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Paradise in Paraguay

Note: This is 9 Pages of Pure Lovin' Adventure. Print it out on some scratch paper in draft mode and enjoy it slowly.

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Greetings from Camiri, Bolivia! Tomorrow I’ll begin climbing over 12,000 feet over the next week into the highlands with my first Bolivian rider Mauricio and a festival is going on this weekend with live music, food and sunshine!

Paraguay. Like life, my trip has good days and not so good days. And, although I have amazing experiences in every country a few stand our as spectacular. Paraguay is one of those countries. I’m happy to share two of the best weeks of my life with you traveling in Paraguay—enjoy!

As you may remember, I picked up a guest rider named Cristina back in Argentina who planned to ride 18km from San Ignacio to Santana. By the end of our short ride we both wanted to keep rocking the roads together. Cristina accepted the invitation to ride onwards to Posadas and into Encarnacion, Paraguay and zipped back to the hostel to grab a day pack and passport for a 2-3 day trip. We had a rippin’ ride in Argentina and lovely evening strolling the town of Posadas and we got along like peas and carrots.

We crossed the border into Encarnacion on Fathers Day, or Dia de los Padres, and I had a Couchsurfing host Jazmin waiting to host both Cristina and I for a few nights. Cristina and I had to hop a truck over the border bridge between Argentina and Paraguay as bikes are not allowed. Luckily the first truck that came happily took us across. Cristina and I had had amazing luck together and this was just the beginning of it.

Jazmin, her adorable daughter Costanza and their lovely family were all gathered at their home with a huge Asada (bbq) feast with an endless supply of yummy baked, fried, fresh and delicious dishes. We were treated like part of the family and included in all the various activities including some live music that came to the house playing traditional Paraguayan music, an outing to eat Sushi with her family and plenty of lovely discussions in the kitchen sipping mate until the wee hours of the night.

Cristina wanted to do some more riding and I gave her the options. One was to ride 2 days on the tandem and then return; the reason being that I wanted to meet local folks from Paraguay for my own experiences and for the film. The other option was for her to buy a bike and ride longer all the way to Asuncion. We met a lovely bike shop owner Batlome while out doing errands and explained our situation. Turns out he had the PERFECT used bike, a steel Columbus bike that was in dire need of an overhaul but could be made ready by the next day. So for about $65 Cristina ordered up a Paraguayan touring machine including helmet and goodies for an adventure to Asuncion!

We were both totally pumped for the ride as we were having a blast together and I was so enjoying having some company. Cristina is not only as sweet as they come as a person, very spiritual and genuine, but is also an Acupuncturist and Shiatsu guru. I got my fair share of her magical massages and it was the icing on the cake.

Our departure day finally arrived and it was a cold and rainy one. But our spirits were high as we pedaled the tandem over to Batlome’s shop to pick up Cristina’s bike, which they said would be done by 10AM. When we arrived the bike was in pieces and we knew it would be at least a few hours before it was done. Welcome to Latin America—where virtually nothing happens when promised. I’ve gotten used to it and somehow like it now, but it’s taken some time.

The bike was finally done by about 1PM so we opted to hop a bus to catch up on our riding itinerary. We had a great plan set up that would take up into the town of San Juan on the Dia del San Juan—a huge festival that happens every 24 of June. We scored when we arrived at the station as the drive tossed both bikes fully assembled under the bus and off we went. The weather was miserable—cold, windy and rainy. We hung tight on the bus a bit longer than planned as the weather report was for clearing that afternoon and got off about 50km from the town of San Ignacio for an afternoon spin.

Our first day of riding was nothing to write home about. Cold, windy, gray and a mean headwind. We ended up rolling into San Ignacio almost in the dark and landed a cheap pad where the owner and her two grandchildren took us in like family. They allowed us to dry our wet shoes and clothes by the fire, set me up with hot water for my mate and we hit the town expecting some pre-festivities for San Juan. But the town was dead, barely a soul around. I was hoping to find a rider for the next day’s ride to San Juan but no dice.

The next morning the sun came out in full force and a delightful southern tail wind right behind it. We got the little Bernardita and her sister excited about riding and they pulled out their bikes for some spins around town. We hit the road about 11AM and the sunshine, tailwinds, adorable rural scenery and festive destination kept us smiling from ear to ear. All day we both searched for a guest rider but were striking out left and right. Our closest rider was woman in her 60’s carrying a few bags of groceries home. I was just strapping her goods on the bike and she was ready to hop on when her son appeared and she backed out. Darn!

