I was in touch with Nora thanks to Lydia, a Warmshowers member and Peace Corp volunteer in Asuncion. She had posted a message on the Peace Corp Facebook group and thanks to that I also had another contact, Julie in the town of Alberdi, in the southwestern province of Ñeembucú. Back during the dictatorships, it had been very much against it and that could still be seen. Having pushed my bike along 30km of the seemingly endless flooded sand roads, I was wishing they’d had less fight in them so the government hadn’t responded by isolating the state and refusing to invest anything in the infrastructure. There is a paved road, and it’s a national highway. Outside of that, the roads are awful, not helped by the worst rains in 10 years. There wasn’t an official sign saying when I left Ñeembucú, but it was obvious. That’s where the pavement began again.
Most people going through Paraguay will go up the main Ruta 1, and I would have, if I’d not been in touch with Julie and wanting to meet another volunteer. It all started so well, as a tailwind pushed me along the national highway of ruta 4 on the way to Pilar. A tailwind, the tractor that I was drafting behind as almost the only traffic, and lovely pavement accompanied me on my way through the wetlands that neighbour the road. Looking at my maps, there were two ways to get to Alberdi. The longest way would be to go all the way to Pilar, and then turn up. It’d be about 60km longer, but about 20km less unpaved. I decided to ignore that option and take the shortcut. I’d say it was a bad choice, but they were both bad choices.
Turning off ruta 4 I had about a kilometre of well-packed sand, it was no problem. The police at the entrance, after telling me it was a bad idea, told me the whole way to Alberdi was like the first kilometre. It wasn’t. The sand broke up and had large patches of soft sand that were pretty impossible to ride through which seemed to make up the majority of the way. I was making very slow progress to the town of San Juan, about 45km along the dirt road and had only done about 10km in the 2 hours by the time the sunset and the swarm of mosquitoes descended. They bit my bum through my leg wear (it seems that one downside to the Manta is that because it has so much free space it gives lots of mosquito access), through my cap and on my unprotected hands. I tried to do something, but the only thing that I could do was take heart that I’d been told they didn’t carry Dengue and keep going.
When the night set, I still had about another 10km to go to the first police station along the way. The wetlands that surrounded the road would have made for awful camping, and especially with the uncertainty of when the next rain would fall. Fortunately I found that there were often parts with a sidewalk where my walking could be broken up. When I say sidewalk, I just mean a bit of a field where the grass was holding the sand together better. It was passable, other than the frequent marshes that I’d have to slam my brakes on to avoid riding into, and the trees unfairly blocking my way and forcing me into the sand. I managed to avoid nearly all of the marsh, other than of course the foot deep one that I went flying into. Good times and dirty feet.
When I finally made it to the seemingly abandoned police station at around 10pm, a pair of shirtless policemen who came out of a room together before popping back in to get dressed met me. They told me that their non-responsive boss was not there and so I most definitely couldn’t stay there as they couldn’t give me permission without him, and being a complete stranger I could be very dangerous. Hearing that armed police think that me falling asleep in my tent pose a risk to me made me laugh plenty. Their suggestion was that I double back to the paved road and keep going to Pilar, an idea that made no sense at all. The amount of dirt road between Alberdi and me was the same as if I were to double back, and I’d have about 80km of pavement thrown in too. There were definite moments of a feeling of a lack of understanding there even though we were all speaking Spanish. I finally got it through to them that I wasn’t going back anywhere at that moment, and no matter how stupid they thought I was that I was here already. That got us back to the whole lack of a boss, and after a few more minutes of that they eventually realised I wasn’t going to just go away and showed me an abandoned building 500m away that I could camp in.
At 5:30am there was a torch shined at my tent and shouting from outside. It was the police. They had come to tell me it was time to move on and thought that flashing torches repeatedly was the best way to do this. Apparently everyone was now up and about so I’d have to get going. Paraguayans get up early, but mainly to drink maté rather than to get annoyed at scary cyclists. I set to packing my things up, while they kept telling me to hurry up and asking me why I wasn’t getting out of the tent. I told them I needed 10 minutes to pack things up, and 10 minutes later they asked me where I was because it had been 10 minutes. I’m not sure where that sense of punctuality came from, but I had finished packing up and was ready to open the door while they were telling me to get out.
Even though I was showing signs of packing up, they kept hassling me and commenting about how slowly I was going. They might not have liked it when I pointed out that it wasn’t helping me, but it seemed to work as they just stood there in silence staring at me until I was finally ready to go, which is of course when the rain started. And kept going nearly the whole of the 25km to San Juan – the next town. I’d been pushing for about 2 hours by the time a pickup truck stopped to as me if I was OK, and I didn’t hesitate to throw my bike in the back to get a lift. Even the truck couldn’t go much more than 15-20km/h as it bounced it’s way along.
