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BASILE: Three lessons from a harrowing trip to Paraguay

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Frank Basile

Our trip to Uruguay and Paraguay did not get off to a good start. And it went downhill from there.

At the airline ticket counter in Indianapolis, we were told we needed a visa to visit Paraguay. I showed the agent my printout from two Internet sites, one of which was the U.S. Department of State, which showed visas were not required.

The agent said the airline’s computer shows it is required. To make matters worse, visas for Paraguay must be obtained in the country of origin ahead of time and are not available for purchase at the arrival airport.

I requested that she call her supervisor, who was located in Dallas, but, of course, the phone wasn’t answered. We were changing planes in Dallas, so I asked her to allow us to board the flight and, upon arrival, we would locate the person in charge and get it straightened out. She asked me to sign a form stating that I was doing that at my own risk and if I was denied boarding of the flight from Dallas to Montevideo, Uruguay, I understood that I would have to buy another ticket back to Indianapolis and we would lose the money we paid for the ticket from Indianapolis to Dallas to Montevideo to Asuncion, Paraguay, and back to Dallas and then Indianapolis.

I signed.

When we arrived in Dallas, I spoke with the supervisor, who also insisted a visa was required. I suggested we call the Paraguayan Embassy in the United States.

It was a Saturday. They were closed.

But after further discussion and pleading, they relented and let us board the flight to Montevideo with the written understanding that we were doing this at our risk, etc. And all of whatever happened would be at our additional expense which, for last-minute flight changes, she estimated would be another $6,300.

And, of course, we would not reach our final destination.

I signed.

When we landed in Montevideo, we immediately took a taxi to the Paraguayan embassy and found that, indeed, a visa was required. And that it must be obtained in the country of origin for entry into Paraguay. This rule was placed into effect between the time we checked the required documentation and purchased our tickets and today. We later learned it was a sudden move in response to a similar requirement that the United States instituted for Paraguayan citizens coming to America.

Ah, politics.

Through persistence (translation: refusing to leave the building), we were finally able to meet with the number two person in the embassy. During the next hour, between his broken English and my broken Spanish, we were able to communicate our situation and he very reluctantly agreed to have the two visas issued the next day, just three hours before our flight to Asuncion.

Lesson 1: Recheck all other entry requirements for all countries on your itinerary before the trip to see if they may have changed since you bought your tickets. The best places to check are the embassy of each country and the airline you are flying.

The trip had to get better. Or so we thought.

We regretted our success in obtaining the visas when we encountered very bad weather on our flight from Montevideo to Asunción. Twice, the pilots tried to land the plane but were unable to do so. As we circled in the storm, I recalled reading that the airport where we were attempting to land did not pass FAA standards—which is why no U.S. airlines flew there.

Suddenly the captain’s voice came over the PA system: “Because of bad weather and poor visibility, we are unable to land on the strips that we normally use. However, there is another longer landing strip that we will try since we don’t have enough fuel to fly to an alternate airport. But, I want to assure you that this landing is within the capabilities of this crew and equipment!”

This, of course, did nothing to reassure us. Neither did the eventually bouncing landing

Lesson 2: Research which airports meet minimum standards and avoid those that don’t.

The third crisis and second life-threatening incident on this trip occurred in Asuncion, the capital of Paraguay, when I left Katrina by the sidewalk and walked over the massive lawn to approach the presidential palace to take a picture.

“Stop!”

It was Katrina yelling at me.

I looked up from my camera as policemen with guns drawn closed in on me from three sides. The only thing I could think in Spanish to possibly ward off an attack was, “Amigo! Amigo!” which I shouted as I dropped the camera on the grass and held my hands up high.

The policeman in charge went through my pictures in the digital camera, erasing not only the two I took of the palace, but also those of the slum area right next to its opulence. I felt fortunate that I got away with just losing the pictures and experiencing a stern lecture in Spanish because we later learned a tourist was actually shot a year or two earlier for the same offense.

