Paraguay – Cero Tres Kandu

Cerro Tres Kandu – Roof of Paraguay
Winter-night ascent
Eric Gilbertson
3pm June 30 – 11am July 1

On the summit

On the summit

I slowed my car to a stop and leaned forward for a better look. The road I saw ahead of me did not look appealing. An old bridge had apparently washed out and been hastily repaired. Dirt had been bulldozed or shoveled on top of a big concrete pipe, but the bridge width was only just barely as wide as the car, and there were 15-foot drops on each side. The road was rough too – enough so that I suspected my little car might bottom out and get stuck on the bridge even if I managed to keep it from slipping off the edge.

I stepped out to investigate closer, bringing my headlamp because the sun had long-since set. It didn’t look quite as impossible up close, so I got back in the car and drove up a little closer. I started inching the front wheels over the first big bump. I couldn’t tell exactly where the wheels were by looking out the front, and I desperately wished I had a spotter to help out. I rolled down the window and stuck my head out for a better view.

I glanced from the road ahead down to the 15-ft drop and immediately slammed on the brakes. “This is crazy,” I thought. I pulled back into reverse and got back off the road, looking for a place on the side to pull over. Road-walking would add several hours to my hike up Cerro Tres Kandu, the tallest mountain in Paraguay, I figured, but at least my car wouldn’t fall into a river.

Then I saw a light in the road behind me, and noticed a lone man biking quickly towards me on the rough dirt road.

“Uh oh,” I thought, “he must have seen me sneaking through that gate a few miles back.”
I could definitely outrun this guy in my car, but now I was trapped with an impassable road ahead of me, and nowhere to turn. I nervously awaited my fate.

Earlier that morning I had successfully climbed the highest mountain in Uruguay, Cerro Catedral, and made it back to Montevideo just in time for my 11am flight to Asuncion, Paraguay. But of course in South America, as I was beginning to learn, flying was not quite as reliable as back in the US.

“You do know, sir, that the Airport is currently closed,” the ticketing agent told me as I checked in in Montevideo. “No flights are departing or arriving. I will let you go to the boarding room, though, and maybe you will fly out today still.”

I quietly nodded and took my ticket. At first I was sure she meant the Asuncion airport was closed, because the Montevideo airport certainly had a lot of activity. I knew that just the previous week the president of Paraguay had been impeached in what some newspapers were calling a coup d’etat, and I had heard there were street protests in Asuncion. Could that be causing the airport to close? It didn’t matter, though – I had only given myself 20 hours on the ground in Paraguay, and if I didn’t fly out today there would be no hope of summiting Cerro Tres Kandu.

I passed through security and noticed the boarding room was packed. The departure monitors said “retrasado” [Delayed] for every single flight. I looked out the window and the whole airport was engulfed in dense fog. Now it made sense: the *Montevideo* airport was closed due to weather.

I took a seat and began reading a Spanish newspaper. One by one the flights on the screen started changing from “retrasado” to “cancelado.” I was nervously watching the cancelados crawl down the screen wishing I could build some sort of force field around Asuncion. At 12:30 pm I glanced outside, and for the first time all morning started seeing some high-rise buildings of Montevideo. The fog had cleared!

Now the retrasados started changing to embarques [boarding], and Asuncion jumped up to a 13:30 embarque. I happily hopped on the plane, and promptly went to sleep. I’ve learned when traveling like this to take advantage of any time window possible to put some sleep in the bank, just in case I might need it later. That would turn out to be a wise decision today.

Two hours later we touched down in Asuncion, and with no checked bags I quickly made it through customs and to the Hertz car rental counter. I handed over my printed out reservation form and said I had a reservation for today for un “carro automatico.”

“Donde vas?”[where are you going] the woman behind the desk asked, apparently to get an idea of how many kilometers/day to charge me.

“Voy a la cima del Cerro Tres Kandu, la montana mas alta en el Paraguay. Es circa de Numi.” [I’m going to the top of Cerro Tres Kandu, the tallest mountain in Paraguay. It’s close to Numi] I replied.

She raised her eyebrows. “Numi?? En el interior del pais?” [Numi?? In the middle of the country?]

I pulled out a map printout and pointed out the location. I guess she was expecting me to say I’d just drive around Asuncion looking at museums or something. She turned around and consulted with another guy behind the counter. They started discussing how far away Numi was and whether my highlighted route would even be possible given road conditions. Eventually she accepted my plan and started filling out some paperwork.

“Que es el nombre de tu hotel?” [what is the name of your hotel?] she asked, needing to fill that line in on some form.

“No tengo hotel. Voy a hacer de camping.” [I don’t have a hotel. I’m going to camp] I replied. She looked confused, not sure how to fill in that line. After a little bit of thought she just wrote Numi, and then handed it to me to sign.

