The Trip That Was a Bitch: Scratching the Curiosity Itch in Paraguay

Out on the Bow of the Boat - River Paraguay, Paraguay
Heading up the Rio Paraguay

Have you ever been thankful for an experience that you wouldn’t choose to repeat?

You go somewhere not because it will deliver comfort. You take a trip not because it’s going to get you quickly from A to B. You don’t do it simply because it’s inexpensive. You stand in the face of logic and reason; you deliberately endure an ounce or two of pain. Your journey’s aim: to satisfy your curiosity.

For all that, your experience is rich. You emerge enlightened, just a little bit the wiser.

That’s the backstory of our two days on the Rio Paraguay: 36 hours plying the waters on a sagging cargo ferry and 14 hours trundling through the jungle in broken-down buses and flatbed construction trucks. Although the trip was somewhere on the devil’s side of hellish, our Paraguayan journey would have been incomplete without it.

The Boat That Could

The Aquidaban was scheduled to depart at 11:00AM; when we arrived at leisure at 9:00AM, we almost turned around. The ferry’s bow was piled high with motorcycles, fuel barrels, fruit crates and cargo workers. The interior – a span of about 70 feet – was now home to over 300 other passengers tucked into every inhabitable notch.

Packed to the Brim - Concepcion, Paraguay
Aquidaban Boat, our ride up the Rio Paraguay

When the boat departed, we were shooed away as our seats quickly transformed into an on-board market stall offering bags of homemade ice, empanadas, and milanesa (fried, breaded meat) sandwiches. One stall over, tubes of local mortadella bologna, plastic dolls with purple hair, bras with huge cups, and bags of random prescription drugs spun from ceiling hooks. It was a market melange.

Life on the ferry settled into a routine. Some people went shopping, sampling goods in the middle aisle. To stay cool, others took multiple showers using the ceiling water spigots in the toilet stalls. The rest just walked the narrow aisles to pass time. In true Paraguayan fashion, everyone carried his own thermos of tereré, a chilled version of yerba maté served with fresh herbs. Paraguay’s intense heat – 100 degrees on the water and well beyond inside the boat – seems a major contributor to this anti-dehydration ritual.

Shopping at the Market on a Boat Trip Along the Rio Paraguay, Paraguay
Shopping on board.

As night fell, most passengers configured themselves uncomfortably on benches and floorboards while others opted for sagging, shredded hammocks tied between salami links and bags of cigarettes. We sampled both options: Audrey slung in a hammock and Dan pretzeled on a bench along with a grandmother and her two granddaughters.

After a restless night, a stunning blood orange sunrise stirred those who could sleep; markets opened and the cycle began anew.

Another twelve hours later, Emanuel, the ice vendor across the aisle, assured us that we were only two hours away from our destination, Vallemi. He must have read the look of exhaustion in our eyes: I’m going to lose it soon.

Friendly Shopkeeper - Boat Ride Along the Rio Paraguay
Emanuel, the friendly shopkeeper on our boat.

How often do you make this trip?” I asked.

Every week. I leave Concepción on Tuesday. Four days later, I arrive in Bahia Negra. The boat turns around; I arrive in Concepción on Sunday. I re-load the boat on Monday afternoon and begin the trip on Tuesday again.”

And to think, we were filthy and breathless after only a day and a half.

The Bus That Couldn’t

The expectation: an easy-going “five-hour bus ride through nice countryside,” as a British traveler had described it just days before.

The delivery: something much worse than the boat and another adventure for which we were unprepared.

Our bus would get stuck in the mud and blow its motor, only to be replaced by a flatbed construction truck that would suffer a flat tire and break down six times as it negotiated mud pits and mosquito clouds across Paraguay’s outback, the wet Chaco. An object-lesson in how five hours of pleasure becomes fourteen hours of hell.

Truck vs. Bus - Vallemi to Concepcion, Paraguay
Broken down in the Paraguayan outback.

The truck was lined with loose wood and cement chunks. The road — if you could call it that — was pitted; mud craters formed easily from the previous night’s rain. Each time we drove through a puddle, mud geysers erupted through the gaps in the floor. Luggage and coolers served as makeshift seats. Bumps and ditches sent the group sailing mid-air. Upon landing, our tailbones were bruised, our bottoms scraped. There was no way to hold fast.

As the day wore on, individual water supplies went from cool to bathwater. But bathwater was better than nothing. When our truck arrived at a river crossing, most other passengers filled their thermoses with mud cocktail. We held off, opting for a more direct path to dehydration rather than the one that stops off at dysentery first.

Crossing the River - Vallemi to Concepcion, Paraguay
Making it across the river.

Twelve hours in, we reached the first sign of civilization: a village snack bar well-stocked with cold drinks. Like zombies, the lot of us descended upon the shopkeeper. One liter of juice and two liters of water later, we began to feel human again.

When we finally arrived in Concepción that night, we were in sad shape. Our clothes were filthy and soaked; exhaustion hung long on our faces. But our journey was not over yet; we had seven more hours on a bus to Paraguay’s capital, Asuncion.

But that would be a joyride in comparison.

———

Do we wish to repeat this journey? No.

Would we do it again without the value of hindsight? You bet.

