Paraguay's Pristine Chaco

by Charles Brennick
February, 1997

For the average tourist, Paraguay has little to offer. Asuncion, the capital, is hot and its buildings are in need of repair. Historical attractions, like its architecture and Jesuit artifacts, are destroyed or difficult to get to. Transportation over the bumpy roads is slow and unreliable. And if that's not enough, it's a landlocked country, hence, no beaches.. Paraguay's featureless landscape and lack of tourist attractions does not bring in the Western tourist, and those that come do not stay long. When friends and relatives came to visit me in Paraguay I usually ended up taking them to the neighboring Argentina or Brazil. Honestly, Paraguay is boring. Or, as the Paraguayans like to phrase it, tranquilo.

Perhaps the scarcity of tourists, even Paraguayans (the population is only 4.1 million) is what has allowed the country to preserve its greatest tourism asset, its wildlife. The semi-tropic eastern portion of the country has lush forests that abound with monkeys and birds. Ninety-eight percent of Paraguayans live in eastern Paraguay. As a result, its natural resources have been less preserved than other areas. Across the Paraguay River, in the western region, is the Chaco. The river completely separates two distinct habitats. The Chaco is a vast, virtually flat, and sparsely populated area with scrub and palm forests. The Chaco is one of the most pristine wildlife habitats left in South America. Its plant and animal biodiversity is comparable to the Amazon. The green desert has an indescribable appeal that lured me to the area numerous times while I was a Peace Corps volunteer in Paraguay and eventually motivated me to donate time to work with Paraguay's only Chaco ecotourism operator, Natur.

The Chaco's bountiful wildlife and untouched countryside makes it an ecotourist's dream. The area has unlimited ecotourism potential and the people and wildlife could benefit enormously from the economic and conservation benefits that would come from additional, well planned ecotourism projects. Unfortunately, the Chaco, like Paraguay, is virtually unknown among ecotourists. Hopefully, this brief description of a typical Chaco ecotour and the Chaco itself will allow people to know what to expect and encourage tourists to place the site on their next trip itinerary.

A typical Chaco ecotour through Natur begins at the hotel, Cruce de los Pioneros, about 150 km northwest of the Paraguayan River. The Natur van transports the tourists to the hotel via the only paved road through the Chaco, the Ruta Trans Chaco. It is fascinating how abruptly the ecosystem changes once one crosses the river. The lush deciduous trees of the south are quickly replaced by thorny, short varieties. The landscape is flat with wide open areas cleared for ranching. As your cruising along, you will catch glimpses of storks and rhea mingling with the cattle. The vegetation becomes denser and more typical of the Chaco as you near Cruce de los Pioneros.

The hotel, Cruce de los Pioneros, is a surprisingly comfortable and well kept establishment for its isolated location. The owner, a Swedish immigrant, is beginning to realize the potential of ecotourism. He has created short excursions to some of the surrounding lagoons where birds congregate. One of these lagoons is the shallow and expansive Captain Lagoon, located in the center of the Mennonite Wildlife Reservation.

The next part of the tour is a stay at the Chaco Lodge, about 50 kilometers east of Cruce de los Pioneros. The lodge is located at the end of a bumpy road next to two huge lagoons, Flamingo Lagoon and Lost Bog. The Flamingo Lagoon is full of, of course, flamingos. During certain seasons the flamingos create a pink, squaking carpet that covers the lagoon. Along the shores of the lagoon there is a thick mud that is imprinted with the footprints of the visiting birds and animals. I have seen tapir lying in the mud, apparently it offers them comfort from the heat and bugs. The Lost Bog is a freshwater lagoon that attracts a wide variety of animals. Whistling ducks, hawks, and the jabiru stork, the largest in the world, are typical bird species. Animals like alligators, capybara, gray foxes, wild boars and several different species of deer are also prevalent. The Chaco's flat geography, wide-open lagoons and sporadic vegetation makes it easy to spot wildlife. In heavily vegetated areas, like the Amazon, the animals are hidden behind trees or blend into their dense surroundings. In the Chaco, one can see a stork or running rhea from yards a way.

The Chaco really comes alive at night. Most of the larger mammals avoid the heat during the day, which averages about 90 degrees during the summer. Night excursions allow one to see peccary and perhaps the elusive puma. Almost more than viewing the animals, I enjoyed gazing at the millions of stars in the clear skies and listening to the strange sounds made by theinsects.

The Chaco not only is a great place to view wildlife, it also has cultural tourism opportunities. The Chaco is one of the last places in South America where hunter and gatherer native populations still exist. I have heard that certain native populations have resisted contact with the Paraguayan settlers and follow their traditional beliefs and customs in the remote northeast portion of the Chaco. Many native groups, such as the Sanapana, Lengua and Nivakle, live on reservations set up by the Paraguayan government. Along with farming and other jobs, these groups sell a few items typical of their culture. The most common are bags and baskets made of karanday, palm leaves. Animal and guampa (a Paraguayan cup for drinking tea) carvings made from the sweet smelling palo santo are available. The natives are also very knowledgeable of herbal medicine. They have a cure for any ache or worry you may have, for a modest price. I would like to see the native communities become more involved with ecotourism in the Chaco. A well planned ecotourism program could offer more employment to the generally poor groups. Their first-hand knowledge of the wildlife and their surrounding environment would allow them to be exceptional guides. Currently, they are seen as no more than attractions for the tourists and a source from which to purchase souvenirs.

Another unique cultural group in the Chaco are the Mennonites. This religious group is composed of primarily German and Canadian settlers who established their capital near the exact center of the Paraguayan Chaco, at Filidelfia. The Mennonites have created an island of order in the chaotic Chaco. Their colonies have well maintained, straight streets lined with tin roofed houses fronted by well-maintained flower gardens. The fair-skinned, German speaking Mennonites appear very out of place in such a hot South American country.

The colonies, like Filidelfia and Loma Plata, offer hotels, restaurants and a museum for the tourists. Mennonites are very friendly and enjoy company. A perfect example is Jacob Unger, who is in charge of the Tagua Project. The tagua, Wagner's peccary, were thought extinct for half century until they were rediscovered in 1975. Jacob regularly hosts visitors and supports Natur's ecotourism program.

I would like to see more ecotourism programs in this unique area and have them be managed in a way that preserves and enhances the Chaco's resources. Unfortunately, Natur and other Paraguayan tourism organizations have a long way to go before they achieve all of the benefits available through ecotourism. As stated, these companies need to work more closely with the native populations to ensure they receive more benefits from the programs. The Paraguayan government needs to create policies that encourages ecotourism. The government should establish preservation regulation that ensures the survival of the area's wildlife. Finally, tourism operators need to follow guidelines that reduce the impact on the resource they use. Ecotourism should be promoted in the Chaco as long as it is beneficial for the Chaco's people and wildlife.

The author served in the U.S. Corps in Paraguay and currently studies in Oregon. He can be reached via