Concepcion: Paraguay’s Pearl Of The North

concepcionI arrived at the Concepción bus terminal at 11 p.m. amid cracks of thunder so loud they would have triggered car alarms, if the town’s horse-and-carts, scooters and clapped-out old junkers were equipped with them. As it was, there was no real taxi, so I just had to trust that the obese guy with the beady eyes and crappy Korean import really was a cabdriver. He considerately allowed me to carry and toss my 40-pound backpack into the car, and then we peeled out of the parking lot, radio blaring.

Fortunately, he took me straight to my destination – a “cheap” hotel I’d heard about that I immediately deduced was pulling double-duty as a brothel (it was). But it was late, I’d just landed in Paraguay at 2 a.m. that morning, and then spent 10 hours on a bus from Asunción. Theoretically, it takes seven hours, but welcome to transportation in Paraguay; the original bus broke down and we had to wait on the side of the road for a replacement vehicle. I was exhausted. I paid eight dollars for a room, trying to ignore the creepy guys chugging beers in the adjacent bar area. As I crossed the courtyard, the skies broke open and a monsoonal deluge poured down.

Soaked to the skin, I unlocked my room and discovered that it more closely resembled a prison cell. As a tidal wave of rainwater flowed from beneath the door, I frantically moved my pack to the bed (is there such a thing as crabs-to-pack transmission?), and put away my phone charger, which I had just been about to insert into an outlet. My impression of rural Paraguay was off to a bumpy start.

%Gallery-187342%concepcionThe reason for my high-tailing it to Concepción, a key river port known as Paraguay’s “Pearl of the North,” was so I could catch the Aquidaban (right). This cargo/passenger boat sails up the Rio Paraguay and back, all the way to the Bay of Asunción. The boat departs from Concepcion’s port every Tuesday between 9 and 11 a.m. The following day was a Tuesday, and my entire itinerary was planned around my two-day voyage up-river to the Brazilian border port of Vallemí. I was on a very tight timeline, but I was definitely interested in Concepción itself, which I’d read was a charming colonial town, and the last accessible major port by road (once you get into rural Paraguay, all bets are off with regard to road conditions, which are subject to flooding; this is not a country you should visit if you have time constraints).

Feeling claustrophobic in my flooded cell, and wanting to escape the donut-hole-sized drowned cockroaches, I decided to go for a walk. Concepción, being a port, was lively despite the hour. The karaoke bar of my “hotel” was hopping, and filled with all manner of dodgy individuals, as well as a handful of scantily-clad women (the brothel assessment was later confirmed by a local who runs an agriturismo nearby).

As I wandered the street, I struck up a few conversations with shopkeepers and a semi-automatic-toting security guard (due to the region’s agricultural prosperity, Concepción has an exorbitant number of banks), and found them all to be every bit as friendly as Paraguayans are reputed to be. Finally, I trudged back to the cell, and set my alarm for 6 a.m., as I’d been told to get to the Aquidaban’s ticketing office early. I already knew the handful of passenger cabins were booked, so I’d be sleeping on the deck, and I needed to find a place to buy a hammock before departure.
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I awakened to the sound of torrential rain, and instinctively knew my riverboat trip wasn’t meant to be. But I’d traveled so far – from Colorado, dammit – that I needed to at least go through the motions. I put on my flip-flops and began the ten-minute walk to the port. All of the streets were flooded, the water hitting me at mid-calf (right). Gringos are a rare sight in Paraguay, so the few vendors and dockworkers that saw me did double-takes. What the hell was this crazy gringa doing, wading in the pouring rain at sunrise?

Naturally, the ticket office was closed when I arrived at the port (read: a muddy river bank), but the Aquidaban was there, and already being loaded with cargo. I took one look at the heaping deck, and then imagined two days sitting in torrential rain, with no dry place to stash my pack or sleep. Thanks, but no.
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Sadly, I made my way back to the cell, trying to formulate a new plan. En route, I passed a lovely, colonial-style accommodation I’d read about in my guidebook but deemed as too pricey because it wasn’t a “bargain” (sometimes I take things too literally). I walked into the Hotel Victoria and asked how much a single would set me back. The answer? A whopping $12. Sold. Although it was stark, I loved it. There was a large, comfortable bed, lots of light, an armoire, ceiling fan and spotless bathroom. It had the moody, tropical feel of a Graham Greene novel. I quickly retrieved my soggy belongings from the whorehouse other hotel and checked in.

