Up The Paraguay River
( Originally Published Early 1900's )
A THIRTEEN-HUNDRED-MILE TRIP ON THE RIO DE LA PLATA SYSTEM INTO THE HEART OF SOUTH AMERICA-THE PARANA RIVER AND ITS TEN THOUSAND ISLANDS, WHICH ARE FLOATING DOWN TO THE SEA-STRANGE SIGHTS ON THE PARAGUAY RIVER-MONKEYS, PARROTS, JAGUARS, AND CROCODILES-LIFE ON THE RIVER STEAMERS-SINGULAR TABLE MANNERS.
I AM in Asuncion, Paraguay, in the heart of South America. The city is as far inland in a straight line from the Atlantic as Chicago, but I had to travel farther than from New York to Omaha to reach it. I started at Buenos Aires, on the Rio de la Plata, about 200 miles from the ocean, and travelled from there a distance of 1,115 miles on the Parana, and Paraguay rivers.
On the first day out we steamed past the mouth of the Uruguay river and entered the Parana,. About 800 miles farther north we came into the Paraguay river and sailed up it for more than 300 miles. The Paraguay is navigable by small steamers for 1,400 miles north of this point, and just opposite it is the mouth of the Pilcomayo, which rises in the Bolivian Andes and in a tortuous course flows for 1,500 miles through unexplored wilds before it empties into the Paraguay. The Parana itself is over 2,000 miles long; it rises in the mountains of Brazil and flows more than 1,200 miles before it swallows up the Paraguay.
The river system of the Plate, or of the Rio de la Plata, is one of the most wonderful in the world. The volume of the stream is greater than that of the Mississippi; it is surpassed only by the Amazon. It drains a basin more than half as large as the whole United States, and one which in fertility of soil and salubrity of climate is surpassed only by the basin of the Mississippi. The basin of the Plate is over 2,000 miles long; it is longer than the basin of the Mississippi, and it is a question whether it has not more cultivable territory. Upon it tens of millions of cattle and sheep are pastured, and its wheat-fields compete with ours in the markets of Europe. It has the most extensive plains on the globe and a vast expanse of fairly good land.
The basin of the Plate is a white man's country; the basin of the Amazon is malarious, being in the tropics. That of the Plate is largely in the temperate zone; its northern parts are like Louisiana or Florida, and in the, south the summer climate is as temperate as that of our Middle States. It is the Mississippi basin reversed, the source of its rivers being in the hot country, where there are coffee and sugar lands and rubber trees, and its mouth in the cooler lands of Uruguay and Argentina, noted for their fields of wheat and corn.
This vast basin is in the shape of a horseshoe, with the opening towards the Atlantic; the Andes and the strip of highlands that crosses Brazil form the back and upper rim of the shoe, while the slightly sloping plains of Patagonia bound it on the south. In it are included the best lands of Argentina, all of Uruguay and Paraguay, and large portions of Brazil and Bolivia. Most of it has been built up by the Rio de la Plata system, and to-day the same rivers are still at their great work of earth-building. You see this plainly in the Rio de la Plata proper, which is more a great bay of liquid mud than a river. It is 120 miles wide at the Atlantic and narrows down to 29 miles at Buenos Aires; the width at Montevideo is about 65 miles.
At the docks at Buenos Aires you get some idea of the river traffic of the South American continent. There are boats of all kinds lying there ; some have just come in loaded with oranges, wood, hides, and wool, and others are about starting out with passengers and freight for the interior. Some of the steamers are on their way up the Uruguay river; others are bound for the Paraguay and the branches of the Parana. Upon some o the ships you can go into the heart of Brazil, a distance of more than 2,500 miles, and quite large steamers will take you up to the town of Asuncion. There are two lines of steamers which have a weekly service between Buenos Aires and Asuncion. The ships draw about ten feet, for steamers of sixteen feet can go no farther than Rosario, owing to the sand-bars of the Parana,
We see it sometimes stated that the Parana system is such that the largest ocean steamers can ascend it far into the interior of South America. This is not so. My ship, the Saturno, which drew only ten feet, was stopped at night again and again, fearing contact with the sand-bars. There is no good chart of the Parana river and it is as changeable as the Mississippi. It is always building up and tearing down bars and islands within its channels. The waters carry so much mud that a snag will form a bar and a wreck will in time build up an island. One of the largest islands in the river near Rosario originated in a sub-merged hay barge, and farther up the stream there are hundreds of islands the soil of which has gathered about the water-logged trees which have floated down from the forests of Paraguay and Brazil.
