The really wild side of Paraguay: A visit to the Chaco-Pantanal reserve
Guest blog by WLT's web manager, Helena Akerlund, who spent some time in Paraguay last year volunteering with Guyra Paraguay.
The Chaco: Vast and harsh, but inhabited landscape
If the San Rafael Reserve is relatively accessible, the Chaco-Pantanal Reserve certainly isn't. To get there is the opposite of straight forward! Located in the north-east of Paraguay, the reserve is accessible by boat (a one week journey on cargo boat from Concepción), plane (when the weather isn't too stormy) or car (when the roads don't become impassable due to rain.) We travelled in 4x4 trucks, a 900km journey that started with a five hour drive from Asunción on the Trans-Chaco route towards Bolivia. After a stop-over at a hotel in Los Pioneras, we turned off the tarmac road onto an unpaved track crossing more of the vast Chaco region until, after about nine hours (400km) of bumping around on the pot-hole ridden track, we finally reached Bahía Negra (The Black Bay), a small settlement neighbouring the reserve.
The long journey gave us the chance to really get a feel for the Chaco landscape, despite not actually stopping to experience it. In short, the Dry Chaco consists of scrubs, cacti and occasional trees, while in the Humid Chaco you'll see bogs and wetlands, surrounded by palm savannahs and forests. During the rainy season the road turns into little more than a pool of mud, and getting through is virtually impossible. Even outside of the rainy season a sudden downpour can make the journey hazardous, the road becoming more like a newly harrowed crop field: Once, Guyra Paraguay's Rodrigo Zárate with his then eight month pregnant wife Elizabeth Cabrera got stuck here en route to the reserve - for five days! Not an experience they would want to repeat...
Despite the harsh conditions in the Chaco, with temperatures in summer often reaching 45 degrees centigrade or more, there are people living here, and the road passes through several ranches and small settlements. At night the extensive fires lit up the dark sky and during the day we could see the many hundreds of cows grazing the barren fields. In contrast, the area north of Bahía Negra is truly wild, with virtually no settlements and only a few nomadic indigenous communities.
The Pantanal - true wilderness
From Bahía Negra, we reached the Chaco-Pantanal Reserve by a small motorboat; an hour-long journey up two rivers. First Río Paraguay, with Brazil to the east and then Río Negro, so named because of its silty, black water, surrounded by impenetrable jungle, with Paraguay on one side of the river and Bolivia on the other. With no official crossings, this is not a place you would come if you didn't have a good reason. The nearest doctor is in Bahía Negra and the nearest hospital more than 300km away in Concepción and if planes can't land to pick you up (which is often the case), you are pretty much on your own. Here I finally found real wilderness!
This is the Pantanal, an area very different from the Chaco, and from any other ecoregion I had so far seen in Paraguay. Dry palm savannahs rub shoulders with incredibly dense forests, where the stunted trees are completely covered in parasitic climbers, clinging to and wrapping themselves around any stem or trunk available, in their search for light. Here, you don't get very far without a machete! When the Three Giants Lodge was built earlier this year, the workers also cleared the area surrounding the lodge. In fact, arriving to the reserve by boat, the first thing you notice is the clearing, with the dark, wooden lodge visible through the palm trees that line the river edge. This was the first significant gap in the vegetation for the entire boat trip! Luckily for visitors to the reserve, the workers have also cleared vegetation to form a network of nature trails. I felt very spoiled walking these trails, knowing how laborious they must have been to create - and maintain.
The Pantanal is also a vast wetland. Naturally the reserve is located on dry ground, but gazing up the river, you can see a smaller scale version of the wetland: The river sides are in places boggy, with large sheets of lilies, which occasionally come loose and float downstream like small islands. Here the caimans hide, only their eyes and nostrils visible above the water. And on top of and around the lily leaves are thousands of birds, each one with a territory seemingly less than a square metre large.
Wildlife in the Pantanal
During our three days stay we didn't see a single boat go past, but we did spot the neighbours: A family of giant otters (Pteronura brasiliensis). We couldn't believe our luck when we saw the heads of two otters bobbing up and down in the river, but the following day we saw the whole family: eight adults and four cubs. The otters swim past the lodge at least twice a day on their journey between their holt (den) and feeding grounds, so if you keep your eyes on the river you're pretty much guaranteed to see them.
Then there was the resident jaguar (Panthera onca). Two of the Guyra staff, who travelled up the evening before the rest of the party, spotted the big cat wandering right past the Three Giants at midnight, and with its favourite claw-sharpening trees situated in the middle of the trails, no more than a few hundred yards from the lodge, we were hopeful of a sighting. But no such luck. Perhaps it was the cheer number of people that put it off (a group of teenagers from Bahía Negra were also visiting the lodge at the time), perhaps we were just unlucky. But it did make its presence known to us...
Walking along one of the trails, we suddenly heard a muffled growl, and stopped dead in our tracks. Not sure whether it was what we thought it was we listened, too alarmed to breathe. Then we heard it again, but this time from the other side of the trail! We now thought we were surrounded by two angry jaguars, and suddenly we weren't so sure we wanted to come face to face with the cat after all. We waited, hearts beating so hard we were sure the animals could hear them, but there were no more growls. Eventually we carried on, slightly more hesitantly than before, and made it back to the lodge safe. One of the guards ensured us that if the growl had sounded at all quiet it meant that the animal had been far away. I'm not so sure... Suffice to say that there are jaguars here, and that the guards built their hut on stilts just in case. (And we slept with the shutters facing the veranda closed, as we didn't fancy being woken up by a jaguar jumping in through the window...)
Staying in the Chaco-Pantanal Reserve is very much on nature's terms - but we wouldn't have wanted it any other way!
In my next and final post I'll talk about the enthusiastic, young explorers we met in the Chaco-Pantanal (which there wasn't enough space for here) and I'll outline why you should go visit the reserves in Paraguay too. (And perhaps I'll include the full list of birds I saw, for those serious birders who may be reading this!)