No worries, we knew we would find someone to share the blissful pedaling that day. The roads are almost empty, perfectly paved and have a nice shoulder to ride in (minus the small speed bumps). The scenery is mostly small farm houses and tiny communities, each with their own unique charm. The rolling hills gave us just enough challenge and kept our pace about the same as I would fly past her on the down hills with all our weight and she would catch me on the uphill sections.

As we were approaching San Juan we saw a group of young men gathered at the local gas station. I was going to pass them as I had become a bit discouraged with so many rejections for riders that day. But Cristina encouraged us to give it one more shot and we rolled our machines into the garage. These guys were already celebrating San Juan with beers flowing and tons of chuckles. Without much prodding a smiling chap named Cristian accepted the invitation to ride, even though he was technically still working at the station! So now we have Christian and Cristina power on our way to San Juan!

Before long we enter the town and the place is going off! Kids, music, a full on fair, bull fight, cotton candy, slides, sunshine and asadas! Christian was all smiles and guided us into the fair and into a tent serving up some food and drinks. His buddy Ronald was working the tent and when we shared what the project was all about his eyes lit up as he shared that the next day he had a day off and would LOVE to come riding with us! On top of that, he also invited us to stay with him that night at his house just a few hundred meters from where we were! Life is good in San Juan!

Christian, Cristina and I made our way over to the bull fighting ring where luckily it was more of a clown show and not the violent cow-killing fight I really could care less to see. There was live music, dancing, food and smiling faces in every direction. Cristina danced it up with the locals and took photos while I did some filming of the event. It was classic. Check the pics ;)

That night was the day of San Juan festivities. For centuries the people have practiced a very cool tradition of lighting the streets of San Juan with candles so the Saint can see his way through when he comes to visit them. Ronald gave Cristina and I his room to call home that was plenty big for both of us and our gear and we got ready to hit the streets. Ronald’s lovely mother Sereriana came over to do our part to light the way for Saint John by lighting adorable homemade candles made from orange peels and pig fat.

Ronald escorted us to the church where the procession of a statue of San Juan would begin and then bolted off to meet one of his girlfriends. Ronald is a 27 year old bachelor and appears to be milking it for all he can. Cristina and I checked the procession then hit the fairgrounds for some good old fashioned fair-fun, Paraguayan style. There was live music in every food tent, gambling of roulette every 10 feet, a big ferris wheel, blowup slide and tons of cool games. We ate cotton candy, chatted with the locals (or argued in Cristina’s case—there’s a jerk in every country, even Paraguay), and just became kids again.

The next day Ronald was a bit slow to get up since he was out late doing the wild thing. But we had a pretty short ride that day to Florida, a river-side town known for it’s beautiful river beaches. Ronald was fired up for the ride and we ran the cameras for about 45 minutes as he shared some truly inspirational nuggets with me and the world. His advice to the world was to stop the envy and desiring what others have—to be happy and grateful for what we have. Ronald is a peaceful, laid back and positive guy and we had a lovely pedal together, including a stop in San Miguel where we enjoyed the “wool capital of Paraguay”. Cristina found some lovely wool products for prices so cheap you have to go there to believe it.

We made it to Florida about sunset and the place is also famous for the fresh fish from the river so we treated Ronald to a meal and cold bottle of white wine at sunset. Life was good! Ronald helped us get our campsite setup on the river and I took him back to town to catch his bus back to San Juan since he had to work the next day. We had grown close quite quickly and happily we are still in touch and no doubt we’ll meet again one day! If you ever head to San Juan, let me know as he’d love to have more visitors.

In town I got a call from my future couchsurfing host Ruben who told me he would be at the lake in San Bernardino, just outside of Asuncion, that weekend and invited us to meet him there. So we had our trajectory in place for our journey to Asuncion and all was well. Back at our campsite our planned quiet night by the river ended up sounding like we were at a Paraguayan concert with a constant beat of “Bun-chica-Bun. Bun-chica-Bun” bass blasting our tent until 2-3AM. Needless to say, neither of us slept very well.

We rode the next morning and by lunchtime I was exhausted from 3-days of hilly riding and lack of sleep. We opted to take a break and hopped a bus to get us closer to our weekend in San Bernardino with Ruben. We had a short evening ride to a local guest house and caught some much needed sleep and I got an epic Shiatsu massage from Cristina that knocked me out for hours.

