An odyssey and an unexpected history lesson   Leave a comment

 

The following morning I woke up before 7 o’clock and found that there was no electricity in the hotel – fortunately both my room and the bathroom had windows, so I could at least see whom I was washing. Breakfast was served in the dark and I was very happy to get a hot café con leche. Ronald and Angela from the hotel told me that the power cut had affected the whole town of Villarrica and would take a few hours to be sorted.

Well, you can get by without electricity, I suppose…

Ronald and Angela helped me carrying the luggage downstairs and waved me goodbye.

The Iglesia de Ybaroty, clearly influenced by medieval European architecture with its Romanesque and Gothic elements, looked great in daylight, too.

At this point, I should mention that neither my Paraguayan map nor the Argentinean mapping on my GPS were particularly brilliant for this area, but heading to the capital Asunción, there should be a cross-country road via Paraguarí instead of having to return to the main, straight and uneventful Ruta 7. I only had to find it.

After a pleasant, albeit not an entirely voluntary sight-seeing tour through Villarrica and asking a few locals for directions, I finally found a promising dirt road leading west and out of town. Even the GPS showed a thin line and so I was optimistic that I was on the right track. But the road soon bent too far south and I so turned off to the right at the next opportunity. Alas, the trail became narrower and narrower and eventually a single-track lane. But I still met friendly greeting people and therefore carried on until I arrived at this “bridge” over a little creek:

Maybe I should also mention that deep inside I am a big chicken, really, and together with the fact that I was still unable to put full pressure onto my left foot there was no way I would be crossing those flimsy planks with my fully loaded DRZ. 

I had already turned the bike round when a young family on a CG Titan 150 arrived. When they found out about my predicament, the driver quickly jumped off, stopped another motorcyclist and, before I could gather enough Spanish to explain why I couldn’t do this myself, they had already pushed the DRZ to the other side.

My saviours – muchísimas gracias!

In the meantime, I had caused a bit of a traffic jam…

… but also the couple you can see at the back stopped and we started chatting if it was wise for me to carry on, as the next stretch of the “road” would be muy feo (very ugly, literally), a bit tricky apparently… Meanwhile, the young family was waiting ahead to show me the best line and so I just had to go. The trail dipped into a steep riverbed which, although relatively dry at this time of the year, was very muddy and rutted. I almost made it through but then the back wheel got stuck. Oh, the embarrassment…

Immediately the second driver was there pushing the DRZ out of the hole – I think, as a thank you for coming to my aid, I roosted him thoroughly. I felt really sorry but didn’t look back and just hung on to the throttle until I reached the end of the track another mile further down. Phew, I was glad that I hadn’t taken the GS for this trip!

After waiting in the next village to apologise to my rescuers, I carried on into what I thought was the right direction but soon met mud, sand and finally a gate to a big ranch – a dead-end. On my way back to the village I saw the young family again and they pointed me into the right direction to Itapé, which lay roughly on my route. How friendly and helpful the Paraguayans are!

The gravel track soon broadened and became really smooth – they will probably pave it in the very near future…

Some “wild life” by the side of the road

In Itapé I bought some water at a filling station and started a conversation with the attendant about travelling, life in Itapé and the road ahead. The latter would end at the river Tibucuary soon, she said, but apparently there were ways to get the bike over by balsa, a Spanish term I was not familiar with at that moment. When I arrived at the banks of the river, it became immediately clear what balsa meant – a raft! Oh no, I have had enough excitement already today, and without even taking a photo, I turned round and went looking for another option.

There was not a hint of a trail along the river…

… but I met a group of Guaraní people on the banks and watched them fishing.

According to them there was no bridge for miles, so I traced back my steps to the main road and took the diversion to Coronel Martínez which meant road works, sticky mud and sand again. Paddling along, I finally reached the village and turned west. I think it was there when I joined a wide tarmac road – of course, neither on my map nor the GPS – leading to Paraguarí.

The road was not completely finished, partially unpaved through the villages and it basically followed the railway line, which has probably seen better days since it was built in 1856…

The countryside became hillier…

… and I finally reached the town of Paraguarí – the cradle of Paraguayan Independence. As it was already a few hours later than originally intended, I didn’t have enough time to appreciate the place where the Paraguayan troops under General Manuel Belgrano defeated the Argentine army in 1811. So I just filled up with fuel and chocolate and continued the 66 km journey to Asunción on the Ruta 1.

