Paraguay isn’t such a large country. I crossed from Brazil into the border city of Ciudad Del Este. The border officials were efficient and friendly and within 30 minutes I was on the city streets, looking for my hotel.
While Brazil appeared modern, clean and orderly, this city seemed the opposite. Shops and bazaars full of cheap Chinese goods attract Brazilians across the border on shopping sprees. Touts and money changers beckon at me as I pass by, running into the road and gesturing with urgency to me. I probably stick out like a sore thumb in a sea of mopeds and small bikes. Cars look older and battered, and the streets have more litter. Everything just looks run down.
The following day I cross Paraguay to the capital of Asunción. In the rural areas I see real poverty. Beside the road there are makeshift dwellings built from black polythene. Kids sit outside on the ground while their parents try to sell cheap petrol and diesel in gallon containers. The fuel has come across the border from Argentina where it sells for around NZD 50 cents per litre. Here in Paraguay fuel is more expensive, so the vendors hope to make a good profit.
The road I travel is a toll road, and like most places in Latin America, motorcycles pass free. I was amused to see this guy with his 12-gauge pistol grip shotgun at the toll station, making sure no one even thought about skipping paying the toll. He was happy to pose for me and proud to show off his shotgun.
He could hardly keep the smile off his face, and I had to ask him to look staunch. Like most of the officials I have met here, they have a good sense of humour and are happy to oblige with a photograph if asked.
Paraguay has many people of German heritage. At the end of the 2nd World War, many Nazi officers fled Germany, assisted by the Catholic Church, who had a network of safe houses, known as the ‘rat trail’ that enabled them to flee to South America. Many of them ended up in Paraguay, rather than face trial at Nuremberg.
I’m hoping to enjoy some good German food, maybe a schnitzel here in the Capital. I check into a good little German hotel and dine on breaded pork chops, potato salad and good German lager.
In the morning I head to the border. I am stamped out of Paraguayan immigration and look to hand my papers into customs for the bike but can’t see the Aduana (Customs) office. Upon enquiring, I’m directed to a tiny tin shed well away from the main buildings, with no signage to indicate it might be anything to do with Customs.
Just another quirk of the border crossing process. They’re all different and I never know what to expect.
I hand in the Temporary Import Permit papers for the bike and head to the Argentinian side to do it all again. Immigration is no problem, but when it comes to importing the bike, I’m asked for proof of 3rd party insurance, or Seguros, as it’s known. No problem, I organised that before I left NZ and I show them a copy.
“It’s expired” they tell me. What?! I look at the dates and sure enough it’s expired. I opted to purchase 3 months' worth at a time, not really knowing what my plans would be. I’d only previously been asked for it in Peru, and the expiry date had completely slipped my mind.
Normally you could just buy it in the next town, but not in Argentina. Here, the officials explained, it needed to be purchased before entry into the country. The two officials were really nice about it, but insisted I’d need to return to Paraguay and sort it out from there.
So back through Paraguayan Customs and Immigration I went, feeling rather foolish, but likely setting a new record for the shortest visit to Argentina in recent history…
Oh well, back to my little German hotel with thoughts of pork knuckle and sauerkraut for dinner, and I got in touch via WhatsApp with the Chilean agent who sold me the Seguros and organised an extension. 5 minutes later my paperwork duly arrived. The following day I returned to the border, my paperwork was again checked, and I rode into Argentina.
Goodbye Paraguay, you get a 6 on Muzza’s shithole scale. Saved only by German food and beer.
Meanwhile it’s Hola Argentina, and I quite like what I’m seeing.
Wide open spaces with lots of agriculture, but not as modern or vibrant as Brazil. Some older trucks and cars, with things looking just a little shabby. I stayed in a budget hotel not far from the border where I changed some $US into Argentinian Pesos.
Argentina has been under the rule of the military and a socialist, globalist government similar to ours in New Zealand. They have runaway inflation. Currently 200% per year, and 20% just in the last month. Prices are rising almost daily, and their Pesos have sunk like a stone.
The people here are keen to own any currency other than their own, and in particular, the relatively stable $USD. The current official rate for $USD 100 is $34,500 Argentine Pesos. Yet on the black market they will pay $71,000 Pesos. But there’s a proviso. You must give them the $USD 100 note with the blue stripe.
They call this the ‘Dollar Blue’ and they’re keen on it because it’s very difficult to forge. They will take other $US notes, but at a lesser rate and are careful to check the watermarks.
It’s not hard to find someone to sell Dollar Blue to, just ask anyone and they make quick phone call, and someone is soon arriving with fist full of Pesos happy to exchange it. This is what you get for $USD 100 blue. $71,000 Argentinian Pesos.