That Saturday we rode to meet Ruben in San Bernardino and had about 20km of horrendously busy roads with smelly trucks and cars speeding by. Luckily we left that road and we soon pedaling a perfectly peaceful road along the lake. We arrived to the lake with perfect blue skies, 78 degree weather and not a soul in site. It was perfect. We spent the rest of the day relaxing in the sun, eating, chatting, resting and waiting for Ruben’s call.

By the time we finally got in touch with Ruben he was still in his law office in Asuncion. We had no clue where to stay that night as we planned to stay at his aunt’s place. He said he would try to come that night and to meet him at the Hotel del Lago, a posh historic hotel dating back to 1888. After catching a perfect sunset Crisina and I rolled our machines into the hotel. The place seemed pretty empty since it was low season so I knew they would have plenty of free rooms. So I decided it could not hurt to at least ask if they would host us. So I did.

Here’s where it gets magical. I asked to speak with the manager and was soon on the phone with a man named Osvaldo who spoke perfect English. When I told him who I was he started laughing, saying that he saw us on the road earlier and told his friend that if we came to the hotel that day he would give us a room! We were both amazed by the beauty of it all and before we knew it we were being led to a super posh room, which was later upgraded to an even nicer room with a patio overlooking the lake. Score!

Ruben could not make it that night so the room turned out to be a huge blessing and we spent the evening with an adorable couple Tony and Carol who were from California of all places. After a perfect night’s sleep and lovely breakfast we were invited to hit some small villages to check out some unique ceramics artists followed by another special invitation to witness a unique indigenous festival that, like San Juan, only happens once a year! Not only that, but I got permission to film it and it was stunning! The invitation to the evening even was an implied invitation to stay one more night at the charming hotel (www.hoteldellago.org) so we were not going to complain about this one bit.

The story about the festival is that centuries ago men from another village used to hide in the dark wearing banana leaves to capture the woman. The woman would thus travel in pairs carrying fire to burn the men if they tried to grab them. The festival is a wild and dusty reenactment of this that dates back hundreds of years. Classic! Check the pics and you’ll love the video when the show comes out!

Monday arrived and Cristina and I hit the road to Ruben’s house in Asuncion with a bit of a late start. The ride was supposed to be only 45km based on my calculations and on paved road so no big deal. But turns out the paved road was paved with cobblestone, dirt and sand so Cristina’s skinny tires ended up slowing us down to a pretty scary pace. By the time we reached the outskirts of Asuncion the sun was already setting and we were in for a wild ride into the capital.

It was rush hour, dark and in a very busy capital city—a no-no in any touring guidebook. But at this point we had no choice. Not to mention, I lost the map of how to get to Titi’s (Ruben’s nickname) house so we had to stop tons to get our bearings. It was a stressful ride battling huge smelly buses and cars for road space. But in the end we made it to Titi’s, this the supermarket and cooked up a massive Peace Pedalers victory feast for Titi and a handful of other French and German couchsurfers. Life was good indeed!

Asuncion was the planned final destination for Cristina but, like back in Argentina and Encarnacion, neither of us were in a hurry to stay goodbye. We were a well oiled machine and super partnership on the road by now. Remember, Cristina only had a daypack since she was just planning on staying a few days. Her entire backpack was still way back in Argentina! But she accepted the invitation to keep adventuring into the Chaco all the way to Mariscal so we began preparation.

Titi turned out to be one of the coolest Couchsurfing hosts I’ve had in a long time, not to mention his brother Marcel, and he was so eager to share and contribute. Titi is a lawyer but you would never know it. He’s laid back as they come, super genuine, digs music big time and was ready to help make the Paraguay episode of my TV series unforgettable. He lined up a bunch of musicians to come to a jam session at his pad, including one man Juan Ma who we met at the lake. He then lined up his cooking fanatic buddy Andres to cook us up some traditional Paraguayan food with his family for us and the cameras so we extended our stay in Asuncion a few days. Life was good, again :)

After an unforgettable jam session and epic 5-course meal with delicious wine we were ready to leave the capital and head into the Chaco Desert. Having had our share of polluted touring on our entry into Asuncion we opted to hop a bus out of the busy capital all the way to the Mennonite community of Filadelfia. I was curious to meet some of these Mennonite characters, a German-speaking religious community founded by the Russians over 80 years ago.