Let us in imagination take a trip through the thousand is-lands of the Parana. You may have seen the thousand islands of the St. Lawrence, but they are nothing in comparison with the myriad islands of this wonderful river. There are, indeed, so many islands that they have never been counted. The river for hundreds of miles is a great inland sea, so wide in places that among the islands you cannot see its banks. Some of the islands are covered with willows, feathery reeds line their shores, and gnarly trees hang down low and mirror themselves in the water. Others farther up the river are forest grown. Few are cultivated, although it has been said that there is enough good soil upon them to raise food for all Europe; upon a few there are cattle and sheep.
Most of the islands are great fields of grass; some of which are not fixed, but floating; they glide by our steamer down the river almost as fast as we steam on our way up. The floating islands are called camelots; they are masses of grass, weeds, and flowers which the rushing floods have torn from' their foundations and are carrying down to the sea. Some are so firm that they will support a man, and upon them tigers, jaguars, and snakes are often carried to the islands about Buenos Aires.
Just after leaving Buenos Aires we passed through the delta of the Parana. This delta is about 20 miles wide, and it extends up the river as far as Rosario, a distance of 300 miles. It is peppered with islands, some of which are covered with forests of peach trees, and others with gardens kept by the Italians who supply the markets of Buenos Aires. Many of the houses are raised upon piles, to be out of the way of the floods and the tides, when they carry, as they sometimes do, great waves in from the ocean.
At the entrance of the Paranâ, we pass the island of Martin Gracia, the Gibraltar of the Rio de la Plata, which once belonged to Uruguay, but which is now the property of the Argentine Re-public. It has a naval school and a fort upon it, the batteries of which are worked by electricity. It is one of the historic points of the Rio de la Plata, and as we go past it we recall the fact that the tour we are about to make was first made by the white man who was the earliest to set foot on the soil of the continent of North America. Sebastian Cabot, in 1526, ploughed his way through this same labyrinth of islands, and after a long voyage on the Paranâ reached the Paraguay and ascended it to a point some distance beyond Asuncion.
If Sebastian Cabot could take a trip on the boats which now sail up the Paraguay, he would think them more wonderful than anything he saw in his travels. His voyage was made in a sailing boat; ours is in a comfortable steamer of 800 tons. It took him months to sail up the river, but we make the trip in six days. His lights were tallow dips, ours are incandescent globes, lit by electric dynamos. The Saturno was built in Glasgow and it is as comfortable as the average passenger steamer of the Great Lakes or the Mississippi. The cabins are good and the dining-room is like a parlour. The fare is not expensive, $6o paying for the round trip, or an average of about five gold dollars per day.
