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An odyssey and an unexpected history lesson
The following morning I woke up before 7 o’clock and found that there was no electricity in the hotel – fortunately both my room and the bathroom had windows, so I could at least see whom I was washing. Breakfast was served in the dark and I was very happy to get a hot café con leche. Ronald and Angela from the hotel told me that the power cut had affected the whole town of Villarrica and would take a few hours to be sorted.
Well, you can get by without electricity, I suppose…
Ronald and Angela helped me carrying the luggage downstairs and waved me goodbye.
The Iglesia de Ybaroty, clearly influenced by medieval European architecture with its Romanesque and Gothic elements, looked great in daylight, too.
At this point, I should mention that neither my Paraguayan map nor the Argentinean mapping on my GPS were particularly brilliant for this area, but heading to the capital Asunción, there should be a cross-country road via Paraguari instead of having to return to the main, straight and uneventful Ruta 7. I only had to find it.
After a pleasant, albeit not an entirely voluntary sight-seeing tour through Villarrica and asking a few locals for directions, I finally found a promising dirt road leading west and out of town. Even the GPS showed a thin line and so I was optimistic that I was on the right track. But the road soon bent too far south and I so turned off to the right at the next opportunity. Alas, the trail became narrower and narrower and eventually a single-track lane. But I still met friendly greeting people and therefore carried on until I arrived at this “bridge” over a little creek:
Maybe I should also mention that deep inside I am a big chicken, really, and together with the fact that I was still unable to put full pressure onto my left foot there was no way I would be crossing those flimsy planks with my fully loaded DRZ.
I had already turned the bike round when a young family on a CG Titan 150 arrived. When they found out about my predicament, the driver quickly jumped off, stopped another motorcyclist and, before I could gather enough Spanish to explain why I couldn’t do this myself, they had already pushed the DRZ to the other side.
My saviours – muchisimas gracias!
In the meantime, I had caused a bit of a traffic jam…
… but also the couple you can see at the back stopped and we started chatting if it was wise for me to carry on, as the next stretch of the “road” would be muy feo (very ugly, literally), a bit tricky apparently… Meanwhile, the young family was waiting ahead to show me the best line and so I just had to go. The trail dipped into a steep riverbed which, although relatively dry at this time of the year, was very muddy and rutted. I almost made it through but then the back wheel got stuck. Oh, the embarrassment…
Immediately the second driver was there pushing the DRZ out of the hole – I think, as a thank you for coming to my aid, I roosted him thoroughly. I felt really sorry but didn’t look back and just hung on to the throttle until I reached the end of the track another mile further down. Phew, I was glad that I hadn’t taken the GS for this trip!
After waiting in the next village to apologise to my rescuers, I carried on into what I thought was the right direction but soon met mud, sand and finally a gate to a big ranch – a dead end. On my way back to the village I saw the young family again and they pointed me into the right direction to Itapé, which lay roughly on my route. How friendly and helpful the Paraguayans are!
The gravel track soon broadened and became really smooth – they will probably pave it in the very near future…
Some “wild life” by the side of the road
In Itapé I bought some water at a filling station and started a conversation with the attendant about travelling, life in Itapé and the road ahead. The latter would end at the river Tibucuary soon, she said, but apparently there were ways to get the bike over by balsa, a Spanish term I was not familiar with at that moment. When I arrived at the banks of the river, it became immediately clear what balsa meant – a raft! Oh no, I have had enough excitement already today, and without even taking a photo, I turned round and went looking for another option.
There was not a hint of a trail along the river…
… but I met a group of Guarani people on the banks and watched them fishing.
According to them there was no bridge for miles, so I traced back my steps to the main road and took the diversion to Coronel Martinez which meant road works, sticky mud and sand again. Paddling along, I finally reached the village and turned west. I think it was there when I joined a wide tarmac road – of course, neither on my map nor the GPS – leading to Paraguari.
The road was not completely finished, partially unpaved through the villages and it basically followed the railway line, which has probably seen better days since it was built in 1856…
The countryside became hillier...
… and I finally reached the town of Paraguari – the cradle of Paraguayan Independence. As it was already a few hours later than originally intended, I didn’t have enough time to appreciate the place where the Paraguayan troops under General Manuel Belgrano defeated the Argentine army in 1811. So I just filled up with fuel and chocolate and continued the 66 km journey to Asunción on the Ruta 1.
They really look after their busses here…
La Muy Noble y Leal Ciudad de Nuestra Señora Santa Maria de la Asunción - the very noble and loyal City of Our Lady Saint Mary of the Assumption - is large, densely developed and busy, as you would expect from a capital where 30% of the Paraguayans live. It’s also not particularly well sign-posted, and so it took me a while until I found the centre and the hotel La Española that had been recommended in the South American Handbook.
The receptionist looked very pretty but didn’t show a great deal of concern for the new guest who was limping up and down the stairs - she left it to a tiny old lady to ask me if I needed help with carrying my luggage. Of course, I declined. The young woman also forgot to mention that I had to switch on the boiler before I could have a hot shower… Never mind, including breakfast, secure parking and en-suite bathroom the hotel only cost me PYG 80,000, that was £11.00 at the time – just £0.70 more than the room in Villarrica – and we were right in the centro of the capital!
Just two blocks further north lay the Plaza de los Héroes, the heart of the historic centre of Asunción. A big marquee sheltered a free art exhibition and I spent a while enjoying local craftsmanship, sculptures and paintings before heading to the Pantéon Nacional de los Héroes, the National Pantheon of the Heroes.
