Her Name Is Rio / Hungry Like the Wolf

Hold on to your britches. This has been a busy week of sightseeing so this post is going to be a barrage of “What We Did On Summer Vacation” bullets with little in the way of philosophical musings on the long-term travel life – except to say that we set our record for the sheer number of long-distance bus trips in a single week. The only close tie was our last week in Chile with all of its long-distance excursions. This week we saw the inside of the Belo Horizonte bus terminal more times than was probably healthy.

Our travel hub this week.

Email readers, this post is chock full of videos so click on over to TheEscapeHatch.net or miss out.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. When I left you hanging last week, we were leaving Foz do Iguaçu for Rio de Janeiro by air, having missed out on the local Carnaval and expecting to find nothing in Rio but leftover streamers, glitter, and discarded T-shirts littering the sidewalks in the wake of the festivities.

We were wrong. We landed in Rio and, on the way to our guest house, discovered that most of the entrances to the metro line were closed and those that weren’t were cordoned with traffic directed by uniformed security. Why? Because while Mardi Gras/Carnaval/Whatever You Call It ends on Fat Tuesday everywhere else in the world, in Rio de Janeiro it continues all the way through the following weekend.

The bad news: it took us a good two hours, at least, to get to our room in the south of town. The good news? We went to Carnaval! IN RIO!! Beat that, vicarious travel blog readers!

Sunday morning, bright and early, we got ourselves downtown to the path of the main “Monobloco” parade and picked out a patch of sidewalk to watch from. The crowd hadn’t become a mob yet, but it was thick enough for us not to get lost finding our way from the Metro stop to the parade route.

No one is having more fun.

Now Lea and I have both been to Mardi Gras, and being a Louisiana native I had certain expectations of what a Carnaval celebration should entail: mainly bands and floats promenading down a street whose sidewalks would be a crush of bystanders and onlookers jostling for the best view. My expectations were dashed last week in Foz, and they tripped me up again in Rio – this time in a different way.

Can you party so hard you need a military escort?

I mentioned last week that Carnaval in Brazil seems to center around the “Block Party.” In that vein, a parade in Rio is quite different from its New Orleans counterpart. A Rio parade is a block party that moves.

Get it on, Bang a gong!

There was still the crush of people ready to party all day, don’t get me wrong, but  there was only one band and one “float” – a giant party wagon with singers and dancers on top, pulled very slowly by a semi. Once the parade begins, the band/float procession inches its way along the route, stopping every half block for fifteen or twenty minutes before crawling onward. The crowd, instead of idly viewing from the sidelines, moves with it. In New Orleans, you watch the parade. In Rio, you are the parade.

This was the parade going on behind us.

Lea and I stood our ground in the mob-shadow created by a stationary beer vendor and let the parade wash over and around us. Once it passed, and once we’d enjoyed enough thumpy Latin pop for the day, we made our way out against the tide of new revelers, beer coolers in hand, who were only then showing up to join the party. I can only imagine that not long after we left, the entire affair must have ground to a standstill – and everyone was probably overjoyed. You can’t party all day if you don’t start in the morning!

That evening we braved Rio’s horrific bus system to see at least one of the iconic landmarks of the city. The most famous is the giant statue of Christ the Redeemer (which we couldn’t stop referring to as “Buddy Christ”) but to get there seemed long, arduous, and expensive. Instead we opted to ride the teleférico to the top of Sugarloaf Mountain, a giant block of granite that overlooks Guanabara Bay with views of the entire city. The nerd in me couldn’t help but point out that it was on top of this very cable car that James Bond fought the assassin Jaws in the (otherwise terrible) film Moonraker.

The ascent to Sugarloaf Mountain.
Rio at twilight.
Christ the Redeemer from a loooong way away.

Next came Beach Day. But how to choose which beach? Rio is known for two: Copacabana and Ipanema. By sheer luck, I managed to rent us a room in easy walking distance from both. We checked out Copacabana first, then rode the bus to Ipanema and found that it was less crowded but extremely dirty. We went back to Copacabana and, as per our beach routine, rented an umbrella and chairs from which to watch the surf.

Copacabana, with added enticement.
Ipanema, with stunning view.
All the wave you’ll ever need.

The surf, let me tell you, was fierce. Though we were some distance from the water and on top of a plateau of sand, rogue waves would wash right under us, dragging away our shoes and water bottles if we weren’t quick enough to grab them.

All told, we spent three nights in Rio, the shortest length of time we’ve spent in any South American city of comparable size. In truth we could have spent a week and not seen everything, but Brazil is just too big and there are other things we want to see. On our last day in town we hit museums – the Museum of Tomorrow, the Museum of Art of Rio, and the Royal Portuguese Cabinet of Reading which houses the largest collection of works in Portuguese outside of Portugal itself. You’re allowed to take pictures, but you can’t touch anything.

The Museum of Tomorrow!

The Cabinet of Reading or the Hogwart’s Library?

Thus began our paddle-ball travel route north to the mining city of Belo Horizonte and its surrounding environs. We took the night bus to Belo Horizonte, arrived around 5:30 a.m., and immediately bought tickets for the town of Brumadinho several hours to the west. (We can’t pronounce “Brumadinho” without concentrating, so we keep calling it Broom-Hilda.) Brumadinho, by the way, was the site of the recent dam collapse that killed hundreds and made international headlines.

Brumadinho is also where you will find Inhotim, an outdoor garden and modern art “theme park” set far back in the Brazilian wilderness. You could spend days wandering its miles of wooded trails to widely separated art installations and galleries. We stayed for several hours before the walking and the weather got the best of us.

Not nightmare-inducing at all.
Nor this.

The coolest installation is the one farthest from the park entrance. If you walk about two kilometers – all uphill – to the back of the park there is a hill in which the artist Doug Aitken drilled a 200 meter shaft into the earth and placed microphones along its walls. In a room above the shaft, the vibrations picked up by those microphones are amplified into the chamber, allowing you to sit and listen to the sounds of the earth. There were booms and long, sustained notes which Lea thinks might be the P- and S-waves of distant earthquakes. We don’t know for sure, but it’s as awesome a hypothesis as any.

The planet’s sounding board.

The next day we caught the early bus back to Belo Horizonte and grabbed the noon bus from there to the town of Santa Barbara. From Santa Barbara we took a taxi for another 20km to stay two nights at the Santuário do Caraça, a Catholic seminary and mission set in the midst of an 11,000 hectare nature reserve. There are endless miles of trails you can hike if that’s your thing but the main attraction at the Sanctuary is the chance to see the rare Maned Wolf.

The Sanctuary by day.
The view from our window.

The Maned Wolf is technically not a wolf. It’s South America’s largest canid and resembles a giant red fox the size of a pony with a crest like a hyena, though it’s not related to any of those (certainly not the pony). The reason you can see maned wolves at the Sanctuary is because the monks have been feeding them for decades. It began when they noticed the animals rooting through the monastery’s leftovers and decided to make it easier on them. A tray of meat cuttings is set  out in front of the steps to the chapel every night at 7:00 and guests are allowed to sit, wait, and watch. The rules are to not approach the wolves and to not take photos until after the wolves feel comfortable enough to approach the food and grab a few bites.

The Sanctuary by night.
A neighbor drops by.

There’s always the chance that the wolves won’t show, but on our first night they appeared right away and returned to the buffet about every 45 minutes. On the second night we weren’t so lucky – it had been a rainy day and thunderstorms were moving in during the evening. Apparently the wolves weren’t as interested in free food as they were in staying dry.

As brief as each appearance of the wolves was, it was always amazing. I’m used to being around domesticated animals and even small wild animals, but to have a wolf walk right beside you, look inscrutably at you while it dines, then move along without a care in the world – the experience carried a sense of intimacy with the Wild that I didn’t even feel on safari in Africa back in 2012.

Our stay ended with the taxi-bus combo back to Belo Horizonte. Originally the plan was to immediately grab another bus for Ouro Preto, but at this point we’ve regained some flexibility in our schedule and decided to stay put. After two nights in the far outback without even hot water for a shower, we (for the second time on this whole voyage) spent the night at a Holiday Inn.

Our time in Belo Horizonte was brief, as we’d booked a night bus to the coast for the very next evening. Nevertheless, the city surprised us. What we’d seen near the bus terminal wasn’t inspiring, but after moving to another part of town we discovered an entirely different city, with beautiful parks, Chinese buffets, a Mercado Central where we sampled outstanding liver and onions (a dish we both normally hate) and a mineralogy museum with a mind-blowing collection of, well, minerals.

The best liver in Brazil, and it’s at a market stall.
Too bad it won’t fit in our luggage.

One more weary night ride with a driver who handled his bus like a dirt bike has brought us to the seaside town of Vitoria, where we’ll begin to crawl north along the Atlantic coast. More on that next week, but for now I’ll leave you with a musical send-off:

Waterworld: Iguazú, Part Two

I don’t want to bury the lead, so I’ll start with this: Iguazú is much, much, much more enjoyable from the Argentinian side. If you want to visit both sides of the falls, do what we did and go to Brazil first.

The Brazil side is impressive too, but if you go there after visiting Argentina you will be disappointed. The Argentinian side feels much more like a national park and less like Disneyland. There are more trails, more overlooks, and much more contact with nature (not just the legions of coati trying to steal your food).

And FYI, coati define “food” as “anything in a bag.”

Fair warning – There are a lot of videos in this post. Email subscribers click here or miss the full show.

You’ll also notice that I’m spelling it Iguazú, not Iguaçu. Spanish, baby! I never imagined what a relief it would be to return to a Spanish speaking country, if only for a few days. Though they do share many words, Portuguese has much less in common with Spanish than I thought it would. Lea can pick out a little bit here and there, but I’m completely at a loss. Foz do Iguaçu did have many more Spanish and English speakers than the other parts of Brazil we’ve been to so far, but communication in Puerto Iguazú (the town on the Argentinian side) was so much simpler.

Uncharitable thought for the day: To the untrained ear, Portuguese sounds like Ewoks speaking French.

Also – skipping ahead again – from Puerto Iguazú you can see Paraguay! We decided not to enter Paraguay since it would cost us $160 USD each for the visas, but two kilometers from our hotel was an overlook where you could see three countries at once. Here it is:

Paraguay on the left, Brazil on the right, Argentina in the foreground.

Anyway, last week I left you hanging with the question of whether or not, since we were in Brazil for Carnaval, we would get to experience any Carnaval-related activities. Well – yes, but…

Being a native of Louisiana, I had my own set of expectations about how Mardi Gras should properly be carried out. I had visions of parades, beads, costumes, floats, loud music, and festive Krewes marching down the street. I projected these cultural expectations onto Brazilian Carnaval and while some of them were met, most were not. Looking at the schedule of events in Foz do Iguaçu, there had been a parade on Saturday that we’d missed. There were other activities on Monday and Tuesday which we decided to seek out once we were done with the Brazilian falls experience.

The “Carnafalls” Band.

From what we saw, Carnaval in Brazil is centered less on parades and more around the “block party.” The event we found on Monday night was a family-friendly neighborhood party with a band, food trucks, and big inflatable bouncy things for kids to play on. We hung around for a while to see if anything else would happen, such as people promenading in fabulous costumes, but it was not to be. Instead, we did have some excellent shawarma from a restaurant called Bin Ladin. I’m going to go out on a limb here and assume that Bin Ladin is just a common Arabic surname. Whatever the case, the food was good and inexpensive.

