Tag Archives: Jesuit missions

Water, water everywhere

8 Oct
Iguazu Falls (Brazil)

Worth a detour: Iguazu Falls (Brazil)

Buenos Aires, Argentina
[by Paula]

We Brits are sticklers for punctuality. So it seemed a trifle rude to turn up to our friends’ house in Buenos Aires, more than a year late.

“Sorry about that,” we said. “Hope the dinner’s not ruined.”

We’d last seen Karen and Gustavo at a trade union conference in Costa Rica in July 2012. Ah, those blissfully naive early days when we thought our trip would take about two years.

“See you at your place in Buenos Aires next year!” we said, as they waved us off from San Jose. Oops.

But we’re here now, enjoying one of South America’s most exciting cities and doing our best to adapt from the sedate night-life of the camping world to the pace of a city that appears to object to going to bed before sunrise.

But before we get onto the delights of BA there’s the small matter of the 1,600 miles we’ve put in on the road since our last post.

We were determined not to miss seeing Iguazu Falls, despite it being a massive detour from our general direction of travel. Besides, it gave us a great excuse to take a brief look at Paraguay on the way there and Uruguay on the way down to Buenos Aires.

We crossed into Paraguay and drove straight to a fabulous campground in San Ignacio, owned by the irrepressible Peruvian Gustavo Jhave and his family. Gustavo was so ridiculously generous we felt like we’d actually profited from our stay there. He lavished us with gifts several times a day – fresh milk from his cow, honey, spinach from the garden, home made cheese and bread. Even his delightful three dogs were the most attentive welcome committee – following us everywhere and sleeping under the van.

His bouncy little dachshund Oyuco seemed pretty keen on joining us on a permanent basis. One morning we woke up with a start when he jumped on the bed, looking fantastically pleased with himself, and settled into the blankets for a cuddle.

Oyuco the cheeky dachshund

I know I’ve been naughty but can I have a cuddle, pleeeeeease?!

Not usually one for stating the bleeding obvious, Jeremy said: “There’s a dog in here….”.

“You’re right, there is. How the hell did he get in?” I replied.

Jeremy wasn’t entirely awake, so started putting forward irrational theories about how it must have jumped up and ripped its way through the fabric in the pop top roof. I’m not sure how he thought a sausage dog with two-inch legs could have scaled the van, without the help of an elaborate rope system.

The door had been locked all night and neither of us had gone out. There was only one explanation – he’d snuck in the evening before and managed to hide all night without us realising. Wtf?!

It’s slightly worrying to think we can be so sound asleep that we don’t notice someone new inside our very small van…

As we were leaving the campsite, Oyuco made about five attempts to get inside before I could slide the door shut. I don’t think Gustavo would have appreciated us stealing his cute-as-a-button dog, but it was tempting.

Jeremy in the rain

Rain rain go away.

While there we pottered around, visiting some nearby Jesuit missions and hiding from the crappy weather. For the first time in months we were being reminded what it’s like when there’s relentless rain and you live in a car. The words ‘cabin’ and ‘fever’ don’t really begin to describe it.

I’m not sure if it was just the rain, or that Paraguay was just generally a bit of a damp squib, but to be honest we were feeling a bit flat and lonely. By our standards, we’d been putting in a lot of miles and maybe we were a bit knackered. I was also distracted by things that were going on at home and found it hard to drag my brain into the here and now.

I like to think we are grateful, enthusiastic and positive about all the stuff we see and do here – the big moments and the smallest things. During three years on the road we’ve had down days, of course, but have very rarely felt jaded. This had been dragging on though – we just couldn’t work up the motivation. We knew it was bad when we just drove past one of the main Jesuit missions in the area because we ‘couldn’t be bothered’ to go in.

Had we lost our mojo?

No, it was unthinkable. We decided to accept that sometimes one just can’t conjure up the mood for sight-seeing, and pushed on north towards the Brazil/Argentina border.

Poor old Paraguay, we didn’t give it a fair shot. We didn’t find out enough about it, but we did leave with a couple of new discoveries.

Their lemons are orange, and this makes for a very confusing conversation at the market. And they have one of the best cheesy, buttery bread snacks in Latin America – chipas, who knew?

After another soggy night of camping we headed towards the border and Iguazu Falls. A late-in-the-day decision to keep driving over the border that afternoon, instead of waiting til the next morning, meant we were pretty disorganised about where we were going.

