At the crossroads of cultures, this geographical intersection represents the meeting point between the borders of Brazil, Argentina and Paraguay, naturally delimited by the crossing of two rivers: the Rio Paraná and the Rio Iguaçu.
This territory was developed in the 1960s following major negotiations between the governments of Paraguay and Brazil and then when they agreed to erect the Itaipu dam and thus produce enough energy to supply about 20% of the total energy consumed in Brazil and up to 90% of that used in Paraguay! When I landed in Foz do Iguaçu, I wondered what was this large dam that I was observing from the window.
Meaning “the stone that sings” in Guarani, the official Amerindian language spoken in Paraguay, the environmental issue was not addressed until Argentina arrived at the negotiating table, admitted to the discussion insofar as the release of the dam reservoir could have flooded Buenos Aires!
A source of pride for these countries, its construction is very controversial since more than 10,000 families living along the river have been displaced. Moreover, as the area was submerged, it destroyed part of the fauna and flora. The construction of this dam also led to the flooding of the Seven Falls, which were at the time the biggest falls in the world by volume! Nearly 1,500 km2 of forest, farmland and fields were swallowed up, 148 workers on the construction site died during the construction of the hydroelectric power station and many species of animals were deported but saved. Unfortunately, the dark side of our society always tends to go further without taking into account the damaging effects on the “little ones”. However, it is the tourist boom towards the Iguaçu Falls, but also traffickers of all kinds, which has made it possible to highlight this triple frontier.
The communities are concentrated in the three cities adjacent to the rivers:
- Ciudad del Este (Paraguayan city)
- Foz do Iguaçu (Brazilian city)
- Puerto Iguazú (Argentine city)
We allowed ourselves to spend a little time in each of these cities: in Foz do Iguaçu since we were staying there; in Puerto Iguazú to go and admire the viewpoint on the river border and see the famous Hito de Las Tres Frontieras monument; in Ciudad del Este, since I wanted to set foot in Paraguay. And then, visiting 3 countries in 2 days without really planning it, when would we have the opportunity to do it again?
After visiting the Iguaçu Falls on the Brazilian side in the morning, we decided to explore Ciudad del Este. Taking the bus from Foz do Iguaçu, there began our expedition. I must say that I absolutely wanted to get the Paraguayan stamp on my passport and as we were tourists on the Brazilian territory, we had to stop at the border post to declare that we were leaving the country. Having already experienced crossing the border between Chile and Argentina several times in the past, I knew that this was just a formality (thanks to the Mercosur agreement). As the triple border has become a sector of permanent trade that is steadily growing, passengers can move between the two countries without any worries. However, there was no indication in the bus where we should stop, since it continued directly on the Friendship Bridge, which marks the border, without stopping at the border.
It is a mobile border since more than thousands of workers cross the bridge every day, sometimes making several return trips, which results in many traffic jams on the International Friendship Bridge. It is one of these famous traffic jams that allowed us to get out of the bus at the entrance of the bridge. Pulling a string to indicate our request to open the doors, we jumped out of the bus which was still moving.
We might think that the border post is a fantasy since the building, which served as a customs and administrative building for leaving the territory, was deserted. Only one window was open and we were introduced to a Brazilian customs officer who did not speak English. Mumbling about the little Portuguese we knew, we managed to make ourselves understood (the girls were doing very well and it seemed easy to hear them struggling with the language, as far as I was concerned, my brain had clearly not yet hit what country I was in, since I was babbling my beginner Spanish. To top it all off, I wouldn’t reveal my language skills in Portuguese until a week after I returned from this trip… during a stay in Barcelona).
Moreover, in this part of the world, is called “portugnol” in French, the language of the triple frontier. Spiced up with Guarani and English, it responds to the desire to understand and be understood in this strategic place where Portuguese and Spanish are perfectly intermingled for various speakers: tourists, shopkeepers, salesmen or businessmen… The customs officer explained to us that it was easier to cross the bridge on foot, due to the traffic, but also to see the natural demarcation of the border. It is a strange feeling to walk on a bridge and to think that territorially speaking we are nowhere, simply in the middle of two exotic countries, finding ourselves in a flow of people who cross this path every day. Banal for them, extraordinary for me. Moreover, the landscape is magnificent although the Paraná River is not very clean.
We met a lot of people carrying large packages, either on foot or by motorbike, while watching the Brazilian officers, arms folded, watching without flinching at this kind of permanent parade of merchandise. Later, I learned that these “smugglers” are commonly called “formidas”, ants.
We finally arrived in Paraguay, in Ciudad del Este, where the customs post seemed as depopulated as its Brazilian equivalent. Yet the atmosphere struck us directly, unmatched with the Brazilian one. Having obtained the Holy Grail, the Paraguayan stamp, when we observed what was around us, we felt in another dimension.
Ciudad del Este is real chaos! Reminding me of the name given to the smugglers, it is true that all the bustle of the city looks like an anthill. Being a free-trade zone, what we see doesn’t inspire too much faith. Vertigo embraces us, a mixture of apprehension and fascination.
