Traveling along the river is one of Paraguay’s great adventures. There are three passenger boats that make weekly trips up the Paraguay River. The Aquidaban sails between Concepcion and Bahia Negra, while the Cacique II sails between Asuncion and Concepcion, and the Crucero Paraguay sails between Asuncion and Fuerte Olimpo. Of these, only the Crucero Paraguay is exclusively for tourism purposes. Which boat you choose depends greatly on your budget and timeframe. Another option for those who wish to tailor trips more to their specific desires is to rent a boat (some are available without a crew, others with a crew and captain). And for those without a restrictive schedule who are willing to go with the flow (literally), there is the possibility of hitching a ride on one of several cargo boats transiting the river.
The Cacique II & the Aquidaban
Traveling on one of these two passenger boats is an interesting, if not particularly comfortable, experience. The boats offer a unique opportunity to see not only the region’s diverse flora and fauna, but also to interact firsthand with the region’s culturally diverse population. Boat crews are made up mostly of working class Paraguayan mestizos. The crew and passengers are mostly male, however many of the almaceneras (shopkeepers) aboard are women, and some crew members bring their wives and children along when possible. Passengers include members from Maskoi, Chamacoco/Ishir, Tomaharo, and Ayoreo indigenous communities along the river. You will also see many Brazilians onboard migrating to work on large cattle ranches (estancias); many have been given permission to bring their nuclear families along.
The boats offer budget conscious tourists a chance to do some nature tourism on the cheap. As you travel up the river, wildlife will become more abundant, especially once past Fuerte Olimpo. Those with a keen eye (or knowledgeable travel companion) will be able to spot yacarae (caiman) and other aquatic animals, such as capybaras, lounging on the sandy banks of the river. Although you are unlikely to see elusive animals such as large felines, taking a riverboat ride can be an inexpensive way to catch a glimpse of the region’s more visible fauna, especially birds. Be sure to bring binoculars, and prepare to spend a lot of time on deck.
While the experience is a unique one for any foreigner, it is important to keep in mind these are not boats aimed at tourists. The boats are not built for comfort and come equipped with only basic amenities. Space is at a premium; decks are crammed with cargo, hammocks strung close together, and cabins are tiny. The most comfortable way to travel on either boat is to travel downriver during the dry season. During the rainy season, the region’s silt and clay roads are frequently impassable, making the riverboats the only reliable mode of transportation. Boats become much more crowded, both with passengers and cargo (which can include animals). Combined with the intense summer heat, it can make for an unpleasant journey. If you cannot avoid traveling along the river in the summer and rainy season, it is best to sleep with your cabin door open for maximum airflow and to ensure access to the bathrooms (passengers may fall asleep on the floor blocking your closed cabin door). Regardless of the season, the journey upriver is longer and more crowded than the return trip. In addition to being loaded down with cargo and passengers, boats are fighting the current when chugging northward. The journey downriver can be more pleasant with less cargo (this time mostly raw materials) and passengers, and a shorter travel time. It is sometimes possible to fly Bahia Negra, and then take the boat back down. Another option for shortening the boat ride is to take a bus to Vallemi or Fuerte Olimpo, and then catch the boat (either heading up or down river) from there.