Shawarma to the evil Americans!

On Fat Tuesday itself, we went hunting for what looked to be the main Carnaval event in the city. The location was simply given as a street name downtown so I assumed this would be the parade we were after. It was not. The event was supposed to begin at 3:00 and last the rest of the day, but we headed to the street in question and, after much walking around, found that one long city block had been cordoned off with a bandstand at one end and entry gates at the other. People were arriving with chairs and coolers, vendors were setting up on the sidewalks, and children were running around spraying each other with silly string. Lea and I picked a patch of sidewalk and settled down to see if anything would happen.

It didn’t.

Even the hot dogs weren’t for sale yet.

Apparently, 3:00 p.m. was the setup time for the street, nothing more. Other events were listed as beginning at 6:00 and 7:00 so we went back to our hotel. When we returned later, we discovered that Carnaval in Foz is one massive block party with alcohol, thick crowds, and a band playing loud music. We entered at one end of the block and pushed our way through to the other while randomly taking pictures over the heads of crowd. Many people were dressed up in what looked like neighborhood uniforms – one whole crowd with Superman t-shirts, another with yellow tutus. Compressing all of Foz’s revelers into one city block created the equivalent of the Bourbon Street Crawl minus the throwing of beads.

PAAARRRTAAAY!!!

Lea and I made it from one end to the other, paused to catch our breath, then went to a Brazilian steak house and stuffed ourselves silly with meat. And that was it for our Carnaval experience in Iguaçu.

The next day we crossed the border, found our hotel in Puerto Iguazú, left clothes at a laundry, located the bus terminal, grocery store, an honest-to-God Mexican restaurant, stood in line at the Post Office to mail our last few Argentinian postcards, and got rained on a little. While our days in Foz had been hot and dry, the forecast for Puerto Iguazú promised to be hot and damp. That was fine. We had dry bags and ponchos, and were ready for whatever the rain gods had to offer. As before, we planned to spend two days at the national park – the first to see as much of the falls as possible and the second to hike a nature trail that promised the chance to view more wildlife than on the beaten path.

Day One

We got up really early. Rain was forecast for the afternoon, so instead of bringing my tripod and backpack full of camera gear, we simply brought a drybag, two ponchos, my Canon Rebel T3 with its standard lens, my wide-angle screw-on attachment, and Lea’s ever-trusty waterproof Olympus. The bus to the park was a longer ride than in Brazil, but the crowd to buy tickets and get into the park was nonexistent. The Argentinian side opens earlier than its Brazilian counterpart and we were there on a regular weekday, not a national holiday.

Instead of buses to take you farther into the park, Iguazú offers a very slow-moving train. There are two stops: the first for the trails and the second for the viewing platform over the Devil’s Throat. On this side most people opt for going to the Devil’s Throat first, so we got off at the stop for the trails. This was the right decision. We had the trails almost completely to ourselves. For the first hour or more there were only a handful of other hikers – until the big tour groups finally returned from the Throat platform and met up with us.

There are two sets of trails to view the falls – Upper and Lower. The lower trail is longer and more strenuous but also offers better views of more of the falls. The upper trail takes you along the top of the falls, so all you really see is water rolling over the cliff. The lower trail is – well, breathtaking is too small a word. You can see the full magnitude of Iguazú and can get right up to some of the falls to experience their power first hand.

Photo and video dump commences:

Panorama around Isla San Martin.
Approaching the longest section of falls.

An accidental rainbow.

You can watch a giant flock of birds swirling in the updrafts in this video:

A mated pair of North American hairless apes provided for scale.

“The Two Brothers.”
The falls keep going and going and going.
And over it goes.

After hiking the lower and upper trails it was easy to hop on the train and take it the rest of the way to the Devil’s Throat platform. To be clear, it doesn’t drop you off at the platform itself. It stops at the last nugget of dry land, from which you have to walk a kilometer along a raised walkway over the slow-moving Iguazú River. Along this route there are several stops for you to put on your ponchos and anything important into your dry bag. The fact that everyone you pass on their way back is soaking wet lets you know that this will be important.

While hiking along the metal bridge across the wide expanse of water, we started to hear thunder. It’s always been my hope that if I were to be struck by lightning I’d have just enough advance warning to shout “Shazam!” before it struck and possibly gain superpowers. Doubting that would actually happen we picked up the pace.

By this point you want to have your wetsuit on.

On the Brazil side, you can see the giant cascade at the head of the Devil’s Throat from afar on a tightly packed observation platform while craning your neck around a Japanese lady with an enormous blue hat. On the Argentinian side you are literally hanging right over the thundering void. See for yourself:

Up close and personal.

My glasses were useless without windshield wipers. Thankfully you don’t need your eyes to feel the power of the fall. Hanging there in space above it is like standing in the middle of a thunderhead. We inched our way around the platform, soaking in every sensation, then scurried back across the walkway to the train, inched the slow way back to the park entrance, and splurged on the park’s magnificent buffet.

We made it to the bus before the rain clouds exploded, but not to the bus station. Though only three blocks from our hotel, we were trapped and had to wait it out under the station’s overhang for an hour while this happened:

Day Two

The rain forecast was still in effect, so we returned to the park early (50% discount if you validated your tickets the day before), skipped the train to the usual tourist spots, and walked out of the park entrance complex in search of the nature trail. I’d switched my wide-angle lens for my telephoto, but otherwise we were geared up the same as the day before. It was at least a kilometer along an access road just to reach the trail head, and from there more than three kilometers to another fall. The ground was muddy and puddled from the day before and we crept along slowly so as not to disturb any wildlife along the way.

We spotted a medium-big cat hurrying across the trail and a Rodent Of Unusual Size but didn’t manage to photograph either. Mostly what we encountered were insects, birds (from a great distance), and the giant scary-ass spiders that cover the entire area with their huge webs, many of which are just above head-height.

Not nightmare-inducing at all.

The main thing we were after were the monkeys that were supposed to live in this area, but two kilometers in there had still been no sign. Our joints were tired from the past week’s excessive hiking and we were afraid of getting deluged on again, so at the 2km post we turned and headed back.

Soon though, something up in the trees started shaking water out of the higher branches. We looked up and there they were: spread through the trees around us were what must have been a whole troop of monkeys. They were in the highest reaches of the branches nibbling on leaves and whatever else they found, just at the edge of my telephoto’s range and ridiculously hard to focus on even when they weren’t jumping from tree to tree. Every now and then I swear one of them noticed me and stopped to check me out, probably because of the sound of my shutter. From over a hundred photos blurrier than Bigfoot, I did manage to catch a few of them pausing for a moment to reflect on their little monkey lives.

That wrapped our time at Iguazú Falls. We ended the night with pizza and hot dogs from the restaurant next to our hotel. The next day brought a 4:00 a.m. alarm clock for a 6:00 a.m. taxi across the border and a 12:45 flight to Río de Janeiro. We were tired but quite happy from our experience at the falls, but a little disappointed that we’d missed the full experience of Carnaval.

But had we? On my calendar Carnaval was over, but Río had a surprise in store. Next week, faithful readers. Same Bat-Time, Same Bat-Station.

Heaven & Hell: Iguaçu, Part One

I haven’t been completely honest with you. If you’ve read this blog, you may have come away with the impression that long term travel has its ups and downs, but in the long run – despite the difficulties – it’s very much worth it. Hopefully at some point in the future I’ll be able to look back and agree with that sentiment, but I haven’t written about the full truth of the situation. The truth I’ve left out is the part where I’ve been suffering chronic, intense, agonizing pain for the past several months.

It began in Bolivia, where I put it down to the effects of high altitude. It continued off and on through Chile, where I assumed the source of the pain was related to a known medical issue that I’ve already dealt with for several years. That assumption was incorrect.

The pain escalated throughout Argentina and became pretty much unbearable by the time we reached Mendoza. (“Unbearable” is a funny word, because when you’re stuck in the wilderness of the Argentinian outback you’ve got no choice but to bear it.) Since we had left behind the South American equivalent of the Gobi Desert and returned to civilization, I called our expat health insurance and arranged an appointment with a doctor in Córdoba.

I’m being deliberately coy about what my medical problem is because 1) I don’t want to say and 2) you don’t want to know. Suffice it to say that the doctor in Córdoba diagnosed the problem, prescribed medication, and suggested a course of self-treatment. That was five weeks ago. Treated, this problem should clear itself up in four-to-six weeks, yet while the pain has lessened (on most days) it’s still there. When it flares up it hurts worse than just about anything I’ve ever experienced, and that includes broken bones, an incarcerated hernia, and gout.

A little bit of self-care.

The result, dear readers, is that a lot of the awesome sights and experiences I’ve shared on this blog I’ve experience through a fog of pain. On some days, such as when we sat on the beach in Uruguay, I was merely squirming in discomfort. On others, such as when we visited a bird sanctuary I’ll get to below, I felt like I would rather pass out. I could have left the park but, as I told myself, the pain would follow me wherever I went, so why not suffer through it while looking at beautiful birds?

Now that I’ve bummed you out, on with the story!

Hell:

Last week I left you hanging as we were about to depart Porto Alegre for Florianópolis. That was after we’d driven our rental back to Porto Alegre, three hours in the wrong direction, instead of simply heading north. After dropping off our car, we went to the bus terminal and waited, waited, waited in sweltering, sticky heat. It had rained all day but that hadn’t dropped the temperature – especially not in Porto Alegre’s extremely busy terminal where the heat from all those buses washed through the station like steam from Lucifer’s hot tub.

Our bus didn’t leave until 11:00 p.m. The bus itself was air conditioned, but only when it was running. This particular bus stopped at every small town and off-the-main-road terminal along the route, and the driver kept turning the bus off and on again – I guess to save gas? At one point, perhaps at two in the morning, they shut the bus off for half an hour while the staff went to have dinner, turning the inside into a sauna. Yes, everyone else could get out and snack at 2:00 a.m. as well, but the whole point of taking the night bus is to sleep.

We arrived in Florianópolis at 6:00 in the morning. We weren’t staying long. Florianópolis is a large-ish city on an island just off the Brazilian coast, but it’s on the side that faces the mainland across a narrow channel. The apartment we’d rented was on the Atlantic side of the island, in the Ingleses Sul neighborhood an hour away by local bus. We wouldn’t be able to check in until 10:00, so we hung out in the station with our post-bus-ride headaches and, as long as we were there, bought really expensive first-class seats to our next destination. The trek to Foz do Iguaçu was going to be a fifteen-hour ordeal and we would be traveling on a holiday weekend, so we wanted to make sure we had seats we could tolerate.

The only break we could catch.

As in Porto Alegre, it was raining in Florianópolis. The bus to Ingleses Sul only ran once an hour, so we hiked several blocks through the drizzle and waited at the bus stop under a blessedly sheltering overhang. The bus arrived and should have dropped us off at about the right time for our check in, but that morning no one but us and two other people were taking that route. The bus blew by nearly every stop and dropped us off in Ingleses Sul an hour before our apartment would be ready.

And it was still raining.

