Archive for the ‘The 2010 Bike Trip’ Category

A nasty surprise…   4 comments

 

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?

Posted 13 April 2011 by Pumpy in Paraguay

“Willkommen in Loma Plata”   2 comments

 

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…

Well-tended gardens

… 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?

Posted 4 April 2011 by Pumpy in Paraguay

Worlds apart…   1 comment

Have you ever had strawberry jelly for breakfast? And six different types of biscuits to go with butter and homemade jam? Freshly squeezed orange juice as well as whole fruits and bananas in all-you-can-drink-or-eat amounts respectively? Well, if this sounds like your cup of café con leche, then stay at the Hotel La Española in Asunción.

A quick note on paying by credit card in South America – businesses may ask for a surcharge for this convenience. As it would have added 10% to my bill, I thought, good that I had gone to the bank the previous evening, and handed over hard cash instead.

One of the impressively strong chambermaids and the hotel’s factotum, Gustavo, helped me carrying my luggage to the bike. Whilst packing, I had a nice chat and some Maté with Gustavo who could hardly believe that I was travelling through South America on my own…

Then I hurled myself into the thick of the inner-city traffic, making my way to the Plaza de Héroes for a photo of the Pantheon of the Heroes in daylight. While I was standing by the side of the road, several car drivers stopped and asked if they could take a picture of me! There are not a lot of motorcycle travellers coming through Asunción, I suppose…

Somehow I seem to be attracted by old trucks…

Finally I got to the president’s palace and pulled over to take a picture. Immediately one of the armed guards appeared and told me to get moving again – no vehicle is allowed to stop in the security zone.

Mmm, do I look like the typical terrorist carrying a rocket launcher in her saddle bags? Can I not just take a touristy photo of this beautiful building? Later I learnt that during the 35-year long dictatorship of General Stoessner even looking at the Palacio de Gobierno was at a time punishable by death. 

Still, slightly miffed I carried on to the next corner, but then Alberto came over and everything was alright. I thanked him again for his time and friendliness, he kept emphasising how impressed he was by my courage to cross the wild Chaco alone (gulp…) and then we had to say ’adios’.

I still looked at some of the capital’s monuments – the Cabildo de Asunción on the Plaza de la Independencia, which served as parliament, city hall and legislative palace in the past and is now a cultural centre and museum. Not sure about the colour scheme, to be honest…

The Memorial of the Marzo Paraguayano

The slums are right next to the government buildings, so that the public servants don’t forget this part of the Paraguayan people when they decide on laws and policies…

Finding my way out of Asunción was relatively easy following the excellent ConoSur mapping software from the Argentinean GPS forum – just the traffic was a bit crazy. It’s the survival of the fittest here or – in this case – of the biggest vehicle: as soon as I left more than 90 centimetres of a safety distance, cars pushed into my lane, colectivos just pulled away from the bus stop as soon as the last passenger’s feet were off the ground – without looking behind, of course; trucks bullied everyone smaller than themselves by simply ploughing their way through the chaos, etc. It really helps to have four sets of eyes…

At the checkpoint before the bridge over the River Paraguay two cops stopped me and started an interrogation. One of them wanted to see my passport, international driving licence and vehicle registration; the other just wanted to know everything about my trip, the bike, the SPOT around my arm and how it all worked. The first officer must have felt a bit left out because he demanded more documents, but then gave up when he couldn’t think of any additional paperwork that a foreign traveller could possibly present. Anyway, I had everything in order – I’m German after all – and in the end he relaxed, started to smile and joined in the conversation.

Then I was on the Ruta 9 – the notorious Trans Chaco. 744 km / 462 miles to go to the Bolivian border.

In the next village I stopped at a service station to buy water. They didn’t have any and also advised strongly against drinking tap water, but the team was eager to help me in some way. The only thing I could think of was to ask if I could lube my chain while I was there and immediately they brought me a little can of oil and a rag and lifted the back of the bike (with all the luggage!) to make it easier.

In the meantime I answered loads of questions and an elderly gentleman told me about the history of the region, which was populated mainly in the second half of the 19th century during the construction of the Paraguayan railway. The descendants of the many migrant workers from France, England, Germany, Italy and other countries still live in the area and create an interesting multicultural mix.

The Gran Chaco is a vast plain – sparsely populated, hot and semi-arid. The Ruta 9 stretches to the horizon (of course, it’s cheaper to build a straight road – even the old Romans knew that already…), bushes and palm trees dot the countryside with a few small-holdings and cattle thrown in between. The tarmac was fresh and the riding not particularly exciting, but I was aware that the conditions would change the further I got away from Asunción and so I just enjoyed what I had at the moment.