The Ministerio de Hacienda – the Treasury - next to the popular Lido Bar
Talking of finances, the US$ 40.00 exchanged in Ciudad del Este wouldn’t last forever and I had to stock up on cash before entering the Gran Chaco the next day. Although you can pay for fuel with your credit card, I prefer to have some notes and coins in my pocket out in the wilderness. According to my travel guide there was a Lloyds TSB Bank nearby, and I thought I could save some administration fee using their ATM. Nice plan, but I couldn’t find the branch despite exploring the whole adjacent area… In the end I just approached a passer-by – and I couldn’t have made a better decision.
Alberto was a presidential guard off duty, enjoying the mild evening, and he had nothing better to do than giving the foreign tourist a guided tour of the city. During the next two hours I learnt not only that the Lloyds branch had been replaced by HSBC, but also an awful lot about Paraguayan history, a history that is actually very sad and violent. The country has suffered long periods of political instability, dictatorship and devastating wars with its neighbours. During the War of the Triple Alliance against Brazil, Argentina and Uruguay in the 1860’s, more than 80% of the male adult population were killed. Then there was also the Chaco War in the 1930’s with Bolivia over the region of the same name, with a death toll of 56,000 people on the Bolivian side and 36,000 in Paraguay.
I was shocked but also very impressed by Alberto’s wealth of knowledge and his balanced depiction of the country’s past and present problems; he showed me the slums as well as the presidential palace, the seat of the Paraguayan government and his place of work.
The Palacio de los López – the Palace of the López, the name of two of the country’s presidents
Nearby a memorial for the eight young victims who were killed during the events of March 1999 following the assassination of vice president Argaña, known as the Marzo Paraguayano today and considered a victory for popular power and a turning point in Paraguay’s famously Byzantine politics at the end of the 1990’s.
Alberto asked if I wanted to see more of the city but I was in quite a gloomy mood after hearing of all the bloodshed. Also, I would have loved to take Alberto out for dinner to thank him for his time and the valuable history lesson, but in his casual dress – T-shirt, shorts and flip-flops – they wouldn’t let him into a restaurant, he shrugged. What a shame! So we had to say goodbye but I promised to come to the palace the next morning when he would be on duty.
After wandering around the city centre and finding most of the restaurants out of my price range, I finally ended up in the famous Lido Bar – an institution in Asunción in a great location right on the Plaza de los Héroes with loads of character. You sit around a circular bar, order your food from the menu on the wall and get served from the middle. I must have looked a bit lost when I entered the place, because one of the waitresses, Carmiña, took me straight under her wing, recommended a traditional sopa de pescado, a fish soup, when I asked for a local dish and suggested one of the delicious freshly squeezed juices for dessert. Then she passed by every three minutes to see if I was still enjoying myself and the food. It was great.
Fed and watered I then went looking for an internet café to upload more photos, update my blog and write emails to the loved ones at home. The young man at the counter tried out four different computers until he found one that accepted my USB card reader, served me a drink and let me make use of the unusual fast connection until long after midnight. To top it all, he only wanted £0.70 from me and even made me aware that I had given him a 50,000 Guarani note (£7.00) instead of 5,000. Wow, he could have just taken advantage of that stupid tourist and kept the money - but no…
Completely swept away, I walked back to the hotel and couldn’t believe just how lucky I was to be here in Paraguay and to meet all those lovely people.
Could it get any better?
Last edited by Pumpy; 13 Mar 2011 at 01:55.
Have you ever had strawberry jelly for breakfast? And six different types of biscuits to go with butter and homemade jam? Freshly squeezed orange juice as well as whole fruits and bananas in all-you-can-drink-or-eat amounts respectively? Well, if this sounds like your cup of café con leche, then stay at the Hotel La Española in Asunción.
A quick note on paying by credit card in South America – businesses may ask for a surcharge for this convenience. As it would have added 10% to my bill, I thought, good that I had gone to the bank the previous evening, and handed over hard cash instead.
One of the impressively strong chambermaids and the hotel’s factotum, Gustavo, helped me carrying my luggage to the bike. Whilst packing, I had a nice chat and some Maté with Gustavo who could hardly believe that I was travelling through South America on my own...
Then I hurled myself into the thick of the inner-city traffic, making my way to the Plaza de Héroes for a photo of the Pantheon of the Heroes in daylight. While I was standing by the side of the road, several car drivers stopped and asked if they could take a picture of me! There are not a lot of motorcycle travellers coming through Asunción, I suppose…
Somehow I seem to be attracted by old trucks…
Finally I got to the president’s palace and pulled over to take a picture. Immediately one of the armed guards appeared and told me to get moving again – no vehicle is allowed to stop in the security zone.
Mmm, do I look like the typical terrorist carrying a rocket launcher in her saddle bags? Can I not just take a touristy photo of this beautiful building? Later I learnt that during the 35-year long dictatorship of General Stoessner even looking at the Government Palace was at a time punishable by death.
Still, slightly miffed I carried on to the next corner, but then Alberto came over and everything was alright. I thanked him again for his time and friendliness, he kept emphasising how impressed he was by my courage to cross the wild Chaco alone (gulp…) and then we had to say ’adios’.
I still looked at some of the capital’s monuments – the Cabildo de Asunción on the Plaza de la Independencia, which served as parliament, city hall and legislative palace in the past and is now a cultural centre and museum. Not sure about the colour scheme, to be honest...
