Sunday, January 13, 2019

Buenos Aires

Over and over again I have heard of Buenos Aires (BA) as one of the best cities in the world and easily everyone's favourite capital in Latin America so I had high expectations without really understanding why. Our approach by ferry from Uruguay didn't tell us much and it was shocking to be unceremoniously dumped out on the side of the road after getting off the ferry without any terminal to speak of. Not a great start.
We caught an uber and settled into our Airbnb in the Palermo neighbourhood, a nice area of tall apartment blocks and treelined streets. We were looking for somewhere safe, fairly central and reasonable clean and found it. It felt very livable wandering around going about our daily activities. BA is often mentioned as more European and classy than any other city in South America and that is probably true in the sense that in the centre you have that grand architectural look with majestic government and public buildings, and large well-used plazas and parks. What differs from Europe is the number of modern buildings mixed in and the scale of roadworks. There are streets that are 10 lanes wide right in the centre. A brief look at things wouldn't clue you in that the country is continually falling on hard financial times. It still looks like there is a lot of money and influence here.
Unfortunately for us we didn't allocate as much time as is truly needed to appreciate the city with only two and a half days. It didn't help also that aside from the first day we arrived, it was often wet and relatively cold or threatening to be. We still wandered in the centre, admiring the monuments and facades and parks as best we could. We hid in coffee shops for warmth and even found a delicious cheap steak at a simple grill house restaurant.

Just a typical building in the centre. 

Colon Theatre on the left

Love the contrast between old and new
That is a lot of lanes....
Sasha's favourite way to hide from the rain.

A must see and an interesting outing in BA is the Recoleta Cemetery, a large walled off block of ornate tombstones of the historical rich and famous residents of Argentina. It is big enough that it is laid out with pedestrian streets. The only name I recognized there was Eva Peron but I'll admit I know nothing of Argentina's historical personalities. It was still very interesting to see and in many places the tombs are not well maintained and we could peer into the depths and see the coffins stacked below. Not creepy at all...

Recoleta Cemetery

For Bre and I though, the biggest highlight in BA had nothing to do with the city itself but with a person. After ~14 years we met up with Edgar, a former exchange student who was one of the last to live with us before we shut all that down. He's Venezuelan and only a few months ago finally left his country with his family to settle in BA and try to start over. He was still in a state of rebuilding his life and the stress that entails but took the time one evening to come over and reminisce with us. With Venezuela being the only country we won't visit in South America on this trip, talking to Edgar really brought the issues to a personal level for us.

Monday, January 07, 2019


Looking at a map the road south from Posadas follows the western border of Uruguay with multiple border crossings to choose from. As we were on a night bus it made some sense to stop at the furthest south crossing (more sleeping time) and make our way from there. Border crossings must have cross border traffic right?
So just after sunrise (because our bus was an hour late), we were unceremoniously dumped on the side of the highway outside the town of Gualaguaychu. We'd hoped they'd at least stop at the bus station but instead we found ourselves in the rain at a 24hr truck stop and in need of a saviour. And behold! One appeared before us in the form of a Portuguese lady that had resettled there after getting married to a local. What are the odds that we would find a foreign, English-speaking, helpful person working at a truck stop in a town that can't possibly have any foreign tourists passing through ever? And to add to the miracle, she was just getting off work and a city bus happened to pass by and pick us up to take us into the city, with her as guide, so we could find the bus station. It took 2 buses and almost an hour but it was glorious. We were saved. We were down to our last pesos too so taking a taxi probably wasn't really an option for us. Such are the quirks of travel where you really don't know what is going to happen but you have to carry on believing that you will get where you need to go in the end.
We were in for a few more surprises at the bus station. Despite being the closest road link to Uruguay from Buenos Aires, there was only 1 bus a day going across the border and we would have to wait about 4 hours to catch it. The bus station is quite small with a sitting area for maybe 40 people and a single small cafe but it was more appealing than running around lost in the rain so we sat and waited. It was also a shock to find a small tourist office in the station that was not only open (somehow a rarity everywhere we go) but was staffed by someone that spoke English! This might not seem that unusual to you but it was mind-blowing. This just has not been happening to us. I started to rethink the importance to Gualaguaychu... Maybe they have ambitions. Maybe they are the secret English-speaking hub of Argentina. Unfortunately she couldn't make buses magically appear sooner.  So we waited...
With another bridge over another river doubling as a border (all the borders so far have been rivers), we entered Uruguay without issue. It was a quick and quiet crossing and we quickly found ourselves in the small town of Fray Bentos. We'd hoped to enter a lot earlier in the day and get things moving along but our arrival at 2pm put a stop to our progress.
All 0 of my British readers might recognize the name Fray Bentos as the brand name of a meat pie still sold in the UK. In 1863 a meat processing plant was opened there and for the next 116 it became the dominant industry in the region, essentially turning Fray Bentos into a wealthy industrial town. The meat processing company morphed a few times over the years but was at its peak during the "Anglo" years in the first half of the 1900's with over 5000 workers, exporting its products around the world from its own port on the Uruguay River, including being a major supplier to the armies of both world wars. The town within a town that grew up beside the industrial area included it's own hospital, recreation areas, school etc, and was also abandoned when the factories shut down for good in 1979. Now a world heritage site, it is possible to visit some of the old buildings to see them in their current state of decay. This is what we did but we arrived too late for the guided English tour which was only available that morning. It was still really interesting and incredibly atmospheric to walk through some abandoned engine rooms in pools of water listening to the drip drip drip of the last of the rainwater falling through the holes in the roof or peering through cracked and dirty windows trying to figure out which part of the processing that building was used for.
This place is not a well known tourist attraction yet and we were the only ones there but we really enjoyed it and the small attached museum. There wasn't much English so I can imagine it would have been even better with the guide, but there were lots of old photos (some quite graphic) and materials (old equipment, product cans, and the old admin offices) to give enough of an idea. In a way we felt a little too rushed to enjoy it as much as we probably would have if we'd gotten there earlier. We ended up staying the night in Fray Bentos, which is otherwise a pretty small and sleepy town now with a couple of small plazas and the odd nice building like the theatre still standing from its glory days.