The GPS indicated a filling station near Río Negro (km 180 of the Ruta 9) but there was no electricity and so the pumps didn’t work. Mmm, I still had fuel for at least another 110 km / 70 miles and the next services were 72 kilometres away, so it should be ok. Bathroom, two bottles of water, a cold empanada – and off I went again.

After a while the tarmac became patchy and huge potholes opened up, causing the traffic to meander around them. I had already been wondering why those trucks in the distance approached me on my side of the road… The trip counter showed 200 miles when I turned the fuel tap onto reserve. In Pirahú (km 252) they had petrol but not the 95 octane type I needed! My hopes were set on Pozo Colorado, a further 21 kilometres up the road.

Finally! The attendant filled 14.2 litres into my 16 litre-tank… I would still have had my extra can of five litres in the worst case scenario, but there was a lesson to be learnt: when in remote areas in South America – stock up on water and fuel at every opportunity, even if your hydropack and tank are still half full.

It was around 5 pm and I could have looked for accommodation in Pozo Colorado, but the South American Handbook had recommended the Rancho Buffalo Bill another 14 kilometres northwest. At km 283 I stopped in front of the hotel and – in anticipation of a nice shower and a good meal – walked towards the gate.

After a while, an elderly, toothless señor answered the door, but only to inform me that the supply of both water and electricity had been cut off and that, therefore, the Rancho was closed. I could either return to Pozo Colorado or carry on to Fortín Río Verde. Well, I really don’t like turning back and so I rode another 40 kilometres onwards. At this rate, I would possibly make it to Bolivia by midnight…

In Río Verde I found a service station, a restaurant and a few cottages. From the air the place looks like this:

Is there any accommodation around here? I asked at the guys at the pumps. At first, they shook their heads but then one of them pointed to the other side of the road. Over there, the señora rents out a room some times. Well, let’s hope she does so today…

A Guaraní woman opened the door and then called the owner. Yes, she had a bed and if I would like to wait a minute, un ratito, she would prepare the room for me. While Norma was busy, I talked to the fine little lady sitting on the patio. It was actually her house where she was living with her son, his wife and their children; she was 78 years old, with an agile mind but suffering from an illness that made her frail and fall over. Still, she insisted on showing me my room – it was actually a small house –

¡Mi casa!

Inside it was basic but clean.

… and I even had electricity. Otherwise there were no modern amenities such as running water or sanitation on the farm. They had a well but the water had to be heavily chemically treated to make it drinkable. Apart from that, a tanker would come round once a week to provide the village with potable water.

The family didn’t have a shower but Norma heated some water on the wood-stove, handed me a jug, a bowl and soap, and showed me their bathroom where I could have a wash. It seemed like travelling back in time and reminded me of my old student days when I lived in a tiny apartment which only had a toilet but no shower or bath tub. Here, the toilet was actually a pit latrine in the garden.

Standing there in the dimly lit room, relishing the peaceful environment and hugely enjoying the whole experience, I contemplated the living conditions here in the Chaco in comparison to the standard I had become accustomed to in Western Europe. The family didn’t possess any of the technical comforts that appear so indispensable to me and still, they all seemed happy and content with their life.

I was even more amazed when I learnt that Norma had grown up in Asunción, where she had also met her husband Joel. Only when his father died, his mum asked if he would move back to Río Verde to look after her and the house. What a contrast it must have been for Norma and the children to swap life in the modern capital with this remote little village. And the family was relatively well off here in Río Verde: they had a big house, a farm, a shop, the small guest house, Joel had a job in Pozo Colorado and they employed a Guaraní couple to help them.

Norma, Joel and his mother

I was wondering how life must be for the indigenous people around here. Joel actually warned me – I should not leave my bike outside and always lock the door to my room. The Guaraní were so poor that they would steal anything, he said. Due to our own history in Germany I am very sensitive to pejorative comments like this and any racist tendencies but I didn’t know enough about Paraguayan past and present to argue and also couldn’t talk to the Guaraní couple themselves, as they had retired to their room by then.

So I just listened, asked more questions and gratefully accepted Joel’s offer to push my bike into my cottage and then, when it turned out to be too wide to fit through the door, into their own house for the night. Norma asked if I wanted to go to the restaurant or share their dinner with them. Of course, I went for the latter option.

It had been a long day – battling the traffic in Asunción, the police interrogation, the pot holes and the solitude on the Trans Chaco, the hunt for fuel, the friendliness of the people and then all the things I had learnt about life in Río Verde – there was a lot to digest and think about.

