SOUTH AMERICA ADVENTURE PART 3
Tafi del Valle, AR to Buenos Aires, AR
March 23 to April 24, 2001
34,830 miles (56,178 km) cumulative
"Adventure can be an end in itself. Self-discovery is the secret ingredient that fuels daring."
Day 51 - 130.85 km to La Madrid
Our Lonely Planet book tells us that it's usually cool in Tafi del Valle because there's typically a cloud cover. They said nothing about constant drizzle. We spent the entire night in what seemed like a thick fog bank. Drops of water floated through the air laying a thick layer of water on the grass, tent, bikes, everything. We actually had to don rain gear and cold weather jackets for the first time. So despite wondering for 2 months why we were carrying all this gear, we were once again reminded.
If we've ever taken a more spectacular downhill ride I'd have a hard time remembering just where. Tafi del Valle is located at around 2000 m. elevation where as the little town of Monteros is at around 400 m. The total distance in which you drop that 1800 m is just 60 km. A narrow ribbon of road snakes, twists, and turns its way down the mountainside as you descend from a somewhat arid high mountain terrain into wet tropical jungle. It's an amazing transformation that I can think of few other places as having.
It just so happened that days before we headed down this hill there was a series of torrential downpours that caused major damage to the road. Now this is not a particularly modern road. In fact, it was designed and engineered by the same Philadelphia engineer who lead the Tren de las Nubes project, Maury. The road has been widened and paved over the years. However, there's still a serious need for major culverts, bridges, and other water control projects. In many places water is simply allowed to run across the road, which causes major problems over time. In other places there are needs for containment walls or rockslide shelters. But, none of these exist now and as a result the recent rains produced 4 major and several minor landslides that blocked the road trapping 30 cars. The road was reopened when we passed, although we did have to ford some of the remnants of the mudslides. It was a sticky, gooey clay mud that leaves a mess on everything and is real slippery to ride through. All around tractors worked feverishly trying to get the rest of the blockage cleared. It was all a big mess. Thank goodness for mountain bikes as a road bike would have been a nightmare.
The spectacular switchbacks finally end within only about 20 km distance to the town of Monteros. Now we could see straight ahead onto the flat, flat, flat pampas. We'd be spending several days traversing this flat land as we quickly made our way south toward Cordoba. It would be a long, tough ride that we were not entirely looking forward to. On the other hand, it would be an opportunity to see another side of Argentine, a side the tourists rarely see, the countryside and farmlands. It'd be sort of like seeing the Midwest of the U.S. where the heart of American people live.
Sixty km and just a few hours after leaving the chilly highlands of Tafi we found ourselves back in the warm tropics and the little town of Monteros. It's certainly not one of your wealthier towns and really didn't have anything of interest to us other than a comedor with great food. One large salad, huge plate of fries, lots of bread, and a milenesa covered in ham and a fried egg and I wasn't so sure I could ride any further. A siesta would have been more suitable. Yet we did manage to get on the bikes and roll onward, stuffed tummies and all.
Coming down the mountains we'd hardly turned a pedal. Now we were on flat lands with what seemed to be a tailwind. Consequently when we passed the nice grassy spot by the gas station in Simoca we didn't quite feel like stopping for the day even though we'd already ridden 80 km. We felt the same a mere 10 km later when we passed an attractive creek side park and one of the most manicured looking soccer fields we'd ever seen. "We're going to regret this." we both thought as we headed onward.
Regret that decision we did. Forty km later it was getting dark and we had to find a place to stop. Pulling off the road at any location simply was not an option as the both sides of the road were filled with dense jungle and swamp. So we waited until the next town, La Madrid. La Madrid has to be one of the poorest towns we'd seen in all Argentina. Streets were just deep, mud tracks made all the messier from the same severe rainstorms that had ruined the road down from Tafi. Horse drawn carts seemed to outnumber cars and houses were just little block style shacks much like we've seen in poorer neighborhoods of Mexico. We stopped to ask someone if there was a place to camp anywhere. Despite being a poor town, it's inhabitants were also some of the nicest. "Sure," the man said, "camp anywhere you like. No one will bother you here. There's no danger." We looked past him at the streets of mud and wondered if there was any place at all that wasn't soggy. "Or," he continued, "you can continue to the service station down the road 2 km more, just after the bridge." "Ah," we're saved, "we thought. Service stations always make good places to camp."
Not so this time. It was a service station all right, a YPF in fact. The building was nice, the interior store and cafe nice and clean. But, its surroundings were covered in either mud or trash. Unkempt, filthy, even oil al over. It was not overly attractive. I went inside to see what alternatives there might. I was greeted by a fat lady with ugly short cropped hair and a dirty house dress complete with big hole in the front. Yet she couldn't have been nicer. "You can camp anywhere you like." she said and proceeded to go outside and point out a few of the less intimidating spots. She also showed us the shower, just a hose sticking out of the wall in one of the toilet stalls, and the hot water dispenser for the always present mate thermos jugs. We took a deep breath and braced ourselves for the inevitable. If we went on we had no idea of what other, if any, camping sites we'd find. So gritting our teeth we set up in the one and only spot that looked reasonably dry and free of garbage.
It wasn't so bad. We spent most of the evening inside sitting at one of the tables. Brian ate a hamburger and chips. I couldn't eat more than an ice cream still being full that huge lunch. We chatted with Carolina, not the fat lady but a younger lady with long red hair. Her dream, we learned, was to spend her honeymoon traveling to Vancouver, B.C. Yup, she's seen all the brochures from Europe and other places yet her ideal destination is Vancouver. Having a friend who lives there might also be an influence. She also isn't so much a beef eater. Waving her open hand, palm down, above her eyebrows, she tells us she's had it with beef, "up to here." We are learning that even though Argentines do eat a lot of beef, they do like other things in their diets as well. We called it a night fairly early and, despite the nearby highway and undesirable location, did manage to get in a good night sleep.
Day 52, 53, 54 - 110.08 km to Frias, 77.24 km to Recreo, 120.49 km to Quilino
The next few days we rode hard, hard, hard. We could have dawdled and gotten to the Sierras near Cordoba much later. On the other hand, there just wasn't anyplace along the way where we wanted to stop for more than just an hour for lunch or to get some sleep at night. The landscape was flat and horribly boring. It did change, ever so gradually, from sugar cane fields and tropical jungle to rolling ranch land to flat low lying salt flats and finally to the scrub covered foothills of the Sierras. Yet for over 300 km these subtle changes were certainly not enough to relieve the overall boredom. Also, riding much more than 50 to 70 km every day on a mountain bike is physically taxing, especially on the ole rear end. After about the third day we were having a hard time even sitting on the saddle, much less pedaling. Yet we continued on, anxiously looking forward to that first glimpse of the Sierras de Cordoba mountains.
Now that's not to say there weren't a few interesting things to see along the way. The snake, for example. It had to be the biggest snake I've ever seen that wasn't nice and safely enclosed behind thick glass in a zoo. It had to be 5 ft long and as big around as Brian's upper arm. It's head was tiny, the size of a walnut. So much body for so little head. It didn't slither back and forth like a rattlesnake. Rather muscles on its under body contracted and extended to slowly propel it forward. It barely reached the other side of the road before a huge truck came storming down the highway. Would I have helped it along had it not been fast enough? Not a chance. Brian looks at it and says, "Sure you want to camp out in the fields here?" Maybe not.
There are also various shrines and little crudely made chapels all along the road. We're not entirely sure of their purpose. I suppose people feel the compulsion to pull over to pray at odd times and these little chapels give them a good excuse. Some are nice concrete structures. Others are little more than a small cover built of bricks with a statue of some saint or the Virgin Mary inside. Various offerings usually surround the statue. One of the more unusual ones was surrounded by plastic bottles filled with water, which would seem to me to be more an offering to a god some ancient cult. A gift of water to the water god in hopes it will bring rain.
The town of Frias provided some odd and undesirable evening and nighttime entertainment. Here we met some of the more colorful people of the village. One nice 10 year old boy, named Fredrico, had a lot of interesting questions about the bikes, our travels, the U.S. and other things. He also gave us a fair amount of information about the road ahead, which proved to be remarkably accurate considering he was not old enough to drive. Heck, he even knew about all the mosquitoes we encountered in the Salinas Grandes. His friend, a similarly aged boy with ragged, dirty clothes, carried around an empty pail and a cloth. We learned that he uses them to wash truck windows at the YPF truck stop next door. Although from what we saw he seemed to spend more time yacking and fooling around than actually washing windows. He was the one kid in this town who got around to asking for money, twice. As a rule we never give money to kids as it only teaches them that begging works. There was the fellow who sells plastic buckets. What a jerk. His questions were stupid, his response to answers equally idiotic. Most of his teeth were missing and we had to wonder if he'd lost them in a fight. Finally there was the bread sales lady. When Brian told her he didn't speak Spanish her response was just to ask the same question only louder, as if by speaking louder he could miraculously understand. We've seen obnoxious Americans do this, but this was the first time a peasant.
After having been assured that the little park next to the YPF station in Frias would be safe and quiet, or tranquilo as they say, we pitched our tent, ate dinner, and went to bed. Only that night we were to discover that that disgustingly flat road running through the center of town becomes a drag racing course on Saturday nights. Dumb looking little cars that originally had engines with no more pep than a VW bug or baby Fiat had been sooped up with extra large and extra loud engines. All night long they roared up and down the highway even through the center of town. We were amazed that the town council would permit what seemed to us to be such a dangerous sport. However, it turns out not only do they permit it, they sponsor it. There were three team cars painted in the same red, green, and blue scheme with numbers on the side and Municipal del Frias on the back. This wasn't just a pack on teenagers, it was some official race team. They went on until the wee hours of the morning, stopped for a few hours, and once again started up before dawn. We gave up trying to sleep, it just wasn't working.
Sunday night found us in the little town of Recreo, population only about 13,000. We had noticed that the further south we went the richer the towns seemed to grow and Recreo was no exception. On its north side is some sort of manufacturing plant which I'm sure employees a large number of the town's inhabitants. Once again it was an incredibly friendly town. We'd decided to stay in a hotel for the night in order to get some quiet sleep and to get some clothes washed. This took us right through the center of town in search of one. People seemed anxious to talk to us. One man offered us the use of his cell phone, we're not entirely sure who we would have called, and another absolutely insisted on giving us some coke to drink. We looped back around and finally managed to get to the hotel despite everyone's best efforts to get us to stop and shoot the breeze for a while. Sometimes friendliness can be more of a hindrance than help.
Later that evening, around 6 PM we went in search of dinner. If we thought finding dinner in a tourist town on weekdays was hard, a Sunday in a little country village was almost impossible. Grocery stores close at 2 PM and stay shut. Restaurants don't open until that magic hour of 8 PM. The only thing we found open was one bar on the plaza and the only thing they were serving was sandwiches. A large group of men had gathered in the bar to do what a lot of men world wide do on Sunday evenings, drink and watch sports. The drinks in this case were sodas and the sport was soccer, non-American style football. Outside the bar the plaza was alive with people walking, gossiping, sitting in the benches, seeing and being seen. It looked more like a typical Sunday in a Mexican town than anything we've seen in Argentina.
