On the single-file wooden walkway, almost an entire indigenous village crowded the front deck of the Aquidaban. The Tomárahos had taken the boat downriver to vote in Paraguay’s national elections, and then slept out for four days, waiting for Aquidaban to take them home.
Now, more than 200 of them are squatted on overturned buckets, piled into hammocks and stretched out on the floor. No one was sure how many life jackets were on board, but most were sure the Tomáraho outnumbered them.
« Ever since I was a child, there was always Aquidaban, » said Griselda Vera Velazquez, 33, an artisan in the village of Tomáraho, where there is no road. She regularly takes the boat to specialist doctors 400 miles away for her daughter with Down syndrome. « We are isolated, » she said. « We have no other way. »
Nearby, four cattle ranchers drank beer after beer, tossing empty bottles into the river, on their way to a month-long shift in the fields. A mother of six, on the run after divorce, balances on a railing, screaming in a video for her Facebook friends about her. Upstairs, a young Indigenous couple cradled their 17-day-old daughter on the long journey home from hospital.
For 44 years, the 130-foot white wooden vessel was the only regular ferry service to reach this deep Pantanal, a floodplain larger than Greece, traveling 500 miles up and down the Paraguay River Tuesday through Sunday , delivering everything from dirt bikes to babies. Its lower level is a floating supermarket, with 10 vendors selling produce, meat and sweets from the very benches they sleep on. The ship’s canteen is the only place many communities can find a cold beer.
But as vital as Aquidaban has been for locals, especially indigenous people, to travel more freely through their forest home, it is also a melting pot for the cultural hash that has long been a trademark of the Paraguay. This landlocked nation of seven million in South America has attracted a constant parade of for generations fanatics, idealists, utopians and outcasts from abroad. And for decades the boat was one of the few places where all these groups mixed.
On board are Mormon missionaries and Mennonite farmers, indigenous leaders and Japanese chefs. Mothers nurse babies in hammocks, farmers tie chickens to bridge rails and hunters sell headless capybaras.
But now the boat trips may come to an end.
Paraguay has blazed new roads across its remote north, part of a project to build a transcontinental corridor, from Brazil to Chile, to connect the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. Those roads and others have impacted Aquidaban’s merchandise sales, and the family behind the boat says business is sinking.
« There are so many broken parts and there’s no money to fix them, » said the ship’s co-owner, Alan Desvars, 35, standing on the front deck in a German thrash metal T-shirt. « This is maybe the last year. »
Acquidaban is noisy and dirty. Suspicious food. Grumpy crew. The hungry mosquitoes. And on the fourth day, the air is thick with the smells of endangered produce, livestock and laborers returning from months into the bush.
For the Desvars, a family of shipbuilders, it is their pride and joy.
The Desvars began selling wooden canoes along the river nearly a century ago. Eventually the younger generation realized that the distant riverside communities needed more than just canoes. They needed everything.
So they built a longshoe-shaped ship, made of wood from the pink Lapacho tree and powered by an old Mercedes truck engine, and named it Aquidaban after a nearby tributary.
It was an instant hit. After her launch in 1979, the crew sometimes had to kick people into ports to keep her from sinking.
Since then, Aquidaban and her crew of about 10 and 10 vendors have traveled the river 51 weeks a year, some for more than 25 years.
« It’s like family, » Desvars said. “There are those you get along with better. And the ones you sometimes want to kill.
A tour lasts a few minutes. The cavernous storage pit is filled with crates of milk, oil tanks, and televisions. Oddly shaped objects – mopeds, a mirrored wardrobe, a goat – go onto the deck. Inside, vendors sell bananas, frozen chickens, and air fresheners.
The four toilets drain directly into the river, while the adjacent showers pump the river water.
Upstairs, eight cabins with bunk beds offer privacy for those who can pay. Boat fare is $19 for the entire river trip; a cabin is an extra $14. Most passengers sleep in hammocks, benches, or on the floor.
Otherwise, they pack the water bottle. The cook, Humberto Panza, mainly prepares two dishes: rice with chewy beef bits or pasta with chewy beef bits. The wide range of fresh produce downstairs is not on his menu. « I only cook meat, » he said.
The canteen is also probably the trendiest bar in the Pantanal.
When the Aquidaban stopped in a village on a Friday evening, a crowd of young indigenous people forced their way. They spilled out of the cafeteria into the hallway, drinking 69-cent cans of Brazilian beer and smoking cigarettes under « No Smoking » signs. In a village with no electricity, it was the town’s bar, they said, for a 45-minute stop every Friday night.
The Tomárahos were followed.
Nathan and Zach Seastrand were on their way to the group’s village to film what they called the Tomárahos’ « rain dance. »
“He looks like he’s straight out of Indiana Jones,” Nathan Seastrand said, as he and his brother cleaned Mr. Panza’s stew bowls.
