Paraguay is a country of contrasts. On the one hand, it is a rich country with the fastest growing economy in the Americas, yet there’s also a gaping divide between the rich and the poor, corruption runs rampant, and political stability remains rare. For a visitor, Paraguay may not have much in terms of sights, but this hardly matters when you are received so warmly by the Paraguayan people. Complete strangers will take you in, feed you, house you, and introduce you to their family (or maybe even a member of Congress). In most countries in South America, the relationship between locals and foreigners usually involves money. In Paraguay, that relationship doesn’t exist, it’s not about money, it’s about long conversations over ice cold beer and a nice steak.
Paraguay is somewhat of an oddity in South America. Due to a strong Jesuit influence it is the only country in the New World where European culture adapted to Native American culture, instead of the opposite. This means that Paraguay is the only country in Americas where over 90% of the population speaks an indigenous language (Guarani). Unlike in Bolivia, Peru or Guatemala, the indigenous language Guarani is spoken by non-ingenous people, the middle class, politicians, and even used in the media. While many people skip Paraguay for the ruins of Peru or the beaches of Brazil, Paraguay offers a different type of South America, a South America that is well of the beaten path and refreshingly real.
Gisele Bündchen, the famous Brazilian supermodel, may be the most famous result of German immigration to Brazil. In reality, over 12 million people claim to be of German ancestry in Brazil, making them one of the largest ethnic groups in the country. Although German is one of the most spoken languages in Brazil after Portuguese, the distribution of German people throughout the country is highly uneven. The vast majority of Germans settled in Southern Brazil, specially the states of Rio Grande do Sul, and Santa Catarina, where the standard of living today is drastically higher than that of the rest of the country. Illiteracy in Santa Catarina remains at 3.8%, while in some places in Brazils northeast, that rate is above 22%.
A combination of historical events caused such a great number of Germans to settle in Southern Brazil. After Brazil gained independence from Portugal in 1822, the new Brazilian government was interested in populating remote regions of the south in order to create a buffer between the newly independent former Spanish colonies of Argentina and Paraguay. A second wave of Germans settled in southern Brazil in search of peace, land and religious freedom after a series of failed revolutions in Europe in 1848. Continued instability in Germany during the end of the 19th century and during both World Wars fueled further immigration.
Although the German language is making a comeback in recent decades, it was heavily suppressed during both World Wars in an attempt to integrate the isolated German colonies into the rest of of the county. Today German is still spoken in some communities in the south, but during our time spent in the south, we found that the German communities are becoming increasingly Brazilian in culture and less German. Some Brazilians that we spoke to have complained that the Germans have a racist mentality towards Brazilians, and think of themselves as a superior race. This has led to some resentment amongst the Brazilians living in cities and towns with large German populations. Given that German immigration to Brazil has nearly come to a stop, time will tell weather German-Brazilians will be able to continue to hold on to their language and culture.
São Paulo was incredible city to photograph. For six weeks straight I found myself waking up, grabbing my camera, and hitting the streets of this fascinating, monster of a city. In this series of photographs I attempt to capture the beautiful, grittiness of São Paulo.
We arrived in the town of Uyuni sick and beaten down by the altitude. There is nothing to see or do in Uyuni and the hostels ($10 for a dorm) and restaurants ($15 for a pizza) are nothing special and expensive. The only reason anyone visits the town is because it is the jumping off point for the Bolivia’s extraordinary Southwest Circuit.
Walker got even more sick, so we ended up spending three nights. While he was in bed, I attempted to stream the Giants playoff games and some football, with little success. There really is nothing more frustrating than terrible internet. We learned the hard way that no one should spend more than one night in Uyuni. If you are planing on going, book your tour when you arrive, have dinner at Minutemen Revolutionary Pizza, an awesome restaurant run by Chris, a friendly Bostonian, and his Bolivian wife Sussy, then hit the hay and leave in the morning.
Picking a Tour Company
There are over 80 tour agencies in Uyuni. Each one offering basically the exact same tour and they all have a myriad of bad reviews online because drivers were hungover, drunk, or there were problems with the vehicles. In the end we decided to go with Cordillera Traveller and we are glad we did. The price was midrange at $125, which covered food, lodging, and a guide for three days. Our guide, Jorge, was young and energetic, and didn’t drink on the job! There were six people total in our Toyota Landcruiser; a Dutch couple, a German guy and an Argentinian girl.