The Memorial of the Marzo Paraguayano
The slums are right next to the government buildings, so that the public servants don’t forget this part of the Paraguayan people when they decide on laws and policies…
Finding out of Asunción was relatively easy following the excellent ConoSur mapping software from the Argentinean GPS forum – just the traffic was a bit crazy. It’s the survival of the fittest here or – in this case – of the biggest vehicle: as soon as I left more than 90 centimetres of a safety distance, cars pushed into my lane, colectivos just pulled away from the bus stop as soon as the last passenger’s feet were off the ground - without looking behind, of course; trucks bullied everyone smaller than themselves by simply ploughing their way through the chaos, etc. It really helps to have four sets of eyes…
At the checkpoint before the bridge over the River Paraguay two cops stopped me and started an interrogation. One of them wanted to see my passport, international driving licence and vehicle registration; the other just wanted to know everything about my trip, the bike, the SPOT around my arm and how it all worked. The first officer must have felt a bit left out because he demanded more documents, but then gave up when he couldn’t think of any additional paperwork that a foreign traveller could possibly present. Anyway, I had everything in order – I’m German after all – and in the end he relaxed, started to smile and joined in the conversation.
Then I was on the Ruta 9 – the notorious Trans Chaco. 744 km / 462 miles to go to the Bolivian border.
In the next village I stopped at a service station to buy water. They didn’t have any and also advised strongly against drinking tap water, but the team was eager to help me in some way. The only thing I could think of was to ask if I could lube my chain while I was there and immediately they brought me a little can of oil and a rag and lifted the back of the bike (with all the luggage!) to make it easier.
In the meantime I answered loads of questions and an elderly gentleman told me about the history of the region, which was populated mainly in the second half of the 19th century during the construction of the Paraguayan railway. The descendants of the many migrant workers from France, England, Germany, Italy and other countries still live in the area and create an interesting multicultural mix.
The Gran Chaco is a vast plain - sparsely populated, hot and semi-arid. The Ruta 9 stretches to the horizon (of course, it’s cheaper to build a straight road – even the old Romans knew that already…), bushes and palm trees dot the countryside with a few small-holdings and cattle thrown in between. The tarmac was fresh and the riding not particularly exciting, but I was aware that the conditions would change the further I got away from Asunción and so I just enjoyed what I had at the moment.
The GPS indicated a filling station near Rio Negro (km 180 of the Ruta 9) but there was no electricity and so the pumps didn’t work. Mmm, I still had fuel for at least another 110 km / 70 miles and the next services were 72 kilometres away, so it should be ok. Bathroom, two bottles of water, a cold empanada – and off I went again.
After a while the tarmac became patchy and huge potholes opened up, causing the traffic to meander around them. I had already been wondering why those trucks in the distance approached me on my side of the road… The trip counter showed 200 miles when I turned the fuel tap onto reserve. In Pirahú (km 252) they had petrol but not the 95 octane type I needed! My hopes were set on Pozo Colorado, a further 21 kilometres up the road.
Finally! The attendant filled 14.2 litres into my 16 litre-tank… I would still have had my extra can of five litres in the worst case scenario, but there was a lesson to be learnt: when in remote areas in South America – stock up on water and fuel at every opportunity, even if your hydropack and tank are still half full.
It was around 5 pm and I could have looked for accommodation in Pozo Colorado, but the South American Handbook had recommended the Rancho Buffalo Bill another 14 kilometres northwest. At km 283 I stopped in front of the hotel and – in anticipation of a nice shower and a good meal - walked towards the gate.
After a while, an elderly, toothless señor answered the door, but only to inform me that the supply of both water and electricity had been cut off and that, therefore, the Rancho was closed. I could either return to Pozo Colorado or carry on to Fortin Rio Verde. Well, I really don’t like turning back and so I rode another 40 kilometres onwards. At this rate, I would possibly make it to Bolivia by midnight…
In Rio Verde I found a service station, a restaurant and a few cottages. From the air the place looks like this:
Is there any accommodation around here? I asked at the guys at the pumps. At first, they shook their heads but then one of them pointed to the other side of the road. Over there, the señora rents out a room some times. Well, let’s hope she does so today…
A Guarani woman opened the door and then called the owner. Yes, she had a bed and if I would like to wait a minute, un ratito, she would prepare the room for me. While Norma was busy, I talked to the fine little lady sitting on the patio. It was actually her house where she was living with her son, his wife and their children; she was 78 years old, with an agile mind but suffering from an illness that made her frail and fall over. Still, she insisted on showing me my room – it was actually a small house -
Inside it was basic but clean.
… and I even had electricity. Otherwise there were no modern amenities such as running water or sanitation on the farm. They had a well but the water had to be heavily chemically treated to make it drinkable. Apart from that, a tanker would come round once a week to provide the village with potable water.
The family didn’t have a shower but Norma heated some water on the wood-stove, handed me a jug, a bowl and soap, and showed me their bathroom where I could have a wash. It seemed like travelling back in time and reminded me of my old student days when I lived in a tiny apartment which only had a toilet but no shower or bath tub. Here, the toilet was actually a pit latrine in the garden.
Standing there in the dimly lit room, relishing the peaceful environment and hugely enjoying the whole experience, I contemplated the living conditions here in the Chaco in comparison to the standard I had become accustomed to in Western Europe. The family didn’t possess any of the technical comforts that appear so indispensable to me and still, they all seemed happy and content with their life.
