last wrote to you we had just completed a four-hour transport from Vila Bela, at
the head of the Rio Guapore, to the city of Caceres on the upper Paraguay. Here
the waterfront was lined with aluminum skiffs and plush, three-story “hotel-boats”
for taking sport-fishermen on multiple-day outings into the Pantanal, the world’s biggest swamp. We
planned to transit the Pantanal via
the Rio Paraguay, which runs through it from north to south, through the
Brazilian states of Mato Grosso and Mato Grosso do Sur. Our next point of
re-provisioning would be the city of Corumba, 850 river kilometers downstream.
Caceres on July 29, 2012. What a relief to be travelling downstream again! The
river was gentle and moderately wide. It being the dry season, the cactus and
scrubby trees covering the hills were a dusty brown color. On the second day
these hills receded. Now all was swamp. The river meandered deeply, sometimes
nearly doubling back on itself. In addition to the flowing channel there was
usually a previous channel nearby, the upstream end of which was silted in, the
downstream end still open, allowing access to a long, curving inlet. We knew
from the satellite images that the swamp stretches for hundreds of miles,
dotted with varying grades of marsh and lagoon.
We saw no
mineral earth, just water, vegetation, and wildlife. Otters, capybaras, and monkeys
abounded. Now and then something bellowed in the marshes, whether alligators or
bullfrogs we never determined. The birds were a summary of those we had been
seeing since the Amazon plus new species, such as a busy fellow with a body the
size of a golf ball and a bright red head who often rode the drifting hyacinths
snatching up insects. A cold snap hit, easing the severity of the evening and
morning mosquito hours, but not enough to dispense with the nets that we
erected in our night hours, when we rested in convenient inlets.
clumps of water hyacinth (free-floating lilies) floated in the stream and stuck
to anything anchored to the earth, like tree snags. They also adhered to the
adjoining, bottom-anchored plant communities, constricting the channel. Most of
the wetland was covered with grasses and leafed succulents that grew thickly in
the ooze and stood chest-height above river-level. Short trees also grew in
people we saw now were the sport-fishermen inhabiting the hotel-boats. They
would park at some secluded spot and the guests would disperse, three or four to
each aluminum skiff, with a guide driving. In the evenings they reconvened in
the air-conditioned comfort of the mother ship.
regimen was less luxurious but pleasant nonetheless. First we rowed a couple
hours for the exercise and to save gas. Then we motored peacefully at
quarter-throttle, which burns far less fuel than the wider throttle openings
which are necessary to go upriver and is consequently quieter (you can almost
have a conversation)! If it was hot we put up the awning. The water had become
cold, so while one of us steered the other bathed on the foredeck in the
afternoon sun, dipping the bailer into the river and dumping the contents
quickly over our bodies, braced against the chill.
third day in the Pantanal we came to
its western edge: a razor-sharp range of mountains running north and south. We
climbed about 1500 vertical feet through thorny scrub and sharp boulders to a
vantage point. To the west lay Bolivia. To the east stretched two hundred miles
of pantanal, far further than we
could see. The swamp, being more water than land, conformed precisely to the
curvature of the earth. Its brilliant green and scattered sky-reflecting blues
contrasted sharply with the dusty brown of the uplands of its western edge. At the
foot of the range lay a chain of large lakes. The river skirted and sometimes
flowed right through them. Where a lake butted against a rock cliff we found
petroglyphs consisting of curved lines concentrically nestled with a dot at either
end of each line.
sixth day out from Caceres pink-blossomed trees appeared on the riverbank. The
land, though still flat, became dry. Native dwellings appeared. Ginny, as
always, became depressed that a wilderness sojourn was drawing to a close.
southern gateway to the Pantanal,
stood on a high plateau. At the seawall we moored among the work boats common
to this stretch of the Paraguay: about thirty feet long, crudely made of wood,
with a sharp bow, wide transom, and a big, boxy cabin. A beautiful plaza
adjoined the waterfront. Strolling teens thronged this space of evenings. A
sound system broadcast its medley of hits, among which “I’m Sexy and I Know It”
was unfortunately prominent. Fields across the river were being burnt, as a
result of which ashes like black snowflakes sprinkled the boat.
city of 110,000 inhabitants we stayed a week. We scoured the city for such
necessities as a new fly-swatter (we had worn out our old one!), earplugs, and
Vaseline to lubricate the oarlocks. Across the border in Puerto Suarez,
Bolivia, we bought a wonderful Nikon Coolpix S900 with 18X zoom. May you notice
an improvement in our wildlife shots henceforth! At internet shops we built our
GPS map of the upcoming river.
faced a bureaucratic dilemma. Our next country would be Paraguay, which also
requires that Americans get visas beforehand. In their website Paraguay claims
to have a consulate in Corumbá. This proved untrue. A lady at a tourism office made
some calls for us. She found that the nearest place we could get visas would be
in Sáo Paulo, a thousand miles away, but that officials at the border might issue us a temporary transit pass.
