Checking out Nuestra Señora Santa María de la Asunción

Coming from Puerto Iguazù in Argentina, I did choose to cross Paraguay to go to the West of Argentina. This is by no means the shortest route, although it looks like being shorter on the map. The border crossings eat up valuable time and changing buses cannot compete – even with the best connections – with the direct services running from Puerto Iguazù to the West of Argentina. But hey, I get another immigration stamp in my passport. And since many tourists avoid traveling to Paraguay, it spurred my curiosity.

Asunción backstreetsSeveral Internet references about Paraguay sound scary. It is the second poorest nation on the South American continent, with an unemployment rate of over 15%. About a third of the population are considered to be poor. The country is suffering from its landlocked position, which has made it a transit hub for illegal drugs in the past. Changes in the weather, fluctuations in world prices for agricultural and oil products still create shocks for this informal economy. The government sector is inefficient, the banking sector is weak, overall extensive corruption prevails and a very slow pace of reforms undermine any effort in bringing the country up to the same economic level as its Southern neighbors. On the plus side, there are extensive hydroelectricity resources and a great agricultural potential and a consolidating democratic system.

That does sound really bad. Add to this the extensive warnings in travel advisories about muggings and robberies in Asunción, this country was begging me to go for a reality check. So, I entered Paraguay in Ciudad del Este, which is connected by a bridge to the town Foz do Iguaçu in Brazil – where my Argentinean bus was transiting through. Immediately upon arrival on Paraguayan soil, the environment changed completely: Very busy streets, hundreds of shops – rubbish, broken down streets and poverty everywhere. Although I haven’t been for some time on the African continent, parts of Ciudad del Este strongly reminded me of Douala, Kinshasa, Libreville, Monrovia, Bamako or any other typical African city I’ve been to. This Paraguayan town even came with the same sort of very greedy cab drivers. To cut a long story short, I made it on the bus to the capital city, Ascunción – after a couple of bus ticket resellers almost knocked each other off in their sales fight for me.

Downtown Asunción

Arriving in the capital at around 10pm, I was undecided about how long I would want to stay in town and did choose a hotel near the bus terminal for convenience. Drum-rolls, please! The award for the first cockroach hotel on my round-the-world journey goes to… Ascunción. We’re not talking about the occasional cockroach lying dead in a corner or walking casually by as I go to sleep. That’s pretty common in many places and nothing to write home about.

But in this small room (I guess, prison cells back home are bigger than this room), I managed to kill four cockroaches before I went to sleep. And I found two dead ones when I woke up in the morning. Which leaves me wondering how many were wandering over my bed as I slept. Which I did actually quite comfortable – in my clothes. Because the room and the shower probably hadn’t seen house keeping since the building was erected. But I won’t really argue, since at US$ 5 per night – in a central location, this was a steal which made me cope with such minor inconveniences as not having water in the bathroom.

Looking at some other lodging options early next morning, I decided not to waste more time in finding a better accommodation. Instead, I bought an outward bus ticket to Argentina for that night. Which allowed me to spend a full day sightseeing Nuestra Señora Santa María de la Asunción (actually the correct, full name of this city). As I drove downtown, the bus changed endlessly between shantytowns and business districts, until it reached the Centro. There, I went directly to the Lopez Presidential Palace, where I was greeted by several dozens of soldiers and policemen. As it was shortly before nine o’clock in the morning, they were busy waving traffic through, ensuring that the president would not get stuck in a traffic jam while being driven to his office. Another task of the uniformed men was to prevent me taking any pictures of the presidential palace. For security reasons, as they said.

The presidential caravan of SUV’s driving by with flashing dome and head lights was spanking new. The whole scene looked a bit like out of the television series “24”. There I sat on the small wall, taking pictures of the sea instead of the palace in the middle of loud sirens. And I saw, to my surprise, a small shanty settlement of – maybe – 20 tin roofed houses just 50 meters across the presidential office (you can actually see a bit of it on Google Maps). That’s where the reference books I read definitely don’t exaggerate: The gap between rich and poor is very visible in this capital.

Walking from the presidents palace to the new Congress building, I spotted a small historical place in front of its entrance. There are, among trees and statues, two big canons – probably from the 17th century. Surprisingly, they are not facing the sea, but inland – pointing both directly, at a slightly right angle towards the Congress building.

Having visited Nuestra Señora Santa María de la Asunción for less than 24 hours (and Paraguay for a bit more than 36 hours) does not really entitle me to judge this city or the country. I still struggle personally whether I would come back one day, if I had time or money. It is neither a clear yes nor a clear no. Because I am feeling that the countryside is much different and most probably worth the extra effort of visiting. Nevertheless, just when I thought that leaving the country would be as easy as any of the other border crossings I have seen so far in South America, I did learn a different lesson: Argentinean immigration was very thorough, but efficient.

Streets of Asunción

Arriving at Argentinean customs, a dozen doubledecker buses were lining up. One by one, all passengers had to leave the bus to proceed at immigration control. Once their passports or ID cards processed, they would have to wait until the bus in front of them would get clearance to cross the border. That clearance is only given to an empty bus. So all the luggage has to be unloaded and carried by the passengers through X-ray machines. It’s a well orchestrated procedure, where customs officers and bus drivers know their duties and work hand in hand. Another reality check fulfilled: Paraguay still seems to have a problem with illicit drugs. Other than that, I cannot explain such a strict border control, that took us about 90 minutes in all. Which was definitely not a bad thing for me personally: This was the first time, I almost missed my bus in Ascunción and I had not eaten and was quite thirsty. But my priority was to catch the bus – which left the instant I boarded. Being for 90 minutes at the border, this would allow me to buy food, drinks and change back Guaraní, the Paraguayan money, from the various street vendors passing through the crowd. Perfect!

A couple of hours later, I arrived absolutely relaxed in the town of Resistencia in Argentina. Without prearranged booking and onward transportation. But that is yet another story to come.

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