What a multifarious experience this journey through Paraguay was. And it wasn’t going to stop there.

Posted 24 March 2011 by Pumpy in Paraguay

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

From Argentina to Paraguay through a tiny bit of Brazil   Leave a comment

Before I set off on my epic journey, I didn’t know a great deal about Paraguay – apart from: the country is sparsely populated (6.3 million inhabitants in an area of 406,752 km² / 157,048 sq miles – as a comparison: the UK has 62 million in 243,610 km / 94,060 sq miles), 30-50% of the population live in poverty, and it is more likely that the people you meet speak Guaraní than Spanish. West of the capital Asunción towards Bolivia spreads the hot and semi-arid Gran Chaco which is rather remote and potentially dangerous but also home to a number of German-speaking Mennonite communities. Well, I travel to learn, so bring it on.

To be on the safe side, I stock up on vitamins before leaving Argentina by devouring embarrassingly vast quantities of fresh fruit at the breakfast buffet – you never know when you get the next opportunity. Then I enquire about the border controls that lie ahead, as you have to cross a corner of Brazil if you want to go from Puerto Iguazú in Argentina to Paraguay.

I am a bit nervous because I don’t speak Portuguese. No se preocupe, señora, don’t worry, say the nice people at the campsite, it’s all very straightforward. While packing my stuff on the DRZ, I chat to Javier, gardener, 24 years old and soon father-to-be of a little daughter. Motorbikes are such a great opportunity to start a conversation – wherever you are. I love it.

The Argentinean border crossing is busy and efficient: I hand over passport, bike registration and temporary import documents – buen viaje, have a good trip, and through. Of course, I must stop on the bridge over the Río Iguazú and a nice elderly señor takes pictures of me with one foot/wheel in Argentina and one in Brazil.

Welcome to Brazil

 

At the Brazilian border post I just say that I want to go straight to Paraguay and get a simple transit stamp in my passport – without any further questions or fuss; it’s usual practice here. Shame really, as the rather handsome officer I’m dealing with is an absolute pleasure to look at (I hope Possu doesn’t read this too carefully…  ).

Then I am in Foz do Iguaçu, the 4th largest city in the Paraná region and a rather hectic place. Mmm, there is no time limit on the transit, no one has explicitly told me that I have to go straight and immediately to Paraguay – and I would really like to see the Marco das tres fronteiras, the landmark where the three countries and the rivers Paraná and Iguazú meet. No one is looking, so I quickly turn left and ride down to the Triple Frontier:

Zoom into Argentina

Paraguay

and Brazil

Then I’m battling my way through the heavy traffic towards the Paraguayan border. Many people try to stop me but they don’t look official enough to get me hesitating. Hundreds of motos are whizzing past, I just follow the herd and then suddenly the lanes split and I find myself in a 20cm wide groove that leads the motorcycles through the border installations. There is no opportunity to stop and ask how this all works, if and where I have to show any documents and so I keep drifting along. We reach the bridge over the Río Paraná where the two-wheeled and the four-wheeled vehicles meet again and I instantly become a mobile chicane – with my panniers I can’t just filter through and a massive queue of beeping bikes forms behind me. Fortunately the cars are moving a bit forward and I can slip into a gap to let the other motos pass. Phew.

Right, are we there yet? This looks like we are already in Ciudad del Este (City of the East) in Paraguay.

But I surely need an entry stamp in my passport and temporary import papers for the DRZ? Ok, in Germany we have a saying: the police, your friend and helper, and so I head straight for the next officer who’s trying to install some law & order into the traffic chaos. Although busy, he takes the time to welcome me to Paraguay and point me to an inconspicuous white office block on the other side of the road – in the meantime, the local motorcycle taxi drivers will look after my bike and luggage.

An impressive female officer governs over the crew in the immigration office; we chat about my trip, she stamps my passport and sends me off – enjoy your stay in Paraguay. What about customs and the temporary import of a foreign motorbike? Not necessary in Paraguay, even though I ask several times because I find it hard to believe. When I come back to the DRZ, there are even more moto taxis and their owners, we chat and laugh and I have to answer many questions about the bike and my journey. Oh, and I need money but as it is Saturday, all the exchanges are closed. No problem, my favourite police officer speaks to a few locals and introduces me to a money-changer who gives me a very fair rate for my US Dolares. 