We decided to proceed on this hope. Since Corumbá was the last Brazilian city
on our route we checked out of the country and got a naval clearance for Argentina.
12 we continued through a flat landscape covered with chit-palm trees. The tall
stork with a black head and scarlet band around his neck stood passively on the
bank like a wooden Indian. Barge tows up to four barges wide and five long now
carried iron ore to smelters downriver. On the second day the west bank became
Paraguayan. The first naval post had no boat, only a building with a uniformed guard
out front. Steve approached him nervously. It would be so easy for him to make
trouble for us!
me, with all respect, I am stopping to notify you that we are passing through
your country on the river. Are there any rules or regulations we should be
aware of?” Steve got this out haltingly in Spanish, which he hadn’t spoken for
you are welcome. The regulations here are no different than elsewhere. Here on
the border we cross freely across.” At a subsequent, larger post the comandante typed out a naval pass for
us. That was the sum of our paperwork in Paraguay, where our passports were
never stamped and no official ever approached us, but all responded courteously
to our approach. A huge relief.
travelling for five days with Brazil on the left and Paraguay on the right we
entered Paraguay entirely. We typically covered a hundred river kilometers a
day. A pointy hill or two would pop up in the morning and by night we would be
past them. In one stretch a dusty white mineral, perhaps limestone, was being
mined from the tall riverbank, packed into sacks, and stowed into rusty boats. The
Paraguayans lived in rough-hewn plank homes and rowed their planked dories, a
means of propulsion strangely absent elsewhere in Latin America. Though most of
the people were mestizos, they spoke
among themselves the language of the Guarani Indians, and switched to Spanish for
now far enough south of the equator that steady winds were frequent, so we
re-arranged the hardware on the transom to allow either the motor rabeta to be mounted or the rudder,
with a switch-over time of fifteen minutes. Henceforth we often sailed. The trees
tended to block the wind and the river bends resulted in constant changes in apparent
wind direction, but the favorable current eased any frustration.
small city of Concepcion everyone enthusiastically drank yerba mate, an herbal tea, from a special leather-armored mug using
an engraved silver straw incorporating a filter at its lower end. Unwilling to
depart from her morning ritual, Ginny searched the whole city until she found a
market woman, a Brasileira as it turned out, able to prepare instant coffee.
Horse-drawn carts outnumbered cars,
but small motorcycles were most numerous. The principle buildings were
monumental antiques in the heavy Spanish style, with ridiculously tall doors
and ceilings. The 10,000 Guarani note was worth only $2.30 U.S.; they had
suffered crazy inflation at some point but saw no need to remove the zeros by
issuing a new currency, as is the practice in most Latin American countries.
Paraguay’s capital and only large city, lay on high land on the left side of
the river. The river traffic intensified, mostly small rusty freighters. Some
had been secured to the sloping bank at a time of high water then abandoned;
now these hulks lay at awkward angles, partly immersed, with sections missing. Rowing
men retrieved fishing lines they had set the night before, each secured by a
rock on the bottom and a plastic bottle on top. We passed a belt of shanties
and tarp shelters, the refuse from which was dumped over the bank. Behind rose skyscrapers.
Turning left into a bay we found ourselves in the heart of the city. We moored
at a pier crowded with arriving and departing passenger boats. No one questioned
us as we ventured through the thronged terminal and out into the street. We had
only one mission here: to gather cash for use in Argentina.
of Asuncion Argentina occupies the east bank. There we could legally enter
because they don’t require a visa. Unfortunately, like Venezuela, Argentina maintains
an artificially high exchange rate vis-à-vis the dollar. We had deduced from
scouring the internet that we could stretch our funds by buying pesos in
Paraguay, where the free market prevails. So at a cash machine we withdrew
Guaranis and exchanged them with a net result of 6.11 pesos to the dollar,
compared to 4.5 if we got our pesos from a cash machine in Argentina. We also
withdrew dollars for use in the Argentine black market. That day and the next
we withdrew to the daily limit allowed by our bank, hoping that would get us to
leaving Paraguay we couldn’t help investigating something we had noticed on
Google Earth. On the other side of the river, where Paraguay meets Argentina,
the border is a clogged slough called the Pilcomayo River. On the Argentine
side is the city of Clorinda. The Paraguayan side is rural except where, by
zooming way in, we discerned a footbridge over the Pilcomayo. On both ends of
this walkway the streets were highly congested. What could this mean?
