SOUTH AMERICA BUS TRIP 2
Cuenca, Ecuador to Puerto Madryn, Argentina
January 14, 2005 to Febuary 20, 2004
Ancient rituals used to abound at the site of Chavin de Huantar.
Marathon rides of a wide assortment of buses seems to be the norm.
Foz do Iguazu, can we begin to say enough about this place.
Hiking in the coastal rain forest near Curitiba, Brazil is a challenge.
Just about the perfect, rustic island getaway, Ilha do Mel.
We just had to see the bicycle museum at Joinville.
Canela and Gramado, about as un South American as you can get.
On to Patagonia one last time.
An itty bitty pinguino in my soul, thousands of pinguinos all round.
"Though they carry nothing forth with them, yet in all their journey they lack nothing. For wheresoever they come, they be at home." Sir Thomas More (1478-1535), Of Their Journeying or Traveling Abroad, Utopia, Bk. 2, 1516
Just when does taking a bus ride in one of these developing countries progress from being an adventure, to just a mode of transportation, then to some sort of punishment. In South America that point seems to be when you try to get yourself from one corner of the continent to the other. We had two very expensive Brazilian visas, purchased in San Fransisco before our departure. They needed to be initiated before February 7th, which meant entering Brazil physically before then. Why the Brazilian government would care exactly when you entered their country after purchasing the visa is beyond us. Getting to a point in Brazil that is within easy transportation of other areas from Ecuador is not easy. Traveling directly from Ecuador to Brazil, if even possible, would require a heroic act of endurance and downright stubbornness as you travel down the Amazon on local boat transportation. Once in the Brazilian Amazon, you would be far up in the northwestern extreme, thousands of km away from anywhere. Flights are possible, once you get yourself to Manaus or Tabatinga. But these are very, very costly.
Getting to Brazil from Peru requires a very similar, but somewhat better defined, journey. We'd read a few travelogues where people had managed to travel via commercial shipping boats from the northern jungles of Peru along the Amazon into northern Brazil. These travels seem to entail spending up to a week swinging on a hammock aboard a boat of questionable seaworthiness in the sweltering heat and humidity of the jungle lowlands. Or you can take a relatively inexpensive flight to Iquitos or Puerto Maldonado and then use boat or bus transport to Brazil. Either option still places you far out on the western fringes of this vast country, many a long bus ride away from anywhere.
After much investigation we concluded that the two best ways to cross the continent were either to get to Brazil by bussing to Lima, flying to La Paz, bussing to Santa Cruz, BO, take a train to Corumba, and then bus across Brazil to some eastern destination. Or from la Paz, we could bus around Paraguay, through Argentina, and into Brazil via Puerto Iguazu. In hindsight, flying from Quito or Guayaquil to Buenos Aires would have been much easier and, perhaps, not all that much more expensive. But there was Chavin de Huantar to visit in northern Peru and we wanted to visit more places in Bolivia. So we pushed onward, mostly by bus.
The "journey" started at the wee hour of around 6:40AM from Cuenca aboard a bus that could be classified as being no better than an old US Greyhound. Small, tightly spaced seats in a well-worn coach with no air conditioning. Fortunately, the trip started early enough and high enough that the temperatures were still cool and the bus was not full. Five hours later we arrived back in Guayaquil.
Our original plans had been to switch to an Ormeno international bus, a nice air-conditioned sleeping bus, for the trip to Trujillo. However it just so happened that this bus, this particular day, was having mechanical problems. So our choice was to either spend another night in Guayaquil or press onward aboard the only other international bus we knew about, Cifa. Take that first bus from Cuenca and downgrade it another half step and you get the Cifa line. These are hot, cramped, uncomfortable buses that can be graded somewhere between an old US school bus and an old US Greyhound. We took this for the five hour ride back to Tumbes, that rather dismal, boring, border town in Peru.
Once you've spent one night in Tumbes it's highly unlikely you'll want to spend another day. Almost anything would be better, even returning to Piura which was not all that exciting either. After a couple hours wandering we managed to finally locate a high quality sleeping bus headed to Trujillo. It left at around 6 PM and would arrive at around 5AM. This at least had large, reclining seats with footrests. The one thing we could have done without was the awful B-class, kung-foo, action movies dubbed in Spanish. They really are absolutely awful.
The wee hours of the morning, 24 hours since we'd left Cuenca, we were unceremoniously dumped out on the street at the circular road going around Trujillo. Peru usually does not have a central bus station, which makes finding onward bus connections far more difficult than it should be. Often it involves going from office to office of the individual bus companies until you find one going where you want to go when you want to go for a price you're willing to pay. And here we were standing literally just at a street intersection, no bus office in sight, in the pre dawn hours of a not entirely safe part of Trujillo. After being warned by the taxi driver, newspaper salesman, a fellow buying a paper, and a woman selling pastries that we'd best take a taxi to where we want to go, we agreed. Within minutes we were hustled into the cab, shuttled over to one small bus station having some of the short distance buses, and found ourselves on another of those lower that low old Greyhound style buses for the two hour ride to Chimbote.
The entire purpose of this effort was to try to get to Chimbote in time to catch the early morning bus that runs up the canon de pato (Duck Canyon) to Huarez during daylight hours. The canyon is supposed to be a spectacular drive, so we wanted to try to get a day bus, not realizing just how low in quality these buses could be. We're talking about recycled Blue Bird school bus quality with far too many passengers, no air conditioning, small windows opening onto a dusty dirt road, and all luggage either on the roof where it may or may not survive in tact or crammed between your legs. This was for a trip that was supposed to last 6 hours but wound up being 8 due to the numerous stops and bridge construction. Feeling bus sick most of the way and having serious aching in my knee, not even the scenery of the spectacular canon could make this trip worth it. It was pretty bad. A night bus may have been a better idea to begin with.
Thirty-two hours, three bad movies, five buses of varying quality, and four hastily grabbed snacks we finally arrived in Huarez, Peru. Here we would take a break, albeit a short one, to recuperate for the next leg and to visit the Chavin de Huantar ruins.
Huarez has one spectacular setting. It's tucked in a valley surrounded by the rugged, snow capped Cordillera Blanca, White Mountains. Trekking and climbing opportunities abound. Whereas the coast had been that dry, greenless desert, this mountain valley was alive with trees, pastures, and fields. In fact the very name of the valley, Yungay, refers to a yellow flowered plant that virtually filled the valley when the Spaniards arrived. This plant today has been supplanted with imported agricultural plants and weeds from Europe. The amazingly adaptable eucalyptus tree from Australia is found everywhere.
Unfortunately, Huarez and all of the towns in the valley have had to pay dearly for this scenery. In the 1970s a major earthquake occurred just off the coast near the city of Chimbote. This quake leveled the entire town of Huarez and triggered a landslide that buried the nearby town of Yungay. Over 70,000 inhabitants of this valley perished. The one stroke of good fortune amidst this massive scene of destruction was that most of the children of Yungay were saved. There happened to be a circus in town. It happened to position itself behind a protective hill. There happened to be free admission that day for the children. Most of the town's children were at this free circus behind the protective hill right at the moment the landslide hit. Most of these thousands of orphans were eventually adopted by European families. Many still return yearly to honor those who died their parents and relatives. The town of Yungay was rebuilt although this time behind that very same protective hill.