Another extra long day took us across the desolate looking salt flats where another gendarmie at one of those numerous police check points decided he was just too bored to let us simply ride by. He just had to ask the usual questions. I did make a joke about the boring, flatness of the road, which got him laughing and he let us go on. Quilino was our stop for the night where we discovered perhaps the nicest truck stop so far. The YPF just south of town not only has designated campsites for cars, and bikers if you wish, but also has some of the cleanest showers and bathrooms we've seen. Absolutely spotless with paper towels, soap, and even toilet paper. Wow! We were impressed. We'd even noticed that just before entering town the sides of the road were actually mowed, unheard of further north. In fact, the man who mows the roads lived in a trailer that was camped in back of the YPF as well. Mowed roads continued from there until we turned off the route, which is another indication of the increasing wealth.
The only problem with this Quilino spot was once again the supposed window washing boys, boys who seemed to spend more time getting into trouble. As soon as we made preparations for dinner they came over and sat right at our table. Brian, not being able to speak enough Spanish simply told them he didn't speak Spanish. They plopped themselves down in front of him at the same table and just stared. I finally came along and told them that we wanted privacy for our dinner. Without a word they got up and left. Although later they came over to our tent as I hunted down some cookies and they demanded money, which I refused, then our apples and finally our cookies. Realizing that we were not going to give in, they finally took off taking their pranks and antics with them.
Day 55 - 68.49 km to Museo Fader near Ischilin
The mountains were finally within sight. We'd be1 well within them before the day was out and the long, hard ride across the flatlands done. If we'd had had more time we would definitely had stayed in the west and have ridden through La Rioja. Our quest was nearing completion and soon we'd be able to rest in the quiet serenity of mountain villages. But, not before Brian got to have some more fun with local villagers.
The last main town we'd pass through on that long Rt. 157/60 was called Dean Funes. It seemed a quite sizable town, probably over 20,000 people, and even had 3 gas stations and a large supermarket. We spotted the market on our way through town, just 2 blocks off the main street, and we pulled in to load up. I went inside to see what I could gather while Brian held down the fort. When I got back he was still standing where I left him, all alone. That wasn't to say he'd been alone the entire time. He'd been out there no more than a few minutes when a fellow in one of the nearby houses spotted him and came over to ask questions which Brian couldn't answer. Soon he was yelling up and down the street, "Come see the bicycles." and the entire neighborhood turned out. I can see it now, all these people milling about, pointing, wishing they could ask questions while Brian wished he could answer. And I missed it all. Later a nice lady came over and asked us to lunch. We knew if we accepted we'd be there all afternoon and we really wanted to get into the mountains before nightfall. As politely as possible we refused and went on. Soon we'll be back in tourist towns where, hopefully, we'll not be quite such an attraction.
Just about 15 km further down the road and we finally turned off to take a more direct dirt road over to the town of Capilla del Monte. It was a rough and slow going road with a lot of steep, steep climbs. Our little granny gear and 34 tooth Megarange rear gear sure came in handy. We felt as if we were once again on the Great Divide Mountain Bike Route. It was an easy route to follow mainly because we had a copy of the Argentine Club de Automovil map for Cordoba which was amazingly accurate. Go 8 km, turn right. Another 7, turn left then right after 2 more, etc. This accuracy was even for a little country dirt road. Beats the daylights out of the U.S. AAA maps.
After just 17 km we came to the tiny and incredibly well kept town of Ischilin. Here it is out in the middle of nowhere and it was absolutely neat as a pin. It is an old town located on the original Camino Real between Cordoba and Peru. It has 2 small tidy rows of picture perfect colonial style houses and the remains of one of the old Jesuit churches build in 1703 and consecrated in 1730. Next to the church is a manicured lawn with several old fashioned style lights, all in working order, and a small children's play set. The manicured lawn made for a tempting camp site, but we wanted to get in a few more km for the day.
We needed directions and some water, so we headed over to one of the small houses next to the church where several people were watching us with great curiosity. It was an old style, primitive house. A fence surrounded a dirt yard with a well, some farm equipment, and a couple of small block buildings. Yet despite being primitive and having only dirt floors, I noticed that it was also neat and tidy. This surely was a little town that carried a lot of pride in being well kept. With a little water from the well and answers to questions in both directions and we were off once again.
Out in the hills, in the middle of nowhere, a full 8 km beyond the town of Ischilin is a museum run by a national organization that also runs the National Museum of Art in Buenos Aires. It's a museum dedicated to an artist named Fernando Fader. He was born in France in 1882 to German parents, studied and taught in Germany, moved to Cordoba in 1913, and subsequently died in this little ranch out in the mountains in 1938. We've never heard of the man, but evidently he must be famous among Argentine painters in order to rate his own museum.
We didn't come to see the museum or any of its art. We just needed a spot to camp for the night and the driveway in front of the locked gate looked just fine to us. The museum wasn't due to open until 9 AM the next morning so we figured we could camp there and be long gone before they came to unlock the gate. Wouldn't you know it, just as soon as we had the tent up and the sleeping bags laid out the caretaker would show up. Yet he didn't bat an eye. He just paced off the distance between the fence and our tent and told us he figured his little car could get by. We just needed to pull out some stakes. We did, he drove by, closed and locked the gate behind, and said goodnight. It was almost as if he got crazy bikers camping in his driveway every night. That's what we like, easy going people.
Day 56 - 42.44 km to Capilla del Monte
Finally our trek across the flat lands and then up over the mountains would come to an end and after 9 days of hard riding we'd get to rest. But, we did have to get over those mountains first. From the museum driveway we still had some steep climbs with loose gravel and rock. It was one tough ride to the top, but the scenery was incredible. At one point the road dipped into a lush canyon filled with green trees and palm trees and lined by orange cliffs. Further up we were riding across a ridge with low-lying shrubs and great views of the surrounding mountains. It was well worth getting off the paved route for this excursion into quieter wilderness. Yet when we finally hit the top and started the long downhill, we were good and ready for the rest.
Cresting the ridge and starting the long bouncy ride down to the valley, we came across a little chapel in the mountains. It was down a super steep but short driveway. A family from Chile who had just driven past us at the top of the hill had stopped to take a rest and pray for a bit. There was a small, covered theater with a statue of the Virgin Mary and a pulpit, several nicely varnished rows of benches, even a rock structure in back with covered benches. The sign said you weren't supposed to eat in the chapel area, but we started to pull out lunch anyway hoping nobody would notice.
Of course, no sooner had we started pulling out the lunch stuff when up would drive an old pickup with the caretaker inside. He told us there were also tables further down the trail and that we could eat there, just not within the chapel area. We moved a bit downhill, pulled out our tablecloth, and started making lunch. Even that was not to be. Soon he was absolutely insisting that we come inside to eat. We brought lunch inside and started to put together our tuna sandwiches there. Nope, that wouldn't do either. We were going to be sharing his lunch whether we wanted or not. Brian, after seeing the chicken and potatoes, couldn't refuse. I dove into the bread and homemade peach and fig jams and grapes. We were soon having a great meal and broken Spanish conversation with our wonderful and generous host Carlos.
Carlos, the caretaker of this odd mountain chapel, has lived there for about 4 years after moving from Santa Fe. Although he does travel around quite a bit, his home base seems to be this little house and the accompanying trailer in the hills. His means of earning a living are quite modest. Much of his money comes from making and selling rosaries and a few religious articles at the chapel. Otherwise he lives mostly by trade. He makes homemade jams and jellies which he trades with the vineyard down the road for grapes. He proudly showed us every aspect of his little santuary in the hills. There was the wonderful picnic area he built complete with super clean banos, the pump that provides water to his house year round, the little trailer in which he makes his rosaries, and his two ovens, one in an old round washing machine and the other a brick beehive. The beehive was still warm from the roasting he'd done the day before, now that's efficient. We had to get a photo. Carlos wondered if he wouldn't break our camera. I told him it was already broken so no problem.
It was mostly downhill to the highway, "sin pedale" as Carlos said. On the way we passed a kiosco which, according to Carlos, was run by emigrants from France who now sold honey, sweet breads, and rocks. Further down was another small chapel, a little town where folks sold figs, baskets, and more rocks, a campground specializing in alternative camping what ever that means, and a UFO sighting place that also specializes in mysticism activities of some sort. This little corner of Argentina seemed a bit like a place where the slightly different society of South America has gathered.
There were a few more hills we had to climb to get into Capilla del Monte, more than Carlos had mentioned. All of which felt like small mountains by this time. At long last we pulled into the nicely maintained camping Calubamba located by the river of the same name. As I told the woman who checked us in, we simply wanted to get off the bikes and forget they existed for one day. Time for a rest.
Day 57 - Capilla del Monte
True to our word we spent an entire day in Capilla del Monte doing almost nothing. Clothes washing, shopping for lunch and dinner, and a short walk through town was about all we gathered energy for. That was more than enough.
Capilla is a really nice and wealthy town, just about dead center in the Sierras northwest of Cordoba. It lies along a road that has a string of mountain resort towns starting with Villa Carlos Paz and ending at Capilla. Capilla is perhaps the smallest and less touristy of all. It's a little bit funky and hippyish having natural food stores, classes in yoga and eye iris interpretation, and, of course, UFO sightings. In late March it's fairly quiet. In Summer it must be a zoo. People from Cordoba come to these mountains in summer to escape the heat of the lowlands and to recreate. There's an artificial lake for boating, swimming, and fishing, lots of hiking and mountain biking opportunities as well as plenty of campgrounds, hotels, and restaurants. Tourist brochures assure visitors that they can sit back and relax while allowing their children to wander around safely, more like run wild. The one item of interest we found in the town center was a covered street. Built for a photographic exhibition in 1964, it was the first roofed street built in all Argentina. I have to wonder how many more, if any, there are today. Despite all the mountain excursion activities that were available, we still found the town just perfect for doing nothing.
Day 58 - 49.80 km to Cosquin
Dogs, dogs, dogs. Dogs are always a problem in Latin American countries. There's no such thing as an ASPCA. No dog pound, no dogcatcher, no dog licensing fees. They don't spay, neuter, nor euthanize. Consequently stray dogs abound and, unlike feral cats, seem to have a terrible time taking care of themselves. They're usually sick or injured and almost always starving. Bitches are always either lactating or pregnant. And somehow they always seem to wind up hanging around the municipal campgrounds. It seemed almost every night we'd spend dinner under the watchful eyes of one or more of these wretched creatures each of whom was just waiting for an opportunity to grab our dinner and run. The camping at Capilla was particularly rife with dogs. The house behind our tent had one miserable mutt that would start whining and barking at around 3 AM which seemed to get dogs throughout the neighborhood joining the chorus. Echoes of barking dogs could be heard throughout the valley as they all bellowed their noise. Sleeping for a good 2 to 3 hours was nearly impossible. Oh how I would have loved to have gotten over that fence and beaten the thing to a pulp.
Then one night I heard an odd, glub glub sound. Looking out of the tent I saw a rear end and wagging tail sticking out from under the tarp lying across our bikes. We had hidden our food under there because the campground caretaker cautioned us against leaving anything out on the table or clothesline. Kids had been getting into camper's belongings. Well, this stupid dog was now happily chowing on our breakfast. So much for those $1 pastries. If we had had a club that dog would have been one piece of dead meat. We've never been dog people and camping in Latin America only reinforces that sentiment.
