A Day of Contrasts

Now I don’t want this to come off as too negative, but Argentina can be jolly hard work. Today we had two tasks – change some money, and buy some credit for my phone.

This literally took most of the day.

I had been told to bring lots of cash (dollars, or euros) rather than relying on ATMs. So I did. I have been able to pay for a number of things with my no-fees, perfect-exchange-rate credit card, so that’s been good when it works, but then it has also been randomly rejected at times forcing me to use cash or other cards with big fees/commissions. Getting money out of ATMs with that card costs 6 pounds a go, and when you can only get 74 pounds per transaction, that’s huge! But for any other card, its 6 pounds a go plus whatever my home bank charges. So I could easily be paying 10% of your cash in ATM fees!

I was told by our hotel reception that if I had notes smaller than 100 USD or 100 Euro, that exchange houses may not want them, or give me a worse rate. Bonkers as this may seem, this tallied with other reports I’d seen of casas de cambios refusing smaller notes or giving much worse rates for them. So we headed off to the Santander Bank, 5 minutes from the hotel. The queue was immense and luckily a security guard told us right off that the bank didn’t have an exchange function. He gave us directions to a cambio that we followed but never found (which could have been my Spanish). We then headed for another bank that we were told did do exchange.

Their queues were even more immense (I counted 47 people just queuing to use the ATM – inside there were many more) and to even get in a queue you had to get a ticket from an electronic machine – but to get a ticket you had to input your tax ID number. There was literally no other option, and no helpful information desk. Hmmm. I asked a guy standing patiently behind us while I tried to work out what to do, and he said they also had no cambio. By this point we had traversed half of Iguazu – a town, let me remind you, that borders two different countries and receives millions of international tourists a year.

We were then directed to a cambio across the road – it was supposed to close at 12.30 and by now it was 12.20, so wonderful, we were in luck! Erm… no. It was closed already, and would only reopen at 4.30.  By this point, the insatiable black hole that is Lauren’s stomach was getting grumpy and noises were being made about lunch… but I was reluctant to completely wipe out our remaining cash. We agreed to try one more cambio place, listed on google maps. It was a fair trek and we arrived after 12.30 so with little hope, but it was open and eventually when we got served gave us a reasonable (for Argentina) rate for my cash. Phew.

So, lets have lunch.

Ah, yes, even that seems to have a system here (to be fair this is the only place that we have encountered this system, but it was not the day for it). We got to a café and sat down at a free table. Not being served after a while, we figure out you have to take a ticket and wait in line. No problem! Happy to queue! We are British after all!

Leaving Lauren at the table (guarding our masses of cash, plus the bag with my passport in as I’d needed it for money exchange) I took a ticket and joined the huddle of people round the counter. When it was my turn I ordered. I was then given a piece of paper with my order on it. I then had to join another queue to get the drinks, and then another queue to pay – presenting my bit of paper and the bottle of water I’d chosen. Once I’d paid, (with my card, which required me to enter my pin, sign my name, and present my passport so they could write down the passport number) I then had to go to a different part of the first counter, with my bit of paper now stamped, and give it to the woman there. She had my order prepared and there next to her, but did she at this point (queue number 4 remember…) hand it over to me?

Oh no, she took my bit of paper and told me to sit down!!!! After about ten minutes she brought it over! Luckily just sandwiches and nothing hot as it would have been stone cold by then.

After lunch we felt sufficiently revived to tackle the task of buying credit for my phone.

I should say that the process of getting the sim card had previously taken 2 visits to the phone company, the entering of immensely detailed information into their system, presentation of my passport, and then being told that the phone company could only provide the sim card, not any actual credit, for which we needed to go to a service station.

Various places around Iguazu have the Movistar sticker in the window, but only sell the sim card, not credit. It seems like only service stations sell credit. Oh, and you can’t pay for credit using a card, or online, and if you have a phone bought outside the country it won’t let you download the app to manage your account. Nowhere on your phone menu does it tell you what your number is, nor is this on the information that comes with the sim card, so woe betide anyone who loses the post-it note the phone company gives you with your number on. Because without knowing your number you can’t buy credit.

We headed off to the shell garage, braced for drama, but in actual fact the guy there was very pleasant – he couldn’t work out one of the numbers on the aforementioned post-it note (I only use my phone for data so have had no need to find out my number after the initial top up) so he kindly used his own phone to phone me and check, before selling me 200 pesos worth of credit for …… 210 pesos…. Whatever.