Our primary objective for being at Huarez was to visit the ruins of Chavin de Huantar. If we had had the opportunity, a visit to the nearby glaciers would have been a nice addition. However we soon learned that this particular part of the national park is closed during the rainy season to allow the plants and wildlife a chance for recovery. The only other tour often mentioned was a tour to some of the mountain lakes and most travelogues we read were full of complaints. The tour spends far too much time at pottery shops rather than at the lakes. "Not worth it" we'd heard several times. So we made plans to tour the ruins on Monday and then head back toward Lima on Monday night. It would be a much shorter stop at Huarez than we'd originally planned.
Having time to kill on Sunday afternoon, we decided to take in the small municipal museum. It has a few interesting items. The best are the dozens of small statues from the Recuay culture (later than Chavin) out back in their small sculpture garden. It was in this museum that we met one of those travelers that we always find exciting to meet.
We'd climbed the 8 or so steps leading into the museum and stood waiting in front of the vacant ticket booth wondering where the agent might have gone. A rather tall, matronly built woman with short gray hair approached. "He's not here" she declared and then thought, "Oh, do you speak English?" Thus was our introduction to Kay Smith.
Kay had just retired from teaching and decided to treat herself to a one year round the world low budget, backpacking style tour. South America was to be her last stop before heading back to Oregon where she'd begin a six-month coast-to-coast bicycle tour. What we enjoyed most was that Kay is the kind of person who finds everything to be truly amazing. She's there to experience the place she visits to the utmost, finding interest in even the most mundane. Trials and difficulties become funny moments of memory later on. When her camera was stolen, she didn't buy another. She simply started painting with watercolors instead. She buys a three day ticket for a cruise down the Yangtse only to find herself spending the entire time sitting and sleeping on a large coil of rope on the deck of a very low cost barge surrounded by just Chinese, very friendly Chinese at that. Kay does not just travel to add another notch to her belt, as so many backpackers seem to do. She's out there to collect memories. She's living this life to the fullest.
Kay is the kind of traveler we could only wish was going in the same direction we were going at least for a few days. It'd be fun to swap stories. But, Kay was headed north while our destination was further south. We said our good-byes as she ran for the bus and we strolled back to the hotel.
The bus arrived right on time, 9 AM, and as so often seems the case, we were the first ones they picked up. Wandering around from agent to agent the day before getting tour prices ranging from 35 to 23 soles per person, we finally extracted the truth from one agent. During the low season, which happens to be January, there typically are not enough tourists throughout the entire town to warrant sending more than one bus. All the agents would pool their tourists onto that one bus. So in this case, getting the cheapest price you could still meant getting the identical quality service. So we booked with the agency that told us the truth and gave us the tour for a greatly discounted rate.
The bus turned out to be just a mini van. They'd had only 12 people sign up, although one lady had a disagreement with the tour operators saying she'd paid for three not two. So one extra little girl was squeezed in. It took over half an hour of wandering around town collecting the remaining passengers before we finally took off. That's typical of Peruvian tours. You seem to spend an inordinate amount of time shuttling from hotel to hotel picking up passengers. The larger the bus, the more passengers to find, the longer this takes. But, finally after all passengers were aboard and all disagreements settled, we were off.
The drive to Chavin de Huantar is about as spectacular as can be. The fairly recently paved road twists, turns, and climbs to the breathtaking altitude of 14,000 plus ft. It passes through a rough cut tunnel that reminds us of not much more than an old mining tunnel, and it snakes back down to the same elevation as we left over a dirt, soon to be paved, road. Rugged mountains covered with snow and glaciers fringe the surroundings while patchwork green farms quilt the lowlands. Tiny towns and farms filled with red roofed, adobe walled structures dot the hillsides. After three hours twisting, turning, and bouncing through this wonderful landscape we finally arrive at the actual town of Chavin.
Chavin is a rather pretty little town clearly benefiting from it's proximity to the nearby famous ruins. The buildings seem better built and the streets and plaza cleaner than those of other towns. We were given about 1/2 hour for lunch and to wander, just enough time to find an ice cream and to visit the small plaza. All too soon we were wandering up the street, close on the heels of our guide Carlos, headed toward the famous and important Chavin de Huantar ruins.
The Chavin culture is considered to be one, if not the, most important Pre-Inca cultures of Peru. It was important primarily because it was the first culture to extend over a fairly large tract of land, much of northern and central Peru from the coast to the jungle. There had been many earlier cultures, but these were mostly disparate religious sects having loose trade relations with nearby villages. The Chavin were a culmination of all these religious sects uniting under a single belief system. Chavin weren't a warrior, conquering people. Rather they gained control through the spread of their religious ideas and belief system.
Chavin de Huantar was the primary center and temple for this religion. It location was selected because it was situated where it was easy to track the sun and stars thus permitting the priests to predict the seasons. It also happened to be centered at the crossroads of trade for the entire Yunguay valley, the jungle, and the coast. Some archeologists claim the name Chavin means "middle" or "center" of the world. But, this theory is discounted by many because there are many Chavins throughout Peru. Others believe that the name Chavin de Huantar may have something to do with the puma, mountain lion, which is so predominant in their culture. Others point out that the name Chavin de Huantar seems to have appeared mysteriously for no cited reason in colonial literature sometime in the 1700s. Hence, they really have no idea where it comes from.
The Chavin culture seems to have evolved around a cult of priests who claimed to be able to communicate with the gods to get accurate weather predictions. In truth, the whole idea probably started with a bunch of farmers who happened to have a natural capability for making celestial observations. Over time others recognized their seemingly magical ability to predict seasons and they began following the practices of these special farmers with the fervor of a religious cult. Centuries later, the priests had risen to the point of being practically gods themselves.
This, however, was a very precarious position to be in. At any time they could goof seriously on their predictions, such as when an El Nino hits, and the peasants could figure out it was all a ruse. So these priests surrounded themselves with all sorts of ceremonies, special effects, special dress and accoutrements in order to keep the peasants afraid and in tow. Priests dressed themselves in representations of the eagle, god of the above world, puma, god of the terrestrial world, and snake, god of the below world. Usually these vestments took on the most ferocious aspects of these critters. Fangs, teeth, and talons were quite common. Anything and everything conceivable was used to make those peasants respect and fear the gods and their spokesmen, the priests.
The structure of the temple of Chavin de Huantar is also spectacular a show of power. Engravings throughout evoke images of the three gods: snake, eagle, and puma. Sometimes they would be cloaked over images of humans. Other times the animal is represented alone. The structure is an engineering marvel. A system of canals directs the nearby river throughout the structure providing water for drinking and waste extraction. Ingeniously, the canals were structured such that when water flowed underneath a howling issued forth from some of the openings. Priests, of course, claimed it was the voice of the gods.
As usual, human and animal sacrifices were a major part of the religious ceremonies. One special room was set aside, priests only, where bodies were beheaded, disemboweled, and dismembered. Blood was extracted, taken deep into the heart of the temple to the huge stone known as the Lanzon de Huntar. The blood was poured into a depression in the top and allowed to run down a channel on one edge. The Lanzon is carved in the representation of the eagle, puma, snake god and the blood ran down its nose then continued down a channel running back into the sacrifice chamber where it collected in a small well in the center. What a lively and inspiring religious ceremony it must have been.
Human sacrifices were not uncommon. In fact, through another one of the many entrances on top of the temple one finds a very large set of chambers whose walls have displaced rocks placed high near the ceiling. These were offset rocks were used to tie prisoners hands over their heads while they waited their turns in the sacrificial suite. Prisoners were one next to the other, hip to hip, shoulder to shoulder. Just imagine the stench with hundreds of men and probably some women tied in this very enclosed room, no light and almost no ventilation.