I was even more amazed when I learnt that Norma had grown up in Asunción, where she had also met her husband Joel. Only when his father died, his mum asked if he would move back to Rio Verde to look after her and the house. What a contrast it must have been for Norma and the children to swap life in the modern capital with this remote little village. And the family was relatively well off here in Rio Verde: they had a big house, a farm, a shop, the small guest house, Joel had a job in Pozo Colorado and they employed a Guarani couple to help them.
Norma, Joel and his mother
I was wondering how life must be for the indigenous people around here. Joel actually warned me – I should not leave my bike outside and always lock the door to my room. The Guarani were so poor that they would steal anything, he said. Due to our own history in Germany I am very sensitive to pejorative comments like this and any racist tendencies but I didn’t know enough about Paraguayan past and present to argue and also couldn’t talk to the Guarani couple themselves, as they had retired to their room by then.
So I just listened, asked more questions and gratefully accepted Joel’s offer to push my bike into my cottage and then, when it turned out to be too wide to fit through the door, into their own house for the night. Norma asked if I wanted to go to the restaurant or share their dinner with them. Of course, I went for the latter option.
It had been a long day – battling the traffic in Asunción, the police interrogation, the pot holes and the solitude on the Trans Chaco, the hunt for fuel, the friendliness of the people and then all the things I had learnt about life in Rio Verde – there was a lot to digest and think about.
What a multifarious experience this journey through Paraguay was. And it wasn't going to stop there.
"Willkommen in Loma Plata"
Norma seemed really pleased that I was so interested in their life in the Chaco and made me a typical breakfast in the morning: tortilla, Quinoa pancake and a lighter version of yerba maté. It was a lot to eat but I made an effort to finish it all!
It’s nice to know where your eggs come from…
I didn’t really want to leave this peaceful place where I had learnt so much, but finally I packed, paid less than £6.00 for accommodation and food, took some more photos and hit the road.
This little boy is the son of the Guarani couple but I didn’t understand his name.
Another little fellow...
The Ruta 9 was still long and straight…
Learning from yesterday’s experience, I stopped at the next filling station - but again, they only had 85-octane fuel and not the 95-variety. The onward journey promised to be interesting…
The next garage was 100 km further north-west at the junction to Loma Plata. They had 95-octane petrol and while filling up I saw something very intriguing: road signs in German! In the midst of the wild Chaco!
I hadn’t made my mind up how far I wanted to go that day, but there was surely time to follow those inviting signs to Loma Plata. Along the perfectly tarmaced road I saw more traces of German settlements.
Yes, I had heard about the Mennonite Communities in South America but I didn’t know who they were, why they had settled here in the Chaco and how they were living today. So when I came to Loma Plata, amazed by the German street names, German shops and German tidiness, I stopped at the local museum to learn more about the history of the community.
That’s Franklin Klassen, the museum’s attendant, reflecting both the Prussian and the Canadian traces in his ancestors' history in his name.
When I asked him in Spanish if I could visit the museum, he replied in German and then took a lot of time to tell me the saga of the Mennonite colony.
In the 1760's Catherine the Great of Russia invited Mennonites from Prussia to settle north of the Black Sea in exchange for religious freedom and exemption from military service, a precondition founded in their commitment to non-violence. After Russia introduced the general conscription in 1874, many Mennonites migrated to the Americas. The members of the Colonia Menno (of which Loma Plata is the largest town and administrative centre), settled first in Canada until a universal, secular compulsory education was implemented in 1917 that required the use of the English language, which the more conservative Mennonites saw as a threat to the religious basis of their community. 1743 pioneers came from Canada to Paraguay in 1927 and turned the arid Chaco into fertile farmland over the years. Today Loma Plata is home to a thriving agricultural co-operative with an impressive dairy production. The main language of the community is still the German dialect Plautdietsch although everyone speaks Spanish, too.
If you are interested, here is some more information about the Mennonites in general and about the Colonia Menno and Loma Plata in particular.
The early settlement efforts are well documented.
A bible in Gothic print from the first pioneers – the Fall of Man
A children's catechism
Franklin Klassen’s parents both played an important role in the development of the health service in Loma Plata: his father was the first local pharmacist and anaesthetist; his mother worked as a nurse in the only hospital in the area; it was built in 1947 while the other Mennonite colonies Fernheim (Filadelfia) and Neuland were still reluctant to employ professional medical care which they regarded as interference with God’s will.
Although I found some of the rules and decisions difficult to agree with, I was amazed by the enormous achievements of these pioneers. The conditions under which they survived had been incredibly tough and still, their faith gave them the strength to endure all the hardship and pursue their visions until, after decades, they had transformed the desert into prosperous farmland. This sculpture commemorates their endeavours.
I spoke to a few more people in the garden and then, although I had only ridden 130 km / 80 miles that day, the temptation of staying in a place where I could speak my own language for a while became just too much to resist. Usually I go home only once or twice a year so the prospect of a German environment was a luxury which I don’t enjoy very often. Herr Klassen recommended a reasonably priced hotel and a few minutes later I arrived at the Hotel Mora (Sandstrasse 803, by the way), being welcomed by the Sawatzky-family.
They had rooms for PYG 80,000 (£11) or PYG 120,000 (£16.30) but I was absolutely happy with the cheaper ones: en-suite, air-condition, breakfast and all immaculately clean. After fixing the internet connection I was even able to use the PC at the reception and inform Possu that I was still alive.
