Escaping to Paraguay
The year was 1989 and as The Berlin Wall was torn down from around him, Peter Gärtner saw an opportunity. He was a biologist – for work and for love. Within East Berlin, though, the concrete jungle offered little connection with nature. It was not a city where his passion could flourish, his life and dreams confined in a rigid structure of the industrial rather than the natural. As a young student he would spend his weekends in the local forest, exploring and discovering, but it was never enough to satisfy – just enough to keep him going.
Then one day the barriers were demolished. The Berlin Wall came down and Peter realised he could escape East Germany. Two days later, he left, having decided to go to the furthest place geographically and culturally he could think of… South America.
“I asked my German-Brazilian friends and my German-Colombian friends where I should go”, he tells me. “They said if I went to Brazil I would be robbed as soon as I left the airport and if I went to Colombia I would be murdered as soon as I left the airport. So they put their heads together to think about it and came up with Paraguay.”
Ecotourism in Paraguay
Twenty years later, I’m sitting with Peter in the ecotourism paradise he has built for himself in Paraguay. It didn’t come easily, it didn’t come immediately, but he did realise his dream and it’s a world away from the life he once had. On his small farm, near the Paraguay River about 20 kilometres from the town of Concepcion, he has built his own personal zoo.
Peter, cigar in mouth as it always is, walks into a cage near the kitchen and grabs the anaconda submerged in a pond. He brings it out to show his guests. The snake writhes in his hands and prepares to strike. Peter is forced to drop it on the ground as the bite becomes imminent. “I could have controlled it but I didn’t want to put pressure on its head”, he explains. “It came here almost dead – with a broken neck and no eyes – and I need to treat it carefully.”
That’s how many of the animals end up at his farm, Granja El Roble. Locals bring him injured animals or he rescues them himself. There are several snakes, an enclosure full of tortoises, aquariums of fish, a large rat-like creature I’ve never seen before and the star attraction – a howler monkey Peter confiscated from a local man who was abusing it. It seems to have an aversion to the blender and when it hears it in the kitchen it starts its call, the volume increasing until the whole farm knows something is being blended.
For the past ten years Peter and his wife have been working on the tourism side of the business. Passing ecotourism travellers like myself are welcome to stay, school tours come through and research scientists can base themselves here. During my stay, a small group of German biologists arrived for a two month study tour and within 24 hours had discovered a type of frog in Peter’s pond that had never been recorded in Paraguay before.
The core business of the farm continues as well with 15 cows and 10 pigs at the moment. Farming is not easy in Paraguay with little assistance from the government, Peter tells me. He enjoys life on the land, though. One morning I go with Peter on his milk run as he drives into town to deliver it to the local icecream factory and dairy. This might be the kind of job that one day falls to his children – he has three, with the eldest 11 years old.
They will look back on their youth and remember the nights spent catching frogs, the days spent looking after the tortoises, and (unfortunately) the occasional bite from a snake. Peter, though, has created the world he once imagined but never believed possible within the communist restrictions he knew as a child. The wall came down and in its place he created his sanctuary.
|The nitty gritty travel details
To visit Peter and Granja El Roble you need to get to the town of Concepcion, which is about 7 hours by bus from Ascunsion. Granja El Roble is 20 kilometres from the bus terminal but you can get a taxi, local bus or arrange for Peter to pick you up. Accommodation and three meals is about US$25 a day. For more information, check out this link.
Are you interested in finding out more about Paraguay? Then you can check out my Paraguay Travel Guide!
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