But then the culture shock of this giant shopping centre called Ciudad del Este becomes too much – I want to get out of this hectic place and into the countryside as fast as possible. It is hot and again, a lot of people try to stop me and shout their latest offers at me. I’m sure, if I was after cheap electronic goods I could grab some bargains here, however, I only have a small bike with limited luggage space – so which part of no gracias don’t you understand?

Finally I reach the city limit and join the Ruta 7 which leads to Asunción. The land is plain, grassy and pretty flat. For a long time the only hills around here are the termite mounds along the road.

Occasionally I pass a toll booth, but motorcycles are exempt and even have their extra lane to go round the barrier. 

After a few hours of uneventful riding, I spot green hills in the distance and decide to turn off the main road, heading south-west towards Villarrica. Immediately the journey gets more interesting when I run into the Paraguayan rush-hour…

That’s more like I expected the roads to be…

Arriving in Villarrica, I first do my usual sight-seeing tour and look for accommodation. The capital of the Guairá department is pretty big, boasts some beautiful architecture, plenty of parks and a university and is considered to be the second most important city in Paraguay from the cultural point of view. I stop at the Hotel Rowil which I instantly like – not only for the colour scheme…

I think there are only two other guests in the house and I get a lovely en-suite room in the attic…

… with a nice view over the garden – including breakfast for £9.50.

It’s a Saturday night and the whole town is in party mood. Cars are promenading up and down the high street with huge booming stereos in the boot; drivers and passengers are laughing and cheering at the people in the streets. Everyone is friendly and greeting me; I haven’t seen any other gringos here so far. I walk around until midnight, savouring the atmosphere and the balmy air, chatting to the locals – and just enjoy being here in Paraguay. What a charming country; I can’t wait to explore more of it!

Posted 25 February 2011 by Pumpy in Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay

A day at the Iguazú Falls   Leave a comment

The famous Falls of the River Iguazú define the border between Argentina and Brazil and can be visited from both countries. Two thirds of the waterfalls lie in Argentine territory where a well-developed infrastructure gives access to the majority of the 275 falls.

The previous day I had already ridden to the entrance of the national park to see if I could catch a glimpse of the waterfalls, but the only road available took me to a big gate where I was told that the entrance fee was AR$ 85.00 (at that time approx. £15.00), they would only be open for another hour and I should rather come back in the morning, preferably by public transport, as they couldn’t guarantee the safety of my bike in their car park. I agreed, it would also be much nicer to walk about in civilian clothes than in motorcycle boots and my relatively heavy suit.

So after a delicious breakfast in the campsite’s restaurant, I just stepped outside to the bus stop and caught one of the colectivos that run every 30 minutes between Puerto Iguazú and the national park for AR$ 5.00 (£0.90). The park is open daily from 8.00 to 18.00 (8.00 to 19.00 hrs from 1 Apr to 31 Aug) and the South American Handbook 2010 stated that the entrance fee can be paid either in Argentinean pesos, Brazilian reais or US$. Relying on this information, I had already reduced the amount of Argentinean cash to just a few pesos, as I was leaving Argentina the next day and could pay campsite and food with my credit card.

But – when I finally reached the top of the queue, the guy at the ticket counter told me that they would only accept Argentinean pesos – no US Dollars, no plastic, which was all I had. Mmm, what can I do? There was a cash point inside the park and the rangers even let me in. Unfortunately the machine was out-of-order… Arrrgh, I had made such an effort to get up early and be here at 8.00 but now it meant that I had to go back to either the campsite to change money there or even to Puerto Iguazú to find another ATM. Hang on, didn’t I see a MasterCard sign on the door of a souvenir shop? Could I buy something and have some cash back? No problem, señora, but you have to spend at least AR$ 40.00. Mumble, mumble, mumble, alright then. So I bought postcards for AR$ 40.00 (which I had to do anyway at some point…) and received my AR$ 85.00 for the entrance ticket. Phew. In.

Due to my little mishap the previous day and all the limping around at speed, my foot had started to hurt again, and so I went into the visitor centre to enquire about the best routes through the park that were accessible for the handicapped. I was expecting some rough directions or scribbling in my map from the friendly advisor but no – he made a phone call and two minutes later a sort of electro mobile stood in front of the building, ready to chauffeur me to the station from which the train leaves for the waterfalls. Not that I really felt that bad but what a superb service! I chatted with my driver about self-inflicted injuries, our beloved hobbies – in his case it was football that had given him a damaged knee – and what a wonderful workplace he had.

