From Tarija (1,854m / 6,083ft ) to Villazón (3,400m / 11,155ft).
The sun shines through the light funnel into my room and wakes me up at 6.30am. While still thinking about turning onto the other side for another five minutes, I suddenly hear music from a marching band outside – of course, there is a week-long fiesta going on in Tarija! Out of bed and onto the roof terrace for breakfast – there is still a lot to see in this city before I head for the solitude of the Altiplano.
Salón Bellavista they call their breakfast room…
… which is a pretty accurate name.
The morning sky is deep blue and crisp again
While I scribble a few notes into my journal, the guy from the other table comes over and introduces himself: he’s Uli from Münster in Germany, civil hydraulics engineer, who has been living in South America since 1986. He just bought some land and plans to build a new home for him and his Bolivian partner. Uli gives me loads of valuable information about the area: Tupiza would be doable in one day (well, we’d see about that…); and from there I would easily find the road to Uyuni and its famous Salar. On the Altiplano the people would become more reserved, accommodation would be scarce and the temperatures could drop to minus 15 degrees Celsius at night.
Uli also has a deeper insight in the country’s elementary problems, for instance that La Paz is depending entirely on the surrounding glaciers for its drinking water supply, and while the ice diminishes rapidly, the government hasn’t made the necessary provisions yet. Even more fundamental, the majority of the Bolivians live in the barren region of the high plateau, often at poverty level, while the fertile lowlands are rather scarcely populated. Still, if your family, language and culture have been rooted in the same place for centuries it’s certainly difficult to leave your traditional life behind and move away – even if staying doesn’t offer a great perspective and involves considerable hardships. There would be many situations in the coming days where I would wonder how people could survive in the remote villages I was passing through – with no visible agricultural production, very few animals and no obvious trade.
Uli hands me his card in case I would get into trouble and needed help – how very kind. On the way to fetch my bike…
… I pass the Casa Dorada, the Golden House again
Should I take the time to explore Tarija’s sights and delights a bit longer?
I feel seriously tempted when I pop into the nearby tourist office where a lovely señorita tells me everything about the city, the surrounding villages, the valley with its vineyards and rolling hills, before she showers me with enticing brochures of the region. Still having this ludicrous idea in my head that I would reach Chile in time for its bicentenary independence celebrations, I decide against another day in the Bolivian Andalucía and collect my DRZ from its secure parking space. Back at the hotel, there is Uli loading his 4×4 and still happy to share his wealth of local knowledge with me. Now I am in a position to return the favour and hand him half of my brochures about many places he hadn’t heard of before.
After making photocopies of all my new Bolivian documents, I load the bike and leave the City of Smiles. A last look at the beautiful Plaza de Armas – I’ll be back one day, that’s for sure.
On the outskirts of Tarija I eventually find a shop where I can buy water – a task seemingly impossible in the town centre where there are rows of the finest shops, restaurants and historical buildings with no one catering for the bare necessities. The road heading to San Lorenzo is beautifully paved – but this indulgence is cut short when the Ruta 1 to Potosí branches off to the west after two miles. Rough dirt, gravel and corrugations are on the menu. At a police check point I have to explain my wherefrom and whereto, show my passport and documents, pay the stately sum of 3 Bolivianos (£ 0.46), get a stamp and am free to continue my journey.
The road climbs up the hills forming the valley of Taraxaand soon I have a great view of Tarija
… and some not so nice views of littering and fly-tipping.
Like in the UK, where this is a common problem as well, I want to shout at these people: “Don’t you love your own country? Are you not proud of its beauty and don’t you want your children to grow up in a healthy environment? Think, for heaven’s sake!”
And breathe… There are more than enough reasons to make you fret the whole day long – but, thank God, it’s not mandatory…
A bit higher up I’m granted a last look at the City of Smiles and the Río Gualdaquivir meandering through the Taraxa Valley.