Lesson 3: Be alert to potential problems by reading and heeding warnings.

By the way, the scenery and historic and cultural sites in these two seldom-visited South American countries were marvelous. But that’s another column.•

__________

Basile is an author, professional speaker, philanthropist, community volunteer and retired executive of the Gene B. Glick Co. His column appears whenever there’s a fifth Monday in the month. Basile can be reached at FrankBasile@sbcglobal.net.

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  • re
    am looking for farmland too.Can you give me some of your experience since your post is already 2 years old ?
    • stupid tourist
      I recently traveled to Paraguay with my teenage son and had a fantastic trip. I also researched the state dept. website, which advised visiting the paraguan embassy site, which I did. It was VERY easy to find out that a visa was required. When my check was less than the amount requred (my mistake), I was called by the counsulate in L.A. and advised how to efficiently send the correct amount. I have traveled extensivly and have found advanced visas required for many countries. I don't think your ignorance is a fair criticism of the country. Why would you travel to another country and not make an attempt to learn the language? My son and I both studied spanish and took a dictionary, in addition my son learned quit a bit of the guayrani language. I was AMAZED how easy it was to travel on buses within the country and how friendly everyone was. We were welcomed into homes, and fed amazing cuisine. I can't wait to go back, I will be learning more spanish in the meantime.
    • buy farm land in chaco paraguay
      I am intrested in buying undeveloped farm land in paraguay chaco region if any body is in asimilar frame of mind pleas contact me also anybody who has been thruogh this expiriance good or bad, als any body intrested in selling undeveloped farmland .
      • good to know
        @Frank, thanks for the article. I'm starting a large project in Costa Rica and while most of the people I'm working with are expats I'd like to do more with the locals. Seems I can own a business there but can not work in it--only manage it.
      • Visa Question from B.A.
        I hope someone with can answer this question for me. I am a U.S. citizen living in Costa Rica. I am presently in Buenos Aires and wish to go to Paraguay on a tourist visa? Going to the Washington, D.C. for a visa is obviously ridiculous. Can I still get a visa from the Paraguayan Embassy in B.A.? Or will I likely get the "you have to do it in America story?". Please note that I am fluent in Spanish, if that helps. Please help with the question if possible. Thanks.
      • Author comments
        I am sorry if I offended the Paraguayan citizens who commented. That was not my intent and as I stated in the last paragraph, the scenery and historic and cultural sites in these two seldom-visited South American countries were marvelous. The facts were exactly as stated in my article, which I used only to make some points regarding precautions to take when traveling. Other than the incidents noted in the article, the trip was wonderful and the Paraguayans were very friendly.

        We departed on this trip on December 21, 2002. The Yahoo travel information website on 12/19/12, which was taken from the State Department website, stated: Entry requirements for Paraguay for U.S. citizens are passports, sufficient funds and proof of onward passage. Australians and Canadians need visas. The Lonely Planet website on 3/26/02, which was also about the time we purchased our tickets, stated: Most foreigners do not require visas for a stay up to three months and those from neighboring countries, most Western European countries and the USA also need a spotlessly clean police record, a bank statement and a $10 fee. As I said in the article, all websites, including the U.S. Department of State, which we also consulted, stated that visas were not required. There was an advisory notice posted in the Paraguayan embassy bulletin board in Montevideo stating that visas were now required as of a certain date, which was a few weeks before our trip!

        The same Lonely Planet website mentioned above stated, â??Itâ??s now safe to approach and photograph the Palacio de Gobieno, which is a major improvement on the situation which existed during Rodriguez de Franciaâ??s rule â?? he ordered anyone gazing upon the palace to be shot on sight." Thankfully, this order was not in effect when we visited, but the police apparently still closely guarded the palace. As Katrina pointed out to me at the time, we found it strange that there were no other tourists, or anyone for that matter, near the palace, let alone taking photographs. Thatâ??s why I advised in my article to read and heed all warning signs and we certainly had enough information to warn us to stay away.