Its noxious and somewhat dangerous atmosphere appealed to me so much, that I « investigated” back in Switzerland. The town’s murky reputation came to the fore, as it was accused of being a centre for all kinds of traffic. In fact, here is what Wikipedia (not always a reliable source, but we are satisfied with it) says on its french page devoted to the city: “The end of the Cold War has turned this cosmopolitan city, which has become a free trade zone, into a potpourri of international crime, with activities such as the manufacture of fake dollars and false identity documents, drug and arms trafficking, the resale (or exchange for cocaine) of stolen cars in Argentina and Brazil, as well as money laundering on a large scale“. And there are also numerous triads, mafias, and gangs operating in the prostitution and terrorism markets.
The city resembles a huge black market where all sorts of things are intermingled. A veritable bazaar city, there are no bits of nature, just aggressive advertisements blocking the view to announce casinos, electronic offers and other gibberish. We can only see one driveway in the city, but not a square metre of pavement is spared by the hundreds of shacks selling thousands of goods. Products are clearly cheaper on this side of the river and many Brazilians come here to shop, mainly for electronics, since the customs duties are low compared to those in Brazil, which has a rather confiscatory import policy.
Overall, we had to spend only about 20 minutes in the Paraguayan city, since the only reason we stayed so long was that I was looking for a phone charger! As a result, we didn’t take any photos, preferring to put away our cameras or mobile phones, so as not to look like “tourists”.
This doesn’t really allow me to give a full opinion although after learning all this, my investigative side pushes me to go back to this city. But as it didn’t give me a good picture without knowing everything that was going on there, I rather want to travel to other parts of Paraguay to discover the beauties that this country has to offer and to discover a population that seems very attached to its history and culture. Paraguay, I’ll come back!
The next day we crossed the border to Argentina as we were going to explore the Argentinian side of the Iguazu Falls. To go there, we took a bus organised by our youth hostel, so we arrived directly at the entrance of the waterfalls and we could stop on the way to exchange some Brazilian reais for Argentinean pesos. Moreover, the passage through the two customs was efficient and fast (yet just as deserted as the Brazil-Paraguay border).
The border takes place on the Fraternity’s international bridge over the Rio Iguaçu (or Iguazú in Spanish). It is easy to recognise which country we are in when we cross, as there is some sort of plots in the colours of each nation on the pavement on either side of the bridge.
After visiting the falls, we took a bus that brought us to Puerto Iguazú to arrive at the square that gives a magnificent view of the tripoint. One of the curiosities of the city, apart from the falls, is the famous Hito De Tres Fronteras monument where the three flags are painted together. We passed by some stands where products with typical handicrafts from the province of Misiones can be bought. Furthermore, as there are very few places in the world where the reunion of three countries can be observed, to symbolise this rather unique place, each of the three countries has erected an obelisk in the colours of its nation as a landmark.
The atmosphere is much more pleasant and welcoming than in Ciudad del Este, and I found the Argentinean people who fascinated me so much a year before. This was an opportunity to drink a Quilmes, the succulent Argentinian beer that I love, and to observe the surroundings. This border town has been greatly developed for its flagship tourist attraction, however, it is a well-integrated infrastructure that respects the surrounding nature. However, we didn’t have much time to explore the city in more detail as we wanted to be back before nightfall in Foz do Iguaçu.
At the bus station, we took the bus that crosses the border every hour. It was well explained to us that this kind of bus waits at the Argentinean customs but at the Brazilian one, they just drop off the travellers to leave without delay. Indeed, this scenario happened to us. Since we didn’t want to wait for the next bus or take a taxi, we walked for a few minutes to get to the road linking the Iguaçu National Park to the city. We got on the first bus that stopped and went to the bus station; this gave us a glimpse of the town’s agglomeration made up of small, pleasant and simple houses.
Back in Foz do Iguaçu, we needed to conclude my first step in the country with a churrascaria. This is a kind of restaurant where a myriad of meats, barbecued or roasted on the spit, is proposed with a buffet of sides and this, at will! the dream!
I couldn’t conclude this article without mentioning this kind of place! Having been amazed by the meat flavours in Bariloche, Argentina, I never thought I would have the opportunity to savour such tender meat, but Brazil did not disappoint me in any way. Real institutions in the country, churrascarias are to be found on every street corner… to my great delight!
As a very striking stopover, this unique location allows you to immerse yourself in three different cultures in a short time but also to discover the (sinister) stakes that such a border, especially in this part of the world, offers to the eyes of the world.
I discovered Sebatian Rotella’s thriller Triple Crossing, which deals with the Triple Frontier. The author, as a good journalist, relies on impressive documentation (nourished by years of reporting for the Los Angeles Times) for the writing of this fiction. We plunge into the world of trafficking of all kinds against a backdrop of corruption, political machinations, violence and other crimes. It is set first of all on the famous Mexican-American border between Tijuana and San Diego, to end in apotheosis to the one of the Triple Frontier. A detective novel that I highly recommend.
And you, have you ever been to this part of the world?