After a wonderful stay in Foz do Iguaçu it was time to say goodbye to Brasil and cross the bridge to country number 5. But before we did, we visited a typical Brasilian restaurant, the churrascaria or buffet livre, basically an all you can eat BBQ buffet. We’d seen them on our ride through Brasil for the last few weeks, we couldn’t leave without trying one and given that they range in price from 10R$ to $80R$, they were within our budget. We didn’t go for the cheapest option, but at 25R$ per person (£5) it was a bargain for what was offered. Not only was there the large salad buffet and pudding selection but waiters walk around with over 20 different cuts of meat and will slice whatever you want. It was difficult to say no at the start but when the plates were piled high and we’d barely taken a bite, we had to start being more selective. That was harder said than done when each waiter offers you meat and when you say no, he says “es muy rico!” and you can’t resist seeing just how tasty it is!
Our first stop in Paraguay after crossing the bridge from Brasil was Ciudad Del Este. It is known as the “Supermarket of South America” and from the instant you cross the bridge it’s easy to see why. Billboards and buildings advertising duty free shopping, electronics at discounted prices and stalls selling everything you could want line the streets. The evening we arrived on the bikes was overwhelming to say the least and the traffic was the craziest that we’ve ridden in so far. Luckily for us we were staying with Robert, a warmshowers host and his house was the perfect place to relax in what is a really busy city. Usually we spend a few days with a host but after a week off in Foz do Iguaçu we were both keen to get back on the road so we spent only two nights here, just enough time to buy the necessary parts that we needed for bikes (new chains and brake pads), stock up on cheap food and learn a little about life in Paraguay.
Robert invited us to his weekly Motorbike club meeting on our last night where we met some of his friends, played pool and had an amazing asado, continuing the experience of a bbq in each South American country. As usual the meat was delicious! The motoclub that he belongs to is based on the Knights Templar which was reflected in the decor of the building and their leathers. It was a cool experience and we really appreciated the hospitality that Robert and the other Templarios showed us.
The short distance between Ciudad Del Este and Encarnacion meant that we only spent four days riding across the south west corner of Paraguay but it gave us a good introduction to the country’s culture and its people. It’s similar to its neighbours, Brasil and Argentina, with a strong mate culture (which they grow here too), asado is a national pastime and the people are really friendly. It is an interesting place and we decided that when we come back to explore Brasil we definitely want to see more of Paraguay too.
We didn’t expect that there would be so much agriculture here, thinking it might be like the barren pampas in Argentina. There was no reason why we thought this might be the case, we just didn’t know a lot about Paraguay before we arrived! The scenery from Ciudad Del Este in the west to Encarnacion, 300km away in the south, was nearly all monoculture agriculture as they grow large quantities of soya and maize here. Lucas, the Argentinian we met in Melo, had said that Paraguay is a “green desert” and we didn’t know what that meant until riding through it, but he was right because all we could see for days were green rolling hills in all directions.
When we’d said we were going to Paraguay, some people that we met beforehand said it was really poor and “lawless”, so we were surprised by how many of the small towns that we rode through were very well developed. There were new car dealerships, flash hotels and a plethora of agro-chemical and machinery places. It could have been because we were following one of the main roads, as soon as we deviated down the dirt side roads the population was a little poorer but everyone we met was, in typical South American style very kind and helpful, in no way lawless or dangerous.
The weather in Paraguay is notoriously hot, usually in the high 30s as a minimum and their houses reflect this climate with many windows having no glass in them and they favour air conditioning over heating. However whilst we were there the temperature was around 20 during the day dropping to as low as 8 degrees at night, something that the locals are not accustomed to and after months of heat and humidity, we had also forgotten what cold felt like!
With just four days of riding we only had three nights accommodation to find and as we were following the main road, wildcamping was pretty scarce. It didn’t help that it was dark by 5pm, they have daylight saving here, and while we bought bright front lights in Ciudad del Este, it didn’t help very much in farming country. However the locals helped us 2 out of the 3 nights. We were given a space to camp in a Bomberos the first night out of Ciudad Del Este but it must have been a training school of sorts because the kids that were “working” there couldn’t have been over 16 years old! We were also shown to an abandoned municipal campsite by some locals which was so peaceful and in its day it would have been an amazing place to come and relax by the river. Our final night was a bit of a luxury, we stayed in an amazing cabin and by the next day we didn’t want to leave!
Our last day in Paraguay was hectic but memorable. In the morning we visited the Jesuit ruins in the small town of Trinidad which are similar to the ruins we previously visited in Brasil. Sadly the front of the main church was destroyed in the 18th century but there are a lot more of the other buildings, such as the houses built for the indigenous population to live in and decorative arches still standing, which are pretty impressive.
After being tourists for a few hours we rode the final 30km to Encarnacion where, while riding around the city, we were joined by a cyclist on an expensive carbon mountain bike. He accompanied us for a few kilometres, asking us about our trip and telling us about his city before inviting us to his work for some food and drink. The shop that Edu owned was huge and really busy but he ushered us in, told us to leave our bikes just inside the door and then took us to a fridge for a cold drink. With a bottle of coke each and some baked-in-store sunflower seed snacks we were given a chair by his desk and introduced to everyone, employees and customers alike, as the cyclists from England. Edu, his wife and son showed us around their store which is a mix of a supermarket, builders merchant, greengrocer and bike shop. It felt like they had literally anything that you might want. It was definitely one of those random experiences that only happens when you travel by bike!
From Edu we learned that we couldn’t ride over the bridge to Posadas, the Argentinian city across the River Paraná, but thankfully there was a train over the bridge for pedestrians and cyclists. It was dark by the time we cleared customs and arrived at the bus station in Posadas. The plan was to get a bus to Salta, back on the west side of the country and close to the Andes mountains but we didn’t know how easy it would be to travel by bus with our bikes. Seemingly lots of cyclists take buses with their bikes but we had heard conflicting reports about needing to put it in a box or even having to send it separately as cargo, so we weren’t sure what to expect. A local company, Tigre Iguazu, said they would take us and our bikes the next day, all we had to do was make them as small as possible and pay an extra $500 “baggage fee”, making it a bit more expensive but for the bikes to come with us it was worth it.
A stressful morning ensued, dismantling the bikes and hoping that the bus staff agreed with the office staff and would take our bikes, but we needn’t have worried because it all worked out okay. The bikes went in the hold with plenty of space, but we were running half an hour late for our connection (we needed to change buses, which was a worry with the bikes). When we got to Resistencia, where we needed to change, the bus we were on had a change of schedule and would take us all the way to Salta now instead. Awesome!
20 hours after leaving Posadas we arrived in Salta with the bikes! It felt like a long bus ride and it wasn’t cheap, but in comparison to the ~2 weeks it would have taken us to ride the 1200km across country it was well worth it. In our minds we just gained two weeks in the places we really want to be riding, the Andes.
After a quick rebuild and repack at the bus station we ventured in to the city to find somewhere to stay. We hadn’t been able to find anyone to host us on couchsurfing but we found a nice hostel in Salta, as recommended by other travellers on iOverlander. We had our own double room, big enough for our bikes too, use of an awesome kitchen and the owners, Monica and Reuben were such lovely people and went out of their way to help us out. We have had a little over 48 hours to do laundry, plan and shop ready for the next challenge, crossing back over the Andes to San Pedro de Atacama.
More on that next time.
Steph and Ben