I remember the first time I visited three countries in one day, back when I lived in Europe and spent a long weekend racing through the Benelux countries. I began the day with a brisk walk through the city of Luxembourg, traveled through Belgium by rail taking a pit stop in Brussels to see the Royal Palace (and eat a waffle), and then continued onto the Netherlands to spend the night in Amsterdam. I remember thinking on the train into Amsterdam that this feat – visiting three countries in one day – would never happen to me again.
Only it has happened to me again – twice.
About a year ago I flew from the United States to El Salvador and spent an eight-hour layover touring San Salvador before continuing on to my rainforest home in Costa Rica. Most recently I visited three countries in one day again, this time Argentina, Brazil and Paraguay, while visiting Iguazu Falls.
Country One: Argentina
If you ask most anyone about taking a day trip to Iguazu Falls from Buenos Aires, they will probably tell you that you’ll need more time in the area. But then again, people say this about most beautiful places, and since time is a luxury I don’t often have, I decided to go for it anyway and booked a return flight on a free day I had in the city.
The flight from Buenos Aires to Iguazu Falls is just more than two hours. Knowing my time in the area would be limited and not wanting to chance slow public transportation, I arranged for a taxi driver, Diego Alberto Riquelme, to meet me at the airport and be my driver for the day ahead of time.
I leave the wintery city of Buenos Aires at the early hour of 6 a.m. and take a flight via Aerolineas Argentinas to Cataratas del Iguazú International Airport. Diego arrives right on time ready to whisk me off to our first stop of the day – Ciudad del Este in Paraguay. Before starting out he asks me one last time if I am sure I want to go here. If we skip this stop I can see both the Brazilian and Argentinian sides of the falls instead. By going into Paraguay I will only have time to visit one side of the falls.
“Yes, yes we must go to Ciudad del Este,” I urge, and away we zoom.
I admit, rather shamelessly I have one goal in going to Paraguay – to say I’ve been to Paraguay. Ciudad del Este is a city in Paraguay located just across the border from Brazil. As I will soon see for myself, there is not much of interest in Ciudad del Este, and beyond shopping the city truly offers little else than easy entry into another country.
Diego and I drive away from the airport in Argentina and to Brazil. There is a border control as you exit Argentina, but there is not one once you enter Brazil. Visitors from the United States normally need a visa to enter Brazil (a complicated visa that you need to arrange in advance at your nearest consulate and pay $160 for), but travelers who are just visiting Iguazu for the day can enter here without one.
Brazil is a new country for me, but I decided not to add it to my country count just at this moment yet as we don’t stop but continue straight through the border of Paraguay, cross the Friendship Bridge and arrive in Ciudad del Este.
Country Two: Paraguay
As a U.S. Citizen, you normally also need a visa to enter Paraguay (another visa that requires advanced arrangements and a hefty fee), but again, to enter Ciudad del Este just for the day you don’t need one nor do they even check.
Diego parks on a city street and as I exit the cab I emit a little cheer of glee – I’m in Paraguay – country #44 for me!
My glee is short lived because let me tell you about Ciudad del Este.
Ok, let me at least try to tell you about Ciudad del Este. I’ve never been anywhere in the world that is quite like Ciudad del Este. The city – if you can really call it that – consists of about three streets with multi-story buildings all containing stores. Ciudad del Este is a tax-free zone and in fact is the third-largest tax-free zone in the world.
There’s one store called Mona Lisa that has a large sign of, well the Mona Lisa out front, and a knock off Victoria’s Secret called Secret By Moments which features the same pink stripped gift wrap and signage as the original. Most of the stores sell electronics and proudly post logos of the high end products they offer – Sony! GoPro! Phillips! Unsavory florescent light bulbs shine down overhead, illuminating white tile floors.
Beyond these stores, and more stalls in the streets that also sell knock off goods, there is nothing else – no visible office buildings, restaurants or apartments. There’s not even a soccer field or a church – two staples of every even small town I’ve visited throughout Latin America.
The counters are well stocked with employees but, possibly because it is a Sunday, nearly no one is shopping. This could be the Los Angeles in me speaking, but the city is so vacant, so ghostly, it almost feels as if I’m on a soundstage and any second now the director will yell cut and a crew of techies will come in and roll the sets away to reveal we are actually standing on Soundstage 23 at Warner Bros. Studios.
In one of the buildings we sit down and have coffee with one of Diego’s friends – a man from Lebanon who has lived here in Ciudad del Este for the past 20 years. I can’t imagine this and I can’t understand his Spanish so I get no more insight into his life.
After several minutes of awkwardness while I sit in silence sipping coffee, Diego leads me into the streets where we wander the rows and rows of stalls that sell the variety of knock off goods found so often at markets like these around the globe – Burberry coats, Prada Purses, soccer jerseys for every country.
Only unlike similar markets I’ve been to in other places like Tiajuna, Marrakech and even Costa Rica, no one hassles me to try to get me to buy anything. None of the street vendors show the least bit of aggression.
One man calmly asks me if I would like to look at the items he has for sale.
“No she’s not shopping, she’s an American,” Diego responds before I have a chance to say anything.
He apologizes for the vendors gruff behavior, which I didn’t happen to find gruff at all, and explains that because I am wearing an Argentinian soccer jersey the vendors think I am Argentinian and therefore want to shop and take advantage of the lack of taxes.
I’m pretty sure it’s impossible that anyone thinks I am from Argentina, but let me confess to you why I’m wearing this soccer jersey. I received it as a gift the night before in Buenos Aires in preparation for today’s big Copa América finale game between Argentina and Chile. After several glasses of wine I passed out in the shirt and, in the pre-dawn hours when I left my hotel room, wine still coursing through my veins, decided to keep it on.