While updating my SPOT message and uploading photos I got talking to Annette, a member of the hotel staff. She had grown up in Frankfurt am Main, met an Argentinean, moved to South America, got married and had two kids with him. Her problems started when they divorced and the father was given custody of their children – possibly because she as a foreigner couldn’t provide the support of an extended family over here. Annette’s ex-husband then moved to Paraguay and she followed to be closer to her children, who she only saw once in a while though.
As she was not a member of the Mennonites and had no intention to become one, it was very difficult for Annette to find a decent job and somewhere to live in Loma Plata. Although she was a qualified banking professional as well as a management assistant for the hotel industry, she could count herself lucky to have secured employment as a chamber maid at the Hotel Mora. Her salary was correspondingly low and she wasn’t really integrated in the community. Her parents, although seasoned travellers, had not visited her once in the seven years she had been living in Paraguay. It was quite a sad story but Annette was still radiating the amazing energy of a woman who would never give up and always try to find a way.
Annette helped me doing my laundry, even the inner liners of my motorcycle suit which, due to the high temperatures, really needed a wash. Showered and changed I set off to explore the town on foot. When I was about to leave the premises Juan Carlos, another guest of the hotel, tried to engage me in a conversation, but I couldn’t help thinking that he just assumed that I, as a solo-travelling woman, would be most grateful for some male attention. Well, I wasn’t actually and cut him short: sorry, daylight is fading and I still would like to take some photos.
On my way into the town centre I met a lot of friendly people, more often greeting with “Hallo” than “Hola”. Although Loma Plata has 5,500 inhabitants, it seemed that everyone knew each other – rather like in a small village. In fact, the place still had a very rural feel to it.
And then there were those familiar street names everywhere – Hill Road…
… and interesting road signs using a traffic light scheme to clarify the rights-of-way.
Although a quarter to six, it was still very hot.
In the supermarket of the Cooperativa Chortitzer, the main social, administrative and commercial institution of the Menno Colony, I indulged in the extensive range of dairy products, fruit and vegetables. Still, having only restricted luggage space, I restrained myself to the basics: biscuits to keep me going during the day, porridge for breakfast should I be stranded overnight (for dinner I had already bought spaghetti and tomato sauce in Buenos Aires), and a cheap toothbrush to clean and lube the DRZ's chain.
I love supermarkets in foreign countries – you can learn a lot about the habits and preferences of the locals. Happily wandering around, completely absorbed by the variety of typical goods on the shelves, I didn’t realise that it was already after closing time until a polite shop assistant asked me if I was looking for something in particular…
It was still hot outside.
Another testimony to the community’s past
On the way back to the hotel I met Juan Carlos again: would I have dinner with him? Not right now, I still had things to do on my bike and in my room, and he shouldn’t wait for me. The hotel owners, Mr and Mrs Sawatzky, were sitting in the courtyard and we started talking about their life in Loma Plata. They both had been born in the community; they had never lived anywhere else and didn’t have any inclination to travel – they learnt enough from the visitors coming from all over the world to stay with them. The two were quite doubtful if it was a good idea to travel through the wild Chaco on my own, as the road would become more and more remote and a lot of dubious characters would use the Ruta 9 being up to no good. Oh dear…
In the afternoon I had met Fritz, a waiter in a restaurant nearby, and he had suggested that I should come to dine at their place La Delicia, the delight, later. The menu looked good and Fritz showed me a nice table in the air-conditioned interior – it was still too hot to sit outside. Fritz was a descendent of Brazilian Mennonites in the 6th generation, he spoke German, Portuguese, Spanish, English and Guarani, and he was going to be a dad the next day! How could he still be so calm and continue doing his job?!
After I had finished a delicious meal, Fritz told me that “my friend” was waiting outside and that my bill had already been paid. No way, that’s out of the question, I’m paying for my food myself, thank you very much! Still, not wanting to be rude, I went into the garden after a while and sat down with Juan Carlos. It’s the custom in Paraguay that visitors are invited for dinner, he said, it doesn’t mean anything, honestly. Yeah, right… :rolleyes
Juan Carlos told me about his job; he lived in Asunción, was employed by a big company and had to travel around the country solving issues with the labourers, especially with the indigenous ones. He spoke in a low voice, slurry and very fast, and although I repeatedly asked him to slow down a bit, I didn’t find out what exactly this problem management implied. Still, he as well warned me about the hazards of the Trans Chaco Highway and the people that I might encounter.
Fritz helped translating and brought me a homemade Flan, a traditional Spanish custard, for dessert – on the house and to celebrate his impending fatherhood. How lovely. Full-up and tired of the effort to make sense of Juan Carlos’s muttering, who was by then pretty drunk, I got up to return to the hotel. Of course, JC wanted to accompany me, possibly because he needed someone to lean on on the way back. He let me hold his while he was relieving himself against a lamp post and then tried to give the conversation a more intimate tone.
Of course, I was having none of it, kept waving my wedding ring at him and then thanked my lucky stars that Mr Sawatzky was still sitting in the courtyard. I quickly turned to him to ask further questions about the route to the Bolivian border. Alas! I heard more unsettling stories… In the meantime, Juan Carlos had fortunately retired to his room but I still passed a very uneasy night, envisioning the perils that lay ahead…
Had I been naive and bitten off more than I could chew?
