Rest of Argentina, Brazil and Paraguay – November 2011

Iguazu Falls, Argentina
Iguazu Falls, Argentina

so…. onwards to Iguazu Falls way up in the northeast bordering Brazil and Paraguay. Photo’s are at:

We picked up what was, without doubt, the most expensive, most tattered, most dented and utterly filthy rental car we have ever had the misfortune to sit in – but never mind – it was only for 2 days…..We hopped straight over the border to see the falls from the Brazilian side – which would have been OK if it were not for the fact that Brazilian immigration was veryyyyyyyyyyyyyy slllllllllllllllooooooooooowwwwwwwwwww……so we sat and sat and got irritated ….and eventually got to the immigration window when I remembered neither of us could speak a word of Portuguese (not usually the kind of thing one forgets) nor did we have any Brazilian currency (!) and we prayed we weren’t going to get asked anything complex…..luckily the lady (who looked about 12 years old) spoke perfect english 🙂

Unfortunately I needed to briefly visit the powder room – to be fair they did at least have one at immigration for the public – but I am still having nightmares now – it is undoubtedly the closest I ever want to get to the inside of a Latin American prison toilet block…I won’t say more as I’m still trying to blot it out 😉

The falls were absolutely spectacular – there are walkways over the top which afforded a fabulous view of the rushing water (after 20 seconds and a light breeze aimed in our direction we were thoroughly drenched) – and a tower so you can look down over them – this is a vast amount of water – huuuuuge and noisy – and we had to agree with Eleanor Roosevelt who reputedly said – when seeing Iguazu – “poor Niagara” 😉

Back on the Argentinan side where we were staying we didn’t really take to the town of Puerto Iguazu. Considering the kind of $$$$ the Falls brings into town (at least a couple of grand for 2 or 3 nights getting here, staying, eating, cars etc) it is really rather grim – kinda grungy and dirty…very young children begging on the streets….more like a shanty town. Not exactly befitting as the gateway to one of the 7 Natural Wonders of South America… oh well…give it another 20 years….maybe…

The next day I had all sorts of wonders planned – jet boat rides and walking the argentinian side etc etc… only we were woken to a huge storm battering the roof of the tin can we were staying in (allegedly a boutique hotel) – that – and the howling dogs running through the streets all night didn’t combine for a good nights sleep 😉 It was still torrential in the morning (but we were in the rain forest so these things are not unexpected) … so….what to do…..G thought it might be an excellent idea to acquire yet another passport stamp and thought we should spend the day in Paraguay (as one does!). Needless to say – never again……Not only did he NOT get a stamp (despite the fact we sat in the worst, most polluted, most chaotic traffic jam we have ever seen to cross the “border” from Brazil to Paraguay , “immigration” was, in essence,  50 or so very scary looking officers with guns who didn’t once look at a passport but instead randomly pulled over cars ( if they could be bothered at all to stop loitering aimlessly)…Happily, they ignored us! Still, it was quite fascinating watching the world go by and the exchange of dubious looking packages being swapped by pedestrians and motorbike taxis at the half way border point on the bridge! 😉

Difficult to describe Paraguay, again, I am still trying to blot that out too 😉 There may well be far lovelier parts (I really hope so) but Ciudad del Este is NOT somewhere you need to add to your “bucket list”. An adequate description may be Bangkok on a really bad chaotic day… first realization that South America is not all Cartagena, Cusco and Buenos Aires ;-)….

The torrential rain didn’t help of course but it seems that the entire city of Ciudad del Este is one big stationary traffic jam – after an hour or so (physically still 2 minutes in reality from the border) we dumped the car and ran through deep rivers of street debris (it was still raining) flowing around my flip-flops to get a few photos as I couldn’t possibly leave without some proof that we had actually been there…..I cannot actually believe the photos I have look relatively peaceful – the camera does lie!

The Brazilian city of Foz do Iguaco in this triumvirate was infinitely more appealing – clean, friendly …and they speak a bit of Spanish 🙂 !!   …funny what a difference a few miles makes…

The following day was departure day so we headed excitedly to the tinpot airport of Iguazu to catch a flight to Salta to head north into the mountain region closer to Bolivia… yippeee!