The ecological forest train took us to the Estación Cataratas first, from where the Upper and the Lower Circuits start, but I wanted to see the largest of the falls, the Garganta del Diablo, the Devil’s Throat, before it got too crowded. From the Garganta station a one-kilometre catwalk leads to the park’s centre piece – you can already spot the spray in the distance.

The national park is home to an abundance of wildlife – which can easily be watched from the walk-way

Plush-crested jay

Getting closer…

Of course, everyone who was on the train had overtaken me by now – but there it must be:

The Devil’s Throat – La Garganta del Diablo!

The mandatory tourist shot…

And then I was just standing there, looking at the overwhelming power and beauty of the waterfalls and the tears were running down my face. How lucky was I to be here and see this wonder of nature with my own eyes…

A heron on the way back to the train station.

I have to say that the park’s infrastructure is well-developed – each train is used to its full capacity (and they run every 30 minutes), access to the facilities like bathrooms and restaurants is nicely organised and sign-posted, but you also pay for it. Not only the hefty entrance fee, but for some strange reason I had forgotten to take water with me and had to hand over AR$ 12.00 (US$ 3.50) for a half-litre bottle! So if you go to the Iguazú Falls yourself, bring your own supplies…

After returning to the Estación Cataratas I first walked the Upper Circuit (Circuito Superior) which takes you along the top of the waterfalls.

Just see the tiny people at the bottom to get a sense of the scale.

And the wildlife…

The flora isn’t bad either.

The butterflies seem to be used to humans around here.

On the way to the Lower Circuit (Circuito Inferior) I came across these little fellows – Coaties:

They are not shy…

… and for the protection of both visitors and animals, feeding the latter is strictly forbidden (as you can see in the third pictogram).

Then the stairs went down, down, down…

Along more waterfalls…

From the bottom you can spot the Garganta del Diablo in the distance – and the walk-way on the Brazilian side…

The crowd had spread out by now and I had the place almost to myself.

… and the butterflies, of course.

Then I reached the platform that you have seen earlier from the Upper Circuit.

I carried on to the riverbank and the jetty for the boats that take you to the Isla San Martín, an island that lies right in the middle of the action.

Unfortunately and due to the low water level, the recommended tours were suspended for the day but I’m not sure if I had met all the criteria anyway…

It was nearing closing time when I made my way uphill to the train station again. I had been limping about for at least seven kilometres and ten hours that day but the pain was only a small price to pay for this awesome experience.

If you ever get the chance to visit the Cataratas del Iguazú then go. If you don’t – well, then you will have to make it happen one day…

Posted 17 February 2011 by Pumpy in Argentina

A couple of falls…   1 comment

The next morning Claudia invited me into their cabaña for a coffee. So I went to one of the little kioscos on the corner that sell (almost) everything to buy bread, butter and cheese for breakfast. We talked a lot about the current economic climate in Argentina, the education system and her career perspectives as an academic with two young children, and then I suddenly realised that I was late for another appointment –

Arriving at the campsite the previous evening I had arranged for my clothes to be washed and dried overnight by Carola, a lovely local lady who runs her business ‘La Lavandería Suave’ a few blocks away from the main road. She had asked me to be at her place for 9.00 am and when I remembered it was already 9.20. So much for German punctuality…

And right, Carola already waited for me on her doorstep and asked if I could give her a lift into the town centre on my bike, as she was late now due to my delay.

No problem at all, just that the road was slightly curved and muddy and of course, the inevitable happened: Carola didn’t swing her leg over the seat, as I was expecting, but used the footpeg to mount the bike, putting all her weight onto the left-hand side of the DRZ where I had only a still weakened limp to hold the load. Well, after a fruitless attempt to save the situation, my foot gave way, all three of us went over and Carola, not wearing any protective gear, was buried under the bike – oh my God! 

Fortunately, she was unharmed and just laughing about our stunt – but I wished the ground would open up and swallow me… And my foot hurt like hell again! Anyway, after dusting us off, I pushed the DRZ to the bank, asked Carola’s boys to hold the bike upright while she was getting on and off we went into San Ignacio. You bet that I used all the kerbs and stones I could get hold of every time we stopped on Carola’s round. She was obviously proud to be seen on such a ‘big’ moto and still laughed when we reached her final customer. She even gave me a pair of nice earrings as a token of our new – yet already tested – friendship.

Still utterly embarrassed I returned to the campsite, packed my stuff, said goodbye to Claudia and the chicos and hit the road.

I have to confess now that – as it was already late, very hot and still 260 kilometres to the Iguazú Falls – I gave the famous Jesuit ruins a miss. Even though it meant that I didn’t see Matías again who was already at his stall offering artesania to the visitors of the World Heritage Site. If you want to have a look at some images , please click here – otherwise you will have to go there yourself or wait until I return to Argentina one day…

Heading north on the Ruta 12 I saw a lot of trucks carrying the main ingredient of the Argentine national drink – Yerba Maté

Stopping at a filling station near El Dorado, I met the third motorcycle traveller on my trip: Hans from Chile on his 650 V-Strom. He was roaming for four months as well and invited me to visit him in Viña del Mar when I would be passing by in a few weeks’ time. We exchanged tips about accommodation, services and sight-seeing and then headed off into opposite directions. I didn’t meet Hans again, as he was still on the road when I finally came to Chile.

Mid afternoon I arrived at Puerto Iguazú and did the usual city-tour for orientation purposes and to find somewhere to stay. The South America Handbook had recommended the campsite ‘El Viejo Americano‘ (the old American) on the road to the waterfalls but I found that the camping fee was no longer US$ 3.00 as stated in the travel guide but a whopping US$ 15.00!

However, the facilities were great and in immaculate condition: clean and spacious bathrooms, hot water all day, swimming pool, supermarket, restaurant, internet, tourist information and a safe at the reception, the bus stop right at the front door, and the people working there were all very friendly and helpful.

In good spirits and full of excitement that I was going to see one of the most amazing natural wonders in the world the next day, I started to pitch my tent. Oh no, how could that have happened?

In the morning all had been fine still! No problem, I thought, for situations like this I brought the right tools:

But for some strange reason, things didn’t work out as they were supposed to – maybe because I had never used ‘Chemical Metal’ before or completely misunderstood the term ‘plastic padding’ or just didn’t get the proportions of the two components right or maybe the temperatures were just too tropical for the chemicals to bond properly. The result looked like this:  

In the end I had to take drastic measures and smash the piece that was broken off the line, thereby shortening the pole considerably, and bandage the rest with duct tape…

Apologies to John for such an abuse of his generous present. Still, the tent was holding up well – if a little asymmetrical – for the rest of the journey.

That evening I broke the rules of my vegetarian regiment of 30 years for the first time of the trip: starved after having missed dinner the previous evenings, I went to the campsite’s restaurant and ordered the Menú turístico with all the trimmings. I think the only dish that didn’t have meat in it was the dessert… No photographic evidence though, as I still felt a bit guilty at that point and didn’t want to tell Possu…

Despite my cardinal sin the sun set beautifully over the land…

… and full of anticipation I slipped into my sleeping bag – tomorrow I would spend the whole day at the Iguazú Falls… 

Posted 9 February 2011 by Pumpy in Argentina

Dear Reader…   2 comments

… You may have noticed that I am a bit behind with my blog – the last post is from Argentina whereas in real-time I have already been in Paraguay, Bolivia, Peru and half way through Chile…

Well, it is hard to find the time (and often even an Internet Café) while travelling, enjoying the stunning countryside, riding pretty technical trails, socialising with the locals and having the time of my life.

At least I try to keep The Route up-to-date with a brief summary of the day every evening and also strive to complete the Photo Galleries on a daily basis – or whenever I find a local internet connection with sufficient upload capacity.

I hope you forgive me – I also keep a detailed journal and will write a proper ride report on Adventure Rider, UKGSer and Horizons Unlimited when I am back after Christmas.

Thank you for your patience and that you are still looking!

Ela x

Posted 31 October 2010 by Pumpy in Chile

On a mission   4 comments

In the 16th century, priests of different religious orders set out to evangelize the Americas, bringing Christianity to indigenous communities. The colonial governments and missionaries agreed on the strategy of gathering the often nomadic indigenous populations in larger communities called reductions in order to more effectively govern, tax, and Christianize them. Reductions generally were also construed as an instrument to make the Indians adopt European lifestyles and values, which was not the case in the Jesuit reductions, where the Jesuits allowed the Indians to retain many of their pre-colonial cultural practices.

San Ignacio Miní (minor in Guaraní to distinguish it from its bigger homonym San Ignacio Guazú – great) was one of the many missions founded in 1632 by the Jesuits near present-day San Ignacio valley, some 60 kilometres south of Posadas, Misiones, Argentina.

In the 18th century the mission had a population of around 3000 people, and a rich cultural and handicraft activity, which was commercialized through the nearby Río Paraná. Nevertheless, after the Suppression of the Society of Jesus of 1767, the Jesuits left the mission a year later. The ruins are one of the best preserved among the several built in a territory today belonging to Argentina, Brazil and Paraguay, and one of the most visited due to its accessibility.