Fray Bentos old offices
Anyone recognize any of these?

Engine room

The old port

Fray Bentos theatre is still in use

One of two nice plazas

The following morning we caught a bus to Colonia del Sacramento, originally a Portuguese settlement and one of the oldest in Uruguay. It sits across the Rio de la Plata from Buenos Aires and was a site of contention for its first 150 years, being involved in a couple sieges and changing hands between the Spanish and Portuguese a few times in that period. Today it is a small but very touristy town, popular with day trippers from Argentina as well as for those transiting between Buenos Aires and Montevideo as Colonia has a busy ferry terminal between Uruguay and Argentina.
We arrived late after our bus had to reroute because of flooding on the roads but still had enough time in the afternoon and evening to wander around the small historic centre of Colonia. It has a few tiny streets and a church or two, a plaza, the remains of some city walls and coastal fortifications and a lighthouse you can climb for a view over the area. The Rio de la Plata is quite wide here and looks much more like the sea, but is technically the wide river mouth still at this point. On a clear day you can see Buenos Aires in the distance.

Flooding on the way to Colonia

One of the oldest streets in Colonia

The lighthouse built on church ruins

View from the top. It's a very green town.

While Colonia was pleasant enough, in comparison to the Portuguese colonial towns in Brazil, it is smaller, far less interesting and much more expensive. In the interest of keeping things moving and saving time for elsewhere, we decided to not head any further east to Montevideo, spent the night in Colonia and caught the ferry to Buenos Aires the next morning. Our experience in Uruguay led us to believe that the country is mostly flat and dotted with small farming communities. I had no idea that its population was so small relative to its neighbours and by land area is actually smaller than Guyana. It felt quite developed and peaceful too though I'm sure Montevideo is a different beast altogether with more than half the population.

