As soon as we entered the highway towards the Paraguay border, it bottlenecked into two westward lanes, with slow moving trucks and busses on the outside, interspersed with nervous cars zooming left to right and back. Motorcycles passed us on the dividing line, barely avoiding the oncoming barrage of motor taxis going the other way. In front of us, at the other side of the bridge, loomed a cluster of highrise buildings only partly obstructed by billboards, screaming of luxury products – like a Chinese shopping paradise. We already heard about the duty-free opportunities in Ciudad del Este and were hoping to find a good deal on new tires. As soon as we had crossed the border, we tried, but without luck. First, they didn’t have our brand and size, and then, if we could wait for them, the price was triple of what we expected. So, since we still had descent tires, we gave up and found the place where we would meet our British friends, who we first met in Medellin, Colombia. That would be the renewal of our Gin & Tonic Happy Hour days.
Together with Sue and Ray we dared to take a bus, transiting through Brazil (hoping not to lose another visa day in the transit!) to the Argentinian side of the Iguaçu falls. As it was a transit bus, which was supposed to bring us directly to Puerto Iguazu in Argentina, we did not expect it to make several stops before the Brazil border, allowing people to board with an overload of merchandize, most of which was confiscated right away at the customs control entering Brazil. Big arguments followed, since this contraband was meant to transit to Argentina, not Brazil. After an hour of arguments between the passengers and the Brazilian custom officials, the bus finally continued, though without the smugglers and their merchandize.
Later than the planned first hour, we joined the line at the Park’s ticket office, and when we arrived at the Devil’s Throat – our first stop and most spectacular view of the falls – we already had to stand on our toes and gaze over a layer of selfie making shoulders to catch a glimpse of the abyss beneath the famous thundering waters. For a while we waited patiently, but finally we pushed our way to the front, where we got generously showered by Iguacu water. Despite the crowd, it-was-magnificent! Disappearing in the mist, from a high plateau across the gorge, an endless row of waterfalls dumped their contents into the raging river far below us. The actual Devil’s Throat waterfall, right underneath us, goes beyond description… there is so much water thundering over the cliff…where does it all come from…? In addition to this main destination, there are many trails and viewpoints to more waterfalls that are part of the Iguaçu Falls. While Devil’s Throat gives one a view from above, at another site your gaze will go up. Walk some more and you will see the side of falls thundering down the rocks. Along the trail, gentle trickles and babbling creeks appear out of the woods, making their way to the edge, where we assume they play a miniature part in the grand spectacle. Along the trail and the train track, well-meaning tourists offered food to attract ring-tailed coatis for photo opportunities. These relatives of raccoons got so bold that, during the train ride back at the end of the day, they ran underfoot looking for scraps.
Upon our return, with the adventurous bus experience in mind, we made a deal with our taxi driver to bring us across the two borders all the way back to our camp. Being with a group of four has advantages!
After a few days of shopping for electronics and lovely dinners, we headed north to the banks of the Paranà river/Itaipu reservoir. We stayed a few days in a lovely, well maintained (free!) campground, but all the attractions: treetop walk, zipline, observation tower, swimming beach and even walking trails were closed. We could, however, walk along the beach or take a ride on a horse drawn carriage. We did a bit of bird watching, saw some monkeys checking out the trashcans, and found weird skeletons on the beach. When, after a few days, our supplies ran dry, we wanted to say goodbye to our friends and head towards Paraguay’s capitol. To our surprise, Ray and Sue decided to come along, back to Asunçión, where they’d stayed before our meet-up.
Together we drove through grain country, where farms reminded me of the American mid-west: perfectly planted fields surrounded large barns and silos, with neat ranch- style houses, well-planned gardens, and freshly mowed lawns. Towards the end of the day, we turned towards “Lago del Rio Yguazu”, where we heard of a campsite along the water. German owned, Pura Vida Nautic Resort was meticulous and welcoming. We stayed a few days longer than planned, partly because we got invited to come along on a boat ride, which turned into a party when our boat met up with a neighbor’s boat. Here, we learned a little about how this comfortable layer of the Paraguayan population lives and heard their thoughts about those less fortunate.
In Asunçión we tried once more to get an extension for staying in Brazil, again without luck…It depends on the mutual agreement between Brazil and your country, we were told, and every country has different agreements. But, we found our kind of tires. Yay! We have spares again!
Sue and Ray convinced us to brave the heat and explore the city; especially the artistic quarter with its many murals and colorful mosaic-covered steps (we know: there are many cities with colorful steps) During her birthday lunch, Sue told us that they decided to fly to Ushuaia for a cruise to Antarctica, South Georgia and the Falklands; they got an irresistible deal because of Corona virus cancellations. So, while they prepared themselves for their trip south, we finally bid our goodbyes and went north, direction Brazilian Pantanal.
It still took a few days to reach the Brazilian border. We managed to spend the night in the shadow of the Monument Valley-type monolith of Cerro Memby, rising out of green, palm lined cow pastures. Before crossing the border to Brazil, we stopped at the Parque Nacional Cerro Cora, where the shade of tropical foliage provided a welcome relief from the day’s heat. Again, the entry to the park was free, but except for electricity, not much was offered. Lack of water rendered the bathroom building useless. The park staff was constructing shelters and fixing general lighting for an expected two hundred students arriving that weekend, but when we asked, no bathrooms seemed to be planned for. We wondered where on earth they’d have to relieve themselves; should they all go in the bushes, or to that one working toilet at the main gate, two kilometers down the road? Good we have our own bathroom on board!
