Believe it or not, you can go from the heart of a sprawling South American metropolis of more than two and a half million people to a dusty fishing village in less time than your Big Apple or Silicon Valley commute. Such is the 45-minute drive from greater Asunción — the under-appreciated and crumbling capital of Paraguay— to a marvel of nature that recently re-emerged in the otherwise quiet neighborhood of Piquete Cué in the city of Limpio.
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Rent a car, drive north and drive defensively — the Asuncións don’t mess around. Once you’re out, the air cools about 10 degrees from the 90-degree Fahrenheit swelter of the city, even in the autumn months. Bodegas and cobblestone streets greet you as you head north to Limpio, down Highway 3. Follow Av San José to where it ends on the water’s edge of the Paraguay River and, broken Spanish or not, start asking around for the yacara yrupe, the local Spanish word for what scientists call Victoria cruziana — giant lily pads that can grow as wide as six feet.
For the last decade, these massive water lilies were thought to be extinct from river dredging and over-picking by locals who brew them in a tea to stave off asthma. The floating bowls of verdant green leaves are surprisingly sturdy as they wobble in the water. Their appeal is part childlike curiosity — in fact, small kids can walk on them — and artistic marvel, as light sifts through their translucent edges. Boating through them is a trip through nature’s living mosaic, each lily pad with its own cuts and edges, patterns that no basket-weaver could mimic.
While still floating down the river, take in the sights of a country relatively unspoiled.
There are few truly wild places left, where nature can come and go mysteriously (local scientists don’t know the cause of the lily pads’ re-emergence). Paraguay offers such transitory marvels to travelers willing to shed their comforts. “This is the Wild West,” muses Tony Crawford, a retired California firefighter who recently built a vacation home in Paraguay.
It’s not difficult to find a fisherman willing to pop you into their boat for a fee (my recommendation: Ask for Justino Gomez or Pablo Lucerna). The hourlong round trip costs anywhere between 15,000 and 55,00 Guarani (roughly $ 2.70 to $ 9.88) per person, depending on the number in your party and your haggling prowess. If possible, go in the early months, between January and March. Otherwise you may be stuck peering from the outskirts of the lily pad reefs — the waterways will then have become impassable with overgrown greenery — rather than paddling through them.
While still floating down the river, take in the sights of a country relatively unspoiled. A trade barge passes by, cattle paddle in the lows and you pass the Castillo El Peñon, a tiny castle built on a rock in the middle of the river. If you’re nice to your guide, he will take you there too. As you enjoy the gentle hum of the engine and the tranquil waters, close your eyes and picture that poor misguided traveler who booked a ticket to haughty and well-trodden Buenos Aires instead.