Paraguay

The Chaco

West of the Río Paraguay is the Chaco, a remarkable area of marshes and farmland, with a substantial population of indigenous peoples. Birdlife is spectacular and common. Apart from the large cattle estancias, agriculture in the Chaco has been developed by German-speaking Mennonites from Russia. Through this partly tamed land the Trans-Chaco Highway runs to Bolivia. Most of the region is pristine, perfect for those who want to escape into the wilderness with minimal human contact and experience nature at its finest. It is also without all but the most minimal infrastructure, so travellers should prepare accordingly.

Getting there

The Paraguayan Chaco covers 24 million ha, but once away from the vicinity of Asunción, the average density is far less than one person to the sq km. A single major highway, the Ruta Trans-Chaco, runs in a straight line northwest towards the Bolivian border, which one day should form part of an ambitious
corredor bi-oceánico
project, connecting ports on the Pacific and Atlantic oceans. The elevation rises very gradually from 50 m opposite Asunción to 450 m on the Bolivian border. Paving of the Trans-Chaco to the Bolivian border (Infante Rivarola) was completed in 2007. However, sections paved earlier, such as La Patria to Mariscal Estigarribia (the first Paraguayan immigration post coming from Bolivia) are already reported to have potholes and repairs are few and far between. From the border to Villamontes, the road is gravel and in good condition even after rain, and a 4WD is no longer indispensable. The first 40 km out of Villamontes are paved, and the remainder is in progress. Although road conditions are much improved, motorists and even travellers going by bus should carry extra food and especially water; climatic conditions are harsh and there is little traffic in case of a breakdown.

Getting around

Most bus companies have some a/c buses on their Chaco routes (a great asset December-March), enquire in advance. There is very little local public transport between the three main Mennonite towns, you must use the buses headed to/from Asunción to travel between them as well as Mariscal Estigarribia. No private expedition should leave the Trans-Chaco without plentiful supplies of water, food and fuel. No one should venture onto the dirt roads alone. (And since this is a major smuggling route from Bolivia, it is unwise to stop for anyone at night.) In the Middle and Low Chaco, there are service stations at regular intervals along the highway; beyond Mariscal Estigarribia there is one stop for diesel only and no regular petrol at all until Villamontes, a long drive. Winter temperatures are warm by day, cooler by night, but summer heat and mosquitoes can make it very unpleasant (pyrethrum coils,
espirales
, are sold everywhere).

Information

Consejo Regional de Turismo Chaco Central
(CONRETUR) coordinates tourism development of the three cooperatives and the private sector. The
Fundación para el Desarrollo Sustentable del Chaco
, www.desdelchaco.org.py
, operates conservation projects in the area and has useful information but does not offer tours.

Background

The Low Chaco
(the most highly populated part of the Chaco) is just west of Asunción across the Río Paraguay. It is a picturesque area of palm savanna, much of which is seasonally inundated because of the impenetrable clay beneath the surface, although there are 'islands' of high ground. Cattle ranching on gigantic estancias is the prevailing economic activity; some units lie several hundred kilometres down tracks off the highway. Remote estancias have their own airfields, and all are equipped with two-way radios. Never wander into one unless you have prior permission from the owner, or in an emergency. Guards have been known to shoot travellers mistaken for smugglers.

In the
Middle Chaco
, the natural vegetation is scrub forest, with a mixture of hardwoods, and cactus in the north. The palo borracho (bottle tree) with its pear-shaped, water-conserving, trunk, the palo santo, with its green wood and beautiful scent, and the tannin-rich
quebracho
(axe-breaker) are the most important native species. This is the best area in Paraguay to see large mammals, especially once away from the central Chaco Mennonite colonies.

The
High Chaco
is characterized by low dense thorn forest which has created an impenetrable barricade of spikes and spiny branches resistant to fire, heat and drought, very tough on tyres. Towards Bolivia cactus becomes more prevalent as rainfall decreases. There are a few estancias towards the south. After Mariscal Estigarribia there are no towns, only occasional military checkpoints. Summer temperatures often exceed 45°C.

Reserva de la Biósfera del Chaco

This is the crown jewel of Paraguay's national park system, albeit one without infrastructure and nearly impossible to visit. The 7.4-million-ha biosphere reserve in the Chaco and Pantanal eco- systems includes six national parks, monuments and indigenous reserves: Defensores del Chaco, Médanos del Chaco, Teniente Enciso, Cerro Cabrera-Timane, Cerro Chovoreca, and Río Negro. All are north of the Trans-Chaco and most are along the Bolivian border. Teniente Enciso is the smallest park and the only one accessible by public transport, although not easily. The others can only be visited with a private 4WD vehicle or on expensive tours from Loma Plata and Asunción. Most Paraguay's remaining jaguars are found here. Puma, tapir and peccary also
inhabit the area, as well as taguá (an endemic peccary) and a short-haired guanaco. The best time to see them is, with great patience, around waterholes at nightfall. Cerro León (highest peak 600 m), the only hilly area of the Chaco, is located here. This road from Filadelfia is very rough, for 4WDs only.

Parque Nacional Defensores del Chaco
, some 220 km from Filadelfia, has three visitors' sites with accommodation, a/c, kitchen, shared bath. Call
Secretaría del Ambiente
(SEAM); sites are not always open and/or functioning. Distances are long between sites, visitors may be able to travel with rangers.
Parque Nacional
 Teniente Enciso
, 20 km from La Patria, has a good visitor's site with free accommodation, one room with bath, others shared, a/c, take sleeping bag and all food.
Nasa
minibus from Filadelfia to Teniente Enciso via Mariscal Estigarribia and La Patria.

Mennonite communities

The Middle Chaco near Filadelfia has been settled by Mennonites, Anabaptists of German extraction who began arriving in the late 1920s. There are three administratively distinct but adjacent colonies: Menno (from Russia via Canada); Fernheim (directly from Russia) and Neuland (the last group to arrive, also from Russia, after the Second World War). Among themselves, the Mennonites speak 'plattdeutsch' ('Low German'), but they readily speak and understand 'hochdeutsch' ('High German'), which is the language of instruction in their schools. Increasingly, younger Mennonites speak Spanish, while English is not unknown. The people are friendly and willing to talk about their history and culture. Altogether there are about 80 villages with a population of about 18,000 Mennonites and 20,000
indígenas
. Increasing numbers of Paraguayans are migrating to the area in search of economic opportunities while indigenous people (eight distinct groups) occupy the lowest rung on the socioeconomic ladder.

The Mennonites have created a remarkable oasis of regimented prosperity in this harsh hinterland. Their hotels and restaurants are impeccably clean, services are very efficient, large modern supermarkets are well stocked with excellent dairy products and all other goods, local and imported. Each colony has its own interesting museum. All services, except for hotels, a few restaurants and one gas station in Filadelfia, close on Saturday afternoon and Sunday. The main towns are all very spread out and have no public transport except for a few expensive taxis in Filadelfia, most residents use their private vehicles. Walking around in the dust and extreme heat can be tiring. Transport between the three main towns is also limited .

Filadelfia

Filadelfia (Fernheim Colony), 466 km from Asunción, the largest town of the region, feels least like a Mennonite colony and is increasingly mainstream Paraguayan. The
Jacob Unger Museum
, provides a glimpse of pioneer life in the Chaco, as well as exhibiting artefacts of the aboriginal peoples of the region. The manager of the Hotel Florida will open the museum upon request, when things are not too busy. Next to the museum is
Plaza de los Recuerdos
, a good place to see the
samu'u
or
palo
borracho
(bottle tree). A bookstore-cum-craft shop, Librería El Mensajero, next to Hotel Florida, is run by Sra Penner, very helpful and informative.

The Fernheim community does not encourage tourism, but there is a good website, www.filadelfiaparaguay.com. Apart from that, there is no tourist infrastructure in Filadelfia. General information may be obtained from the co-op office.

Loma Plata

The centre of the largest of the colonies, Menno, Loma Plata is 25 km east of Filadelfia. Although smaller than Filadelfia, it has more to offer the visitor. Good museum
Museo de la Colonia Menno
.
Balneario Oasis swimming complex
. Three pools with slides and snack bar. A welcome break from the summer heat. For general information about the colony, not tourism, www.chortitzer.com.py.

Wetlands around Loma Plata

To the southeast of Loma Plata is the Riacho Yacaré Chico watershed, with many salt water lagoons, generally referred to as Laguna Salada. This is a wonderful place to see bird life such as Chilean flamingos, swans, spoonbills and migratory shorebirds from the Arctic. There are extensive walks though the eerily beautiful landscape.
Laguna Capitán
, a 22-ha recreation reserve, 30 km from town, has several small lagoons, a swimming lake, basic bunk bed accommodation, kitchen facilities, meals on request.
Laguna Chaco Lodge
, a 2,500-ha-private reserve, 70 km from town, is a Ramsar wetland site (no accommodation despite the name). The lovely Laguna Flamenco is the main body of water surrounded by dry forest. Large numbers of Chilean flamingos and other water birds may be seen here.
Campo María
, a 4,500-ha reserve within the co-operative's land 90 km from town, also has a large lake and can be visited on a tour.

Neuland

Neuland
, also known as Neu-Halbstadt, is 33 km south of Filadelfia, the centre of Neuland Colony. There is a small museum of historical objects brought by the first Mennonites from Russia, set in the building of the first primary school of the area.
Neuland Beach Park
. Parque la Amistad, 500 m past pool, is 35 ha of natural vegetation where paths have been cleared for nature walks. Most spectacular are the wild orchids (September-October), cacti and bird life.

Fortín Boquerón
, 27 km from Neuland, is the site of the decisive battle of Chaco War (September 1932) and includes a memorial, a small, well-presented museum and walks around the remainder of the trenches.
Campamento Aurora Chaqueña
is a park 15 km from town on the way to Fortín Boquerón.
Parque Valle Natural
, 10 km from Neuland on the way to Filadelfia, is a
partillar
, a dry riverbed with natural brush around it and a few larger trees. Camping possible although there is only a small covered area.

Mariscal Estigarribia and on to Bolivia

Around 525 Km from Asunción, Mariscal Estigarribia is a former garrison town with aspirations of becoming a transport hub. The few services are spread out over four km along the highway: three gas stations (no fuel stations between Mariscal Estigarribia and Villamontes on the Bolivian side), a couple of small expensive supermarkets, two mediocre hotels, and one remarkably excellent restaurant . Better services are found in Filadelfia, Loma Plata and Neuland. The immigration office (supposedly 24 hours, but often closed in the small hours) is at the southeast end of town near the Shell station. All buses stop at the terminal (
Parador Arami
), at the northwest end of town, where travellers entering from Bolivia are subject to thorough searches for drugs. The people are friendly and helpful. There is good birdwatching nearby along the dirt road called Picada 500, as well as some indigenous communities nearby where crafts are made.

There are no reliable services of any kind beyond Mariscal Estigarribia. At
La Patria
, 125 km northwest, the road divides: 128 km west to Infante Rivarola continuing to Villamontes, Bolivia, with Bolivian immigration and customs at Ibibobo; 128 km northwest to General Eugenio A Garay continuing to Boyuibe, Bolivia (unused except by smugglers; shifting sand makes it treacherous). Immigration posts are at Mariscal Estigarribia and Ibibobo (the latter often closed). There are customs posts at either side of the actual border in addition to the main customs offices in Mariscal Estigarribia and Villamontes.

In Bolivia, from Villamontes or Boyuibe, a paved road runs north to Santa Cruz and south to Yacuiba on the Argentine border . Take small denomination dollar notes as it is impossible to buy bolivianos before reaching Bolivia (if entering from Bolivia street changers in Santa Cruz sometimes sell guaraníes at good rates, but often only casas de cambio have them).

This is edited copy from Footprint Handbooks. For comprehensive details (incl address, tel no, directions, opening times and prices) please refer to book or individual chapter PDF
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