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?