Crossing the border there means you have to traverse a tiny little corner of Brazil before you can get back into Argentina. We bluffed our way through rush hour without a map, and found our way to Puerto Iguazu before driving round in the dark visiting various closed-down campsites and wondering if it was going to be One of Those Days.

We were eventually directed to a gorgeous campground by the river and pulled in to a boisterous welcome from the owner Ramon and his wife. They were great, the place was great, it wasn’t raining, there were chattering parrots and other travellers were cooking and drinking wine in the sociable kitchen. It was just the tonic we needed.

We were there for the same reason as everyone else – to visit one of the most striking sites in the natural world; the vast, thundering 275 cascades that make up Iguazu Falls.

As as tonics go, that wasn’t too bad either.

It’s one of the most touristy sites you’ll ever see, but you’d have to be dead inside to let the crowds spoil what is a truly astonishing wonder. As it has so many times before, when it mattered most the sun shone for us and rainbows glowed in the spray.

Rainbow at Iguazu Falls (Argentina)

I can sing a rainbow.

The 3km-wide falls, which straddle the Brazil/Argentina border, can be visited from both countries. We decided to go for broke and spend a day on each side, which give quite different perspectives that are equally stunning in their own ways.

Iguazu Falls (Argentina)

Iguazu Falls, Argentina side

 

Iguazu Falls (Brazil)

Iguazu Falls (Brazil)

While we were there we were becoming increasingly obsessed with the impending referendum for independence in Scotland. It was maddening to be so far away during what was proving to be an electrifying campaign. I pitched an article to the BBC about being a Scottish expat abroad and they commissioned it for the next day.

I sometimes wonder what people envisage life is like for us, travelling and occasionally freelancing. I crept out of the van before sunrise to get the article written, and as I sat in the campsite kitchen in my pajamas, shivering in the damp air, being bitten to hell by mosquitos and praying that the wi-fi didn’t flake out on me, I thought ‘this probably doesn’t look as glamorous as it might sound…. but, hey it’s not a bad life’.

We wanted to cover a fair distance to get to Salto, in Uruguay, in time to settle in somewhere and find some good wi-fi to watch the referendum results as they came in. As soon as the article was sent off, we jumped in the van – our mojos packed and intact – and turned south once again.

Days: 1,101
Miles: 25,587
Things we now know to be true: Watching water fall down just never seems to get boring (unless it’s from the sky).

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On a mission

18 Aug
Bolivia missions: Concepcion

The Jesuit mission churches – like this one in Concepcion – have been beautifully restored.

Salta, Argentina
[by Paula]

Given how unbelievably sweaty, dusty and thirsty we were, it was hard to imagine how it must have been for the 17th-century Jesuit priests who had to trek here from Paraguay. I mean, I don’t think they even had ice cream shops then.

The majority of our associations with Bolivia are of the fresh air and mountain backdrops of the altiplano, so travelling through these baking hot tropical plains felt like we’d been transported to another country. Each time we had to search for a shady spot, or drive round a zillion little shops looking for ice, we said: “This just doesn’t feel like Bolivia.”

The eastern lowlands of the country may be less known by tourists, but they cover a vast area, accounting for about two-thirds of Bolivia’s land mass. We had headed south-west from Cochabamba with a plan to visit a series of former Jesuit missions, established in the late 1600s and early 1700s as settlements that were – of course – each centred around an elaborate church. The towns – in which numerous groups of indigenous people were converted to Christianity by the Jesuits before they were expelled by the Spanish king in 1767 – are still living, working communities. The central squares and churches have been lovingly restored and are a sight to behold that way exceeded our expectations.

The thing about the ‘missions circuit’ though, is that it’s not just all about wandering around looking at lovely churches and plazas. There’s a bit of an awkward 1,000km journey through the countryside to get round the major ones, and clearly that was something we couldn’t resist.

Bolivia missions: Dusty roads

Dusty and bumpy roads, but beautiful scenery.

We picked a clockwise route that bypassed the city of Santa Cruz and first headed north towards the oldest of the mission towns, San Xavier. We’d got hold of a pretty detailed guide to the different missions and how to get there. On day two of driving we were finally getting close! We just had to cross a little river and we’d be a few kilometres from our first destination. There was just one thing missing from the maps and info – the lack of a bridge over the river.