        As for the weather, bad weather can happen anyplace.
      • Uruguay
        I can't speak for Paraguay but Uruguay is no longer under dictatorship. It's actually just elected its first socialist government. We've traveled extensively there and find it a warm and welcoming country. The police are not corrupt. Infrastructure is well maintained. We're moving to Colonia del Sacramento, UR within the next year. Come visit.
      • Paraguay
        Paraguay is my country and as recent as January 2010 myself, my family and friends from the US visited Paraguay. It is true that the weather is very nice 90 % of the time. The summer rain sometimes could be very stormy and makes for a very scary flight. We had a stormy rain in Sao Paulo when we took off and two hours later we needed to land and the storm continued. After the landing in Asuncion all the people congratulated the captain and his staff. I agreed that the Airport needs updating but the reason why American Airlines is not landing is because of lack of business. We, a group of six people, walked around the president's palace and we were very close, taking pictures and we saw soldiers all around us but we were not sent away. I was the only local in the group.

        The visa requirement was placed after 9-11 as the US placed higher requirements on visitors. Before that time it was recommended to have a visa to Paraguay but it was not enforced.

        One important thing that I know is that some US visitors don't plan well for their visits and are unhappy later. Example, for a hotel, plan to stay in a recommended place and expected to pay similar to the Shilo Inn. A person from Portland was in Paraguay in the winter and complained that she could not sleep at night because she was cold. She got a room that was not heated. Most houses are not heated but we know the short winter and use temporary space heaters for about two months. I think winter is the best time to visit the country.

        I also know that some people plan to stay with other people and later returned to the US and placed comments on the internet of the miserable conditions that they here in. The people in Paraguay also use computers and we know some English and read the sad comments.

        I love my country and the US is my second country so you are invited to Paraguay, the door is open and the people are hospitable.
      • Corrections
        I am a former Paraguayan citizen, now a proud US citizen. First: Paraguay started requesting visas for Americans since 2004. I don't know how it is possible that the US State Department has not yet updated that information in their website. Talk about American efficiency! Second: American airliners have always flown to Paraguay until 2004 when American Airlines decided to quit due to little business demand. I understand the Asuncion airport has not updated its navigational equipment for the last 20 something years. But there is not much need for that equipment really. There are barely 10 flights a day and there is always sunshine and calm weather. Very little chance of a problem for an average pilot. Finally, thanks for coming to Paraguay. My former country is very unknown to the rest of the world, but you can find interesting things there.
      • Tourism encouraged
        I'd like to start by wondering how a visa was not a requirement to enter Paraguay, as the US has always required Paraguayan citizens to obtain one before entering the US. I live in Canada, and all Canadians traveling to Paraguay have been required to get a visa as far back as my memory lasts. I would assume that U.S. Americans would need to meet the same requirement as Canadians in any country of the world, if not even stricter ones.
        Second, I am not sure what "landing strip" you are talking about, is that the airport in Asuncion? Well, American Airlines used to fly to that "landing strip" but decided to drop that service due to a lack of demand for that route some time ago (I believe it was two years ago, but I'm not exactly sure). True, it is a small airport, but by no means a "landing strip" (that word reminds me of WWII military bases with gras landing strips rather than anything I've ever been to). Oh, and bad weather, what bad weather? Paraguay has 300 days of sunshine a year, you must have been really, really unlucky then...
        Thirdly, I have never heard of the police holding up tourists at gunpoint and errasing their pictures, nor of tourists being shot because they took the wrong photo (even by the presidential palace). Yes, I have heard of tourists being robbed (and sometimes the police are somewhat shady), but Paraguay is a generally friendly and somewhat civilized country that welcomes visitors (and yes, they do have telephones there). But maybe I'd think so because I wouldn't count as a tourist...

        P.S.: It is a good idea to find a tour guide that speaks your language and knows the local culture, as "gringos" (people who are obviously tourists) can be a very easy target.

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