El Gran Chaco of Paraguay, part 1

The northern 2/3 of Paraguay consists of a sparsely populated, arid desert covered mainly by scrub brush and a few trees – The Chaco. The different types of bushes all have thorns or needles on them which caused me a great deal of pain as I was looking for campsites. I read about the Chaco and it seemed like quite an adventure. Boy was it ever.

I left Asunción on a fine day with a nice tailwind. Once I crossed the Rio Paraguay, everything changed. It became desolate, dry and remote. But I was on a decent paved road, shown here:

So I continued until nightfall where I pitched my tent near a dirty pond of water and got my first of dozens of bites and scrapes from bugs and bushes.

Then the pavement ended and as I questioned people about the way ahead I became a bit concerned: “Are there places to get food and water?”, I asked. “Yes, no problem, there is a store 90 km up the road.” Well 90 km on a dirt road in the heat is a lot, actually. “is the road well marked?”. “No.” “Can I cross into Bolivia?” “I don´t think so.”  A lot of variables.

My map showed a jumble of dirt roads which theortically could have got me to the Bolivian border after about 600 km. I decided to play it safe and try to hook up to the main road, the trans-Chaco highway, which was paved and should have more options for food and water. Roughing it in the Chaco, I learned, was not for the faint of heart.

So, on the second day at a junction called Ninfa there was a little shop. As I questioned them about the way ahead a policeman came over and gruffly asked to see my passport. No problem, I knew I had my visa so I gave it to him and continued talking with the shopkeeper. The policeman flipped through my passport a few times then said “there is no entry stamp.” My heart sunk. I knew he was right.  My cavalier entry over the bridge in Encarnación was coming back to haunt me. I feebly tried to explain what happened but he was not satisfied. He smelled a bribe. He motioned for me to follow him to his office while my sympathetic shopkeeper and other customers watched.

Once inside, he said it was illegal for me to be in Paraguay without an entry stamp. I was, essentially, an illegal alien. He said, as far as I could gather because he spoke very rapidly in accented Spanish, that I would have to return to Asuncion and get the stamp. I was incredulous. I just rode for almost two days on some very bumpy roads. There was no way I was going back. I realized it was time to enter bribe territory. I asked, “is there some way I can buy a temporary stamp?” He looked at me strangely then jabbered away in Spanish again that I did not understand. Finally he said the word multa, which I know means fine. OK, I thought, here we go. All I need to do is pay the fine and I will be let off. I was expecting something like $20. No, he said the fine was $160. I could not believe it. I said I don´t have that much (actually I did but I was not going to pay so much). I stalled for time, trying to think of other alternatives, but finally as he looked expectantly at me I pulled out my wallet and offered $40. He nodded, took the money and said I could go. “I would like a receipt, please”, I said. He mumbled something which I did not catch but I understood that no receipt was forthcoming. I argued that if I get stopped by another policeman how can prove I already paid a fine? If he understood my question he was not concerned. He stood up and ushered me out of his office. So, an important lesson learned there. Always get an entry stamp in your passport.

Once on my way again I camped for a couple more nights as I went further north. It was very desolate. There were no shops, very few houses and lots of dead animals. This dead cow reminded me I better fill my water bottles at every opportunity.

I came across this dead snake, as well as this live ant eater:

I also had a thunderstorm one night. The one night I camped without my rain fly, wouldn´t you know, at midnight I get woken up by raindrops on my face. This was the camp site the night before:

The next day I struggled through mud for three hours before the dirt road dried out. Here is a typical shot of the road those few days:

Since there were few shops my meals while camping were very simple. Here is a typical dinner – Spam in a pan.

I had my highest km day, 134 km as I rolled into Pozo Colorado. I was told by a few people there would be a guest house there, but as I asked around, it was actually another 15 km up the road. “Muy cercita, very close”. Well the sun was setting, I had gone three days camping without a shower and had just finished a 134 km day. I could not go another 15 km. There must be something. I wandered around the small town. It is just a handfull of houses, a couple gas stations, a school, a restaurant and a military compound. I asked at the school. Nope. I asked at the gas stations, nope. There was a police checkpoint but understandably, I did not want to ask them. I went into a shop and asked some people if the were alojamientos, or lodging, in the town. One kid said go the the restaurant. So I asked at the restaurant. No, but señor Rivero at the gas station has an extra room. So back to the gas station. No, Señor Rivero has left for the day. The kid there then said, why not go to the Military compound, they might let you stay there. Well I had not considered this but I was getting desperate. Night was falling and here I am wandering around a small town, exhausted, dirty and sweaty with no place to sleep for the night. I went to the Military compound and they said yes! They could put a bunk in the waiting room for me, with a fan and I could use the shower and bathroom at the gas station. Thank you lord for the Paraguayan military. It must be a leftover from General Stroessner´s time.

Now, the room was nothing great. They piled three old, filthy mattresses on a wooden bunk in a room with no door and down the hall was a non functioning toilet which someone obviously had used I don´t know how long ago because it reeked of stale urine. Even with the fan blowing on me I would get wafts of this foul smell all night long.

Here are some shots of the place. The people were first class. Very helpful, professional, nice. They have high marks in my book, even though they haven´t had much success at winning wars.

2 thoughts on “El Gran Chaco of Paraguay, part 1

  1. Capt. Don Kilpela Sr. September 28, 2007 / 4:08 pm

    Wow, Kevin, You are considerably braver than your uncle. One night in that wilderness and it would be adios for me…

    Good luck, and I mean that, because apparently you will need it..

  2. Alissa T Nembhard November 15, 2007 / 7:06 pm

    So Kev,

    weren’t you afraid when you saw those dead animls. you weren’t some how afraid that a snake that size will pop out on u? lol

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