After a breakfast, now reduced to crackers with dulce de leche, we packed to head on just a little further toward Villa Carlos Paz. Route 38 through the mountains is a very nicely paved route that actually has centerline stripes, usually ignored by Argentine drivers, and fog stripes on both sides. No potholes. Although we soon discovered that this is a rather expensive toll road which would explain its good condition. Tolls for the short 50 km distance from Capilla to Cosquin for just a car is $2.40. Bikes, fortunately, are free. Traffic during this low season was not especially bad with the exception of lots of buses. I would hate to try to ride this road during high season, however, I'm sure it's just packed with tourists and nutty drivers.
We rolled up and down a few steep hills as we slowly crested the center of the valley that cuts the Sierras into northern and southern sections. On both sides were tall, barren looking mountains covered with low sage brush. The only real trees seemed to be in the valley and then only in the towns. It still amazes us that there are no natural pine forests in any of Argentina's mountains. After reaching the town of La Cumbre we seemed to start on a steadier downhill grade which was nice as the towns continued to grow larger and busier and being on a fast, downhill glide made getting through them much easier. Riding uphill, struggling to keep your balance, all while avoiding heavy traffic is not fun at all.
La Falda was the first of the really big tourist town we encountered. Not really a town, it's actually a small city with over 30,000 inhabitants. It's not exactly what one would consider a small, mountain retreat. It has some 80 hotels, large supermarkets, oodles of restaurants and tourist shops all designed to separate tourist from peso. We had considered holding up at Valle Hermoso, just south of La Falda, for the weekend. But, after seeing the sprawl of La Falda we chose to go on.
A far more comfortable and quiet solution was the town of Cosquin just another 15 km further downhill. Cosquin is a town of just 16,000, although it really looks like it has a lot more. It's long and narrow, stretching for over a km along the length of Rt. 38. It has a good choice of campings and the one we selected was, much to our delight, free of stray dogs. Two large grocery stores service the town, neither of which observes the traditional siesta hours. There are plenty of restaurants, a bit more expensive than we were accustomed to but not outrageously priced, and only a couple tourist shops. None of those stupid tourist attractions could be found. The San Martin plaza is a pleasant place to sit and people watch and the side streets are traffic free making for quiet strolling and biking. We were reminded a lot of Midwest U.S. highway towns that have all services and traffic on the one main road through town while the rest is as quiet as a library. Dirt roads lead into the hills on both sides of Rt. 38 right out of town. Cosquin, we decided, made a great place to spend the long holiday weekend.
It was a national holiday, a rather strange one at that. We learned that it was a day set aside to commemorate the Malvinas Islands war. Celebrate or commiserate, we weren't quite sure which. The Malvinas islands are known in much of the world as the Faukland Islands, subject of a little war England and the Argentina military backed government back in the early 1980s. It seemed quite unique that a country should choose to celebrate a war that it lost in no uncertain terms. Usually people want to celebrate victories, not loses. Actually it was sort of a Veterans Day for remembering those killed. Our guess is that they try to keep the islands in the minds of the people with the hope of winning them back someday. Although one Argentine lady we met said she thought the islands were better under the Brits. "I trust the English more than I trust the Spanish." she said. Given Argentina's history of unstable and corrupt governments we would tend to agree. In any event, the holiday only meant that we would want to stay put a bit longer than planned simply to avoid high weekend traffic. Cosquin made a great place to do just that.
Day 59, 60, 61- Cosquin
So we settled ourselves into the completely empty and quite comfortable Camping Tibidabo for 3 days of doing almost nothing. It was convenient, within easy walking distance of the 2 big grocery stores downtown, and there were a few dirt roads begging for exploration. One day we walked, perhaps around 5 miles, toward a hill called Pan de Azucar, which translated would probably be equivalent to our Sugarloaf Hill. It seems that every state in Argentina and Uruguay has at least one Pan de Azucar hill somewhere. I had expected to see a hill that looked a lot like a giant gumdrop. Not so. It's more of a cone shape. How it got the name Pan de Azucar I just cannot see. If you go the full 7 km up the road you can take a chair lift to the top of the hill for good views of the valley below. The cost, however, was far too expensive for such a little trip. We just walked the 3 km to the end of the pavement and turned around. So much for heavy exercise for that day.
The next day found us in a little more energetic mood. Finally feeling ready to mount the bikes once again, unloaded that is, we took off for a small dirt road adventure. We'd stopped in at the tourist information center to ask about some potential biking roads. After telling us about the road to the Cascades de Olaen, the nice tourist official did his very best to convince us that we really didn't want to ride our bikes up that long, tough hill. Certainly a package tour costing a, gulp, $65 per person would be more to our liking. We assured him that the hill was no problem at all, so much for his commission.
It was a great little 50 km ride. Most of it was uphill on a not too rough dirt road. The higher we climbed the more barren the landscape and the better the views. Again, there are no trees on the tops of these mountains, just low-lying shrubs. It was up, up, up for the first 14 km along the road and then down, down for the last 5 to the cascades. The cascades are supposed to be a big tourist attraction. They're small waterfalls that tumble between a fairly deep crevasse between rocks. At the bottom is a large pool, which, I'm sure, is jammed with swimmers in the heat of summer. This day there was just one very large family busily working on the usual lunchtime bar-b-cue. The cascades were free to visit, which was good, as I don't think we would have paid any entry fee. The ride along those remote country roads was actually the highlight of the little adventure. So much for our exploring Cosquin.
If you ever want a great bar-b-cue party, invite an Argentine. It's not just a matter of cooking for them, it's a true art form. Every Argentine male over the age of 5 learns to grill with the best of them. Although, sometimes they do get overzealous. Located within out little camping in Cosquin was a huge thatch covered group bar-b-cue area. One entire wall was lined with enormous grills. So when the group showed up for the Saturday night fiesta, they made full use of it. The griller in charge built up a big pile of wood in 2 of the fire pits. A small flame soon roared into a bomb fire. Smoke and sparks roared from the chimney. As we sat in our quiet corner of the camping we suddenly heard someone cry out for the bomberos and everyone ran as fast as possible toward the phone. The dry thatch roof was ablaze, the flame spreading fast. A small hose was located as well as buckets and a ladder. By the time the small, rather antique looking fire truck showed up they'd managed to get the fire out. We soon nicknamed this little party the Fiesta del Fuego, the party of fire. The main fire was then moved outside and only coals brought into the fire pit. So much for Saturday afternoon excitement.
This little party was a prime example of the Argentine pension for playing late. Our fire adventure happened at around 2 in the afternoon yet the party wasn't even scheduled to begin until 10 PM. That's right, 10 PM. How often does a party in the U.S. just get started at 10 PM. There had to be music, of course. Not just your ordinary music. No. A full sound system complete with microphone for the partygoers to sing along was the only thing that would do. We'd been invited to the party, but spending an entire evening interloping on someone else's special night while everyone struggled to cope with our limited Spanish was not all that attractive. So we lay in the tent praying for an early end to the festivities. And by Argentine standards it was an early ending, 3:15 AM. I might mention that it wasn't just adults staying up this late. The main karaoke singer was a boy of probably no more than 10 and he was just one of many young kids. No wonder the next day we didn't feel much like doing any more than that short walk to Pan de Azucar.
Day 62 - Cordoba
Semana Santa, Holy Week, in Latin American countries has as much importance as Christmas has in the U.S. Schools and businesses are closed on Thursday and Friday. Buses are packed with travelers going to visit family and hotel prices go up. The only thing we didn't know was whether people traveled on the Monday before and whether there would be a lot of people heading up to Foz de Iguazu. This was the day we'd planned to take another long bus ride back up to the northern extremes of the country. Based upon our difficult experience in Buenos Aires we were a bit nervous about waiting until Monday. It was difficult to determine exactly what would happen on that day without actually going into Cordoba to ask. So, onto the bus we went for the 1 hour 25 minute ride.
Cordoba is a city of just over 1.3 million people. There seems to be a contest between it and Rosario as to which is the second largest city in the country. Talk to a person in Rosario and it's Rosario. A person in Cordoba will, naturally, say it's Cordoba. But, they're both similarly sized. There was one advantage of the ride into the city, it proved the point that it's a much safer idea to take the bus into the city than to ride the bikes. It's the usual old city with narrow streets, lots of traffic, and the usual nutty drivers. Yeah, the bus is not such a bad idea after all.
Our fears about Semana Santa were quickly put to rest. We asked several people, the ticket agent as well as a man at the information counter whether there would be lots of people traveling on Monday. Everyone seemed to confirm that Wednesday would be tough, Monday no problem. We also asked again and again, "If we take the wheels off the bikes will both fit on the same bus with us?" "No problem" the ticket agent and baggage handler assured. OK, it looks good. We'll give it a try.
This problem solved, we spent the rest of the day just wandering around the streets of Cordoba. We'll come back to visit the 2 museums of interest later.
Day 63, 64 - Cosquin, La Falda
Fall had come to the Cordoba region in the form of constant, cold, miserable drizzle and pouring rain. For over 2 days the weather turned downright nasty. It's just not a lot of fun biking all-day and then spending the night camping with everything soaking wet. In addition, the camping we were at had that wonderfully, dry covered slightly singed area we could use all we want, complete with about half a dozen large tables we could assemble and place where ever. It was even still rainproof despite the fire on Saturday night. So we stayed put, watching the rain pour, pour, and pour. There were just a few brief respites that provided just enough time to run out to the store for food. Otherwise it was a good day not to go anywhere or do much of anything.
What a mess. After so much rain we were absolutely inundated with mud. Everything, absolutely everything was covered in mud. My side of the tent was right on top of a super, soft mud that smucked each time I stepped in it. When we ventured out of the camping and down the street we were shocked to see just how much the river had risen. Yards of the houses bordering on the river were all flooded. Bar-b-cue grills that had been high and dry the day before were now under water. Ah yes what an exciting rain it was.
For our second day waiting out the rain we decided to at least do something. We'd grown tired of sitting. So onto the bus we went to take the short ride back up the hill to the town of La Falda. The mountains around Cordoba are a major vacation destination for many of Cordoba residents as well as others around the country. However, their main attraction is the outdoor activities that are available such as sailing, swimming, hiking, biking, fishing, etc. The towns are just your basic tourist towns with hotels, restaurants, and shops. There's not a whole heck of a lot in cultural interest. There are a few small museums, but that's about it. So our visit to La Falda was just to spend the day wandering through a town that wasn't Cosquin.
La Falda was one of the earliest resort towns in the mountains. Today it continues to be one of the wealthier ones. There are a lot of very, very nice homes spread up the side of the hills and very high quality shops in town. Standing alone in a large garden that's now somewhat overgrown is the once fabulously elegant Eden Hotel. It's a beautiful old building that appears to date from the late 1800s time. It has a huge front patio on which patrons of old used to sit in their chairs overlooking an elegant fountain positioned in between two large lion statues. The patio used to be enclosed in small, yellow colored glass windows, the majority of which are gone. You can now wander around the nearly abandoned building, walk along the large porch with the wrought iron railing, peak in the glassless windows and imagine the one time lush interior. You may need to shoo away a horse of two as they've turned the rear rooms into a favorite hiding place. It's unfortunate that the building has been allowed to deteriorate so. It'd take a huge influx of money to renovate it, money that probably will never be coming. So now the old building just sits, slowly decaying, like a once elegant lady who has lost her youthful beautiful.