At the summit the GPS shows an elevation of about 4,000 metres (13,120 ft) – this must be higher than I’ve ever been before. In Iscayachi the Ruta 1 turns north towards Potosí. Although this town with its legendary silver mine is on my list of places to see, I will head for Tupiza and the Salar de Uyuni first. As the map doesn’t show a lot of villages along the Ruta 301, I’d rather buy some more water. The owners of the first two shops seem to be having their siesta, the third one doesn’t sell water, only sweet fizzy drinks and booze, but fortunately there is no shortage of suppliers and in the fourth establishment I finally get what I need.
Iscayachi lies only 50 kilometres to the west of Tarija but about 1,600 metres (5,250ft) higher at 3,427m (11,243ft), and I notice the difference already: the people are rather taciturn, just as Uli mentioned, and a single woman on a motorbike gets some funny looks. I’m becoming even more self-conscious when I can’t see any facilities to answer the call of nature: there are just too many people, lots of houses built to a surprisingly high standard, big schools and community buildings, miles of cultivated land – but not a single bush!
When I reach the Cordillera de Sama, a biological reserve at 3,800 metres (12,467ft) the human settlements recede…
… and the only living things I see for a while are these natives
Why did the Llama cross the road?
… because it is a rather gregarious animal…
Passing one of the lagoons in the nature reserve
… a popular meeting point for the local cattle
Otherwise the area is pretty deserted
Leaving the high plateau, the road gets narrower – and as so often, the abyss is on the wrong side…
Ok, the route may not be as famous or as high as the Camino de la Muerte…
… but if you go over the edge, I would imagine that the result is pretty much the same
View back up the mountain
There may be a lack of safety barriers on Bolivian roads but some times they grant you a lay-by to recover from permanently holding your breath…
Although the vastness of the landscape elevates your mind, it can feel quite lonely on the Altiplano. You may meet only seven vehicles the whole day long but you never know in which bend this will happen. After another close encounter with a coach, I feel the constant strain taking its toll and start to count the kilometres to Tupiza down.
There lies a village in the valley below, pretty big and with well-built houses, but no road-sign provides the passing tourist with further information. Only when the settlement is behind me a name appears in the corner of my GPS – it was Yunchara. Phew, another 54 kilometres / 34 miles since Iscayachi.
The road still heads downhill and I reach a fertile river valley, lots of green and trees but I don’t stop any more, it’s getting late.
The Bolivians are constantly improving their road network and I come across many construction sites. The workers greet me friendly and some even cheer when I pass them – I think that’s because they are female, too.
An oncoming truck flags me down and the three young guys inside ask if I knew where the road was leading. Yunchara, great – that’s the place they want to reach today. Good luck, boys! Then the carretera raises again but this time it is a bit wider and I can finally stop by the side of the road, using the DRZ as a screen from other vehicles – even if you haven’t seen another human being for over an hour, you can bet that someone will pass just after you have pulled down your trousers…
Over some water and a biscuit I consider my options: progress is very slow, it’s already gone 16.00 hrs and Tupiza is still 75 kilometres (47 miles) away. The next town is Villazón, a mere 32 kilometres (20 miles) to go, so I may vote for the sensible option and call it a day there. The junction shouldn’t be far and right, after the next corner I can see a narrow track winding down into a deep valley – oh dear, this looks quite adventurous… Fortunately two elderly señores are sitting at the crossroads who I approach for advice.
Oh, that one, that’s just a camino a un pueblito, a path to a small village; the proper junction to Villazón is a bit further up on the Altiplano. One of the gentleman even draws a little map in the dirt. There should be a road-sign but many drivers miss it and carry on to Tupiza. Muchas gracias, señores, this was most helpful.
I reach the Altiplano and the road broadens; it’s corrugated but fast. The junction is clearly marked with obvious signs and after a while there is even tarmac! Still, the pista] is not finished yet and the traffic has to divert to the dirt road again occasionally but the last seven kilometres are beautiful smooth asfalto. Fantastic, I had almost forgotten what a paved surface feels like!