In Filadelfia we met a 15-year old Mennonite chap named Markus and I shared my desire to meet and understand their culture. Turns out his dad is the owner of a 4-hole golf course called Fleming Golf Club and there was a tournament going on the next day. He invited us to come and I took his number. Golfing in the Chaco Dessert of Paraguay with German-speaking Mennonites—cool!

The next morning I tried to give Markus a call but no answer. I began riding our way out of Filadelfia towards the main Chaco road but I started to feel an urge to stop and really try to meet some Mennonites before giving up. We hit a gas station and I tried again but caught his German-speaking mom who did not really get my request. I was just ready to give up hope when Markus called me and told me to come on over to his house for the tournament and gave directions to the gas station attendant who just happened to be his mom’s cousin! Just so happens that the place I was inspired to stop is almost exactly where we needed to turn to go to Markus’ house so it was meant to be.

We arrived at Markus’ place and the makeshift golf tournament was in the planning. At the course Markus gave me a tour of the course, which was very, very rough but based on the location not so bad. After hanging out a bit I was finally invited to come play and loaned a sweet set of Taylor Made clubs to join the tournament with various Mennonite players. It was a classic day! I played pretty well all things considered—still in my cycling clothes and without any warmup.

As I was playing golf Cristina was meeting Markus’ mom and sister Marcy. By the time the sun was about down and the game over we still had no idea where we were going to stay that night. We just knew that we wanted to spend some more time with these interesting people. And, just like that, we were invited to stay with Marcy and Roy, a young married Mennonite couple and their two kids Rennee and Nick. Stoked!

We pedaled our way back to town and got an escort by Marcy on their quad and before we knew it we had melded into the lives of this beautiful family. Roy went to work cooking, we were given our own room with shower, and we spent the evening playing with the two kids, eating, cooking, sharing and learning. Turns out that the Mennonites are just Christians with a few different beliefs—mainly that baptism should be a choice and not done at birth like the Roman Catholics. The read from the same bible and live their lives dedicated to their faith. I had read reports that the Mennonites were closed and not open to visitors but this experience surely proved it all wrong.

The next day we had a lovely breakfast and had hoped to ride with Markus but he never called. So Cristina and I were content with our Mennonite experience and now were ready to dive into the rich indigenous cultures in the Chaco. We hopped on the bikes about noon (Yes, late start again. But we were in no rush to say goodbye to our lovely friends). On the way out of town we had a great tail wind but we were a bit worried that it would turn into a mean headwind when we did an about-face at the bend. But, as our luck would have it, the wind shifted the moment we hit the turn and the tailwind continued! You have to see the map to understand just how big of a miracle this was, seriously.

The riding in the Chaco is stunning. The road is completely empty and you can see for miles in front and behind you all you have to do is pedal. The tailwind made the touring hot but pretty fast. We stopped for a cool-down and some grub in the shade and pushed our bikes off the road. Cristina made up some yummy cheese and plum-sauce surprises and we hit the road again—oh, no we didn’t we had 4 flat tires!

Yep, I was rusty in the dessert touring department and did not think about taking the bikes off the road. The short lunch stop turned out to be about a 2-hour ordeal and we ended up pedaling our way with the sun going down all too fast. The sunset was stunning but before we knew it we were in darkness at the turnoff to an area called Toledo. We met some folks in a car (rare) and they shared there was a small town up ahead so we pedaled into the moonlit night on dirt roads until finally we heard some dogs barking and rolled into total strangers’ house at about 7PM.

Once again we were treated like family by this group of Chacoan and Guarani folks enjoying a Sunday asada with their family. Before we knew it we had huge plates of BBQ, cold beers and were given an entire house to stay in that is owned by some Swiss guy who rarely comes! We spent the evening talking, laughing, eating and, once again, life was good in the Chaco!

The next day we hit up the cool Project Tagua where they are protecting the prehistoric Tagua (sorta like pigs) from extinction. From there we were escorted to Vincent’s farm for Tereré in the shade. Tereré is the same as Mate but served cold with ice, and has a few extra spices in the mix to make it a refreshing drink in the hot Chaco weather. We were invited to eat lunch with them, I went on a horseback ride with Vincent’s son Gustavo, and we bonded with this lovely family effortlessly.

