Buenos Aires, Argentina
The urge to just get ‘there’ – wherever there may be – is not something with which the slow traveller is familiar. Whilst most of us have goals and destinations in mind, the desire to arrive has to be resisted, or else you’re not really going to appreciate the things that happen along the way.
For some reason, however, our journey from Iguazu Falls down to Buenos Aires often felt more like ‘the road to Buenos Aires’ than simply ‘the road’. Why so impatient? Perhaps it was simply the allure of what we knew would be a fabulous city, where there would be people we knew, a social life, pavement cafes, bars, gorgeous restaurants, culture, and a cute little apartment with our name on it. Hard to see what the rush was really.
It would have been easy just to drive straight there, but we were still keen to see Uruguay and to make a few other stops in northern Argentina.
From Iguazu we headed south, picking up a couple of French hitch-hikers on the way and all stopping to camp together in (another) Jesuit mission town called San Ignacio. We were feeling a bit missioned-out by this stage, but here they had an interesting way of presenting the history of the mission, through a night-time sound and light show that was not as cheesy as it sounds.
Back at the campsite we met a young Swiss couple who had just begun a road trip in a local car they’d bought in Buenos Aires. Occasionally we meet people on the road who are clearly running away from something – they’re either (we speculate) literally running from the authorities, or trying to escape some rather more amorphous demons. All the signs were there that they fitted into the former category. I don’t know what it was – maybe it was the fact that a guy in his late 20s was travelling with a girl just out of high school, who clearly had no idea what their plans were. Or perhaps it was the fact that he’d been banned from driving in his own country and was hoping to drive around South America without a licence. Now, we’ve done some bloody stupid things on this trip but, er, good luck with that.
Further south, in the tiny town of Yapeyú, we were reminded again of the sheer pointlessness of turning up anywhere in Argentina between about 1pm and 5pm. As we were just about to give up and leave the ‘closed’ campsite we were reminded by a neighbour that it was siesta time.
“The owners are there, but they’re sleeping!” they said. “That’s okay, we’ll go off and do some food shopping while we wait,” we said. Oh bugger, all the shops are shut too. Um…
Next morning the black clouds came scudding back. We drove to the town of Mercedes in horrendous rain. Despite it being one of the flattest, straightest roads in existence, we could see nothing of the horizon.
Several potential camping options were impossible due to the volume of water. We eventually pulled into a place that was effectively closed for off-season but was the least flooded option we could find. Sloshing to the disgusting and, ironically, water-less toilets was a major expedition.
‘Well, at least I’ve got my wellie (rubber) boots,’ said Jeremy, searching frantically in the van. No wellies. Last seen under the van in Iguazu, they’d either been stolen or left behind. ‘Oh well, at least I’ve got my walking boots,’ said Jeremy, pulling them on. Ten minutes later he came back from the toilet, with one sole flapping in the wind and a boot full of water. Not an ideal day to lose both of your bad-weather shoes, I helpfully pointed out.
The reason we’d headed to Mercedes was to visit one of the quirkier sights in this part of the country – an elaborate shrine to the ‘Robin Hood of Argentina’, Gauchito Antonio Gil. Ever since arriving in the country, we’d seen countless little roadside shrines to El Gauchito, easily identified by their red flags. As with so many things here, he’s been kind of co-opted by religion and now appears as a quasi-saintly figure whom many believe will grant them favours from the afterlife.
But essentially the guy was a 19th-century army deserter who went roaming around stealing cattle from the rich and sharing them with poor villagers, which is the part we were focusing on. The story goes that when the authorities caught up with him and sent him for execution, Gil told his executioner that his son was gravely ill but could be saved if Gil was (contrary to the custom for army deserters) buried after his death. His prediction came true, Gil was buried near Mercedes, the executioner’s son made a full recovery, and the legend was born.
Gauchito tributes range from a few scraggy scarves tied to a tree, to full-on shrines with picnic and barbeque areas. But the memorial to his final resting place is a vast, tacky, over-the-top, sight to behold. Perfect! Thousands of pilgrims descend there every year, particularly on the date of his death in January. They leave plaques and family photos, giving thanks and asking for miracles. They light candles and deposit endless gifts ranging from bicycles to wedding dresses.