As Villazón lies on the border with Argentina near La Quiaca, where the famous Ruta 40 commences, there is the obligatory police checkpoint before you enter the town. After a little chat the officer waves me on and I can embark on my usual sight-seeing tour. Villazón is chaotic, buzzing with life, people and business, lots of traffic and noise. The sun is low and blinding, and I almost enter a one-way street in the wrong direction – sorry…
The South American Handbook recommends the Hotel Center but unfortunately they don’t have any vacancies – that’s a first on my journey. Hostal Plaza on the other side of the main square should be good as well, says the young man at reception. Ok, but they have run out of single rooms at 70 Bolivianos (£6.50) and can only offer a matrimonio, a double for 110 Bs including breakfast – just over £10.00. It’s already 18.00 hrs, it’s getting cold and dark and I’m absolutely knackered – go on then, let’s splash out!
The receptionist helps me carrying the luggage upstairs, then he leads me to the secure parking a few streets away. Gracias. After a hot shower I feel a lot better. Relaxing on the bed I read the chapter about altitude sickness in Jim Duff’s Pocket First Aid and Wilderness Medicine again: shall I take precautions or not? Villazón lies at 3,470m (11,155ft), Tupiza at 2,990m (9,810ft) and Uyuni at 4,400m (14,436ft). I have brought some acetazolamide with me but the drug has to be taken 24 hours before ascending to altitude and it can make you feel dizzy – not exactly what you want when conducting a motorcycle over the Andes. I will think about it one more day and possibly start the prophylaxis the next evening in Tupiza.
Conveniently, the Hostal Plaza has a restaurant in the basement and although it is completely empty, the waiters busy themselves to make me feel welcome and comfortable. Sopa fideo, noodle soup, and Milanesa, a paper-thin breaded meat fillet, are on the menu. After dinner I head to the next internet café where I find out that the whole of Villazón must depend on one single dial-up connection – it takes forever to upload six photos (out of the 29 shot today…) and after one hour I give up and leave the crowded, noisy place.
The neon display on the Plaza Mayor shows the current temperature: 4 degrees Celsius… Off to bed, and quickly!
When the Spaniards came to the valley of Taraxa in the 16th century they were delighted to find an almost Mediterranean climate in the area. By the banks of a stream, which they named Nuevo Gualdaquivir after the river in their far away homeland, they founded the city of Villa de San Bernado de la Frontera de Tarija in 1574. The region was perfectly suited for grape and wine production and soon commonly regarded as the Bolivian Andalucía.
Tarija is alternatively known as la Cidudad de las flores (the City of Flowers) or la Ciudad de la Sonrisa (the City of Smiles) and has grown massively during the last three decades due to the natural gas development in the department, from 38,000 inhabitants in 1976 to over 214,000 today.
To me Tarija seemed to be the perfect stop before climbing up to the harsh Altiplano. But before leaving the friendly town of Entre Ríos where I had spent the night, I still had some business to attend to. The ladies in the hotel did look a bit surprised when I asked for breakfast but then started to prepare some hot chocolate, bread rolls and jam for me. Maybe the normal guests just head for a café on the plaza? Well, I prefer to eat something before I face the outside world, but the next time in Entre Ríos I will do some research on the local breakfast habits.
Checkout time in Bolivian hotels is quite generous and as there were only 70ish miles / 112 kilometres between Entre Ríos and Tarija, I was in a position to spend some more time in this friendly place. First I headed for the market area and the watchmaker’s stall again. And right, the lovely Señor had brought all his spare pins from home and within five minutes he had attached the wristband to my watch again. All he wanted for his efforts was one Boliviano – that’s not even 10p… I thanked him profusely, once again humbled by the helpfulness of the Bolivians and the income that people survive on in this part of the world.
I really liked Entre Ríos and found it hard to leave – a phenomenon which I would experience rather often in Bolivia. But I wanted to be in Chile for the 18th September to join the bicentenary celebrations of its independence – a rather ambitious if not completely unrealistic schedule as it should turn out… Anyway, I managed to pack my stuff eventually, vacate my excellent room in the Plaza Hotel and hit the road.
