Rick Steves Talks Up Tijuana

In a recent syndicated column, European travel guru Rick Steves explains why Tijuana is a worthy travel destination. He admits that, at first, he was down on the border city because of its reputation, but had never visited until recently.

So what did the author and travel show host with the unlikely voice (“he sounds like my Grandmother” a friend once told me) think of life on the other side of the wire? Well, it is definitely not Tuscany: “Bars that feel like saloons come with cheap prostitutes wearing down their stiletto heels at the doors.”

But Steves notes that things were not as raw as he expected: “With this thriving economy comes a thriving culture: music, arts, and an impressive cultural center. The city, while architecturally dilapidated, is extremely clean. The streets were free of litter.” It seems that, despite the recent cartel shootouts, the local government seems to be delivering on its promise to spiff up Tijuana. Sure, the city has gained economically from rubbing against the US, but it is still on the outside looking over the fence. As Steves point out though, there is far more than cheap prescriptions and free flowing agave-based alcohol to this border town.

Ciudad del Este – South America’s black market hotspot

The tiny country of Paraguay doesn’t often pop up on the “must-see” list for those traveling to South America. Sitting landlocked between Argentina to the south, Bolivia to the west and Brazil to the north and east, Paraguay has been described as “the forgotten country of Latin America.” But Paraguay has nevertheless attracted quite a bit of attention lately, less for tourism than because it is an important hub in the global smuggling trade.

A vast bazaar of illegal weapons, counterfeit goods and illicit substances is spread out for sale in the markets of Ciudad del Este, Paraguay’s smuggling capital. The city is conveniently located at the convergence of the borders of three countries (Brazil, Argentina and Paraguay), making it the ideal transit point for tax free and often illegal goods headed to all points beyond. GOOD magazine has an interesting profile on Ciudad del Este in its most recent issue. Author Sacha Feinman dives into the city’s back alleys and sidestreets, where he discovers everything from AK-47’s to Montblanc pens to bricks of marijuana can be easily obtained for purchase. Feinman also befriends some of Ciudad del Este’s many porters-for-hire, who package illicit goods and carry them over the city’s 1,600-foot “Friendship Bridge” to neighboring Brazil. Instead of crossing through customs, the men drop their packages off the side to the riverbank below, where waiting teenagers sort through the packages for distribution. So much for filling out that customs form…

As long as the Paraguayan and Brazilian authorities continue to turn a blind eye to the thriving smuggling practice, Paraguay’s black markets will continue to thrive. For a country that doesn’t see much tourism (or other industry for that matter) it seems to be as much an economic necessity as it is a fact of life. Do exercise caution if you’re even considering a visit. Aside from all the petty lawlessness, Wikitravel warns that Paraguay is currently experiencing its worst outbreak of Yellow Fever in over 60 years. Yikes.