10:30 AM – Finally Leave Uyuni… First stop was just outside of town at the old train graveyard. It was basically a just a photo-op with some cool old trains. Then we drove about an hour to a rest area at the beginning of the salt flat. Jorge set up a delicious lunch of rice, salad and some tasty slaps of llama meat.
1:00 PM – Start heading straight into the salt flat. The sky above was clear, but billowing clouds lined the horizon, which reflected them and the distant mountains like a mirror. At 4,086 sq miles, it is the world’s largest salt flat. Once a prehistoric lake, it is now a ridiculously flat salt covered plain. The altitude only varies by three feet across its entirety. Bolivia is rich in natural resources. The salt flat is exceptionally rich in Lithium, containing 50%-70% of the world’s lithium reserves. However the Bolivian president, Evo Morales, has denied foreign companies access to these reserves.
During the rainy season when the salt flat is covered in a layer of water it reflects the sky seamlessly, like the world’s largest mirror. During October it is dry and crusted over, but you can still take advantage of the flatness and take some funny pictures.
2:30 PM – After driving for hours with no change in our surroundings at all an “island” appeared in the distance. Incahuasi island is a strange outcropping completely covered in giant cacti. We spent an hour walking and staring in awe at the otherworldly landscape that enveloped us.
5:30 PM – As the hot sunny day turned into a cold, windy, moonlit night we arrived at the salt hotel where we would spend the night. The hotel was made entirely of hardened salt blocks, about the size of a cinder block. The salt floor was covered in a white salt dust. After another good meal and a bottle of wine we went to bed, but we were viciously attacked by bed bugs living in the porous salt walls. I’ve never seen so many bed bugs in my life. They were everywhere. I ended up finding an empty room that wasn’t infested and Walker slept in the hallway.
7:30 AM – Day two was full of lagoons, flamingos and volcanoes. The landscape transformed into a desert moonscape. Giant volcanoes loomed over head all day as we traversed bumpy roads from lagoon to lagoon. The Bolivian Altiplano is a major breeding ground for several species of pink flamingos. The shallow, salty lagoons are perfect for flamingos, so we saw many in each lagoon we passed.
2:00 PM – We ascended to 15,500 ft onto a high desert plateau with no vegetation at all. It seemed as if even the clouds were below us. While the salt flat is the most famous part of the tour, the journey through the desolate, stark land of volcanoes dotted with colorful lagoons was the highlight for me. It’s a totally bizarre, unique world like nothing I have seen before.
4:00 PM – The final stop was the Laguna Colorada, a strikingly beautiful blood red lagoon fringed by volcanoes. We learned that what initially appeared to be floating ice was actually a series of borax islands and that the brilliant red color of the water was caused by red sediments and algae pigmentation.
8:30 PM – We all went to bed early in a six person dorm near the Laguna Colorada. We were at such high altitude that other tour groups brought oxygen tanks. Due to the lack of oxygen it was nearly impossible to sleep.
5:00 AM – We ate a quick breakfast and began driving as an eerie red glow appeared beyond the horizon. Just as the sun was rising we arrived at a series of steaming geysers. I reluctantly got out of the car because the temperature was still below freezing. I felt like I was on the set of some crazy action movie. There were no safety precautions so we were able to walk freely on the precarious earth between boiling mud pools and holes billowing sulfuric steam.
7:00 AM – Freezing and tired, our next stop could not have been more appropriate. It was a natural hot spring on the edge of another large salt lake. We lounged in the hot water for an hour, warming our bones in a state of euphoria.
9:00 AM – The Laguna Verde was a our final stop. The green lake is turquoise in color due to arsenic in the water and changes shades depending on the disturbance of the wind. It is overshadowed by Licancabur, a 19,420 ft extinct volcano at the southern most part of Bolivia on the Chilean border.
7:00 PM – After a full day of driving we completed the loop and returned to Uyuni sore, tired and still trying to take in everything we had just seen. It was an amazing journey, and definitely one of the highlights of our South American odyssey. If you are ever in this part of the world, don’t miss it!