The rest of the two-story Hotel Victoria is even more impressive, if you like vintage properties (it was built in the 1950s, and is still owned by the same family). The pretty, terra-cotta-tiled courtyard is festooned with potted ferns and slender, leafy trees; there’s a cozy sitting area next to reception where I could read and play with the resident cat; the staff are incredibly sweet, and the large, airy dining room became my makeshift office for the next couple of days. In a black-and-white tiled alcove, I set up camp with my computer, at a table located in front of a set of French doors (below). Every so often, some of Concepción’s resident horses, donkeys or mules would cruise by (these animals roam the streets; given the number of carts in use in town, I assume they had owners, although god knows how they keep track of them).
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Since I had to make some immediate changes to my itinerary, that was my first order of business. And was I ever fortunate that I’d made the decision to bail on the riverboat. As is wont to happen in Paraguay, the road from VallemÍ to Concepción washed out, and was closed for at least several days. I would have been stranded, which would have been disastrous because I had a critical assignment elsewhere in a few days time.

With my plans settled, I now had two days to enjoy Concepción. The town is located within the department of the same name (the country is divided into these administrative districts), in central Paraguay. The region is prosperous from cattle-ranching, and the great swath I traveled, from Asunción north to Concepción and back, was flat, green, and decidedly tropical. The region extends north to Vallemí.

Concepción was founded in 1773, “to protect territories to the south from attacks by indigenous tribes and the neighboring Portuguese [‘Other Places Travel Guide Paraguay,’ Romy Natalia Goldberg]”. It became a key shipping hub at the beginning of the 19th century, and began to see an influx of European and Arabic immigrants over the next 100 years, which have considerably influenced the cultural aspects of the town (I was wondering what was up with the schwarma eateries and coffee houses).
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Concepción certainly didn’t fit my mental image of a grotty, gritty, sketchy river port. It’s true that it’s on the banks of the Rio Paraguay, but it’s a tidy, safe, engaging town, full of stunning, colonial-style buildings. Some of these are fully restored, while others are in advanced stages of decrepitude, which in itself is beautiful. The aforementioned equines wander the streets, like so many dogs.

The mercado, located across the busy main drag of Av. Fernando de Pinedo, is classic rural South America. Lining the dirt streets are fruit vendors and butchers, and stalls selling everything from yerba mate to mosquito nets. In between are little eateries and food stalls preparing Paraguayan favorites like caldo de pescado, croqueteas and empanadas. The locals are warm, and I felt right at home, despite being, from what I could tell, the token gringo/a in town. I spent my days wandering, observing uniformed schoolchildren, vendors and dockworkers. I visited the historic Museo Municipal del Cuartel de la Villa Real (located in a former command post, it contains relics from the region’s Triple Alliance War of the late 19th century). I ate at a wonderful Brazilian place, Restaurant Toninho j Jandira, where the waiter chatted with me in Spanish (you will find few rural Paraguayans who speak English) about life in Concepción, and I was served more food than I could possibly have eaten in a week.
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There are really only two reasons to make the considerable trek to Concepción, and both are valid if you’re intrepid enough to visit Paraguay. The riverboats, once so crucial to the lifeblood of this isolated country, are slowly being phased out as roads replace them. During my visit, I discovered that the other riverboat, Cacique II, had stopped taking passengers, although it’s possible you may be able to talk one of the dedicated cargo boats into letting you hitch a ride. This isn’t advised for solo female travelers, however, although Paraguay itself is quite safe for Latin America.

Concepción is also just a fascinating, and relaxing, place to while away a few days. It’s rich in history and Paraguayan culture (which embraces the indigenous Guarani people and language, siestas, sipping tereré, eating, socializing, ranching, and family). It exemplifies in many regards a vanishing way of life. It’s understated and sweet, and the air is pungent with the scent of flowering trees, ripe fruit and rich, red mud. I’ve never been so grateful to have my travel plans fall through.

