“We live in a wonderful world that is full of beauty, charm and
adventure. There is no end to the adventures we can have if only we
seek them with our eyes open.” – Jawaharial Nehru
The adventures have certainly picked up steam since my last post and the road ahead seems to be littered with more adventures ripe for the picking. My last post was from Mendoza Argentina, wine country. The city of Mendoza is rather large by Argentina standards and although it is a really pleasant, clean and nice city to walk around in, there is no real attraction other than the surrounding vineyards and mountains (It’s at the foothills of the Andes). Everything closes at 1pm for siesta and to avoid the heat and then reopens at around 5pm. At 9 or 10pm the main streets are still filled with people shopping for shoes and clothes or running errands. I spent almost a week in Mendoza trying to scrounge up some work in a vineyard or tasting room but there was no work to be had for a foreigner without papers. Even though I was willing to work for food and housing, all the proprietors I spoke with said that the authorities would never believe that I wasn’t getting paid and they didn’t want to invite trouble. So after several days of hunting for jobs I threw the Spanish resume in the trash and decided to enjoy the wine as it should be enjoyed in Mendoza, in abundance and on bikes. As much as I love traveling alone, drinking glass after glass of wine in the middle of the day seemed like something better done with a partner in crime…enter Mademoiselle Flo. Also a couchsurfer, Flo was on a 6 week jaunt through Argentina from her home in France. So we rented bikes and rode around the wine country outside of Mendoza for an afternoon sampling the local goods (some not so good). We got along swimmingly and since we were heading in the same direction we ended up traveling together for the rest of the week.
I also had the luck to couchsurf in Mendoza with a guy named Horacio who really made my time in Mendoza memorable. Haracio is from a small town in Argentina in the mountains but is in Mendoza studying graphic design. I met some of his friends and spent a couple of great nights cooking, drinking beers, and playing music. One night we spent hours experimenting with taking pictures with extra long shutter speeds until we finally got one that turned out pretty cool…
From Mendoza I went to Cordoba, the second largest city in Argentina and a major commercial and industrial city. Really thought the main reason to visit the city for me was to use it as a hub to explore the surrounding sierras, a virtual outdoor playground of mountains, rivers, lakes, and trails. Flo was also heading that direction so I met up with her there and shared some more dinners, cheap wine, and adventures…one of which brought us to a small town called Carlos Paz, a day trip from Cordoba. The town’s main attraction is a 25 foot tall Coocku clock and the lake that it sits on but for us it was a street mutt who befriended us while we were picnicking alongside the lake. We named him Coronelito Paz. We spent hours walking around the lake and through the city with him following us around playing fetch with whatever stick we could find and jumping in the water together. And then as quickly as he appeared in our lives he was gone…trotting off down the sidewalk in search of his next diversion. Wherever you are right now Coronelito, we miss you.
The highlight of my time in this region and the whole reason I was there was to do some camping in the sierras. So after a bit of planning and packing I said goodbye to flo who was heading back to Buenos Aires and I set off with a backpack full of food and wine in search of mountaintops to eat on top of and stars to drink under. The first night I spent camping in Parque Nacional Quebrada del Condor. I hiked into the park about a mile and half, threw my big pack down and then did a loop that took me another 8 miles or so past a huge 2000 ft. (600m) cliff where there are dozens of Andean Condors nesting and circling around. Luckily it was a warm day so there were a few of them riding the heat thermals. They have the largest wingspan of any bird on the planet (can reach 11 feet [3.2 m]). After a long day hiking I settled down for the evening in a small grassy clearing. I was the only person camping in the whole park which was nice. I spent the evening drinking wine to forget my surprise at how cold it was. I didn’t have a tent so slept out under the stars and woke up feeling surprisingly fresh and covered in frost.
I hiked out of the park back to the main road where I spent about an hour and a half throwing rocks at cans and reading while trying to hitch a ride to the next town. (there aren’t really and buses in this area and it’s not uncommon to hitchhike). My first ride was a guy who owns a restaurant; he drove an old 78’ Chevy pickup truck all rusted out. The seatbelt had been cut so it could be used as a rope to hold the passenger door closed. We bumped down the highway chatting about how indecent Argentine curse words are and he taught me a few new ones. He dropped me at a fork in the road and my next ride was a cool truck driver hauling 48 cows behind him. We drank mate and talked about all sorts of things. He dropped me in a town called Nono. From there I hiked out of town to a nearby river. I bought a cold beer (All they had was Budweiser) at a little kiosco on the way and drank it with my sandwich while hanging out in the sun on the bank of the river sharing the breeze with a bunch of cows that frustratingly would not let me pet them.
From there it was back to the highway, rock and can games, sun beating down on my neck and dirt in my ears for a while until I got a ride from a couple of guys from Quilmes to a town called Cruz Del Eje. By the time I got there it was nearly 9pm and I got the last bus to a town about a half hour away called San Marcos Sierra, known for being a super laid back very small “hippie” town of about 2,000 people. I got off the bus at the “main square” around 10:30pm to find an American folk band playing on a little stage to a plaza full of beautiful hippies (Really, the people were all extremely good looking, some of the most beautiful women I have ever seen).
