You’ve got 72 hours to get the #*%& out of my country

There’s always an excited dread when approaching a border in South America. Anything can happen. Your papers could be wrong. You could get a bribe extorted. Or you could end up in a dank Bolivian jail cell (fortunately this didn’t actually happen). In our case, once we finally get the go ahead to cross the border, you can hear the Collective exhale inside our car. And then there’s a whole new country unfolding in front of you, littered with endless enticing detours and imbued with the profound excitement of the unknown.  Oddly, crossing into Paraguay from Bolivia at the town of Ibibobo, which is located in the vast, dry Chaco, there were only Bolivian officials to stamp us out. Paraguayan officials decided to set up shop three hours inside their country, so we had three hours of held-breath anticipation before Paraguay delivered her verdict on our entry. It was harsh.

We were informed by a very snippy (though granted correct) official in his mosquito infested lair that Americans need a visa to visit Paraguay, and unlike Bolivia this visa could not be purchased at the border (not even the actual border that happened three hours before). We were left with two choices:  first, return not just back to Bolivia, but to the nearest large town 8 hours back to get the needed visa. The second option, offered up after much negotiation, was to “get your ass out of Paraguay within 72 hours and into Argentina before we sic on you the dogs that bark out angry bees and the sticky hugging mimes” or something like that (nothing more infuriating than an official pointing out a gross oversight). We opted for the latter.

From Bolivia to Paraguay through the vast, unforgiving thorn forest of the Chaco.
Visiting the inappropriately named Laguna Chaco Lodge wildlife reserve (not open to tourists) with local NGO, Fundacion Ecologica??

Hour 1: Sly Paraguayan cop tries unsuccessfully to get a bribe because we don’t have the proper import papers for the flat-tired bike strapped to the roof of our car. Very sneaky.

Hour 2: Arrive at Lomo Plata, one of the Mennonite communities that had made its home in the Paraguayan Chaco (presumably because the land was dirt cheap). Mostly coming from Russia and Eastern Europe (some via Canada), the Mennonites have created a series of lovely and functional towns in the middle of a dry landscape of shrubs and thorn trees (and some very beautiful hardwood trees called Palo Santo). Among a population largely of indigenous descent, it was a shock to see flocks of blonde children bouncing to school and hear German spoken in all the local establishments.

Hour 14: Visit the Laguna Chaco Lodge, an oddly named (no lodge) natural reserve with our local guide Milciades, who is part of a non-profit helping to preserve the essential ecosystem. The seasonal lake in the reserve (which disappears during the dry season) serves as an important stopping point for the migratory Chilean Flamingo. Due to a three year drought, the lake has not restored this year. Milciades fears that this drought could be part of a larger change in the local climate which would doom the wildlife in the reserve that depends on the lake for water.

Our guide Milciares Pacce, Fundacion agronomist

The parched Chaco soil after three years of drought, endangering this vital ecosystem

Hour 18: Arrive at Laguna Capitán, for some camping. Swim at dusk in their warm, sulfury lake.

Hour 30: Wake up to a Mennonite mass at the campgrounds and head towards Asunción.

Hour 40: Cross the bridge spanning the Rio Paraguay into Asunción. Asunción is blazingly hot and surprisingly devoid of people. Many of the buildings near the central Plaza de los Heroes are colonial beauties that are, sadly, falling apart, which gives the city a feeling of decaying splendor. Just past the plaza a long road lined with trees and benches follows the Paraguay River. Much to my surprise, the area just across the river from the town center is largely undeveloped green wilderness, lending a small town, sleepy feel to the large capital. The city generally has an appealingly quirky vibe. I feel certain that the gentlemen of leisure sitting on benches in the various city squares are all famous South American authors. Asunción feels lost in a separate world without feeling lost to modernity.

Strong mirage of water on the dry Laguna Flamenco lakebed. In years past this was all water.
We find the only patch of water on 14 square kilometer lakebed. The lake is a vital resting point for migratory birds like the Chilean Flamenco and Caracoas??
This friendly turtle is bigger than he seems, more than 2 feet long.

Hour 44: Eat delicious local fish, surubí, at Bolsi Restaurant and then delve into the excellent Asunción nightlife.

Hour 60: Spend Sunday afternoon wandering the center and discover the joy of tereré, an ice cold mate (try saying it to the ESPN theme. It’s oddly satisfying). Those locals that haven’t retreated to cooler pastures all have tereré with them, complete with leather adorned thermoses and tall varnished maté cups made from cow horns or the elegant wood of a Palo Santo tree. Andy decides that if he ever had to run from the law, he would come to live in Asunción as it has the appropriate combo of most pleasant and most forgotten place for a man on the run.

Hour 68: Internet noodling at the Mall of Insipid Blandness.

Hour 71: Cross the immense bridge over the Rio Pilcomayo into Argentina as the gathered hoards of Paraguayans chant nationalistic anthems in relief and victory at our departure within the allotted FU timespan (note: exaggeration. Paraguayans were generally some of the nicest, most welcoming folks we’ve met in our travels).

Mausoleum spires and Baroque fascades in Asuncion’s Cementerio Recoleta.
More from the cemeterio

Hour 72: Safely across to Argentina where our possessions are searched twice within the span of half an hour, for good measure, with the help of an eager-beaver Jack Russell Terrier.

While it would have been nice to move at a more leisurely pace through Paraguay, the 72 hours forced us to appreciate and digest as much as possible in that short period. Our haste, though, may have dealt a deathblow to Mango 1.0. More on that to come.

-Drew, Photos by Elliot

In Asuncion, do as the Paraguayans do: lounge and drink ice-cold mate (Terere) to ward off the brutal Sunday afternoon heat.