We heard rumors of a treacherous three day ferry up the Rio Paraguay. It was mentioned briefly on a obscure travel websites by a few very determined travelers, but concrete information was scarce. We arrived in Concepcion in the evening, only to find out that ferry was broken and no longer operating. So we inquired about the Dalma, a small boat that was in the process of being loaded up with everything from stacks of beer and soda to huge wooden beds and closets. It is a supply ship that drops off various goods and necessities to remote Guarani Indian communities located in the swampland along the river where no roads can penetrate. We were told it was only traveling one day up the river to the small town of Vallemi. Craving adventure, and keen on experiencing an antiquated way of travel that is quickly disappearing, we decided to take it.
Early the next morning we boarded the fully loaded boat. It appeared that the cargo had multiplied over night. Every inch of space was filled with people and supplies. We situated ourselves in the only available space next to the engine room on a couple water barrels. The main deck was filled with women and children crammed onto hammocks like sardines. There was one small bedroom with a bunk bed that looked like it was straight out of a WWII era submarine, but that too was filled with supplies.
Then there was the engine room, which billowed out smoke and heat, constantly broke down and resembled the scene of mechanical open heart surgery gone wrong. Most of the food supplies were stored underneath the main deck in the hold. The bathroom was barely large enough to fit a grown man, and the toilet seat lay on the floor, submerged in an inch of filthy brown water. The walls were caked in grease and bugs of all shapes and sizes.
The kitchen was just as small as the bathroom. The first night a lovely woman cooked huge servings of beef with rice, eggs, onions, tomatoes and a hint of garlic. Rickety stairs towards the back of the boat led to the upper deck, where the furniture, captain’s quarters and all of the men sat baking in the sun. A heated exhaust pipe greeted all those ventured upstairs with a healthy dose of exhaust, soot, and ringing ears.
The river was wide, but the ferry hugged the shore to avoid the strong currents. This time of year the water was high, breaching the low banks and half submerging the vegetation along the river bank.
As night fell we passed by fires set by the Guarani burning bright in the jungle. The flames jumped up and lit the forest and the night sky for miles around. Around two in the morning we approached an abandoned building on shore. The white facade shown brighter in the starlight as we approached. Two figures stood on the shore dressed in white, starring at us as the metal hull scraped along the river bank. Three Indians jumped in the water with their bags held over their heads, climbed on shore, joined the two mysterious figures and disappeared into the night. Maybe it was a dream, maybe it was reality, we’ll never know.
We were awoken around 6 am by a light rain and quickly packed our camera and sleeping bags. To keep from falling right back to sleep we began drinking terere with the locals who appeared to have been up all night. Terere is Paraguay’s national drink. It is consumed in a gourd filled with mate tea leaves, a little lemon and mint, and mixed with ice cold water. It is sucked up through metal straw and quickly refilled. Paraguayans of all ages and classes drink it from sunrise to sunset to counter the unrelenting heat.
Day two was hotter than the day before, it must have been over a 100 degrees, but the the humidity and lack of shade was the worst part. Our first stop was Puerto Itapucu-mi, a blasted out town of shacks and dirt roads. A crowd of locals anxiously huddled in the shade awaiting their weekly supplies of beer, soda, large bags of grain, salt and suger, vegetables and fruit of all types and occasionally a new motorcycle.
We tried to speak with some of the children in Spanish, but all we got were responses in Guarani. Back on deck, as the afternoon approached, so did dark clouds on the horizon. Heavy winds began to rock the boat as the sun set. To our dismay the cook had already been dropped off at her village, so there would be no dinner. A slice of bread and a chunk of salami had to suffice.
The captain of the ship told us to take refuge down stairs, “because this ones coming fast and strong.” The boat made a sharp turn to the closest point of land and the men on deck tied us to trees so we wouldn’t be blown back down river. We secured hammocks and waited; dosing off to the soothing sound of rain as it started to pour down onto the metal roof and watching as lightning flashed in every direction.
We had been forced to sleep down below on the second night due to the rain, so we hardly slept because the boat was constantly stopping and dropping off the last of the supplies.
We ‘awoke’ to a far emptier, lighter and faster ship and by late morning we arrived at our final destination of Vallemi. After 51 hours on board we said our goodbyes to the crew and stumbled onto shore, relieved to have finally made it and in desperate need of a shower. The owner of the hotel we stayed in asked us where we were coming from and how we got here. We told her we took the Dalma three days up the river. She turned around and looked at our greasy, exhaust covered faces and laughed.