Paraguay and the drive to Iberá

First impressions of Paraguay were great! It’s totally different to Brazil and Argentina despite being just across the river. As you cross the bridge the cars and motorbikes decide to make four exciting lanes rather than two mundane ones so you’re absolutely surrounded. The city itself has a wall of high rise shopping malls and you are treated by hundreds of billboards, it’s capitalism on steroids. Paraguay is cheaper than its neighbours and the fairly free borders allows people to nip over the border to shop (legitimate and illegal products). The third sister city on the banks of the Iguazu River is Ciudad del Este (City of the East) and is Paraguay’s second biggest city after Asuncion, the capital over in the West of the country. From what I had heard, I expected the tarmac to end after the bridge as I had heard Paraguay had so few tarmacked roads, but the tarmac held! For a while at least. All of the side roads to our hostel were interesting in one way or another. A few times Google got shouted at for taking us down what was quite clearly a muddy footpath. And the very best quality side roads were paved with a bone-shattering mosaic of chipped rocks which made for some dramatic bumps. Our hostel was an oasis in a quiet part of town, with a temperature over 35 degrees it was a relief to see the pool had nice clear water in it! There were only about 6 people staying in the hostel, which was one of the nicest hostel layouts I’ve ever seen. We went out to explore the city and to find some food. Again, thanks to Google, I ended up leading us down the worst path imaginable with a slippery mud bank and tall grass, probably full of snakes, and we passed a policeman stood in the middle of nowhere holding an automatic rifle looking shift. Nice. But he didn’t pay us too much attention so we tiptoed past and down to the lake. In Paraguay, much of society seems to be built around being a proud republic – the lake is Lake of the Republic, the national anthem is Republic or Death… The lake was nice enough, though we didn’t see any of the crocodiles that the signs warned us of. We headed down Avenue 4th May to get lunch at a decent fast food place. In the afternoon we chilled out by the pool with a couple of South Africans doing a Workaway at the hostel. We definitely needed to relax before the next epic drive to Iberá National Park. For dinner we went back to a restaurant we had seen earlier that looked fantastic and it didn’t disappoint! An Arabic restaurant called Halal’s serving phenomenal food and delicious fresh juices was exactly what the doctor ordered! And it was nice not to be eating solo since you get to try so many more dishes!! We ordered fresh falafel and baba ganoush to start and then beef and chicken kebabs for mains with salad, dips, chips and bread. A real feast and the quality was out of this world. Having thought about it, if you are at Iguazu falls, I would recommend a trip over to Ciudad del Este just to pay this restaurant a visit. Watch out though, they don’t take card. We didn’t have Paraguayan Guarani, it got a little complicated. We managed to pay in Pesos with the poor woman having to call someone to check the exchange rate and then she wasn’t sure how much change to give, but we would have left more of a tip if we had the correct currency anyway! Our feast cost 250,000 Guarani (sounds scary but it’s less than £34). We had decided to drive to dinner as on our earlier walk we had noticed that almost every house had high walls, glass shards and electric fences so we had wondered if it was ok to go out after dark! But our restaurant was busy and the staff friendly so we didn’t feel at all uncomfortable. Next morning we were up fairly early to decide whether to drive back over the two borders at Iguazu or whether to drive all the way to the South of Paraguay and cross the border at Encarnation into Posadas in Argentina. I’m glad we chose the Paraguay route as it was very pretty and was a new route for us, allowing us to see much more of the countryside. The roads were fairly good, nothing like the dirt track I had expected from my quick research. There were slightly fewer passing places to overtake buses but it was still nice. Until we got to the first toll station which clearly stated on the booth that they don’t accept foreign money. So we asked what we should do and the woman called over an assistant to move the cars out of our way so we could back up and turn around at the nearest U-turn spot and they sent us “1km” up the road but we didn’t know what we were looking for. We stopped at a garage and I managed to persuade a man (in my best Spanish) to exchange enough Pesos into Guarani to get us back into Argentina. Success. So the tolls were a little less daunting. But we still weren’t 100% sure what would happen at the border for a couple of reasons. Firstly, neither of us had an entry stamp for Paraguay. I didn’t see any immigration office on our way through. And secondly, we weren’t certain whether it was ok to take the hire car over into Paraguay because the Hertz guy didn’t think so but then nobody stopped us…. Before we could get to the border we had to sit in an hour of traffic on the bridge in the baking heat of the sun. So yeah, firstly we got into trouble for not having entry stamps at Paraguay Customs and the man in the booth decided he wanted us to pay one fine between us because we had been illegally in the country. But he didn’t accept card or Pesos so he was bang out of luck and just waved us through. Then we got in more trouble at the Argentinian border. This guy was not at all happy that we took the hire car into Paraguay, but then he sort of realised we were back in Argentina so I just said sorry lots and looking sheepish and he waved us through. So with that, we were back in Argentina and on the right side of the law. Only 5 and a half hours to go until we reached Carlos Pellegrini in the Ibera National Park. Except it couldn’t be that simple. We knew the road became more of a track once we turned on to Route 40 but it was a 4×4 dirt road complete with sand sections, deep mud ruts and some sections so sketchy that I can’t really describe them and I hope nobody else has to drive them in a little two wheel drive hire car. We had been held up for an hour at the border so I was trying to make up time and was fairly comfy for most of the time at about 90kph on the gravel track but eventually the track became so rutted with sharp rocks that I burst a rear tyre. We changed it in record time, relieved that the spare was a proper wheel! It was getting quite late and the sun was too low in the sky for pleasant driving so I was desperate to get to Carlos Pellegrini, but the track was in an unbelievably bad condition, only tractors and huge four wheel drive vehicles use it, so I kept catching the bottom of the car when the wheels were in the ruts. We almost beached a few times and I wasn’t sure we would actually be able to make the last 40km in this car. But we made it and I enjoyed one little celebratory power slide in the sand track behind our guest house. First port of call was the swimming pool with a large ice cold beer. Phew!

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