The Cabildo in Asuncion
The five to six hour bus ride from Ciudad del Este to Asuncion was appallingly slow. Even after leaving Ciudad del Este the bus stopped in a dirt lot on the outskirts of the city for almost an hour while we took on more and more passengers and hawkers crowded outside the bus and walked the aisles. After stopping at every little small town and village we finally arrived in Asuncion about 4pm, so much for the early start that I wanted to get.
Asuncion, for a city of only slightly more than a million people, is perhaps one of the most sprawling haphazardly laid out places I´ve visited. The bus terminal is probably at least a 20 minute taxi ride, perhaps double that in traffic, and is way outside the city.
The river on the edge of the city
Arriving at around 4pm I decided that with all my stuff I would just take a taxi rather than mess around with the ancient and decrepid city buses. My guide book said a taxi ride should only be about $3.50, but apparently due to Paraguayan inflation (who knew) and the devaluation of the dollar (which has lost over 20% of its value against the Guarani since July of 2007 - could there be a clearer sign that we need a new president??) it ended up being almost $9. But I was glad that I took the taxi because it was 95F and humid outside despite the fact that it was rapidly approaching winter. There weren´t a whole lot of cheap options for places to stay in my guide book so I went to one of them and happened to arrive at the same time as a Brazilian guy so we ended up splitting a room because it turned out no to be cheap after all, especially for the quality of the room.
The Palacio Goberno, quite impressive
We walked around to check out the parts of the old city such as the government buildings and the main plaza. There was a sort of musuem in the Cabildo with what seemed to be all sorts of random stuff that had been found and just thrown together to take up space, one section of old music memorabilia, dresses, modern art, indigenous crafts and history, and of course some old city history. Nearby it was the very impressive government palace, a massive white complex almost enclosing a huge entry plaza with an enormous flag pole and Paraguayan flag. Sadly the armed guards were very insistent that we not get too close to the blocked off entrance and there were no public tours of the building. Adjacent to this was the new legislative palace, constructed of metal and glass in modern style it certainly didn´t fit with the other historic or just plain old buildings in the area.
Another photo of the Palacio Goberno
Probably the most telling statement about Paraguay is that in front of this new government building was a plaza with almost no grass complete with two untethered horses ambling about that bordered the edge of the shanty town running down to the river shore. Immediately in front of this hugely expensive government building were the poorest people in the city. Now during the day the area is packed with guards and soldiers and is seemingly safe enough but still has quite an unsavory character to it, and I definitely wouldn´t want to be there at night. In fact at night, really the only comfortable time of the day to be out and about due to the oppressive heat (again it was almost winter), almost everything was closed by 7-8pm, except the restaurants and bars, the streets emptied and the city transformed into a ghost town.
Statue near the government palace
The next day, I set out to find the Bolivian consulate to hopefully get my visa for Bolivia. From two separate sources I had the address for the consulate, but after taking a taxi there I found out that now that house is a business called Agriplus. I had to go the Paraguayan police post to get the address of the Bolivian embassy which was almost located off of the city map it was so far out of town. Another taxi ride later I was finally there. The taxi pulled up and out front of the embassy waiting for it to open were 15 pale Menonites looking as out of place as a band of gypsies. Great. When the embassy did open I had to wait behind them in line for about an hour while all their paperwork was collected and then finally it was my turn.
I went in and told them that I wanted a visa to go to Boliva.
The super fancy new legislative palace
They gave me a sheet with a laundry list of things that I needed: a ticket into and out of the country, yellow fever vaccination, copies of credit cards and bank statements, hotel reservation, police background check, and $100. Then they asked me when I wanted to go and I told them maybe the day after tomorrow. They looked back at me and said that wouldn´t be possible, at the earliest on Monday or Tuesday (it was Thursday morning) but that it would probably take 10 days. Do you have a ticket to Bolivia they asked, obviously not because since I don´t know when I´ll get the visa how could I buy a ticket. Do you have a hotel reservation, obviously not since I don´t know when I`ll arrive. Do you have a ticket out of the country, well not directly but I have a ticket back to the US indicating my intention to leave Boliva, not good enough.
The Panteon de los Heroes
I quickly decided that I wasn´t going to jump through all these hoops and have to wait ten days in Asuncion. I asked if I could get the visa at the border, they said not at the Bolivia-Paraguay border. I doubted this fact, but unfortunately, the nearest other option for getting the visa would have been in Brazil at either Corumba or Campo Grande and if I went that way it would take me very far out of the way and it might be just as bad.
After thoroughly thinking it over I decided to just head for the border with the rationale that the Bolivia-Paraguay border is so remote that just by getting myself there I would have a good chance of either getting the visa easily at the border or at least already being in Bolivia and not being able to go back to Paraguay so that they would have to allow me in, even if I had to pay a fine or if they yelled at me.
Old building on the streets of Asuncion
And worst case scenario they would deny me entry and I would just cut up to Brazil from northern Paraguay, which wouldn´t be so bad either, except for losing a day to bus rides. I decided to head for the border the next day (Friday) because in case I got turned back I could still get to Concepcion in time to catch the Tuesday river boat up to Bahia Negra near the triple border with Brazil-Paraguay-Bolivia. With my fingers crossed I headed to the bus station...