Paraguay is country number 15 on this trip, so it's not a stretch to say that I've gotten used to border crossings and the usual bulls**t that comes with them. From the sour faced extremists who protect the USA from all those who dare enter, to the Venezuelans who seemed to forget that they were actually supposed to work for their government paycheck, to the Hondurans who were just plain out to take my money, I've seen it all. Or at least I thought I had.
Getting out of Bolivia was easy - the only delay was that the customs guy couldn't get the printer to work. I solved his problem pretty quickly (turned it on), and headed over to Paraguayan customs, where I was told I'd need 3rd party insurance to enter Paraguay. This is quite common at borders and a reasonable request when an insurance office is next door, as through Central America. However, there wasn't an insurance office for 50 miles. I tried the old "I'll get it at the next town" trick, to no avail. I asked where I could get insurance, and he pointed back into Bolivia and said that I could buy Bolivian insurance, which would work in Paraguay. He obviously had not been keeping track of current events, as Paraguay had been suspended from the Mercosur (an economic cooperative, on which the international insurance is based). In the end, I pulled out my not -yet-expired Colombian insurance and claimed it was good for all of South America.I doubt it was true but the paperwork didn't expressly say it was limited to Colombia, and the name of the insurance company was coincidentally "Sur America", so it worked out nicely. They bought it, and I was in. I just had to travel about 150kms through virtually uninhabited scrub to get to the immigration post.
Thankfully, the road was mainly tarmac, so I made good time. Unfortunately, the other part was soft - similar to talcum powder. I almost fell down the embankment once, as the back wheel came to life suddenly. I woke up the immigration lady (the post is 'open' 24hrs, as it's her house), got the fastest stamp and return of the trip, and got booted out the door practically into Filadelfia. I was riding at night at this point, but on good tarmac and on a road so straight I'd see a pair of headlights a full 6 minutes before they'd pass. I found the hotel I had wanted, got a cheap room and passed out on top of the bed.
Filadelfia is a weird town - to explain requires a bit of a background:
Mennonites came to Paraguay by way of Russia and Canada, fleeing socialism and standardised education respectively. They were invited to settle in the middle Chaco, in what was considered agriculturally unforgiving land (nicknamed the 'green hell'), and given the autonomy and freedoms they desired. Essentially, they went bush and no one expected them to make it. For a few decades it looked like they would struggle to survive, until American Mennonite communities sent their young men south to build a road to Asuncion and market. This was done as part of a deal with the US government to avoid being sent to war, as Mennonites are pacifists. With equipment & troops from the US and Paraguayan governments respectively, these men built the 480km road, securing the economic fortunes for the three colonies. With a strong work ethic, the farming cooperatives managed to grow from barely making a living to becoming the economic powerhouses of the country - to this day, if you buy beef, dairy or a dozen other products in Paraguay or neighbouring countries, it'll have been made by one of the cooperatives. They run a very modern operation, and live accordingly, although groups in Bolivia and Eastern Paraguay dress & live in a more traditional style (as do the nearby Amish).
I could go on a bit, but I'll wrap it up quickly - despite being fiercely independent people (with a dislike of socialism), they all (around 95%) work for the cooperative, which markets and sells the goods. It's like if AWB ran the local supermarket, hotel & petrol station. They have their own government, which is slowly ceding control to the Paraguayan government. At one point not long ago, they had their own police force, education system, helathcare and more, but that is slowly becoming integrated with the rest of the country.
I DEFINITELY prefer the way the Mennonites handle their towns over the other Paraguayans. The streets were clean (as clean as dirt streets can be), safe and friendly. When the horn went off at 0700 to signal the start of the workday, you could be confident that everything was open, ready and able to help. The supermarket was so clean I would have no problems eating the really fresh produce off the floor, and the hardware store had everything I needed, and more (Jack and Annette, check out what I found below!). Worryingly, this is only really apparent in towns or businesses that are led or managed by people of European descent or Expats. The difference is palpable, and exists across Latin America - the higher the Expat population, the cleaner (and generally safer) the city. I wish it weren't true, but there it is. I love a siesta as much as anybody, but when your relaxed attitude extends to rubbish disposal - then you and I are going to have problems. Of course, there are exceptions to this rule, (in Colombia it seemed to be in reverse) but for the most part it holds true.