Though near the beach, we’d washed up in a mostly residential area with not a single open café where we could wait. We ended up sheltering under a leaky tin awning in front of a closed convenience store eating pastries Lea bought at the grocery just down the street. The rain finally eased up, check-in time arrived, and we dragged our tired bodies and four backpacks down the road to our apartment.

Where the sidewalk ends.

Heaven:

We really got lucky with this apartment. It had a real kitchen with a full-size stove and refrigerator. It was better, I dare say, than the one we had in Santiago, and a million times better than any we’d had in Argentina. It had air conditioning that worked. It had a shower that worked. It had a couch. It had a shady courtyard. Unlike every other option in our price range, it was only two blocks from the beach. And get this – the owners had beach chairs and umbrellas you could borrow for free.

Plenty of room for everyone!

Ingleses Sul isn’t an exciting place, but let me tell you – they know how to beach. The beach there is long but extremely narrow. Wherever you plant yourself, you can be sure that sooner or later a wave is going to wash under you. But that’s okay. We stayed for four nights, and every day the forecast was the same – not too hot, not too cold, mostly cloudy with a little bit of sun and a chance of rain in the afternoon. On Tuesday and Thursday the beach was crowded. On Wednesday it was surprisingly empty. (Higher chance of rain, sure, or maybe Wednesday is the designated day off for all the vendors?)

Doing it right.

Oh yeah, beach vendors – Here’s a thing we didn’t see in Uruguay and that I’d been craving since Ecuador: guys going up and down the beach offering cold adult beverages. Caipirinhas. Caipiroskas. Piña coladas. Not to mention the guys selling fire-grilled cheese on a stick or chorizo in a bun with slaw. That’s the way to do it, señor. That’s the way to do it. On Tuesday I walked nearly all the way up and down the beach several feet out into the surf. On the other days we just sat where the alley from our apartment let out and waited for tasty treats to come by. When the rains came in the afternoon, we moseyed back to our apartment and napped.

Boring? Perhaps, but it was everything I’d been wanting.

Purgatory:

The day it finally got hot in Florianópolis was the day we had to leave our cool apartment and hang out in another bus station. We dropped off our luggage and went in search of a museum that wasn’t there (no one had bothered to tell TripAdvisor). The city was gearing up for Carnival, downtown was very crowded, the wind had died almost completely, and the temperature spiked over 90. We ate at a lovely poke-bowl restaurant and slugged back to the bus station sauna.

Our bus company had a V.I.P. lounge that we’d hoped would be cooler than the rest of the terminal, but so many bodies were packed in there that it felt like it was over 100. So instead, we baked in the main waiting hall and savored some quickly-melting ice cream. We didn’t have as long to wait since our bus left at 6:00 p.m. When we got on board we found out – to our amazement – that the expensive seats we’d paid for didn’t simply give us more arm and leg room, but were designed to lay all the way down and become actual beds. This, let me tell you, was wonderful beyond belief, since it let us actually sleep and helped keep my pain under control despite the fact that the road from Florianópolis to Foz was insanely bumpy.

This bird has never experienced “bumpy” in his life.

Our room in Foz do Iguaçu was one that we’d booked well ahead of time. Iguaçu Falls is one of the sights we knew we had to see on this trip, but it took us a while to decide if we would approach it from Brazil or Argentina. We decided on Brazil (though we’ll visit the Argentinian side too) but we’d also needed to make reservations well in advance for Carnival. It was my bright idea to combine the two, which let us avoid spending Carnival in the crush of Río or another big city. However, it also landed us at one of Brazil’s major tourist attractions on one of the biggest holiday weekends of the year.

The hostel we found was ideally situated just outside of the central area of the city of Foz do Iguaçu on the road that leads directly to the park, so all we had to do was walk to the corner and hop on a bus. Usually after a night trip we’re too ragged out to do anything but wander around like zombies, but since we were both able to sleep for once we decided to go ahead and start seeing the sights. We’d save the Falls for the next day, but we started with a visit to the Parque das Aves (Bird Park) just outside the entrance to Iguaçu Falls park itself.

A legend in his own mind.

The Parque das Aves is a bird rescue and conservation reserve. The birds are all in aviaries so that some of them you can only view through mesh screens. Several of the aviaries, however, you can walk through and get very close to the birds themselves. The birds are amazing, from many species I’d never seen before, and many of whom are endangered (or even extinct) in the wild. I wish I could have enjoyed it more but as I said earlier, the chronic pain I’ve been feeling kicked into full blast during our visit and it felt like I was seeing all these amazing creatures from inside a scorching hot torture box.

Seeing Heaven from Hell:

On Sunday it was time to do what we came for: see the falls. Iguaçu Falls, on the Brazil/Argentinian border, are actually a confluence of many cascades that make up the largest waterfall system in the world. You can view them from either country and there are different activities to do on each side. Some you can do and stay dry. Some will get you soaked.

These aren’t even the big ones..

On Day One we opted to get soaked. We brought shorts, water shoes, Lea’s waterproof camera, and a small dry bag. We’d read that there was a lower trail where you could view the falls but get wet doing so, and that there was an into-the-falls boat ride you could do for an extra fee.

We also decided to sleep in and go to the falls in the afternoon. Big mistake.

We arrived and bought our tickets at an electronic kiosk rather than wait in the line for the ticket counters. There was a deep discount for buying two days at once, though it locked us in to coming right back on the following day and not skipping one in between. Then we got in line to get into the park.

Ladies and gents, that line was an hour and a half long. There were three parts: a loop-de-loop through the bus drop-off area, an outside rat maze, and indoor rat maze. Halfway through the indoor maze they scan your ticket, and at the end of all this you get on a bus to take you to the drop-off point of your choice in the park itself. Entry to the park closes at 5:00, and the last bus to bring people out runs at 6:30. We left our hostel at 2:00, and it was 4:30 before we even got into the park. We decided to skip any trails and go right to the boat ride.

Speedboats for scale.

The boat ride was disappointing. First, the wayfinding at the park is awful in general, but particularly at the boat launch. First you ride a very slow open-air wagon down to the upper platform where you can rent a locker to store anything you don’t want drenched, then you take a short funicular down to the river where you get in line for your boat. At every point along the way you have to ask someone “where do I go next” because there is absolutely no signage to direct you and there is no logical flow to the human traffic.

The boat ride takes you up the rapids towards the falls, which is fun, but doesn’t get nearly as close to the big falls as we’d hoped. You can glimpse them in the distance, but the boats never venture farther than several of the lower, smaller falls, which they slowly dunk you under. The ride does have some nice views, but for several key minutes of the journey there’s a member of the boat crew in a blue rainsuit standing right in front of you taking pictures with a GoPro to sell to you later. The whole thing is a disorganized, overpriced theme park ride. Leaving the boat launch at the end went so slowly that we barely made it out of the park before they shut down and locked up behind us.

One boat was mysteriously empty.

On Monday we got up early and hopped on the bus to get there when the park opened. This involved arguing with the bus driver, who didn’t want to drive his route all the way to the end and instead wanted to dump his passengers at the Bird Park and make them walk. Thankfully we weren’t the only ones to argue about this and when we got to the park entrance there was hardly a line at all.

The line, or rather the mosh pit, would be at the falls themselves.

The viewing, pushing, shoving, and squeezing platform.

Beyond the stop for the boat cruise, there is a bus stop at the beginning of the hiking trail. The next one is the stop for the restaurant, shopping area, and main viewing platform. What the park wants you to do is get off at the trail, walk to the falls from that direction, and then spend your money at the gift shop and buffet. We chose to ride all the way to the end, start from the viewing platform, and work our way backward. I’m not sure if that made things better or worse, but we would have been fighting the swarming mass of humanity either direction.

Here we go… The Devil’s Throat

The falls themselves are magnificent. They’re amazing. They go on forever, it seems. And while viewing them it feels like being crushed against the stage in the front rows at a Metallica concert. Given that there were this many people there in the morning when the entrance line was low, I can’t imagine what it must have been like later in the day. Busload after busload poured into the trails, with more people taking selfies instead of enjoying the beauty around them than even at Machu Picchu.

I want the power to make selfie sticks explode with my brain.

We never did find a trail that would soak you with anything more than a fine mist (unlike visiting Victoria Falls, which felt like walking through a carwash). We did find that people were rude in the extreme and we had to stand our ground many times to avoid being shoved off the narrow path.

But what a view.

The path was also crawling with coati, cute little members of the raccoon family. We saw one of these fellows from a distance way back in Guatemala, but the coati at Iguaçu have identified humans as a food source (despite all the signs advising not to feed them) and will come right up to you. If you have a bag, they will at the very least sniff it, if not outright steal it. I think my favorite moment was watching one lady get her purse invaded by a clever coati while she was posing for a picture.

The South American Trash Panda.

Four days of peace, three days of excitement, two long bus rides. We’re about to take a dip back into Argentina and experience the falls again, despite impending rain in the forecast. On a lighter note, the pain I’ve been bitching about has been getting better, and aside from that one horrible flare-up at the bird park has been steadily improving.

But wait, you say, wasn’t this also Carnival weekend? Hopefully I’ll have more to report on that. Stay tuned, dear readers. Stay tuned.

Lingua Incognita

So here’s a thing I need to get off my chest: Back in grad school I heard a joke: “If someone speaks two languages, they’re bilingual. If someone speaks three languages, they’re trilingual. If someone speaks one language, they’re American.” The implication being, of course, that Americans are isolationist country bumpkins who never get out in the world or make the effort to converse with other cultures.

I’ve come to two conclusions about this attitude toward my countrymen. First, since I was exposed to it in academia, it probably filtered down from snotty Europeans who were schooled in five different languages before puberty or the invention of Google Translate. Second, the definition of “American” needs to be expanded to include everyone living in the western hemisphere.

The Municipal Cathedral of Porto Alegre

All the way counter-clockwise from Ecuador to Uruguay, the vast majority of the people we interacted with only spoke Spanish and that was cool. We were in their country, so we learned and adjusted. When we crossed into Brazil this week, we had no expectation that suddenly we’d be surrounded by English speakers (although the few Brazilians we met earlier on our travels spoke English very well). What we did think, though, was that since Brazil shares a continent with so many Spanish-speaking countries, Spanish would not be uncommon and that it could serve us as a decent “intermediary” language to communicate.

Boy. Were. We. Wrong.

So far Brazil seems to be just as monolingual a society as the United States, and more so than other Latin American countries we’ve visited. Granted, we haven’t yet been to Rio or Foz do Iguaçu or any other big tourist hub. As in Peru we snuck in through the back door, coming up the coast to Porto Alegre – a harbor city that, while the largest in the South, isn’t anything like a tourist destination.

The… *ahem* …majestic views of the harbor.

But come on. First, it’s an international port so presumably you’ve got sailors from all over the world arriving at the docks. Second, Porto Alegre is the gateway from Brazil to Uruguay and Argentina, so you’d think someone would speak Spanish. But nope. Everywhere we went – restaurants, grocery stores, laundries, what have you – we would tell people “No Portuguese. Inglés o español?” and they would look at us dumbfounded, as if learning for the first time that other languages exist. Then they would carry right along in Portuguese, often talking louder just like a stereotypical tourist from the United States.