It will look really cool in pictures, I told myself as I walked out of the door. And after all it is winter in South America and freezing. With three layers in the Buenos Aires morning I was still very cold. This region of South America however, is humid and very hot and keeping my jacket on was not a viable option.
Standing in the street in Ciudad del Este in the shirt and yoga pants, bloody hot and sweating I realize this jersey was in fact a terrible choice. Not only is it completely unfashionable, it was perhaps a bit shortsighted to wear such a shirt into two other countries without knowing anything about the relationship – or potential fútbol war – amongst the three countries I am entering today.
I feel quite stupid and am glad when Diego says we have seen all there is to see in Ciudad del Este and should leave. We cross the Friendship Bridge again and Diego explains that the large bars on the bridge are there to keep drug traffikers out. Great. I’m really glad to be leaving Paraguay.
Country Three: Brazil
As we pass through Brazil again I decide to count this as country #45 even though I have not yet left the vehicle.
I have now been to 45 countries! I didn’t start counting countries until the end of my year in Spain. I was mixed up emotionally about the end of my time in Europe and wanted to do something that would make me feel like I had lived up the experience as much as I could. Since I had been traveling so frequently I decided to push myself a bit further and set foot in 25 countries that year, the 25th year of my life.
I’ve been counting my countries ever since. Yes I realize this number is not really an indicator of anything, and no I wouldn’t ever judge someone based on the number of countries they’ve been to. But I count countries as a competition with myself, to see how far in this world I can go. To reach the number 45 is an accomplishment I never thought I’d reach.
Our first stop in Brazil is at a Churascaria for lunch. The Churascaria is very touristy (and by touristy I mean I was still the only American there, but there were lots of families visiting from Argentina and elsewhere in Brazil). Diego has a good rationale behind taking me here – it is a buffet so I could sample all kinds of meats and specialties of Brazil without having to worry about ordering.
Next we continue to the day’s main attraction — Iguazu Falls.
Diego recommended that, since I only have time to see one side of the falls, I visit the Brazilian side. We are in Brazil and my first sign that Brazil is different than the rest of South America is that neither my credit card nor debit card works. In all of my travels this is the first time my credit card hasn’t worked and of course I’m almost out of cash. After panicking for a few minutes that I have traveled all the way to Iguazu and now will not be able to enter, I am by some miracle able to get cash out at an ATM and can purchase both a park entry pass and a ticket for a boat tour Diego says I absolutely must experience.
I wrote a post that shared my absolute wonder at seeing the falls and you can read that here. But for this post I will continue on to tell you about my experience with the boat ride that I didn’t share in that post.
After finishing my hike around the falls I borded the bus again and traveled to the departing point for the boat ride which I should address by it’s proper name – Macuco Safari. The safari begins with a long tram ride down the side of a mountain and a hike past some small waterfalls to a boat ramp.
Standing on the boat ramp, I realize I’m about to get soaked. The boat ride will however, take us directly under the falls. This is something I probably should have realized when I bought the ticket but didn’t. I don’t really have a change of clothes apart from the layers and it’s probably not the best idea to then fly back to Buenos Aires where it is full on winter, so I strip down to my undershirt and yoga pants, leaving my socks, shoes and all other layers in a locker.
I’m not the only one that has this idea. A group of loud Argentinian men strip down to their briefs. Yes, briefs. And the two teenage girls I was with on the tram down are in bathing suits. Their mom takes pity on me and lends me her poncho.
We suit up in life jackets and we wait and we wait until finally the time comes to board a small boat. Just as the sun is setting we zip out to the falls. The entire group cheers as we drive under the falls, feeling the power of the shear tons of water drench us with full force.
We duck in and out of the falls three times and then zip back to the dock.
As we arrive back at the dock, the other guests are brimming in anger, upset by the short duration of the boat ride which was not conveyed at the sales counter. In Portuguese and Spanish my fellow passengers sort out a plan of action.
“We are going to stage a revolt,” an older Argentinian man tells me in English, even though we spoke in Spanish minutes before.
“We will have a protest and we need you to be part of it,” he adds.
The “protest” ends in about the same amount of time the boat ride took. After squabbling to the manager, he granted the families free entry into the park the following day.
By the time this glorious safari ends with a tram ride back up to the bus stop, night has long fallen and there are no more buses operating as the park is closed.
With just two hours left until my return flight departs I begin to panic. The employees say they will send a van for us to get back to the entrance but no van is in sight and none of the other families seem to be rushing, only me.
I follow some employees to a staff van and hop in.
“Hey this van is for employees only,” a man tells me in Spanish.
“Please let me go with you,” I ask. “I’m traveling alone. My guide is at the front of the park and I need to catch my flight very soon.”
They nod wordlessly and slam the door and within 15 minutes we are back at the park entrance.
“Lauren,” Diego exclaims as he sees me run over. “I was worried about you. I thought you had left.”
The End of A Day Trip to Iguazu Falls
In the dark of night Diego drives fast through Brazil and we get our passports re-stamped at the border. I’m back in Argentina, just in time to board my flight back to Buenos Aires. As soon as we take off I promptly pass out. After visiting three countries in one day – Argentina, Paraguay and Brazil – I have no more energy to give the day.
Note: Thank you to my driver Diego for making three countries in one day possible. If you speak Spanish at least semi-fluently I’d highly recommend my guide for the day, Diego Alberto Riquelme. He is kind, reliable and his rates are reasonable. You can contact him at email@example.com.