[Photo credits: Laurel Miller]

English Country Walks: Hiking along the Thames near Oxford

Spring has sprung, and while I have a reputation as a museum junkie, I love to be outside too. Over the next few months I’ll be bringing you lots of guides to hiking in England, which in good weather has the most beautiful countryside in the world.

Today I’ll tell you about an easy, scenic, seven-mile hike from historic Oxford along the Thames to the little town of Abingdon. It forms part of the Thames Path, a 184 mile (294 km) National Trail from the source of the river in the Cotswolds all the way to the Thames Barrier near Greenwich. You can find a description of the Oxford-Abingdon section of the route here, but it actually runs backwards from Abingdon to Oxford. My route starts from the more popular town. The trail is flat and you’re never far from civilization, but be sure to bring a bit of food, water, and sunscreen as you would on any hike.

The hike starts from Folly Bridge in Oxford, site of the popular Head of the River Pub, pictured on the right. From there you simply head south on west side of the river. Don’t worry if you don’t know which way is west, it’s the only side with a trail! There’s a wide gravel path that’s in the process of being paved. River barges and university rowing teams share the water with ducks and swans. It’s a peaceful walk, although at this point you’ll be sharing it with a fair number of people unless you go out very early in the morning. Bring a camera, because it’s very photogenic.

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The first major landmark is The Isis, a pub with a big garden overlooking the river two miles south of Folly Bridge. The part of the Thames that flows through Oxford is actually called the Isis by locals, so the pub is named after the river.

Next comes Iffley lock, where you can watch canal boats being raised and lowered in the lock before continuing their journey. I suggest taking a side trip by crossing over the lock and going into Iffley village just a couple of minutes away. There you can see one of the best preserved Norman churches in England. A yew tree in the churchyard may be the sole survivor of a pagan grove that was destroyed when Christianity came to this land. I’ve written about this church and tree in more detail here.

Once you’ve seen the church, cross back over to the Thames Path and continue heading south. You’ll pass through a less-than-scenic bit for the next mile or so as you go under a railway bridge and several huge electric pylons. Once you put those behind you you’ll have fine views the rest of the way, with the river on your left and forest and farmers’ fields on your right.

Next stop is Sandford-on-Thames, a little town with a lock and a nice pub by the river. One of the best parts about hiking in England is there’s usually a pub nearby. Take advantage of this, but don’t forget to drink water too! This village was founded by the Romans, owned by the Templars in the Middle Ages, and now is just a sleepy little place by the river. Watch out on Christmas Eve, though, because locals whisper that a headless horseman leads a phantasmal coach and four through the fields nearby.

Now you’ll pass through a long stretch of countryside with few houses. Your only companions will be ducks, swans, and the occasional boat. The path narrows, but remains clear. There’s really no way to get lost on this hike.

Finally you pass another lock and come to Abingdon, a town packed with history. The town is actually built atop an Iron Age fort that is no longer visible. When the Romans came in the first century AD, they used the river extensively, but Abingdon didn’t come into its own until the foundation of Abingdon Abbey in the 7th century. It remained a major center of worship until 1538, when Henry VIII disbanded it and most other religious houses in England.

Needless to say, there are plenty of things to see here. The bridge you cross over to get to town dates to 1416. The old Abbey Gardens are a great place for a picnic, but only bits and pieces of the abbey remain. For historic architecture check out the church of St. Nicolas (c. 1170). The church of St. Helens dates to about 70 years earlier. St. Helens is a huge place and claims to be the second widest church in England. Who measures these things?

Being such an old town, Abingdon has developed some odd customs. On special occasions city officials throw buns off the roof of the old County Hall to the crowds below. Several buns have been preserved in the Abingdon Museum, in case you’re into old preserved buns. They also have a series of old-time festivals, including electing a fake Mayor. This year the “election” will take place on June 13 and be accompanied by folk dancing, music, and a large amount of drinking at Abingdon’s many great pubs. I’ll be reporting on it, so I hope to see you there!

If you felt you’ve done enough walking for one day, there are plenty of buses back to Oxford, or you can turn this seven-mile hike into a fourteen-mile one and walk on back, filling up at the pubs along the way, of course.