Ah well. We didn’t come to Porto Alegre to see the sights – good thing too, since there aren’t many – but just as a stopover between hellacious bus rides and to give ourselves time to adapt to a new country. We expected a bigger cultural shift coming into Brazil than when crossing other borders, especially with our new linguistic handicap, and wanted a few days to adjust without adding on other travel pressures.

Riding around town is exciting and roller-coastery.

Here are a few things we’ve learned.

Food and lodging in Brazil are cheap, at least relative to the last three countries we’ve visited. Transportation and laundry, however, are not. My god, the laundry. We have four outfits each that we wear two days in a row, so every time we do laundry we’re washing six outfits and a week’s worth of socks and undies. Everywhere else it’s cost us $10 – $15 USD to get everything washed. In Porto Alegre, it cost over $40! We hoped was a fluke, but in Florianopolis (skipping ahead to next week’s article) the same amount of laundry cost $50. (!!!)

Who knew that of all the expenses on this trip, it was going to be the laundry that was going to force us to cut back on other things. Hopefully there are self-serve laundromats in this country (there haven’t been elsewhere) because we’re not really willing to spend hours and hours doing laundry in the bathroom sink and stringing it across a tiny room to dry.

Maybe this tree could suck the moisture out of our laundry with its roots.

Back to the food: Thank the Gods that Brazilians eat dinner earlier than Argentinians. This whole business of restaurants not opening until 8:30 at night was driving me batty. In Brazil, restaurants open for dinner between 6:00 and 7:00, but even better – there are lancherias that are open all afternoon.

We kept seeing the word “lanche” in restaurant descriptions and at first thought it was some specific Brazilian dish. But no, “lanche” simply means “snack” and in Brazil “snack” usually means “hamburger.” (Side note: Brazilian burgers are huge, pressed somewhat like oversize paninis, and come with lettuce, tomato, corn, and peas. Lea doesn’t like the corn and peas, but I have to say I do.) Our favorite lancheria, though, was “Mr. Batata.”

Lanche!

Right down the block from our Porto Alegre apartment, Mr. Batata serves french fries in containers shaped like a giant waffle cones and your choice of up to twenty or so different toppings. And a plastic fork, ‘cause you’re going to need it. The ability to find a meal whenever we want and not having to wait until the dead of night to eat if we don’t have a kitchen is such a relief. Thank you, Brazil. Thank you.

So far, air conditioning units in Brazil work far better than those in Argentina and Uruguay. (The west coast didn’t have them at all, so no point of comparison.) Our hosts in Porto Alegre also had Netflix, so I’m sorry to say we eschewed “immersing ourselves in a new culture” for a couple afternoons of watching movies in English. When we did go out for things besides laundry and french fries, we spent some time walking in the shade in the city’s botanical garden, took a boat tour of the river/lake/bay where Porto Alegre sits, and found Porto Alegre’s small museum of contemporary art.

Porto Alegre’s Cultural Center.

Our time in Porto Alegre at an end, we headed north to start exploring Brazil’s natural wonders. (Because at this point we’re sick of colonial architecture and centuries-old churches and I’m honestly looking forward to some forest.) Our first target was Cânion Itaimbezinho in the Aparados da Serra National Park, which was recommended to us by an online friend from São Paulo. You get to the park from the tiny town of Cambará do Sul, but apparently there is only one bus into and out of town each day. Maybe.

Having learned our lesson in Argentina, we rented a car (a mini-SUV because of possible bad road conditions in the park) and made our own way. The weather reports weren’t good, but with fingers crossed we got to Cambará, stayed the night, and went to the park the next morning. The rain gods smiled and the weather held off, though the wind was pretty fierce and we could watch the clouds rolling in. We hiked two trails at the top of the canyon, getting great views of the valley and its amazing waterfalls.

Logistically it would have made sense for us to drive our rental north to our next port of call, but just like in the States car companies hate when you do that and charge quadruple for one-way trips. So after enjoying the park and a delicious lunch in Cambará, we drove three hours south in the rain back to Porto Alegre to catch the night bus north to Florianapólis, the first stop on our Brazilian Beach Tour. And since we’re near the beach…

Is your proboscis ready for this?

Welcome to The Escape Hatch In Brazil Drinking Game©!

How to play: Have your adult beverage of choice near at hand. If possible it should be a caipirinha, the national drink of Brazil. Or, if not, a shot glass and a bottle of vodka or rum will do.

Now, read back through the article and take a drink every time you see an alphabetic character with some kind of silly non-English šymbõl âttáçhėd. If it’s only an áccent, just take a sip. If it’s anything else, you have to do a shöt. If I do the same while I write, it should make these reports from the eastern hump of South America more exciting. It may also improve my Portuguese.

Tchau!

Uruguayan Vacation

Uruguay is a sleepy little country. In a book I’m reading (see below) one character calls it the “Switzerland of South America.” Well, maybe. Really it’s more like a tiny version of Argentina where things cost just as much as in the United States. There isn’t a whole lot to do here, which is actually what I was looking forward to. We’re about to dive into Brazil, which may prove challenging due to the language barrier and the incredibly long distances between all the dots on the map we’d like to connect. (Truth: We just bought plane tickets from Iguazu Falls to Rio to cut out about 24 hours of bus travel.)

Our quiet beach on a Sunday afternoon.

I’m writing from Punta del Este, Uruguay’s resort city. If you’ve been following the blog, you’ll remember that I’ve been craving a nice, warm, comfy beach where we could sit and stare at the ocean for hours ever since we left Bolivia last October. In Uruguay we finally got there. But first, we spent a few days in Montevideo.

A rainy day in the park.
We’ve noticed that water conservation isn’t a priority.

Montevideo really is just like any city in Argentina except for the climate, which was perfect when we were there. Highs in the upper 70s/low 80s, cool at night, often with a pleasant but not blow-you-over breeze. It did rain on our last day there, but even so it wasn’t terrible. That said, Montevideo doesn’t give you much to do except visit museums and eat large portions of meat. We did both, visiting a gaucho museum, a photography museum, a cannabis museum, a sculpture garden, and a grill that seemed heavily favored by the locals.

Too much of a good thing.

One neat concept that we’ve come across in both Montevideo and Punta del Este is the outdoor photography exhibit – the photos are literally displayed on glossy posterboard in an outdoor park. In Montevideo the photos were from past Carnival celebrations, while in Punta del Este we found an exhibit highlighting the effects of humans on the environment around the world.

A novel approach to art.
And another.

The hostel we booked in Montevideo was in the Barrio Sur, a veritable ghost town. In Punta del Este we found a hotel that wasn’t on the expensive peninsula of the city proper, but was instead nestled in a residential neighborhood halfway between the public beach and a shopping mall. We’ve spent a lot of time on that beach, but we did wander into the tourist trap part of town in a fruitless search for postcards and affordable ice cream.

The *only* way to get a photo of this sculpture without tourists in it is to steal one off the Internet (like so).

The beach is fine, white sand; the water is cool, clear, and full of tiny jellyfish. Vendors wander up and down selling their wares, but to my frustration they’re selling the wrong stuff – clothing, empanadas, toy airplanes. Not one person walked up to us with a cocktail menu. That was a missed business opportunity. More than once I would have dropped a dollar or ten on a caipirinha or a frozen margarita.

The first place on our trip where people can play in the water without freezing.

And if I had, it would have been pricey. Like I said before, prices in Uruguay are equivalent to those in the United States, and there’s nothing in Punta del Este that makes it different from any place on the Florida coast. For a long time Uruguay has had very friendly policies toward American expats, and the increased prices are apparently a consequence of welcoming so many retired Yanks.

Still, I’m glad to have finally got my beach time. Brazil promises even more, and also (we hope) new activities to engage in as well. Catch you next week from the other side of the border!

P.S. My Book Recommendation for Uruguay

Right now I’m enjoying The Invisible Mountain by Carolina De Robertis. I’m not going to finish it before we leave the country, but that’s okay. Uruguay is so small that even in the book the characters have to run away to Argentina and Brazil to have anything interesting happen in their lives. The Invisible Mountain reminds me a lot of The House of the Spirits by Isabel Allende. Both depict their country during the 20th century through the eyes of three generations of strong, unique women. The difference is that De Robertis is a much better novelist than Allende. Allende wrote with the cold detachment of a historian. De Robertis lets you experience her characters’ lives more intimately, and with more poetry. Once I’m done, my full review will appear here on Goodreads.

P.P.S. Our Route Through Uruguay

Here’s the road we took (or will have, after tomorrow night) including our “round the Rio Plata” bus ride from Buenos Aires. We’ll cross into Brazil sometime in the middle of Tuesday night, and we’re led to believe that we don’t even have to be awake – the bus company will handle our exit and entry and return our passports in the morning. That’s a little nervous-making, but apparently that’s how it’s done.

P.P.P.S. Lea’s Macrophotography!

Free Buenos Aires

I haven’t talked about money much on this blog. In general we tend to travel cheap so we can spend more on seeing the sights. This often has the odd effect of making small towns more expensive than big cities – the farther out in the wild we are, the more likely it is we have to pay more for national parks and excursions. In big cities, while housing and food may be more expensive, finding ways to spend our time is much less so.

The reason I bring this up is that I track our spending on a daily and weekly basis. In this past week in Buenos Aires we’ve spent less money in a seven-day period than we have since we were in Bolivia. That was unexpected. Then again we’ve been staying in small apartments, eating out as little as possible, using Buenos Aires’s very inexpensive public transit system, and going to free (or cheap) attractions as much as we can.

Street art, for example, is free.

By the time we leave Monday evening we’ll have spent ten days and nine nights in Buenos Aires. That’s a little less time than we spent in Santiago, the last comparable city, but we decided back then that perhaps two weeks was too much time in one place. As in all of northern Argentina, “hostels” don’t seem to be a thing here so we’ve rented apartments instead. We only booked three nights at the first one with the option to extend if we liked it. After the roaches came out to play that first night, it was pretty clear we’d be moving on.

The second apartment we landed in was much better, despite being tiny beyond belief. The beds, which can double as couches, fold down from cabinets on the wall and can be folded back up to create more space when not in use. The kitchen (with a tiny sink and one working burner) is in a closet, hidden from view when not being used. The result is that despite the space being small, the use of space is flexible. And while there’s not much in terms of storage area, at least the one available shelf isn’t crowded with useless knickknacks like some other places we’ve been.

Not our apartment, but far cooler.

Survival need #2 after shelter is food. The first thing we did after dropping our luggage was to eat a real breakfast. The “breakfast” provided by Argentinian hotels has consisted mainly of toast, tea, and nothing else. When we’ve had our own fridge (and occasional stove) we’ve added eggs to that mix, or lots and lots of cereal. Down the block from our first apartment, though, was a real French café with a mouthwatering Brunch For Two. We bought groceries immediately after to cover us for the next day or two, but oh my gosh that real European-style breakfast was a welcome surprise.

And so, fed and rested, we set out to explore the city. In a week, we’ve barely even scratched it. Buenos Aires is enormous. Fifteen million people live in the metro area, fully a third of the population of the entire country. You can get around most anywhere by using the bus and subway. Each ride costs between $15 and $17 ARS (less than 50¢ US) but travel times can be long. In Santiago it felt like it took us at least half an hour to get anywhere. In Buenos Aires, it’s more like an hour to an hour and a half – and that’s not if you get on a train going the wrong direction or waste time at a stop for a route that isn’t running.

