The village where life begins again

paraguay indigenous native tribes survival international near concepcion

The village where life begins again

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This is the website of travel writer, Michael Turtle. After working in broadcast journalism for a decade in Australia, Michael left Sydney to travel the world indefinitely and write about his discoveries.

The uncontacted tribe

In Paraguay, the long struggle for the indigenous people to get back their land continues. In Part 1 of this tale, we visited small communities waiting for a resolution on their land claims. Often camped by the side of a highway, they hope desperately for good news. There is reason for hope, though. In this story, we travel deep into the heart of the country to try to find a tribe that has moved back to traditional land and is beginning to rediscover the lost indigenous culture.

Right from the start, this promised to be a true adventure. We were planning to head into the middle of the wilderness, far from civilisation and far from any help if we ran into trouble. Our destination was a small village in the depths of the vast Paraguayan forests – a place too small and new for mapmakers to bother themselves recording. We had a plan but it was by no means full proof. How could you ever be certain of a plan that involves a small rented boat, donkeys, minimal camping equipment, limited food and help from locals who potentially speak only their local dialects?

I had joined this expedition after meeting well-known British explorer Robin Hanbury-Tenison. This is a man who has been adventuring deep into parts of South America since the 1950s, well before tourists cut a trail and back in a time when there truly were still places to discover. Now aged in his seventies, his passion for indigenous tribes has not waned through his work as President of Survival International and he had invited me to join his wife Luella and son Merlin on this trip.

paraguay indigenous native tribes survival international near concepcion

Our first leg began from the town of Concepcion, where we were to get on a boat. It was a small metal craft, about the size you would use for a day of fishing on a lake. Our captain, known through our whole journey only as ‘El Capitano’, had one eye missing and, from accounts, was an alcoholic. Still, with one hand on the engine and one eye on the water, he drove straight.

paraguay indigenous native tribes survival international near concepcion

paraguay indigenous native tribes survival international near concepcion

We headed up the Paraguay River, a wide flowing highway used by fisherman, cargo boats, and (presumably) drug runners from Bolivia. It had a small but regular amount of traffic.

After two and a half hours on the water, the unrelenting sun beating down on us and the splash from the river at times drenching us with a welcome coolness, we arrived at our first stop – a small village about 25 kilometres north of Concepcion. It is a small indigenous settlement by the river, with animals roaming the fields, young residents playing volleyball and children staring at us suspiciously. Although it seemed like an idyllic and convenient location, it is only temporary and many of the people in the community are planning to move into the forests to their traditional land.

paraguay indigenous native tribes survival international near concepcion

paraguay indigenous native tribes survival international near concepcion

The search for the tribe continues

This was where we were supposed to meet the donkeys which we were going to ride for five hours through the bush to the community, camp there for the night, then ride back in the morning. But things don’t always go as you might hope. We had made phone contact with the village leader to ask him to have some donkeys prepared and he’d assured us it was no problem. When we arrived we discovered that nothing was ready. Selso, the leader, said he would go and get the animals and we waited, while members of the community asked us why we wanted to go so far into the forest and warned us of the mosquitos and water traps we might find along the way. An hour of waiting turned into two, which turned into three. Slowly donkeys were saddled but there seemed no urgency in the process. By the time everything was ready it was starting to get late and we were unsure if we would make it to the village by nightfall.

paraguay indigenous native tribes survival international near concepcion

Together we discussed our options, unwilling to give up on the plan but also quietly acknowledging the truth – it wasn’t going to happen. Our guide told us there was nowhere to camp along the way; another suggested that the donkey ride would be closer to nine hours than five; and another said the animals would be too tired to return the next day anyway and we would had to stay for two nights. Everything was leading towards the inevitable and we realised there was no choice but to abandon the plan. Robin and his family may be experienced adventurers but with experience also comes the knowledge of when to cut your losses.

That was when Selso mentioned that there was another village that was in the process of setting itself up on native land in the style of their indigenous ancestors. And it was close enough that we could ride the donkeys there, meet the residents and ride back just in time before the sun set. It was perfect.

paraguay indigenous native tribes survival international near concepcion

paraguay indigenous native tribes survival international near concepcion

So we set off, our trusty steeds burdened with us but not our gear, which we had left with our boat. We left the river at our backs and entered the forests, my donkey needing slightly more encouragement than the others, unfortunately.

It took us about an hour and a half, through dense shrubbery that tore at our legs, past trees that towered around and decided our path for us, and amongst a collection of animals which gave away their existence by their sounds, the bites on my legs and the occasional flap of wings overhead. But we got there. We arrived at the village where life begins again.

paraguay indigenous native tribes survival international near concepcion

Finding the lost Paraguayan tribe

An old man greets us. We shake hands… he with his left as his right was missing. The community he welcomes us into was tiny, just a couple of buildings in various states of permanence. Only twelve people live here at the moment but more are expected over time. They are able to bring very little in from the outside world so they get what they need from around them. A bucket has a large pile of honeycomb collected from the local bee collection and two small baby peccaries are tied up to wait until they are bigger and more edible. Above them hangs the carcass of their mother who was big and edible enough.

paraguay indigenous native tribes survival international near concepcion

paraguay indigenous native tribes survival international near concepcion

We meet a younger man who is holding a large knife. On the ground is a deer that he is skinning and preparing as food. He carves and cuts like an expert and with a relish that is as much from the act itself as from what it will achieve. This is an act from his past, a connection with nature that was once a daily routine for his people. And as this young man stands over the animal he has caught and readies it for his family’s meal, he knows he has returned to his land.

paraguay indigenous native tribes survival international near concepcion

What we found out there in that small community deep in the forest was a sense of hope for the indigenous tribes of Paraguay. The day before we met people on borrowed hectares who wanted their own traditional land but didn’t know exactly what would happen if they got it. But we now knew there was potential and we saw what could happen for those who truly wanted to get closer to their original cultures.