Unfortunately, our early morning flight was delayed to Salta (planes were stuck in Buenos Aires because of volcanic ash) and we huffed and puffed and decided to make the best of it as the sun had (finally) come out and we rushed back to the argentinian side of the falls to get a few snaps. We returned as instructed at 1pm for the delayed flight and we were casually informed by a gate agent (who could not have cared less) that the airport was closed – indefinitely – not just a few hours…..but until welllll…whenever – maybe next week – maybe next year… least until the following Sunday – by which time we would have been back home in the US (maybe!) 😦

It seems, due to the extraordinary incompetence of whoever runs the airports, that the air traffic control system had finally broken down (as it would do when nobody maintains anything).

This was a defining moment when we realized that when “shit happens” in South America it realllllly happens 😉

Generously the airline suggested we take the (I suspect awful) 22-24 hour bus ride to Salta instead (they MUST have been lying on the time line for reasons to follow!). You can imagine G’s response….and a single tear had already started to dampen my cheek….

So….to cut a very long story short we then spent 2 more very hairy hours in the chaos of the over crowded airport desperately trying to get hold of the man at the rental car company to come back into the airport office to tell us if we could rent the now even more horrible and filthy rental car to drive to Salta instead.  Stress levels were quite high as there was not a single car left to rent in the whole town and we were holding the keys to the only (revolting) car left in the whole area. So….no cell phone…no internet access and no email – not good . He eventually drifted in (after another nice man from Avis called him 5 times)…and  gleefully told us we could rent the car one-way to Salta – it was at least 12-14 hours drive and it would cost $1200 US – which (naturally) we paid out of sheer desperation – we could have bought the dreadful thing for less….but what can you do??!

10 hours later – gone midnight – driving country roads (no motorways) at over 100 miles per hour non-stop with huge trucks and buses barrelling towards us on some very undulating and in some places melted (!??) roads (to say nothing of the dirt track diversions and the collapsed bridges) in the pitch black (no street lights here either) and poor Geoff is almost falling asleep at the wheel.  We had seen rain forest, pampas, swamps, miles and miles of idyllic farming land, gauchos…all good until dusk…..then it was more strange swarms of unidentifiable bugs we couldn’t clean off the windscreen, some very poverty stricken towns and fewer and fewer likely places to find a nice Hilton hotel (none for 1200 miles in case anyone fancies doing the same trip 😉 ) !!! 😉

Gas stops were also fun – no credit cards accepted anywhere and we were running very short of cash (and the towns were running very short of working ATM’s) – for the first time in my life I actually thought I would be sleeping in a car at a cockroach infested gas station……

Just to rewind slightly – at 11pm G decided he really needed food (as we hadn’t eaten since breakfast). Options were rather limited (like hotels) and we finally pulled into a gas station (for about the 10th time to fill up and scrape the bugs off) and G wandered off to the loo leaving me to buy 4 empanadas which had probably been there for a month…..I have never seen (never mind tiptoed through) so many cockroaches in my life….100’s and 100’s – some scuttling about and others on their backs with little legs flailing wildly in the air……I have had nightmares ever since ;-)…..

What worried me most at the time was that G’s empanadas might make a rapid evacuation at the side of the road and I would have to drive (and I didn’t have any insurance to drive the car… so..not good 😦 !)

So…. midnight passed and I thought we might die in a bloodbath if we continued flat-out at 100 mph so I insisted we pull into the next town and sleep on the roadside if necessary…..I was really hoping for a hotel but not optimistic…It didn’t look good until G saw a couple of cops in a very battered pick-up truck in a side street – I wandered over with my map and bad espanol and asked how far it was to Salta – after some discussion between the 2 cops (also apparently about 12 years old) they decided anything between 4 and 8 hours – maybe 300k or maybe 6/700k….(it seems argentinians in this area don’t drive much – and with the price of gas and the vastness of the country I can understand why)….

So I cautiously asked if there was a hotel in town (at all) , and, if so, was it a nice one? ;-)….like knights in shining armor they came to our rescue…obviously very keen to help…and I think they found my espanol mildly amusing …. they offered to escort us through the town to the “nice one” as otherwise we probably wouldn’t find it….. it was quite an impressive guided tour with flashing lights and the works – they even walked us into the hotel to tell the staff to find us a room (which was actually nice!) as the filthy smelly visitors from the US were lost and verrrrrry tired….

Whatever one can say about the general chaos and disorganization and utter inefficiencies we became acquainted with during our trip, everybody we asked for help was very friendly, very tolerant of my espanol, apologetic that they couldn’t speak english (!) and most helpful….we just didn’t greatly enjoy the cross-country roach experience traveling at the speed of light 😉

Unfortunately the next morning, we were, in reality still 8 hours from our next destination – so we spent another day in the car – still at 100 mph but at least in daylight…the trip was also made more tragic by the fact G had to extract 1/2 a dead bird from our head light as it had committed suicide on the front of our car, smashed the headlight and cut itself in half (yukkkk…not good for 2 animal lovers).