Straight after the Zona Urbana the Ruta 11 became quite spectacular – it was leading me through wonderful wooded hills…
… over mountain ridges…
… and along gorgeous gorges
There was a lot of roadwork going on, occasionally the carretera was even paved – but after two kilometres it was back to dirt, gravel and stones. And sometimes you had to pull your belly in…
Rush hour in the village of Caraletas
The weather was just fantastic, the temperatures were ideal for riding a bike, and I felt happy to be alive and travelling through such a beautiful country.
Some people had not been so lucky – as this shrine reminds the passing motorist.
It wasn’t always easy to find an opportunity for a wee…
No, still not suitable…
Ok, these old stable ruins will do
Approaching “Andalucía” – you would probably have guessed even without me mentioning it at the start of the post, wouldn’t you?
The Taraxa Valley
Welcome to Tarija!
On the outskirts of the city I fuelled up and then started my usual orienteering run around the city – buzzing streets, broad boulevards, flowering trees, market stalls, and impressive architecture. The South American Handbook had recommended the Hostal Carmen and I even found it relatively quickly in the Calle Ingavi. The building looked quite welcoming but not so the young receptionist who didn’t seem particularly interested in my business; the price was considerably higher than stated in the travel guide and did not include aparcamiento seguro, the all important safe parking. Well, there is no shortage of accommodation in Tarija and so I carried on.
Negotiating the usual one-right, one-left pattern of the urban road system, I passed the Hostal Cristal. It looked slightly out of my price range but it doesn’t hurt to ask. The young lady at reception was exceptionally nice, they had a good single room, at a cheaper rate than the Hostal Carmen, secure parking included, free internet, and when the deal was agreed, she even picked up my dusty luggage to carry it upstairs before I had the chance to stop her.
Like many of the higher buildings in South American cities, the hotel had a multiple-use roof terrace…
… which offered great views over the city
Arty shot with DRZ
The church of San Roque in the distance
Obviously, there was plenty to explore in Tarija and my first destination was the Catedral San Bernado
Then on to the heart of the city: the Plaza de Armas
Within the first hundred yards I had already noticed something very special: despite its size, Tarija still had this friendly intimacy of a small village – everyone looked me in the eyes, we all greeted each other and there were open faces all around. The City of Smiles indeed.
Just one street away from the Plaza, in the Calle Ingavi, is the Casa Dorada, Tarija’s House of Culture. The Art Nouveau mansion was built in 1887 by Moisés Navajas Ichazo, a talented descendant of Sephardics Jew from Spain (Navajas) who converted to Catholicism, emigrated to Bolivia, and married a Tarijeña, Esperanza Morales Serrano. Both were very successful business people and, as they didn’t have children, commissioned a couple of impressive buildings which they would be remembered for.
The Calle General Trigo then leads to the Iglesia San Roque – the church of the city’s patron. By pure chance I had managed to arrive in Tarija right at the beginning of a whole week of festivities in honour of Saint Roque. The biggest fiesta in the region starts every year on the first Sunday in September, and the streets were teeming with people.
Inside the church
Looking down the Calle General Trigo
At that point of my journey I was still hesitant to eat from street stalls to minimise the risk of food poisoning, so I left the fiesta and looked for a restaurant to have dinner. Fancying a nice steak but finding most of the excellent dining places out of my price range, I settled for the Bolivian fast food chain Pollo Crocan, where a lomito in a bread roll garnished with ham, egg, salad, chips, condiments and a large Fanta, cost me 20 Bolivianos, about £1.90. Who was I to complain?
Back at the hotel, the lovely receptionist reminded me that I still had a bike to park for the night. Oops. And now I must confess that I broke another one of my principles – people who have known me for a while will be appalled, so please skip the next sentence: without fetching helmet and proper gear from my room, I set straight off for the designated garage.
After I had circled the main square a couple of times, I stopped in front of a posh restaurant, La Taberna Gattopardo, in whose vicinity the car park was allegedly located. One of the waiters had already spotted the obviously lost tourist and came immediately outside and to my aid, pointing me in the right direction.