(Fun fact: Even though Argentina is a right-side-drive country, the subway lines in Buenos Aires run on the left, ensuring that you will end up on the wrong side of the station at least once, even after you get the hang of it.)

So that’s life in the city for the tourist passing through. In the interest of travel bloggery, here’s a rundown of where we’ve been:

Centro

We ended up here twice, once on purpose (to meet someone from CouchSurfing) and once by accident (looking for a pharmacy and a working ATM). Not much to recommend about the area – it’s just a maze of narrow streets, old buildings, and shopping. The main skyline feature of Centro is the Obelisk that dominates the wide Avenida 9 de Julio. Neither time we were there did I bother taking a picture so the one above is courtesy of Wikipedia. Some things, like the Eiffel Tower, have been photographed enough already, don’tcha think?

Tigre

Our first touristy excursion was to take a train all the way back out of town to the community of Tigre on the delta of the Luján River, a tributary of the Rio de la Plata, and buy a boat tour. Tigre had been hyped to us by folks online, but when we got on the water we realized that the delta region was no different from any other river along the American Gulf Coast – full of private camps, docks, and motorboats. The tour recording went on about the architecture of the buildings and the way of life of the people who lived there, but to me it was just like boating around the Tickfaw or the Amite back home in southern Louisiana. Given that getting there, taking the tour, and getting back took up nearly the whole day, in hindsight it wasn’t the best use of our time.

El Ateneo “Grand Splendid”

This, on the other hand, was much more enjoyable, though we didn’t stay long. Just a few blocks from our first apartment was El Ateneo, an old theater that had been converted into a magnificent bookstore. We’ve seen bookstores everywhere in South America – they’re as common as gas stations in the U.S. – but this one beats them all by far. If I could read more Spanish beyond menus and street signs I could have browsed the shelves all night.

Recoleta Cemetery

Of course we went and saw dead people. The cemetery in the neighborhood of Recoleta isn’t colorful, but it showcases some beautiful design, sculpture, and stonework in its many mausoleums. Lea spent the time fascinated by the high quality and variety of stone used in the tombs’ construction. Personally, I was appalled at how little effort Buenos Aires’s vampires are putting into hiding their resting places. The tombs had windows where you could look right in and see the coffins, locks on the doors for easy egress, and spiderwebs right out of a vintage Dracula movie. I suggested that Lea and I come back at night with a hammer and some stakes so that she could chip off pieces of granite, gabbro, labradorite, etc, and I could take care of the cemetery’s other problem.

Chinatown and Koreatown

Every city in the world may have a Chinatown, but Buenos Aires is the first we’ve come across in South America that’s real. Lima’s sure looked like a Chinatown, just without any actual Asians. Santiago had an area of Chinese knickknack shops and real Asian groceries, but we never made it to a hub of authentic Chinese restaurants. Buenos Aires finally provided, but that’s not what we got excited about.

Because Buenos Aires also has a Korean district in the neighborhood of Flores. Lea and I love Korean food but we weren’t expecting to come across it again until we returned to Atlanta. But whaddaya know, there’s a whole community right here in Argentina.

Korea Town isn’t the bustling hub of tourism that Chinatown is. In fact, we were warned not to go to Flores at night. During the afternoon, nearly every business in the neighborhood was closed except for a handful of restaurants. The one we were looking for was Una Cancion Coreana and it was everything we’d hoped for. Banchan with kimchi, bibimbap, and Korean BBQ steak and squid – my kind of surf and turf. We got there right as lunch was wrapping up and probably looked like we hadn’t eaten for months with the way we stuffed ourselves.

The Art Scene

It’s bad when you’ve seen so many art museums that you can’t bear to look at another painting. I haven’t quite reached that point yet but Lea definitely has. Nevertheless we took a trip to the Museum of Fine Arts which has an excellent collection including many of the classical masters. At present it houses an exhibit of sculptures by Rodin, but it also has at least one painting each by Monet, Van Gogh, and Rembrandt (plus legions of their contemporaries).

Even better was the walking tour we took of the street art in the Palermo SoHo neighborhood. The tour was in English, as most of the tourists were European. The walk was over two hours (in fact, Lea and I bailed before the end) but in it we learned a lot about the street art movement in Buenos Aires, the significance of many of the images, and the fact that much of the street art in town is done with the permission of the local building owners and the city of Buenos Aires itself – especially for the giant murals done on commission.

Back To Nature

For a break from the relentless concrete of the city, we went to both the Costanera Sur Ecological Reserve and the Carlos Thays Botanical Garden. The garden wasn’t that far from our second apartment, so it was an easy morning stroll through the hot, though shady, park. It’s not the right time of year for much to be in bloom except in the butterfly garden, but the paths were pleasant to walk through and there was a nice variety of interesting trees.

As for the Ecological Reserve, we waited too late in the week and too late in the day to visit. It’s home to many species of birds and other wildlife, but temperatures have been steadily climbing since we arrived. By the time we got to the reserve, it was far too hot for birds, lizards, or humans, and everything was in hiding except for pigeons and doves. Nevertheless, the Costanera Sur did afford us our first view of the Atlantic since our cold, cold morning in Comodoro Rivadavia (which was more Antarctic than Atlantic).

Tango In the Night

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Tango is a big deal in Buenos Aires. It’s one of their main exports, to tell the truth. We got to see an Argentinian tango show at the Rialto in Atlanta, and you can pay good money to watch tango and eat dinner at one of the many theaters here in the city. If you’re cheapskates like us and don’t want to pay good money, you can look for one of the free “tango in the park” shows. We found out about one on Sunday evenings at Plaza Dorrego in the neighborhood of San Telmo, so we went to check it out:

The show was basically a handful of professional dancers who would try to persuade members of the audience to strut their stuff on the dance floor, and would then put on a short presentation of their own. There weren’t the crowds of locals dancing that we’d been hoping for, just a bunch of tourists like ourselves watching with their cellphones.

And Then This Happened:

Off To Uruguay

Tonight we get back on the bus for the border crossing to Uruguay and eventually Montevideo. We’ll have a whole day left in Buenos Aires, so assuming we don’t get continuously rained on (as Weather Channel is threatening) we may head down to the artsy neighborhood of La Boca and then back up to Chinatown. Who knows? The last thing I want is to spend more time than we need to in the Retiro Bus Terminal, one of the nastiest I’ve seen on this voyage.

Next week I’ll be reporting from a sunny beach somewhere on the eastern side of Uruguay. For the record, here’s a map of the course we charted through Argentina. It’s been a long, long road, and with Brazil still to come it’s going to get even longer.

Argentina, We Need To Talk

We spent most of last week in the city of Córdoba, dead center in the northern half of Argentina, the city where God is at this moment aiming his magnifying glass and causing humans to burst into flames. As Mendoza was for wine, Córdoba is where you go for all things Jesuit. It’s the site of many fine cathedrals – the most beautiful we’ve seen in a long while – as well as Argentina’s first university, a variety of art museums, and an underground Jesuit crypt which, once we walked there, was closed for renovation.

Dammit, Argentina!

Catedral de Cordoba en Plaza San Martin

We spent most of our time in Córdoba melting. The air conditioner in our room worked better than the one in Mendoza, though we still felt the need to let it recover once in a while. We also had to move the bed under it every night so we could cool off. During the day we didn’t dare open the blinds or turn on the lights for fear of adding to the heat. Going outside was no use. The ambient temperature was above the melting point of human flesh, so we spent a lot of time trapped in a dark, monastic cubicle while the rest of the city was at siesta.

Paseo Sobremonte y el Palacio de Justicia, about to burst into flame.

If you’ve been following this blog, then you may have noticed a recurring theme for the last few weeks. Lea and I had five months of South American travel experience under our belts before crossing the Andes, yet it’s seemed that Argentina has gone out of its way to make things more difficult than they need to be. I’ve felt myself become increasingly irritated with Argentina’s quirks – some small, some bigger – and I’ve tried to keep it in check by reminding myself that I’m the guest here and it’s not my place to criticize another culture.

What is the temperature at which humans broil?

But you know what – after baking for days upon end in the ovens that were Córdoba, Mendoza, and San Rafael, having gone weeks without even a single comfortable piece of furniture to relax on, and having absolutely nothing else of interest to write about this week – here it comes.

My criticism may be harsh, Argentina, and I’m sorry. So first, here’s a kitten:

Let’s start with something easy: keys. What is up with your keys? They’re enormous. Seriously, they look like something out of a Robin Hood movie where the jailer has a key ring the size of one of Mr. T’s necklaces. The first time we were handed one of your door keys, all the way back in Ushuaia, we thought it was a joke. I wondered if maybe our hostel had a collection of “quaint, antique keys” for kitsch value. But no, almost all the door keys in this country are in this bizarre, oversized style, different from everywhere else we’ve been on the planet.

And the keyholes? Just as bad. They’re twice the size of the key itself, so you practically have to be a locksmith to find the right angle and position to insert the key so it’ll catch the tumblers and open the lock. And then let’s move on to the fact that in most places we’ve had to use the key on both sides of the door. Mostly we’ve stopped bothering to lock our room when we’re inside because if there were ever a fire in the building we’d burn to death before we were able to unlock our own door and escape.

Seriously, Argentina. The art of locksmithery has made many advances in the last two hundred years. Just take a trip to Home Depot and look.

Now let’s talk about clothing. Specifically, the English language T-shirts from decades-old rock bands that everyone seems to wear, or the generic shirts with English slogans. It’s like the people in the U.S. who get tattoos in foreign languages that really mean “toilet bowl” or “insert tab B.” I refuse to believe that eight year old kid I saw attended a Pink Floyd concert in 1972 – in fact, I’m pretty sure his parents weren’t even born yet.

Yes, I’m glad that all those unsold shirts from Spencer’s and Hot Topic have found a home. And I know that as Americans this is surely our fault. Via Goodwill and Salvation Army we export all our castoff clothing to foreign countries. In lots of places, such as Guatemala or Tanzania, this practice is horrible for the local economy – no one can make a living making clothes locally if everyone can just go and buy some American Metallica T-shirt for half the price.

But in those countries the American clothes were being unloaded by the truckfull in giant piles in street bazaars. In Argentina, our old Blondie shirts are being sold in trendy and/or goth fashion outlets. Wouldn’t some of you like to own T-shirts with logos in Spanish? Hell, if you had those, I might even buy a few. God knows I need cooler clothing now that we’re moving away from the Andes.

The statue of your great hero will liquefy in the heat in 3… 2… 1…

Which brings me to the heat, and the management thereof. Northern Argentina is hot. It’s Louisiana hot. It’s South Texas hot. It may not be Australia hot, but with climate change you guys are on the way. I know that electricity has become expensive what with Argentina’s recent economic problems, so I understand the need to cut back on power usage. It’s an admirable trait to be able to tighten that belt and live with the higher temperatures. I doubt us ‘Mericans would be able to do that – we’ll push the planet into full Greenhouse Gas Hell just to keep our A/C set to 68.

Iglesia Compania de Jesus, with – look closely – FANS.

