Feb, 2016: A rather sweaty, slightly overweight Paraguayan stoked the burning coals and then surveyed the golden brown, juicy looking fowls slowly turning on his rotisserie. Satisfied that he had found one ready for consumption he pulled down the spike in question and proceeded to dismantle it with a hefty pair of scissors. The smell of chicken fat and wood smoke was almost unbearably good and it was all I could do not to dribble on the table. After what seemed an eternity the plates start arriving and we dove into the most amazingly good, smokey, rotisserie chicken known to man all washed down with a few ‘tallies’ of frosty cold beer. The requisite plates of steamed yuca and potato salad were a definite side show to the chook but helped fill any remaining space left by the rapid consumption of our late lunch. In a country not exactly known for it’s culinary prowess, that roast chicken lunch on a dusty Concepcion street in central Paraguay is one I will never forget. Indeed we went back for more several times.
Most of our five weeks in Paraguay was spent moseying around the centre of the country, from feasting on rotisserie chicken in Concepcion, lazing in hammocks at the lovely El Roble farm stay or exploring the Rio Ypanes by tire tube and kayak. Like the rest of the country there aren’t a whole lot of tourists to be found but there are plenty of friendly locals to talk to and it is rather beautiful in it’s own quirky, dusty, run down kind of way. We had first come up to Concepcion thinking that we would spend a little time at El Roble, do a bit of volunteering at Laguna Blanca biological field station and then continue north east by river to cross into Brazil via Bolivia. As it turned out, due to a very painful and awkward injury to Fi, we didn’t make it any further north, but despite this we had a cracking time.
Over the past 25 years a colourful German character named Peter has been working incredibly hard (with a stein of beer and cigar in hand) turning an overgrazed patch of dirt into a veritable paradise of exotic animals and gardens at El Roble farm stay / fish farm / eco lodge. We had an awesome few days there doing a lot of very little. We feasted on delicious german / paraguayan food, listened to Peter’s fascinating stories of paraguayan history and hung out with his menagerie of exotic animals. We spent a good amount of time lazing around their pool with a stein of ice cold beer or talking rubbish while swinging in their hammocks. El Roble also provided a great base for some intrepid if somewhat painful (for Fi at least) river adventures.
We got out for a morning of tubing down the Rio Ypanes which, despite some English compadres concerns that their exposed derrieres would make a fine feast for marauding Piranhas, turned out to be complete bliss. Inspired by the tubing we went back the next day armed with a few kayaks and spent the day paddling down the same river before turning our noses upstream into the Rio Paraguay. All this kayaking was super relaxing (if not rather sweaty) until disaster struck through Fi stepping / falling (gracefully of course) out of her kayak delivering an injury that would keep on giving for weeks to come. While our second foray on to the Rio Ypanes didn’t turn out exactly as planned we still had a glorious few hours floating with the lazy current, stopping on golden sandy beaches to cool off and admiring the many different birds and the odd monkey. Most of the time we had the river and surrounding thick mat of green jungle all to ourselves and it was so, so peaceful…and sweaty.
With Fi hobbling around in a very decent amount of pain, our enthusiasm for Paraguay’s rivers remained undimmed so when an outstanding English expat named James offered a weekend adventure to an isolated, river side estancia (station), we jumped at the chance. After 2 hours bouncing along the busted red dirt roads in the back of James’s truck, we pulled up at the grand gates of Puerto Arroz and I for one couldn’t help but be excited about the rural paradise we were about to enter. As it turned out, it wasn’t exactly the glorious example of Paraguayan pastoral excellence I had expected. A small mob of long tailed and potentially fly blown sheep scampered around the homestead; decaying machinery filled an equally decaying shed; and, instead of gauchos with wide brimmed hats and cowboy boots ,we were met by a bow legged, fourth generation German Paraguayan named Mueller wearing ratty tracksuit pants and thongs (flip flops). Still, perched up on an unusually elevated stretch of river bank, the faded homestead provided epic views of the Rio Paraguay and the 15m yacht/busted tin box promised hours of lazy river cruising. There was an indoor parilla (wood fired grill), ice cold beer and hilarious company. Mueller turned out to be a total legend with a gorgeous little daughter who would make anyone clucky, and we even managed to catch a few tiny fish. As we drove back on Sunday evening the roads somehow seemed smoother, the sunset more beautiful and even the dust more pleasant.
South of Concepcion is Paraguay’s only lake, Laguna Blanca where a biological field station called Para La Tierra (PLT, For the Earth) has been set up by a Scottish and American pair. Laguna Blanca sits at the confluence of three rather important and highly threatened South American eco- regions (the Upper Paraná Atlantic Forest, the Cerrado, and the Bosque Central of Paraguay) making it an ideal spot to study the ecology of the area. PLT survives through providing a range of internships and volunteering opportunities to anyone with a bit of relevant experience who is willing to roll up their sleeves and dedicate a bit of time to their research projects. After a rather inauspicious start our time there was spent clipping frog metatarsals, searching in vane for monkeys and yearning for ice cold beer. Alexis and I even got out into the jungle armed with machetes and painted in industrial strength bug spray to help clear some trails. I don’t think I have ever sweated so much. Unfortunately our stay was cut short at PLT as we needed to get Fi to a doctor so back we went to Concepcion before finally heading back to the bright lights and relative metropolitan paradise of Asuncion. Our time in central Paraguay had come to a close.
Central Paraguay travel and feasting tips:
- During our numerous visits to Concepcion we always stayed in the faded colonial ‘glory’ of the Hotel Frances (~USD12.5/person/night in a triple room), corner of Presidente Franco and Carlos Antonia Lopez
- While in Concepcion keep an eye out for any one of the numerous, family run restaurants selling rotisserie chicken….it’s some of the best chicken you’ll ever eat. If you’re lucky, they might also have a few succulent chorizos grilling on the BBQ.
- We would highly recommend heading out for a few days to stay with Peter and his lovely family at El Roble (~USD65/double cabin with private bath/night including all meals, http://www.paraguay.ch/el-roble/el-roble-2/)
- If you’re a keen eco-warrior, have an avid interest in frogs and don’t mind getting really, really sweaty then doing a spot of volunteering at Para la Tierra (PLT) could be right up your alley (http://www.paralatierra.org/aboutus.html). Get in contact with the team at PLT and they will arrange transport from Santa Rosa del Aguaray (the closest town).