I slept that night in the municipal campgrounds two blocks from the main plaza and 100 yards from a small river that runs through the town. I sat up in my sleeping back at about 7am squinting in the early morning light and saw two scrubby looking guys sitting at a park bench signaling for me to come over. So I climbed out of my sleeping back, put some clothes on and cruised over to my friendly neighbor’s campground. They were a couple of Argentinean kids in the early twenties. In lieu of sleep they had opted to spend the whole night drinking wine mixed with coke out of a two liter plastic bottle that they had cut in half with a pocket knife. The wine along with a joint were promptly offered to me along with enthusiastic stories of their adventures climbing a nearby hill that they had conquered barefoot to watch the sunrise. The hill and its immense size along with all their scratches and scrapes from bushes and thorns were pointed out to me about a half dozen times in 5 minutes. After lots of high fives and thumbs up they let me go back to my stuff which I packed up and threw on my back to head towards a place called Tres Piletas, about a 5 mile walk down an extremely hot and dusty road out of town to a little oasis in the middle of a very desert environment with sparse thorny vegetation. I spent another night here sleeping out and swimming and trying to keep in the shade and enjoying the fact that I was the only person camping there before I packed up and headed back to the big city plan the next adventure.
Speaking of next adventure…what do you know about Paraguay? That was the question I had been putting to Argentines and other backpackers for several weeks. If you tried to answer the question in your head as you read it, the answer was probably the same that I got “not much” or “Nothing”. The only thing that Argentines could tell me about it is that that is where they go to buy cheap electronics, just crossing into a border city and then immediately crossing back. One day when I was in a hostel in Cordoba I asked to borrow someone’s guide book, The Lonely Planet South America – basically the backpacker’s bible…the book everyone uses. I flipped through searching for the Paraguay section hoping I could fill some holes that everyone else had left open and was shocked to find that there was none! The Lonely Planet South America just skipped Paraguay because there is no tourism and no one ever goes there. So my mind was made up then and there. I was going to Paraguay. Only problem was that I wanted to be in Sao Paulo Brasil for Christmas and still needed to stop to check out Iguazu on the way so I only had a few days to spare. Nevertheless my mind was made up so I headed north.
After about 20 hours on buses I landed myself in a small town on the border of Argentina and Paraguay called Clorinda. From some internet research I knew that US citizens had to pay $50 for a visa to get into Paraguay, but I had also heard that if you are sneaky enough to find a way to bypass the somewhat lax immigration control at the border that you could avoid this. So I got off the bus in Clorinda and wandered a few blocks from the terminal, feeling with certainty that I was the only gringo who had stepped foot into this town for quite some time. I found a few guys drinking beers on the sidewalk and asked them what they knew about getting past the customs. They said they knew it was possible but they didn’t know how. Then a kid about 10 years old, barefoot, dirty, dark skin and dark curly hair came up and assured me he could lead me to Paraguay safely. I was confident I could play the dumb gringo role well if any trouble arose (I wouldn’t have to act so much) so I asked him how much. “Cinco Pesos” he said. Ok, lets go. So I followed him a few blocks until we reached a little hill that led to a road where I was instructed to wait for his signal when the coast was clear. The signal came and I started up the hill –WAIT! Hold on! – was the message I got when I was almost at the top….a car was coming, then again I got the green light so scramble up the rest of the way. What I saw in front of me was a river and on the other side of it was Paraguay. I looked to my right down the street that ran parallel to the river and there, about 400 meters away was the immigration with a short line of cars stacked up crossing the border and guys in uniforms walking around. I didn’t have much time to take this in because my coyote was tugging at my sleeve and pointing to the small wall I needed to climb to begin descending to the bank of the river. And sure enough, the little kid knew where a little makeshift bridge was made out of wood planks suspended over bricks and rocks that sat in the shallow waters of the river and so I hastily ran across the planks bouncing up and down with two backpacks and a ukulele strapped to my body. And then, I was in Paraguay. The little kid led me through a bunch of shacks, chickens and pigs clearing a way for us and local people peaking out of their homes to see the spectacle until we reached a little bus stop, where I was told I could get a ride to Asunsion, the capital just 40 minutes away.
- Paraguay FACTS:
- Exchange Rate- $1 US = $4,600 Guarani
- Beer in Grocery Store (1ltr.) – $ 1.65
- Cheap Meal – $2.00
- 5 hour bus ride – $11
- Second poorest country in South America (next to Bolivia)
- Has two official languages, Spanish and Guarani. Once you get out of the capital you almost only hear Guarani although many people still speak Spanish
So I only spent a few days in Paraguay since I was in a rush to get to Brazil but I feel like I got a decent idea of what things are like there. So for all those people who I asked what there is in Paraguay…There is really green landscape with red dirt that reminded me of Africa sometimes, there is Sopa Paraguaya (A bread made from corn meal, animal fat, and cheese), Chipa (A pastery made from corn meal and cheese), there is a lot of yucca root and beef and of course tereré which is mate, just like they drink in Argentina, but they drink it cold. There are a lot of people sitting in chairs that they drag out to the front porch of their house to sit and drink tereré for hours complaining of the heat, ah yes, and there is heat lots of heat.