Friday, January 04, 2019

Jesuit Missions

After 6 weeks in Brazil we were excited to finally enter Argentina and begin the Spanish-speaking portion of our trip. We certainly noticed the difference right away. It was easier to communicate and Sasha started to notice subtle cultural changes that reminded her of Spain. But with any new change of country there are growing pains and after 6 weeks in Brazil we'd started to get quite comfortable with the system we had going. All of a sudden we had to figure out new prices, how to get money, move around and access the internet. For example, we'd grown very accustomed to having a local sim card and good network coverage in Brazil. We bought a new sim in Argentina but have had more trouble with it and the quality has been comparatively disappointing. In Brazil there is a good website for figuring out bus schedules ( and planning things in advance. The best sites available for Argentina, quite frankly, suck and are much less comprehensive.
To get a little ahead of myself here, the most frustrating thing with Argentina is dealing with money. For the last 15 years the country has had money troubles, with cycles of bankruptcy, currency crashes and other economic woes wrecking havoc on the population and livelihood of the people. I think I would really like the country if it wasn't for the money. In the last year, the local currency has lost half its value. As a foreigner you could see this as meaning that potentially everything just got a lot cheaper but with the wisdom of unfortunate experience, they have figured out that they need to jack up the prices quickly to compensate. Yes, some things are cheap, but others feel like they are changing price on a regular basis and info gets out of date quickly. Fair enough.
To minimize your losses with fluctuating currencies you either need to change money regularly or use a credit card as much as possible. Because of weird financial restrictions that I still can't figure out or are perhaps inconsistently applied, credit cards are not loved, they are picky about what US bills they want to change, and the ATMs have very low withdrawal limits and the highest fees in the world as a percentage. For the first time in a long time I actually worry about running out of money and running into problems. To avoid this we've gotten to a point where we are avoiding restaurants that don't accept credit cards and are trying to find more airbnbs to stay at because you pay in advance. But again, everything is inconsistently applied. The bigger bus companies take a credit card, small regional ones often won't. Some restaurants will and you never know which until you ask. Some shops and all supermarkets we've seen will but most hostels and budget hotels won't. If a hotel does, they charge you a huge (as much as 10%) fee to accept a card. At the same time paying by card in the supermarket or bus station has often gotten us a big discount. I think it has to do with the local taxes. Maybe it is just a random lottery but it is unpredictable enough to make me a little crazy. In any case, I think our time in Argentina will actually come down to how long our little stash of US cash lasts.
Moving on.
Unlike most visitors to the falls who fly in and out, we caught the bus south a few hours to San Ignacio, a very quiet little village known for its ruins of a Jesuit mission. In Bolivia we had seen a few and this was more of the same story. In the 1600's the Jesuits arrived and built dozens of missions in the wilds of what are now Argentina, Brazil and Paraguay, past the dominating reach of the Spanish and Portuguese colonial powers. They set up what were essentially self-sustaining villages based around a central plaza and church, preaching to the Guarani natives. For about 150 years these missions thrived until political attitudes in Europe eventually forced the Jesuits to abandon their projects worldwide. The missions quickly deteriorated as the Guarani were no longer protected from slavery and other abuses at the hands of the colonial powers. The 1986 movie The Mission starring De Niro, attempts to tell the story and give an idea of what life was like back then.
Dropped off the bus on the highway running through town, we were lucky enough to meet a guy who ran a local tour agency and would let us drop our bags for the couple hours it would take for us to visit the mission. The ruins lie right in the middle of the town and the walk over was eerily quiet. Only a couple of streets are paved, the silence infrequently broken by the passing of the occasional car. At 12:30 even the restaurants were closed and the stray dogs were too lazy to harass us. Such is the power of 38C. The ruins were a lot bigger than I expected, encompassing the grounds of the whole former village with several residential areas for the natives in addition to the plaza, church and its grounds reserved for the missionaries. They are ruins, with crumbling walls and trees growing out and around some of them making for an interesting exploration. There were lizards everywhere and fortunately no tourists until the end when a few small groups finally showed up.

Inside the church 

Remains of the housing area

We continued to Posadas and stayed the night before jumping on a bus the following day to hop across the border into Paraguay at Encarnacion. Paraguay is quite a bit poorer and cheaper than Argentina so many local Argentines cross to go shopping leading to some long lines. There is a noticeable difference once across, the lack of maintenance shows but it didn't feel overwhelmingly poor in the parts we saw. With only a day trip under my belt I am far from qualified to make any grand comments on Paraguay other than to say it was a shame we couldn't figure out how to justify staying longer. And this is the touristic problem with the country. Most people skip it because there is no huge draw to bring people in and keep them there. I have heard good things about people that have explored it further but nothing so great to force me to do so. For us, the Jesuit mission at Trinidad, another 45 minute bus ride from Encarnacion was to be our excuse.
Part of the same Jesuit expansion, the mission in Trinidad was established later than the one in San Ignacio and lasted less than 70 years. The ruins were smaller but followed a very similar layout to the one in San Ignacio. We made a big, slow circuit in about an hour which was all we could handle as the temperatures hit 40C and we were melting. We were the only visitors during our time on the grounds. Kind of sad for the most famous attraction in the country...  The missions in general were considered special as a result of the fusion of local Guarani artistic styles and materials with Roman Catholic ideals and images. Each mission had a small museum or display of some works and some carvings were still visible on the ruined churches themselves.

A rural walk through Trinidad

One of many posts along the way

The ruins of Trinidad Mission

Outside Trinidad, the land looked to be mostly fertile farmland and the people surprisingly very European. There is a large Ukrainian population there and while these particular people aren't Mennonites (they are in western Paraguay) the overall feel was most similar to eastern Bolivia compared to anywhere else we've been down here. Compared to the missions in Bolivia, these ones were much larger and more ruined, while the ones in Bolivia are more restored, showing more artwork and are mainly just the churches still in use. I like this sort of thing and pretty much all ruins in general so it was a pair of worthwhile stops for us.
There are also many other missions around both San Ignacio and Trinidad, but without a car or tour it would take us days to see them on the infrequent local buses. We chose to focus on the two most famous (popular?) instead. From Trinidad we hurried back to Posadas and jumped on a night bus heading further south.