Arriving in town felt wonderful, even though I knew there was a long way to Alberdi it was some kind of real progress. I went to the municipality to see if they had a map of the area, and was told that well I could probably get to Alberdi but it’d be a worse road than the one I came in on. Not exactly an uplifting message. While I was there, José, a local who had spent 7 years in the UK working in Hull started talking to me. He took it on himself to do all my research for me and went round asking lots of people about the best way for me to get to Alberdi. His ideas never seemed to involve me getting to Alberdi by bike, and they went from me getting a lift to Pilar, and then take a bus from there to Alberdi. Until it turned out that there was no longer a bus. His best idea ended up being getting to Pilar, (65km) taking a bus to Asuncion (360km) and then a bus down to Alberdi (140km) all to get to a place that was 65km away as the crow flies. He had to get back to his farm and told me to follow him, and before I knew what was happening he had taken me to a hotel, told the person I’d be staying there and be taking the bus to Pilar and onwards to Asuncion the next day and left. I had no need to stay in a hotel, and was sure there was a better plan than that so awkwardly made my excuses and found a place for lunch to think things over.
My stubborn side was still set on getting to Alberdi, and the turn off was only 20km away at the entrance to a ranch. I had heard plenty of people tell me it’d be impossible but that’s a normal thing to hear on this trip and there’d been some believers. I kept onwards, and the rain, which had slowed down to a drizzle picked up to a downpour meaning that the road was indeed worse than before. I pushed on, and made it about 10km before waving down a car. A lady drove it, whose name I didn’t catch but we’ll call her Maria, but who was the director of the school in San Juan. She was on the way to Pilar as she had a meeting the next afternoon, and even though the meeting was only 65km away she needed to head out 24 hours before to ensure she got there. Not an optimistic sign. I split the bike up using the couplings and fit it in the back of her 4×4. She told me that she wasn’t even sure that the road would be open for her to get to Pilar in a 4×4, so had no hope in me getting to Alberdi on my bike, but we decided to see how it went.
Even though Maria was experienced with her 4×4 and we were going slowly it was sliding around horribly as it struggled to find traction. At the turn off for Alberdi we stopped and spoke to a couple of different people, and they all said that I would have to be insane to try to keep going to Alberdi from there. A dirt bike wouldn’t make it, never mind me on a heavy bike. There were plenty of places that were possibly waist deep and seriously what was the point. In some way I wish I’d gone down, just to see how bad it was. But it would have just been recklessly idiotic. No vehicles would be passing through, there’d be few camping options with everything flooded and I’d be pushing all afternoon, and the next day, just to get to the next town (which wasn’t Alberdi)…. and that was assuming I could even make it and didn’t go 30km and have to U-turn.
Even in a 4×4, the normal access to Pilar was off limits and we had to take a detour that left us 40km outside of town. Maria kept mentioning lodo, or mud, and so I guess we would have just got stuck there. There is talk of paving the road from Pilar to Alberdi, but it’d cost $100 million and I’m not sure how much motivation there is to get it done. Maria was staying with her cousin, but took me to the casa de los maestros (house of the teachers) and organised for me to stay there in the dormitory. The reason there’s no photo is that we were going to head out later, but she came back about an hour later saying she had to do a bit of work and would come back… but then didn’t. A shame. We’d had some really interesting conversations about how school works in Paraguay, students studying from only 4 hours a day, teachers to move on from hitting students, and the general malaise that seems to be around with teachers.
The one remaining option to get to Alberdi, other than going through Asunción, involved an early afternoon ferry from Pilar into Argentina, 110km to the town of Formosa, and then crossing over again. My biggest complaint about this was the amount of space I’d lose in my passport. That’d be a pair of Paraguayan, and a pair of Argentinian stamps more than I’d been planning on. It might not sound like much, but I’m starting to become slightly obsessed with the horrible way people at the border stamp passports. They generally seem to like to find any random page and stamp in the middle. That’d be fine, if I were only travelling through a few places, but with all my travels it just leads to madness. I try to organise people and get them to stamp in the earliest page that has a bit of free space, but that can meet some resistance.
The ride up involved a ridiculous headwind the whole way, and having done no riding in the morning I pushed on for 3-4 hours past sunset until I decided to stop at a health clinic where the nurse, Sergia, welcomed me in warmly who was hanging out with her family. We had a lovely time talking, until a drunken guy came up with a bottle of whiskey. He seemed to think that I was French and had little more than bonsoir to say, that and trying to make me drink his whiskey. Sergia kept trying to tell him to leave, and after about half an hour took a hint, jumped on his bike and all we heard was him cackling as a lorry swerved to avoid hitting him as soon as he got on the road.