The Trans-Chaco Highway in Paraguay is one of the most famous roads in South America. For many years it earned a notorious reputation as one of the worst roads. Then in 2007, it was paved. In true South American style, the thin asphalt lasted for about a year, before disintegrating into a dusty, cracked and pot-holed highway. Frankly, it’s a driver’s nightmare so of course, we couldn’t resist!
Driving the Trans-Chaco Highway in Paraguay
“Watch out! WATCH OUT! There’s a **k**g lorry overtaking!”
I swerved back to the right, braking hard to avoid hitting a pot-hole the size of a small car. The road, if you can accurately describe it as such, ahead is clear of any on-coming traffic. Behind, there’s 6 vehicles, weaving from one side of the road to the other, all trying to avoid the worst of the pot-holes.
The road surface is at worst, downright dangerous; at best, crap! In parts, the corrugated tarmac remains intact – aside from the smattering of huge, deep pot-holes. The sand verge encroaches on the road, making it more narrow than Baloo in places. In patches, the verge has won the battle with the tarmac from both sides so there’s no road left to drive on.
To drive on my own side of the road would make for a slow, stop start journey along the 771 kilometre Trans-Chaco Highway. Not a journey to relish so most drivers aim to keep a constant speed by weaving through the worst of the road surface.
Lorry drivers know the Trans-Chaco Highway in Paraguay well. They’ve driven it hundreds of times before and know where the worst of the pot-holes lie. So they’re able to overtake overlanders and other slow moving vehicles like Baloo!
As I’m not so familiar with the road, the drive takes a lot of concentration, anticipating the pot-holes ahead, weaving to avoid them and trying to avoid swerving into the path of an overtaking 18 wheeler truck! Thank goodness for Angela’s periphery vision or we may have ended up a little squished.
What is the Trans-Chaco Highway
The Trans-Chaco Highway is a 771 kilometre long road connecting Paraguay’s capital city Asunción to the Bolivian border town of Villazon in the north. The road is almost a straight line across the country and splits the desolate area of Paraguay’s north in two.
Built in the early 1960’s it was known as the worst road in all of South America. Given the state of some we’ve driven, it must have been bad. Even the Customs officer in Cuidad del Este warned me about it as we entered Paraguay a few weeks earlier.
The Trans-Chaco Highway, or Ruta 9, or even Ruta Nacional Número 9 Dr. Carlos Antonio López has been known to trap cars, buses and trucks for days on end, especially during the rainy season when the soft dust and sand turns into a long muddy puddle.
A map of the Chaco, the Trans-Chaco Highway and our route
The orange line in the map shows the full length of the Trans-Chaco Highway; the blue line is the route we took.
The road take it’s toll on drivers and passengers alike and if not driven with care, on vehicles too. We took plenty of stops along the way and took a week to drive the full route from Mbaracayu Forest to the border with Bolivia.
The driving conditions of the Trans-Chaco Highway
We joined the road at Pozo Colorado because we’d visited the Mbaracayu Forest Reserve in the east. At Concepcion we took an overnight break. Concepcion is the 3rd largest city in Paraguay. As such, it’s pretty small and dusty but perfect for re-supplying, ready of the long journey ahead.
Ruta 5 to Pozo Colorado
The Ruta 5 highway from the east, through Concepcion and all the way across to Pozo Colorado is in good condition; a 2 lane highway for the most part. We stopped for the night just outside Concepcion and prepared for an early start the next morning.
On the Concepcion side of the river the views were of towns and villages, advertising billboards and public transport. As we cross the Nanawa Bridge out of Concepcion, the landscape changes dramatically.
Flat, fenced off fields, wetlands and livestock grazing amongst blooming jacaranda trees and an occasional palm tree. The scrubland along the roadside is charred, still smoking in places. We’re heading into the huge defrosted area of the Chaco.
Joining Ruta 9
The temperature starts to climb. By 11am, it’s 36ºc and we stop regularly to spot eagles and replenish our water bottles. The road conditions were good and for the next 50 kilometres we pressed on at 80 kph. With little in the way of traffic other than occasional double trailer lorries and a few high speed Hilux’s, we made good progress.
With 80 kms to go before we joined Ruta 9 at Pozo Colorado, we saw the first signs of what was to come – pot-holes. The thin layer of tarmac was washed away, leaving an uncomfortable concrete corrugated and dusty track. We slowed down, focussing on gently driving around holes, cracks and ramps. In parts, we crawled to avoid damage to Baloo, often at less than 20 kph.
Then we’d find a stretch like this…..
We thought we’d reached the end of the poor conditions. Then it disappeared as quickly as it had appeared. After filling our fuel tanks in Pozo Colorado, we joined the infamous Trans-Chaco Highway, northbound.
A near miss
As I weaved around the pot-holes I became so focused, I didn’t see the fast approaching lorry overtaking. The lorry drivers are on a mission and used to the road conditions. They overtake regardless of pot-holes, on-coming traffic or weaving overlanders in Sprinter vans. Thankfully Angela spotted it and we avoided the disaster.
The dust kicked up is thick, acrid and dry. It’s so fine it hangs in the air reducing visibility to not a lot. The dust got inside the van through any gap it could. At one point our fire alarm went off, mistaking the dust for smoke so we needed to remove the battery for the rest of the journey!
Parts of the road had construction work underway. A ground worker whose sole job seemed to be flag waving would, well… wave a flag. Working out what message he was trying to give wasn’t always as straightforward as it should have been. A red flag could mean proceed, stop or watch out for the JCB. Green flags held high might not mean go or stop. And the construction didn’t mean the road was any better either. We just diverted to the rutted track alongside the road.