Now things are already cheap here in Argentina. Petrol is around 50c NZD per litre. But once you double your money on the black market, everything in reality is costing half that, so fuel becomes 25c NZD per litre. A good bottle of Argentina Malbec that was $9 NZD, is now $4.50 NZD. You get the picture. This is great if you’re earning dollars overseas, but not so great for the locals. Their average hourly wage is around $4 per hour.
It’s going to be interesting to see what happens to Argentina’s economy. They held primary elections for President here a few days ago and the leftist, globalist, woke incumbent got the bum’s rush. A new liberal nationalist contender Javier Milei, (who is quite a character, with huge mutton chop sideburns) is promising big changes and a swift shift away from the woke policies that have been Argentina's downfall. Here’s hoping.
I ride down through rural Argentina and almost overnight the temperature plummets, from pleasant enough 30-degree highs to 14 degrees. The fields now lie fallow and the skies are grey.
It’s mid-winter, and the further south I go, the colder it gets.
In a small rural town I stop for coffee. The cafe sign says open, but there’s little sign of life. I park my bike and a lady appears in the doorway and beckons me inside, out of the cold. I order my ‘Cafe Negro Grande’ and soon I'm warming my hands around a nice full mug. The lights flicker then the power goes out.
The lady makes herself a brew and comes to sit opposite me, ranting about the power supply (I think). I manage to keep the conversation going by nodding my head at what I think might be the appropriate time and dropping in the odd “Si, Si”. She didn’t stop talking for at least 10 minutes. In the end I leave, wondering if she realised I didn’t understand a word she said. Later I found out that Argentina’s nuclear power station is down, leaving them with only hydro to supply the whole country, and that it’s not uncommon to have power outages at the moment.
In rural towns I notice memorials to the fallen soldiers who fought against Britain in the battle for the Falklands, or Islas Malvinas as they are known here. There are many road signs telling the distance to Islas Malvinas and I see cars with stickers in the rear window with the map of the Falklands. I’m told this a sign that the driver is a veteran from that battle.
At a restaurant I’m sitting near a young guy who speaks good English and I ask about how Argentina feels about the Falklands situation. He is adamant that the islands belong to Argentina and were stolen by the British, and that all Argentina did was attempt to steal them back. He told me there is much sadness and angst over the loss of Argentinian lives during the conflict and that those who served or died there are considered national heroes. Indeed, when I stop to look at a monument in a small town to a single solder who was killed there, his name on the plaque is followed by the words ‘National Hero’.
The young guy goes on to tell me that many of the soldiers were conscripted just a few weeks earlier and sent there with inadequate training, equipment, or clothing for the freezing conditions. He said the soldiers were so cold they lit fires at night in an attempt to stay warm and the British were able to pinpoint their positions from these fires and decimated them with airstrikes from the aircraft carriers.
This guy is only around 30, and the conflict was 42 years ago, yet on his cell phone he has video footage taken at the time, of Argentinian antiquated air force planes (I think Sky Hawks like we had when we once had air strike capability) flying at almost sea level and attacking the British naval fleet. He said everyone is very proud of these pilots' actions.
I asked if Argentina planned to try again to take back Isles Malvinas and he said yes, but not by force. He said they already lost that battle with Britain twice and now they are trying through the world courts.
Of course, my memory of the battle for the Falklands differs to his. The Argentinian generals thought to steal the Falklands from the British, whose military forces were half a world away and the British Prime minister Margaret Thatcher, being a woman, was unlikely to retaliate and it would all be over in a few days, as the Argentinian forces would evict the small British population from the town of Stanley. How wrong they were. Maggie and the British forces did retaliate, and although the British also suffered heavy losses, Maggie gave those Argentine Generals a good kick in the slats… It was however interesting to hear an Argentinian perspective.
I’m ready for another break.
It’s cold on the bike even in my winter gear. I decide to head back across the Andes to Santiago Chile, where I know I can get the new tyres I need, and I have somewhere I can leave the bike while I fly home for a couple of months and let the worst of winter pass before I return and carry on with my journey south.
After long cold days on the bike I ride into Mendoza, Argentina’s major wine growing area.
The next day I would head into the Andes and via the Pass of Christ the Redeemer would re-enter Chile and soon be winging my way home.
But nature had other plans. That evening a cold front moved in and heavy snow began falling, closing the pass. I waited the next day to see what would happen, and other passes between Argentina and Chile, further to the north and the south, closed also.
The weather forecast was predicting similar weather for at least the next 7 days, and I was told sometimes it can take 2 weeks for things to change and the passes to reopen. Even then, usually only open to vehicles with chains.
So I cut my losses. I organised to leave my bike near Mendoza and boarded a flight to Santiago Chile then on to Auckland, where my beautiful wife was promising a warm welcome and a roast lamb dinner.