However, there is a technology that may help mitigate the hellish conditions inside your homes, stores, and offices – the fan. Ceiling fans, box fans, rotating swivel fans – like modern door keys, the technology has been around for a while. I know you know about it, Argentina, because I’ve seen them in your cathedrals. I just haven’t seen them anywhere else. (Not true – when we got to Buenos Aires, the place we rented finally came with a floor fan. It also came with roaches, but that’s another story.)

Fans draw an awful lot less power than an air conditioner and can do wonders in a stuffy restaurant or hotel room. They are sacred objects, but it’s perfectly okay to put them in your hostels. They’re great for siesta.

An afternoon starry night in the Basilica de Santo Domingo.

Speaking of siesta… love it, guys. I think the siesta is the greatest single invention of the Spanish world, aside from possibly the tortilla (which South America scorns for no reason I can fathom). Like the tortilla, I wish the United States would culturally appropriate the siesta into our daily lives. A nap for adults? Brilliant!

But there’s got to be moderation. For example, there were a lot of museums we wanted to visit in Córdoba. Unfortunately many of them were only open from 10:00 a.m. to 1:00 p.m., and then from 6:00 to 8:00 at night. Guys, if your siesta lasts for five hours? It’s not a siesta any more. It’s just being closed.

Art in the Faro Museo Emilio Caraffa, which apparently needed a really long nap.

Which wouldn’t be so bad if your restaurants didn’t keep the same hours as your museums. That’s not cool, Argentina. Some of us get hungry, especially after we’ve been siesta-ing for five hours in a dark, sweaty hostel room with nowhere else to go. Also, some of us have to get up in the morning, either to catch a bus or pick up a rental car or to go to one of your museums that only stays open until lunchtime.

Argentinian restaurants seem to come in three flavors: brunch places that stay open until 1:00 or 2:00, dinner restaurants that don’t open until 8:00 or 9:00 at night, and fast-food burger and hot dog joints that are the only things open in the afternoon and early evening. Thanks to these screwy hours, we’ve eaten more Burger King and street panchos lately than we ever did back in the U.S.

We’re old folks. We want to eat at 6:00, 7:00 at the latest, so we can go home and digest before going to bed at a reasonable hour. I understand that in Argentina, a “reasonable hour” is a lot later than we’re used to in our culture. I’d like to accept that, but riddle me this – if everything happens so much later in the evening in Argentina, then why is hotel checkout still at 10:00 in the morning? Hmm?

The Argentinian foot-long, or “pancho.”

On the topic of food – you guys are good. I admit it. I’ll preach it. I’ve told every Argentinian I’ve had a conversation with that I love the food in your country. The wine, the meat – you guys are absolute magicians when it comes to grilling. I don’t know how you do it. It’s not like you drown your steaks in sauce or dry rubs. Somehow, with just meat and fire, you achieve a heavenly perfection that makes me weep for the poor, deprived soul of every Vegan I know back home.

Another Argentinian staple, the “Alfajor” – upscale cousin of the moon-pie.

But guys… you need more fiber. You need a lot more fiber. TMI, I’ve been suffering physical pain due to your lack of fiber. To be honest this isn’t an Argentinian problem, it’s a South American problem. The reason I’m taking you guys to task is because unlike those other countries you guys know how to cook. Therefore, you should know better. There’s more to life than meat, white bread, and sweets. Just sayin’.

One last thing before I go:

Sliced lunchmeat is never a pizza topping. Look at that picture above and you can almost forget everything I said about what good cooks you are. What is that?? That’s an abomination, I tell you. And you’ve got so many Italians living here I don’t know how you get away with this. I know you can make good pizza. Our friend Paula in Trevelin made excellent pizza. Then we go to a grocery store and see the likes of this on display.

No. Just no. I don’t even have time to get into the whitebread sandwiches with the crusts cut off. That thing pictured above? That’s just wrong.

You cut the crusts off? What… What… What… Why?!

Okay, I know I’ve violated every single rule of travel writing, cultural understanding, and not displaying ugly American snobbery in this article. I’ve been hot, tired, and sore from interminable bus rides, and am just a little drunk on the fine Cuban rum you guys have readily available. (You don’t know how lucky you are for that.) The trip through Argentina hasn’t been easy and I’ve started to fray at the edges.

Iglesia de los Capuchinos in full Technicolor at sunset.

I’m typing this from a 7th-floor apartment in Buenos Aires, the “Paris of South America.” I’ve never been to Paris, so I’m not one to judge if it lives up to its moniker. I will try to relax and open my mind back up while we’re here. I’ll let you all know how that goes next Monday.

Ciao Ciao.

Driving Mendoza

So we made it to summer. After spending a month and a half in Patagonia and wondering where all the heat went, we packed up our cold-weather gear, shipped it back to the U.S., and took a hellacious long bus ride to San Rafael in Argentina’s scorching hot Mendoza Province. Google describes the Mendoza region as “semi-arid” to which I have to reply “Who are you kidding?” Granted it has rained a few times, but it’s so hot that all moisture bakes right off the ground and back into the air.

We also put my “We should have rented a car” hypothesis to the test – scientifically! We took two similar trips to canyons with lots of neat geology. One was by a tour company and the other was on our own via a rental car and self-determination. How’d it turn out? Let’s compare:

That long, windin’ road.

San Rafael – Atuel Canyon

The Atuel Canyon is a river gorge just south of San Rafael. It is dammed at several points for use as both a reservoir and hydrothermal power for the surrounding area. It’s also a popular spot for camping, kayaking, and white-water rafting (more on that in a bit).

We booked a day trip with a local company who picked us up at our hostel early Sunday morning. For some reason, we always end up being among the first on the bus, which lets us pick our seats but also means we get to wake up earlier and bump our way around town while the tour group picks up everyone else. After the whole crew is rounded up, the tour bus heads off along semi-paved roads for the head of the canyon, stopping along the way at an overlook at what I think was the highest point in the area – a hill with miles of featureless scrubland as far as the eye can see.

A hydroelectric dam where they actually let us out of the bus.

We took photos – or “fotitos” as our guide insisted on calling them – and, after wasting twenty minutes or so, got back on the road. Our next stop was a twenty minute layover at the dam for the reservoir – the “largest reservoir in Mendoza Province!” and then a short ride to lunch in the little village of Nihuil.

I’m going to go on record as stating that Nihuil is the ugliest little town in all of South America. It’s basically one restaurant that the tour groups dump people at, a bunch of shacks, and the Argentinian equivalent of a KOA campground. And we stayed there for an hour and a half. While most of our group made use of the restaurant, Lea and I had packed our own sandwiches. The heat was pretty oppressive, so I went looking for a tienda selling cold drinks. The few ramshackle shops I could locate had nothing to offer but beer and Red Bull. I’ve been in plenty of small, poor towns in the world, but this was the first one outside the U.S. where I was surprised I didn’t stumble across a meth lab.

The trick was taking pictures around the smudges on the window.

It was well into the afternoon when we finally began the descent into the canyon proper. The Atuel Canyon is full of stunning features. It’s a smorgasbord for geologists. We’d asked the agency if the tour would stop for us to look at all the geological formations, and technically it did – we just couldn’t get out of the bus. Instead, we got to enjoy them through heavily tinted and scratched windows. The bus only stopped at a handful of pull-offs where the geology wasn’t the most fascinating but where people had set up tables of souvenirs.

The high point of the trip was when we reached the bottom of the gorge past all the hydroelectric plants and into the section of the river used by the general public. For a modest additional fee, we could throw on our swim trunks and go white-water rafting. “Ya pays your money and ya takes yer chances,” a wise man once said. We did.

Valle Grande. It’s a lot less placid downstream.

Unfortunately we don’t have any pictures to record this event. I wish I’d had a camera if only to capture the look on our rafting guide’s face when we told him I only spoke English. He sent us to another guide for basic paddling instructions – “adelante” for forward, “atrás” for back, and “alto” for stop. Combined with “derecha” for right and “izquierda” for left, I had all the Spanish I’d need to follow orders. And off we went.

These were lowly Class II rapids in the stretch of water we braved, but I’m pretty sure our captain steered us into a few of them at an angle designed for maximum turbulence. I nearly got thrown out of the boat twice and one other person actually did get ejected. She seemed to enjoy it a lot more than I would have. We passed many campgrounds full of bemused bystanders who I’m sure were laughing at us and thinking “There but for the grace of God go I.” I enjoyed the experience enough that I’ll happily do it again, though I’d be more comfortable if I actually spoke the same language as my steersman.

The canyon really was amazing.

That would have been a perfect end to the day – except it wasn’t. Instead of taking us back to San Rafael, our tour insisted on tacking on one more stop, this to a farm where they dry fruit, make preserves, and bottle wine. Frankly at that part of the day I couldn’t have cared less. I just wandered around with the group, tried to look like I was interested, and marked time until the ride to our apartment. We were very, very late getting back.

San Agustín – Ischigualasto Provincial Park

Just a few hours up the road from San Rafael is the city of Mendoza itself. We stayed one night, picked up a Chevrolet Joy from Cactus Rent-a-Car, and after a brief struggle trying to figure out how to lock the doors we were on our way. It was a five hour drive through trackless arid scrubland to the village of San Agustín del Valle Fértil, but by doing it on our own we could stop for a break whenever we wanted, control our own air conditioning, and have actual elbow room. We also got to create our own side-trip by pulling off at the shrine to Difunta Correa, an unofficial but popular Argentinian saint.

Difunta Correa.

The legend is that the Difunta Correa was a woman whose husband was drafted into the Argentinian army and later became ill. His wife took their baby and tried to find her husband but died in the wild when her supplies ran out. Her body was found days later with her still-living infant miraculously nursing at her breast. There are roadside shrines to her all over the country, but the site of her burial outside of San Juan is the mother-load of all roadside shrines. People leave her bottles of water, snacks, and other supplies she could have used in the desert in 1840.

Shrines, or housing for desert gnomes?

It was also insanely hot. After hours and hours of driving on our own, we made it to San Agustín, checked in to our hotel, and ate goat. The next day we drove another hour north to Ischigualasto Park, where instead of riding with a tour group you take your own car in a caravan led by a park ranger. We stopped at sites of actual geological interest, including the site of a dinosaur dig, and made our own way out at our own pace and speed. After a brief stop at a YPF station for lunch, we were on our way back to Mendoza.

WWWOOOWWW
An alien landscape?
And that would be an actual dinosaur.

An aside here about YPF Stations: YPF is the main gas station chain in Argentina, and we’ve come to appreciate them as a company even though we haven’t been using them for gas. They consistently have comfortable, air-conditioned cafes when nothing else is open and we need a place to sit down and relax. In our layover in Comodoro Rivadavia, our day walking around Bariloche, and in Mendoza itself, the local YPF proved a comfortable refuge from the conditions outside.

Not Mars.
Still not Mars.
I swear, not Mars.

Renting a car ended up being a lot more work on our end, what with driving a ten hour round trip, but it gave us freedom and comfort that we’ve never had with packaged day tours. In hindsight, after the way our next few days in Mendoza went, we should’ve kept the car for longer.