They really look after their busses here…

La Muy Noble y Leal Ciudad de Nuestra Señora Santa María de la Asunción – the very noble and loyal City of Our Lady Saint Mary of the Assumption – is large, densely developed and busy, as you would expect from a capital where 30% of the Paraguayans live. It’s also not particularly well sign-posted, and so it took me a while until I found the centre and the hotel La Española that had been recommended in the South American Handbook.

The receptionist looked very pretty but didn’t show a great deal of concern for the new guest who was limping up and down the stairs – she left it to a tiny old lady to ask me if I needed help with carrying my luggage. Of course, I declined. The young woman also forgot to mention that I had to switch on the boiler before I could have a hot shower… Never mind, including breakfast, secure parking and en-suite bathroom the hotel only cost me PYG 80,000, that was £11.00 at the time – just £0.70 more than the room in Villarrica – and we were right in the centro of the capital!

Just two blocks further north lay the Plaza de los Héroes, the heart of the historic centre of Asunción. A big marquee sheltered a free art exhibition and I spent a while enjoying local craftsmanship, sculptures and paintings before heading to the Pantéon Nacional de los Héroes, the National Pantheon of the Heroes.

The Ministerio de Hacienda – the Treasury – next to the popular Lido Bar

Talking of finances, the US$ 40.00 exchanged in Ciudad del Este wouldn’t last forever and I had to stock up on cash before entering the Gran Chaco the next day. Although you can pay for fuel with your credit card, I prefer to have some notes and coins in my pocket out in the wilderness. According to my travel guide there was a Lloyds TSB Bank nearby, and I thought I could save some administration fee using their ATM. Nice plan, but I couldn’t find the branch despite exploring the whole adjacent area… In the end I just approached a passer-by – and I couldn’t have made a better decision.

Alberto was a presidential guard off duty, enjoying the mild evening, and he had nothing better to do than giving the foreign tourist a guided tour of the city. During the next two hours I learnt not only that the Lloyds branch had been replaced by HSBC, but also an awful lot about Paraguayan history, a history that is actually very sad and violent. The country has suffered long periods of political instability, dictatorship and devastating wars with its neighbours. During the War of the Triple Alliance against Brazil, Argentina and Uruguay in the 1860’s, more than 80% of the male adult population were killed. Then there was also the Chaco War in the 1930’s with Bolivia over the region of the same name, with a death toll of 56,000 people on the Bolivian side and 36,000 in Paraguay.

I was shocked but also very impressed by Alberto’s wealth of knowledge and his balanced depiction of the country’s past and present problems; he showed me the slums as well as the presidential palace, the seat of the Paraguayan government and his place of work.

The Palacio de los López – the Palace of the López, the name of two of the country’s presidents

Nearby a memorial for the eight young victims who were killed during the events of March 1999 following the assassination of vice president Argaña, known as the Marzo Paraguayano today and considered a victory for popular power and a turning point in Paraguay’s famously Byzantine politics at the end of the 1990’s.

Alberto asked if I wanted to see more of the city but I was in quite a gloomy mood after hearing of all the bloodshed. Also, I would have loved to take Alberto out for dinner to thank him for his time and the valuable history lesson, but in his casual dress – T-shirt, shorts and flip-flops – they wouldn’t let him into a restaurant, he shrugged. What a shame! So we had to say goodbye but I promised to come to the palace the next morning when he would be on duty.

After wandering around the city centre and finding most of the restaurants out of my price range, I finally ended up in the famous Lido Bar – an institution in Asunción in a great location right on the Plaza de los Héroes with loads of character. You sit around a circular bar, order your food from the menu on the wall and get served from the middle. I must have looked a bit lost when I entered the place, because one of the waitresses, Carmiña, took me straight under her wing, recommended a traditional sopa de pescado, a fish soup, when I asked for a local dish and suggested one of the delicious freshly squeezed juices for dessert. Then she passed by every three minutes to see if I was still enjoying myself and the food. It was great.

Fed and watered I then went looking for an internet café to upload more photos, update my blog and write emails to the loved ones at home. The young man at the counter tried out four different computers until he found one that accepted my USB card reader, served me a drink and let me make use of the unusual fast connection until long after midnight. To top it all, he only wanted £0.70 from me and even made me aware that I had given him a 50,000 Guaraní note (£7.00) instead of 5,000. Wow, he could have just taken advantage of that stupid tourist and kept the money – but no…

Completely swept away, I walked back to the hotel and couldn’t believe just how lucky I was to be here in Paraguay and to meet all those lovely people.

Could it get any better?

 

Posted 13 March 2011 by Pumpy in Paraguay

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