After a quick snack at the Lido Bar, I crossed the street to Asuncion’s central plaza and decided to make a quick survey of the center despite the heat and the bright, burning sun. The first hours in a place provide the strongest, more long-lasting impressions and I wanted to take advantage of that.
The Plaza de los Heroes was a typical colonial one, except for the fact that two perpendicular streets divided it in quarters and that one of the corners – next to the Chile and Palma junction and to the Lido Bar – was occupied by the Panteon de los Heroes (Heroes Pantheon). The last was a ghastly reminder of the country bloody and disastrous wars; avoiding it, I walked around the plaza and found the regular grid of streets so common in colonial towns. The few people around moved slowly and the gaps between following cars was of whole minutes. The fact that it was Sunday afternoon for sure contributed to the desolation; the place looked unnaturally empty, almost ghostly so. Dogs and cats were absent and birds could not be heard. Was it the heat?
Returning to Chile Street I headed for the riverside; after a few blocks the regular streets’ grid broke apart and the 19th century cathedral appeared at the right side. I did a mental note to visit its museum at the first opportunity, crossed the Plaza de la Constitucion – again, divided by several streets – and found in front of me the Congreso Nacional (National Congress). The imposing building blocked the sight of the languidly blue river, but walking to the left trough the Avenida Republica quickly corrected that. I had been warned beforehand by the hotel concierge about this area and the reason soon became evident. Groups of young people stood by the corners and followed my advance with a predators’ interest. I put my camera away and began walking faster. The well guarded Palacio de Govierno (Government Palace) came soon into sight. It seemed too big for such a sleepy town and was the clearest sign to the country former importance. In front of it was Casa Viola, a historic museum closed on Sundays.
Few other sights were of particular interest, except for the railway station on Eligio Ayala Street. It dates back to 1856 and was one of the first in the continent. It was relatively well preserved and well worth the extra few blocks I walked to reach it.
However, I wasn’t here for the town, crossing the Chaco was my intention. I’ve done that in both the Argentinean and Paraguayan sides and most recommend warmly (the adverb fits the temperatures there) the second one. 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 sturdy 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. From now, the only thinkable path was up to the Andes Mountains.