Day 65, 66, 67 - Cordoba
Back to Cordoba, again by bus and this time with bikes safely tucked in the hold. We shall have a few days to visit and then we head off to our last, eagerly anticipated spot, Foz de Iguazu. The Spaniuard Jeronimo Luis de Cabrera founded Cordoba founded in 1573. It was populated primarily by people emigrating from Lima. In its early years it was the center of the Jesuit missions for the area. It was the economic, cultural, educational, and religious hub for much of Argentina, southern Brazil, Uruguay, Paraguay, and part of Peru. It was located on the mountainous and circuitous trade route that went from Lima to Cordoba and on to Buenos Aires. Buenos, by contrast was just a little backwater town at the end of this trade route.
After the Jesuits were expelled from the Americas, they got to big for their britches, and Buenos was elected as the capital for the new Viceroyalty Cordoba's importance diminished. However, remnants of it's days as the most important city in Argentina remain in the form of many beautiful churches, a large and nicely appointed cabildo, many colonial houses, and the oldest functioning university in Argentina, founded in 1613. Later in its history Cordoba became a center for manufacturing autos and aircraft, a rail center, a center for agricultural milling, and shipping for cattle products. Unfortunately continuing economic problems have severely impacted Cordoba especially in the manufacturing sectors. With luck the new programs being implemented by their new minister of Economics, Cavallo, will improve the situation.
In addition to the many churches to visit there were two museums we found particularly interesting. The first was the Museo Provencial Historia Marques Sobremonte. The museum is located in a large house built by a creative entrepreneur in the early colonial period, a man named Rodrigues. Our, thankfully, English speaking guide gave us one very informative and interesting tour. Rodrigues was involved in shipping. He owned many mules, which he used to transport goods to and from the major silver mines in Potosi, located in the Bolivian highlands. He owned a small shop in the corner of his house where he sold some of these goods, he was a builder, and he was in politics. Needless to say he was quite a wealthy man which is evident in the shear size of his house. In the house the walls, doors, wood rafters, some of the roof, and much of the floor are original. Since the house passed through many owners during its use as a personal home, there is no original furniture in the house with the exception of the huge wooden alter found in the private chapel. When it became a museum, everything on display was donated from the wealthy families of the town. Consequently there is furnishing from the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries. Despite this, the house is today considered to be the most important personal house and museum in all of Argentina. It's not a church nor public building, just a house.
It was traditional for Spanish houses to have a small chapel and Rodrigues had arranged to bring this incredible alter from the Peruvian highlands to Cordoba. It was brought in pieces by mule. We found it amazing that a mule could carry such huge pieces. But our very knowledgeable tour guide said she's seen pianos in Potosi that were also transported by mule. I find it almost impossible to believe.
Perhaps the best part of the museum tour was our tour guide. It turns out she is the granddaughter of the man who founded the aircraft manufacturing plant in the city. He learned the aeronautical engineering trade in France where he trained for 15 years. There was no place in South America for him to train. Unfortunately the military took over the plant during one of the periods when there was a military dictatorship in control of the country. So this woman's grandfather was kicked out of the company and eventually turned to a professorship in the local university. He died with no house, no car, no money. Rather a sad ending to what sounded like a creative man.
A second museum is the Museo de la Industria, which is dedicated to the automotive and aeronautical industries in the city. It includes several interesting old cars including a very nice Packard and Jeep and two jet aircraft that were designed and built in Cordoba. There were also a few other strange odds and ends including a dental chair, the first modern dental chair made in Argentina, a couple of toasters, an iron, and a mechanical calculator of German design. All were built in plants that used to reside in Cordoba. Unfortunately most of these plants are no longer in operation including the aircraft plant. The aircraft plant stopped operation just in 1995. It was an interesting, although rather small, museum and the price was right, free.
Sundays are the best days to spend seeing a city at its leisure. Find the biggest, grassiest park, have a seat, and watch. It's relaxing and so enjoyable. We spent the better part of our last day in Cordoba just enjoying the large Parque Sarmiento.
Day 68 - Bus to Foz de Iguazu
It's on to the very famous Foz de Iguazu and the Missiones province for our remaining 2 weeks in Argentina. Foz de Iguazu are an enormous set of waterfalls located on the Rio Iguazu right at the point where Brazil, Argentina, and Paraguay meet. The falls are spread out in a huge semi-circular arch on the border between Argentina and Brazil. Paraguay shares the upstream Parana River. It has some 275 individual cascades over 72 meters in height and over 2 km in length and flows at a nominal rate of 5,000 cubic meters/sec. When it's flooded it can run many times that. It is higher, wider, and has a much higher flow rate than the much more famous Niagara Falls. And unlike Niagara, no one has ever survived a run over the falls, not in a barrel, not in a boat, nor any other device. The falls occur where the Iguazu River falls off a thick basaltic ledge that covers much of Brazil in this area. The ledge was created many billions of years ago when a volcano in the area sent a huge flood of lava across the land covering a massive area. At one time the falls probably were located right where the Parana and Iquazu rivers meet. Today it's some 20 km upstream. Just before reaching the ledge the river is divided into numerous small channels, some almost hidden in the vegetation. Each channel then becomes a separate cascade that tumbles down its own individual fall. The most impressive is the Garganta del Diablo, Devil's throat. It is located where the main flow of the river falls over the ledge and continual erosion has created a deep U shaped cut in the ledge.
The water of the falls begins its journey in the Serra do Mar mountains. It gathers strength as it works its way across the Parana plateau of Brazil. As it makes its way to the sea it cascades over no less than 70 falls, one of which is Iguazu. Iguazu is rather unique in that it lies within 3 different countries, each of which has a unique spelling for its name. It's Iguazu in Argentina, Iguacu in Brazil, and Iguassu in Paraguay. It certainly makes things a little tricky when trying to do a computer search on the name. There are 2 main national parks that permit good views of the falls. On the Argentine side you can get up close and personal with the falls. On the Brazil side you can get more of a head on distant view. Perhaps the best part of the park is the fact that both countries are striving to preserve its natural beauty. Unlike Niagara Falls, which is crowded right to it's very edge with chintzy honeymoon hotels and souvenir shops, Iguazu will always have just a very limited amount of development right at its edge, we hope. It's what Niagara Falls would have been had there been a National Park System before it was developed. Preservation has been better on the Argentina side than in Brazil.
Iguazu falls were at one time the burial grounds for the Paraguas and Tupi Garuani natives. The first European to stumble on the falls was Don Alvar Nunes in 1541. The area was colonized about 10 years later. The name, Iguazu, is the original Tupi name for the falls, not the European name of Saltos de Santa Maria. UNESCO named the site a World Heritage in 1986. In the year 2001 major redevelopment of the tourist facilities on the Argentina side has been completed. There are certain spots in South America that absolutely should not be missed. Foz de Iguazu is one of the sites. The only problem is, we have to get past another 24 hour bus ride to get there.
This time we went to the bus station a second time in advance and explained very carefully to the ticket agent that we absolutely had to get on the bus with the bikes. There was no way we would go without them. We asked the ticket agent, the boss, the men at the baggage shipping department, as well as the actual man who would be loading the bikes if there would be any difficulty. Our concern was that this was going to be one of those 2 story buses, which have less baggage space than the single story. Time and again we were assured that there would be space. As one last check we hung around the bus station to watch the bus load and leave on Saturday afternoon. From what we saw it really looked like there would be no problem. So we took a chance, we bought tickets and got assigned to the best seats in the house, up front upstairs.
Day 69 - Puerto de Iguazu
Well, we would have to say that if there is any bus company in Argentina that we could recommend it would have to be Expreso Singer. They were fabulous. The baggage handler remembered that we were the ones wanting to put two bikes on that particular bus, so he was expecting us. As promised, again and again, there was plenty of space available. The bus was roomy and comfortable and even had so much space we could each have 2 seats side by side to sleep. This bus was also right on schedule, even perhaps a little early. We climbed aboard at around 1 PM and began our long and much more comfortable journey. Compared to our first trip out of Buenos, this journey went like a dream.
Bright and early in the morning the bus arrived in the province of Missiones making it's way the final 6 hours to Puerto de Iguazu. Missiones is the province located in the little spit of land extending up between the Iguazu and Parana rivers. It is surrounded by Brazil to the east and Paraguay to the west. We'd been expecting the landscape to be flat, similar to what we'd seen during our marathon ride to Cordoba. But, it's not. There are actually sizable rolling hills throughout the area as the mountains of Brazil extend just a little south into Argentina. It'll make the riding perhaps a bit more difficult, but it'll be a whole lot more interesting.
The soil in the area is dark red clay which makes everything look red. The streets are red, the sidewalks red, the guardrails red, the houses are red brick, everything looks red. Unfortunately that also means our shoes, tent, and bikes turned red. The flora is tropical, thick green vines, banana plants, palm trees, just lots and lots of plants cover the hillsides. Of course, this also means that the air is hot and humid. Within seconds of stepping off the bus we felt as though our cloths had become sopping wet sponges. Showers every couple of hours would have been nice. We'd be spending the next two weeks living with a constant layer of sweat.
Missiones province was named for the 30 Jesuit missions that were constructed in the area both in Argentina and Paraguay. While a system of encomiendas, worked well in places like Mexico and Peru where settled civilizations had existed for centuries, a different system of organization was needed for taming the more nomadic tribes of the upper Parana. Encomiendas are ranches leased to owners who were given sole right to native labor in exchange for making them good Spanish citizens. Hence the Jesuits were sent to establish what they called a reduccion or congregation. Natives were gathered together around a central, self-sufficient mission, a practice that ended their nomadic habits. The Jesuits originally settled further up the Parana River in 1607 in what is now Brazil. However, Portuguese slave traders from Sao Paulo attacked and destroyed 11 of their first 13 missions and abducted the natives. So they gathered together what converts they had and headed westward down the Parana River toward the Missiones region to resettle. Along the way they the huge Guaira falls to conquer, a set that are now peacefully submerged under the lake created by the mammoth Itaipu hydroelectric dam. Just getting around the falls took days to accomplished and cost the lives of many a native. Eventually they made it to Missiones where they promptly resettled and rebuilt their missions.
Unlike other religious orders, the Jesuits were not obligated to observe a life of poverty. In addition, they took their mission of converting the natives to a good Christian and European life seriously, unlike the encomienda owners who seemed to play lip service to this mission and used the natives more as slaves than converts. Consequently the Jesuits were extremely successful and wealthy, which eventually lead to their downfall. Their communities were similar to the standard Spanish village with a large central plaza bordered by straight streets running off in 90 degree angles. However, they tended to have religious buildings surrounding the plaza rather than a cabildo, shops and houses.
By the 1700s the missions started encountering difficulty. By bringing the natives together into close living conditions they became far more susceptible to epidemics such as small pox. In just one epidemic between 1717 and 1719 some 1/6 of the native population died. They also had continued difficulty with raids by the Portuguese slave traders. But, what finally finished them off was simply the jealousy of their fellow Spaniards. In 1767 they were all recalled to Spain, the missions fell into ruin, and many of the natives dispersed into the wilderness to avoid being under Spanish subjugation. One lasting reminder of the Jesuit order left behind is the tradition of drinking mate. The Jesuits created the first cultivated fields of yerba mate and turned the native weed into a commercial product. Missiones province is still the major mate producing region of the country.
