Where the best restaurants have ball pits
When I disembark at the bus station in Puerto Iguazu, the weather is warm but unoppressive as the morning fog has yet to entirely dissipate, and the soothing sounds of “White Flag” by Dido are playing in the terminal. I sing along, as this tune has always been infectious to me. When the song ends, and the scheduled programming of Latin Pop resumes, I take that as a hint that I should probably figure out how to get out of this country and into the next.
My Google Map tells me that Tres Fronteras, or “The Three Borders” formed by the intersection of the Parana and Iguazu rivers, are to my north. I walk along the shady streets until I come to the shoreline, and a woman named Fatima steps out from her place under an awning to try and sell me a boat tour. She explains the price is 350 pesos ($7.80 USD) and seems really eager to have me take it, as we are the only two people there. I have no plans, and only need to get to my hostel in Paraguay by that night, so I agree to take the tour.
After an hour of waiting for other tourists to show up from their hotels, our boat fills up and we slide around the flat water for an hour while the guide gives the tour exclusively in Spanish. I am able to understand the majority of what he was saying, but since he focuses on the years that different bridges were built and other facts that I consider to be boring, I tune out almost immediately. My favorite part of the whole tour is watching the English, American, and Chinese tourists at the front of the boat whispering to each other, wondering what the hell the guide is saying. In my opinion, they do not miss much; the most pleasurable part of the tour is simply relaxing on the boat as the fluvial breeze coos me into a semi-meditative state.
When the tour boat returns to port, I rush to the ferry office to buy a ticket across to Paraguay. Thankfully, the ferry leaves fifteen minute late so I am able to bask in the sun on the deck, before the operator calls to me in Spanish “hey put your shirt on!” Though I fear skin cancer, I am more afraid that I will go out of this world paler than I came into it. But more than both of those things, I fear ferry operators who, if distracted by my blinding-white semi-reflective surface, can send me and two dozen Latinos to death in piranha-infested water. Unlike Dido, I won't go down with this ship. I put my shirt on.
When our ferry pulls into the dock directly across the river, it becomes clear that the ferry, though advertised as one that continues upriver, will not be going to to my destination in Ciudad del Este. Instead, I find a taxi driver parked in a stretch of tall grass and negotiate the fare to my hostel down to thirteen bucks. He also agrees to accept American cash, and to wait for me outside the immigration office while I get my visa checked and my passport stamped. This process takes almost fifteen minutes because there is a group of men in front of me trying to import a car, for which they have neglected to bring the proper forms. When they leave, the immigration officer quickly stamps my passport and I hop into the cab and formally introduce myself.
Over our 30-minute drive to my hostel in Ciudad del Este, Jose and I talk about the city, the world, and the Guarani language. Jose drinks perhaps a quart of terere over our drive, the Guarani word for caffeinated South American beverage yerba mate. He offers me a sip from his metal mug with built-in straw, and I happily take a small pull from his adult Sippy cup. He asks if I plan on going to Asuncion, and tries to convince me to go. As we pull into the city I see why. Ciudad del Este (or CDE as it is known) is not a party town. It is not a hick town, and it is not a border town. Much worse, CDE is a nowhere town. It is a town that thrives on duty free international shopping, casinos, and fast food meals for those just passing through. It could be any exit in rural Oklahoma. High above the hostel, there is a McDonald’s sign that, I imagine, could be seen from Brazil. A bad omen, the Golden Arches indicated there will be a time of weakness where I seek something mediocre but familiar, and actually give money to an American fast food chain while abroad. This was not the Paraguay I expected.
I check in at my objectively cute, but certainly low quality hostel where the doors do not shut all the way and the owner only gives me part of my change, assuring me she’ll pay later. She never does. Regardless, the courtyard is pleasant with a strong WiFi signal, so I shower and lounge outside while I read and catch up on my language studying and blogging. In the evening, after scouring Yelp, Google Maps, and Tripadvisor, I conclude that all of the highest-rated restaurants can be found on one strip about a mile’s walk from my hostel. At 6 pm, I decide it is time to find dinner, and start walking along the several unlit backstreets to restaurant row.