The meals are not bad, but the Yankee stomach finds it hard to accustom itself to the times at which they are served. The first breakfast given on vessels is nothing but three swallows of coffee and a crust of bread and butter. At 11 A. M. a real break-fast is served, and at 6 P. M. comes dinner. Sandwiched between luncheon and bedtime there is tea at 3 P. M. and at 9 P. M. The breakfast at 11 A. M. and the dinner are much the same. The breakfast begins with soup and ends with fruit, cheese, and coffee. As to the dinner, — well, here is a sample dinner bill of fare ;
Ox Tail Soup
The meals are very much alike, but we always had a variety as great as that of the above bill of fare. Two kinds of wine are served with breakfast and dinner without extra charge. Dinner is the chief event of the day, and the passengers prepare for it. The men put on their black clothes and most of the women wear evening dresses. The passengers are well dressed, but their manners are peculiar. Some of the men who wear kid gloves all day and put on black coats for dinner eat with their knives and tuck their napkins in at the collar as though they were babies and needed bibs. The toothpick is universally used between the courses. The men smoke cigarettes during the meals and with their coffee. I notice that one apparently elegant lady makes no scruple about expectorating on the floor between bites. One old Argentine papa, who has two pretty knife-eating daughters, drinks his soft-boiled eggs out of a glass. He also polishes his plate with his napkin at every course, but I don't blame him, as I do that myself; it is a necessity on the Parana. Most of our passengers are rich Argentines, on their way to Paraguay for the winter; they go there for the season, as we go to Florida, to get away from the cold. All speak Spanish, and, with the exception of ourselves, there are no English or Americans.
Shortly after leaving Rosario we entered the wheat region of the Parana basin. We passed big mills and grain elevators as well as towns which owe their existence to the wheat-fields. We passed between the provinces of Sante Fe on the left and Entre Rios and Corrientes on the right. Sante Fe wheat is known all over the world. The province is larger than New York, and its business is wheat-raising.
Entre Rios and Corrientes are bounded on the east by the Uruguay River, being embraced by the Uruguay and Parana'. This fact has given them the title of the "Argentine Mesopotamia." They are very rich, and their soil is of wonderful fertility. Each is of about the size of South Carolina. Entre Rios is growing very fast; it now has about 250,000 people, and upon its pastures 4,000,000 cows and about 5,000,000 sheep are feeding. This is an average of 20 sheep and 15 cows for every man, woman, and child in the province. At five to the family it would be 100 sheep and 75 cows per family. Suppose we had a State every family of which possessed 100 sheep and 75 cows; it would be the banner State of the Union. The stock, however, is not equally divided, and much of it is in the hands of large holders.
The Paranâ is one of the grandest rivers in the world. Its beauties increase as you travel up its waters, and the quiet picturesqueness of its surroundings grows upon you. The sunsets are gorgeous, painting the clouds in every colour and shade of rosy pink and gorgeous red, and often making a great golden canopy over the dark blue Paranâ. The morning sun strikes the dewdrops upon the fresh green fields and feathery grasses and gives you a shower of diamonds on an emerald field, while at night the heavens and earth are clad in the wondrous glories of the semi-tropics. You look among the stars for the Southern Cross and wonder at the tropical brilliancy of the Milky Way.
As you travel towards the equator the vegetation changes; the trees are larger, the grasses are more luxuriant, and the islands have great bunches of feathery green and ferny bamboos. The country grows wilder; now you see a white farmhouse cut out of the forest, and now stop at a little town of thatched huts and one-story brick buildings roofed with red tiles, with a church spire invariably rising above them. After three days' journey you come to Corrientes, and then leave the Paranâ for the river Paraguay.
The Paraguay is not so wide as the Paranâ. Between Corrientes and Asuncion, a distance of two or three hundred miles, the banks are not wider, I judge, than those of the Mississippi above St. Louis, but the waters are equally deep. The river seems perfectly navigable. You often go so close to the banks that you can see the birds of brilliant plumage which inhabit the woods. There are many crocodiles, and you now and then get a shot at one as it scuds through the water to swim out of the way of the boat. There is plenty of shooting; flocks of wild ducks rise from the bends of the river, and from the lagoons, at every few miles, curious birds fly about the steamer. Along the left bank of the river, in the Chaco, there is little else than virgin forests, and you are told that the woods are inhabited by jaguars, and that you could not travel a mile back from the coast without meeting tapirs, peccaries, monkeys, and wild hogs. The Paraguay side is also wild, save that, here and there, you pass little towns at some of which the ships stop to load and unload freight. You now get your first sight of the Paraguayan people, of whom you meet more and more as you sail onward, and finally come to anchor in the Bay of Asuncion, at the wharves of the capital of Paraguay.