A quick Google search describes the Tri-border area between Paraguay, Brazil, and Argentina as “lawless,” “a classic terrorist safe haven,” and “Hezbollah’s Western Base.” Somehow they always seem to forget to mention it as the site of the spectacular Iguazu waterfalls – which are a rare mega-tourist attraction that lives up to all the hype. That was our main draw to cross through the region, starting one day in Argentina and ending in Paraguay, while spending the middle part in Brazil – but the allure to see how “lawless” this region actually is, was another significant draw.
Much of the source of concern dates to the post-September 11th era, and fears that financing to terrorist groups such as Hezbollah, Hamas, and even Al Qaeda emanated from the area. Fears not necessarily unfounded without a body of evidence, but the true extent of the threat may have been exaggerated in some accounts. It was almost a niche sort of item in the terrorism studies field at the time, basically a way to show-off – “oh you don’t know about the tri border area?? Well let me enlighten you with my vast array of obscure terrorism-related knowledge . . . “
The region is home to an estimated Arab community of 25,000, who mainly came from Lebanon after WWII and during the civil war in the 1980s. Combined with its renowned reputation as a contraband “oasis,” concerns were raised to the point where the United States even established a joint intelligence center on the Brazilian side of the border. At any rate, much of that concern dated from the mid-to-late 2000s, with nearly half a decade elapsing by the time I showed my face in the area (which perhaps is never a good thing in the vicinity of a Middle Eastern-focused intelligence center, especially two months into a beard).
Starting in Puerto Iguazu, Argentina that day (we had seen the Argentine side of the Iguazu waterfalls the day prior), we left early on a bus for the Brazilian side of the falls. The border processes there were simple enough – on the way past the Argentine side, our bus driver collected all of our passports and got the exit stamps himself, while on the Brazilian side we had to individually appear, but it went quick enough (note: want to talk about suspect financing?? I had to obtain a Brazilian visa in Buenos Aires for $160 just to be able to visit the falls! Even if it is a ten-year, multi-entry affair).
We toured the Brazilian side, which offers significantly different but equally as stunning views as the Argentine side, then made our way on a city bus to the main terminal in the Brazilian city of Foz do Iguaçu. Things began to get a bit more interesting here – there is a normal city bus that runs between Foz do Iguaçu, Brazil and Ciudad del Este, Paraguay, as they are just across a bridge over the Paraná River from each other. We waited at the stop for the frequent bus, and headed for what was technically the fifth country of our trip (if you count 5 hours, at the cost of $160, in Brazil).
I had read a bit before that this border crossing can be a bit confusing, as most people do not stop to do the border check. That is correct – the bus typically just runs in between both countries without stopping at all between the borders; rather it is up to the individuals on the bus to decide whether or not they are in the mood to chat with customs and immigration authorities that day. It is this sort of lax approach to border controls that led Ciudad del Este in particular to be described to us as the “contraband capital of the region,” in turn igniting similar fears with regards to support for terror networks from certain communities in the area (I still have no idea why this border has developed this way, and wondered if it could really be possible to just fly into Paraguay and travel throughout Brazil without an expensive visa, if you entered and left the country through the tri-border area?)
Anyways, we had to get off the bus to get a Brazilian exit stamp (or rather I did), so we told the bus driver at the beginning that would be the case. He handed us a slip of paper so we could get back on a different bus – as this one would not wait around for us to complete our formalities. We got off at the border control, willingly I might add, while the bus plowed across the bridge, barely even slowing down. It took us about 5 minutes to complete Brazilian immigration (given that we were the only ones who showed up), then waited for the next city bus to come. We contemplated walking across the Puente de la Amistad (Friendship Bridge) as it was broad daylight, but had heard rumors that this was not safe at all, Not sure how really – it was had a narrow pedestrian walkway on either side – maybe someone could pin you against the edge and threaten to push you off whole taking your bags, but it was crowded and narrow enough that I would doubt they’d get too far. At any rate, we did not bother to find out, as the next bus came in less than seven minutes.
We flashed the slips of paper handed to us by the other bus driver, and hopped on the back. Once we had crossed the bridge we expected the bus to stop at the Paraguayan border control, so we could get off and complete formalities there – a reasonable expectation in my mind, even if most people do not get off the bus. This it did not do. Rather it sped right across the bridge and past the apparently optional immigration office into town – we were already in Paraguay!