After crossing a bridge, a lake, and a playground with two young teenagers totally not making out, I reach my quarter-mile long destination despite stretches of darkness, and open water that suggest malaria-infected mosquitoes probably aren’t far off. I walk the entire length of the strip, where all but two restaurants show absolutely no signs of life. The first is called “Fast-Way Gastronomia and Events,” a backroom buffet behind an event hall for, I assume, quinceañeras, weddings, and funeral receptions (life-after-parties?). The second restaurant looks like an off-brand Arby’s, with red decor and a large light-up sign that says “Frankonia.” Both have fast food-style playplaces in funky plastic, along with seven other restaurants on the same 12-restaurant strip. I was not aware that the recipe for success in this town was also a recipe for Paraguayan Toddler Flu.
As I have made it both my privilege and duty to try local fast food as much as possible, before my inevitable capitulation into McDonald’s french fries and McLameness, I decide to go to Frankonia. But first, since I am not too hungry yet, I decide to step into a nearby convenience store and buy some Paraguayan liquor to offset the doubtlessly non-local meal I am about to consume. The cashier there, busy watching soccer, lazily points to 190ml bottle of Paraguayan rum when I ask what the most popular local liquor is. He rings me up without making eye contact with me, the bottle, or my money, and the total comes out to 4500 Guaranias, or $0.72 USD. I am no borracho, or drunk, but the idea of buying 72-cent local liquor fills me with incredible joy. No matter what happens in that fast food restaurant, I will have consumed something quintessentially Paraguayan, and at little financial cost.
I step into Frankonia, liquor bottle tucked in my back pocket, and ask the overly-happy sandwich-slinger what the most popular item on the menu is. He points to the milanesa, a day-old version of which I avoided buying at the Concordia bus station the night before. Essentially, it is a breaded beef cutlet with lettuce and tomato on a hamburger bun. I order it with vigor, french fries, and a large apple juice. While I wait in my seat for my meal, I choke down approximately a 24-cent shot of Tres Leones and think I may have paid too much for such vile varnish remover.
When I am given my tray, I walk upstairs and dump the last two of my three lions into my juice and take a sip. Somehow, it is not better, but I tell myself that at least it is sterile, as the water in this town is far from drinkable. Regardless of the taste, letting some lion into my stomach make my milanesa and french fries taste like, well, something from Milan or France. I scarf down everything, eager to sop up some of the drink with carbohydrates, as a father at another table drinks an ice bucket of beer as his kids inadvertently swap pathogens with dozens of other prepubescent Paraguayans.
When I am done, I happily step into the cool night air to walk off my meal. I am entirely satisfied with myself, and am absolutely certain I have staved off any biological craving for terrible McDonald’s food with a sound local choice. The teenagers have left the outdoor playground, and when I come to the lake I start to sweat. My mouth salivates and I feel a wave of nausea. I just barely make it to a bush when I hurl one, two, and three leones, a milanesa, some apple juice, and a medium french fries. I finish my walk back to the hostel and, having now lost my dinner, admit defeat and continue on to McDonald’s, the only other restaurant that is open. After dinner, or rather after my second dinner, I feel full but defeated. "Woe is me," I think, "I had a good meal in that milanesa, but I blew it." I shovel french fries into my mouth, fries saltier than the tears of a wistful ex-lover. Is it better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all? When it comes to dinner in Paraguay, no.
The next morning I am determined to make the best of my only full day in Paraguay. I awake with a set of mysterious bites on my leg with could either have been the result of particularly insatiable mosquitoes or bed bugs. The summer before, on my trip to Paris, I got the latter and learned how absolutely horrible they can be. The infestation began days before the start of the Fall semester, and I did not stop scratching until midterms. Not to mention, the scarring from the bites which persist to the present day. However, I decide that my clothes are already infected if these are in fact bed bugs, so the best I can do is minimize my risk and clean everything I possibly can when I cross the border to Brazil the next morning.
This, of course, is predicated on me being able to cross the border. I do not have a visa in hand, but I do have a valid E-visa in my email that simply needs to be printed. So, the bugs take the backburner and my mission, dare I say my quest, of the day is to find a company that can print my E-visa to Brazil, so as to not only move the plot along but also to make my connection to Portugal via Sao Paulo. I start the day by taking a roll from the “free breakfast buffet” that consists only of rolls, and play Paraguayan Frogger by crossing five lanes of morning rush-hour traffic to get to a print shop. When I arrive, the woman at the front desk tells me they only print facturas, or invoices, at the facility. The problem is, I do not know what facturas are, and only realize when I Google it at the hostel that it is an invoice. For those who have never needed on, an E-visa is, for all intents and purposes, an invoice. It is strictly a single, color document that demonstrates I paid my visa fee and am cleared to enter Brazil. Rather than try again, risking my life dodging bumpers to only be rejected once more, I decide to take the bus to the center of town where Google tells me there might be another print shop. I flag down a bus going that way.