After the missions were closed the yerba mate growers moved into the area. They were more or less successful, but not having much native slave labor their success was limited. The region remained disputed territory for about a century until the war of the triple alliance (1865 - 1870). During this war, a Paraguayan dictator decided to attack Argentina with the sole purpose of diverting attention away from his disastrous internal policies. Argentina, Uruguay, and Brazil joined forces to force the Paraguayans out and Argentina wound up with Missiones as the spoils of war. Today, in addition to yerba mate and tourism, Missiones has become a huge producer of lumber and paper products, unfortunately at the expense of its native tropical forest. North American pine trees have been introduced in large plantations and wood and paper mills provide employment near Posadas. Contraband and illegal trafficking in drugs and guns is also a major business across this rather lax border crossing.
Puerto de Iguazu is a small town of about 18,000 snuggled right into that triple divide of the 3 countries. Unlike its counterpart cities in Brazil and Paraguay, the town is small, wooded, quiet, well off, and safe. The town basically exists to service visitors to the national park and to service those providing the tourist services. There are hotels in a wide range of prices, many restaurants all of which seem to be the basic Argentine parrilla or grill, and a couple of small grocery stores. We were surprised at how small the grocery stores were, but perhaps many folks shop in Brazil where prices are lower. We chose a camping within walking distance to town so we could easily get to the grocery store each day.
Day 70, 71, 72 - Foz de Iguazu
Unfortunately we happened to arrive at Puerto Iguazu just before Semana Santa, holy-week, one of the biggest holidays in all of Latin America. We had only one day that would be relatively quiet before the crowds would descend upon the park. According to statistics recorded in 1994 and applying a ratio for data from 2000, the number of visitors to the park over the entire weekend should be somewhere around 14,000, or 3,000 to 4,000 per day. If this were, say, the Grand Tetons in the U.S., this number would be nothing especially since the tourist facilities of U.S. parks are set up to handle far more. We weren't sure what to expect in Iguazu. So our first priority was to get to the Argentine falls ASAP, before the crowds arrived, and to spend a full day on the trails.
Upon our first sight of the falls, from a small observation tower within the park, we were immediately at a loss for words on how to describe them. Their absolutely mammoth. Standing on one of the paseo superior catwalks you can look across a long stretch of cascades that seem to go on forever. Chocolate colored water tumbles down the falls turning into a brown cascade of water highlighted by white foamy spray. It's almost striped, brown and white. There are a series of upper catwalks that take you along the upper edge of several of the cascades. From this viewpoint one gets an incredible impression of the force of these falls. The lower catwalks let you get some head on views and as well a nice close up feel, you get real wet which feels great on those hot, humid afternoons.
Perhaps the most impressive views are from the small isolated set of catwalks that take you right to a top view of the Garganta del Diablo. This catwalk used to be connected to mainland, but floods washed out a good portion of their pilings. Today, for $4 per person, you can get a round trip boat ride to the remaining catwalks and it's well worth the price. Our breath was taken away as we watched the most mammoth amount of water we've ever seen rage over the tight corner of the U shaped falls. Brown mixed with crystal white tumbled over the edge in a massive display of continual movement. Spray leapt up over the falls a good 30 ft or more, then dissipated a bit to afford a clear view of the falls, and then obscured the sight once more. You could see nothing below the falls, it was hidden in the constant spray. We just stood, completely transfixed by the amazing sight, unable to believe just how powerful this wonder of mother nature could be. Lonely Planet says the emotions the sight evoke are probably as close to what mariners of old imagined the oceans tumbling off the edge of a flat Earth would be like. It's a sight we will never forget.
Another part of what makes Foz de Iguazu so special is the setting. Compared to Niagara, there is almost no development in the area. Granted there is a hotel on each side with unobstructed views of the falls, the one in Brazil most noticeable. But, there is still plenty of places you can go where you can get the full impression of this jungle environment surrounding these spectacular falls. If one were to imagine a jungle paradise, this would be it. We found ourselves so delighted with the huge diversity of plants, flowers, butterflies, animals, and birds. Butterflies in almost every color of the rainbow and in sizes from fingertip to hand sized flutter everywhere. Orchids in equally numerous sizes and colors and fill the air with an exotic perfume. We even spotted a toucan with its bright orange beak preening itself high in a tree and a monkey lay on a branch over our heads watching us watch it watching us. It's hard to describe the experience of visiting the Foz de Iguazu in mere words. You need to go there and experience it for yourself.
We spent only one day in the Argentine park as our time in Argentina was getting short and we need to move on soon. But we did manage to do every hike including the 3 km Macuco mud walk through that amazing jungle. This is where we spotted our friendly monkey. The only thing we missed was the boat trip to the small San Martin Island. Flooded waters meant that the boats weren't running. Even after a full day watching water falls we did feel almost like we could have used another day, just to really soak it all in especially the top views which to us give the most impact. But, alas, it was not to be this time. If we ever return to anywhere close by we will definitely come back.
There was one thing we found absolutely amazing. In the early hours of our visit we had the misfortune of happening to have arrived just when 3 bus loads of American tourists showed up. It also happened that at this hour, half of the upper catwalks were closed. They're just finishing a huge renovation of the entire Argentina park visitor facilities, due to be completed in May, and renovation of all the catwalks is part of this effort. Fortunately for us they were reopened late in the day so we could eventually see the whole thing. Well, as part of the tour these Americans were taking they were permitted just enough time to see only the upper catwalk, or on this day 1/2 of the upper catwalk, at most 1 hour. They couldn't climb the observation tower, soak their shirts by an up close view of the falls, walk among the lower jungle over paradise chocolate rivers, stop to admire that toucan high in the trees, take the long, muddy jungle hike to see the monkeys, or take that incredible boat ride over to the top of Garganta del Diablo. We so often wonder what the heck people are getting out of these bus tours. If you were to calculate time spent on the bus, in restaurants, and at stores versus time actually spent seeing the sights I'm sure probably on 20% is spent seeing the sights at most. Even when we went to the Brazilian side which has far less walking and trails to offer, we took hours slowly walking along the sidewalk making sure to spend plenty of time at each and every overlook. People passed us by at a frenetic pace, their eyes fixated on the 2 overlooks right at the very end. It was as if once there they wanted to get the visit over as fast as possible. We even spotted some of the tour bussers chatting away, not even paying any attention to the incredible beauty surrounding them. What a pathetic way to see the world. No thanks, not for us.
"Life is a journey, not a guided tour"
Day 73 - Foz do Iguacu, Brazil side
To get to the Brazilian side of the falls takes a just a couple of short bus rides, one to cross the bridge over the Iguazu river and the next to get to the park entrance. However, once on the other side it feels as though you've crossed into another world. While the Argentina side seems almost wild both within and without the park, the Brazilian side seems almost Disneylandish by comparison. Just outside the confines of the park are enormous luxury hotels, people selling tourist trinkets, fishing poles, and those current fad scooters, and there's even a large water slide park just right outside the entrance. There's very little of the original jungle remaining in this area, only a preserved, narrow strip that follows along the river up past the falls. It's unfortunate that Brazil's ecological programs are so limited.
The bus drops you off at the huge, mustard yellow visitor center. It's evident from the outset that this side of the falls is well prepared to handle far more tourists than the Argentina side. The building is huge and even has a very large shop selling your typical tourist stuff, hats, T-shirts, little stuffed anteaters the local pest animal, post cards, posters, pottery, chain rings, calendars, etc. You will also find about 5 long queues in front of the ticket windows. Here's where you pay your $8 real entrance fee. Now you head around the corner to another long set of lines where you wait to get on the big park bus. For Semana Santa they even lease extra buses to handle the larger crowds. The bus takes you down the main park road, you don't get to walk, and gives you 3 and only 3 stop options. The first is for a super expensive, commercial tour called the Macuco Safari. They take you on a jeep ride and boat ride through the jungles and up to the face of the falls making a total of 1 hour and 40 minutes of touring. The price, $33 U.S., ouch. We decided to forego that. The next stop is for the one and only trail. It's only 800 m in length, has several stopping locations where you can look over the falls way over on the Argentina side, and one platform that takes you out over the falls where you can get good and wet. The end of the trail leaves you at the final bus stop, the restaurant where you can get fast food or the typical grilled meat at inflated prices while having a view of the top of part of the falls. From there you catch the bus back. That's it. There are no other facilities or hiking trails on the Brazilian side. They are planning more, however. They will soon add 2 observation towers, an educational center, and a cable car ride that takes you over the tops of the jungle trees, again a bit of a Disney appearance. All in all we found the Argentine side far more interesting. If you had time for only one side, I'd say the Argentina side is the one to head for.
Day 74 - Itaipu dam on Brazil side
The curious engineer in each of us once again took control. We just had to go see the Itaipu dam and hydroelectric project. It's quite an amazing sight, a huge manmade structure extending some 4.8 miles across and 643 ft high, most of which is a dirt dam. However, we found the tour to be a bit of a disappointment. They put you on an air-conditioned bus, there's a whole string of them lined up along the road including commercial tour buses and the ones affiliated with the dam itself. In front and behind the convoy are security vehicles with lights flashing. I guess they don't want any buses to run astray. The bus takes you over to a single look out platform where you get the one external view. Then they drive by the outside of the concrete dam and then around on top of the dam. A recorded message gives a summary of the project. You don't get to go in to see the generator or turbine rooms, something we've come to expect from all out dam tours in the U.S.
We did discover that there is more than one way to tour the dam. They also have what they call the "technical" tour. For this they actually let you go into the generator room. Two requirements are needed to take this tour. First you must be an engineer or engineering student, which we qualify for. However, you also have to reserve your place 3 days in advance. If we'd known this we would have done so on our first day in Puerto Iguazu. But, not only did we not know about the tour until just the day before we went for our visit, we didn't have 3 more days to wait. Drat. Oh well, we've seen lots of generator rooms in the U.S. but we did have to wonder just how much more intensive this particular tour might have been.
Despite not getting the kind of tour we would have really liked, we did have to marvel at this amazing feat of engineering. It is recognized worldwide as being the largest hydroelectric project in the world. That's based on electrical production capacity. The Three Gorges project currently under construction in China could have the potential to produce more if that had been its primary purpose. However, it is intended mainly for flood control and energy production is only a secondary concern so it's planned capacity is less. So here are some of the numbers. The Itaipu dam was the result of a joint agreement between Paraguay and Brazil signed in 1973. In this agreement Paraguay and Brazil each get 50% of the electricity output. Paraguay, however, having a population of only around 4 million, uses only 5% of its allocated capacity. The rest it sells, Brazil having first dibs. Construction of the dam took 18 years. It took 3 years alone just to dig the diversion channel. Itaipu has a total of 18 generators each of which produces 700 kw making a total of 12,600 kilowatts. This is a generating capacity that would require burning 434,000 barrels of oil for an equivalent amount produced by fossil fuel plants. By comparison the Grand Coulee in Oregon only has a capacity of about 9,600 kw.