The big courtyard that served as car (and bike) park was attended by two slightly handicapped young men who promised to look after my baby so that I could sleep easy. On my travels through Europe and South America I have often seen disabled people fully integrated in their communities, doing jobs they are capable of and thereby playing an equally important role, whereas in Germany or in the UK we tend to segregate them and keep everyone who does not conform to ‘normality’ in closed institutions. More food for thought…
The walk back to the hotel led me over the Plaza de Armas again
… where a plaque commemorates the founder of the city
Lying in my comfortable bed I realized that I had fallen in love with this beautiful city, the Ciudad de la Sonrisa. The prospect of leaving the next day didn’t seem overly appealing – but that was also down to the fact that I was quite apprehensive of climbing the Altiplano and up to an altitude of 4,000 metres above sea level. Also, my next destination was Tupiza, 290 kilometres / 180 miles away, and I didn’t have the slightest idea what the road conditions were like…
Oh, by the way and talking of distances, do you remember the 1,000 km detour calculation for the route between Villamontes and Tarija at the start of the last episode? It’s down to lazy map drawing as it turned out:
The missing link…
Before I set off on my big trip, I went to see my parents in Berlin. Together we sat in front of the computer and hovered over my planned route in Google Earth, admiring the features of the application, the landscape in the different countries I was going to visit and the pictures people had added to the various places. After entering Bolivia near Villamontes we got stuck. From there I wanted to go to Tarija but the suggested directions took me back south into Argentina and then onto a massive detour of 913 kilometres (567 miles)!
This was a journey that should only be 270 kilometres (160 miles) on the more direct road through El Angosto, a gorge shaped by the Río Pilcomayo.
Some of the photos of this gorge were subtitled Ruta de la muerte (route of death) and I was hoping my parents wouldn’t notice the resemblance to the Camino de la muerte (the road of death) north-east of La Paz, which I had just promised not to ride under any circumstances…
So when I was packing my stuff in Villamontes the next morning, I was a bit apprehensive, to say the least. At breakfast Jeidi told me that her cousin Yessime was planning to come round and see me during the day but the two nights in El Rancho had already cost me £60 (including two three-course meals for dinner, drinks and laundry) and I couldn’t afford to stay any longer, sorry. By the way, did she know the road to Tarija? Oh yes, un camino muy feo – another very ugly (= bad) road… But was it doable? I really didn’t fancy the detour through Argentina, especially as I had been told some horror stories about several Gringos who had been robbed down to their underwear on the way to the border recently.
Con mucho cuidado, with great caution I would have to ride, was the unanimous answer to my enquiry about the route to Tarija, regardless how many locals I asked… Wouldn’t I want to visit Santa Cruz instead? The city in north-east of Boliva is the fastest growing in the country, the one with the healthiest economy and providing the highest living standard for its inhabitants. Mmm, maybe another time, unfortunately Santa Cruz didn’t lie exactly on my route.
Right, courage, let’s see what El Angosto will throw at us! I said goodbye to the people at the hotel, bought some water for the journey while a nice young security guard in front of the bank looked after my bike, and then said it was adiós to Villamontes.
Smooth tarmac led out of the town; then a checkpoint: where to? Tarija. ¡Mucha suerte!, good luck, said the officer and waved me through. A tidy gravel road took me along the river Pilcomayo.
Gradually the carretera was rising higher
… until you couldn’t see the water at the bottom of the valley anymore. At this point a one-way traffic regulation had been introduced to cut down on the casualties that the most dangerous bits of the Ruta de la muerte had claimed in previous years.
There were still plenty of stretches where I had to pull in my belly when passing a truck but when the road led out of the gorge things got a bit more relaxed and I could even find some bushes…
Rather randomly there was even tarmac in between – albeit not entirely gravel-free…
Higher and higher the road climbed into the hills
Opening great views of the countryside
… and promising pure exploring pleasure
… if I had only given it some welly when pulling out off the lay-by… But no, the bike started to tumble in the sand and then, lacking the necessary momentum, assumed a horizontal position.
