Travelling through Paraguay

Our Paraguayan adventure continued from the beautiful ruins in Trinidad to the city!

We caught a bus to Asunción, the capital city of Paraguay and were pleasantly surprised by this charming place with its cobbled streets lined with orange trees, old colonial crumbling buildings, coloured doorways and flags draped all over the place.

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We wandered around the city enjoying the sights and sounds but also used this time to catch up on admin. We found a very cheap hostel for only £12 which included a mini kitchen and desk. Sometimes, we find we just need to stop and be based in one place for a while to sort things out.

We also visited a train museum….. Max insisted.

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It wasn’t that interesting but filled 30 minutes prior to lunch. Everything was stamped England, that was my only observation. Oh and I liked the old style tickets.

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After 3 nights, we were ready to move on. We took the bus to Conception, a small town 6 hours from Asunción.

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We arrived in Conception on a Tuesday and wanted to catch a cargo boat up the Rio Paraguay, through the infamous Pantantal. However, they only leave once a week… on a Tuesday… so we had a week to kill time.

Luckily, we had somehow come across details about a farm half an hour outside conception with rooms and some unusual pets. We figured this was just up our street so off we went.

http://www.paraguay.ch – Details of the farm we stayed at and various other tips about Paraguay.

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El Roble is owned by a german guy, Peter, who moved to Paraguay over 20 years ago after being told its one of the easiest countries to gain residency. With knowledge of farming and agriculture, he has created a nearly entirely self-sustainable small farm. He grows, raises and makes most of what is put on the table, all of which was delicious, especially the homemade bread for breakfast.

We settled into our room in this little cabana, before exploring.

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Tree house with hammocks to relax in.
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Fefe the Tapir, a rescue who is just so gentle and peaceful. Kind of like a cross between a pig, an elephant and a horse. QUICK FACT: These animals are regularly hunted for their skins and meat. Due to their 13-14 month gestation period and the fact they only produce one calf, they are facing extinction.

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A female and male howler monkey. Both enjoy lots of affection but Todo, the male, tends to stay for longer.
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Just so human.

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There are around 12 cattle here, mostly used for milk, but some for meat.

Unfortunately, for most of the time we were at El Roble the weather was awful. We had rain, thunder storms and very humid moist air. One of the upsides of this was that we learnt a thing or two in the kitchen! The lady of the house is a magnificent cook and is always happy to share her recipes. I have videos too but unfortunately don’t have a good enough connection to add them to Vimeo. I will update this at a later date.

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Making banana jam
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A little banana desert
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Completed jam all ready for breakfast!
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Banana cake; eaten within an hour of completion!

On the only day of sun we did get, we rented a few bikes from Peter and cycled around the local area, meeting the wandering animals and chatting to locals along the way. The relaxed and rather rustic feel of this area reminded me of the Philippines.

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I think the cows here are really quite pretty!

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A puppy and a pig playing
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I asked what her name was and was told she didn’t have a name, so I told the lady to call her Poppy. She agreed.
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Piggies

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With beautiful wild surroundings, fast internet, the most delicious natural food, amazing bread and relaxed environment, this is THE place to stay if you’re in the area. If you intend to catch the cargo boat, Peter is a fountain of knowledge with many tips and contacts to share. It was around £37 a night full board, which by Paraguayan standards isn’t cheap but having been there and experienced life there for 6 nights, it was worth it.

From El Roble, we boarded a cargo boat, the Aquidaban, bound for Bahia Negra.

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The purpose of this boat is to deliver supplies, and people, to their remote villages along the banks of the River Paraguay. It runs every week on a Tuesday with a one day change around time leaving Conception on a Tuesday morning, and arriving in Bahia Negra on Friday morning. It then turns around and arrives back at Conception on Sunday night. At the time of our journey, due to the terrible weather, the road was closed meaning the boat was the only way for people to buy supplies or reach their homes.

The Aquidaban has around 12 cabins, everyone else sleeps in hammocks hung from wherever possible. We got ourselves a cabin for the 3 nights and paid a little extra for exclusive use of the cabin. It was around £25/30 for 3 nights so very cheap, but obviously VERY rustic.

Until this point we hadn’t met any other travellers in Paraguay, it is still fairly off the grid but then along came fellow Frenchman Ben!

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The boat made a number of stops per day, some for longer than others.

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Reading whilst people and cargo leave the boat.
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This ‘thing’ made it on and off the boat with very little drama! Quite amazing really.
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3 residents cats keep the insects and mice at bay on board
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We enjoyed the beautiful sunsets from the front of the boat
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Nights were spent reading and chatting. The cook was pretty chatty too so that gave me an opportunity to practise some Spanish. And I found a little 3 week old puppy that someone was transporting in the pocket of a sports bag, so that also provided us with some entertainment.

We had been warned that the food on the boat wasn’t very good and was a ‘first come, first served’ basis. We had been unable to find gas for our JetBoil anywhere so we resorted to our fail safe food option, ham and cheese sandwiches. Made on the ‘bed’… as you do in these situations.

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Reading out on deck

We got off the boat to wander round when we could.

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In this little shop, unbelievably, the owner was watching the French Open, so we sat down and enjoyed it with him.
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Horses roam free with little birds on their backs.

As we got further up the river and crossed into official Pantanal territory, things got more interesting. We saw plenty of rather large caiman and,amazingly, giant otters. There are less than 1000 left and people pay hundreds, if not thousands of pounds, searching for these beauties and we saw them on our £30 cargo boat ride!