I headed out for Asuncion on a Sunday, despite the online warnings that everything (including petrol stations) are closed on the Sabbath. While predetermined Mennonite working hours exclude Sunday (and you've got no hope of an open supermarket), those laws don't apply to places such as hotels and gas stations. The Mennonite community recognised a long time ago that it was pointless to hold out against society, and if you can imagine a small country town in Oz (or Midwest US), then you can imagine the Chaco colonies. Essentially, most things I'd need (gas, food and lodging) were open everyday, and whenever I'd need. Although I probably needed a separate road.
It wasn't that the road was bad - it was pretty much all asphalt, and in good nick too. It was just that everyone else was out to get me. The title for worst drivers in Latin America is a hotly contested battle, with many countries offering reasons why they should all be denied licences, but at the moment Paraguay has it locked up (I'm in Uruguay at the moment, and unless someone in Chile attempts a driveby shooting, Paraguay wins). Maybe it was the fact that Bolivian roads don't allow the kinds of speeds these idiots reached, but whatever it was needs to be rectified. I quickly worked out that most drivers had both little experience of being on a bike, and almost none in passing them. Most bikes here max out at about 60km/hr, so ride on the hard shoulder (a feature missing across Central America). I ride at, or near the limit of 80 km/hr, so ride on the road. I generally ride on the far right, allowing vehicles to pass even with oncoming traffic. Most Paraguayans took that to be an invitation to pass by (30-40km/hr over the limit) a good 30cm from my legs, regardless of whether there was other traffic or not. When a truck passed, it was all I could do to avoid getting sucked in under the wheels. Eventually I moved next to the dividing line and drifted right as traffic passed so I always had space. This pissed off a few drivers, who while obviously don't know the dangers of tailgating a biker, understood what my middle finger meant when raised in their direction.
As I entered a roundabout on the outskirts of Asuncion, I saw conclusive proof that Paraguayans can't drive. A truck that had barrelled past me earlier had skidded off the road, cartwheeling down the embankment. I pulled up, and looked past the gathering crowd to make sure everybody was safe - there wasn't an ambulance around, so I probably had the most extensive medical kit for miles. I saw a man in the crumpled cab, and feared the worst. Fortunately, he was ok - he had crawled back into the wreckage to retrieve something. In fact, everybody was milling around the truck, making souvenirs of anything not securely still part of the truck. I only took some photos, and went to talk to the police officer who had then arrived. I explained why I wasn't surprised this had happened, and headed back to Izzy. I saw the police officer reach into his car and take out a breathalyser, which scared me a bit - If he had been really drunk (Paraguayan limits are apparently quite liberal), and speeding... Oh, and he was driving a tanker full of LPG. I didn't hang around long enough to find out whether the tank's integrity had been compromised, that's for sure.
In Asuncion I checked into the only hostel in town and took a quick shower. I asked the owner about parking (there wasn't any available at the hostel), and she told me that even in the guarded parking lots my gear wouldn't be safe. She was right - I went out to take the bags off, and saw someone had been through them. I had parked on a busy road, around the corner from the tourist police headquarters, and still got robbed. Thankfully, I have gotten into the habit of removing anything of possible value as soon as I stop, so they only took a can of chain lube and fishing rod - not exactly a big score. It still pissed me off - people had to have seen the perpetrator, and done nothing.
The next day I walked around Asuncion in the morning, and then headed out for Ciudad del Este, and tri-border area with Brazil and Argentina. I checked into another motel that seemed to be built with premarital sex in mind. The place was even called Hotel Panky. It was a good place though - for about 20 bucks I got a room with a (tiny) jacuzzi and a flatscreen tv - everything I needed, as well as an armed guard outside the garage for Izzy. I was able to watch a movie in English, thanks to the USB input for the tv. Awesome.