The entire temple was built many stories high out of excavated rocks. Yet it is riddled with rooms, water channels, and ducts for ventilation, lighting, and communication. There's the main religious chamber where the Lanzon still rests, chambers for storage of offerings, food and other goods, chambers where the priests lived, chambers where the priests went through purification rituals, and chambers where prisoners were kept. During our 2-hour tour, we visited about 12 of the rooms. Yet, this is only a small fraction of what is known to exist and what has yet to be discovered and excavated. It would be interesting if, someday, a complete computer model of the entire temple complex complete with artistic representations of what might have been inside could be built. It would make a great virtual tour.
There's far more to the Chavin religion than just the temple itself. The numbers 2, 3, and 7 held special significance. Two represents the dualism so often found in nature: life and death, light and dark, male and female. Duality of nature is replicated on the temple as dark and light stones fronting the main entrance and the male and female priest figures carved on the main pillars. Seven is represented in the main light and dark stones used as to face the front of the temple. There are seven on each side of the main entrance. There are seven carved birds on the lintels above the columns. The large open plaza in front of the temple measures an exact 49X49 meters square and the main sacrifice chamber is a circle measuring 21 meters (3X7). Is this an extrapolation of the number 7 or is it merely a coincidence. The Chavin had no knowledge of the metric system so we tend to believe it is just coincidence.
Originally the rough exterior wall stones would have been faced with a nice smooth outer stone surface, most of which is gone today. High along the walls some 220 carved stone heads stuck out of the walls. All were unique and represented humans, animals, or some mythic being. Reflective stones placed in the eyes combined with torches strategically placed outside would have given the temple quite an otherworldly appearance at night. It's not hard to imagine how the peasants were so convinced the gods lived, or at least visited this site.
Finally the aspects that seemed so down-to-earth human were the direction signs. With so many people coming to this single site to make offerings, some sort of traffic control was needed. Today we use arrows and stop signs. Back then they used symbols they found in nature. In many locations carved representations of the heads of snakes pointed in certain directions indicate which way the common folk were to go.
The Chavin religious sect lasted from around 1200 BC to 200 AD. It wasn't conquered nor did it suffer some cataclysmic fate. Rather the common folk lost faith in the powers of the priests. Priests were all highly addicted to the hallucinogenic properties of the San Pedro cactus. Add to that unusual climate changes due to such weather phenomena as El Nino not predicted by the priests and you can see why the farmers would lose faith. Once again the region subdivided into much smaller sects, such as the Requay, until much later when the Wari and Inca appeared.
With this one last northern Peru site visited, it was time to continue our push toward Brazil. The deadline was fast approaching and we still had a long distance to go. Our original plan had been to get to La Paz, Bolivia, spend a couple weeks seeing Potosi and Sucre, and then push on. But, as we well know, things happen in independent travel that can alter or delay even the best plans. So we decided it would be best to keep going. A reasonably comfy night bus got us into Lima at about 6AM. A four-hour flight got us to Juliaca at around 5PM. A two-hour packed van ride got us to Puno where we stopped for a night to take a breather.
We had planned to take a tourist bus from Puno to La Paz, however by the time we arrived in Puno the office for making reservations was closed. So we settled for public transportation. Three hours sitting in the small, cramped seat of an over packed minibus, luggage sitting between our legs, we arrived at one of the worst border towns we've ever experienced, Desaguadero. Two years earlier we'd ridden our bikes through this very same border and swore we'd never ever again pass through here. We can swear up and down, but it still doesn't help when travel plans are changed. Once again we found ourselves in this cesspool and once again we swore this would be the absolute last time. Let's just hope we're right this time.
Then we crowded into a mini station wagon turned taxi for the 2-hour ride to La Paz. Three of us were squashed into the back seat, the driver and one other up front, and somewhere between the sacks of potatoes in back was jammed another woman. I didn't even realize she was there until we stopped at the border for formalities. I would assume she got a discount rate since she didn't even get a seat.
With one day off traveling to wander La Paz, we worked on travel arrangements to Argentina. Our destination within Brazil was Foz do Iguacu. We'd visited two years earlier and it was one of the few places in the world where we felt a need to return. In the La Paz bus station we found several agencies which could arrange travel to locations within Argentina, including the Puerto Iguacu on the Argentine side. Unfortunately the Iguacu buses all pass through Paraguay which, crazy as it may seem, now charges U.S. citizens $65 for a visa. Want to bet they've had virtually zero U.S. tourists since imposing that fee. So we decided to head for Salta, the first major city across the border in Argentina, and then work our way to Iguacu. Good plan, right? HA!
When buying tickets from the bus agency, we were given the impression that we'd have reserved seats on buses all the way to Salta. The first bus was to be a comfortable semicama(semi bed), the second a full cama. We subsequently found that nothing could be further from the truth. The first bus was nothing more than an ancient, Greyhound style of bus. Yes it did have reclining seats, but no more. The seats were very closely spaced and horribly padded. It had almost no heat, no toilet, and the luggage hold seals were so bad our bags were coated in dust when we arrived. It was a long, long uncomfortable bus ride.
Then when we arrived at the border we were surprised to discover that we, in fact, did not have an onward reservation. All we had was a voucher, which the agency used to transfer us to the first convenient bus headed to Salta. This bus proved to be another uncomfortable Greyhound style bus. After another 5-hour crummy ride we vowed never to go for reservations across borders again unless we know the bus we're getting on and don't change along the way. It's best, we concluded to make your own arrangements right at the border. We'd paid far too much for service we did not receive.
Getting beyond Salta proved to be a challenge as well. Upon arrival, at around 10 PM, we found all buses headed northeast were full or already gone. This was high summer vacation season after all. So we found a hotel, got a reasonable night sleep, and made plans to get further toward Iguacu the next day.
Early the next morning the only bus we could find that was not full and that was leaving that day was from a company called La Nueva Estrella. We soon found out why it was not full. That's because it had to bee the worst Argentine bus line we've ever seen. We were supposed to leave at around 4 PM. The bus showed up at 5:30, an hour and a half late. The driver came into the station from the wrong direction and I spotted a bus employee flagging him down to show him the right direction. This did not look good.
Things went from bad to worse. We had really been looking forward the really good buses of Argentina. Normally they are quite remarkable. However, this particular bus was not. We knew we were in for a long uncomfortable ride the minute we climbed aboard. It was one of the older semicama buses clearly not well maintained. Things were broken, wires hung down in several places, a garbage bin kept falling out of place, some of the seats did not recline, there was no flush water in the toilet, and worst of all the air conditioning did not work.
We climb aboard anyway and finally get moving about 2 hours late. A few hours later the bus comes to a halt in the middle of the highway. There was no town or bus station in sight. "What gives?" we wondered. The next thing we know the bus was turned around and headed back. Our wrong way bus driver missed a turn about 1/2 hour earlier and needed to go back. It took a reminder from one of our fellow passengers for him to realize his error. That added another hour to our arrival time.
About 1 or 2 AM we stop again, this time in some tiny town and again not at a bus station. We sit outside a gas station several minutes while the driver backs up, and forward, and back again. With no indication as to why we stopped, he finally takes off again, for few minutes at least. Presently we find ourselves in front of another gas station going through a similar set of mysterious movements. This time the driver was searching for a tire repair shop. As is often the case in Latin America this tire repair shop was nothing more than a small shack surrounded by old oil, tires, rims and other junk. We waited another hour while the tire was pulled off, repaired, and put back. Could this tire problem also be related to the lack of basic maintenance on the entire bus? Hmmmm. Just what kind of bus service is this? We thought we left this stuff behind in Bolivia.