The Seastrands arrived in Latin America from Utah years earlier as Mormon missionaries. Hence, they were clean-shaven and wore ties and name tags that read « Elder Seastrand. »
Now they were bearded, long-haired, often shirtless social media influencers who had attracted hundreds of thousands of followers like two Spanish-speaking “gringos” drinking beer and venturing out into the jungle.
« Man, how many people are talented, » said Nathan Seastrand. « But they don’t have the balls or the recklessness or the stupidity. »
As missionaries, they have baptized more than 30 people in the Mormon Church. Then they came across an online analysis that presented inconsistencies in Mormon teachings. « It was like an anvil on my head, » Nathan Seastrand said.
They left the Church and started posting online. Think shirtless photos holding anaconda. Now they were making a documentary about indigenous groups that they intended to present at the Sundance Film Festival. The Tomárahos were one of their last missing pieces.
Chief Tomáraho who drinks beer on the bridge, Nestor Rodríguez, said they were the fourth group of foreigners to bring the Aquidaban to the village in the past two years. « They are doing a positive project to support the community, » he said.
The Seastrands said they received the message that they would have to pay for access.
Under the full moon, the Aquidaban stopped at the village. For 20 minutes, the Tomárahos yelled at each other as they searched for their belongings in the dark.
On the brink of chaos were the Seastrands. « We don’t know where we’re going, » Nathan Seastrand said.
In addition to carrying flour, live pigs and tractor parts, the Aquidaban was also used to spread the gospel.
For decades, missionaries have relied on the boat to reach hard-to-reach indigenous communities along the river.
Its northernmost stop, Bahía Negra, is home to perhaps the most remote church of the Mormon faith. When the Aquidaban came to a halt one recent morning, citizens crowded the riverbank, awaiting the weekly arrival of their floating grocery store. Among them were two young men in ties, the present Mormon missionaries, placed there, they said, by divine intervention.
“One of the Apostles looks at our faces, sees our records, reads some information about us, and looks at a map,” said AJ Carlson, 18, of Fort Worth, Tex. “Then they receive a revelation.”
Along the way, a group of Chamacoco indigenous women were weaving baskets in the courtyard of their bungalow. “Before them there was no church. Shamans only,” said Elizabeth Vera, 64, of the Mormons. « Then came the Americans. »
He motioned to Mr. Carlson: « He is a messenger of Christ. »
Back in Aquidaban, Emilia Santos was traveling from her indigenous village to another church. She was the head cook at a jungle outpost of the Unification Church, the religious movement founded by the Rev. Sun Myung Moon, a Korean man who claimed to be a new Christian messiah, attracting millions of followers – and allegations of brainwashing and bankruptcy very of his flock.
The settlement, in Puerto Leda, was mostly Japanese missionaries, so Mrs. Santos had learned to make curries and sushi. She was about to start another two-week shift, she said, « again through Aquidaban. »
The settlers grow taro roots and 20 fish ponds. They also converted some indigenous neighbors.
Jamby Balbuena, an indigenous worker who helps raise fish, was in the Aquidaban cafeteria drinking beer, on his way to a shift at the settlement, where alcohol is prohibited. He said he converted two years ago: « I like their religion, following God, everything else. »
The police and the prisoner
Derlis Martínez looked nervous. The 25-year-old federal police officer in camouflage pads and combat boots was carrying his first prisoner, on the crowded boat.
In his undershirt and handcuffs, Agustín Coronel, 37, looked relaxed. « He IS my bodyguard, » he said with a smile.
The two were traveling together from Bahía Negra, where Mr. Coronel had been arrested after beating his wife. “I was to blame,” he offered, unsolicited. Mr. Martínez had to take him to a downstream court hearing, a journey of nearly two days.
“I can’t sleep,” said Mr. Martínez. “I have to protect him. »
Mr. Coronel said he would also stay awake to keep his traveling companion company.
So the two men talked of Mr. Coronel’s violence and remorse, of hobbies, of life. They passed back and forth a dried ox horn filled with tereré, a cold companion popular in Paraguay, which he sipped from the same silver straw. And side by side they ate in the cafeteria, Señor Martínez using his money to pay for Señor Coronel’s supper.
At 2 a.m., after 20 hours together, Mr. Martínez was on a bench downstairs, his eyes bleary on Mr. Coronel, stretched out on the floor, his hands cuffed above his head. They had formed a bond, the prisoner said.
Mr. Martínez hesitated. “It’s my job,” he replied.
In the morning they were back in the cafeteria, admitting that they had dozed off next to each other outside the engine room. How were they now? « Spectacular, » replied Mr. Coronel.
In the long hours and tight borders of Aquidaban, Mr. Martinez confessed, « we started a friendship. »
Lorenzo Blair contributed to reporting aboard the Acquidaban.