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NAVIGATING THE CHACO

by

TERRY REDDING


NOT FOR REPRODUCTION.

© 2006 by Terry Redding, all rights reserved


South America travelers heading toward Bolivia from Paraguay face a sudden, vexing reality: The map will show a road heading northeast into the Chaco desert region: look carefully and notice the line thins sometime after Filadelfia. A roadway exists, the Ruta Trans-Chaco, but calling it a highway is a vast overstatement.

You have three choices from the Paraguayan capital of Asuncion to Santa Cruz, the first major city in Bolivia: Take a bus (often southwest via Argentina), try to hitch a ride directly on a cargo truck or other vehicle from Mariscal Estigarribia (where the highway fades), or loop up through Brazil and face the Bolivian "Train of Death".

First, the bus. On Tuesdays and Thursdays there is a 9 a.m. bus from Asuncion to Santa Cruz. It takes 28 hours if the highway is in good repair. If not, the bus heads south and west through Argentina before turning north to Bolivia. This route, or some derivation thereof (like simply taking your time and meandering through northern Argentina on your own) is perhaps the most sensible. But, pretty tame as well.

Second, there is hitching. I was traveling with an old friend from grade school, and this was my vote. Take a bus to the end of the highway, stock up on food and water, and wait at the petrol station (which surely must exist) to hitch or bribe a ride ($10-20) through the rugged desert with whatever transport comes along. It's reportedly been done, although we met no one who had first-hand knowledge of it.

Third, “el Tren de Muerte”. Of course, we took this option, since it offered a variety of adventure. It takes time and effort, but certainly is worth a badge of honor in the travelers' legion.

There are a few options on this north-then-west route. One is to take a series of buses from Asuncion to Campo Grande in Brazil, then on to Corumba, near where the train departs. You can also try to get some type of cargo boat from Asuncion which takes you north, and try to boat hop until you get to Corumba. This takes a lot of time and patience (minimum one week).

The alternative we chose involved buses, boats, hitching and finally the train. Here goes:

Buses run frequently from Asuncion to Concepcion, which is up-river (Rio Paraguay). It takes 6 hours ($10, excellent bird life along the way) and saves at least a day of boat travel. (If you take a cargo boat from Asuncion north, please note they are very unreliable. You can also take a cargo boat south as far as Buenos Aires.) In Conception, a small, dusty but friendly town, you can change money (last chance) and get your Brazil visa (free for US passport holders, bring photos). The consulate is only open a couple of hours in the morning and processing is overnight. Try also to get a Paraguayan exit stamp there.

The first real step in the adventure is getting on the "Aquidaban", a fast-moving cargo boat which generally runs between Concepcion and a couple ports to the north. We caught it on Wednesday to Porto Murtinho in Brazil (26 hours, $9). This is a relaxing, fascinating ride, in which you will be the only tourists surrounded by Paraguayans. Bring food and some booze or the popular "matte" (tea) to drink and you can make friends easily. There are many women who sell fruit and yogurt on board but it is a little pricey. As a last resort the boat has a filthy galley which produces meals.

The boat is impossibly loaded down with all kinds of cargo: furniture, wooden boats, wagon wheels, sacks of flour, etc. It is pretty packed but starts lightening up by the second half of the voyage. Along the way you will stop at various small communities, whose only contact with the world is via the boat. A community of indigenous Guarani Indians is one of the last stops, and the trading and people watching here makes the trip completely worthwhile.

Our trip ended at Isla Margarita, where you should buy some Brazilian currency, the real. You will be overcharged by boatmen to be rowed across to Porto Murtinho in Brazil ($3-4) but your only alternative is to swim.

Be ready for sticker shock--Brazil is expensive. There is a morning and evening bus to Jardim (about eight hours, $24) but hitching is possible. Watch for toucans along the way. From Jardim head north to Corumba (12 hours, $25), taking a rest stop in the up-and-coming tourist town of Bonita if you need it.

At Corumba, you can visit the Pantanal (sort of the Brazilian equivalent of the Everglades, except the flourishing wildlife is intact). We stayed at the Pousada Pantaneira (Rua Frei Mariano 1335) for $4, which is a good value and serves as one of the main travelers' havens in town. (Don't be confused by another establishment of the same name at a different address.)

In Corumba, get your Brazil exit stamp (as well as your Paraguayan exit stamp, if needed) and find out about departures for the train to Santa Cruz (It departs from Puerto Suarez across the border in Bolivia). Ah, the train.

You will hear all kinds of horror stories about the infamous Bolivian Train of Death. Many will be true, but it is too late to turn back now, unless you loop up north through Brazil and get across to Bolivia or somehow to Peru. Alright, it is said there are flights to Santa Cruz but I don't know the price.

There are three different classes of train, and one or the other usually departs three times a week. They are pretty much all the same in the end. Tickets are available the morning of departure only. Get there early and get the highest class available. Pullman class isn't bad, first and second class diminish quickly. If you don't get there early, try to buy tickets from touts around the station. (Don't buy seats 1A or 1B in first class, they are the worse seats (small benches) on the entire train. Of course we found this out the hard way.) Watch out for forged tickets: ask the women selling snacks for advice.

Tickets are $8 for first class ($12 from the touts) and $16 for Pullman ($24 from the touts). The trip takes from 24 hours on, and food and beer are sold on board. Hawkers also sell food and drinks the entire journey, and meals are also available trainside at many of the stops along the way. It helps to take plenty of water, a flashlight, and a sleeping bag.

Why “Train of Death”? Origins vary, but here is my vote: It is dirty, crowded and it stinks. It bucks, bumps and heaves along at a snail's pace. The entire rattling train rocks and sways until you think you'll be pitched out a window; unceasingly for at least the first 10 hours or so, intermittently thereafter. Your bags will get crushed since there is nowhere to store them. Children may pee or puke on you. At the very least they will get snot on you. Hawkers push by constantly, tromping all in their path, often with kids in tow. The bar closes at night. It is impossible to sleep unless you are a pretzel or have a decent seat. It can take two days, even more, when the tracks are bad.

There is some compelling scenery, however, and at least everyone is suffering together. When you reach Santa Cruz, you will feel a wave of incomparable relief knowing it's over. Travelers also get some perverse satisfaction in subjecting themselves to horrific tortures and apparently surviving.

In the end, both the train ride and to a lesser extent the river boat ride demonstrate the hardships the citizens of developing countries routinely endure. At least we did it by choice.

-end-