Pedro Juan Caballero is a special border town with, just like in Ciudad del Este, a few enormous shopping malls that offer a large range of products that would normally be hard to get in this part of the world. I have never seen anything like this, it is like Costco times ten: isles with just dog food; a wine section as big as a full sized store; all the toys a kid can dream of; boats and boat accessories, to name just some. And to my surprise, nothing is cheap! But what makes this town really special is the borderline. The border runs through the middle of town, kind of along a divided highway: going southeast, you drive through Paraguay; going northwest, through Brazil. Only the two national flags on either side of the dividing green space indicated what country was where. To officially cross the border, you’ll have to drive to four different offices spread out across town: just ask, and search for them! Once found, the procedures were fast, and before nightfall we reached Bonito, our first destination for our last ten remaining days in Brazil.
Popular Bonito is known for the many clearwater springs that can be found in its vicinity. Because of their popularity, we thought it important to be well informed about them. Our friendly Brazilian neighbor at the Bonito campground recommended his favorites, but when we asked the camp manager, we heard that those were popular for fun seekers, and we’d probably prefer the pristine.
The road would be a distance, and a little rough – not everyone’s favorite- with washboard and dust. When we arrived around eleven in the morning, we could join a group of four in a guided snorkeling tour. First we drove on the back of a truck to a narrow wooded boardwalk, where monkeys gazed down on us and butterflies shimmered in the mottled light. A slippery trail led us to the source of the river. Under clear blue water, we saw bubbles pop through the white bottom towards the surface. Small fish nibbled at undulating plants – harbingers of things to come. .. Further downstream we could descent on a deck and into the cool water, thankful for the wetsuit to reduce the cold shock. The current in the river pushed us forward; all we had to do was look down and enjoy the underwater world, where fish slowly wandered around tall grasses, looked at us from behind red leafed plants, and ignored us while grazing. Groups of fish passed us; some curious ones turned to see what was going on. The center of the river showed patches of the white limestone sand that kept the water so clear. Absorbed by the view, I would get close to the shallow, overgrown sides of the river and had to swim harder to get out of the entanglement without trampling the fragile greens.
Too soon we reached the endpoint. Actually, my fingers were getting numb, so it should not have lasted much longer, but I could easily have done this swim again after a warm-up. We returned to our camp in Bonito for the night, just in time to see green parakeets and scarlet macaws fly in for an evening feeding in the neighboring yard.
On our first stop in the Pantanal, at Paso do Lontra along the Miranda river, we walked the boardwalk trail, from where we saw caymans laying perfectly still in the water. A family of capybaras – giant rodents- slopped around in the marsh, happily chewing the plants left and right. The wetland was filled with a large variety of wading birds. Overhead, noisy flashes of color flew by, too fast to identify any of them. At the lodge, we were pointed to a nearby tree that housed a family of hyacinth parrots. A few days later we had the pleasure of having coffee beside a tree full of these purple-blue beauties. What a sight!
I believe we entered the Pantanal in the best season: The roads were dry and passable, the rivers and ponds were full enough to be teeming with wildlife. Only the land animals had enough space to move around unseen… we saw no giant ant-eaters or tapirs, and no jaguars. We tried looking for a jaguar; a local guide knew the whereabouts of one or two, so we hired him for an early morning boat ride along the Miranda river. Along the shore we spotted monkeys in the trees. Toucans with their enormous bright yellow beaks followed us from tree to tree. Birds of prey of all sizes haughtily gazed back at us. Storks, herons, egrets, kingfishers, parakeets and parrots filled the space and our attention, but the jaguar remained unseen… The boat slowed down to crawl along the favorite spots … at one point we climbed ashore to look around bushes and treelimbs, and found proof of presence: big cat footprints! They were fresh and numerous, but without the animal.
Most of the Pantanal properties are cattle ranches. Cows are still a precious commodity. Each jaguar kills on average four cows anually, so many ranchers prefer to see them dead. Ranches-turned-tourist-lodges know that jaguar sightings bring in good money. A few of these places can make more money out of preserving nature for tourism, than from ranching…hopefully that will catch on and expand.
At Pousada São João we could camp near the entry gate, where the hyacinth parrots were fed their favorite palm fruit, and caymans migrated right alongside our camper from one pond to the other. Goats and horses grazed around us; a flock of guinea fowl settled in the shade of a tall palm crown.
Most of the day was oppressively hot, with no shade to park under. Flies entered the camper as soon as the door opened a crack. When the sun went to sleep, the mosquitoes woke up. Still, there was serenity.
It was not meant to last. That day we came to a disagreement with the person who’d leased our houseboat. He released it back to us: we had to go home to repossess it – but we were thousands of kilometers away from a place where we could long – term-park our camper and fly…
We chose Cusco over Montevideo, since the latitudes in between still had so much to offer us. We decided to finish the loop through the Pantanal – enjoying the rest of the roadside views with capybara and cayman filled ponds, parrot filled trees and feasts of other birds. When we reached the end of the loop, we soon reached the border town of Corumba. The overcrowded supermarket should have warned us for what awaited us at this border-crossing to Bolivia…