Well, while this was another situation where I was glad that I hadn’t taken the GS to South America, there was still no way that I could lift the DRZ with all the luggage on. I hadn’t seen any vehicle for the last hour and the chances of a pair of helping hands coming along were slim. So I started to unload the bike quickly, as the fall had ripped off the valve cap of my tank lid and fuel was spilling out in considerable quantities. I fixed this issue temporarily by corking the breather with a small pebble but still, the solution was far from perfect and the stuff in my tank panniers smelt of petrol for days after…
I was just about to remove said tank panniers when I heard a car approaching. The friendly driver stopped immediately when he saw me waving and helped me lifting the poor DRZ off the ground. He was even going to wait until I was ready to go again to see if bike and rider were ok! I thanked him very much but it would take me a while to reload the luggage. Just when he had disappeared around the corner, another vehicle came along and I made a mental note that the next time I fell over I would just wait a little longer before unpacking…
Anyway, there were still a few kilometres to ride until Tarija and I’d better got going. But when I pressed the starter button nothing happened… The prospect of a bump-start down this twisty gravel road and the subsequent U-turn didn’t seem overly appealing. Please, baby, don’t let me down! Fuel tap on, choke out, throttle on stand-by, starter – after what felt like ages the engine finally sprang to life – and died immediately again. On. Off. On – and gasss! Yippee, off we went!
Progress was slow though, as the road was narrow with lots of blind bends, washed-out switch-backs and the abyss on the wrong side most of the time…
Not more than 20 to 30 km/h (15 to 19 miles) were the riding average. On one corner I suddenly heard a loud horn and the next second a bus came round – at a speed three times more than would have been appropriate for the road conditions! The driver saw me at the last moment, braked hard and his rear-end swung onto my side – leaving little more than a metre between him and the steep drop to my right! Luckily I had already come to a standstill and the driver got his vehicle back on track just before touching the DRZ and sending us both down the mountain – phew!
After crossing another ridge the drop was on the other side of the road for a change; I could relax a bit and admire the beautiful countryside.
The road is actually in quite a good condition due to the country’s natural gas reserves of which 85% are found in the province of Tarija.
Around three in the afternoon I arrived in the village of Supitum which instantly seemed very appealing to me…
I chatted a while to the lady who owns the restaurant in the photo and made friends with her piglets.
Living far away from the bigger settlements, the locals are largely self-sufficient in terms of agricultural produce.
From a distance the landscape is stunningly beautiful but if you have a closer look you will see that fly-tipping is a problem here as well…
At four o’clock I was still 100 kilometres (60 miles) away from Tarija, following a sluggish truck through the bends without any chance of overtaking, and approaching the only town en-route: Entre Ríos. As I was pretty knackered by then it would have been pointless to carry on, so I was hoping that I could find accommodation here. I asked a young couple by the side of the road and they pointed me into the centre, where I found the Plaza Hotel on the main square (not really surprising… ).
The place was fantastic; the interior nicely decorated, cool and clean.
I could park the bike safely in one of the many courtyards…
… and I got a lovely en-suite room with a view for less than half the price of the ‘El Rancho’ in Villamontes
The only nuisance was the man who you can just see on the bandstand in the middle of the square: for hours he proclaimed his faith and that the end of the world was nigh – until even the patient Bolivians told him unambiguously that enough was enough and that he’d better shut up now. I really don’t get it, what do these self-appointed preachers think they can achieve by shouting out their conviction for hours on end – apart from getting on everybody else’s nerves?
Anyway, showered and shaved I went for a sight-seeing stroll through this pleasant little town. Entre Ríos has a pretty market area with colourful stalls and evenly colourful vendors selling all kinds of products. There were no other foreigners around, I tried to blend in and avoid the “zoo-effect” as much as possible – so no pictures here, sorry, but taking photographs felt too intrusive to me at the time.
