Taking the Paraguayan Route to Iguazú Falls

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The falls seen from the Brazilian side.Credit Seth Kugel

Visitors to Iguazú Falls, the 1.7-mile-long snaking series of waterfalls that is South America’s chaotic response to buttoned-down Niagara, have three choices: one, the Brazilian side (where it’s spelled Iguaçu), known for its panoramic views of the falls; or two, the Argentine side, with its pathways winding above, below and all but straight through the tumbling cascades.

I went with option three: the Paraguayan side.

Ciudad del Este, Paraguay, just across the Paraná River from Brazil and about two miles from Argentina, does not have many tourist amenities, but it does offer its own form of chaos that is to commerce what the falls are to nature: a free-for-all tax-exempt shopping zone where yellow moto-taxis and exhaust-belching buses weave around throngs of border-crossing shoppers buying knockoff Gap sweat shirts, deflated soccer balls, underpriced appliances and just about everything else under the sun. (And, for the shadier transactions the city is known for, under the moon.)

Why stay in notoriously seedy Ciudad del Este? First, I was already in Paraguay. Second, there is cheap lodging: the shabby-but-professional Hotel Mi Abuela, near the center of the action, cost me 145,000 guaraníes a night (about $37 at 4,000 guaraníes to the dollar).

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A line of traffic stretches along stalls jammed with commercial goods in Ciudad del Este, Paraguay.Credit Seth Kugel

But really, it was because I didn’t see much appeal in the one-trick-pony tourist towns that serve the falls: Brazilian Foz de Iguaçu and Puerto Iguazú on the Argentine side. I’ll take seedy over scene-y any day. And from the first minutes of my visit, Ciudad del Este did not disappoint. Sticking my head in a laundromat to ask how much it would cost to clean a pair of particularly dirty pants, the man in charge responded: “Is there blood? Because we don’t work with blood.”

Was it safe? That depends on your definition…

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