So by the time we had changed money, had lunch and bought phone credit, having seen most of the town in the process, we felt we were entitled to a quiet afternoon under the AC, catching up on emails, and watching TV. Sometimes, travel is exhausting and some downtime is needed.

Given it was such an arduous day, we treated ourselves to dinner ‘out-out’ (as in, at a nice restaurant as opposed to the cheapest café we can find something reasonable in – I do miss cooking) and so the travails of the day were soundly compensated for by our first taste of Argentinian steak – yes, it was as good as everyone says, check out Lauren’s face below, she ate two thirds of my steak – and I even treated myself to a caipirinha.

Well-deserved bliss.

 

Iguazu Falls, Argentina!!!

Visit to the awe-inspiring Iguassu / Iguazu falls, Brasil / Argentina.

Iguazu falls

Today was the big day – the reason we had trekked this far north and endured that overnight bus journey.

A visit to the awe inspiring Iguazu Falls.

These incredible waterfalls emerge out of the jungle at various points around a wide basin, and plunge into the river below. It’s the biggest waterfall system in the world, and is shared by Argentina and Brazil, with the border running right down the river. Most of the falls are in Argentina, but from Brazil you get a wider view of them all – while in Argentina you can get up close to many of the falls. I had visited the Brazilian side 20 years ago (I don’t feel old enough to have done anything 20 years ago….) and was keen to share the experience of the Argentinean side with Lauren.

There are various islands and many different waterfalls, with the biggest and most dramatic being the garaganta del diablo  or devils throat, where about half of the water falls.

Its hard to describe Iguazu falls – and even harder to capture in photos – just how enormous and spread out the falls are. From the fairly slow moving river spread over a vast swathe of rainforest upriver, cutting through rocky outcrops and small islands and boulders, with huge catfish lazily swimming around and occasionally grabbing a fly, to the increasing urgency as the water reaches the top of the falls, still spread over an immense area, to the intense power and drama of the cliff edge around a huge semi-circular bowl in the earth, as the water swirls and pulses and turns in on itself, throwing mist many metres into the air, at many points along the edge, before plunging down to the river below, dividing round a big island and once again slowing down into a wide and fairly placid mud-coloured river strewn with boulders.

I can’t do it justice in words, and the pictures try, but convey more ‘pretty’ than ‘immense and awe-inspiring’ – so you will just have to visit one day yourselves!

Iguazu falls upriver

rainbow at iguazu falls

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Ah yes, starting to look a bit more dramatic….
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View from the top of Garaganta del Diablo
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Garaganta del Diablo – the force of the water at this point is incredible.
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After getting up close, we went for a jungle trek to gain some perspective – this is a view of where we were in the morning from about a KM downstream…..

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Isla San Martin in the middle obscures some of the falls, but this tries to show how vast the falls are, ranged around in a massive semi-circle in the rainforest.
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There are many smaller (but still incredibly impressive) individual waterfalls throughout the park…

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By this stage of the day we had walked a good few KM through the dense rainforest, in incredible heat, and this pool looked very tempting….
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There were lots of these coatis (with their kits) around the areas where people congregated, and despite signs everywhere asking people not to feed/pet them, of course people did.

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Not sure what this was (its huge) but we kept it to ourselves to spare it the attention of other tourists.
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There were many enormous butterflies, with incredible colours, but impossible to photograph – this little fellow obligingly stopped by and I got this shot.

As I say, if you get the chance, do visit – its one of those wonders of nature that truly needs to be seen to be believed.

Guira Oga Animal Rehabilitation Centre

A visit to an animal rehabilitation centre in Puerto Iguazu, Argentina.

Parrots at Guira Oja Animal Rehabilitation Centre

Today we visited Guira Oga, a shelter and rehabilitation centre for birds and animals rescued from illegal trade or damage in the national park surrounding Iguazu.

The majority of the animals are seized by customs or police but some are also brought to the centre by the national park authorities, having been run over or in some way damaged – often by human activity.

The emphasis is on rehabilitation and so most of the reserve is off limits to visitors, which we were fine with, understanding the logic, but a number of other visitors grumbled, despite the very firm introduction to the tour which highlights that they are not a zoo and put the animals first. This does mean that most of what you see at Guira Oga are birds, many of whom are impossible to rehabilitate after too many years in human company. It also means that many of the animals you can only glimpse as they are in shaded shelters that give them some respite from the sun and tourists.

Actually, the sad reality is that many of the animals die within a few days of arriving. Of the rest, around twice as many are released as are kept.  Some of those that are kept are used for breeding, and their young released, sometimes successfully.