We ran the gauntlet of souvenir stalls to look around the massive hangar-like shrine, before caving in and buying a couple of Gauchito momentos. What has happened to us? Ever since the Andean god Ekeko intervened to save our gearbox, (see the bottom of this post) we’ve become hilariously superstitious.
We drove off, our new red ribbon asking Gauchito to ‘look after our truck’ flapping in the wind.
The next stage of the journey – towards and into Uruguay – took us along the Rio Uruguay, which was one of the big surprises of our trip. A succession of gorgeous, clean, peaceful river beaches began with a night at Salto Grande, just before we exited Argentina one more time.
After one of the easiest border crossings ever, we stopped off at a hot springs resort in Salto, where we based ourselves for a few days to monitor the independence referendum in Scotland and to wallow in the lovely hot pool on our campsite.
After a long night of watching the vote, we got a few hours sleep and headed south towards another town called Mercedes. The weather was fine but there clearly had been a lot of rain. We were aiming for a lovely sounding campsite, that was on a river island just a few metres from the shore.
Now, we’ve had quite a number of campsite disappointments on this trip – non-existent ones, closed down ones, dirty ones, you name it. This was the first one we’d arrived at to find it was totally submerged under water. No island, no campsite. We stared at it for a few minutes, just to check we were in the right place. Yep, we were, it’s just that the place had gone.
Luckily, it wasn’t far to another lovely river beach – thankfully on a different, non-flooded river – at Las Cañas, near the town of Fray Bentos.
British readers of a certain age will hear the words ‘Fray Bentos’ and think ‘weird meat pies that come in a tin’. And, yes, you are thinking of the same Fray Bentos, because this is where they made them. The Anglo meat factory was a massive global industry that attracted thousands of migrant workers from more than 50 countries during its height, and produced hundreds of processed meat products under different brand names – from corned beef, to Oxo cubes, to (yes, really) ‘breakfast tongues’.
It’s hard to explain how looking at old tins of corned beef might be a fun way to spend a Saturday morning, but the old processing factory is now a fascinating and well put-together museum that tells a story of scientific discovery, industrial revolution and a pioneering spirit. Not to mention some genius marketing that included ‘feeding world war troops with Oxo cubes’ and enticing zillions to buy meat products that were so processed they could be kept unrefrigerated for years.
Onwards from the beef pies, we spent a few more nights enjoying the Rio Uruguay at Carmelo and then headed down to the beautiful old port town of Colonia, where not only did the sun shine for my birthday, but we ran into the familiar faces of Marek and Zuzka – also driving the Americas in a van – in time for a celebratory lunch.
From our campsite we could just make out the skyscrapers of Buenos Aires across the Rio de la Plata. Nearly there!
It was a great spot – even the soggy days were followed by the most incredible, surreal, sunsets over the river.
Our last stop in Uruguay was a long-discussed visit to my former hairdresser’s parents, who are also both hair stylists and have now retired in Montevideo. When Milo – who is originally from Argentina – used to cut my hair in south London, I’d talk about our trip and how I was going to turn up at his parents house and ask for a haircut. It’s one of those things you say, but to be honest it all sounded a bit random and unlikely. Many years later, it was actually happening. After a much-needed trim and a lovely chat, not to mention some delicious homemade empanadas and home made wine, we set off back to Colonia to catch a horribly early 4.30am ferry to Buenos Aires.
We might have been a bit gritty-eyed but it was still a pretty cool way to arrive, by water at sunrise. Only problem was that by the time we cleared customs and all that shenanigans, we’d be leaving the city centre docks and trying to find our friends’ apartment at the height of Friday morning rush hour.
Flicking through our guidebook, I came across the following reassuring paragraph on driving in the city: “Most local drivers are reckless, aggressive and even willfully dangerous. They ignore speed limits, signs, lines and signals, tailgate, and honk even before signals turn green. Buses are a nightmare to reckon with, potholes are everywhere and congestion and parking are a pain. Pedestrians seem to beg to be run over.”
So what’s new? Welcome to Buenos Aires.
Things we now know to be true: Big cities, pah, you don’t scare us any more.
MORE PHOTOS IN THE LOVELY GALLERY BELOW: