Tuomas: Boldly going where not a whole lot of other tourists go – Encarnación
Talking to people in South America about going to Paraguay is sometimes a little strange. The immediate question is "why?" and the follow-up usually something like "why not … instead?". Well, we'd read on Lonely Planet that Paraguay is something of a hidden wonder, missed by most tourists but definitely worth seeing. So who do we trust - the locals who think that there's very little to see, or one of the most widespread travel guides around?
The thing is that if Lonely Planet deems a place not worth going to it really has to be pretty damn awful. So there had to be something there, right? Besides, most people, South Americans and other travelers alike, badmouth Paraguay even though they have never actually been there themselves. We wanted to see what the country was all about, at least very quickly. So when we planned this trip we decided to divide the first half of our six weeks in South America in the following way: fly to Rio de Janeiro, make our way around the surrounding area by land and fly to Peru from Asunción three weeks later. We ended up flying from Rio to the Iguazu Falls, but from there on we continued as planned and made our way to Argentina and Paraguay by bus. I'd say it was worth doing. At least we now get to tell people that we've actually been to Paraguay!
We took off from San Ignacio in Argentina, where they have some pretty uninteresting Jesuit ruins that cost a lot to see. See them we did, but after that it was time to move on. We took an M. Horianski bus from San Ignacio to Posadas, costing AR$45 per person and taking a little over an hour. The ride wasn't as comfortable as the one that brought us there, since we didn't get seats in the bus. Apparently they're not afraid to overbook those things, so we spent much of the trip standing up until enough people got off to allow us to sit down. Luckily the trip wasn't that long. After arriving at the bus station in Posadas we walked inside the terminal and followed the signs to the international buses on the other side of the building. There we hopped on the bus signposted with the words "Internacional" and "Encarnación" and paid AR$15 per person. It was that easy and that cheap, we couldn't have hoped for it to go any better. The bus took us around town picking up more passengers, many of which were hauling curious things like huge sacks of vegetable oil and diapers. I guess those must be more expensive on the other side of the border…
At the Argentine border crossing we all got out of the bus and waited in a line to get our exit stamps from the country. It went fairly quickly, but the day was hot and we were carrying all of our stuff on our backs, not sure if we could have left it in the bus or not. I'm guessing it was the right thing to do, although some people seemed to leave their things behind. There's always the possibility of theft, but also it's not quite certain that you'll end up in the same bus, since there were many of them in their own line. After getting our stamps we got on one of them and continued over the bridge to Paraguay, where we had to disembark again to stand in another line. It was slower this time, but we were patient. Whether we were standing in the right line is another question entirely. When our turn came the guy behind the glass made frustrated expressions and started asking us a lot of questions: "how long are you going to stay in the country", "what means of transport do you have", "where are you staying", "what exactly are you coming to Paraguay for?". He might not have asked the last one, but it's hard to say because he said these things in Spanish. Sini has taken one course of Spanish in the university and I took it up as a hobby while I was living in the United States for ten months, but neither of us are very good at it. In the end the guy made some noises that made the people standing behind us go stand in another line. After that he made more noises and we gave him our passports and smiled until everything was clear. It usually works pretty well that way and so it did this time also, we got stamped into the country and pointed to the general direction of the road.
With the border formalities taken care of we stopped the next bus coming through and climbed on. This was still a part of the same AR$15 bus ride by the way, we didn't pay anything extra even on the other side of the border. As usual the GPS on my phone wasn't feeling very co-operative so we were forced to follow the street signs and compare them to the map on the travel app Triposo. It never really works, but we try anyway. We were eventually able to pinpoint our location and hop off, but sadly it was only a couple of blocks before the bus station. It was still marginally closer to the place we had reserved, a bed and breakfast called Casa de la Y. It wasn't too far from the center but it still felt like it when we were trying to find it. We didn't take any wrong turns or anything but street signs are in very limited supply here, which makes navigating a little stressful. In the end it was right where we thought it would be and the nice old lady in charge let us in. We were the only customers, they only have one private room and a small dorm, and we got a lot of attention from the lady. She gave us a lot of useful information, some of which we actually understood, and commented how marvelously we speak Spanish. In the end our problem isn't speaking, it's understanding what's being said to us. Never mind that, the place was great, our room was huge, about as big as our one bedroom apartment back home, we had a private bathroom, air-con and a TV with more channels that I cared to go through. The breakfast was sufficient with bread served with local cheese, tea, juice and fresh fruits. There were no kitchen facilities other than the barbeque outside, but we could do without them for a change. The price was Gs180'000, which is more than we like to pay, but at least we felt like we got something nice with it. As an added bonus there was hot water coming from the tap in the bathroom so we were able to do some laundry. The lady had laundry service for a fee, but we're very cheap…
After settling in we went out to explore the city. The weather was great with the temperature being probably about 28 degrees Centigrade. Apparently it can get as hot as 45 degrees in summer… We walked towards the river and were pleasantly surprised to find a nice boulevard following the shore with evenly spaced benches looking towards Posadas on the other side. There was very little traffic on the road next to us as we walked towards the center of town and it was hard to say why everyone kept putting Paraguay down. Judging by our several hours of experience it was actually very pleasant there. We passed the beach with multiple bars and restaurants and tried to get local currency out of two different ATMs but neither Sini's Visa nor my MasterCard could communicate with them. This worried us a little but luckily we thought about giving my Visa Electron a go at the local supermarket called Super Seis. I was able to pump out 189€ worth of currency to make myself a millionaire once more! We went crazy with all the money and got a superb dinner at Burger King. We felt like we were allowed to do that because there's only few of those in Finland and according to our guidebook Paraguayan cuisine is based on junk food anyway. It wasn't even more expensive than the burger meals in local restaurants, I paid just Gs20'000 for a Whopper combo.
The next day we thought about going to the Jesuit ruins close to Encarnación but decided not to. We already saw some of those in Argentina and found them relatively uninteresting. Judging from the comments other bloggers had about the ones here we didn't feel like we would miss a whole lot. Supposedly the ruins here are the least visited Unesco World Heritage sites in the world, which of course made them sound like something worth seeing. According to the lady "Y" in Casa de la Y the entrance fee was just Gs25'000 per person and the bus ride was about nothing at all, but still we decided to stay in the city instead. There might not have been that much to see in it, but we really liked the beach and relaxed there for a good while. There was hardly anyone there even though it was a Sunday and the weather was perfect. We walked around a little and found an abandoned carnaval float with an animal theme. Sadly we had missed the festivities by about four months… I hear that it's a great party, rivalling even Rio's in its splendor. The town wasn't quite that alive as we saw it, but we liked it none the less. The only real sight we saw was the cathedral, which wasn't very old to begin with and looked like it had been renovated in the 70's to give it a bit of a new-age feel.
We only had two nights in Encarnación, but we could have stayed longer. That is to say that we didn't find anything repulsive about the city or Paraguay for that matter. It showed much promise for our stay in Asunción, where we traveled with a Nuestra Señora de la Asunción (NSA) bus. The trip cost us Gs90'000 per person and took almost seven hours. We invested in the more expensive bus for extra comfort and weren't disappointed, the seats in the bottom floor of the double decker were superbly nice and they were even showing movies to pass the time.
Paraguay wasn't looking too bad after all.