Corrientes finally came into sight a full 6 hours late. Never have we seen an Argentine bus run so late. An hour may be common, but certainly not 6. Most passengers got fed up with the crummy service and got themselves onto better buses in Corrientes. Since we'd already paid and since they were promising they'd fix the a/c, we decided to stay aboard. Five hours later, still with extremely poor a/c, we arrived in Posadas. Thankful to be off that bus, we booked ourselves directly onto the next bus, different company, to Puerto Iguazu. Taking a deep breath as we entered the refreshingly refrigerated, much newer and nicer bus, we settled down for the final 5-hour ride.
So after a total of 3 days, most of which was spent on crummy buses, our journey from La Paz to Iguazu came to an end. We had plenty of time to get our Brazilian visas initiated and we were now in a place to visit one of the major wonders of the world, Foz de Iguazu. But, you can bet your booty we will not be taking that same tact going back. No way, no how, no chance, not till Hell freezes over.
There are few places in the world we deliberately make plans to visit a second time. Foz de Iguacu is one of those. On our first visit we spent two full days viewing the falls, one on the Argentine side and one on the Brazilian side. Yet, over the past couple years we felt we could have stayed even longer. There was just this nagging feeling we wanted to go back. So we did.
Surrounded by a jungle of tall, tropical trees draped with liana and vines, with an under-story of big leafed ground plants these falls have to be one of the most amazing sights we've ever encountered. For over 2.5 km the coffee brown water cascades its way over this abrupt step in the earth's surface. In some places the cascades are not much more than a trickle, something you could stand under like a shower. In other's, the Garganta del Diablo for instance, the roar of the falls is deafening. The sight is truly hypnotic. This time we concluded from the outset, we would not leave until we felt completely satisfied, if that was even possible.
By 11 AM we were entering the Brazilian park. With its very large, fancy visitor's center and bus service, this area has a bit of a Disney controlled feel. But, once on the main trail, the only trail with views of the falls, you can forget the tourist aspects and just focus on the sight. We strolled slowly, ever so slowly, along the trail. Long stops at each overlook allowed us to wait for the crowds to subside long enough to have the view to ourselves for a few minutes. Views of the falls go on and on and on with an amazing number of individual cascades. This is nature unmasked in its full splendor. Yet so much to our surprise, many folks rush on by. They stop for barely a minute and then hurry on. Getting to these falls is no small task, requiring at least an overnight bus ride if you don't fly. It seems absolutely absurd to rush. We walked one way down the trail, taking about 2 to 3 hours, and we turned around and walked back. By 6 PM when most folks were back in their hotels, we caught the final bus back. Yet we probably would have been happy spending even another few hours.
The Argentina side, our favorite, demanded just as much, if not more, attention. While the Brazilian side affords a better, overall view the Argentina side lets you get up close and personal. Getting wet is the order of business for the day. Two years previously we'd heard that there was a major rework project in store for the park and now we were to see the results. The Argentine park has added a little train, a new entrance station, new shops and restaurants. Even the truck ride, boat ride, and catwalk access to the Garganta del Diablo has been completely changed. The truck and boat are gone while the catwalk was extended to the shore. All of these changes give the park a bit of a Disney feel, similar to the Brazilian side. But there still are more trails and more opportunities for getting away from the crowds and into the water.
Our first objective was to get to the San Martin Island, which we missed last time because they weren't running boats. Our second objective was to get to the Garganta del Diablo, an overlook of the falls that brings the shear power of these cascades to within an arm's reach. We wound up visiting the Garganta three times and each time staying more than an hour. The sight is so entrancing.
Once again we arrived at the park early and were among the last to leave, not just one day but two. If you have your entrance ticket stamped upon leaving you can enter again the next day for half price. We just had to take advantage of that. Finally, after three full days watching milk chocolate colored water tumble down this escarpment, we'd had enough. It's a fantastic place, but there are other places in the world that need to be visit. Time to move on.
Argentina's Puerto Iguazu and Brazil's Foz do Iguacu could not be more different. Puerto Iguacu still retains a rather small town feel. There are no high rise buildings, just a few small hotels in the town proper, and a main street only a few blocks long. The large, resort hotels are outside of town toward the falls. If you stay within the town you'll never have to see these. It's an easy town in which to relax and get comfortable.
Foz do Iguacu feels like a huge city in comparison. It's got gigantic resort hotels just outside town and a main street that could rival any U.S. small city. It's a lot busier with folks going about their everyday business. It has none of that small resort feel that Puerto Iguazu has. Consequently, we had spent our nights on the Argentina side where the more relaxed, small town feel was more to our liking. But, now we needed to head into Brazil proper and get our visas initiated.
We could have, we should have, taken the bus directly from Puerto Iguazu across the border to our destination, Curitiba. But, it was a full coche cama, sleeping, bus and we thought it'd be easier and cheaper to get a day bus in Brazil. Surely they'd run more than one bus per day.
We didn't take the first bus we could over to the border. It was rather full. This was the first mistake. The second came half an hour later and got even more full than the first. A huge group of Israeli backpackers showed up at the same time, all carrying huge backpacks plus an extra daypack in front. It was one crammed bus.
We were dropped at the Brazilian border where we got our passports stamped. The trick now is you have to catch the next bus of the same company in order to use the transfer ticket given to us by the first bus driver. So we waited and waited and waited along with that huge group of Isreali backpackers. After about an hour a much smaller bus shows up. Things were really going to get cozy. Somehow we managed to pile bag upon bag upon bag and then squeeze ourselves in. It's a good thing we weren't going very far or it would have been one awful ride.
When we reached the local bus terminal we quickly ran to catch the first local bus headed out to the long distance bus terminal. Thankfully the backpacker group was still trying to figure out their next move when our bus pulled out. That was a group we were quite happy to leave behind. The entire process to leave Puerto Iguazu and get to the long distance terminal at Foz do Iguacu took well over 2 hours. Unfortunately by that time all the early buses to Curitiba had already gone and we wound up having to wait until around 7 PM to catch the next. The total cost for all this bussing and transferring was pretty durn close to the price of that direct bus we'd forgone in Argentina, the bus that had long since come and gone before we even got on the second bus at the border. So it appears that going to the Brazilian bus station for tickets was not such a great idea after all.
Our original plan had been to start at Curtiba (pronounced cur-ee-chi-ba) and then slowly work our way northward for about a month. After that we'd fly or somehow get back to Bolivia. Our primary concern was that it was summer, the beaches were full, and Carnaval was due soon, hence the reason for all those Isreali backpackers all headed for Rio. We would try to delay our arrival at Rio until after Carnaval. This all seemed like a reasonable plan.
However, Brian wanted to go back to Argentina. In fact, he'd been scheming ways to get back to Argentina ever since La Paz. This was why we wound up on that three-day marathon going through Salta Argentina to get to Brazil rather than take the route directly east from La Paz through Corumba, Brazil. He did have several very valid reasons for heading toward Argentina. The Brazilian beaches were crowded and expensive. Argentina was cheap especially after it's peso devaluation of 2001. We could visit Barilochi and the Atlantic coast two areas we missed on previous visits. My concern with this entire idea was that it was an awful lot of extra travel distance and I just wasn't in the mood for that much bus travel. Traveling as we had over the past few weeks was beginning to feel like we were taking a transatlantic flight once each week. That grows tiring very soon. So I agreed to going to Argentina on the condition that we start flying.