After a confusing search through a dusty town for the ‘road’ to San Xavier, we were very baffled to find a rickety wooden platform jutting out and then ending suddenly on a muddy riverbed. Where’s the bridge? we pondered, squinting into the sun in search of hope.

Nope, definitely no bridge. We were expected to descend from the platform and then drive about 300m over the damp clay-ish mud and through a few streams to get to the road on the other side. Our instincts screamed ‘this will end badly!’.
A bunch of slightly drunk guys were, hilariously, charging drivers 100 Bolivianos ($14) to make the crossing. As we pondered and watched other drivers successfully making it over, they kept saying “you’ll be fine, you’ll do it!”. The thing is they, were probably right, there was a reasonably high chance we would have made it without getting trapped in the gluey mud, or without sinking into one of the streams. I just wasn’t in the mood to take the chance with our heavy van, on which we’d just spent a lot of time and money doing maintenance work, knowing how much we would kick ourselves if it went wrong.

In these situations, when lots of people are yelling in our ears with ‘helpful advice’, we have learned to stop and think carefully and ask ourselves questions such as these: Do they know what they are talking about? What will they gain/lose if we decide to go or not go? Do they give a shit about what happens to our car? If one car a day needs to get pulled out of this riverbed, how likely is it that it will be us?!

It was agony, but in the end we went with our instincts. There was a long way round to get to a different section of the route, with a bridge, that would involve several hours of extra driving. With heavy hearts we turned around, hooted and waved to the drunks and, with that, ended their afternoon of entertainment.

Over the next few hours of rutted roads that never seemed to end, we grumbled but deep down knew we’d done the right thing. Interestingly, the detour took is through three villages named Okinawa I, II and III – a corner of Bolivia that’s home to people who arrived from Okinawa as sponsored migrants in the 1950s. Tiny elderly women of Japanese descent scurried around the streets. One was so small she walked under our wing mirror without ducking. “This really doesn’t feel like Bolivia!” we repeated.

The change of route meant the day ended with us pulling into a gas station in the dark, to spend the night. The fact that they sold ice-cold beer lightened the mood considerably.

In the morning we started again with renewed vigour. We arrived in San Xavier by lunchtime, and thought ‘well, if this is what we’re getting, we can live with a little discomfort’.

Bolivia missions: San Xavier

San Xavier’s plaza and Jesuit church.

Founded in 1691, it was the first of the mission settlements in the Chiquitania region. It set the scene for a series of gorgeous, pristine, plazas and church complexes we were to visit on our circuit.

But damn it was hot. It seemed like a long time since we had experienced the 50-metre-dash-to-the-shade-via-the-first-ice-cream-we-can-find race. We escaped to a hotel garden to camp for the night. A weird and, as it turned out, virtually abandoned, place – where the caretaker lied about it being open to justify charging us an exorbitant camping rate – but a haven nonetheless.

Next was Concepción, one of the best restored and conventionally beautiful of the mission towns. In a recurring theme of the week, we arrived just as everything was closing for a massive siesta. While waiting for the church and museum to reopen we killed the time by enjoying our first taste of the region’s food – a succulent roast beef, with a bizarre but strangely comforting cheesy ‘rice pudding’, yucca and plantains. More carbs anyone?

Roast beef and cheesy rice

Cowboy food: Roast beef, cheesy rice, yucca and plantains.

The next section to San Ignacio was quite long, but we’d read the road had recently been paved so set off to see how far we could get. That thing we read about the road being paved? That was a work of fiction. Not far out of Concepción we hit the start of a 400km stretch of hard-packed mud and gravel roads that would last all the way to our 6th and final destination. We’d expected plenty of it, but just not this much.

It slowed things down a bit, and we and the van turned a nice orange dust colour in the process, but all was well and the route was very pretty. With no prospect of arriving at any town before dark, we pulled into a tiny village and asked if we could park up for the night – of course, they said, pointing us towards the church. Two young boys were sent over later to deliver about 25 bananas to us. ‘We grow them here,’ they said, before sitting down for a chat and a glass of lemonade.

It was certainly one of the quietest and darkest nights we’d ever had. Our van shone like a beacon as none of the four houses in the village, nor the church or school, had electricity.

On the way to San Ignacio the following day we encountered a rare section of road that was being worked on. A bus coming towards us slipped and slid through the churned up mud and came to a halt at a jaunty angle. As all the passengers got off to walk through the rest of the roadworks, we thought ‘hmm, don’t really fancy driving through that’. Luckily the workmen had the same thought and sent a tractor ahead of us to pave our way.

We were glad to arrive in San Ignacio, a bigger town where we planned to base ourselves for a couple of nights. With the heat and dust we were, by this time, pretty stinky and hot and were keen on finding a shower. We had a very sweaty, fruitless search for somewhere to camp before eventually being directed to some ‘cabanas’ on the edge of town. We bumped along a farm track before arriving at a sumptuous hacienda with its own private lake, and thought ‘jackpot!’. Problem was, it was now the private home of a rich guy who seemed a little surprised at our asking to camp. Jeremy made his best disappointed face and he agreed that we could park up in the garden but could offer zero facilities. Another night of being smelly and hot then, but a partial jackpot as the location was amazing.

Next day we got a cheap hotel room to hang out and rest for a bit – we wanted to stay around for the evening because the rodeo was in town! Brilliant. It was part of a big agricultural expo event, so we ambled along and spent the evening wandering the stalls, drinking beers and cocktails, eating chunks of barbequed meat and generally wishing we were cowboys. But cowboys don’t drink cocktails, we hear you cry. Well they did at this event, which was crammed with Brazilians from over the nearby border. Every other stall was selling the Brazilian signature cocktail ‘caipirinhas’ and people seemed to be talking a hybrid S-Portuguese. “This doesn’t feel like Bolivia,” we said.

Just before the rodeo got going – three hours later than billed, you’ve got to love Latin America-time – the contestants lined up to pray and cross themselves. It was a great few hours of entertainment and people-watching, though what motivates people to get themselves violently tossed around then thrown off a bull or horse and slammed into the dust is beyond me. There must be a lot of work for osteopaths in these places.

We moved on to the two smaller missions of San Miguel and San Rafael. These places are becoming more popular with visitors but they are not exactly crawling with groups of tourists. At the first we had to search the town for the guy who had the key to the church. Several people told us ‘Carmelo’s the guy you need, he’s a few blocks that way..’ We wandered in the afternoon heat, asking for Carmelo. ‘That door up there,’ ‘No, the next house…’.

Eventually Carmelo appeared at his window, stretching, having just awoken from his siesta. He pulled on a shirt and walked back to the plaza with us, chatting away enthusiastically about how he’s been showing people round the place since he was a child, and is now in his 70s. After a fascinating little tour, we headed off to the next place on our circuit.

Again, in San Rafael there was nowhere obvious to camp. We asked at the tiny police station on the plaza where they thought might be best to park up. ‘Right here, outside the station!’ they insisted.

We wandered off to watch the Sunday night mass in the Jesuit church, and sat in the busy square cooling off before heading to bed. It’s a quaint little village, but we had one of the noisiest night’s sleep ever, with cars passing, donkeys braying, cockerels going at it, horse clopping by and a huge crowd of people flooding out of a late night meeting.

It’s not an easy trip to do by public transport. As we left early next morning we picked up two Swiss tourists who’d been left high and dry due to a fictional bus timetable. We all bumped along on the final four hours of dirt road, to the spectacular town of San Jose de Chiquitos, with its atypical baroque-style church.

Bolivia missions: San Jose de Chiquitos

San Jose de Chiquitos has a stunning, and unique for the area, Baroque-style church.

Joy of joys, the town had a luxurious camping place, in the garden of a posh hotel. Just the prize we had hoped for after getting to the end of the circuit. We got things cleaned up a bit and recharged a little before the next stage of the journey.

Question was, what was the next stage going to be? There were other things we wanted to see in Bolivia, but we only had two days left on our vehicle permit before we’d either have to apply for an extension or get out of the country. It was a painful dilemma, but having had 6 wonderful months in Bolivia we decided to end it on a high and not go through the hassle of battling with the customs people in Santa Cruz.

Besides, we had an incredible itch to turn south and cross the border into Argentina. This trip is full of little and big milestones, but after all the drama we’ve had with the van, actually making it to Argentina is up there with the biggies.

We’d still have a long way to go but crossing that line would feel, to a small extent, like mission accomplished.

Days: 1,050
Miles: 22,906
Things we now know to be true: If you don’t have the ability to see into the future, go with your gut.

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