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We arrived in Bahia Negra much earlier than anticipated, at 5am in the morning.

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From here, the plan was to cross into Bolivia via Puerto Busch, stopping off at a lodge on the bank of the river on the way. To do this, we needed to hire a private boat to the lodge and then organise to be collected and dropped off in Bolivia. We had been given the name and number of the guy with a boat so off we went, on the hunt for this guy at 6am in the morning.

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Bahia Negra is basically just one long muddy road with houses on one side and the river on the other. No cash machine so take plenty, including some dollars!

When we found ‘said boat man’ he informed us that his boat had been stolen so he wouldn’t be able to take us anywhere.

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Better make a plan ‘B’

As we sat in the now pouring rain, a man in a 4X4 passed us, stopped and looked at us. We saw this as a sign that he wanted to chat, so Max went over while I guarded the bags. This seriously cool and kind man invited us into his home and began organising a boat to take us to the lodge, Tres Gigantes. While he was doing this, we went to get our ‘stamp out’ of Paraguay from the box sized porter-cabin they call the ‘Immigration Office’ here in Bahia Negra. We had to guess when we could cross into Bolivia.

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While the boat was being prepared, we used a locals phone and called Tres Gigantes lodge to warn them we would arrive today. This is when the next bit of bad news arrived. The guy who normally prepares the food at the lodge was away for a week, so we were instructed to bring our own food. Max therefore ran back to the Aquidaban, and like the locals, bought some fruit and veg, rice and pasta to last 4 days. We also grabbed a few bottles of wine. I had a feeling we may need it.

Finally, with stamped passports, a bag of food and all our belonging we got into the small private boat and whizzed up river to Tres Gigantes. On our way, we were lucky enough to see a family of Giant Otters and of course, more caiman.

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They seem like bold and curious characters and although they were interested in us, they warned us with their open mouths and strange noised not to come any closer.

Tres Gigantes is an impressive lodge considering its remoteness. With 3 or 4 permanent rangers, a big open plan eating area and kitchen, 3/4 rooms on the upper level which is thankfully protected by a mosquito net balcony, it makes for a very comfortable stay. There are 3 wildlife trails to follow from the lodge and its positioned right on the riverbank. Canoes are free to hire and the rangers are happy to walk the trails with you.

It is called ‘Three Giants’ because you can see the giant otter, the giant armadillo and the giant anteater in the area. Jaguars and ocelots have also been seen here.

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The lodge from one of the trails

I was really excited by the prospect of seeing all these animals however perhaps a bit naive. The trails were a little disappointing. I thought they were very short, too well trodden and cleared and despite seeing some tracks, we didn’t see any wildlife at all. Except a dead snake. To be fair, it didn’t help that as the weather had been so awful, the water level was very high. This meant one of the trails was not passable and the banks of the river were not visible. The banks are normally where you see all the exciting animals. Apparently everything except the birds had gone to higher ground.

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Bridget Jones style shot

I was quite apprehensive about using the canoe in the caiman infested waters but the day was still and there was very little current so I agreed to hop on board with Max and be the photographer, he paddled.

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To be able to say we paddled up the Rio Paraguay and the Rio Negra on our own and saw so many birds, caiman and more otters is really something very special and unique. Tres Gigantes has a sign in book and they have had no more than around 20 guests for the whole year, giving you more of an idea of just how remote and unvisited this area is.

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Love the guy with the long neck, we followed him around quite a lot as he flew from different trees to areas of marshy swamp.

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This little yellow guy greeted us as we arrived back
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Action shot. This bird of prey had just caught a fish.

Due to the terrible weather and the fact we completed all the trails and the canoeing in 2 days, we left on the third day and cut our stay at Tres Gigantes short.

We got picked up by the same private boat who had dropped us off and made the unofficial crossing into Bolivia. I say unofficial because it is literally just a river bank.

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We had pre-arranged a 4X4 to collect us and luckily everything ran smoothly. The car arrived half an hour after us and we drove to Puerto Suarez along a very rutted road. As this area was a little higher and the road went between two areas of shallow water, it was teeming with animals.

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We finally saw some capybara families! Sort of like guinea pigs but bigger. These guys were hunted to near extinction in Northern Argentina for their skins and meat. They are now protected in Argentina and you need a license to export the leather. I therefore hope that the companies I see selling the belts made from their skin, have a license and don’t import the leather illegally.

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Proud momma!

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We probably saw over 50 caiman, lots of small ones. The area seemed to be sort of a nursery, lots of baby things everywhere.

Arriving in town, we were invited over to the house of the young guy who had collected us. The Paraguayan people are definitely some of the kindest we have met. We got to the house and were immediately served a plate of hot delicious food, offered a shower and they took us to the bus station where we bought tickets for that evening. They expected nothing in return, they were just interested in chatting to us and sharing with us. That sort of attitude is really so refreshing.

We caught an overnight bus to Santa Cruz and checked in Jobanga Hostel, a trendy backpackers with an exceptional breakfast, and began hatching exciting plans.

Reflecting on our unusual border crossing, it definitely was not a cheap way to do it. The private boat was 800,000 guarani and the car to collect us was $100. However, this was a remote, unique and special experience which made the extra cost very worth while. It certainly beats the dodgy bus crossing alternative.

Until next time, over and out.

PS. Don’t miss the next blog. It involves one of our top 3 life experiences ever.

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