The new plan became to spend two weeks perusing one of the least visited areas of Brazil, the three most southern states, then bus to Buenos Aires and see how best to get to Barilochi from there.
We began with Curitiba in the state of Parana. Most foreign tourists come to Curitiba simply to take the tourist train that runs from this mountain city to the coastal plain town of Morrettes. The train used to run all the way to the port city of Paranaguay, but as with so many passenger train services in S, America it's been cut short to include just the most scenic section. Few foreign tourists actually spend much time in the city itself. Yet Curitiba does have a few sites that are worth a stop.
Curitiba, the capital of the state of Parana, has about 1.6 million inhabitants and is located about 100 km from the coast at an elevation of around 3,000 feet. It has a much more pleasant, cooler environment than the lower coastal communities. It's a very modern, progressive city with a very nice trolley system, many large parks having themes such as Italian or German, and many bicycle paths. Most of the neighborhoods we saw seemed to house the very wealthy. The houses looked like they could sit quite comfortably in some of the most upscale communities of the U.S. The main disturbing feature was all the electric security fences. It appears as though this upscale city is not without it's crime.
After arriving at the wee hour of 6AM and getting ourselves secured in a hotel, we took off on the tourist bus. This bus does a 2 1/2-hour circuit of the city, stopping at the main tourist destinations along the way. Four tickets allow you to get off and back on at four places. It passes by the various gardens for which Curtiba is famous, several of the museums, the only telephone tower in all of Brazil, the old quarter of town, as well as the new downtown district, the botanical gardens, and the unique wire opera house. It provides a great and easy introduction to the city and gives you idea as to where to head to the next day. We began our visit with a stop at the botanical gardens with its famous crystal house, the German gardens with its pleasant tropical trail, the telephone tower with its great view, and the main downtown plaza.
Our plan had been to visit the museums the following day. As luck would have it, the next day happened to be Monday and for some strange reason absolutely every single tourist destination in Curitiba is closed on Monday. Even the zoo, which is located in one of those many parks, is closed. Had we known this, we would have taken the tourist train ride on Monday. Instead we wound up spending most of the day simply wandering, sitting in the parks, and people watching. Ah well, it is good to take a slow day like that once in a while.
On Tuesday we took the train. Even though most folks went all the way to Morrettes, we decided to get off at the Marumbi State Park. The beautiful old train station has been renovated and still serves as a stop for park visitors. Several trails lead out from the station headed either downhill or up toward the Marumbi peak, a climber's destination. Unfortunately due to excessive rain, the higher trails were closed. They were too slippery and dangerous. It didn't matter either way as we wandered around the small cabins for over an hour and never were able to locate the actual trail headed up. Other trails were covered with cut rocks, almost a paving, which were coated with a layer of wet algae and moss. This made all the trails quite slick. So we carefully picked our way down and back one trail, and then try another then another then another. It would have been much easier had it been dry. But they happened to be having an unusually wet summer season. No matter, we did manage to get in some good hiking that day and we got our pants good and muddy. As we like to say, "If you're not getting dirty, you're not doing anything."
This area has some of the last of the Atlantic coastal rain forests remaining in Brazil. The dense vegetation was quite remarkable. Similar to the jungle, it was fascinating to look closely at the varied leaves, stems, and flowers. So despite hot having a plethora of trails to follow, we still found enough hiking and plant watching to fill our day. When the train arrived at 3PM for the journey back to Curitiba, we were more than ready to go. We arrived back at Curitiba late that evening, dirty and tired. It had been a fun day.
A two-hour bus ride took us down to the port town of Paranaguay, yet it was a world of difference. While Curitiba exudes a feeling of wealth and prosperity, Paranaguay is a simple port city, a bit rough around the edges at that. Its old buildings clustered along the waterfront speak volumes about the former wealth of the city. Some have been restored, but many remain as shadows of their former splendor. An old monastery contains the one museum in town. This ethnographic museum is actually quite good considering the size of the city. It contains a lot of displays on the old ways of the fishing industry and the processing of their local root vegetable they used to use as their staple food. However, for most tourist folks the purpose for going to Paranaguay lay not in the city itself, but in the surrounding islands. For it is here that one can get away to a peaceful, quiet beach getaway.
Ilha do Mel, just a short 2 hour boat ride into the bay, has to be about as perfect a beach escape as there can be. The island, nearly two islands due to the extremely narrow spit separating the two ends of the barbell shaped island, is small to begin with. If there were trails the entire length, it would take only a few hours to walk from one end to the other. Existing trails only go to parts of the island because much of it is a state nature reserve. There's an old 1870s lighthouse on a hill overlooking one of the barbell ends and a fort on the other. It's a tiny island with a bit of Portuguese history attached.
Tucked under the dense vegetation are these little, rather rustic pousadas, restaurants, campsites, and stores. Everything has a simple, laid back, rustic tropical paradise feel. Absolutely no motorized vehicle occupies the island. Transportation is by foot, bicycle, boat, or surfboard. Goods are transported via a small pushcart with large pneumatic wheels good for rolling over soft sand. This is a place for sitting on the beach, walking through the trees, swimming, trying your hand at surfing, and taking it easy. We could easily get used to such a place. We had come over for just the day, but we met several people who'd come to Ilha do Mel specifically to miss the hysteria of carnaval. Seemed like a very good idea.
Not too far south from Paranaguay lies the medium sized city called Joinville, pronounced john-vil-ee. One thing we discovered during our brief visit to southern Brazil is that it is completely unlike anything we could possibly have expected to find in a South American country. Back in the 1800s, after the abolishment of slavery, there was a significant labor shortage in this, rather industrialized southern region. Hence, immigrants from Europe were brought in. The ancestors of people from many different countries abound, but perhaps the most prevalent are those of German descent. Consequently, cities such as Curitiba, Joinville, and Blumenau exhibit a strong German influence in the people, architecture, and behavior.
Joinville is a prime example of the German style town. Clean, orderly, and conservative are certainly words that describe it. It's got a well-run bus system in a city that obviously has an auto based economy. Buses seem to be full only during rush hour. Scattered throughout town are buildings with that typical German brown wooden white stucco Tudor style. Bicycles abound. And you don't have to look too far to find someone with blond hair and blue eyes. Very little of the dark indigenous color is found here.
Yet there's really not a lot for the tourist to do in Joinville. There's a bicycle museum, which we just had to visit. It is perhaps the only museum we've ever found dedicated solely to the bicycle. It's not as well organized as we would have hoped. But, what can you expect when the entrance fee is zero. It's housed in three rooms of the old, restored railway station. Bikes of all sorts are displayed, mostly from the 40s to 80s eras. Very few of the real old bikes are shown. There's only one of those big wheel contraptions. There seems to be little order to the display. A 1930s bike will be sit next to a 60s bike. We would have preferred more of a chronological order in which technical advances for each era are described and analyzed. Part of the museum looked a bit like some of the bike shops we've seen: a greasy mishmash of parts piled up in complete disarray. The price was right and the bikes were interesting. So it was worth the visit.
The one other museum of note was in one of the old homes from the early pioneers. It's called the "prince's house" mainly because it was the seat of government for the local king's, that's Portugal's king, representative. Inside are bits of memorabilia from the early days of Joinville, furniture, china, musical instruments, photos, etc. Outside this regal mansion is a reconstructed layman's home filled with the usual mechanical contraptions designed to try to make the life of a housewife easier. Apple peelers, butter churns, pots, pans, a stove, etc fill every nook and cranny.