*****

San Ignacio Miní was my destination that day, some 250 miles / 400 kilometres away, but first I had to find my way out of Paso de los Libres. The bigger towns in South America have a sophisticated one-way system, i.e. in one street you can go west and in the next, one block further, you can ride east. The same applies to north and south, with some roads being two-ways thrown in for good measure. This concept helps to avoid congestion, makes it easier for vehicles to stop and for people to cross but doesn’t necessarily support the navigation for the foreigner. After several unvoluntary sight-seeing tours round the centre of Paso de los Libres, I finally pulled over and asked an official looking Señor in uniform for directions.

He sent me a completely different but more straight forward way which led me to the Río Uruguay again, from where I could see the cityof Uruguaiana in Brazil on the other side of the river.

Uruguaiana in Brazil

The Argentinean-Brazilian border post ahead...

… but Brazil would have to wait until the Iguazú Falls – today I wanted to go to Misiones. On the Ruta 14 I passed the town of Santo Tomé…

Entrance to Santo Tomé

… and then the start of the notorious Ruta 40, which runs along the Andes through the whole of Argentina from the La Quiaca on the Bolivian border in the north down to the Atlantic near Rio Gallegos in Patagonia.

Ruta 40, Corrientes

Of course, here in Corrientes we were too far east and the Ruta 40 was only a provincial road. The real thing will have to wait until I cross the Andes from Chile into Argentina again…

By the roadside you can see many richly decorated shrines, most of them dedicated to Gauchito Gil, a legendary character of Argentina’s popular culture.

Shrine of Gauchito Gil by the roadside

Inside the shrine

As John had warned me in advance, the landscape within a radius of 500 miles / 800 km around Buenos Aires is mainly flat Pampa but once I had passed that mark, the countryside became hilly and more colourful.

 

On the Ruta 14

At some point I turned off the main road to have a closer look at the Tierra colorada.

Tierra colorada

Near San José I finally entered the province of Misiones and left the Ruta 14, joining the Ruta 105 north towards Posadas.

Only 325 kilometres left to the Iguazú Falls

San Ignacio Miní lies 60 kilometres north-east of Posadas on the Ruta 12. I soon found the campsite ‘La Familia’ and pitched my fabulous tent (a present from John as well as my MSR fuel stove).

 

Camping 'La Familia' in San Ignacio Miní

My activities were closely watched by two little kids, Matí and Dante, who were asking lots of questions about my moto, the tent and why I was doing what in that particular way.

Matí and Dante

The two are the sons of Claudia, a Historian, and her husband Matías, an artist who makes  jewellery and objects out of natural products such as seeds, potter’s clay and semi-precious stones and sells them to the tourists visiting the Jesuit ruins. The family lives half of the year in the province of Buenos Aires and the other half in a cabaña – a cabin on the campsite in San Ignacio Miní.

Some of Matías's work

They invited me to drink some Mate with them and I learnt a lot about the Guaraní culture, environmentalism in Argentina and the living conditions of the rather underprivileged people in the country.

At some point I had to leave for the centre of San Ignacio to get some dinner and visit the Internet Café. Unfortunately I found the latter before the restaurant and when I had finished all the usual updates (Route-log, SPOT message, photos, emails to the loved ones, etc) I realised that the village had closed down in the meantime and it was hungry to bed again – doh!  At least I got a photo of the Jesuit ruins on my way back to the campsite.

Jesuit ruins by night

Tomorrow – at the Iguazú Falls – I would eat a whole piglet on toast, I promised my growling stomach…

Disclaimer: All the historical and geographical stuff in this post is shamelessly nicked from Wikipedia.

Posted 18 September 2010 by Pumpy in Argentina

From Uruguay to Argentina   3 comments

The following morning the nice landlady at the Hostal Canela served breakfast in my room – did I mention my fabulous room? 😉 – with fresh media lunas (croissants), café con leche and zumo de naranja natural (freshly pressed orange juice) – hmm!

Breakfast in bed...

I thanked her very much, promised I would recommend the place to everyone I know (done!) and everyone I would meet on the road, and set off towards Argentina. But no, I couldn’t leave this lovely country without a Uruguay sticker for my moto! So I stopped at the next filling station in Salto. The guys were really friendly, offered me a sticker of their fuel company but unfortunately they couldn’t help me further. But the shopping mall three blocks further down the road would certainly sell the object of desire.

