I think I have seen many different types of borders – the non-existing EU borders which you can cross at highway speed, the ex-communist countries’ borders where you could get shot if you try to cross them, the “normal” borders where you have to get your passport checked and stamped before someone opens the gate for you.
The borders we crossed so far in South America were a bit different. You can easily cross on foot most of them and no one will stop you. There are immigration officers around the road and you are supposed to get your passport stamped at the exit and then on entry to the next country. No one forces you to do it, but it’s a good idea not to skip this step. If your car looks strange and doesn’t fit the pattern, the bored road police officers often stop you and start socializing. Some just want to chat about where are you from, where are you going and what’s the brand of the car, but others ask for every document imaginable from passport to insurance. So far none of them was able to find in our papers a pretext for a “multa” and we would like to keep it that way.
Having said that, the border from Brazil to Paraguay at Ponta Pora was a new experience and gave us a hard time. The first problem was that the border simply doesn’t exist. It seems like when they decided where the border was to be, someone just drew a line on the map across the city. According to the GPS, we went back and forth between Brazil and Paraguay at least ten times while driving thru the city, trying to find where the border and the immigration officers are.
After about an hour on the dusty streets with crazy traffic, I had enough and said to Marinela “Let’s just drive to Paraguay, I don’t give a %^$^# about the stamp in my passport”. Fortunately, my better and smarter half refused to be smuggled into Paraguay and went out to ask the locals how to cross the border. After a while, she came back laughing and explained that there is no border. If you want your paperwork to be in order, you first should go to the airport on the Brazilian side and get your exit stamp. Then, you should go to the big shopping mall one kilometre down the road. When the prices start being quoted in Guarani instead of in Reals, you are already in Paraguay. In a small white building somewhere around the mall, there is someone who can stamp your passport with a Paraguayan entry stamp.
Half an hour later, we found the Brazilian airport, run happily towards the immigration officers there and almost hugged them. They looked surprised, but after we explained what we need and how long we looked for them, they happily stamped our passports. After half an hour more, we found the Paraguayan office too and a grumpy lady put the priceless stamp.
So, we finally were in Paraguay with all the paperwork in order. Now what?
Before visiting a country, we usually try to prepare, to plan what to see, what not to miss, and so on. Our research on Paraguay was fruitless. No tourist traps, no “must-see” places. Nothing.
After driving a few hundred kilometres and spending a couple of days in Asuncion, I think we understood why. Paraguay is a very nice country, but it’s hard to find something standing out.
The countryside is amazingly green and neat, with cattle and other farms spread for miles and miles around the road. Just like driving through Iowa, but with some hills, palm trees and bananas around the road.
Asuncion is a different story. I read somewhere that until the 1950s, Paraguay has been one of the richest countries in the world. Walking in the city administrative center where the president’s palace and all the government buildings are, it looks like the time in Asuncion has really stopped sometime in the 1950s. Since then no one has invested in building something new or maintaining most of the beautiful old buildings.
We visited Asuncion on Saturday, December 24th. It was 35 degrees Celsius and the streets were totally deserted. The beautiful colonial buildings wear signs of old glory and new decay, with damaged facades and trees growing on roofs. In Peru’s dessert, I felt like in a part of a Mad Max movie. In Asuncion, it was more like a ‘Life after people’ computer game. I almost expected a shooter or a zombie to come out of the burnt high-raised building downtown. The feeling was creepy and fascinating at the same time.
The Jesuit Missions of La Santísima Trinidad de Paraná and Jesús de Tavarangue in Paraguay were built in the late 17 century. During this time the Jesuit order created about 50 religious settlements in South America, where the brothers of the order lived and worked together with the baptized Guarani people. The missions were called Indian Reduction and had a high degree of autonomy within the Spanish Empire. This, as well as, the resistance from the Jesuits and the missions to the slave trade led to the expulsion of the Jesuits from South America in 1767.
The Jesuit reductions in Paraguay, Argentina and Brazil were abandoned and left to the elements. Most of them are only ruins now, but they are still spectacular and beautiful. When I walked between the fallen columns of the church, I almost felt Jeremy Irons and Robert De Niro from the movie “The Mission” watching me behind the corners.
Happy New Year, guys!