Joinville's museums take only about a day to visit. The only other thing of interest would be the boat tour to some of the surrounding islands. But at 60 Reales (pronounced something like hey-owes) a pop, we decided it just wasn't quite worth the price. We continued on southward.
Boarding a bus for another 9-hour ride, we headed for the major port city of Porto Alegre. Until this time, all the towns and cities we'd visited in southern Brazil were quite neat, clean, and safe. However, as we passed by several shantytowns on our way to the bus station, we now saw the bleaker side of life in Brazil. These are the towns where the garbage sorters live. We call them garbage sorters because that's what they appear to do. They ride around in their one horse drawn, two wheeled carts collecting anything of value from the trash. That would be cans, cardboard, plastic, or anything else considered useless by others and worth money for these folks. These shantytowns are surrounded by heaps of garbage, stuff collected from others people's trash.
This did not bode well as an introduction to Porto Alegre and our visit to the bus station did not improve the effect at all. Located toward the edge of the main part of the city, adjacent to the port, this bus station is not exactly situated among the better neighborhoods of town. Brian can certainly attest to that based upon his one stroll to hunt for an ATM. Scantily clad hookers hanging out of conveniently open doors whistled and called to get him to come in. Even one grabbed his harm trying to drag him along. Brian, thoroughly disgusted, could only think about what kind of bugs and other strange illnesses might infest these women's bodies. Ugh! Following all this intro to Porto Alegre we decided to spend our few remaining days in Brazil up in the fancy mountain towns of Canela and Gramado, about as far away, economic wise, from Porto Alegre as you can possibly get.
A few hours outside of Porto Alegre, toward the northwest lay two towns that must be the anomalies of all South America. Gramado and to a lesser extent Canela are the places where anybody who is anybody in Porto Alegre goes to spend their summer vacation and weekends. That is if you're not into just sitting on beaches, soaking up sun. These two towns are so unlike anything we've seen anywhere else in all our South American travels, it was hard to believe we were still there.
The towns are situated amidst low, rolling mountains covered in green vegetation. With the rivers cutting deep gorges resulting in rusty colored cliffs and small waterfalls, the entire area reminded us much of eastern U.S. mountainous regions. The towns themselves are neat, clean, nicely landscaped, well built, well maintained, and modern. If you had plopped us right down in the middle of either of these towns we would have a hard time telling if we were in someplace in Virginia or in Brazil. It was a good place to chill out for a while.
For a tourist trying to pack in as much sightseeing as possible into a short 2-week adventure there really wouldn't be all that much exciting about these towns. It really is more a place the local population hangs out. We did go out to visit the Cataratas do Caracol, snail waterfalls. But, having just visited Iguacu, it was really hard to get all that excited about a waterfall that looks like not much more than a trickle especially at this, the late summer, time of year. There is a small, private, arboretum. Their main claim to fame is that they have several sequoias, most over 50 years old. Signs were incomplete or difficult to find, the pamphlet was only in Portuguese, and trails were few. We found it to be hardly worth the time and effort, albeit we've already seen the granddaddy sequoia trees of them all in California. Other attractions seemed to be so widely spaced that you spend most of your time walking to get to each one rather than visiting and there were no buses. So we contented ourselves to spending a day just wandering around some of the spotless parks of Gramado. It was a fitting end to our Brazilian visit after all.
Time for another marathon bus trip, this time it was an overnighter to Buenos Aires. There's one problem with trying to get from southern Brazil directly to Buenos Aires and that's Uruguay. That little country sits right in the way. Your choice is to either go all the way around directly into Argentina, or pass through checking into and out of Uruguay on the way.
Now there happened to be a few issues with going through Uruguay. First, there's the giant Rio de la Plata to be crossed. You can't just get on a bus and go the whole way. You have to get off at Montevideo and either catch a ferry or take another bus to Colonia to find a ferry there. Naturally there was no way to get schedules or prices on these ferries while in Brazil. So you just have to leave everything to chance hoping that you'll arrive at a reasonable time to catch a reasonably early bus or ferry.
There's also the money issue. We'd have to worry about changing currencies, Brazil to Uruguay to Argentina, three changes. Things were bound to get confusing and we'd certainly lose something in the transactions.
Finally, our passports were so full of stamps there's absolutely no room for another mark. Border agents were already having trouble searching out little corners on the full pages on which to place their stamp. There's hardly room for the remaining 5 we needed to get back to the U.S. much less two extraneous stamps from a country we're just passing through. We never thought we'd do it, but we actually managed to fill a passport.
So once again we tackle a 20 hour long bus ride on a marginally comfortable coche semi cama all the way around Uruguay stopping at about 3 AM to handle passport formalities along the way. These super long bus rides are getting old, very, very old.
Buenos Aires is always a surprise when you arrive. It's so cosmopolitan, so European in feel and appearance you very nearly forget you're in a Latin American country. Men in suits, women in dress-suits stroll along the walking mall in the hustle and bustle of the lunchtime crowd past display windows highlighting some of the most upscale merchandise available throughout the country. Umbrella bedecked tables sprawl out onto the wide sidewalks in a very Champs Elysee cafe style. All around building having some of the most spectacular architecture grace the streets and surround the large plaza fronting the Casa Rosada, pink house, in which the current president resides. It's a treat to stop in Buenos Aires, even if only for a day.
But, we had other travel destinations in mind. Our sole purpose for stopping was to see what kind of travel arrangements we could make to get to Bariloche in the lake-district. Originally we had planned to fly as our guidebook indicated that prices would be cheap. That may have been back when the peso was going through its first spasms after being released from the dollar. But that was no longer the case. Round trip costs were about $299 USD. The bus, even the most expensive bus, was about $100 round trip. So it just became too difficult to justify flying. Once again we opted for the bus.
What a bus it was. We've never seen anything quite like it before. These new, first class buses have been plying the roads of Argentina for only about 2 years. When we traveled in Argentina in years previous these buses did not exist. So they were quite a pleasant surprise. They've reduced the number of seats on the second floor, yes these are two story buses, from around 45 to just 20. There's enough space for each seat to recline to a very nearly horizontal position. In front is a small wall separating you from the seat in front. A footrest is supported against this wall thus providing what becomes very nearly a bed. Snacks, dinner, breakfast, wine, champagne, and three movies are all served as you rock and roll down the road. It's about as first class as you can get and it's the first bus on which I'd actually managed to get a nearly descent night's sleep. We arrived at Bariloche at around 10:30 AM the next morning for once not completely dead on our feet.
Bariloche is located right at the very edge of the Andean Mountains at the most northern extreme of what is considered to be the Patagonian south. It sits on the banks of the Lago Nahuel Huapi, which is one of the many beautiful mountain lakes found in the region of both Chili and Argentine known as the Lake District. The extreme eastern end of the lake pokes into the arid region known as the great pampas of South America. This region looks much like your typical scrubby desert scenery, dry hillsides with lush river valleys. The lake's western edge tucks neatly into the far more humid mountainous terrain where you find thick under growth and the large southern alerce evergreen trees. It's an amazing contrast all within a 30 km. or so drive along the shoreline.
If anyplace could be called the Vail of South America, it's Bariloche. This is their largest, most exclusive, and most expensive ski resort, although, it's no where near as large or extravagant as its Colorado equivalent. This ski area boasts a compliment of only a dozen at most lifts, one being a cable car and the rest a combination of chair and bar lifts. By US standards this is a very small ski resort. It does have a huge number of restaurants scattered along the hillside, we counted over 6 just on the hill with many more situated in the base village.