It’s still not perfect. After meeting the community members we rode the donkeys back to the village on the river and camped there for the night. In the morning the man who had been carving the deer turned up drunk. He wanted a lift in our boat across the river to the bottle shop.

paraguay indigenous native tribes survival international near concepcion

All the elements fit together, though, in the sense that nothing exists in isolation and things don’t always go according to plan. We didn’t make it to the community we intended to reach but we found one just as good that serves as an inspiration to the indigenous rights campaign. And maybe that community isn’t turning out exactly as intended but it will become what the people want it to be, not what is forced on them.

** If you haven’t already, check out Part 1 of this story to see how the indigenous tribes without their own land are living.

You might also like to check out my free Paraguay Travel Guide

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  • James Cook - | Feb 2, 2012 at 1:25 am

    Sounds like an interesting trip. The boat captain with one eye looks like he has a few stories to tell!
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    • Turtle | Feb 2, 2012 at 2:51 am

      Ha ha – aside from the language barrier, I think he may have been too drunk to tell them. He went through quite a few beers while we were camping one night!

  • lunaticg | Feb 2, 2012 at 3:27 am

    How do you communicate with them? sign language or you hire someone to be your interpreter?
    They don’t have any law to stop people from hunting all those animals?
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    • Turtle | Feb 2, 2012 at 6:27 am

      The villager who rented us his donkeys spoke Spanish and the local language so he cam with us and translated from the indigenous dialect to Spanish, which we could pretty much understand. There was a bit of sign language, as you might expect :)
      And yes, they can hunt all the animals they want. It’s their land now and the whole idea is to be able to practise the native lifestyle which revolves around hunting animals for food.

  • Audra36 | Feb 7, 2012 at 2:17 am

    I really wanted to travel in that kind of place, Which full of adventure and experience. Look forward to see in to it.
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  • Merlin H-T | Feb 17, 2012 at 8:22 pm

    Great blog entry that does the people justice. It was a pleasure to meet you Mike and I hope that, if you swing by London at any point, we have a chance to catch up.


    • Turtle | Feb 20, 2012 at 3:03 am

      Thanks mate! It was a great experience thanks to the kindness of you and your family.
      Look forward to catching up in London sometime!

  • Cole @ Four Jandals | Feb 18, 2012 at 8:51 am

    How good did the fresh honey combs taste? Looked so delicious!
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    • Turtle | Feb 20, 2012 at 3:06 am

      The honeycomb was SO GOOD! I loved having this little bit of wax left in my mouth that you could chew on for a while. Natural gum!! :)

  • Ynna | Feb 25, 2012 at 6:43 pm

    This is a very interesting place to visit. And i really like to travel in that kind of place and experience the life of the indigenous people. Thanks for sharing your adventure.
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    • Turtle | Feb 26, 2012 at 12:36 pm

      Thanks Ynna. You’re right, it’s a great experience to see that side of life.

  • Molly | Mar 7, 2012 at 9:09 am

    Wow! This is really incredible!

    It’s amazing how much still exists in the world, including people who completely live outside society. The differences are funny too! No one is obese haha!
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    • Turtle | Mar 7, 2012 at 10:33 pm

      Yeah, it’s certainly not the kind of thing you see everyday. It was certainly a very different lifestyle to the ones we’re used to seeing. But they probably don’t have a sense of how we live either.

  • Ken Howes | Mar 19, 2012 at 5:28 am

    Thank you for this article! It is really wonderful to read something like this, something we have not seen and discussed to death. I sincerely hope these Indians can make a go of it and that businesses will leave them alone unless they’re prepared to respect the environment in which these people live and work in a way that leaves it usable in its traditional manner.

    • Turtle | Mar 22, 2012 at 1:34 am

      Thanks, Ken. It’s definitely not a topic that’s talked about a lot – and that’s probably not helping their cause. It’s a complicated issue with no clear ‘right’ or ‘wrong’, but hopefully the natives do get a chance to build up their communities the way they want them.

  • Jaine | Apr 3, 2012 at 12:37 pm

    Love to see the that the old culture still exist. Hope I can visit Paraguay, and experience the simple life without technology.

    • Turtle | Apr 4, 2012 at 4:41 am

      It’s a great contrast to see this kind of life after the way technology has taken over so much of the world.

  • Mary @ Green Global Travel | Apr 19, 2012 at 12:05 pm

    Great story. I read it the whole way through. I love how you tell boths sides; one of hope and the other of reality with the guy wanting a lift to the bottle shop.
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    • Turtle | Apr 22, 2012 at 10:04 am

      Thanks, Mary. The thing is, most stories have two sides. These things are never clear cut but I believe you have to accept that and not let it stop you trying to achieve the best for people.

  • ukash nedir | Jul 23, 2013 at 12:51 am

    hi Great blog entry that does the people justice. It was a pleasure to meet you Mike and I hope that, thank u

  • 50 euro ukash | Jul 23, 2014 at 9:15 pm

    How good did the fresh honey combs taste? Looked so delicious!
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