Across the Chaco the Hard Way

Hint: There is No easy way

The decision to bus across the Chaco from Asuncion into Bolivia was not a decision we took lightly. For a good six weeks or more, before bidding Paraguari farewell, we’d done our homework.

From a good friend who’d crossed close to 20 years earlier, intermittent blog posts and, even recent reports from friendly faces met earlier in our journey, the trans-Chaco experience never got anything resembling rave reviews. Far from it, actually.

But, as I often found myself telling anyone who’d listen, (this being essentially my wife who, until death do we part, is more or less obliged to do so) surely it was a case of the fear of death being worse than death itself.

I mean, this wasn’t the Chaco of 15-20 years ago I reminded Bec countless times. It was now old news that that road was paved. And as we had more time than money, how bad could it really be?
Brave Bus #2

We’d get our first inclination thirty minutes before blast off when a bus resembling a cast off from the set of Mad Max pulled into bay number 17 of the Asuncion terminal. Let it suffice to say, it didn’t quite resemble the images of the busses we’d been shown by various ticket window sales personnel in the days leading up to our departure.

And it only got worse from there as ensuing, slightly panicked enquiries as to the length of our pending joy ride ranged anywhere from 18 hours from the mumbling baggage handler to 40 from our driver. A visibly irritated driver who explained in a dismissive, rapid fire Spanish that no one really knew how long such trips will actually take with road conditions changing daily.

Such wildly speculative estimates didn’t speak much of that paving job, but what could we do? So, like lambs led to their slaughter, we boarded the luxury confines of our home for the next one to seven days and did our best to steer clear of sharp objects as we waited to depart.

A departure that, on the plus side, was apparently 30 minutes early. Unfortunately that would be the last compliment the journey would garner.

Especially as we’d make our first stop…five blocks later.

A nearly one hour stop at what appeared to be the bus company’s main office where the bus was packed with various food, cardboard boxes, bundled packages of all shapes of sizes and lots and lots of passengers. Passengers who, for whatever reason, apparently couldn’t locate the bus station.

So much for the ‘early’ departure.

The whole frantic procedure had the air of something much grander than a mere bus trip from points A to B. To be honest, it felt more along the lines of what I imagine Christopher Columbus must’ve experienced the final hours before the ‘Nina’, ‘Pinta’ and the ‘Santa Maria’ set out in 1492 from Spain… for who knew exactly what?

Which may have explained why two hours and only 70 kilometres later, the bus drivers seemed unphased in reporting the reason we were stopped on the side of the road—for longer than the previous three, 30 minute delays–was we were officially, well and truly broken down. Broken down and now waiting for a bus to come rescue us.

Three increasingly cold hours later, the rescue in fact came. And once a few of us helped transfer everything from deceased bus one to decrepit bus two, we were ready to continue again. Banter which had been remarkably restrained during the delay now perked up with many in the bus making it clear they were both happy and surprised to learn we were not going to have to return to Asuncion.

Six hours and all of 70 kilometers complete, it appeared, amazingly, the Force was still with us.
Living the Dream

Somehow it just didn’t compute.

And in the meantime, that force did very little to warm the inside of the bus as temperatures outside plummeted as it did inside as well since none of the bus’s rattling windows actually closed enough to keep arctic blast like drafts out. Luckily, most of us had come prepared with heavy winter coats, beanies and gloves. Most of us, that is, except for me who, for reasons too ridiculous to delve into here, had been reduced to a pair of thongs as his lone choice in footwear attire (and his socks packed away below).

Kaia and mom wearing their Spartan winter best and hunkered beneath our one sleeping bag and me, essentially barefooted going across the Chaco…

Donning a simple fleece top and wearing hooded jacket over my head and face for warmth…

And a layered up, Paraguayan version of Jabba the Hut in the seat beside me with his elbow in my ribs…

Things could only get better.

And it did. At least once the sun came up since, along with a slight sensation of feeling returning to my feet, it allowed for what I’d figured would be an impossibility with our originally scheduled overnight bus trip. This being the chance to actually see a bit of the Chaco.

So far behind schedule in fact, we got to see damn near all of it. All of what I’d heard was referred to as little more than the ‘Green Desert’. Only problem was, it was anything but green.

Dry, dusty and inhospitable was more like it. The sort of barren scrub brush and parched bush that would make a billy goat balk. So impressive, in fact, the idea of reaching for my camera struck me as a bit of a cruel joke.

Not that I’d have been able to manage a clear image anyway since snapping a shot amidst most of the straight stretch of Paraguayan path known as a road would’ve been the equivalent of trying to shoot a family portrait from the back of an extremely angry bull.
The Yellow Brick Road

The road was about that good with it morphing into never ending kilometres of washed out ravines and potholes and, worse still, little more than dirt track in many, many places. Places that in a rain, I wouldn’t wish my worst enemy an attempt at crossing in anything less than a military assault vehicle.

Rumours of government graft and corruption swirl as being largely responsible for the sad state of affairs of this ‘Highway’. All I can say is who knows? What is certain is that, whatever the reason, it doesn’t make what should be a fairly straightforward crossing anything resembling easy.

Fittingly, border crossing bureaucracy does its part to make it even worse.

If memory serves me correctly, there’d be a total of five, various customs and immigration stops shared between both sides of the border. Stops which involved having to both unload and eventually repack everything each time and stops whose proximity from each other ranged from as little as 100 meters to as much as 4-5 hours apart.
Welcome to Bolivia

All of which, for your sleeping pleasure, is supposed to transpire at night. Being so far behind schedule, we were actually lucky.  We’d get to watch the well-oiled wheels of government machinery in broad daylight. A far more entertaining prospect than having to endure it amid the discombobulating haze of the wee morning hours.

A luck that would continue 24 hours after having first boarded, when we’d make an executive decision at the humane hour of 7.30 pm. It be then, rather than facing the miserable prospect of a 3-4 am arrival into Santa Cruz, we’d pull the ejection handle and, for the final time, unload ourselves in the little dot on a map town of Camiri, Bolivia.

There, we had two choices. The masochistic hope of catching a fabled last bus of the day connection for an overnight connection to our primary target of Sucre or, if worse came to worse, the chance of, at least, finding a place to lay our heads at a reasonable time of night.

But it didn’t really matter. We had the last vestiges of our sanity intact and my losing any toes to frostbite was frozen water under the bride. Our family had made it across the Chaco.

And unbeknown to us at that moment as we stood dazed and confused in Camiri’s bus terminal parking lot navigating taxi drivers, new money conversion rates and rumbling tummies, a reward for our effort awaited.

A reward that would exceed our wildest expectations.





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