I used a Panasonic Lumix DMC-TZ10. The main features were for me:
Or do I buy a compact camera which takes pictures of a lesser quality but can be carried in my pocket (or hang round my neck) all day, goes rather unnoticed and is easily ready for snapshots?
Well, I went for the compromise, also because I couldn't fit a tank bag on the Clarke tank. Although images in poor light conditions or by night turned out a bit too grainy, I was very happy with the TZ10 over all. It even survived being thoroughly soaked on Chiloé (due to user error... ).
A nasty surprise...
At the break of dawn I finally calmed down. Ok, there might be horrible road conditions, shifting sands, very few settlements, no services at all but smuggler gangs on the notorious Trans-Chaco, but I would just see how far I could make it this day. Maybe it was only from Loma Plata to Mariscal Estigarribia, 112 kilometres ahead, where I could get fuel and supplies and even a hotel if the road turned out to be too bad. Maybe I would meet other travellers on the way and could team up with them for the journey to the Bolivian border. Or maybe it wouldn’t be so bad after all…
A sumptuous breakfast buffet – Müesli, yoghurt, home-baked bread rolls, real butter, cheese, fresh fruit and delightful café con leche – lifted my spirits further. While I was packing, Mr Sawatzky came along and I told him that I had thought about the risks he had warned me of and that I would probably only ride to Mariscal today and continue to the border tomorrow. Oh, I shouldn’t worry so much, he said, I could at least carry on to La Patria, 116 km after Mariscal; there would be accommodation, too, and then I would have covered a large portion of the route already. I was relieved and really grateful for this reassurance. Annette gave me a big hug when we said goodbye and then I was off.
Straight after Loma Plata I ran out of tarmac and rode sandy dirt tracks until I reached Filadelfia, another one of the German-speaking Mennonite communities in this part of Paraguay.
Filadelfia, the centre of the Fernheim Colony, looked even neater than Loma Plata. I could have stayed on tarmac from here but that would have involved going back a bit; so I took the shorter, more direct dirt track which was not necessarily faster, as you may have suspected… The road turned out to be sandy and slow but some times I could take my eyes off the track and admire the fascinating Bottle Trees.
After joining the paved Trans-Chaco again, I arrived in Mariscal around lunchtime. At the services I bought six litres of water and filled up the bike’s tank, spare canister and fuel bladder (29 litres in total), as there were no filling stations between this last outpost of civilisation and the next town in Bolivia, Villamontes, around 500 kilometres / 310 miles away.
The attendant looked at me very sceptically when he learnt that I was going to cross the wild Chaco on my own, but when I told him a bit more about my trip, he willingly gave me some valuable advice on the route ahead. He wasn’t aware of the direct road to the west which was charted in my map but he confirmed Mr Sawatzky's view: I should carry on north; there would be another village half-way to the border, La Patria, where I could get fuel and accommodation.
So after some chocolate, nice chats with the locals and a longish break to build up my courage, I decided to continue. It was 116 kilometres to La Patria, and every minute I expected a road sign Fin de pavimento, pavement ends. But no, the asfalto continued stretching to the horizon.
Up to kilometre stone 550 that was (Mariscal lies between km 526 and 530 counting from Asunción, if I remember correctly). Then the Ruta 9 suddenly became muy feo, very ugly: the deepest potholes I have ever seen in my life opened up in front of me, requiring advanced slalom skills for the next 80 km / 50 miles – until kilometre 620, to be precise, when the tarmac smoothed out again.
This rough bit cost me one of my precious water bottles and a few litres of fuel: it’s the custom in South America that the attendant fills up your tank rather than you doing it yourself. In Mariscal I hadn’t been quick enough and the otherwise very skilled and knowledgeable señor had ripped off the rubber seal of my Clarke tank lid by accident – to the effect that every time I hit a bump, fuel spilled over the edges. Great, especially as the petrol had to last me at least 500 km / 310 miles…
There was very little traffic; I only met three vehicles and a few gauchos with their cattle in two hours, and just after 3pm I already arrived in La Patria. I rode through the village, as I had two options from here: following the Ruta 9 northwest to Boyuibe in Bolivia, a route mainly used by smugglers and the police coming after them, or heading to the border post of Mayor Infante Rivarola going slightly back south again. The Ruta 9 deteriorated straight after the village sign and so I turned round and followed the grey tarmac band, which was neither on my map nor in my GPS.
However, the European Union had been here, supporting the improvement of the drinking water supply to the region together with Argentina, Bolivia and Paraguay itself. It’s good to know that my tax money is put to some sensible use for a change.
114 km to the Bolivian border
The only interesting things I saw for the next miles were more impressive bottle trees and the occasional entrance gate of a big ranch with a dirt track trailing off into the distance. The actual farm may lie hundred kilometres away from the road.
Oh, and there was, of course, a beautiful DRZ…
I also met two heavily loaded bicycles coming the other way. A French couple, as I learnt later, on a round-the-world trip they had started four years ago. Really impressive, especially considering what a long and boring stretch of road they had ahead of them…
After another 110 kilometres I stopped at a barrier where a soldier asked for my passport, international driving licence and V5. Everything was fine and he waved me through.
Two kilometres further on I arrived at the actual border between Paraguay and Bolivia. It was now around 5pm and I was hoping to find accommodation here.
I was greeted by a group of five border officials - rather casually dressed, all already a bit tipsy but in good spirits. With an average of three vehicles passing every day, I was a welcome diversion to their daily routine.