out we crossed to the west bank and entered a swamp-lined channel. This led to
a low-density slum. At a car bridge Ginny hid in the boat from the freezing winds which the
penguins were sending up from Antarctica while Steve walked for a kilometer
along a street paved with broken rocks set by hand. Suddenly the street was
constricted by parked vehicles and tarp-roofed stalls covering most of the
roadway. Continuing down this chaotic gallery of shops, typical of border
crossings where “free trade zones” blend into condoned smuggling, men bent
under the weight of huge bundles started passing Steve. Some carried impossibly
tall stacks of eggs, the tiers separated by sheets of molded cardboard, the
mass of eggs far exceeding the mass of the man! Others carried cases of beer,
maybe twenty each! Their bundles were expertly tied. Clearly these were
professionals. Some carried their loads to a crowded bus stop, others into dark
that these were Argentine goods arriving in Paraguay, Steve retraced his steps.
At an inconspicuous entryway he had just passed he noticed an especially high
volume of pedestrian traffic, including porters emerging with merchandise or
returning with their canvas-and-rope bundling gear collapsed under their arm.
Inside the semi-lit space were tiny shops hustling watches, cell phones,
underwear, shoes, etc. The walls were splotched, the ceiling low. At the far
end was a light like at the end of a tunnel. Emerging into this light, Steve found
himself at the approach to a double footbridge about a hundred yards long. One
carried regular pedestrians, the other was for porters. On the far side was
relatively affluent, spacious downtown Clorinda. A new country! No one asked to
see Steve’s documents, but rather than risk being caught on the wrong side he
returned to his wife.
day we descended the Paraguay to Puerto Pilcomayo, a ferry landing by which people and goods
crossed the river. Here we found an office building full of armed men in neat
tan uniforms with black ties. They pertained to the Prefectura Naval Argentina, a non-military force which controls
Argentina’s waterways. It being Saturday afternoon, the immigration and customs
officials were gone for the weekend. We didn’t mind waiting because it was too
cold to travel, but were not excited to be limited to the small
swamp-surrounded plot of land which constituted their station. Grey clouds
streaked across the overcast sky, blown by a frigid south wind. We cuddled in
the cabin, hatch closed, and warmed it up with our body heat. It’s times like
this that the smallness of our living space really pays off.
Monday, August 27 arrived the Prefectura
Naval officials launched into our paperwork. They were friendly but
obsessed with legal language and protecting us from ourselves. They made us
sign a document promising, among other things, to always sleep in established
ports and to present our pass at all Prefectura
stations along the way.
weather slowly returned. With Paraguay now on the east (left) bank and Argentina
on the west (right), we entered a land still flat but green with the verdure of
early spring. On the banks were huge silos and conveyors for loading soybeans
onto barges. At Formosa we got a load of clothes washed. With our adjusted
exchange rate a continental breakfast for two in a fancy restaurant cost only
$3.67! We sometimes violated the terms of our pass by sleeping in estuaries and
ignoring Prefectura posts when no one
was looking, but the authorities seemed more interested in making rules than
last night on the Paraguay River we stayed at a place called Puerto Bermejo.
The “port” consisted of a creek mouth ten feet wide with a snag in the middle. Using
the oars as poles we pushed ourselves fifty yards up the gushing creek then
tied to a stake among some rowboats. The bank was steep and muddy. On the dusty
flat above a chubby Prefectura Naval
guard sat on a chair watching, but quickly rose and greeted us when we
approached. Behind him was a series of row-houses, about half of which were in
happened to this town?” Steve asked.
is very old,” he said, “but it is declining now because of the 1983 flood,
which destroyed many of the houses.”
A boy on
horseback picked up a parcel from the store, a tall brick structure with no
sign, and left. A drunk got Steve to take his picture with Ginny, and Ginny to
take his picture with Steve. He wanted to take our picture too, but we were
loth to hand over the camera. In the middle of town were low spots from which
came little calls of descending pitch, like babies crying. “Frogs,” said the
drunk. The cemetery was calving off into the river. At the foot of a tall
vertical bank broken vaults and headstones lay half-immerged in the brown current.
Torn metal caskets exposed their ancient, disrespected occupants.
day, September 2, the Paraguay emptied into the much-larger Rio Parana. Both
sides of the river were Argentina now. Twenty kilometers downstream on the east
bank we stopped at Corrientes, a city of about 700,000 counting
Resistencia, its sister city on the west bank. Here the local yacht club has
adopted us! We will tell you about it next time.
you’ve made it this far you must be news hungry. So here, we’ve saved the best
for last! In the fashion of our native land we took the opportunity of beating
our way upriver to spawn. Ginny is now 3 months pregnant and we’re planning to
have a Brasilian river baby, so when the world goes to Hell s/he’ll always have
the freedom to run away to the Amazon!