The town of Bariloche is a major tourist destination, summer and winter but especially in summer. Three main streets running parallel to the lakeshore are jammed with souvenir shops, restaurants, high rise hotels, and an unusual number of handmade chocolate stores. Calle Mitre is especially busy. Just trying to walk the four-block length from the main civic center east is a test of patience and agility as you dodge numerous people strolling slowly along the sidewalks. Hotel rooms also proved to be difficult to get. I wandered from hotel to hotel, trying about 5 or 6 before finding just one having a double room available for that night. There could not have been a worse possible time of year to visit, right in the middle of their summer vacation season. So we decided to head out.
Getting around this area of Argentina on buses is difficult at best, impossible most of the time. Unlike the Andes countries, Argentina is a land where the car is king and local bus service suffers accordingly. Yet, car rental agencies abound throughout Bariloche and competition is absolutely fierce. Since we had a lot of places we wanted to visit and a short time in which to do it, we decided to rent a car for a period of about 9 days. That would give us the flexibility we needed and just enough time to visit everything we wanted. It was the ultimate solution. Additionally, to offset some of the car rental costs and to give us a bit more flexibility as to lodging, we rented a tent and sleeping bag. Actually it felt really great to be back in a tent for a while. Hotels are nice, but it's always more comfortable to be in our own tent.
The car wasn't fancy, a super cheap VW Gol that was so low to the ground it bounced terribly on each rock or bump and very nearly smashed against the bottom. When covered in dust, the doors wouldn't open. Dust poured out of the vents every time the fan was turned on. A seat belt cover fell off and had to be replaced. We didn't even bother trying the radio. It's not a car we'd ever consider buying, but for a rental it worked just fine.
Our first destination with the car was all the way on the other side of the continent and country, Punto Tombo and its penguin colony. It's one long drive across on, thankfully, a nice paved road. First you head south along a beautiful mountain road lined by the native alerce and imported pine trees. You skirt along the shores of several sparkling blue lakes until you get to the little town of El Bolson. A laid back, semi hippy village, this is a far smaller and less busy tourist resort than Bariloche. We only stopped for lunch as our destination lay many hours further.
From El Bolson, the main paved road swings eastward away from the mountains. In this land, the further east you head the drier it gets. Within just a few km you're back in that dry southern pampas where touches of green only occur in the few river valleys. Only when you turn back west to head into the last major town until the east coast, Esquel, do you return to a greener environment. We decided to stop here to visit a few tourist sites and spend the night, our first in the tent.
It's hard to believe, but this region of southern Argentina used to be quite famous for its wheat production. Canals and aqueducts pumped water into the arid lands and, due to its long sunny summer days, it produced award winning wheat crops. At one point there were over 27 mills operating in the area, three using wind and rest water. Processed wheat was shipped overland to the coast originally via mule train, a trip requiring 2 months each way. It was put on boats and shipped to Buenos Aires and beyond.
Eventually politics brought the wheat production to a halt. A German immigrant moved to the Buenos Aires area where he built a very large wheat mill, far outpacing the production of the southern mills despite their upgrading and expanding. This German gained some major friends within the government, Peron's first term as president. He convinced them that having this small wheat production in the south did not make economic sense. So in the 1950's the government banned all wheat production from the northern border of the state of Chubut on southward. All those wheat farmers suddenly had to find new ways to make a living. Hence the upsurge of the large cattle ranches.
Today there is almost no evidence of all those wheat farms remaining. The mills are gone, the canals seem to have been plowed over, and cows now occupy the fields. Yet south of Esquel is one man trying to keep the memory of the old wheat producing years alive. He has built a new mill following the plans of his grandfather's original water mill. Although brand new, it does recreate what would have existed at that exact spot some 100 years previously. It is fully functional, uses original grinding stones, and actually can produce good stone ground wheat. Surrounding the building is an array of old farming machinery, much of which was manufactured in the U.S. The mill owner tells us he even still retains the owner's manual for most. They're a fascinating bunch of complicated looking wooden and iron contraptions that could keep modern engineers busy for hours just trying to figure out how each worked and what it did. The mill was a fun little stop to break up our long drive east.
From Esquel, the drive is nearly all east. The land becomes increasingly flatter and drier. It looked almost identical to drives we've taken through the U.S. west. You could almost say that Esquel was like Carson City, NV and the eastern regions from both cities were very nearly identical. Even the dumpy desert towns look much alike, although those of Argentina had far fewer stores and services. There were a few unusual differences. We spotted pink flamingos wading across some of the saline ponds lining the highway and one gigantic spider nearly got itself squished in the middle of the road. For about one hour we were driving through a scenic desert canyon that, for a while at least, broke up some of the monotony. But, like so many cross-desert journeys, this is one trip that's fine to do just once and certainly not more than twice.
We arrived at the city of Trelew with barely enough sunlight remaining to locate the campground, get dinner, and buy gas. It was nearly 11 PM before we managed to get ourselves into bed. The campground was a mosquito filled former orchard with clean but tiny bathrooms and showers. It would suffice for one night, but no more. After seeing the penguins we'd head north to Puerto Madryn.
Punto Tombo is located about 75 miles, or 2 hours, southeast of Trelew along a well maintained but still rough dirt road. Every year in the months of January and February literally hundreds of thousands Magellenic penguins come ashore to mate, hatch, and rear chicks. Without seeing this phenomena, it's almost impossible to imagine that many penguins in one spot. When you first drive the last km into the park and you spot your first penguin you've just touched the surface. The further in you drive, the more penguins you see. They're literally all over the place: standing up, lying down, or walking with a clumsy but cute wobble. You can literally stand within inches of them and they'll just stand still looking up at you.
Looking across the fields you can see penguins standing by their nests everywhere. They reminded us of prairie dogs. Looking in both directions down the beach you can see black swarms of penguins clustered by the water either waiting to go in or come out. In the ocean, still more penguins could be seen diving and swimming about like big black and white corks. They're so graceful in water, but so clumsy on land. They all come to this area because of the good nesting ground, excellent nearby fishing, and no human disturbance. Tip-toeing past penguins sitting right in the middle of the path, I couldn't help but recite in my mind:
an itty bitty pinguino on my right
an itty bitty pinguino on my left
an itty bitty pinguino at my feet
an itty bitty pinguino's all I need
Yet the best penguin comment we heard came from a little girl as she spoke to her father when they were leaving. "What do penguins eat?", she asked, "Fish? Just fish? No meat? Nothing?" In true meat loving Argentine fashion she just could not believe anything could survive without eating meat.
We arrived at the penguin colony at about 11 AM and finally departed a little before closing time, around 5 PM. Yet, as usual, we were amazed to see all those tour groups making their brief 1-hour or less stop. Just barely enough time to walk the paths and take a couple photos. Not enough time to really watch how these amazing critters behave. Most amazingly, when we were arriving at Punto Tombo at 11 AM, several buses chartered by Princess Cruise lines were already leaving. Yet we know that when we left Puerto Madryn a few days later, they did not leave the ship until around 8 AM. With nearly 3 hours each way, we have to wonder if they got even a half an hour visit. And people actually like these cruises? Seems like you're not getting your money's worth.
Penguin behavior was one of the things that most amazed us. The male seems to dig a hole, usually under a bush, and then goes through an elaborate dance trying to entice the female to his lair. Even though it was far past mating season, we did see a few of these dances. The males actually appear quite tender as they place their wing, or is it more of a flipper, on the back of a potential mate trying to talk it into a little fling. At this time of year not only are the penguins mating, but they are molting as well. Consequently there aren't just penguin couples around. There are quite a few bachelors as well. All the single penguins tend to gather under bushes, sitting out the hot sunny afternoon, waiting for their feathers to grow in. This certainly adds to the numbers of penguins you encounter.
