After I decided I was going to try heading through Paraguay, I did some research and got the address for the Paraguay consulate in Santa Cruz. An extended search if the city revealed the office on the first floor of an apartment building. The security guard didn’t even know it was there – maybe I should have taken this as a sign? Luckily the ladies in the office were amazingly helpful, going so far as to write a letter for me in Spanish to the Consular General to explain why I didn’t have a ticket yet to exit the country once I got in (it is almost impossible to buy bus tickets ahead of time in much of South America). I rounded up some passport photos and photocopies of my credit card and paid the $65 fee and then five hours later, I was officially allowed to enter Paraguay for up to 90 days. Too bad the rest of the trip to Asuncion wasn’t that easy.
One of the requirements of the visa application was that I purchase a ticket to enter the country ahead of time, so at the Santa Cruz station I did some due diligence and checked around a few ticket offices before purchasing. I knew from research online that one does not always get what is promised when paying for these buses so I thought I was being pretty careful. The trip runs at about 24 hours total, so it is no small commitment to choose a company. I settled on Yacyreta, which was recommended in the Lonely Planet guide book and appeared to have a pretty clean office and friendly staff. The ticket seller assured me that they had television, air conditioning and reclining seats as well as three meals included. I paid 380 Bolivianos and was pretty pleased with myself.
The evening of departure, I got there early and waited in front of the office. Rather abruptly with about 20 minutes to go before departure, the man I bought the ticket from, hustles me through the hallway toward the departure door and we walk past half a dozen nice looking coaches. He drops my bag in front of the smallest bus at the end of the row and quickly walks off. I look up at my new home for the next 24 hours and realize I may have just been hustled. They didn’t mention it at purchase, but when the various companies don´t have enough passengers to fill several buses, they just send the cheapest one. Yacyreta may have had a very nice bus for all I know, but they weren’t going bother sending it for five or ten people. I was shuffled onto a bus run by Rio Paraguay with no air conditioning, TV and a seat that barely reclined. With resignation, I bordered the piece of crap and resigned myself to an uncomfortable trip, yet again. Supper was passable with cold chicken and rice and after a long night, breakfast consisted of four small cookies and a juice box.
By mid-day we were crossing the Chaco, a vast empty space in the north of Paraguay that totally reminded me of the outback of Western Australia- nothing but bare dirt and scrubby dry brush as far as the eye could see. Somewhere near the Tropic of Capricorn, the dry heat drove the temperature upwards of 42 degrees; it was at about this time that the bus broke down. Awesome. With the nearest town hundreds of kilometers away, I chose not to think about the potential consequences and decided to have a nap instead. The travel gods must have took pity on us as the bus roared back to life about an hour and a half later. We finally rolled into Asuncion at 7 pm and I caught a cab to my hostel and slept for almost a full day. I must have needed it after my little bus adventure.
Other than a few good pubs and bars, there wasn’t much to do in the Paraguayan capital so after a night of dancing with some fellow travelers from the hostel, I moved on to Encarnacion, which was near some Jesuit ruins listed as a UNESCO world heritage site. I meant to check the place out in the morning but I slept in and the afternoon was way too hot for me. The weather had reached the low 40’s every day I was in Paraguay. Tired of the crazy heat, I decided to just head for the more temperate climes of Argentina. Bolivia had been too cold, Paraguay too hot, so hopefully Argentina would be just right. I splurged for a private room with air conditioning in Ciudad del Este and stayed for two nights. The town shares a border with both Brazil and Argentina so it was a really interesting mixture of cultures. It also is home to the second largest dam in the world in terms of energy production, second only to the Three Gorges project in China. After some public transit confusion I took a cab to see the big man-made behemoth that was the Itaipu Dam. Started in the 70´s, it was pretty controversial as it flooded a huge swath of pristine wilderness, including a pretty spectacular waterfall. The upside being that it provides electricity to almost all of Paraguay and a good percentage of Brazil as well.
I left the hot and dusty and disorganized world of Paraguay by catching a small boat across the river to Puerto Iguazu in Argentina; a town famous mainly for the insanely breathtaking waterfalls there. But more on that next time!!!