Then there were the police stops all over the roads – almost every village/town/small dwelling with only 1 hut and a donkey etc etc had a police stop…Most of the time they couldn’t be bothered to stop you (good!) and if they did they just wanted to know where you were going and to wish you “buen viaje” which was nice :-)…I guess it was inevitable we would get stopped at some stage crossing 1/2 the country at twice the speed limit – my main concern was that G wouldn’t be able to slow down in time from 100mph to stop the car without squashing a cop!

Luckily the one over-zealous bored cop we got wasn’t paying full attention 🙂 He asked where we were from and I gleefully said the US (because I  had been asked this a million times and had forgotten we were traveling on our UK passports!)… then there was a moment of panic when he asked to actually see our passports. We had to hand him the UK ones of course as they had the immigration entry stamp (and the US ones were totally invalid anyway as we didn’t have visas to get into Argentina on the US passports!)……panic….Luckily he was so fascinated by the interesting collection of foreign stamps in G’s passport that he completely failed to notice the discrepancy….yippppeee!!

Finally, we made it all the way up into the mountains to the fabulous town of Purmamarca in the Andes – peaceful – boiling hot – arid – multicolored rocks – hotels!! – restaurants (but still nothing very green to eat) !!!! We finally got out of the car after almost 2 days of being rattled and boiled to death (the air con didn’t work properly – and not at all on G’s side which he reallllly enjoyed as it was about 98F in the mountains!) and we took a beautiful walk through the Hill of 7 Colors and back to our fabulous adobe hut to crash 🙂 As my research promised, the town was full of artisans – of the Andean handloomed rug and multicolored woolen item variety…..we were very VERY happy to be there 🙂

Only one day left and another manic drive south through Salta (one large nice’ish main Plaza with a pink cathedral and some other Spanish colonial stuff). Considering this place gets so much publicity we kinda felt (outside of the Plaza) that it really had all the appeal of Slough High Street – can’t think of a good equivalent in the US – 1960’s and 70’s strip mall architecture….a bit inappropriate for the surroundings….massively disappointing ……

We continued directly south to the far lovelier and more peaceful wine region town of Cafayate where I had had the foresight to at least book a really nice boutique hotel with a pool overlooking the vineyards where we collapsed watching the sun setting on the red mountains in the distance… G fell asleep with a glass of wine in his hand muttering something about it being the nicest glass of wine he had ever had 😉

Needless to say the flight from Salta to BA again to get our connection back to Miami was also fraught with tension, delays and incredible disorganization…but at least we made it!!

So….go to Argentina – it is absolutely beautiful, culturally and architecturally fascinating, colorful and vast…there are huge tracts of land where you may starve and you certainly won’t find any hotels unaided….but it is fab 🙂

  • try to learn some (or a lot of!) espanol first as not very many people speak ingles (and why should they?!) …even G’s espanol was markedly improved beyond just ordering beer by the time we’d dug ourselves out of trouble! 😉
  • if you are vegetarian don’t go, unless (like us), you will eat meat if pushed (or you are happy to live on river fish and potatoes) To elucidate – we saw 1000 miles of green vegetables growing in fields but not a SINGLE one in any shop or restaurant….not good…though they do seem to know about lettuce and tomato ;-)…luckily the beef and llama are rather good 🙂
  • don’t rent with Alamo – their cars are inexcusable – the one upside is that the staff aren’t too observant – when we handed the car back at Salta airport G had carefully wedged the broken headlamp piece back into the headlamp and held his breath when they did the check over 🙂
  • increase your credit card limit before you leave in case you need to unexpectedly buy an ancient car you don’t really want (as rental companies DO very happily take them!)
  • don’t go with any expectation that this is a gastro food destination – the beef IS good but not very gastronomically adventurous 😉
  • take LOTS of cash for food and gas because your credit card will be as useless as a chocolate teapot outside of Buenos Aires
  • don’t wait until the last day to send all your postcards because you might end up in Chicoana where the post office worker is very happy to relieve you of $20 US for 7 postcards before he tells you he hasn’t got any stamps (!!) and he’ll get some in a day or 2….ummm…we’ll see… 😉
  • and – most importantly – don’t plan anything as NONE of it will go right!! 😉

With all this information we wish we’d had before we went – we plan to return as soon as we can for another (hopefully slightly less) epic trip to Patagonia 🙂

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