See How Paraguay’s Ciudad del Este Is a Crazier Akihabara

I have a pretty strong fascination with Ciudad del Este. I’ve written before about how the city was founded by a military dictator partly as his hub for bootleg consoles. But it’s not only its history that interests me. I actually live pretty close to Ciudad del Este now, and I go there regularly (pandemic permitting) to get supplies for my business. And of course, to buy games. I went there yesterday. It reminded me just how crazy that place is. So, I thought we’d take a virtual walk through the commercial center of the city. This is a place that in its hayday, moved more money per-day than Wall Street. Welcome to Ciudad del Este, Akihabara District’s crazier cousin.

It’s a Bit of a Trip

Before we even begin talking about how crazy the city is, I thought it was a good idea to give you some context regarding Ciudad del Este, and Paraguay as a whole. Paraguay is a landlocked country in South America. As you can see from the map above, it’s a bit off the beaten path. Though that direct flight from LAX to Asunción seems tempting, it’s not always available. If you’re visiting the country from the States or Europe, it’s sometimes needed to go through Sao Paulo, Brazil. When I moved back from Calgary, Canada, to Paraguay in 2015, the trip was 36 hours long. Let me tell you, after 10 hours, you start to feel it.

But I was coming back to the place where I was born. Not only that: I was coming to meet the family of the woman with whom I’ve fallen in love. So, after 36 hours in a few different airplanes, with my 12-year-old cat in tow, I arrived! And then, I was taken to Ciudad del Este.

Near, and Yet Far

My wife’s hometown (now also mine) is about 30 miles from the actual City of the East. It’s a tiny Japanese colony with its own perks. I’m sure you can’t find finer ramen anywhere in the country. But sadly, Colonia Yguazú isn’t home to any electronics boutiques. Now I’m settled in, whenever we need something from the city, we jump in our little Kia Rio and drive there. It takes about 40 minutes to do the 30 or so miles, through the country’s best dual-carriageway. It also requires paying the most expensive toll in Paraguay, which at 14.000 Guaraní, is about US$2.

Not everything that goes into my tiny Rio comes from the streets of Ciudad del Este.
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Once you get into the city itself, it’s a short drive to El Centro (the center, or downtown), where all major commerce happens. Parking is about 4.000 Guaraní (US$0.70) per hour if you choose public parking. Public parking is cheap, but it comes with caveats: it’s difficult to park there, as it’s super narrow. It also features cuidacoches, or “car-minders”. These fine folk will help you park and look after your car… whether you want them to or not. You pay them whatever you want, but it’s not uncommon to have a cuidacoches scratch your car because you tipped them too little.

Private lots are twice as expensive (sometimes more), but offer additional security and valet parking. Trusting people with your car keys in a city like Ciudad del Este can be intimidating, but as soon as you see the Mercedes-Benz S-Class next to you, you’re less worried about your little Kia Rio. Well worth the investment if you’re going to buy in bulk. Which is what a lot of people, particularly those from neighboring Brazil and Argentina, do.

Let’s Get On With It

Once you’re parked and get out to see the sights, you’re greeted by this:

That is the entrance to Atacado Games, located in Shopping Jebai. If you’re looking for gaming-related stuff, Jebai is the place to be. As you can see, traffic laws are more akin to suggestions here. Sadly, so are things like building codes and ensuring consumer safety. Jebai Center has had numerous fires in the past few years. The most recent took place just a couple of weeks ago. The fire brigade (which is totally voluntary here in Paraguay) has spoken out numerous times about how dangerous Jebai is. Alas, nothing much has changed. Jebai features 5 floors, comprised of 2 main shopping floors and 3 floors for pacotes. More on this later.

For people looking for a good deal, the fire isn’t really a deterrent. Ciudad del Este is full of dangers anyway. So, one might as well go about one’s daily life. And what a life it is!

It’s pretty difficult to reconcile the exterior vistas of Ciudad del Este, and the repeated reports of building code violations and fires, with a state-of-the-art gaming kiosk like Atacado Games. And to be honest, once you’re inside of Atacado Games, you are transported to a world of high street shopping. It’s great! Particularly if you’re not Paraguayan. Sadly, most stores treat international buyers much better than they do their compatriots. But it only takes a few steps into the interior of Jebai center itself to start figuring out just how precarious the infrastructure is.

Not only that, but whatever you buy… you don’t actually get. At least, not instantly. You buy the items in the high-class-looking store. But to pick them up, you must climb no less than 4 rickety stairs to the pacote (meaning package in Portuguese), the place where you actually get your stuff. This is the pacote area for one of the biggest game retailers in Jebai Center, called Star Games:

Getting Out of Ciudad del Este Is a Trip

Shopping bag in hand, fresh from your trip to the pacote corresponding to the loja (store) from which you’ve bought your stuff, you get in your car, and prepare to head back home. As you can see from the image above, this isn’t a trivial pursuit. Gridlocks aren’t uncommon in Ciudad del Este. In fact, despite the relatively tiny area comprised by the Centro (or perhaps because it’s tiny), there’s as much traffic here as I’ve seen anywhere in Toronto in my 10 years living there.

But sure enough, a couple of hours later, you’re back on the Ruta Nacional Número 2, driving home, loot in tow. Your trip through El Centro is done. Certainly a bit messier than Akihabara. Perhaps a bit more dangerous as well. But definitely not boring.