I was getting a fancy white Pasat with automatic transmission. I think that was the only automatic transmission car out of all the rental cars at the airport and I was the lucky one to drive it for the next day. I could probably handle a manual if needed, but was unsure how crazy the driving would be in Paraguay and didn’t want to worry about anything except where to drive.

I stepped inside, pulled open the sunroof, and started powering up both my GPS units. It was currently 3:15pm and google maps said I had a 3.5 hour drive to the start of the hiking. However, that didn’t account for any traffic, bad roads, or getting lost as I would soon find out.

The car GPS turned on fine, but for some reason couldn’t acquire any satellites. I waited around for 15 minutes with no luck. My hiking GPS worked fine and I had loaded satellite images of Asuncion on it, but none of the streets on there were labeled. I finally decided to navigate the old fashioned way and rely on my printed out map.

I headed out of the airport and soon realized that absolutely no roads are labeled in Paraguay. I thought Boston was bad, but I’ve now found a new first place city on the impossible-to-navigate-through list. I started following the first big road I found that looked like it went in the generally-correct direction, then after 10 minutes at a traffic light checked my hiking GPS. This road was taking me right into downtown Asuncion, where I definitely didn’t want to be! Turning around was nearly impossible, and it took me another 10 minutes to finally find a spot.

I headed back toward the airport, and turned right on the first big road I came to. I saw a sign for San Luis, which happened to be on my intended route, and started relaxing that I was finally on the correct road. After I passed through San Luis I looked at the GPS again, and I was somehow almost to the Argentina border south of Asuncion! Could the GPS be wrong? Or maybe the San Luis sign was wrong?

Paraguay3I started heading east on a different road back into Paraguay, but the road soon deteriorated to dirt. This had gone far enough. I tried playing around with the car GPS again and it finally acquired satellites, but could only highlight my route in a “walking mode” which didn’t help too much when I was driving. I probably could have figured it out, but was too anxious at this point to just get out of Asuncion that I accepted that level of performance of the GPS. I finally got on a road heading toward my intended destination and started making real progress. I figure I probably lost an hour driving around Asuncion, and by now it was getting dark.

I cruised down [unlabeled] highway 1 through Ita, Paraguari, and Villarica, then turned east just past Numi onto an unnamed road. I had marked waypoints on the GPS where to turn once the road started getting rough, and I pulled over in the little village of General-Eugenio-Alejandrino-Garay to assess my position. I had somehow chosen to stop exactly at the next turnoff, though it was hard to tell there was even a turnoff there. I started following an indescript dirt path (I wouldn’t even call it a road, more of a patch of grass worn down to dirt by a couple cars) on what was supposedly Camino al 3 Kandu. I had actually just marked the way-points based on a satellite image of what looked like a road, so there were no guarantees this would route would even work.

Camino al 3 Kandu Obstacle Uno
I continued on this path for a minute until the GPS indicated I should turn left. I pulled the car left, and saw the remnants of an old decrepit wooden bridge in front of me. Someone had stuck huge branches up in front of it indicating not to try to cross.

This didn’t look good. This was sort of a residential area with a few houses, so I figured there had to be another way around that bridge. I turned around and drove back down the path, then took a right turn following another road, and eventually ended up on the other side of the bridge. Piece of cake! Now I was back on my intended route. Somehow the path looked more traveled now and I’d actually call it a road. But it was super rough and I came close to bottoming out in a few places.

Camino al 3 Kandu Obstacle Dos

The big wooden gate

The big wooden gate

I kept following the dirt road, making turns every once in a while to follow my waypoints but then I ran into more trouble. There was a big wooden gate in front of the road, and it was closed. I stopped the car and looked at my GPS, but there was no apparent way around this one. I was on the outskirts of the village and this was the only road up to Cerro Tres Kandu.

I had learned, however, from my adventures over the years that gates over roads are almost never actually locked. The gate might indicate you’re not *allowed* to pass through, but it seldom actually *prevents* you from passing through. That was true in the US, at least. I was hoping that would be the case in Paraguay as well.

I stopped the car, jumped out, and pulled on the gate. It swung open with ease. I looked around to gleefully boast “Look! I told you so!” to someone, but luckily I was still alone. I drove the car through, closed the gate behind me, and continued up the road.

Camino al 3 Kandu Obstacle Tres

Before long I reached my third obstacle of Camino al 3 Kandu – the sketchy narrow impassable bridge. And then I saw that biker racing towards me from behind. He must have seen me sneak through that gate…

I stepped out of the car and tried to smile and be friendly.

“Buenos noches!” I tried.