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The staff didn’t try to gloss over their frustration that the reason they exist at all is due to human behaviour, and at each enclosure we got a depressing list of why each animal was beyond rehabilitation (we didn’t get to see any that have a chance of rehabilitation as they are kept in another part of the reserve). There were of course some successes – an armadillo who had been run over was about to be released, some nearly-extinct birds successfully breeding and their young surviving in the wild, and a number of damaged animals nursed back to health and successfully breeding, and there is no doubt they do good work, but I found the whole place quite depressing.

 

22 hours, 3 buses and 5 hours of Uno

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We finally made it to Puerto Iguazu, after a mammoth 22 hour journey involving 3 different buses, an international border, and 5 hours at the bus station in Concordia where we played endless Uno, given it was far too hot to explore the unremarkable looking town with our backpacks.

First, we got a little local bus from the small village of Daymán, where we had been staying – the locals were very casual about it and told us just to stand on the side of the road and flag it down when it went past around 11am.

This worked just fine, and we trundled into town (Salto is Uruguay’s second city but it looked like a fairly dusty small town from what we saw – maybe we missed the centre).

I caught a glimpse of a high-ceilinged building attached to a modern looking shopping mall, and I assumed it was the bus station – started getting my backpack on but we kept going straight past.  Turns out the bus stops outside the bus station rather than in it – I soon alerted the driver to my concerns (he was very patient, as everyone has been, with my attempts to communicate in Spanish) and we were dumped by the side of the road, about 500m past where we want to be.

Not a big deal, but it was insanely hot and humid, so we struggled uphill with our bags to the welcome blast of aircon once we got to the bus station. Lauren, as usual, was stoic and uncomplaining.

Thank God I didn’t raise a whiner.

We had a couple of hours in Salto so after buying our tickets to Concordia – an hour away but on the other side of the border in Argentina – we had lunch and bought a few snacks and groceries with the last of our Uruguayan pesos.

The bus to Concordia left on time and took us out of town and up to the bridge that crosses the river that marks the border with Argentina.

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Uruguay on the right, Argentina on the left.

This is a ‘one-stop’ border, and perhaps only my friend Carrie   will understand my excitement at going through one.

 

It was quick, pleasant and easy, although I had been a bit nervous after reading all sorts of posts in Argentina forums about how immigration officials will refuse you entry if you don’t have proof of onward travel out of the country. Given I only have a vague idea of where we might exit the country, or when, I didn’t have such proof, but I figured we looked harmless enough, and indeed the official just asked our destination, and gave us 90 days with a smile. Sometimes a child is the best travel accessory 🙂

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I had planned to dump the bags in left luggage and head out for a wander around town in Concordia, given we had 5 hours to kill, but the heat was nudging 40 degrees, it was incredibly humid, and the bus station seemed miles from anywhere so the air-conditioning of the rather decrepit bus station won out – we ended up having a 5-hour Uno session.

It was actually quite pleasant watching the comings and goings of Argentinian families heading off on holiday with endless quantities of ramshackle bags and flasks of mate.

Eventually at about ten minutes past the scheduled time (we’d been told our bus would be un poquito atrasado ) a bus was announced to Iguazu, so we jumped up, put our bags on, and raced outside, where a guy was throwing bags into the baggage compartment at great speed. We handed ours over, he threw the bag in and tore our tickets, before noticing that actually we were on a different bus. In both Uruguay and Argentina there are many different independent bus companies plying the same routes and the buses are announced by company and then by schedule. This can get quite confusing when you want to go somewhere, as you have to go up and down all the various kiosks at the bus station to find the company that goes where you want to.

Anyway, our bus eventually arrived an hour late, and we were ‘allowed’ to board with our damaged tickets.

It was worth the wait – our bus was slightly more expensive but I’d gone for the cama category – the seats were massive, like business class seats on a plane, and with a pull-out part that transformed it into an almost fully reclining bed.

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They were super comfortable and we both slept well. The only major downside was the fierce air-conditioning, which despite our fleeces, socks and scarves and a blanket provided by the company, made us fairly cold.

It was quite a funny sight seeing everyone arrive in the incredibly hot Puerto Iguazu the following morning, emerging into the sunlight in thick coats, boots etc, and immediately stripping off.

Days 37 – 40 – Up the River Paraná

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Entering the river from the bay.