Monday, December 31, 2018

Iguazu Falls

Consistently ranked as the #1 waterfall in the world, it would be an understatement to say I was excited to finally get to Iguazu Falls. It isn't the tallest or strongest falls, but it is the largest in terms of width and arguably the most beautiful for its setting. I've been to most of the most famous waterfalls in the world now and I'd have to agree that it would be hard to argue against it being the best. Victoria Falls in Africa is the only truly comparable site in my mind. Niagara falls is the most referred to in comparison as it is the only waterfall with a higher average flow rate (though is much shorter). I really need to visit Niagara again as I was too young at the time to make a proper comparison now...
Like the aforementioned Victoria and Niagara falls, Iguazu is on the border of 2 countries, in this case Brazil and Argentina, and both have their own touristic approaches to the falls. We stayed 2 nights in the larger Brazilian city of Foz do Iguacu, and 2 nights in the much more touristic Puerto Iguazu on the Argentine side. The general consensus is that the Argentine side is much better with respect to the falls and the tourist infrastructure. True on both accounts.
Our reason for staying on the Brazil side was 3 fold: we were already in Brazil so it made sense to see the Brazil side first, we wanted to visit the Itaipu Dam, and to get a Paraguayan visa. After rolling off the 19 hour bus from Sao Paulo, we checked into a little airbnb and to the accompaniment of many a groans, we immediately made the short trip over to the Itaipu Dam. Confusingly, the Itaipu Dam is a joint project between Paraguay and Brazil who also have a border in the same area. Completed in the 1980's, the Itaipu Dam was the largest in the world until the completion of the Three Gorges Dam in China. There are multiple visiting options including inside the dam but we opted for the basic panoramic tour which took us over and around the dam by bus and stopped at a couple viewpoints along the way.

There are 20 generators, one for each white tube. 

Itaipu's spillway

The electricity created is split 50-50, with Paraguay selling most of its share back to Brazil (only a fraction of the dam's power can power almost the entire country). The statistics are pretty amazing and worth looking up. The dam is over 7 km long and controversially the creation of the reservoir necessitated the destruction of what was the world's largest waterfall by flow, the now forgotten Guaira Falls. The tour was quick but we were still impressed.
The Brazilian side of the Iguazu Falls provides the best overall view, since most of the water is falling from the other side of the river. Iguazu is a huge collection of falls because the Iguazu river spreads out and curves before making its plunge and although there is a dominant fall, the Devil's Throat, the whole site is a collection of over 200 individual falls spread out over nearly 3km.  At times of flood nearly all of these individual falls can become one. The panoramic view from Brazil is excellent and probably best visited first because realistically it is a shorter visit, there are fewer viewpoints and trails to enjoy and would probably disappoint if coming right after a visit to the Argentine side. There was just one main trail and although you can never truly see the entire length of falls at a single time (without taking one of the frequent helicopter trips) this is the best chance. Unfortunately due to the massive number of tourists, both international and domestic the trails can get pretty bottled up, especially around the viewpoints with everyone taking extra long for the perfect selfie.We were still impressed and loved the Brazilian side. We just didn't realize how much more we'd like our second visit.

Looking into the Devil's Throat

There is another excellent attraction right at the entrance to the falls in Brazil as well. Parque das Aves, is a bird park/sanctuary with over 150 species of birds and a few other species (reptiles, butterflies, etc) in an excellent natural layout. It was similar to the great Belize Zoo and we enjoyed this just as much. There is a well laid out path around the park and several large walk-in enclosures to enjoy, including one with the largest collection of macaws in the world. Wow they are noisy!

The Argentine side took several hours to visit and allows you to get up much closer to the falls, both above and below by means of lower and upper trail loops. There is also a third trail taking you to the top of the Devil's Throat where you will get wet from the spray. We were quite ready for that with the temperature in the high 30s each day. The walkways were much nicer, often elevated over the river with many more viewpoints and as a result, even with more visitors, felt much less crowded and allowed for a more relaxed experience. The land surrounding the falls on either side is national park and offers other activities such as guided nature walks, but just by being observant while walking the trails we saw numerous lizards, fish, a turtle, monkeys, tons of birds and numerous coatis (one of which attacked Sasha trying to get at her cookies).

Baby coatis!

In all we loved it and can understand why it is one of the top tourist destinations in South America. Given the chance, even if you don't like waterfalls that much, it is worth the effort.