August 16, 2004

Paraguay: A place with no roads is no place for a bicycle.

On the way up the Paraguay rive from Conception to Corumbá I have had to deal with Phirannas, Alligators, capivaras, a crazy sex starved guarani woman, the Paraguayan Navy, the Bolivian Navy, Running out of gas on my way up river, camping unexpectedly on a Brazilian military training ground with un-exploded shells, A boat driver who did not know the river, I Kicked out of the Brazilian military fort, and paying throught the nose to keep going. And to top it off having trouble changing my American Express Travelers Cheques.
If this sounds interesting then read on.

Reaching the Pantanal from Paraguay seems so simple and obvious when you look at the map. However once on the ground the obvious becomes the very challenging once the local flora, fauna and population have their say.
The plan was to take a combination of several boats up the Paraguay river all the way to the port town of Corumbá in Brazil which claims to be the Capital of the Pantanal. This would consist of 4 days on the wooden floating market ship Aquidaban that serves all the small communties that are only accessable by river. The final port of call is Bahia Negra which is the northernmost town in Paraguay on the river. From there I would have to get creative and find something to do the remaining 150km to the road that leads to Corumbá in Brazil.

To leave Paraguay by a waterway you have to make sure to have you exit stamp from immigration before you get onboard as there are no immigration offices near the river. The best is to get this done in Ascuncion, but I did not realize this until I was in Conception 450km to the north. So the day before got onboard the Aquidaban I made a day trip to the nearest border town of Pedro Juan Cabalero 200km away to find an immigration office. The problem was that the officer at this landlocked border crossing was not accustomed to dealing with foreign travellers requireing to leave by water. In their mind if they gave me the exit stamp I normally should not be able to travel in the country. On my second attept and with a lot of pleading I was able to convince them to call the main office in Ascuntion and get my exit stamp. However for the remaining time I would be in Paraguay I ran the risk of running into a policeman that does not understand and getting a 260 000 guarani fine (about $60 Canadian).

As the boat followed it slow and sinuous path northward up the Paraguay river I started to preoccupy myself with gathering the all the possible information about a finding a passage to follow on northward past Bahia Negra. Some of the crew said it was not possible while other locals said that I would have to find a commercial barge going up to Corumbá to load up. Being stubborn and single minded I figured that one or two positive responces were enough for me to take a chance. On the fourth day we arrived very early in Bahia Negra. While the Aquidaban was unloading all of its remaining cargo I went around asking to about the possiblity of finding a boat. The local nurse said that he knew someone that could take me up. So together we went up and found out that they wanted $200 US to take me up. This was too rich for me and I started thinking that I may need to go back down on the Aquidaban to Puerto Murtinho where I could follow on by road. However by the time I realized this the Aquidaban had left and I was stranded in Bahia Negra.
The Paraguayan Naval Commander was sympathetic and put me up at the base because there is nowhere else for a tourist to stay in town. The whole rag tag crew of naval recruits then took on the task of helping me find another boat north. However if none could be found I would have to wait the entire week until the Aquidaban was back again.
As my prospects of finding a commercial ship going northward started to look dim I resigned myself to killing time. I participated in the local soccer match as a dreadful goalie. Later I went to the local dance. This was a hair raising experience as one of the girls who was on the boat had taken a liking to me and had bluntly told me that she wanted to sleep with me. I told her that she was very nice but that I preferred to remain loyal to my girlfriend whom I was meeting up with in a few weeks in La Paz. Unfazed by my rebuttal she remained on the offensive waiving a condom in front of me. With its naval base Bahia Negra has the unfortunate problem of having a poor male to female ratio. This meant that I did not get any sympathy from any of the men who were with us. If fact it was quite the opposite; I was encouraged to sample the local guarani women. I was quite happy when the local power cut out and I was able to use the few minutes of darkness before the generator kicked in as an excuse to go to bed.

After a few days I was convinced that the best option was to bight the bullet and accept a $150 US offer to take me up to Fuerte Coimbra where the Brazilian Military is based. They have a regular passage that I could then take for 10 reals up to Corumbá. Unfortunately the boat driver mislead me into thinking that he had done such a trip before. We left at 14:30 with two of his friends to keep him company on the small boat. This had the predictable effect of weighing down the boat and making our progress much slower. What should have taken three hours took five. I really started to realize how little the driver knew when we started pulling in to river side estancias to ask how much further we had to go. at 1800 realizing that we still had 1.5 hours to go we had to buy some more gas from the farmer. This extra 5 litres prooved to be barely sufficient as we ran out of gas 500m from our goal unfortunately on the wrong side of the river. By tilting the gas tank and vigourously pumping the fuel line pump we were able to move up the river to be exactly opposite the fort but we did not have enough to cross the river. We could hear the music from the bar on the other side but even with a small fire we were not able to attract any attention. So we resigned ourselves to waiting until the morning to see what could be done. Juan the boat driver and his two friends, brothers Paulo and Carlo had not brought any food or equipment to spend a night in the bush. So I pulled out all the warm stuff I had. The next morning a small skiff came around to help us and informed us that we had spent the night on the Brazilian Naval training grounds. That we were very fortunate as there are many un-exploaded shells. I had made it to Coimbra, all needed was permission to stay on the Brazilian military base until the regular passenger launch Taquari went back to Corumba two days later (Wendnesday). However that evening I was informed by a very friendly but ironically suspiciously very runny nosed military doctor who had befriended me earlier that the Base commander had decided that I could not stay. The next day was the start of a training exercise to fight the rampant cocain and marijuana drug traffiking in the region and it was deemed unfit for foreign civil eyes. So the next morning I was stuck hireing another small aluminium boat and its driver to take me up to Corumbá for another $150 US. This time however I was releaved to see that Milton was much competent. This did not stop the engine from cutting out for a few minutes at the beginning of the journey.

That is what happened. What made the experience so memorable however was the setting. All throughout the adventure I saw hundreds of different birds, Yaquare (alligator), Capivaras, Phirannas, and big bees nests. The spectacular scenery of the Panatal is definately worth a visit.

Posted by gwendal at August 16, 2004 03:35 PM
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