By late afternoon, the temperature was an oppressive 43ºc and we’d only covered 120 kilometres. Time to take a break from this punishment. Leaving the main road was delightful on these lush soft sandy tracks. Our bones stopped rattling for a while!
Things to do in the Chaco
A brief history
For centuries, the Chaco in Paraguay was uninhabited aside from a few indigenous tribes. Then in the 1930’s someone discovered the possibility the land had untapped oil reserves. This led to the bloodiest military battle of the 20th century and Paraguay and Bolivia fought for the area. Paraguay won the war and retained about 2 thirds of the territory.
In order to protect the Chaco, Paraguay needed the area to become populated. At around the same time, a Russian-German Christian group, the Mennonites, were looking for a place to call home to avoid persecution under Stalinism.
Paraguay enticed them to populate the Chaco, assuring them they could self govern, speak their own language (an old form of German, and freely practice their religion.
The Menonites were sold up the river really as they were shown the area during it’s wet season, so it was lush and green. The rest of the year the Chaco is a dry, arid desert. In true Germanic style though, the Mennonites tamed the land. Today, the deforested region is a patchwork of estancia’s and ranches providing most of Paraguay’s beef and dairy products.
Visiting the Mennonite communities
A visit to Lomo Plata and Filadelfia is a must for anyone travelling through the Chaco. The mennonite communities aren’t dissimilar to the Amish communities of north America, although in Paraguay they embrace technology far more. Horse and carriages are replaced by top of the range 4×4’s and even the internet is widely available.
The towns and villages, of which Filafelfia is the most notable, is where the Wild West meets modern, teutonic efficiency. Each Mennonite community operates an agricultural co-operative system – what this means for us visitors (and outsiders) is rather a weird shopping experience.
The local co-operative store is staffed by young adults and they can spot a tourist a mile off! We shopped for a few groceries and were effectively followed around by an ever present assistant. I’m sure they’d have liked us to think they were being helpful, but we couldn’t help feel they were making sure we didn’t steal anything! All a bit odd if you ask us.
Bird watching at Laguna Capitan
Laguna Capitan is as the name suggests a lake. Unlike the suggestion though, there’s actually very little in the way of water in it. Or at least in August.
Regardless, the flamingoes found enough to dip their feet in and the surrounding area is home to tapirs and bush dogs. The real wildlife bonanza here though is the birdwatching. Twitching tour groups visit regularly to spot a few and given our new found interest in South American birds, we loved our time here. So much so we stayed for 4 days. Anything to avoid getting back on Ruta 9!
Visiting the endangered peccaries at Fortin Toledo
Fortune Toledo is a sanctuary to help save the Chaco peccary from extinction. Peccaries are small, stiff-bristled pig like creatures and in South America, there are 3 species.
The collared peccary has a timid character, isn’t endangered and will run away as soon as look at you. The white lipped peccary is an aggressive, nasty animal and you don’t want to meet these when they hang out in massive groups – they will attack you.
The much larger Chaco peccary, the tagua was thought to have been extinct for 15,000 years, until accidentally discovered alive and kicking in the then dense thorn forest of Paraguay’s Chaco region. In contrast to it’s cousins, the Chaco peccary is naturally curious and rather tasty too. Together with it’s diminishing natural environment, they are severely endangered.
As interesting as it is to see these animals, it was pretty hard to see how the sanctuary differs from a zoo. There was no evidence of releasing the peccaries to the wild. All 3 species are held captive here and as only the Chaco peccary is deemed endangered, we couldn’t quite understand the concept.
Top tip – when leaving Fortin Toledo, do not turn right. Your Sat Nave may suggest there’s a road leading to the Trans-Chaco Highway but it’s gated about 8 kilometres up the road so you’ll need to turn back.
The final leg to the Bolivian border
Re-joining the Trans-Chaco Highway near Filadelfia and the road was smooth, intact tarmac. For about 5 kilometres. Then the road ended and ahead lay miles and miles of washed away tarmac, sand, corrugated, dusty tracks. Out with the fire alarm battery and onwards!
The road users along this stretch try every possible route looking for the smoothest ride. All this leaves maybe 8 lanes across the full stretch of road and drivers travel on any side they think will provide the easiest route. We tried all of them and once I needed the diff locks to stop getting bogged in the sand, decided to stick to the main route. As bad as it was.
150 kilometres and 6 hours later, we turned left towards Mayor Infante Rivarola, the Bolivian border crossing. This last stretch is about 70 kilometres and in great condition so made it to the border pretty quickly from here; just in time of the Bolivian border officials to close up shop for the afternoon!
Brushing the dust off the kitchen counter we put the kettle on in celebration of completing the drive across the Trans-Chaco Highway. Even with its recent refurbishment, this is still not a road to be taken lightly.
Tips for driving the Trans-Chaco Highway
We travelled the Trans-Chaco Highway in August 2018. Conditions change during the year because of the weather but also because of further disintegration. Conditions may even improve with further road construction. If you’re planning on driving the Trans-Chaco highway, ask the locals or fellow overlanders for the latest information on the road conditions before you travel.
Don’t drive the Trans-Chaco at night. In case it needs any explanation, you won’t see the huge pot-holes easily and some local vehicles don’t use their lights after dark. Make sure you plan ahead and park up early enough so as not to risk driving after sunset.
If you’re sat nav indicates a few hours for your journey, double it, at least. The road is awful and will take you ages!
Fuel station along the route are few and far between so when you come across one, fill up your tanks. Follow this advice and you won’t have any issues with running out of fuel. It’s a pretty hostile environment to get stuck in.
Equally, there aren’t many towns along the route so make sure you’re carrying plenty of drinking water and food for at least a couple of extra days. It’s better to be safe than sorry.
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