Although I passed an internet café first, I acted sensibly that evening and carried on until I found a restaurant. A lovely young woman explained the menu to me. Mmm, I don’t fancy a three-course-meal tonight; could I just have some soup? No problem, with fideo? Sorry, this term is missing from my vocabulary, so the señorita went into the kitchen and came back with a handful of pasta – perfect, and great customer service, too! A few minutes later she brought me a big bottle of Fanta (600 ml), some maize salad and a huge bowl of soup with vegetables, potatoes, meat and fideo; basic, rich and flavoursome. The bill was then written by another waitress and showed the stately sum of 13 Bolivianos, around £1.20. No, no, said the girl who had looked after me originally, the señora had only soup and a soft drink, so it’s just 8 Bolivianos – £0.74.
It makes you think – about the value of goods, of services, of a smile, about the cost and the standard of living in the places you are and the country you live your normal life in; it makes you question a whole lot of assumptions, your perceptions and priorities. What a humbling experience and still, this is what travelling is all about for me.
Back in the market area, I found a stall selling watches and, having lost a small metal pin on my wrist band, I asked the elderly gentleman if he had a spare by any chance. He rummaged through little plastic containers for quite a while and then told me I should come back in the morning, he would have a look at home and return at 8 am the following day. I thanked him very much and wished him a good night: buenas noches y hasta mañana.
Coming out of the internet café, which had a surprisingly speedy connection, I went back to the town square – only to see that I had missed a fiesta! The musicians and dancers were just packing up their instruments and utensils; what a shame! I was spending far too much time online trying to keep my photos, route-log and blog up-to-date instead of enjoying myself with the locals – something else I had to think about.
How do other travellers deal with this problem? I have been reading amazingly elaborate ride reports written almost in real time but how do people manage to do this? You ride at least 8 hours, often longer, then you have to find accommodation and food, look after your bike, laundry, personal hygiene; you want to meet people and talk to them, you are tired, and then there are the loved ones at home who are waiting for a sign of life from you – how do you fit this all into one day?
After a good night’s sleep I enjoyed a varied breakfast buffet in the El Rancho’s comedor. Jeidi, a cousin of Yessime, Juan-Carlos’s wife from the Paraguayan border post, who happened to work in the hotel’s kitchen, showed me what was on offer, how the Maté dispenser worked and just very kindly looked after me during my stay. The hotel owners sat down at the next table, asked if I felt better this morning (oh, yes!) and allowed me to wash the bike in their immaculately kept garden. The gardener was called to give me a hand and somehow the lovely man took over and cleaned the DRZ all by himself; I was hardly permitted to get near my baby. As a small gesture of my appreciation I let him ride the bike around the building to the front entrance. When he didn’t turn up at after five minutes, it suddenly dawned on me that I had forgotten to turn the fuel tap on. Quickly I limped round the corner and found José checking the bike over for possible faults. Sorry…
Then some serious maintenance was called for: after the hardships of the last days I tightened all the nuts and bolts, adjusted and lubed the chain, shortened the luggage straps that had become loose, replaced the lost O-rings on my GPS cradle and fixed other little things – all under the benevolent eyes of the hotel owners who were happy to let me work in the beautiful courtyard of the El Rancho.
Does anybody know what flowers these are?
There is no immigration office in Villamontes; I could either go on tarmac to Yacuiba on the border with Argentina further south or return to Ibibobo, which I had missed the previous day. Well, with my passport showing the Bolivian customs’ entry at Infante Rivarola from 1st September and the Paraguayan exit stamp from Mariscal on the 2nd, it seemed a safer bet to go back to Ibibobo – I would have some explaining to do how I could suddenly turn up near the Argentinean border – especially as there are only minor dirt tracks and, more importantly, no bridge over the Río Pilcomayo from that direction… And also, I wanted to find out where this elusive Bolivian border post was and where I had gone wrong during the night.