We cried for the driver to stop, not wanting to invite any sort of troubles for illegally crossing over. He did a few hundreds meters past the border and at the start of the expansive contraband market that dominates the first few streets on the Paraguayan side (although there a number of geographically-oriented and orderly shopping malls as well, such as ‘Mina India’ and ‘Bonita Kim’). Getting off we looked around confused – maybe that wasn’t the actual border post and we were supposed to go a bit further? But we were clearly in Paraguay now – you could tell immediately upon crossing the bridge that this was a much poorer country (street food, market stalls, dust, taxi drivers harassing us – you name it, all the elements were there).
We decided to walk back to the office immediately after the bridge – they could redirect us if they had to. We went in the first door we saw, hoping no one realized we were coming from the wrong direction (i.e. from Paraguay already), and encountered an disinterested man sitting at a desk, a tv blaring beside him. I approached and he did not look up initially, but grudgingly turned to us – I guess since this border process seemed to be “optional,” with most people choosing not to exercise that option, he did not quite have the experience or people skills I would’ve expected.
He looked over my passport and visa in less than two minutes, giving me an entry stamp. I was surprised by how quick this was, how few (re: none) questions he asked, and the fact that he did not appear to care about the contents of my luggage, nor barely looked at my face to confirm the passport. I was so taken aback that I asked in broken Spanish if there was anything else we needed to do, since I personally love completing as many formalities as possible at South American land frontiers, but he just waved us off to be gone (actually, I had read some horror stories of people not receiving the proper entry stamps during some of their South American travels and being forced to return to their point of entry to acquire them before they could exit the country, so was determined not to let the laziness of an apathetic border official put us in a similar situation).
Following we went back to the area we were dropped off, and boarded the next and third city bus of our 30-minute journey, unsure of where it was going or even if it was the right one (turned out to be fine). It took us past the market section of Ciudad del Este – which actually is a bit chaotic but replete with anything contraband you could want, from electronics to clothing to kitchen goods. A lot of likely not contraband goods as well – we saw an entire selection of Kirkland Costco products in the upscale Mona Lisa department store – and Brazilian & Argentines frequently cross the border to purchase supplies (when you are not slowed down by any border controls, why not?). We even had a tour guide later at the grand Itaipu Dam tell us you could buy a brand-new car for $200 in Ciudad del Este – an intriguing idea, but given my inability to drive without endangering the lives to today’s precious youth, one we never looked into.
Anyways, Ciudad del Este, Paraguay, the heart of all this ‘lawlessness,’ is actually a very pleasant city after leaving the market area. At the same time, there isn’t much else to do there – everyone we asked just told us to go shopping, especially given that the city was only established in the 1950s and thus lacked the deep history of monuments, buildings, and other pretty things to look at that occupies our time in many a other locations. Regardless, we stayed about a 20-minute walk from downtown in a newly-constructed suburb around a lake, at a hostel with a great view and a pool. So nice it was that Christine, who was previously scared to even set foot in the city after I had informed her of its reputation, expressed serious consideration into purchasing property there (it did help that we also located the best empanada and juice spots of our entire trip nearby). We never did get involved in Ciudad del Este real estate market during our short stay, but at the rate of $200 for brand new cars, perhaps we should have!
I was also determined to find some of the supposed ‘Arab’ terrorist sympathizers, and we did (well the Arab part at least)! Mainly we were in it for the food, hoping to score some delicious shawarmas, as we stumbled upon a tall green building in the city center, which contained a food court, barber shop, mosque, and apartment building. The shawarmas lived up to their billing, and as much as I was intrigued, we left discussions of political allegiances and sympathies to a minimum.
In short, I can see that the lax (or non-existent) border controls in the area and the endless rows of shops and markets stalls plied with counterfeit goods (along with ever-menacing ‘Arab’ population) in Ciudad del Este may give rise to concerns for some, but calling the region ‘lawless’ is simply inaccurate. Perhaps many of those articles were written from afar, but from our experience on the ground, admittedly a few years later on and without serious investigation, it seemed more an intriguing mix of cultures and an orderly-enough place, despite the lax border controls between neighbors who evidently feel comfortable with each other’s citizens. So nice it was, that we may even be future property investors!