I step onto the bus, which has practically started moving as soon as my foot touches the first step. Behind me is the lookout, the man in charge of telling the driver when to stop and when to start up again, keeping an eye on the strip and looking for fares. He does not have his own step, but rather clings to the bar on the outside of the bus and swings onto the stairs only when he is about to be maimed by a pole or tree. He performs his job with pride and excitement, as he should. The real show, however, is the bus driver. If you think you are quick of mind and body, compared to a Ciudad del Este bus driver you are nothing. It his his job to drive, avoiding people, dangerous road debris, and animals, all of which tumble into the street constantly. It is also his job to collect fares and make change, which he does all whilst driving at dangerous speeds, routinely screeching to a halt every couple of minutes to pick up new passengers. After I get my change, the driver accelerates from 30 to 50 miles an hour, forcing me first into an old Paraguayan woman with a cane, then into the first empty seat I see. Five minutes later, we pull into the central bus station, a block away from which I find my print shop.
In the shop, I am first ‘helped’ by a young woman who assures me I can print my visa there, provided I send them to the shop’s email address, only she will not allow me to connect to the wifi, so I watch my file download for about ten minutes before the other young woman in the shop comes around and lets me connect to her personal WiFi hotspot. Tati, if you are reading this (which of course you are not because you don’t speak English), you are my rock. I exit the print shop, visa in hand, and decide I am ready to visit the second-best restaurant (and best jungle gym) in CDE at Fast-Way Gastronomia and Events. There, I wade through the event hall full of empty chairs until I get to the buffet chamber, where ribs fall off the bone easier than a banana separates from its peel, and cold cow tongue is served beside hot sauteed cheese cubes. I also get to try pastafrola, a shortbread crust pastry popular in Argentina, Uruguay, and Paraguay which was brought over from Italian immigrants in the 19th and 20th centuries.
In the afternoon, I attempt to observe the culture of Ciudad del Este. After all, I have spent $160 just to get into this country and I must make the experience worth it. As a border town, Ciudad del Este clearly has their tax-free border scheme running at full capacity as evidenced by the countless malls in the city. So, if you like shopping, or just sitting in the air conditioning and listening to Ed Sheeran hits play quietly in the background, you will likely enjoy CDE. For the next several hours, I get lost, found, lost, then found again in the oddly labyrinthine Shopping del Este mall, despite neither being a shopper nor a fan of Mr. Sheeran. I am, however, an avid consumer of air conditioning, and so I enjoy strolling through the monument to international consumerism that is CDE’s largest mall complex.
In the evening, after an afternoon of strolling through malls, blogging, and dowsing my bed with bug spray, I decide to grab a quick dinner and turn in to bed. As much as I lament this basically devolving into a pizza blog, I must say my eating so much South American pizza has led to two interesting conclusions.
1. I can’t live without Pizza
2. South Americans do some weird stuff with their pizza.
That evening, I go to Don Ruben’s Empanadas, where I decide to order pizza rather than empanadas in a decision fueled entirely by a somewhat gross empanada I ate at the Bolivian-Chilean border. I suppose the abundance of Central Americans in my part of the world means that every American-made empanada I have ever eaten has been corn-based, which is very much my preference. In South America, the dough is more pizza-like and not very salty, not to mention the meat and eggs within can often be questionable like in the sand-dusted one I ate at the border. This makes pizza not only the delicious choice, but the safe one as well. When I order, the empanador-turned-pizzaiolo explains that the typical pizza comes with stuffed crust, and I can add mini hot dog fringes for a dollar extra. I shudder but consent to the stuffed crust because, as an Italian American, I am not legally allowed to consume such an atrocity on American or Italian soil. Thankfully, Paraguay has a stuffed-crust-don’t-tell policy. Admittedly, the liquid Alfredo-like sauce does not ruin the pizza, and I sleep easy knowing I got away with committed the famous, original sin of pizza.
Victor Bernabei is just another millenial travel blogger. But here's the twist: He isn't a millenial! His goal is to see as many countries as he can, and spread the message that the world is not as scary as the news wants you to believe, and that there is beauty in all people, places and things.