It's true. I'm a law breaker. I intentionally, illegally entered another country. Mostly just to say I did it. Partly to see if it was really possible. And I'm here to say that indeed it is.
At the end of our Brazilian mission project, our family took a trip to Iguazu Falls which is located between Brazil and Argentina very close to the border of Paraguay, an area known an the tres fronteras. Americans need a visa to enter Brazil, and Argentina charges a $160 per person retaliation fee to Americans.
(It seems that Argentinians are bitter about having to pay for a US visa if they want to enter our country, so they charge each American who wants to come in a fee equal to the price of a US visa just for spite. They make it very clear on their website that this fee is not for a visa. They call it a Reciprocity Fee while proudly proclaiming that Americans don't need a visa to enter their country. Can you tell that we were super annoyed? At least our Not-A-Visa is good for ten years in case we ever decide to come back.)
Anyway, to enter Paraguay, Americans are technically supposed to enter the country through official channels, but we had been told by the staff at our hotel that we could easily just walk in. (Though they did warn us not to speak in English as we crossed the bridge and not to wear any expensive jewelry.)
We decided to make a break for it.
As our taxi driver let us out near the border, he gestured casually in the direction of the bridge and sped off. We were on our own. The maze of cars, trucks, and wildly-careening motorcycles on their way into and out of Brazil made it difficult for us to find the pedestrian walkway. The smell of exhaust from vehicles waiting in long lines mixed with the smell of muddy river water as we approached the border.
We finally figured out that we needed to go to the far right side of the structure you see in the picture above. All of the cars stopped at little windows to go through Brazilian immigration, but we just kept our heads down and walked on.
Even after we made it past Brazilian immigration, the lines of people in cars continued to move at a snail's pace.
As we crossed the bridge into Paraguay, Kinley strode with the confidence of an experienced border-crosser. I, however, continued to clandestinely snap pictures with my iPhone halfway poking out of my purse. I'm totally sure that I was sneaky enough to qualify for the CIA.
As Paraguay loomed across the bridge, we passed other border-sneakers and imagined all the cool sights we'd see just across the river. We knew that our passports would not have a stamp to prove our adventure, so we were hoping to find some cool places to take pictures to document our rebellious ramble. A flag? A picturesque view? Anything to show that we had truly added another country to our list.
Sadly, all that there was to photograph in this dirty, seedy border town was a shopping center with the country's name on the side. It seems that this little town of Ciudad del Este, Paraguay, exists only as a duty-free shopping zone for Brazilians to come and buy tax-free electronics, knock-off designer tee shirts, and cosmetics. There was one store dedicated to kitchenwares that had a couple of pink Kitchen-Aid mixers, a few mismatched pieces of Le Creuset cookware, and some random kitchen gadgets. The prices were higher than US prices but cheaper than Brazilian ones. I wasn't tempted.
In fact, I was a little creeped out by all the guys shouting at me in Spanish and Portuguese while thrusting fliers detailing amazing deals on phones, hair dryers, and cameras at me. After about 45 minutes of shouting and thrusting, I was creeped out enough to want to leave the country.
On the way back, I felt much less threatened. I realized that no one cared whether I had sneaked in to Paraguay or not. There were no gun-toting border guards, no grumpy-looking immigration agents. Just a dirty bridge across a dirty river. So I took pictures openly as we crossed under the sign marking the official border!
As we headed back, I admit that I was disappointed. Instead of adventure, we'd only found shady commercialism. Instead of feeling proud of myself at having sneaked into a country, I just felt a little dirty. And while it is, admittedly, unfair to judge an entire country based on one border town, I'm pretty sure that for me this was two trips in one. My first and my last into Paraguay. And, unfortunately, my passport documents neither.
Now, for a funny account of an American who really tries to follow the law as she enters Paraguay, click here.