The customs officer was away but would return any minute, they told me, and so he did. Friendly and efficiently he processed my temporary import documents for the DRZ and sent me on my way.
One moment, señor, excuse me, but where is the Paraguayan exit-stamp in my passport? Well, that you get at the immigration office in Mariscal. What? This cannot be true – Mariscal is 230 kilometres before the border! I could not grasp the concept behind of not being able to receive an exit-stamp at the border when actually leaving the country and was absolutely gobsmacked when I stumbled out of the office. What a nasty surprise…
My new friends offered me some of their high-proof spirit (which I politely declined) and together we considered the options: I could ride straight back and stay in Mariscal but there was only an hour of daylight left – dismissed. One of them would give me a lift there and back for US$ 120.00 – also dismissed. I could carry on into Bolivia and bribe the border official on the other side. The men local to the area shook their heads: the Bolivian guy was a real hardliner and apparently showed no mercy; they had seen people reduced to tears having been sent back from the Bolivian border post in the village of Ibibobo (70 kilometres further on) to get their exit stamp in Mariscal. Ok, I would be thinking about taking this risk.
However, with daylight fading, I had to sleep somewhere and asked if I could pitch my tent behind the barracks. No problem, but the ground was very hard and they had recently shot a caiman in the woods nearby. Mmm, were they pulling my leg? I could sleep with them in their barrack, they had a spare bed. Yeah, right… Then one of them, another Juan Carlos, stepped forward and invited me to stay with him and his wife in a separate hut for free which I gratefully accepted.
This hut consisted of a bedroom, a bathroom with toilet and running cold water, and an office with desk and chair where I could spread my sleeping bag.
Yessime, Juan Carlos’s wife, welcomed me into their home and we immediately started chatting about the life out here in the wilderness amongst all the men, my trip and the destinations she also wanted to see one day. After a while the boys came over and invited us to have dinner with them in the canteen. They served a delicious stew with the meat of an antelope that they had hunted the previous day.
Afterwards I was asked into the commander’s office and allowed to use the only computer to write an email to Steve telling him about my whereabouts and that I was well. The officer encouraged me to just try and get over into Bolivia without the exit-stamp – I might have to pay some US$ 20 as a bribe but that would be a lot cheaper and less time-consuming than going back to Mariscal.
Well, I thanked him very much and went to sleep over the options. He might be right but then, he had only recently arrived from Asunción and didn’t know the officer on the Bolivian side. Decisions, decisions…
What would you have done?
Hello Pumpy i´m inspired to do the same thing, brillhant pics and story, i hope we can share some miles one day, here or in uk dont matter, warm greetings from Brazil!!!!!!! Rodrigo
The Ortlieb panniers held up well, always waterproof, robust and easy to fix: when I laid the bike on its side in Bolivia (at speed... ), one of the fasteners got ripped off. One visit at the cobbler's, a few stitches and the saddlebag looked like new.
The Ortlieb's have a plastic shell inside to keep them in shape, make them more rigid and protect the content; on the other hand they don't expand a lot, which could cause a problem if you buy more stuff during your trip.
I ended up putting things into my Wolfman tank panniers, as they are more flexible in that regard - they just build higher and as long as you can still fold the rim three times, they will stay waterproof. So you may want to look at the Wolfman saddlebags, too.
Good luck with your trip!
If you ever want to come to the UK let me know, there will be a space for you and your bike in our house and we can also show you our favourite places in this beautiful country.
Good luck with your own trip - don't forget to visit the Norton Rats in Cuzco to meet likeminded people and get lots of useful advice. And please say hello to John from me - thanks.
Thnx for the information and I checked your website. Hopefully I will be riding there next year, I don't have to take any pictures any more because of yours;-)
I will be tracking your adventures, safe travelling.
Please support: www.duara.org
Last edited by noplacelikehome; 21 Apr 2011 at 18:54.
How not to enter Bolivia
It was really interesting that the majority of people who replied to my question "what would you have done?" would have gone for the bribe.
Personally, I find bribery wrong on so many accounts: corruption has been and still is destroying countries and societies, especially in the developing parts of the world; it undermines the law by exempting the rich from following the rules and it degrades travellers to cash cows who are only appraised for their milking potential. So I had taken a vow before the trip that I would not pay anyone for anything that should be free – such as crossing from one country to another, for instance.
Also, I don’t like putting myself into a position where I am at someone’s mercy. The knowledge that my bike, my luggage and all my documents were in order contributed a great deal to my confidence and demeanour when talking to officials at borders, customs or police checks on the road.
And even if I had considered bribing the Bolivian border official – he might have asked for more money than I would be willing to pay or sent me back anyway (because he could…); then I would have had to ride the 70 kilometres of horrible dirt track three times plus the 460-kilometre roundtrip to Mariscal and back on top, meaning that I would also lose another day in the process. That was not a risk I wanted to take.
So during the night I decided to return to Mariscal to get the required exit stamp. I had enough fuel, could leave the luggage at the border post and, when I started as soon as Juan Carlos began his shift at 6.30am, I would also have enough time after getting back to Mayor Infante Rivarola to carry on to Villamontes, the nearest town in Bolivia.