With the bike looked after, I then went into town for a cash-point, as I still didn’t have any local currency in my wallet yet. Banco Bisa has reliable ATM’s that don’t charge you an extra fee and give you a maximum of 1,000 Bolivianos, about £93 at the time, which last you a long time in Bolivia. I refilled bike and fuel canister and made my way back to the Bolivian border post, hoping that I had just missed the turning to the tarmac in the dark.
But no, look at the sign on the junction where I had emerged onto the paved road the previous night!
Obligatory route to Ibibobo – so it was exactly the same dirt track I had to take…
… a bit quicker though now due to daylight and carrying no luggage apart from the tank panniers with all my tools and spares. There were even road signs along the track – 13 km to Ibibobo, then 8 km, 3km…
Interesting vegetation -
And a shrine – for the solace of the soldiers and something probably more serious than the shape of the bottle tree suggests…
To my great surprise, the dirt track joined the tarmac again and I stood at the very same military check point as the previous evening. I limped down the hill for a second time and showed the officer the entry with my name in the book. When I asked for the actual border post, he pointed to the east – just 500 m further down the road towards Paraguay. ¿Qué?
Can you imagine, I had passed the building the day before in daylight without recognising it as such! Ibibobo was only 50 kilometres from the border and not 70, as the Paraguayans had told me (or maybe I had understood…). I should really have asked the soldiers at the military control post – but in my hurry to reach my destination before nightfall I had missed the most obvious course of action…
The Bolivian immigration office was just an adobe hut with goats, piglets and children running around.
Have I ever mentioned my fondness of piglets?
Anyway, the official was apparently having his siesta and harshly asked from the next room “what do you want?”. I did not explain anything, he had not seen from which direction I had arrived, and so I just said that I was coming from Mariscal and would like to enter Bolivia. He did not question the dates in my passport, just stamped everything and tried to persuade me to change some money with him. The ATM in Villamontes would not be working (yeah, right…), it was Friday afternoon and the banks were closed at the weekend and if I had any Paraguayan Guaranís or Dolares? No, I said, using an old travellers’ trick divulged to me by John, only my credit card. And off I went.
At the military control they knew me in the meantime, even smiled and we started chatting. So I asked if it was possible to use the closed tarmac road (because it was still under construction), as I had already done the 70 kilometres of dirt track twice and was getting a bit fed up with it. Claro, there were some obstacles but they shouldn’t be a problem on a motorbike; the sergeant was using the road on his commute from Villamontes everyday. Gracias, señores, have a nice day!
Happily I carried on, enjoying the smooth surface, but soon ran into the first trouble: I took the wrong side along the construction site and ended up in lots of deep, soft soil, where I could only push the bike downhill but not back up onto the road again.
Probably not a big deal for many of you, dear readers, but I’m a bit of a chicken and with no one around for miles to help me out should my attempts of climbing back onto the road go wrong, it was reverting to the track. By now the official Ruta 11 didn’t bother me anymore, it seemed like a well-known trail and I started to enjoy the ride, testing different techniques through the sand and trying to identify the spot where I had taken my luggage rail apart the previous night.
However, when I got stuck behind a slow-ish truck I took one of the service tracks which are used by the heavy plants to get to and back from the new road. And soon I was on the tarmac again. The next obstacles seemed a piece of cake, as I was in good spirits and full of confidence in my riding skills…
I even got off the bike to check for an escape route before riding to a potential point of no return…
A few horses, cattle, sheep, goats and the occasional truck was all I encountered, no one stopped and questioned me what I was thinking riding on a closed road under construction; the workers even waved to me. Just visualise the same situation in the UK.
I was wondering how the road works would be barred at the other end but suddenly I arrived at the junction with the “obligatory route to Ibibobo” sign and there had been nothing advising the public on a construction site at all!
In a fraction of the time I was back in Villamontes.
What an adventure!
In future, I will read the travel guide properly, keep an eye out for buildings that could potentially host an immigration office within a 250-kilometre radius from any border and try to avoid night rides at all costs…
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 Guaraní 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 Río 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…
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 the bike registration. 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 among 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?
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 Guaraní 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 Guaraní, 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…
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 who 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 beer 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?