Somewhat illogically from a geographical perspective the route of the Grande Amburgo goes past Montevideo, through the wide bay that separates Montevideo and Buenos Aires, and up the river Paraná to Zarate, before returning to Montevideo where we will disembark.

We were already 6 days behind schedule due to the delays at Dakar, but when we reached the bay we were held back another day waiting at anchor for a pilot to come and take us up the river to Zarate. This is an 18 hour journey, under pilot the whole way. There turned out to be 2 or 3 pilots who took turns. One of them gave me his daughter’s phone number in Buenos Aires should we need anything when there.

While I enjoyed the ‘deep blue’ of the open sea immensely (we’ve been watching Blue Planet II) and it’s definitely been my favourite part of the trip, there was also something fairly mesmerizing about our slow paced amble up the narrow river, through wetlands and lush foliage, passing the odd ramshackle hut and a few massive haciendas. We overtook canoes and scruffy little row boats, and were in our turn overtaken by speedboats captained by shirtless and shoeless locals.

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We spent the entire day of the approach up on deck, moving from the skyscrapers of Buenos Aires before breakfast through the Tigre delta and upriver to the eyesore that is Zarate port in the evening.

On the approach to Zarate we passed under a huge road bridge spanning the river – standing up on the top deck it felt like you could reach out and touch it – and docked alongside another huge RORO.

Zarate port is enormous, and there are thousands of brand new vehicles, arriving from upriver factories by boat and from closer ones by truck, being loaded onto massive ships like ours. Everything from little Vauxhall runarounds to enormous heavy farm machinery. The loading of the vehicles went on all evening of the first day, all of the second day and until midday of today, the third.

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Cars arriving from factories further upriver.

Yesterday we decided to go ashore, for once in a relaxed fashion as town was walking distance to the port (well, about 5 km but along reasonably safe roads)  and we had no curfew. We had originally planned to organize a taxi, but as all the passengers coincided at the gate at the same time, and as the previous days’ 40 degrees had cooled to a positively chilly 28, we decided to walk and save some pesos.

We set off along a green-edged narrow road, the super fit German and Swiss guys up front setting quite a pace. My back had ‘gone’ that morning and I hadn’t had time to swallow some painkillers, so it was a fairly painful yomp into town, but at least we got to stretch our legs.

We followed our usual routine – (cash machine – sim card – coffee/ice cream has become our shore mantra) and sat in a pleasant café on the square catching up on the world. Its amazing how when you have not been online for days, an hour of internet is perfectly sufficient to say hi to friends and catch up on their news, and to scan through the headlines and decide nothing much has changed. The first news I saw was an attack on Save the Children employees in Afghanistan. I have good friends who work/have worked for Save the Children.  Good, committed people. My first instinct was to turn my phone off again. My next was to get right back to the real world and stand shoulder to shoulder – if only figuratively – with those who are trying to do some good against such odds. In the end of course I did neither, ‘liked’ a statement condemning the attacks and continued scrolling through my news feed….

Once we were all caught up, we wandered around the town, looking for somewhere to print a few photos we want to leave for the crew and a present for our long-suffering steward.

Zarate is a fairly nondescript town with not much going on, but the streets are tree-lined and shady, there is a pleasant main square, the traffic is more than manageable and the people exceptionally tolerant of my massacring of their language. Lauren claimed I was just mixing up Portuguese, Italian and French and hoping for the best, which is a bit unfair as I believe on the whole I was understood.

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The packed main street…… this wasn’t even siesta time!
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Presumably the town hall…
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The main square.

By 1pm the shops were starting to close for the 4 hour siesta, so after lunch in a lovely (if, ahem, laid back) café, we decided to head back. We were both tired, and my back was killing me, so I decided to try to get a bus back. The port is an enormous part of the local economy and I believed that there must be public transport to it. I’d seen some buses passing us on the way in, so knew they went at least part way. A kind nurse at a bus stop pointed us in the right direction (literally) and after a 15-minute wait at a shady bus stop an old rattly bus came along. We confirmed with the driver it went to the port, and when I asked how much the fare was he just waved us on. Everyone else had electronic passes like oyster cards so I guess we should have bought one somewhere, but no one seemed to mind, so we got a free bus back all the way to the port.

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Today we headed off back down the river and had to face the reality that is packing after 5 weeks.

My back is still bad (terrible timing, it was fine all the way round Europe carting a massive backpack about) so we took things easy. Most of our stuff is now packed, and we received confirmation from the captain that should everything go well, we will dock tomorrow morning in Montevideo and disembark around noon. It will be tough to say goodbye to the Great Hamburger.