The morning did not start well though: we overslept and were only woken up by Gilberto, Juan Carlos’s replacement from the capital Asunción (the border officials work 15-day shifts at this outpost before they return home to their families). I had a few biscuits and water for breakfast, filled the content of my fuel bladder into my tank and set off just before 9am – two and a half hours later than planned…
However, I made good progress, saw the French cyclists again (I wondered where they had slept during the night...) and arrived in Mariscal at a quarter to twelve. Finding the Oficina de Migraciones was not a problem; the official didn’t ask any questions, he only wanted to see my passport and added the desired exit-stamp; done. Stepping out of the building, I ran into a group of small Guarani kids who were waiting for foreigners to beg for money – an embarrassing and at the same time heartbreaking scene.
I stocked up on fuel, water and chocolate and made it back to Infante Rivarola by 4pm. The soldiers at the military post already knew me by now and just waved me through. At the border, I quickly packed my luggage, said goodbye to Juan Carlos, Gilberto and the other boys, thanked them very much for their hospitality, gave them the rest of my Paraguayan cash and set off. It was still 120 kilometres to Villamontes and there were only two hours of daylight left. It was getting dark at 6.20pm at that time but a few minutes of riding in the night would not do any harm, I thought. Famous last words…
Immediately after crossing the border with Bolivia, the tarmac ended and the road changed to a sandy, stony, corrugated dirt track.
Big trucks were coming the other way, driving without lights, creating lots of powder clouds, leaving me blind for a few moments so that I had to stop frequently to let the dust settle. Then I reached a Bolivian military control post where I had to show my passport and bike registration and explain where I was coming from, where I was going to and if I had anything to declare. A few soldiers proudly demonstrated their English skills and tried to engage me into a longer conversation - but the clock was ticking and I had to crack on.
After 50 kilometres of struggling with ruts, corrugations and trucks, I reached tarmac and ran into another military post. Two hours to Villamontes, they said – what, for 70 kilometres?! I understood what they meant when, after only 500 meters of asphalt, the road diverted me on to the dirt track again. By now it was getting dark but I was still doing 45 km/h. Then suddenly I hit sand! Screaming but still upright I passed the patch. Through the next dodgy bits I tried different riding techniques and then disaster struck - I lost the front end and laid the bike on its left-hand side.
There was no way that I could lift the DRZ without removing all the luggage. But the bike was lying in the middle of the road and I was fearing and hoping at the same time that another truck would come along. After five minutes I heard an engine roaring, so I switched the lights back on and flashed SOS. The truck stopped – but nothing happened. The driver stayed in his cabin and I had to walk towards him and ask if he could help me. He did - without speaking a word though. Only later did it dawn on me that he might have been wary of a trap and equally scared as me.
After that incident I took it very easy, even paddling through the sand patches, as I could not afford to drop the bike again - the traffic had died down completely. It was pitch-black by now but I was approaching 70 kilometres and expected the Bolivian border post to appear around the next corner. Nada - nothing. I heard a few dogs barking, hoped again, but still - nothing. From every light reflection in the trees I drew hope but it was only my own headlight illuminating the leaves. Then the engine died. I had switched to reserve only a few miles back but for some strange reason the tank was already empty.
In the dark I had to get the tools out and undo all the bolts from my luggage rack to remove the reserve fuel canister. Everything was dusty and caked and hence the can was a very tight fit - maybe also due to the fall earlier. I almost dropped the bike off its side stand during the effort of pulling the container out. Then - where was the funnel? Ah, in the tool tube, its lid also very sandy. After 20 minutes I finally had everything re-assembled (including myself after a short excursion into the bushes) and the trusty DRZ started straight away. During all this time I had not heard a single thing apart from some strange animal sounds.
Well, I was down to between 15-20 km/h because I couldn’t see much and there was a lot of sand on the track. But I thought, ok, at some point I will arrive somewhere, so I just keep going. 50 kilometres to Villamontes equals 2.5 to 3.5 hours at that speed and it was 7.45pm. Camping in the wilderness was just not an option with the Rio Pilcomayo nearby, alligators and all the other animals around that the border guys had told me about. Slowly, slowly I made progress, after every corner I expected the border post, with every road sign I was hopeful I would be nearing civilisation - but still nothing... At least the GPS showed that I was on the Ruta 11, the main road between the border and Villamontes...
Finally, after ages I spotted a pick-up truck with two men outside by the side of the road. They may be smugglers but more importantly they were humans, thanks God for that! Is it still far to Villamontes? No, just 20 kilometres and there is tarmac around the corner. Phew!
I turned round the mentioned corner and yes, there it was - glorious asphalt! After a while, the road was even equipped with cat-eyes and I could accelerate to 45 km/h, as there were still the cattle crossing the road without looking to be wary about. At 9.05pm I rolled into Villamontes, the Promised Land. It was bigger than I had thought but I could not find the hotel I had planned to stay in. So I stopped in front of a restaurant and asked if they could point me to any means of accommodation. I must have looked really knackered and confused, because in the end, a nice young man jumped into his car and guided me to 'El Rancho', the best hotel in town - but I thought I had deserved it.
The welcome was great - everyone at the hotel was truly concerned and did everything to make me comfortable, helped me unloading the bike, carried my luggage, said I should not worry that I was so dirty and didn’t have any local currency yet, and they even kept some dinner for me so that I could have a shower first. And the room was just heaven - spacious, clean, good quality furniture, big bathroom with all the trimmings, fantastic. I was so relieved and so shattered that I thought I would treat myself to two nights (even at US$32.00) to relax thoroughly. I also had to maintain the bike after this ride, get some local currency and sort my official entry into Bolivia out.
Hopefully there was an immigration office in town and with any luck they wouldn’t ask too many questions…
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