When I pulled into the car park, I was immediately approached by a security guard – of course, I had done a U-turn and was going into the wrong direction of a one-way system… No, the reason he approached me was to point out that it would be much safer for me to park in the underground garage. Muchas gracias, officer, and off I went into the underworld. Again, the security guard there came over straight away, reassured me that he and his colleagues would have a close eye on my DRZ and then he accompanied me through the whole shopping centre on the hunt for a Uruguay sticker. Unfortunately no tienda was stocking such a thing. I tried the motorcycle shop across the street, another filling station, the supermercado but nothing. My security friend was really sorry and sent me into the city centre. We parted shaking hands:  suerte y buen viaje – good luck and a safe trip.

Great, I wasn’t even aware that I had missed the actual centre of Salto the evening before. So a brief sight-seeing tour was on the menu.

Salto Centro

I stopped at the Oficina del Turismo, the most obvious place you’d think, but they didn’t have any stickers – a kiosco would probably be a better bet. So I looked for a space for my bike – over here, Señora, and three young man busied themselves lifting and moving lots of motorcycles that were already stacked in a tight row by the side of the road. But, oh wonder, soon there was space for my fully loaded DRZ. One of them, Nelson, offered to accompany me on my quest and together we roamed the shops of Salto. Well, I should have come during the World Cup, then I would have been spoilt for choice but now? Lo siento, no hay – sorry, we don’t have it.

Then, I had almost given up hope, we found a little and pretty unlikely shop that sold stickers of Uruguay – hooray! Nelson was obviously proud of his success and back at the bike I gave him one of my London pens as a thank you. You know, the ones where a tourist walks over the Tower Bridge when you move it. Nelson was really pleased and again, we shook hands like old friends.

Nelson and his friends in Salto

Then it was off to the Salto Grande Reservoir and the dam that connects Uruguay and Argentina.

Reservoir Salto Grande Dam between Uruguay and Argentina

The officials at the border didn’t seem to know what they were supposed to do with me and the temporary import of a motorcycle but after half an hour I was on my way again – not without asking this driver if I could take a picture of his peculiar truck.

At the border to Argentina

Back on the Ruta 14 the ride was pretty uneventful. The countryside was still flat, the corrupt police at kilometre 341 (who even have a dedicated thread in the South America Forum on Horizons Unlimited) had taken a day off and waved me through and so I turned to the Ruta 129 towards Monte Caseros searching for more excitement. The road was straight as well but now I could feel a strong side wind, which made the riding a bit more ‘interesting’. Shortly before I reached the town I noticed a pista branching off to the north (my ultimate direction).

In Monte Caseros the tarmac disappeared and I ended up in front of some military barracks – probably not the best point to stop and look at the map. As I couldn’t park the loaded bike safely without risking to fall over, I didn’t consult the map then, otherwise I would have known that I should have searched for the Ruta 47 towards Paso de los Libres… But so I turned to the gravel road that I had spotted earlier, the Ruta 25.

Ruta 25 between Monte Caseros and Ruta 14

There I had my excitement – ruts, gravel, sand and corrugations… But the countryside was nice and everyone greeted each other when meeting on the road, which I liked very much.

Nice views by the side of the road though...

After 25 kilometres I joined the Ruta 14 again and decided to stay in Paso de los Libres that night. As it would become a habit, I did a little sight-seeing tour of the town for orientation purposes and for finding a hotel. I asked a nice lady with her tiny daughter on a quad at the traffic lights and she pointed me to the Hotel Alejandro. Mmm, this looks pretty expensive – and so it was: 180 Argentinean Pesos, which is roughly 30 GBP. Are there any cheaper hotels around? Yes, Hotel Imperial it is then; only 80 Pesos (13.30 GBP) and aparcamiento seguro – safe parking as well. I have to admit that I rode to the locked car park without helmet and on the wrong side of the road (well, the place was on the left!) and of course, at that particular moment in time a police car came the other way. Fortunately, they didn’t even bother to give me a reproachful look…

After turning into a civilised human being, i.e. showered and changed, I went looking for an internet café in order to upload photos, write an email to my one and only Possu and catch up with my blog, where I was still in Buenos Aires. Just before midnight I left the place, realised that I had forgotten to eat dinner, that the streets were deserted and that I had lost my sense of direction. Funnily enough I didn’t feel uncomfortable at all in this friendly town. On a corner I saw two men standing who I asked for my hotel. They were very helpful and pointed me into the right direction. Tired and hungry I arrived at the Hotel Imperial, hoping that next morning’s breakfast would be plentiful…

Posted 10 September 2010 by Pumpy in Argentina, Uruguay