Penguin pathways lead to and from the water's edge. There are very specific routes that all the penguins from a particular region of the field use to travel to and from the water. It looks like a very funny penguin parade. It's even more hysterical to watch these land-clumsy creatures trip and fall on their bellies because they simply cannot see their feet. Interestingly, if you try to approach a penguin that is walking, it will not let you anywhere near it. However, if it is standing by its hole, you can walk right up to it within inches. Don't touch, they do bite. People standing in front of these little birds look much like they're holding conference.
Watching a penguin trying to get into the water is even more fun. It's very clear that getting in and out of the water through the waves is not their favorite task. They'll hesitate, run back or swim away from shore if they feel they've mistimed a wave. Sometimes they really mess up, get tumbled around, pushed back up on shore, and have to start the whole approach all over. Some birds were clearly better than others. But, once in the water, there was just no comparison. These birds are some of the best non-fish swimmers ever.
The parents are extremely attentive to the one to two chicks born per year. Both fish during the day, bringing regurgitated goodies back for their young once every couple of days. To watch a very patient parent enduring the cranky tantrums of a hungry adolescent demanding food and more food right this instant seems oh so human. Eventually, once the chicks have adult plumage, the parents lead them to the water and they're on their own. You have to grow up quick in this natural environment.
What a treat it was to watch the penguins. Had there been nothing else, we would have been more than satisfied. But, we got a couple extra surprises as well. First, there were several guanaco roaming about. Guanaco are one of two wild camelid species native to S. America, the other being Vicuna. Guanaco are very shy and not very numerous. So to see several, even in a reserve, is a special treat. We also got to see a S. American Patagonian coastal armadillo. Never before have we seen a live armadillo. We've seen a lot of road kill versions, especially in Texas. But not one was alive. This was one big armadillo, much larger than its mountain or North American cousin. It was a very curious critter, not at all shy. It didn't even roll up into the famous armadillo ball when we approached. We were actually rather surprised to find they're kind of cute when alive. We definitely snapped a few photos of this little fellow.
After the penguin experience, Peninsula Valdes was quite a disappointment. This famous peninsula is located just an hour northeast of Puerto Madryn. It looks like an embryo attached by umbilical cord to the continent. The entire peninsula is supposed to be a preserve, but it really is just the coastline and nearby water that they're protecting. The land of the peninsula is still owned by some large ranches. This reserve is for the sea lions, elephant seals, penguins, whales, and other shoreline birds, which use this coastal region for breeding, bearing young, and molting.
The price for visiting Peninsula Valdes is outrageous. Since the fall of the Argentine peso, the Argentine government has taken on a two-tier pricing scheme for its national parks. Argentines pay one fee while foreigners, and more specifically anyone from Europe or North America, pays far more, usually 3 to 4 times more. For Peninsula Valdes this has resulted in a ridiculous cost of US $12 per person. This park in Argentina for two foreign visitors to visit for a single day costs more than an entire carload of people to visit a park such as Yellowstone for an entire week. Believe me, Peninsula Valdes is no Yellowstone. Not even close.
The animals we saw just were not all that impressive. We'd already seen tons of penguins at Punto Tombo, so the few we found on the peninsula were not all that impressive. In addition, along the California coast you can see seals in La Jolla cove right in San Diego with just a rope separating you from the animals. You can see elephant seals just north of Hearst Castle, thousands of them right at your feet. Sea lions sometimes even use yachts as haul out ledges right in Monterrey Bay. Imagine having to try to get a half dozen very hefty sea loins off of your very expensive yacht after they've decided it's a comfortable place to lie. All these animals you can see by the thousands for absolutely no cost and at a far closer range than Peninsula Valdes. Needless to say we were quite disappointed by this preserve and rather disgusted with its extremely high cost. Would we recommend it to others? Probably, if you haven't seen these animals before. If you've seen all these and more in California, then you'd probably be similarly disappointed.
After visiting the east coast animal sanctuaries, it was time to take that long 9 hour journey back to the mountains where we intended to do some hiking and exploring in terrain more to our liking. Deserts are OK for a while. But we do much prefer the green of mountainous country. So back we went, past Trelew, through the Canon de los Alteres, past Esquel, and back to El Bolson one final time.
Appendix A - Route
Unless noted prices are total for two.
January 14, 15 - Cuenca to Huarez, Peru, $16, $10, $37.5, s/12($3.75), s/46($14.40)
January 17 - Huarez to Lima, s/80 ($25)
January 18 - Lima to Juliaca, Juliaca to Puno, $86.87 ea, s/20 ($6.25 tot)
January 19 - Puno to Desaguadero to La Paz, Bolivia, s/12($3.75), b/50($6.25)
January 21, 22 - La Paz to Villazon/La Quiaca, Argentina to Salta $35 ea.
January 23, 24 - Salta to Posadas p/174 ($59.40)
January 24 - Posadas to Puerto Iguazu p/47 ($16.21)
Januayr 29 - Puerto Iguazu to Curitiba, Brazil R/153 ($56.75)
February 2 - Curitiba to Paranagua R/26.06 ($9.65)
February 4 - Paranagua to Joinville
February 6 - Joinville to Porto Alegre
February 7 - Porto Alegre to Canela
February 10 - Canela to Buenos Aires, Argentina
February 13 - Buenos Aires to Bariloche p/160 ea ($55.17)
February 16 - 25 - Car rental w/ drives Bariloche to Peninsula Valdes and back, Circuito Grande to San Martin de los Andes, and to El Tronedor p/1021 ($352) plus $118 gas
Appendix B - Hotels
Prices typically for a room with private bath and double bed.
January 15, 16 - Piramide Hotel, Huarez, s/60 ($18.75)
January 18 - Hostal Margarita, Puno, s/50 ($15.63)
January 19, 20 - Estrella Andina Hostal, La Paz, ($20)
January 23 - Hotel Continental, Salta, p/65 ($22.18)
January 24 - Hotel Tierra Colorado, Puerto Iguazu, p/65 ($22.18)
January 25, 26, 27, 28 - Hosteria Los Helechos, Puerto iguazu, p/55 ($18.77)
January 30, 31, Feb 1 - Hotel Maia, Curitiba, Brazil, R/50($18.52)
Feb 2, 3 - Hotel Ponderosa, Paranaguay, Brazil, R/40 ($14.81)
Feb 4, 5 - Hotel ??, Joinville, Brazil, R/50 ($19.23)
Feb 6 - Hotel Terminal Sur, Porto Alegre, Brazil R/70($27)
Feb 7, 8, 9 - Pousada Canela, Canela, Brazil R/70($27)
Feb 11, 12 - Hotel Tres Sargentos, Buenos Aires, Argentina p/60 ($20.7)
Feb 14, 15 - Hotel Los Piedras II, Bariloche, Argentina p/60 ($20.70)
Feb 16 - Camping Nahuel Pan, Esquel, Arg p/12 ($4)
Feb 17 - Camping Patagonico, Trelew, Arg p/14 ($4.82)
Feb 18, 19 - ACA Camping, Puerto Madryn, Arg p/18 ($6.21)
Copyright © 1995-2011 by Caryl L. Bergeron - Distribution for personal use permitted. Distribution for other uses with written permission.