My first impression of Paraná wasn’t exactly positive. “Look, if it rains and floods like that every day, I don’t think I want to stay like we had planned,” I told Feng.
But he argued that we shouldn’t rush through cities. “We have to take our time,” he said. “Otherwise, why travel? Where and when are we going to spend time, eventually?”
Maybe he was right. I always get annoyed when people judge too fast—their date, for instance. “It takes time to get to know each other, no one will ever be absolutely perfect!” I want to scream. So yes, maybe I was jumping to conclusions with Paraná.
Indeed, on Monday, under a clear blue sky, Paraná did look better and livier. Pretty-ish, even. The city is perched on a hill, along the eponymous river. It has all the usual features you expect from a city in Latin America—a cathedral, several churches, a central plaza, pedestrian streets and parks, walls covered with graffiti and colonial buildings. It’s a relaxing place with few tourists, especially from outside Argentina or South America.
We stuck out. This is one of the places we were openly stared at, mostly out of curiosity. At the playground, several kids came to talk to us. People would check if we spoke Spanish, ask where we were from, how life was somewhere else. “But why are you coming here?” they’d say, puzzled.
Sure, Paraná doesn’t have fancy museums to visit or amazing restaurants to discover. There are museums but we didn’t even try to figure out the opening hours considering it was hard enough to find out the city’s business schedule. But the long waterfront is nice, the setting along the river is amazing and the city centre is pretty, friendly and interesting. Paraná is spread out enough that you don’t walk the same street several times a day, yet compact enough to navigate easily.
One of the main issues of life in a city off the beaten path is finding services that cater to travellers. For instance, we quickly realized there were very few restaurants in Paraná. It makes sense, locals eat at home. There was a McDonald’s, a fancy place and a few eateries here and there, far from the city centre. We had no idea where to get food and it didn’t help that 90% of the city was closed from 12:30 to 5:30 p.m.
Eeverytime we arrive in a new city, we have to figure out how it works. We don’t even have a guidebook for Argentina. We usually get a city map from the hotel or the tourist info centre but only the main sights and landmarks are listed—churches, bus stations, airports, etc. It’s up to us to find supermarkets, restaurants, banks, etc.
Inconveniently, Latin America doesn’t use giant neon signs like in Hong Kong. We have to explore every street and every neighborhood patiently and take note. We have to follow where locals go, figure out people’s schedule—when do they eat, do business, relax?
Detective work usually pays off but it takes time. That second evening in Paraná, I came back to the hotel empty-handed after a two-hour walk. “Okay, I’m sorry but I really didn’t see any restaurant or take-out place, guys. I explored all the main streets in the city centre. I have no idea where and what we can eat. Best option is probably to go back to the supermarket by the bus station and grab stuff from the deli counter.”
Then we went out again together and bam! At 9 p.m., a few eateries started to open. I couldn’t have seen them during the daytime when everything was closed. I didn’t even suspect they existed.
After four days, we were temporarily adopted by Paraná. The lady at the bakery was giving Mark free medialunas, people were greeting us like old friends and I was calling the cockroaches outside “chicos”—as in “chicos, move, I’m having a smoke outside.” I knew it was pointless to try to buy empanadas before 9 p.m. and Feng and Mark were hiding from the heat in the afternoon like locals. At night, Mark was sliding down the monument to San Martín like all the local kids and I was walking down to the kiosco at 1 a.m. for a snack just because, hey, why not? It’s 30°C outside and there are people in the street!
Going off the beaten track had been a rewarding move. Giving Paraná a second chance as well. I’ll try to remember that in the future—sometimes, you do have to try harder.