Us v. Argentina: The Saga Continues

We originally considered skipping Mendoza, but someone we talked to convinced us otherwise. We should have gone with our original instinct. Mendoza is the heart of Argentina’s wine country but the city itself is blazing hot with little to offer.

To have chopped-up goat delivered to your table on a bed of charcoal, you have to drive five hours north.

Plus, it was hard on us to come straight to this region from frigid Patagonia with no transition in-between. It would have helped if more places in Mendoza had functioning A/C, but… It was okay where we stayed the first night and at our hotel in San Agustin, but when we came back to Mendoza we got a room in an older hotel with tiny, tiny A/C units that simply weren’t up to the task. In our first room, it barely worked at all – we ended up moving the bed across so that what little air there was blew directly on us. We had the hotel move us to a different room the next day, which was better, but even there the A/C unit would freeze up and die if we ran it for more than a few hours at a time.

Despite our reluctance to come back to a hot room, we just had to leave the poor machine turned off to recover while we ambled around town looking for places to eat and other things to do. In this, also, Mendoza frustrated us. While the hotel was waiting for our new room to be ready, we took our car back and decided to walk to a few art museums. Both that we wanted to go to were closed for renovation. The next day we wanted to find a vegetarian restaurant for lunch and go to the science museum. It took us about twelve blocks to find a restaurant that was actually open, and the bus line to the science museum didn’t seem to run on Saturday. We made it, but only after sweating our weight in bottled water.

The art museum in Plaza Independencia. It’s closed.

On Sunday we wanted to drink ourselves silly in Mendoza’s wine district before hopping on our night bus to Córdoba, but the company that runs the hop-on hop-off wine tasting buses closed before we got to their one office on Saturday, so we opted to make our own way to the Kaiken Bodega via the cost-effective municipal bus system, RedBus.

Brothers and Sisters, let me tell you about RedBus.

With the exception of Santiago, all the city bus systems we used on the West Coast were cash-based. In Argentina, the buses run on card systems like many metro systems in the U.S. The card system used in Mendoza is called RedBus. There is a RedBus kiosk at the main bus station so we bought a card (after a brief skirmish with people cutting in line ahead of us) and made a wild guess as to how much money we would need to load on it.

Our guess was spot-on. When we got back to the bus terminal with our luggage on Sunday morning, there were only 6 pesos left on the card – 1/3 of a ride. We stashed our bags at luggage storage then went looking for a place to load enough money on the card to get us to the winery and back.

So of course, the RedBus kiosk at the main bus station was closed. Apparently it’s only open from Monday – Friday from 8:30 to 4:30. Why would it need to be open more than that? After a few well-directed words of frustration we moved on to plan B – add money to the card at a kiosk somewhere in town. We’d seen several convenience stores in central Mendoza with “Carga RedBus” signs, we just needed to find one somewhere near our bus route. The RedBus website has a map of vendors, but it turns out that map is hopelessly out of date.

To make it worse, on a Sunday only about a fifth of the shops are open at all. We wandered several streets in the climbing heat asking at every place we came to if we could charge our RedBus card. Even at the shops with “Carga RedBus” signs, however, the answer was No.

It turns out that on Sunday, in all of southeastern Mendoza, there is one guy with a stall on Rioja and Catamarca who, beginning at 12:30, will Carga RedBus. We loaded 300 pesos on the card just in time to catch the 700 for a fifty minute ride south to Luján de Cuyo, a.k.a. Wine Central. From there Google suggested there was another bus that would take us to the Kaiken winery, but we got sick of waiting for it and grabbed a taxi instead. We got to the winery just after 2:00 p.m. We asked the taxi to pick us up when they closed at 5:00.

Nectar of the Gods.

Why Kaiken? We’d picked up a bottle of their Malbec in Punta Arenas, Chile, and loved it – but strangely, could never find it in stores in Argentina. It turns out that the owner of the winery is Chilean himself and that Kaiken exports 90% of their wines outside the country. We knocked on the door, told the guard that no, we didn’t have a reservation, then signed up for the Four-Wine tasting… and added two more wines to the list, then bought a bottle of their Merlot all for our very own and drank it at a picnic table under a tree on the premises.

¿Vale la pena? It’s a close call, but yes – drinking for three hours in the shade on a hot Sunday afternoon at the Kaiken Bodega was well worth the effort of getting there.

Too bad our cab never showed up. Lea walked (I staggered) out of the bodega just before five, but our taxi never came. In hopes of finding a bus, we started the long, hot trek down the gravel road back toward Luján de Cuyo. We stopped at paradas in the hopes that a bus or taxi would pass us on the way, but no – we ended up walking four kilometers to get back to the bus stop where we were just in time to catch the express back to Mendoza.

(We didn’t realize how far it was until I looked it up on Google Maps just now – we only knew that it was hot and it took forever.)

So that’s my tale, O Dwellers of the Frozen North. (Seriously, I see that Atlanta is closing down for snow?) We sweltered for a few more hours and took the 10:00 night bus to Córdoba. The bus, my friends, was air-conditioned.

P.S. My Book-of-the-Country for Argentina

My pick for Argentina was Ficciones by Jorge Luis Borges. This is the first of my selections from my “Reading Around South America” project that I can’t honestly recommend. A few of his stories, yes – most of them, no. Borges was a 20th Century Argentinian literary icon, but his style is too remote and didactic to be enjoyable. Many of his plots are nonexistent, and others are just thin frameworks to hang long-winded philosophical treatises on. One of his favorite tricks is to write literary criticism on authors who never existed. Much of the time I had the feeling that he was making some sort of clever joke that, not being one of the Argentinian intelligentsia from the 1940s, I just couldn’t get.

Of Borges’s stories, I would recommend “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius,” which introduced me to Borges in The Big Book of Science Fiction and is included here, as well as “The Library of Babel,” “The Secret Miracle,” and “Three Versions of Judas.” My full review is over at Goodreads.

In San Rafael there is actually a hedge-labyrinth designed in Borges’s honor that you can visit and get lost in. (Labyrinths feature prominently in a lot of the author’s work.) We thought about going there, but in the end it was more important that we take a day off. We’re never going to see everything in South America, and Borges is never going to be one of my favorite authors.

Hours, Miles, and Centuries From Anywhere

The panic set in on our second night in Los Antiguos. We’d just come back from a needlessly long expedition to the Cave of Hands. The following day was the start of the thirtieth annual Cherry Festival (the only thing that ever happens in Los Antiguos) and since all the rooms were booked we would be moving to the neighboring town of Perito Moreno. There we had a reservation for two nights in an apartment and a day trip to the Marble Caves.

Anyhow, with our next major transit three days away, I crawled through our hotel’s painfully narrow Internet connection to check on buses from Perito Moreno to Esquel. The last time I’d looked, just days before, there were plenty of seats remaining.

A few searches online confirmed that the bus was now sold out.

I’m not ashamed to admit it – I freaked.

Perito Moreno is on Route 40, the north-south backpackers’ road along the Argentinian side of the Andes. For the most part, the Taqsa/Marga bus company has a monopoly on this route, and they only run one bus per day. Fun fact: the towns of Los Antiguos and Perito Moreno are the most remote places in all of Argentina. They are the furthest human settlements from any others in the entire country.

For want of some cherries, our bus seats were lost.

Getting into Los Antiguos and Perito Moreno had been tricky due to the timing of the Cherry Festival, but we hadn’t anticipated that leaving before the festival would be a problem. What we hadn’t factored in was all the pass-through traffic – travelers coming up from El Calafate and heading toward Bariloche without stopping in between.

The plan had been to take a bus on January 11 to Esquel, where we would be met by Lisa’s friend Paula. We would stay with Paula for a night, let Lisa stay with her friend for two more days, and head on our own to El Bolsón. From El Bolsón we would be out of the Taqsa/Marga bottleneck and have many options to get us to our next destination.

That plan being shot to hell, we quickly came up with Option B – spend an extra night in Perito Moreno if possible, cancel our reservation in El Bolsón, and travel up to meet Paula on the 12th. The trouble with this was that we had no idea if there were any rooms left in Perito Moreno – we knew for a fact that Los Antiguos was full. Before worrying about lodging, though, it was vital to grab three of the last remaining bus tickets on the 12th.

I selected our seats online and was all set to buy them, when… Dum Dum DUMMM …the Internet went out. Fine, I could still use the data on my phone, right? Nope, the data connection was gone. Oh well, we’d head to the bus station first thing in the morning. We did that, but the bus station’s Internet was out. The guy at the Taqsa counter called ahead to the Perito Moreno office and had them jot down our names, but it felt as if we were on thin ice. We went back to the one restaurant in town with WiFi in the hopes of getting online while the Cherry Festival slowly took shape around us. I got on the WiFi but… no Internet.

The Internet had gone out in the entire town. Lea asked and was told this was a common occurrence, and that it could be out for a day or more at a time.

Our eventual destination of Trevelin – would we ever make it?

We’d hoped to look around the Cherry Festival (which seemed no different from any other weekend street market) but instead went back to the bus terminal for the first afternoon ride to Perito Moreno, where hopefully we’d have connectivity and be able to book something. Unable to cancel our reservations in El Bolsón online, we called the place and did so over the phone. Meanwhile Lisa had the idea of talking to the folks at the Andesmar desk about alternate routes and discovered that there was another way to Esquel.

We reached Perito Moreno and found that the Taqsa office – with our supposed call-in reservation – was closed. Not wanting to wait for them to reopen, we spoke to the nice young lady at the La Union counter about Lisa’s alternate route. Oh my stars and garters, that woman was so helpful – she got us booked through to Esquel on our original date, the 11th, so we wouldn’t have to scrounge for rooms in Perito Moreno. The only downside was the route we would have to take.

As I’d said, every seat on Route 40 was taken. Bus routes to the coast, however, were still available. To bypass the eight-hour direct drive to Esquel, we would have to get on the 2:00 a.m. La Union bus to Comodoro Rivadavia, lay over there for the morning, then take the afternoon Etap bus inland to Esquel, arriving at 10:00 p.m. I’m sure we looked like zombies when Paula picked us up. Here’s our final route:

Fun times.

It finally occurred to us, after spending twenty hours to detour around a single sold-out bus line that this whole affair would have been easier if we’d just rented a damn car. I even searched for car rental agencies in Los Antiguos and Perito Moreno, but those towns have no tourist infrastructure to speak of. We’d have had to pick up a one-way rental back in El Calafate and dropped it off in Bariloche, or even Mendoza. We didn’t know then, but I’m telling you now – don’t rely on bus service for anything along Route 40. Rent a car.

I started thinking about the benefits of car rental the afternoon before this all started on our trip to Cueva de los Manos (the Cave of Hands). The Cave of Hands (more of an overhang than a cave) is the site of some fantastic, brightly-colored art dating back as far as 9,000 years. We really wanted to go, but the tour company sites and reviews on TripAdvisor talked about a 5km trek down into the canyon to see them, without being clear as to whether it was 5km one-way or round-trip. We did not feel up for that, but we found a company that offered the trip without the hike.

It’s amazing how these paintings haven’t faded.

Our guide that day wasn’t very clear about the itinerary, where we were, or what we were doing, and at one point had everyone get off the bus for a “short trek” down a salt flat without explaining where the trek would end – was this the death march to the canyon that we’d opted out of? Apparently not – it was just a salt flat they added to the tour to pad the time.