The concrete section of the dam contains enough concrete to make 200 stadiums or 15 chunnels and enough steel for 300 Eiffel towers. At the peak of construction there was a total of 32,000 employees working 24 hours per day and they poured enough concrete to build an entire office building every 55 minutes. The reservoir behind the dam is 125 miles long and contains 23,5 million acre-ft of water. However, it's actually a fairly small reservoir considering the total generation capacity of the dam.
There were, of course, environmental impact issues. At first they just started digging, not even thinking about what permanent damage they were incurring. Soon, however, they realized that they would completely lose the jungle, forest habitat surrounding the dam and reservoir if they didn't do something. So they began several programs. One was to take an inventory of the animals within the zone to be flooded. As the reservoir filled they began a rescue program to trap all the stranded animals and remove them to a newly created wildlife reserve. They also created 7 new parks surrounding the reservoir and reseeded a green strip around the water using native plants. They inventoried native fish upstream and downstream of the falls that were to be flooded. This data they use now to track fish migration. In the near future they will be building a huge fish migration channel, supposedly the world's largest, to try to allow for a fore natural concentration of fish. They've started fish breeding and stocking programs. Despite a fair amount of effort spent on trying to contain the environmental impact, there are still a lot of environmentalists who complain. However, we'd love to challenge them to come up with a way of producing that much output, reliably 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 12 months a year that has less impact. That'd be might hard. In any event, it was a site worth seeing.
Day 75 - 18.72 km to Ciudad del Este
Ciudad del Este, on the other hand, is not. It was Easter Sunday, probably the quietest day possible to make the move from Puerto Iguazu over to Paraguay. It'd be quiet simply because all those contraband shops we'd heard about in Ciudad del Este would be closed so there would be fewer people on the streets, fewer cars crossing the bridge. So we packed and headed out at a reasonably early hour.
Getting across the bridge between Argentine and Brazil was no problem. No one, it seems, was headed to Brazil. The line up of tour buses coming back in the other direction was horrendous. It extended all the way from the border check point right to the bridge, probably at least a km in length. The tour bus people had been released from their cages and were wandering all over the highway. Once in Brazil we had to do the usual step on the mat of disinfectant, for which we hardly saw the effectiveness. It's supposed to get rid of such stuff as hoof and mouth. Yet with all the mud we had on the top of our shoes we could hardly see how disinfectant only on the bottoms would help. We also had to ride our bikes through a bath of the stuff, yuck.
Once that was over it was an easy ride around Foz de Iguacu. We simply ignored a sign that pointed to the left toward Paraguay and went right. The sign seems to be set up to encourage auto to go right through the center of the city, right past all the stores which do their best to entice you to stop and shop there rather than in Paraguay. We discovered an alternate route, Av. Parana, which goes around all that mess. It's a wide, 4 lane road with parking on both sides which happened to be devoid of parked cars this day. It takes you right to another 4 lane highway that goes right to the Brazil/Paraguay bridge. So we found that the ordeal of getting around Foz do Iguacu to be far less hassle than expected.
Even Ciudad del Este was better than expected. Its main street is filled with makeshift stalls where anything you could possibly name is normally sold. I imagine that even just trying to walk through the maze of stalls is a mad house, much less trying to shove a loaded bike. This being Easter Sunday, though, these stalls were all closed. We also knew we could head directly to a hotel located 2 blocks off the main drag on which turned out to be a street without al those stalls. Just a lot of blank faced closed stores. We had no hassle from people trying to get us into hotels, very little from money changers, and only a few "taxi" yelled at us. Yup, Sunday and in particular Easter Sunday is a perfect day for getting to Ciudad del Este.
The city itself rather sucks. It really hardly existed before the dam project. But during the construction, hoards of people from the countryside swarmed into the city for the good paying jobs. It quickly grew from a little town into a rather large city. Once the dam was complete, and the accompanying bridge, the residents turned to a different means of earning money. They now sell a huge amount of contraband products. Anything and everything that is not made in Paraguay is sold there without and import duties being paid. Consequently people from both Argentina and Brazil flock to this city to buy stuff, especially electronics. People walk across the bridge for the day and come back laden with gigantic bags full of things they found. The annual business conducted in Ciudad del Este is said to reach 55 billion US dollars per year, a figure that is more than 10 times the budget for the entire country.
Naturally all of this contraband and rather illegal business attracts a rather seedy side of Paraguay. Crime tends to run rampant. It's the one place that distinctly reminded us of being in Guatemala City. Private security guards hang out everywhere, in front of pharmacies, stores, banks, even our hotel. Most carry pistols, some sawed off shotguns or even machine guns. City police ride, armed to the hilt, in the back of a pick-up truck up and down the streets. We were warned again and again, watch your wallet, watch everything. It's a city that just makes you feel uncomfortable at all times. In addition, it's dirty. Trash is everywhere. I practically wanted to vomit when we discovered the most disgusting remains on a walkway that went over the main street. The trash seemed as bad as it is in some of the worst parts of Guatemala City. You would think with all that money changing hands they could find some way to pay for descent trash disposal and city wide law enforcement. We just get the feeling people are there to take all they can and give nothing back. Even Paraguayans we met in the rest of the country now that Ciudad del Este is a cesspool.
Day 76 - 67.77 km to Santa Rita
Paraguay's history, like so many Latin American countries, has been a series of dictatorial governments. The land that is today, Paraguay, was probably first visited by an explorer named Alejo Garcia in 1525. He was a member of the Solis crew, the guy that was eaten by the Charrua Indians in Uruguay. He collected together a bunch of Spanish soldiers on the island of Santa Catarina off the coast of Brazil with the intent of conquering the "white king" who was supposed to rule the west of the mainland. He returned to Paraguay, added some 2,000 Guarani to his group, crossed the desolate Chaco region, and penetrated the outer defenses of the Incan Empire 8 years before Pizarro. Fierce fighting from the Incas forced them to turn back.
Two years later came Sebastian Cabot, son of John Cabot who explored North America. He hoped to find a route to the west that was easier than the dangerous Straits of Magellen. He sailed up the Parana past the juncture with the Rio Paraguay where navigation became difficult and was forced to turn back. It wasn't until August 15, 1537 that Juan de Salazar de Espinosa and Gonzalo de Mendoza, men sent out from Buenos Aires, established a fort on a bluff overlooking the Rio Paraguay. The day was the Feast of the Assumption hence the city's name, Nuestra Senora Santa Maria de la Asuncion. This fort soon became the center for Spanish activities in the entire Rio Plata region.
During the next 200 years the Roman Catholic Church, in particular the Society of Jesus (Jesuits), had a profound impact on the colony's social and economic development. Eight of the 30 missions in the Rio Parana region were located within the borders of what is now Paraguay. Of course we now know that the Jesuit reducciones were so successful that their wealth and prosperity soon became the source of their downfall. By 1767, when the Jesuits were recalled, the reducciones comprised more than 21,000 families had 725,000 head of cattle, 47,000 oxen, 99,000 horses, 230,000 sheep, 14,000 mules, and 8,000 donkeys. Secular encomienda owners were jealous of the Jesuits' ready access to the native labor and the Spanish crown viewed them as a quick source of ready wealth. During the 1720's and 1730's the colonists rebelled against the Jesuits and the government that supported them. This being the first serious threat to Spanish authority in the New World caused the crown to rethink its support of the Missions. By order of king Charles III the Jesuits were expelled in 1767 and within just a few decades all they had accomplished was lost.
In 1776 the Spanish crown created the Viceroyalty of Rio de la Plata with Buenos Aires at its capital. Asuncion and the province of Paraguay, formerly dependent to Lima, became an outpost for Buenos. Because of its distance from the main government centers, Paraguay had little control over its economy. Imports to the province all came through Buenos at exorbitant prices, Yerba Mate was priced practically out of the market, taxes were overly burdensome, and Spain basically appropriated all the wealth of Paraguay in order to buy manufactured goods from the more industrialized countries. Spain borrowed heavily from Britain, Buenos Aires borrowed from Spain, Asuncion borrowed from Buenos, and the Paraguayan peasants bought goods on credit from the landowners. There was absolute dire poverty.
The revolution came to Paraguay in 1811 just as it did the rest of South America. You might say that Paraguay just went along for the ride as Spain considered it to be such a backward and remote province it wasn't worth bothering with. Argentina then bungled their attempt to take control of Paraguay simply be selecting the wrong person as their spokesman. Jose Espinola y Pena was linked to an ex-governor, Lazaro de Rivera, who had shot hundreds of his citizens. Espinola fled from Asuncion back to Buenos Aires, lied about the state of affairs in Paraguay, which caused Buenos to send their war hero General Manuel Belgrano and 1,100 troops to Asuncion to subdue the Paraguayans. Belgrano was soundly thrashed and sent home. A misfit Spanish governor Velasco, a man who had fled the battle against Belgrano believing they were losing, who then refused to pay soldiers back pay, and who fired all the officers thinking they were a threat to his rule, finally prompted the citizens to rebel. Independence was declared on May 17, 1811.
So now came the reign of El Supremo, Jose Gasper Rodriguez de Francia. He came to power at this time through some shrewd actions. When Spanish authority failed, Paraguayans had little idea of how to govern themselves. Francia had already managed to convince the Paraguayan elite that he was indispensable. When it was learned that a diplomat from Buenos was on his way to Asuncion to discuss terms, the elite called upon Francia to help. In return the elite gave Francia control of one-half the army and one-half the munitions. The Argentine diplomat arrived and was basically placed under house arrest. Paraguay declared itself to be independent from Argentina, all sympathizers with a union with Argentina were expelled. A congress was held on September 30, 1813, Francia was selected as first consul, a supposedly temporary position, and thus began Paraguay's first of a long string of dictatorships.
Francia was one unusual dude. It was rumored that his father was a mulato, consequently he seemed to have it in for the criollo upper-class. Throughout his reign, from 1813 until 1840, he did everything he could to take land and wealth from the upper classes, including the church, making it all state property. Individual plots were leased to peasants. He banned all religious orders, secularized the priests, confiscated church property, and subordinated the church's finances to the state. He passed a law requiring all those of pure Spanish blood to marry natives. He also decided that the best way to conserve Paraguayan autonomy was to essentially seal it off from the rest of the world. There was virtually no international dialogue at all. Anyone caught trying to leave the country was executed. Anyone who managed to get in had to stay for life. Yet despite all this, Francia was an honest man. He left the state treasury with twice the money it had when he took office including 36,500 pesos of his own back pay. Needless to say the peones through he was great and the elite hated him. Twenty years after his death, September 20, 1840, the elite dug up his remains and threw them in the Rio Parana.
Francia had so much control over all the affairs of state that upon his death the Paraguayans still had no knowledge of how to govern themselves. Chaos reigned until 1841 when a congress selected Carlos Antonio Lopez as first counsul and then in 1844 as president. He held this post as a dictator until his death in 1862. Lopez really was a despot who wanted Paraguay to be his personal fiefdom. Lopez became the largest landowner, a huge cattle rancher, and amassed a fortune partly from the state's monopoly on yerba mate. But he also brought progress; the telegraph, a railroad, universities, and highways. He loosened restrictions on foreign intercourse encouraging foreign investment, immigration by foreign physicians and engineers. He even sent his son to Europe to buy guns. But, in the end he was still a dictator and the average Paraguayan had no more freedom than they'd had under Francia.