Ciudad del Este is an interesting city - surrounded by far more affluent cities/countries, its primary purpose is duty free shopping and currency exchange for Argentinians (Argentina is currently undergoing currency controls similar to that of Venezuela). It is also the Paraguayan launching point for two of the Latin America's greatest sights, Iguazu falls and the Itaipu dam. To access either of these means crossing into the Brazilian frontier town of Foz do Iguacu, but thankfully the whole area is a free zone - no permits or visas required. I have a Brazilian visa, but my Paraguayan visa is for single entry only. I rode over the bridge and past customs (another advantage of motorcycles - most toll gates and checkpoints have a separate lane for motorcycles that is rarely attended) towards Iguazu falls.
The falls themselves are spectacular, I'll give them that. It's hard to become a natural wonder of the world, without having the ability to take people's breath away. The big problem was that everyone in South America wants to see them too. And by everyone, I mean everyone over the age of 50. The sheer number of senior citizens pouring out of the luxury sightseeing coaches, complete with name badges of their respective guides had me bemused. I had a good chuckle to myself - I had stumbled on the world of guided, luxury tourism. A few people stared at my dishevelled look (I don't think even bleach could whiten my riding pants now), and I thought to myself "if only you knew where I've been..". I got a bit annoyed at the slow pace on the stairs to the falls though - I understand if you need the railing, and need to go at a slower pace than others, but please don't walk side by side - leave room for others to pass.
I got the required photos, and got out of there quick. As I said before, the falls are amazing, but when you're jostling for an uninterrupted view with hundreds of other people, it gets old quick. I prefer Angel falls in Venezuela, or even Niagara falls - even though there are crowds at Niagara, the viewing platform is wide enough that you can at least see the falls without having to look over shoulders.
After the falls, I headed upstream to the Itaipu dam. Here I was able to take a tour and see the inside of one of the true marvels of the modern world. Here the mighty Paraná river plunges 118m down 20 generating units, each with a capacity of over 700MW. in 2008, it produced 94.68 TWh, the most ever produced by a renewable energy source. For those of you who don't speak engineer-ese, consider this: Itaipu provides over 70% of the electrical power needs of Paraguay. And that's with less than 2 generators. The rest is sent into Brazil (both countries own 10 units each, with Paraguay selling its reserve to Brazil), where it powers 17% of the population. It is the largest power plant in the world (the Three Gorges dam has a higher installed capacity, but has yet to match the output of Itaipu), and well deserving of its title as one of the seven engineering wonders of the world. Another interesting fact: Argentina has an agreement with the two countries regulating the outflow of water, to avoid possibly flooding Buenos Aires (1000km away) in the event of a war.
However, hydroelectricity is not without drawbacks. The construction of the dam cost approximately US$19.6 billion (apparently much of the cost overruns are due to corruption and over invoicing) and took 15 years to build. The resulting reservoir stretches for over 1350 sqkm, displacing thousands of families and drowning Guaira falls, the largest waterfall in the world (by volume). Unfortunately the Brazilian government has subsequently dynamited the rock face to facilitate safer shipping, meaning that the falls that dwarfed Iguazu will never be seen again, regardless of the fate of Itaipu. Then again, to generate the equivalent energy using petrol would require 434,000 barrels every day (or 788 million tons of coal over the life of the dam so far). As with all great engineering projects, there are pros and cons, and it will be up to future generations to decide whether the sacrifice was worth it.
I got back into Paraguay, and headed to the outskirts of Ciudad del Este to get a head start on my trip down south to the Jesuit ruins around Encarnacion. Staying in a hotel next to a gas station, I was assured that the parking lot was secure, and the guard seemed to back that up. However, the next day I found out that some joker had pinched the 1 litre of fuel out of the spare container I keep for long, isolated stretches. This was getting ridiculous, and I was getting angry.
I used that anger to motivate me all the way to the towns of Jésus and Trinidad, sites of some pretty impressive Jesuit ruins. It was there I met a young Belgian family travelling throughout South America in their 4wd. I am pretty impressed by these kinds of people - I couldn't even imagine travelling in a car for a year with my siblings now, let alone when I was 6. They should be in Ushuaia around the same time I am, so hopefully we will meet again.
I then continued on to Encarnacion, ready to cross the border into Argentina.
ALL PHOTOS AVAILABLE HERE