Our guide also promised us “free bathrooms” – as in behind a rock.

It turns out that you can just drive right up to the park entrance and take a guided tour along the canyon wall to see the paintings – total walking distance less than a kilometer. All the hyperbole about long treks and other stops and lunch being included and yadda yadda yadda… It just shows the problem with these tour company day trips. They take what should be a quick, half-day excursion and pad it out so that they can charge more for the time and make it worth the company’s while.

A gorgeous canyon I’m glad not to have hiked.

This particular tour was one that, if we’d had a car, we could have done ourselves in four or five hours. Instead we spent the whole day on an uncomfortable, bouncy tour bus. The tour would have added even one more stop on the way back to town, had it not started snowing.

That’s right, folks. It snowed on us in the middle of summer.

The next trip we probably couldn’t have done on our own. We were picked up from our Air B&B early in the morning, driven back to Los Antiguos where we joined more fellow travelers, and rode across the border into Chile – a long way into Chile – to visit Las Capillas de Mármol, the Marble Chapels (or Marble Caves) on Lake General Carrera. The caves are erosion features into a marble formation that date back to the end of the last glaciation and the formation of the lake, about 6,200 years ago (making them younger than the cave paintings). They can only be viewed from the water, and only if the lake is low enough and the winds aren’t too high.

Chile has everything except paved roads.

As soon as we crossed back into Chile, Lea and I felt a million times better. Just across the border is the village of Chile Chico which, while smaller than Los Antiguos, is obviously geared up for the tourist trade in ways that its Argentinian counterpart is not. We didn’t stop there, but we did in Puerto Guadal when our 4×4 had engine trouble. While our driver made a brief stop at an auto repair, the rest of us got to raid a Chilean grocery store. This was an unexpected bonus that let us buy more bottles of our favorite Carménère and several packages of Tuareg coconut cookies.

The boats for the caves leave from Puerto Río Tranquilo, a solid four hour drive on dirt roads from the Chilean border to the far end of the lake. Our boat in particular felt like it was barely large enough to be seaworthy. Lea asked our guide how strong the winds have to be before they cancel the tours and he said fifteen knots. The wind that afternoon was thirteen knots. The ride was wet and bumpy.

And worth it:

Our fellow excursionistos had a bus to catch in Los Antiguos, so our driver hauled ass to get them to the station in time. From there we had another driver take us back to our Air B&B, waited around a little while, then left at 1:00 a.m. to hike to the bus terminal for our 2:00 a.m. departure.

We were ready for a break. We were so very, very glad for Lisa’s friend Paula, and Paula’s friends Mariana and Nicolás for providing one.

Paula picked us up, bone-weary from buses and excursions, at the station in Esquel and drove us to her home in Trevelin, forty minutes or so back towards the Andes. We camped in her living room, we slept late, we washed clothes and hung them to dry in her backyard, we played with all her beautiful stray cats. For three days we didn’t make a single decision or arrangement. We just went where Paula took us and ate what she cooked us. Homemade pasta, bread, pizza – it was all fantastic.

Myself, Lisa, Paula, Nicolás, Lea, and Mariana. You’ll note that my glass is already empty.

We went to Nicolás and Mariana’s house for a good old-fashioned Argentinian cook-out with sausage, pork, chicken, steak, and lots and lots of Malbec. I got somewhat drunk. (Side note: In situations with freely flowing non-beer alcohol, I tend to get drunk first and sober up first. I’m an early adopter.) While still fuzzy, I may have assembled their daughter’s telescope, complained about its lack of a viewfinder, and showed everyone the craters on the moon. Because I’m a particularly nerdy drunk.

The kittens were worn out too.

The following day we were promised a boat trip and picnic on the lake. (They didn’t say which lake, but I’m guessing that’s because the name of it is Futalaufquen and not even Argentinians can pronounce that.) Lea and I thought it would be some kind of public boat ride, but no… Nicolás and Mariana own an actual sailboat. They and friends of theirs (with another sailboat) sailed us about an hour from the public boat launch to a beach that’s only accessible by water, where we spent the whole afternoon snacking on leftovers from the previous night’s cook-out and drinking five or six more bottles of wine. There was barely any light out when we pulled back in to the dock.

Now *this* is a day trip.

The next day we slept late, borrowed Mariana’s car, and Paula drove us (and Mariana) to El Bolsón, the hippie capital of Argentina. (We also picked up a puppy and took it to Paula’s sister, but this post is running long already.) We got ice cream and beer in El Bolsón, then caught the last bus out to Bariloche. (Full name: San Carlos de Bariloche, but who wants to say all that?)

This was all last Monday, and lacking time, physical stamina, emotional fortitude, and an Internet connection, I chose to take a week off from the blog. We spent the next few days in Bariloche not doing much but walking and riding around town. These were our last days with Lisa – she had a flight to Buenos Aires on Thursday – and our last days among the Andes, Patagonia, and the Lake District. It was another tourist trap town, but a good place to end this phase of our journey.

Lago Nahuel Huapi has to be one of the most beautiful lakes in Andes. We took the teleférico to the top of Cerro Otto for the full view (including rotating restaurant and hot chocolates with cognac) then rode the city bus west for an hour to the entrance to the National Park, where we ate sandwiches and drank wine on the lakeshore while soaking in the Andean air.

By now we’ve moved north and away from the mountains into the part of Argentina that actually experiences Summer. More on that next week. First, I’ll just recap a few life-lessons:

  • Book everything along Route 40 well in advance. Do not make assumptions about lodging or transportation, nor about having access to the Internet. Assume the worst and plan accordingly.
  • Cross the border and stay in Chile Chico, not Los Antiguos or Perito Moreno. I’m sorry, but the towns on the Argentinian side simply do not have the infrastructure to handle any level of tourism, much less the flood they seem to get around the Cherry Festival. Just from a glance, it’s obvious that Chile Chico is much more well equipped. It’s only drawback is that it’s hard to get to from Chile; you almost have to come in from Argentina.
  • Rent a damn car. Seriously. It’ll make so many things easier along Route 40 if you have your own transportation and don’t rely on Taqsa/Marga to get where you need to go. With a car you can also take your sightseeing into your own hands and cut out some of the annoyances associated with day-trip tour companies.

That’s all for now, true believers. Next week we trade the majestic Andes for really big holes in the ground.

Patagonia On Ice

The Perito Moreno Glacier, in the southern end of Argentina’s huge Los Glaciares National Park, is one of the few glaciers in the world that is advancing instead of receding. The massive sheet of ice pours slowly out of the Andes into Lago Argentino, forming at its end a solid wall over three miles wide and taller than a twenty-story building. You can take a boat up to either the north or south face of the glacier, or watch it from a series of trails and viewing platforms where you can feel the ice-cold wind blowing off its surface and listen to the thunderous noise as blocks of ice the size of houses break off and crash into the lake.

We went twice.

A year of summer – that’s what we told ourselves when we left the United States in August. We flew straight to the tropics and as the northern hemisphere slid into autumn we traveled south into a second spring and then, of course, another summer.

We weren’t completely delusional. We knew that Patagonia was going to be frigid and arranged to have cold-weather clothing shipped to us in Chile. What we didn’t anticipate was that aside from a few warm islands here and there, the trip was going to be chilly all the way down the West Coast, that our “year of summer” was going to be dominated by the high altitude of the Andes and oceanic currents from Antarctica, and that the prolonged hours of sunlight weren’t going to do much at all to warm us up.

Oh well. We’ve been assured that once we get into northern Argentina, summer heat will become a sweaty reality. Until then, we still have several weeks to appreciate the harsh steppes of the South.

The launch point for trips to Los Glaciares is the little town of El Calafate. It’s not the kind of place where one generally spends a week, but we did. Ushuaia was too expensive – and boring – and El Calafate was the best place to rendezvous with Lea’s sister Lisa who will be spending the next two weeks traveling with us!

Me, Lea, and Lisa – not dressed for summer.

Staying in El Calafate for longer than normal gave us the chance to scope out tours and excursion options in advance while, as I said earlier, seeing the Perito Moreno glacier twice – something we haven’t been able to do with any other point of interest along this trip.

The glacial blue of Lago Argentino.

Other things to do around El Calafate: We visited the town’s amazing Argentine Toy Museum, with its huge collection of toys from around the world from 1870 to 1970. We visited the Laguna Nimez Bird Sanctuary right on the edge of town. We had unlimited drinks for 25 minutes in the Yeti Ice Bar, where the temperature inside is a balmy -17⁰C. We hiked into some windy, sandy desert formations 100 kilometers outside of town to see a petrified forest. Oh, and we Zip-Lined down the eastern face of Cerro Frias.

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El Calafate is a town of expensive hotels and cheap backpacker hostels, with nothing in between. Since we were staying for a whole week, we went for cheap – especially since the backpacker place afforded us the use of a kitchen so we wouldn’t have to eat out. It did land us in a dorm-room situation, which we’ve previously endeavored to avoid. We booked an entire room for ourselves to avoid sharing bunks with total strangers, but even so our room in El Calafate wins hands down for the single most cramped accommodation we’ve had.

They call this a room for four people.

That’s a minor quibble next to the main difficulty Argentina has thrown at us this week. Last week I discussed the dearth of bus transportation in Argentinian Patagonia. This week in Round Two of “Us vs. This Country,” the point of contention is Argentina’s ATMs. We budgeted plenty of money to get through Patagonia, but the banks down here are making it annoyingly difficult to gain access to it. From our research we knew this would be a problem, but reading about it and experiencing the reality are two different things.

A long-tailed meadowlark at Laguna Nimez.

Imagine, if you will, that you were operating solely on cash, that the most you could get out of a bank machine at a time was $100, and that you got charged a $10 fee every time you made a withdrawal. To add insult to injury, imagine that the ATM then dispensed your $100 in a giant wad of $2 bills. Imagine paying rent in those conditions. Imagine saving up enough cash for a big purchase. Imagine buying groceries.

The Sci-Fi display at the Toy Museum.

Because of Argentina’s banking laws, the ATMs have very low caps on how much money you can withdraw and very high fees when you do. Compounding the problem is the fact that the ATMs in tourist towns in the middle of nowhere, like El Calafate, are continually short on cash. Rounding out the trifecta of annoying money problems is that Argentina has virtually no coins. Everything is done with paper money, so you end up carrying around thick stacks of bills that are not really worth that much but are difficult to hide without making giant bulges in your pockets.

Felled trees in the Petrified Forest.

We’re lucky that we were able to set up a bank account for this trip that refunds ATM fees – that’s been a life-saver – and also that we’re allowed to take up to three withdrawals a day. It’s annoying that we’ve had to do that. Because the banks here can’t be trusted to have sufficient available cash, the rule has been for us to take money out well in advance if we have an expensive tour or a week of lodging to pay for at once. It’s not fun to have to carry that much money, and it may not be the smartest thing in the world to be advertising that fact on this blog for all the world to see.

Rock formations near the Petrified Forest.

Thankfully 1) no one down here reads English and 2) by the time this is posted we’ll be well out of El Calafate.

Next up: caves, more caves, and… cherries? Stay tuned, dear readers.

Lea and Lisa at the Yeti Ice Bar, still not dressed for summer.