Francisco Solano Lopez, Carlos' son, took over office after his father's death in 1862. Unfortunately for Paraguay, Solano was not altogether a sane man. He certainly did not have the luck or skill of his father. Through serious misjudgment he managed to plunge Paraguay into a woefully mismatched war against Argentina, Brazil, and Uruguay; the so-called War of the Triple Alliance. Somehow he got the notion that Paraguay's sovereignty depended upon Uruguay's. So when Brazil attacked Uruguay and Argentina did nothing to protect them, he decided to step in. When his request to send troops across Argentine land was rejected, he sent them anyway. Argentina and Brazil, both coveting Paraguay, retaliated. Uruguay, no more than a puppet state by then, was forced along for the ride. Solano's army was some 30,000 strong, the largest in South America. But it lacked training, leadership, adequate reserves, and a reliable source of munitions and equipment. Paraguay had no industrial base to support a war. Paraguay's total population was 450,000, a number that was lower than the Brazilian National Guard alone. Even after conscription all able bodied males over age 10 he could not come close to matching his rivals. There was cholera, lack of weapons, lack of clothes, lack of food, lack of manpower. Eventually, after 5 long bloody years in which Paraguay lost some 20 to 50% of its population it simply ran out of steam. Lopez completely lost reality. He executed everyone, brothers, brothers-in-law, his own generals, anyone he found disfavor with, all of which worsened his case. Finally in one last battle called the battle of Cerro Caro, Lopez was killed and Paraguay hit it's lowest point in all history.
So now Paraguay headed into a time of supposed democratic government where it had 2 major parties, the Colorados, or Legionnaires, who dominated the scene until 1904, and the Liberals who took over then. When either side was in power the political situation quickly degenerated into political back stabbing, bickering, and infighting. Even the parties themselves could hardly be neatly defined as people switched back and forth as they saw fit. All the while Argentina and Brazil manipulated the parties in the background.
So they started in 1869 with an elected president Juan Bautista Gil who was promptly assassinated in 1877. In 1878 came a Colorado president named Candido Bareiro who was essentially given the election by a dominant General Bernadino Caballero. When Bareiro died in 1880, Caballero took over in a coup and for the next 2 decades provided some form of political stability in the country either directly as president or through puppets he managed to get elected as president. Almost all the land that had taken by the state in Francia's time he sold to foreign investors in order to pay off foreign debt. It got to the point where 79 people owned 50% of the country. Peon squatters were forced to vacate and often to emigrate. The unpopularity of the land sales lead to a deep fictionalization within both parties and by 1893 it seemed control vacillated back and forth as coups and elections replaced one with the other. Finally, the Liberal party took control in 1904 when General Ferreira invaded from Argentina and took over.
The Liberal decades were even less stable than the Colorado's. In a period of 36 years there were no less than 21 governments formed. In 1910 and 1911 there was a period in which every major political group seized power at least once. There was only one 4 year period of relative calm between 1916 to 1920 when a popular Eduardo Schaerer became president. He too eventually succumbed to another group headed by a man named Gondra which then held onto power until 1936.
In the meantime, Bolivia turned an interested eye toward the Chaco region in the northwest of Paraguay. This area, always disputed, was rumored to have a large deposit of oil under all the desolate grasslands. This desire to annex the Chaco became more urgent after Bolivia lost its sea access to Chile. It wanted to extend its borders to the Rio Paraguay to gain a river port. So while the Paraguayans were fighting amongst themselves, Bolivia made moves on the Chaco. They even went so far as to build a fort on the Rio Paraguay in 1928. Angry with the Liberals' inaction, an army major Franco took matters into his own hands. He attacked and destroyed the fort. Bolivia responded by destroying 2 Paraguayan forts. Franco was fired, sent to exile in Argentina, and the Liberal government had the Bolivian fort rebuilt.
Full-scale war finally broke out in 1932 and the Bolivians were confident of a quick victory. They were richer, more populous, better trained, and better equipped. However, they had not counted on the tenacity of the Paraguayan forces. The war dragged on until 1935. Yet despite the Liberals victory in the war, they were politically dead. Their ineptness in the battlefield, bad negotiations with Bolivia, and an inequitable treatment of political hacks as compared to the average soldier lead to an army revolt on February 17, 1916.
Franco was brought back from exile and made president. He promptly made many changes including appropriating 200,000 hectares of land and distributing it among 10,000 families. One of his most lasting changes was to declare Solano Lopez a national hero and to have his remains moved from Cerro Caro to the National Pantheon of Heroes. He felt the man deserved recognition for standing up against so many foreign aggressors despite what his war did to the country.
Franco didn't last long. The army revolted again in 1937 bringing Felix Pavia to power. He was taken out by the liberals and replaced with General Estigarribia in 1939. Estigarribia was brought in as a temporary dictator but he managed to promulgate a new constitution, which strengthened the power of the president, thus ensuring a permanent position as dictator. His reign came to a sudden end in 1940 when he was killed in a plane accident. War Minister Higinio Morinigo was named president. Having new dictatorial powers, he promptly clamped down on all political opposition, including his own party, all freedom of speech and individual liberties.
WWII saw Morinigo, firmly in power, taking a precarious position between the Axis and Allies. On the one hand he received economic assistance from the United States. On the other, there were a lot of Germany sympathizers who were tolerated within the country. There was a Nazi Party branch, the official newspaper had a pro-Axis stance, pro-Allied labor unions were strictly controlled, police cadets wore swastikas on their uniforms. Morinigo was finally forced to commit himself to the Allies side in 1942 after the US officially declared war on Germany. Yet he did not actually declare war on Germany until February, 1945 after he was sure the Axis powers would lose.
Following the war a failed coup attempt in 1946 lead to full scale civil war in March 1947. At the end of the war, in August, only one real party remained, the old Colorados who had been out of power since 1904. So came a man named Chaves. He imposed a state of siege on the country and immediately faced a wall of economic problems. Yet he managed to stay in power simply because the country needed a political rest. But by 1953 his power had eroded sufficiently for the military strongman Alfredo Stroessner Matiauda, to attack and overthrow him. Stroessner was named president in 1954 and thus began his period of virtual dictatorship.
Stroessner maintained his hold on power through the usual means, complete repression. Members of opposition were put into internment camps out in the Chaco, freedom of the press was stifled, bogus elections were held, and he even had the constitution altered to allow him as many terms in office as he desired. He was instrumental in improving foreign investment and exports, but it was all done under a virtual police state. His reign lasted until 1989 when he was finally ousted and went into exile in Brazil. The city that used to bear his name was promptly renamed Ciudad del Este, but it does live up to its former namesake's reputation.
Since then there have been a few more presidents that were actually freely elected. There was the coup leader, Gen. Andres Rodriguez and then Juan Carlos Wasmosy, elected in 1993. Then a big stink started over a general named Oviedo. Wasmosy fired Oviedo for improper political activities. Oviedo won his party's nomination for president. Wasmosy, bared from seeking another term, had Oviedo thrown in prison for a 10 sentence. Oviedo's vice presidential candidate, Cubas, won and promptly pardoned Oviedo. The Supreme Court ruled against Cubas saying he had acted illegally, but Cubas refused to retract his decision. His Vice-President, Luis Maria Argana spoke out against Cubas and was murdered in Asuncion. During the next 3 days, Cubas was impeached, violent protests left 6 dead and 200 injured, and on March 28 Cubas resigned and fled to Brazil. Senate leader Luis Angel Gonzalez Macchi became president and a special election produced Julio Cesar Franco as Vice-President. Ah but not all is calm in the state of Paraguay. The president was recently found to be driving a stolen BMW, which he claims he didn't know was stolen. So the life and times of corruption, despotic rule, and dictatorship may be far from over.
Day 77,78, 79 - 93.26 km to Tomas Romero Pereira, 98.10 km to Hohenau, 39.67 km to Encarnacion
Fortunately for us, the removal of the last police state of Stroessner's regime has allowed for the very gradual development of a tourist infrastructure. Although, granted, there really is little for Paraguay to offer the tourist. Eastern Paraguay, near Ciudad del Este, was only recently populated in significant numbers and mostly due to the building of the Itaipu dam. What there is to see and do around Ciudad del Este pretty much has to do with shopping. There is no old town, no interesting architecture, and the city itself is rather dirty, ugly, and unsafe. It's not a place one spends much time in.
Outside of Ciudad del Este, in the southeast and south of the country, one finds only rolling farmlands. Most of the old forests have been cleared and replaced with huge cultivated fields. Crops seem to be mostly yerba mate, corn, and soybeans. Soybeans can be seen scattered along the entire length of Route 6. Route 6 is a relatively new road, strategically placed to provide the shortest route between Ciudad del Este and Encarnacion. The towns along its length are also fairly new. Hence they have no interesting old character. They're mostly long, strung out towns that provide support for the highway and the farms in the area. They're rather boring places in which to spend the evening. They're nowhere near as dirty or dangerous as Ciudad del Este. Although, we were still rather amazed to see a few armed security men guarding such places as a car dealer's lot. Yet after seeing young women walking the dark streets alone, we concluded they must be pretty safe places after all.
One of the main sites one sees along this long rolling road are large silos where the corn and soy are collected. Many are brand new, as evidenced by their still very shiny aluminum siding. Trucks of all sorts of ages and condition line up to drop their loads at each of the silos. We were surprised to see many silos were subsidiaries of ADM, Archer Daniel Midland, a US company that likes to advertise that they're the "supermarket to the world."
We also passed through an incredible disparity of wealth. At one bridge we spotted a bunch of peasants scrambling on the ground gathering up the soy beans dropped from one of the trucks. They were bagging it up and I presume planning to sell it to one of the silos or eat it. It really is a desperate situation when you have to resort to gathering grain dropped from a truck. At another point we were passing a shack town where dwellings consisted of no more than wooden frames covered with black plastic. Women worked outside each scrubbing clothes, cooking, or tending children. Those houses that were made of wood reminded us of the little cabins built by miners in the boom towns of the US old west, simple wooden shacks that look like they'd blow over in the slightest storm. Yet further south we passed through several towns that were inhabited by German settlers. Here you see some definite wealth in the finely built and landscaped houses. You also saw some shotgun toting guards hanging around the Co-op grocery store at Hohenau. There were veritable mansions, many brand new, in the town of Capitan Miranda just outside of Encarnacion. I suppose all countries have a wide disparity in wealth, but sometimes it seems far more evident than others.
We had few difficulties in the riding. Drivers were rather maniacal, however for the most part there was a good shoulder. Paraguayans and Argentines in this region of the country tend to put speed bumps on their shoulders, if there is one. If they didn't cars would be driving on them all the time, especially impatient drivers trying to get around a truck or bus slowly making it way up a hill. Some of the speed bumps were reasonable to ride over, others looked like concrete walls. Some we could skirt around on the grass side, others forced us into the traffic lane. All of them, without exception, caused us to slow down and then crank back up again after passing. This does get mighty tiring after a while. There was also a 25 to 30 km section just before the German settled ton of Bella Vista where the shoulder disappeared. Here the riding was frightening. Paraguayan drivers would rather run you off the road, or run you over, than slow for one bit. Time and again we were forced to jump for the bushes to avoid becoming another traffic statistic. Fortunately the shoulder returned at Bella Vista and continued all the way to Encarnacion. Otherwise we would have caught a bus for the last bit.
