In a continent full of strange landscapes, the Chaco is one of the most bizarre. If it was a complete desert it would be easier to describe. Suffering of unreliable rains, the yellowish sand fits only for wild shrubs to grow; reaching up to three meters, they obstruct any other sights.
Even knowing that - and maybe due to that knowledge - my crossing it was inevitable.
In the early afternoon I arrived at Asuncion’s bus terminal – quite far away from downtown – and bought a forty dollars ticket to Santa Cruz de la Sierra, in Bolivia. The bay number and departure hour were clearly stated on the ticket; I happily left my luggage at the terminal and returned to downtown. Roughly an hour before the departure time the terminal welcomed me back and I relaxed on a bench with a generous portion of terere, a kind of iced tea which fitted the forty-five degrees Celsius weather outside.
A cool ten minutes before the departure time, I approached the relevant bay and found neither people nor a bus. I opened the glass door, walked into the burning air and asked a guard what happened. “Salen de la oficina,” “they leave from the office,” he told me with a cruel smile while pointing at a bus that was leaving the terminal.
Without thinking twice, I re-entered the terminal building, crossed it running, and left through the main entrance, just in time to see my bus appearing on the main road. With no other options – I did not know where the office was – I run after the bus for two blocks. That was not what I had paid for. The bus stopped next to a house packed with people and eventually left some thirty minutes after its schedule – in a more South American fashion. My protests were answered with a deep silence.
The bus was modern and comfortable; it seemed to have a strong air-conditioner and a television that didn’t stop working. Most passengers brought into the bus enough food for a month and many of them were Mennonites. Soon after leaving we got a big dinner and my mood began to improve: soon I was to see the Paraguayan Chaco!
Travelling at night did not make things easier. Despite the air-conditioner, the bus heated up quickly and became as steamy as the surroundings. Sleeping was not an option and most passengers were swinging between various states of stupor. Three and half hours after midnight the bus stopped at an immigration booth, just after a town called Filadelfia. Despite being roughly at the country’s centre, our passports were stamped out. To my questions, the other passengers smiled vaguely pointed westwards and said: “Nada,” (nothing). Seldom have I heard a more accurate statement.
Soon after the asphalt disappeared and there were no signs of civilization. With the first lights, I could see we were travelling on a narrow sand path surrounded by shrubs and nothing more. Only a customs check broke the boredom; a colony of butterflies was flying around their well watered garden.
A vast emptiness.
An hour after noon, we arrived at the Bolivian Ibibobo border cross. Shortly after, the landscape changed into a hilly one – the trademark of Tarija and a few hours later we entered the Santa Cruz plains. At 10pm, after twenty-five hours of almost uninterrupted travel – shaped as our seats - we entered the city of Santa Cruz.