The man stopped and got off his bike. He started talking in some language that definitely wasn’t Spanish, but somehow he didn’t seem mad. Then he stuck his hand out as if to shake hands. I couldn’t understand a word he said, but shook his hand and tried to see if he spoke Spanish.

“Hola, me llamo Eric. Y usted? Mucho Gusto.” [Hi, my name is Eric. What’s your name? Nice to meet you], I tried.

The rough road on top of the concrete bridge. The sides were unprotected 10ft drops

The rough road on top of the concrete bridge. The sides were unprotected 10ft drops

He obviously didn’t understand, but kept smiling and talking and pointing toward the bridge. He had to have some name, though, so I thought of him as Pedro.

I kept trying to speak in Spanish using hand gestures, and Pedro kept talking in his language and using hand gestures, and then he brought me over to the bridge. He was motioning like the bridge was good and trying to say my car could make it over. I shook my head and motioned that it was not wide enough, but Pedro whipped out a little flashlight and started showing me more of the bridge. I got the impression he might have been one of the people who constructed it and had a sense of pride that I could indeed make it over.

Pedro walked over to the other side and motioned for me to drive over. I was actually getting more confident with all his persuasion, and he could even be my spotter, so I got back in the car and slowly started inching my way over. He kept nodding and waving me forward and I soon cleared the last bump and was safe on the other side! Pedro greeted me with a huge smile and waved me on. I gave a thumbs up and continued driving up the road.

It was another 1.5 miles to the end of the road and some vegetation in the middle of the road started scrapping the underside of the car, but as long as rocks weren’t scrapping I figured the car would be fine. At 8:30pm I rounded the final corner, drove through one more gate (this one was already open), and reached the end of the road. Amazingly there was a trailhead sign and even an outhouse! The sign had a huge topo map with a trail drawn and the summit of Cerro Tres Kandu labeled. I didn’t even know there was a trail to the summit! There was basically zero information online about this mountain, so I had had no idea what to expect.

The trailhead

The trailhead

I parked the car and started scarfing down some food. It had taken me five hours to drive to the trailhead, and the trailhead sign claimed the round-trip hike to Tres Kandu was 3.5 hours. I started doing the math: I had an 11am flight tomorrow so needed to be back to Asuncion by 9am, which meant leave the trailhead by 4am. But at 3.5 hours of hiking I’d get done by between midnight and 1am. My conclusion: I’d just have to be faster than 3.5 hours for the hiking and then earn myself some sleep.

By 9pm I’d packed my bag and started heading up the trail. I wish Paraguay would have put as much effort into the access road as they’d put into this trail. It was very well-maintained, had check steps, wooden benches every kilometer, and even signs every few hundred meters noting how far I’d come, how much farther to the summit, and what my current elevation was. It was amazing! The one fault I can find, though, is that the trail had zero switchbacks. Apparently that technology hasn’t reached Paraguay yet.

Instead they tied metal cables between trees on the really steep sections, and I certainly used these cables for balance. By 10pm the trail started leveling out, and I reached a big sign proclaiming “Bienvenido al punto mass alto del Paraguay” [Welcome to the highest point in Paraguay]. That was the summit! I was still in the middle of the jungle so there wasn’t really any view, but I suppose there wouldn’t have been much of a view at night anyways. At least I could see the summit, unlike Uruguay the day before.

I took a bunch of pictures, including my very important juggling picture. I couldn’t find five rocks here like I normally do, but three sticks seemed good enough.

On the summit

On the summit

After 10 minutes of fooling around I turned back and started my descent. It was tricky descending the steep sections but I still managed to get back to the car by 11pm for a 2-hour round trip. I quickly hopped in the car and went sleep, knowing that I’d need every minute I could get for the drive in the morning.

My alarm jolted me awake at 4am and I quickly got behind the wheel and started moving. I was surprised to have never seen Pedro again, but figured he must have a hut somewhere back in the woods there that I didn’t notice. I carefully drove over the sketchy bridge again and luckily had no trouble.

The drive back to Asuncion was straightforward except for two minor little incidents. First, at 5:30am just before the sun rose I came upon a tractor driving on the shoulder on my side, and an oncoming car in my lane coming straight at me. Apparently he was either drunk, thought the tractor was actually in the opposing lane instead of the shoulder, or some combination of the two. I was alert though and swerved out safely behind the tractor before the car could get too close.

The second little incident happened just outside town of Ita, and I don’t think a certain chicken will ever be crossing any roads again anytime soon. The stupid bird was pecking away on the opposite shoulder, but got scared by an oncoming car and flew right in front of my car.

I made it back to the airport well-ahead of schedule (I didn’t get lost this time), and successfully got on my plane to my conference in Rio. The highest points in both Uruguay and Paraguay made for quite a fun weekend adventure.

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