Ciudad del Este: Welcome to Gotham City
I had been warned. Many times. People get robbed there. Assaulted. Killed. Everybody who had been to Ciudad del Este in Paraguay before seemed to have a different horror story about it. “I didn’t think of anything bad walking down the street and this guy came up with his gun and I had to give him my wallet.” “They warned me not to walk down the bridge but I didn’t have money to take a cab so I walked anyway. Next thing I knew, three sketchy men walk up, point a gun to my head and ask me for my money. Obviously, I didn’t have any, so they robbed my shoes.” So I imagined a Paraguayan Gotham City crossing the border from Foz de Iguazú (a lovely city on the Brazilian side of the Iguazú falls) to Ciudad del Este. The first person I met though was a charming lady at the tourism office (right next to the migration office) who took her time explaining to me all the sights of the city, where to go, where not to, how to get there and how much it would cost. When we were looking for a public phone to call the couchsurfer we were staying with, she just let us use her cell phone. That was our first introduction into Paraguayan hospitality. Friendly, warm, welcoming and always willing to help out a clueless gringo.
From the migration point it’s only a short walk into the city center, however, unless you might collect stories like the ones mentioned above, don’t walk!! Even if it’s just a street, take a cab! There is all sorts of creatures trying to sell you electronics, money or drugs (and I am not sure if they aren’t cops in disguise…). But once you manage to get downtown, it’s … well, now here it takes a little bit of extra effort trying to describe what the hustling and bustling city center of Ciudad del Este looks like. First off, 90% of the people are Chinese or Korean. Second, they all try to sell you something, or anything really: clothes, purses, watches, cell phones, food – you name it. Ciudad del Este is South America’s biggest trading city, since it is tax free, everything here is cheap (and fake or made in China) so it became a huge market for especially Koreans and Chinese. Ciudad del Este is also the only city in South America I have been to so far where people work Monday to Saturdays (and acutally WORK, not just sit at their desks, checking their facebook) – because the Asian bosses make sure nobody is standing still at no time. And then downtown Ciudad del Este is just a giant Chinese market. Stand after stand after stand, everybody trying to get through, shoving and pushing, and – obviously – looking for the best deal. It was a little bit hard for me to actually understand what the vendors were saying to ME. Since I don’t look Paraguayan, the next best guess is that I am Brazilian – so most people would say something in Portuguese to me and be completely amazed when I actually answered in Spanish! Ciudad del Este is really some sort of free zone, where nothing seems to be as it is in other Latin American cities. The next “sight” was a bar we went to. I am not even sure how to call it. It was a bar, an ice cream parlor, downstairs was a bowling alley, next to it the cheap disco (free but with no AC – at 40 degrees), upstairs the VIP disco (pricey but with AC!) and filledwith 15 year olds (note: the teenage men in Ciudad del Este have adopted a very unique way of walking, I call it the Arnold Schwarzenegger walk – walk as if you’re muscle-packed and at least 30 cm taller).
One of the most shocking things to me though was seeing armed men in the streets, and I mean your regular shopper or family men, not just security guards. I have never seen armed men like that before (I have not been to Central America before and I am also not from the US where having a weapon is common) – so I have to admit that sitting at an internet cafe next to a big fat gun made me feel somewhat uneasy…
Ciudad del Este is a fascinating place, very much unlike the rest of Paraguay, but never boring!