We have come to the conclusion that the only time to consider bike touring this part of South America is in the dead of winter. Here we were riding in what should have been the equivalent of late October in the north and temperatures were still hovering in the low 30s centigrade. Add to that 90% humidity and we were miserable. Our only recourse was to set the alarm for before dawn, eat a fast breakfast, ride until 1 PM, and collapse into an air-conditioned room. Otherwise it was just too hot. One night we did find an oasis, the only campground we found in Paraguay located in the German town of Hohenau. They had the cleanest, sparkling pool we've seen in all South America and we had it all to ourselves. We were in heaven for one afternoon. When we finally pulled into Encarnacion on our last, super hot day of riding we'd had enough. It's just too hot, the drivers too crazy, and the scenery just not all that exciting. If you really like riding through rolling farmland and you have time to kill, Paraguay is the place for you. Otherwise there are much better places to spend your time.
Day 80 - Encarnacion, ruins of Trinidad
Encarnacion is one strange town. It has two parts, alto and baja, upper and lower. The lower town is just a bunch of old, decrepit buildings that now house a busy, makeshift market where all sorts of trinkets are sold to Argentines at cheap prices. You can find almost anything you want from food to electronics. I say almost because the one thing I was looking for seems to be impossible to find in all of Paraguay. I wanted a shirt patch of the flag of Paraguay and they just don't have any. The shops can be anything from stores actually contained within a building to rickety wooden stalls covered with plastic. Downstream from Encarnacion is another huge dam project. Theoretically the lower town is supposed to eventually be flooded and the shop owners will be forced to move. Until then, they stay in their little shops, most needing to be condemned, scraping as many pesos out of the passing Argentines as they can before the flood comes.
Encarnacion alto is a whole different and equally strange world. It's modern, a new city built to replace the soon to be flooded baja. It's got the usual shopping district with clean, modern stores often interspersed with run down shacks. What's so strange are the fancy mansions scattered among the buildings. It's not the fact that there are such nice, huge, expensive mansions, it's where they are located that's so strange. You'll have a row of stores and right in the middle of them will be this ultra nice house. People will walk by doing their shopping while some fellow sits outside on his patio reading the paper, quite strange. The oddest one was located right on the plaza. Surrounding the new plaza are multistory, high-rise bank style buildings. Yet on one side the bank building is right in between 2 of those fancy houses. Wander down any street and peek down an alley between 2 store fronts and you're bound to spot a fancy house behind. It's one of the oddest, eclectic collection of buildings we've encountered.
There's virtually nothing of tourist interest in Encarnacion, no museums, no old cathedrals, nor any colonial buildings worth mentioning. However, around Encarnacion are located the ruins of the 8 Jesuit missions that were located across the Rio Parana. The one that is best restored is located about 30 km north of the city in a itty, bitty village called Trinidad. The ruins aren't particularly extensive and there's no museum to accompany the toppled rocks. However, its rather isolated location can give you a feel for what it must have been like back when the padres and natives were actively farming. Position yourself just right and you can see just ruins and fields, no modern buildings. Most of what remains are partial walls of about 6 of the residential buildings, walls of the 2 churches, and walls of the gardens and cemetery. The residential buildings were long, single story row houses each having about 10 large rooms, covered patios on both sides, front and back doors for ventilation. At one time they were roofed with red tile. Supposedly the town once held some 4,000 people yet with the ruins that are currently exposed it seems far too small. I guess most of the ruins are buried. Everything is made from that same red rock that is everywhere in this area. It's a soft rock, easily carved and, unfortunately, easily weathered. Someday the entire ruins will simply melt back into the earth from where it came. Within the main, newer church is a fantastically carved pulpit that looks almost too good to be old. Much of the floor is original, the original paving under the covered patios still remain, and there's even a crypt you can climb into. The crypt still has about 8 nice little ledges just perfect for holding a body or skeleton. The skeletons are long gone so there's lots of space available. Any volunteers?
The sky darkened, lightning flashed, thunder boomed, and it poured. We'd managed to find the one and only covered spot among the Trinidad ruins, a former arcade that now houses some of the carved fragments from the former church. The storm added a certain mystery to an already mystic site. We admired the works whole waiting for a respite from the rain that never really came. There were cherubs holding up ferocious looking stone faces, former rainspouts. Carvings of flowers that looked a lot like tulips and daises adorned some rocks. Even an unusual looking bird with an extraordinarily long neck was carved on another. Only a few fragments still bore evidence of paint. We had to wonder where all the white paint came from. With so much red dirt and rock, white would seem to be extremely hard to find. We only saw 8 other people visiting these ruins in the entire 3 to 4 hours we stayed. It's a quiet, lonely, eerie place.
Day 81 - Posadas, ruins of San Ignacio Mini
Getting over to Posadas is a bit of an adventure in itself. Posadas is in Argentina, Encarnacion in Paraguay. To get from one country to the other requires taking a bus over the bridge. Getting the bus isn't so bad. It's dealing with the border crossing that takes time. Locals just have to show a card. On the Paraguayan side we had to get off to have our passports stamped to show we'd left Paraguay. On the Argentina side we had to get our passports stamped once again saying we'd entered Argentina. By the time all this was done our bus had left. No problem, we just caught the next. Returning to Paraguay we had to go through the same procedure all over again. Do this too many times and you'll have a passport full of Argentina and Paraguay stamps.
Our primary objective in the Posadas region was to visit the other well restored ruins, San Ignacio Mini. These ruins look very similar to those of Trinidad except that they are more extensive. In this case there are enough residential ruins to make you believe there really were 4,500 people living there. Also the workshops and the refectory are in excellent condition. We particularly admired the enormous beautiful porch out in the back of the refectory. It was interesting to see how much better the accommodations for the padres were than those for the native converts. We'd heard that the padres taught the natives certain skills such as metal and wood working, but did they teach them reading and writing? We doubt it. They wanted the Indians to be good converts but they still didn't want them to aspire to much beyond that, such as becoming padres themselves. One final unique building in San Ignacio Mini was the carcel, jail. It was so big. It was a large, rectangular building with a big plaza in the middle. It seemed to have about 10 or more cells. It seemed awfully large for a community of just 4,500. We wondered if most of the incarcerated were there for religious sins rather than real crimes.
After spending several hours at the ruins and having lunch we returned to Posadas to see if there was anything of interest there. There's not. The church is just a nondescript, modern building both inside and out. The ceiling fans really give the interior an ugly appearance. Otherwise there's just shopping. It's neater and larger than Encarnacion but that's about it. The most interesting part we happened upon by accident. We got on a bus going the wrong way. We found ourselves winding along rough dirt roads through the less affluent sectors of town, past lots of plain board houses. The driver had a great time with our mistake, laughing all the way as we made our way back to the town center. Late that evening we saw our friendly driver once again as we were waiting for the bus back to Encarnacion. He waved. We waved back. It's easy to make friends here.
Day 82, 83, 84 - Bus to Buenos Aires, Buenos Aires, Back to Tucson
Well, all adventures do come to a close, or at least we change from one adventure to another, quite different one. It was time to catch the bus back to Buenos Aires and our flight back to Tucson. Catching buses in Argentina has proven to be a chore, Paraguay was just the same. Having the bikes carefully desarmada, taken apart, and taped together we managed to get everything over to the bus station, which was, thankfully, right across the street. It was Sunday. We'd been watching the bus station all morning. It was quiet. At least until we showed up, that is. Our bikes were parked right out in front where the ticket agent claimed we were supposed to get our bus. At first there was no one. As the half-hour we had to wait dragged on, more and more people arrived. From quiet it grew to a mad house. Four buses showed up at the exact same time and ours happened to show up last, which meant it was furthest from where we'd parked our stuff, of course. We were tripping over people, they were tripping over us as we worked to shift everything 2 platforms over. Intermixed with the real passengers were family members seeing each other off all trying to get in those last minute photos, vendors trying to sell everything imaginable, money changers, drivers, conductors. It was chaos. Somehow we managed to get everything on, no thanks to the supposed baggage handler. We paid him the 8,000 Guarani, about $2, for the bags and he let us load them. Such a deal.
Once at the border it was another one of those fun crossings with the added complication of having to have a baggage check, oh boy. Fortunately they let us leave the bikes in place. In fact, we were even able to get them better positioned. But we did have to remove those super heavy bags, inch them along through a long line up to an inspection table, and then open them. One bit of luck, the inspector was reasonable. Knowing that we were the bikers from the US he just waved us on. I'd hate to imagine having to open everything up for a detailed inspection. Ugh. At last we were off, through the difficult border crossing and on our way for another 15 hour long bus ride. Ah but there was one more security check. Argentine police came aboard, walked through the aisle checking passports. Anyone with a South American foreign passport had their hand baggage checked in not so gentle a manner. Us, they practically ignored. The Paraguayan man sitting in the seat next to us seemed terribly curious as to why we were getting such easy treatment. After this experience we've made one conclusion. We will never again arrange to ride a bus with the bike into Argentina. Out is OK. In, forget it.
The ride was uneventful after that and amazingly efficient. We stopped only twice, once to pick up dinner and next to pick up breakfast. Every other bus ride we'd been on so far had been filled with stop after stop. Due to this trip's directness we were able to get to Buenos Aires in just about 15 hours, much better. We promptly unpacked everything, rolled over to our favorite Tres Sargentos hotel, and began the preparations for our return to Tucson.
So it's been in interesting trip, although not especially scenic for much of it. Foz de Iguazu was incredible, as was the riding in the northeastern mountains. The coast of Uruguay was a nice introduction to the region and Buenos Aires was worth several days visit. We certainly feel better prepared for our future west-coast ride. There is one thing we have concluded about Argentina, Uruguay, and Paraguay, you don't necessarily go there for the food. The cuisine is so homogenous throughout the region it gets quite monotonous. There's the usual grilled food, beef, chicken, and pork, short order food such as hamburgers and milenesa, pasta, and pizza. Finding a wide variety of international foods is nearly impossible even in a country like Buenos Aires. Although, you can definitely get some of the best steaks you've ever tried. Also, as far as the mate custom goes, you can have it. The concept of sharing the cup of tea between friends and acquaintances is fine. It's just that the tea is awful. It takes like someone went into their backyard, mowed the lawn, dried the grass, stuck it in a bowl, covered it with hot water, and called it a drink. I'll take plain orange pekoe, thank you. The hours Argentines keep also is something we'd probably never get used to. In small towns dinner doesn't start until the bewitching hour of 8 PM. Try to find a restaurant open before then, forget it. Stores are also closed for a good portion of the midday. You'd better get your groceries before noon or you won't see any until after 5 PM. Sunday, forget it. You'd better have picked up your supplies on Saturday morning. But, Argentines are wonderfully friendly people and the country is refreshingly safe and clean for a Latin American country. So it did make a great introduction to South America. Peru, Bolivia, and Chile here we come.
Appendix A - Route
March 23 - Rt. 307 to Monteros, continue to Simaco, Rt. 157 to La Madrid
Appendix B - Campsites or hotels
March 23 - YPF station at La Madrid
April 15 - Hotel Austria, Ciudad del Este
April 23 - Hotel Tres Sargentos, Buenos Aires
Copyright © 1995-2011 by Caryl L. Bergeron - Distribution for personal use permitted. Distribution for other uses with written permission.