My memories and observations of Paraguay are drawn from my experiences in the capital, Asunsion where I spent a night in a dodgy hotel room near the bus terminal (there are no hostels In Paraguay), on a bus where I sat next to a really amazing Paraguayan psychologist who volunteers with children and who spent 3 hours teaching me everything about Paraguay, a short stay in a small city called Caaguazu, and my time with Angelíc in small city called Coronel Ovieto.
When I did a “couchsearch” for the whole country of Paraguay there were 100 people that came up, more than I would have thought, but only a couple were in cities that I would pass through. One of them was Angelíc, an American Peace Corps volunteer who has been stationed in Coronel Ovieto, Paraguay for almost two years now. Her time with the Peace Corps is almost up but she is enjoying Paraguay so much she is going to extend her time one more year. I stayed with her one night and she downloaded me on all her observations of the culture while we sat in front of her house drinking tereré, watching the sun set and the dogs chase the cars while nipping dangerously close to their tires as they passed. One of the most interesting things that I learned was the importance of co-ops in the daily life of a Paraguayan. Even after lots of questions and explanations from Angelíc I’m still not sure I completely understand the way these work into things…it seems like a complex convoluted subject. But basically almost everyone joins at least one co-op here that could offer services from money loaning, health insurance, schooling, homeowners insurance, etc. There is a co-op for just about anything. I asked Angelíc if they were necessary or useful. Her answer was not a surprise to me, “No, if people would just learn to save their money they would be better off not being part of a co-op, they waste their money on these co-ops which are more often than not mismanaged and dishonest.”
So my brief time in Paraguay led me back into Argentina to a town called Puerto Iguazo on the border of Paraguay, and Brazil. This is the hub for exploring the famous Iguazu Falls. I wont say much about the falls, will let the photos do more of the talking. I will say that it they exceeded my expectations. Someone I had met in a hostel some weeks before had described it as like being in the movie Avatar and its true, it’s like being in some magical fantasy world created by CGI graphics. Waterfall after waterfall pouring over huge cliffs surrounded by vivid green rainforest full of monkeys and coatimundi (like a South Americna raccoon). There are rainbows everywhere and swarms of butterflies. It was unreal. I wasn’t lucky with the weather unfortunately. I was only there about an hour and a half before the rain started and never let up so I missed seeing a lot of the most spectacular views while the skies were dry so my pictures of the falls are limited compared to what I could have had if the weather would have cooperated but they at least give you an idea.
From Iguazu I traveled about 18 hours to Sao Paulo Brasil, arriving on Christmas Eve. BRAZIL!!! I had finally arrived. I had the afternoon to kill before I met my couchsurfer and it being Christmas Eve the city was empty and dead. I took the metro to the neighborhood where she lived and wandered around a bit until I found an old abandoned building that I ducked into. I spent most of the afternoon there reading and studying Portuguese (my new worst enemy) until it was time to meet Nina, my CS host who turned out to be a true force of positive energy, warmth, and smiles. I met some of her friends and then we spent some hours just chatting and passing time. Unfortunately that was about all the time I had with her since we were going different ways that night and the next day she was heading to another state in Brazil to be with the rest of her family. But I am planning to meet up with her upon her return so hopefully we’ll get to spend more time together then.
I had read a post on couchsurfing about a French guy who lived in Sao Paulo and was holding an “Orphan’s Christmas Party” So I spent Christmas Eve partying with a diverse group of Brasilians and travelers from all over the world. Dancing, crazy French football traditions of diving onto your friends who are seating on the floor and hoping that they catch you, and lots of conversations in lots of languages. I left the party at about 6am on Christmas morning. I had about 20 blocks to walk back to my couchsurfers. And as the sun rose over one of the largest cities in the world, I walked through its empty streets on Christmas Day. So unlike any Christmas I have ever spent, but one I will definitely never forget.
Click here to view photos from the last month:
Prologue: I last left off in Mendoza, Argentina where I spent some time wine tasting and looking for a job that never transpired. I spent some time hiking through and camping in the Sierras in the Cordoba Province of Argentina. Then I heading North into the mysterious counry of Paraguay for some days before I crossed back into Argentina to check out Iguazu Falls, one of the largest waterfalls in the world. From there I went to Sao Paulo Brasil to spend Christmas. Im still in Sao Paulo and am in the process of trying to buy a car that I can drive through Brasil up to the Amazon. Next destination from here will be Rio De Janeiro!