was stolen in Brazil or Bolivia’. Are you sure you want to go there?”
Minor details I thought.
Besides, Paraguay was one of the South American countries I hadn’t been to on my previous trip in 2007 – and I quite wanted that passport stamp (though I’d like to make it clear that this definitely was NOT why I suggested Paraguay as the destination for our romantic daytrip).
To get to Ciudad del Este from Foz we had to cross the Ponte de Amizade and this translates as ‘The Friendship Bridge’, a fantastic name for a bridge which links two countries. As such, I suggest that as a gesture of goodwill we should commemorate our friendship with France by renaming the Channel Tunnel. Something like the ‘The Love-Hate Relationship Tunnel’ would be fitting I think.
Ciudad del Este begins where the bridge ends with the road leading straight into the heart of the shopping area. And boy it’s marvellous sight.
Billboards and vast shopping emporiums, with names like Mona Lisa and Shopping King Fong, hog the skyline whilst enthusiastic young men greet you at the border with fliers advertising miraculously cheap electronic goods from said emporiums or the markets that are clustered around them. It’s as if a whole city has been designed with the sole purpose of enabling Brazilians to jump across the border to buy all the tat that they’ve never wanted.
And as we strolled through the markets, dodging mototaxis and security guards carrying shotguns, it really felt as though this was going to make up for the disappointment of Argentina. In fact, I think the only time I’ve seen my wife quite as excited was when we arrived in India and took a tuk tuk through the centre of New Delhi during rush hour. Magical moments.
“But” as I reminded my wife, “there’s still Paraguay’s Number 2 tourist destination to go yet!”
So, we found the bus station and swapped R$3 (£1) for a cellotaped 5000 Guarani note and 1000 coin with an old lady who was selling a variety of interesting looking herbs. I’m pretty sure they were herbs anyway.
Our bus then arrived and it was a thing of pure beauty. Similar to those in São Paulo but much older, creakier and dirtier. However, it did have some wicked, psychedelic hand-painted designs.
The only free seats were at the back but we couldn’t reach them because a family had loaded an entire crop of vegetables on to the back two rows. Never mind, we stood and asked an old lady to let us know when the dam was approaching. She kindly agreed.
No-one asked us to pay when we got on though eventually a guy came over to us and took our 6000 Guaranis. I assume he was the conductor though this was not entirely clear as he wasn’t wearing any sort of uniform. I’m sure he was though. Maybe.
Halfway down what appeared to be a motorway our little old lady told us the dam was approaching so my wife yanked the chord to alert the driver. The door opened but the bus didn’t really seem to slowdown. For some reason my wife took this to mean the bus wasn’t going to stop at all so she decided to make a heroic jump for freedom. Unfortunately, whilst her feet touched the floor so did her face.
A split second later the bus stopped and I casually stepped off whilst a bus full of Paraguayans peered out the back window – I could hear gasps. My wife then pulled herself up and did her best to pretend as if nothing had happened, but I looked up at the Paraguayans and they looked down at me.
We all knew.
And then as the bus sped off it quickly became apparent that we genuinely were by the side of a motorway. In the distance a sign indicated that the dam was straight ahead and this seemed to be exactly where our bus, now a small dot on the horizon, was stopping. Our kind old lady hadn’t just screwed us had she? I think she just did!
Never mind, I guess there’s nothing like a swift walk by the side of a motorway in a strange country that you’ve only been in for a few hours to get the romance flowing eh?
I think my wife enjoyed the walk though as she didn’t say one word to me the whole way. I guess she was just taking everything in.
Anyway, we finally we reached the dam and the view & FREE tour were definitely worth all the hassle.
But whilst I was there it did kind of make me feel a little bit sorry for Paraguay. I mean, I know it’s the biggest dam in the world and all that, but is that really its number 2 tourist destination?
I mean, little Paraguay is surrounded by huge countries seemingly full of natural and man-made wonders. It’s also landlocked so there aren’t even any beaches to attract holidaymakers. Even the bloody Iguaçu Falls lie just the other side of the border.
Nope, they’ve just got a dam.
And cool psychedelic buses, though we didn’t take that option on the way back, instead opting (my wife told me) to catch a taxi. However, I’m not entirely sure it was the safer option as the taxi seemed to be in a worse state of repair than the bus – judging by what was holding the window in place.
Back at the border we still had 10,0000 Guaranis left but as we crossed the bridge we were made an offer that we could not refuse – the perfect gift to commemorate our special day in Paraguay.
Anyway, what did I learn from my weekend outside of São Paulo?
Well, at times I may have implied on this blog that life in São Paulo can sometimes be a little frustrating. However, really I think that once you’re used to some of the little quirks you realise, once the rage has subsided, that they just make life that little but more interesting.
Besides, it’s sometimes not until you travel elsewhere that you realise that there are problems everywhere. Everything’s relative.