Travelling by boat in the waters across Asuncion Bay is an experience that it is easy to miss out on. There are few if any tourist boats making the trip and so it not generally highlighted as an opportunity in Asuncion.
However for the independently minded it is actually something that is easy to do. Boats are available all day every day and cost very little to use.
Asuncion is where it is because of the water. That water is as historically important to the city as it’s old buildings. To fully appreciate that however a sight of the city from the waters that surround it is required.
The very existence of Asuncion is down to the Rio Paraguay which flows past it and the large Bay of Asuncion which extends to the south east of the river.
Spanish explorers sailing up the Rio Paraguay first discovered Asuncion Bay in 1637. The large sheltered bay made an ideal anchorage and the land that surrounded it was suitable for use as a harbour.
So it was here that Asuncion was sited and the city grew up around the bay. The port and harbour were Asuncion’s links with the rest of Spanish South America and the wider world.
The port of Asuncion was located along one side of the bay and principal buildings built to overlook it.
Until the coming of the air transport the great majority of arrivals would come by ship docking at the port of Asuncion. One of their very first sights would have been the imposing Presidential Palace.
Much has changed since those times. The Presidential Palace still overlooks the bay but the old port has closed, replaced by smaller more modern ones.
With the closure of the port few ships have reason these days to turn off the river and into the bay.
Looking out now over the bay there is little more than a few small craft to be seen.
These days by far the easiest way to get out onto the water is by catching one of the little ferry boats that ply their trade all day long.
The ferry is part of the Asuncion transport network. It takes it’s passengers between Asuncion Bay and the far side of the Rio Paraguay. Without it commuting across the river would be all but impossible.
Although in reality a water bus functioning to take people between their homes and their work it does offer a tourist the chance to take a short river cruise and see Asuncion from a different angle.
The landing stage is located right next to the old port and at the top of the Costanera. Accordingly it is simple to find and access.
From the road a concrete path zigzags down to where the boats moor. The zigzagging path reduces the incline down to the water making it possible for bulky items of cargo to be loaded and unloaded. When I took my trip across the river I did so in the presence of a couple of washing machines.
The boats themselves are small, wooden and brightly painted. The all have the look of having been in service for many years but are perfectly safe.
To board the boat one has to cross a small wooden board balanced on the prow then step over the captains seat to get inside.
Being a functional vehicle seating inside is on simple wooden planks that run along the interior. No seats as such, just find a space on the bench.
Within the boats are scattered more than enough life jackets for everyone. Some boats have newer life jackets than others but they are all in a good condition. Before leaving the mooring the captain checks the everyone is wearing one.
There is no time table as such for the boats. Instead the captain will wait until either he has enough passengers or can see another boat heading his way across the bay. The boats do depart quite regularly and you should never have to wait any more than about 20 minutes before being on your way.
Once everything is in order the boat is untied from it’s mooring and allowed to drift a little way out into the bay.
Then with a few firm turns of the cranking handle the captain fires up the boat’s diesel engine. The sound of the old engine beating away fills the boat with noise for the whole journey.
From his seat looking out over the prow the captain guides the boat. With a small steering wheel connected to steel wires the run along the exterior of the boat he can turn to the left or right.
When I took my trip I sat on the right hand side travelling away from Asuncion. This gave the best view across Asuncion Bay and of the long arm of land the forms it’s entrance which we turned around when the boat headed out into the Rio Paraguay itself.
Sitting there also allowed for the best views across the water back to the city.
The boats sit low in the water but the waters were calm and so there was no danger of any splashing into the boat.
As we travelled across the bay the only other craft around were a couple of old speed boats, another ferry travelling the length of the bay and a rower practising on the calm bay waters.
The boat did not travel at any great speed so it took a little time to get to the mouth of the bay and out onto the river itself.
We turned northwards out of the bay to follow the river upstream.
Once on the main channel of the river you get to appreciate how wide the river is even this far from the see. The banks are distant from each other and other boats are just dots upon a vast sea of blue.
Around there were only small craft to be seen, but from time to time large ships which dwarf the local boats do pass by.
Looking back towards the enclosing arm of the bay the land looked green and wild with just a few houses scattered across it. Very different from the centre of Asuncion which it faces. Along it’s shore a number of ships had been abandoned. Half sunk and in varying states of decay.
From the boat I could see how out here on the river the water was far more active. Water was flowing downstream and a noticeable rate and all about were scattered patches of still water. I imagine those reflected underwater obstacles.
It took a good ten minutes to cross the river and head a little way up stream to where the boat was going to land.
This was a placed called Chaco’i, or Little Chaco. The very start of what would become the Grand Chaco.
The landing spot was concealed behind a small bulge in the river bank and so I did not see it until we were upon it. As I knew it would be it was far more basic than over the other side in Asuncion.
A small jetty had been made out of wooden planks and the boat pulled up alongside this. A plank was thrown out between it and the boat for everyone to disembark.
Payment was made when leaving boat. It came to less than a dollar and would be the same on the return trip. Very good value as the journey is 30 minutes each way.
I stepped onto the muddy river bank and was now in Chaco’i. There is little near the harbour in Chaco’i. It exists as a transport connection point. As as such there was just a truck stop, parking spaces for those who had commuted to Asuncion and a couple of little shops selling just the most basic of items.
So after a quick look around I found found somewhere to sit on the riverside and took in the view over the river towards Asuncion.
There were several boats moored up on the river bank and while I had been looking around the boat I had travelled on had been moved to join them.
While I sat there the captain of the boat I would be travelling back on brought his boat over to the jetty. Rather than using the engine he had a long bamboo pole with which he punted the boat slowly over to the jetty and tied it up.
All was very quiet and peaceful just sitting there looking out across the river.
I knew I would have to wait for a boat back but did not have to wait too long. After about 15 minutes I was aboard and we were on our way.
As I had travelled mid afternoon most of the passengers were heading out of Asuncion. So while the boat was almost full on the way out on the way back there were only two other passengers.
This time I sat on the other side of the boat to get a good view of the bay entrance and the approach to Asuncion.
In common with the days when everyone arrived by river it was the Presidential Palace that rose up in front of me. Just as it had been intended to.
Another very pleasant ride across the water and I was soon back once more in the heart of Asuncion.
Taking one of these small boats across the bay is something that I would recommend to anyone who is in Asuncion.
A trip that is enjoyable, easy to do and overlooked in the tourist literature.