Since Gustavo shared his horse with me I invited him to come on the bike with me to the next village of Laguna Negra and he accepted! So about 4PM we hit the road for a planned 10km ride to the next village. We were escorted by one of Gustavo’s buddy on his motorcycle and ran the cameras at sunset for some stunning footage. But as we made our way on the back roads we ended up hitting yet more thorns! One that was about 2 inches long entered Cristina’s bike and it was getting dark. Luckily our motorcycle escort saved the day and Gustavo hopped on the motorcycle the last bit in the dark while Cristina and I pedaled onwards.

We had NO CLUE where we were going. We just knew that Laguna Negra was an indigenous community and we would be able to meet some interesting folks there. Without us knowing Vincent had called ahead to his friend Juan and Ramon so before we knew it we were sitting in the full moon light with total strangers, no electricity, sipping Tereré and chatting it up. We could not really see anyone’s faces and it was a bit awkward at first but we ended up getting our own house, again, to sleep in and they cooked us up some yummy fresh farm eggs to go down with the pasta we brought. Ramon went right to work under the full moon fixing Cristina’s flat while we ate. Life was, once again, full-moon-Chaco-style, very good.

The next morning was our final day in the Chaco and one I’ll never forget. We oculd FINALL see the beautiful faces of our new moon-light encounter friends. We sat in the shade talking and drinking Tereré then headed out where I milked a cow the morning breakfast. Ramon could not ride with us onwards to Mariscal but was eager to take me out to explore his village so he hopped on, and so did his 3 year old daughter Cinthia and his nephew Johnny! 4 people on the bike for a filmed adventure of Laguna Negra! Classic!

We spent the entire morning with this lovely family and I can’t begin to describe how magical it was. They felt so blessed to have us and we felt just as grateful to be there. Hugs were in every direction, big smiles, great chats and lots of laughter. Cristina donated her bike to our Chaco families and we decided to have our last ride together on the tandem. When we finally left the family gave Cristina a lovely hand-made purse that brought her to tears and gave me a beautiful Guarani necklace. We were glowing, all of us. I strongly recommend adventuring into this region before it changes—electricity is coming soon and, well, I know what that does to these cultures. Go.

We finally said our goodbyes and tears were falling on both sides. As we pedaled our way to Mariscal I could also hear the tears continuing from my passenger and great friend Cristina. This was it. Our last day of riding together. Her bike was now gone. I would soon be going onwards to Bolivia and her back to her backpack and life in Argentina and Brazil. I was sad too. But we tried to make the best of our last 50km to Mariscal.

The sun was brutal that day and Cristina had the runs from all the dicey water and food so it was a tough one. We ran out of water but luckily got styled by some Mennonites with a cooler of ice cold Tereré—this stuff is GOOD when you are hot and thirsty, I tell you! Now I know why they drink it when temperatures hit 47 (115+). We ran the cameras for a perfect sunset ride into the town and went right for the only ice cream shop in town—it was our victory meal our first day riding and our victory treat on our last. We tried to keep our spirits up but clearly we were both quite sad about the future realities.

There is only one hotel in town so we hit that up and bought our bus tickets to our next destinations the following day. Her bus to Argentina left at 8PM and mine to Bolivia a crazy 2.30AM. We spent our last day charging batteries, offloading hours of amazing footage, exchanging small gifts, cleaning, crying and talking. We had grown to become very close over the past 19 days of traveling. I was so used to having her around and her company brought me more happiness than I have experienced in years on the bike.
Neither of us wanted our adventures to end. But the truth is that she was not ready for Bolivia. She had no clothes, sleeping bag, or mountain bike and had to get back to her stuff and her life. But these realities could not stop the feelings we had for continuing to adventure together. When her bus finally came the tears were falling in a huge way. I have not cried that hard in a long time, her either.

I’ll never forget my experiences in Paraguay, nor will I forget Cristina. I hope to adventure with her again and I’m so grateful for her contribution to my life and the project. And I want to thank and send big love to Ronald, Sereriana, Bernardita, Jazmin, Costanza, Osvaldo, Tony & Carol, Titi and Marcel, Juan Ma, Andres, Markus, Roy and Marcy,Vincent, Gladis, Gustavo, Juan, Ramon, Jonny, Cinthia, Humbertina, Iolamina, Madaliz and so many more who made our trip in Paraguay so special. Tears well up now as I look back on my time in this magical country. Put Paraguay on your travel plans—it’s a gem!

Over n out from Bolivia! The festival is heating up with music, fireworks, food and fun so off I go.

Live Big. Give Big. Love Big.

Jamie

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