Why? That’s easy. Because you never know until you try.

Photo Slideshow: Our Rio Paraguay Journey in Photos

Note: If you don’t have a high-speed connection or want to read the captions, view the photo set here.

Enjoy this?

Then sign up for more travel wisdom & inspiration from 7+ years of traveling the world.

Comments

  1. says

    Wonderful story. I absolutely love the zeal and enthusiasm that you both attack life. You inspire us all to take the path less chosen, if only for the adventure and experience. I continue to enjoy each of your stories and the vivid detail you provide. Thank you for remaining true to who you are and for not taking the “easy way”. Your fans appreciate it!

  2. says

    You guys are road warriors. Thanks sharing the less than glamorous side of traveling. You have a flair for giving the flavor of the land – I’m really enjoying your SA posts.

  3. says

    Wow that is a crazy story. I know it’s true because no one could make all that up! I’ve actually been to Paraguay, the so-called black-hole of South America, but I didn’t get to experience it that way. I spent a week in Asunción on a rugby tour. Still I thought PY was one of the most random countries I’ve ever visited. We never knew what to expect, especially from a culinary standpoint.

    Thanks for sharing this with us. On another note, how do you copyright your photos like that?

    Cheers!

  4. Jennifer Sullivan says

    Audrey and Dan,

    Oh how I love to read your updates. You are so inspiring, setting on journeys that we all would only dream. It sounds like hell on earth while you were experiencing it but boy, don’t you have an incredible story to tell for this, and each one of your experiences. Yes, you had to do it. Yes, you lived through it and yes, you prevailed… to describe such an incredibly enlightening story which made me feel I was there.

    Thank you for your posts, and both of your incredible abilities to make the trips come alive for us all.

    Happy New Year.
    Hugs.

  5. says

    It ends up being such adventures as these that we remember most and that seem to have the biggest impact on our lives. The more mental and physical challenges we face and ultimately survive while traveling, the more we learn, especially and most importantly, about ourselves.

    Fantastic story!

  6. says

    As usual, I just love the way that you tell a story. You made me love the moments while feeling for you at the same time. Your ferry journey reminds us of ourtime crossing from Egypt to wadi halfa Sudan. It was a hellish ride but we wouldn’t change the experience for the world.

  7. says

    @Warren: Thanks for the kudos on our approach to life and travel. An experience like this demonstrates that what may be an adventurous (and sometimes hellish) journey for you as a traveler just happens to be daily life for ordinary people. After all, they have no other option to get home.

    @Hugh: I hope your rugby games were during the cool season. I can’t imagine playing sports in the 44 C/110+ F heat we experienced in Paraguay! We visited Paraguay because we didn’t know anything about the country. Even after visiting for several weeks, we still find it a bit of a confounding place.

    We use Photoshop to batch copyright our photos. Record and save an action and then use that for batch processing.

    @Nomadic Matt: Our goal was not to sell this trip; glad we accomplished that. Gritty experiences are standard fare for us, not because we have anything to prove but because they are usually required to satisfy our curiosity about a place the lives of ordinary people there.

    @Jennifer: We love hearing from you as well! It’s comments like yours that keep us motivated. While we don’t know too many people who would want to experience this journey themselves, we do hope that by sharing our impressions people might learn a bit about what life — similarities and differences — for people in other parts of the world.

    @Earl: Some people think that we’re masochists for submitting ourselves repeatedly to long and difficult journeys. But we’ve learned that sometimes the only way to really learn about a country or people is to put yourself in the their shoes. This is what scratching the curiosity itch is all about.

    @Dave and Deb: Glad you could feel the experience through our storytelling skills. Like you, we have so many examples of journeys we wouldn’t want to voluntarily repeat, but we’re very glad for having had them all.

  8. says

    Wow, what an adventure (and misadventure)! I’ve had so many trips that could definitely be called a bitch. But isn’t it those trips that lead to the best traveler’s tales and life experiences?

  9. Luis Pablo says

    Hello Dear…

    I have laughed from the beginning at the end of your history…
    You know…you guess …i am living here in the paradise…

    how come you soft americans have tried to take that boat….you must be crazy at that time…. Va con onda :)

    Luis

  10. says

    Sounds like one hell of a journey! I skipped out on Paraguay during my South America tour, mainly because I didn’t want to pay for a visa for only a couple of days of use… However, I was curious to see what I missed out on!

    I had a similar bus ride experience in Bolivia. An 18-hour trip turned into 30 hours, as we had to make multiple stops to dig the bus out of a half meter of mud. Also not a journey I’d want to repeat!

  11. says

    @Luis: Glad to hear that you are living in Paraguay paradise. We are crazy, indeed. “The soft Americans..” Love it. If we were soft before, the boat up the Rio Paraguay made us just a little bit harder :) Or perhaps a little tougher.

    @Ellen: We spent a few weeks in Paraguay. While the journey there doesn’t contain some of the epic bucket-list experiences dotting the rest of South America, we’re glad we visited Paraguay and came away with the background and perspective that we did.

    Our bus into Paraguay (from Bolivia, as it turns out) was something like 37 hours en route to Asuncion.

Trackbacks

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>