Tag Archives: Rio Uruguay

Going with the flow

12 Nov
Bathing capybaras

Down by the riverside: Capybaras bathing in a stream, Parque Nacional El Palmar, Entre Rios, Argentina.

Caraiva, Bahia, Brazil
[by Paula]

As we traversed Argentina for the fifth time in just over a year, it felt like a lot of the things we were seeing and doing were something of a preparation for the next phase – Brazil. Which is where we are now, although we still can’t quite believe we finally made it here.

As we headed back towards the Entre Ríos (‘between rivers’) province near the Argentina/Uruguay/Brazil border, things became just that little bit more tropical – lush landscapes, more exotic wildlife, plenty of rain, increased warmth and humidity, and a sudden rise in the size and volume of the insects that wanted to come and live in the van. The rivers flanking the province – the Rio Paraná and Rio Uruguay – both flowed into Brazil and we were increasingly content to be carried along with them.

But before our time down by the riverside, we had one last date with Argentina’s mountains. When we last wrote, we were on our way to Chilecito, in the hills of La Rioja. La Rioja?… ah, there they go chasing wine again, I hear you say. But no, we were there for its dramatic highland setting and its fascinating abandoned cableway system, which once trundled gold, silver and copper between the mine – up in the sierras at an altitude of more than 4,600m – and the town. An amazing early 20th century feat of engineering, the cableway spanned 40km and had nine stations.

We visited a cute little museum at ‘station 1’ before driving up to ‘station 2’ for some fabulous views and a wander among the cablecar graveyard.

Chilecito 'estacion 1'

The main cableway station in Chilecito is now a lovely little museum

 

Estacion 2, Chilecito

Estacion 2 of the old cableway, Chilecito, La Rioja, Argentina.

We headed down to the sierras around Córdoba, stopping off in Villa de Soto to meet up with fellow road-trippers Betti and John, from the UK. We’d never met before but Betti had responded to my pathetic Facebook plea for some British teabags. A month or so later they were in the vicinity and before we knew it we were meeting up for a barbeque and the ceremonial handing over of a batch of hugely appreciated PG Tips. Aaah…. a lovely cuppa.

Amongst other things we chatted about Brazil, as we were still humming and hawing about whether to make the massive trip.

In lovely Alta Gracia we paid tribute to the revolutionary that graces more t-shirts than he could ever have imagined, Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara, who lived in the town as a child. After wandering the family’s old home, now a museum and photo exhibition, we visited the new souvenir shop across the road. I think they succeeded in ensuring no one was in any doubt that this was the Che shop….

Che shop

Souvenir shop across from Che Guevara’s childhood home in Alta Gracia, Cordoba, Argentina.

 

We took the bus to the bright lights of Córdoba, which was our first cosmopolitan city day in a long while. We made the most of it by pounding the streets, ‘doing’ the sights, and working up an appetite for a proper Argentinian parrilla lunch of grilled meat, with grilled meat and grilled meat.

Córdoba’s massive student population helps to give it that hip edge. The fact that we were so excited by all the cool cafes, antique shops, market stalls and thronging bars made us realise we’d been knocking around in the backwaters for rather too long. To mark the occasion we had a cocktail before heading for the bus back to our provincial campervan.

Bar in Cordoba

Early evening drinks in Cordoba, Argentina.

We were getting some lovely sunny days but the spring weather was still pretty mixed, which only made us dream of Brazilian beaches even more. By the time we left the sierras we’d made a final decision that we’d keep heading east and go for it.

When we reached Santo Tome, on the Rio Paraná in Santa Fe, we were in organisational mode. We had this irrational compulsion to ‘get prepared for Brazil’, as if we were heading for some back-of-beyond third world country. This kind of thing happens to me even when we’re about to cross borders between the Spanish-speaking countries of Latin America. I start doing low-level panic-buying in case across the frontier ‘they’ don’t have certain foodstuffs or the brand of tea I like. We also knew wine was expensive and more limited in Brazil – into the trolley it goes!

Being addicted to change doesn’t mean you don’t also fear it in some small way.

With Brazil we had all the usual trivial uncertainties, but with the added complication that we don’t speak Portuguese. We were taking on a long drive in a relatively short space of time and had some fairly important things to sort out, which we really wanted to avoid having to deal with in a new language. One of those was replacing our close-to-death auxiliary battery, which powers the campervan lights and some plug sockets and enables us to camp without external power for several days.

Having to do ordinary things like find battery shops, launderettes, mechanics, ironmongers and the like gives us an excellent reason to spend time in ordinary towns. We really enjoyed our few days in the municipal site in Santo Tome, camping alongside seasonal workers and artesans, and pottering about doing our chores. The site was right next to a long riverside promenade, where people jogged, played, fished, and passed the time with friends and the ubiquitous Argentinian mate (a bitter green tea) which most people carry on their person at all times.

The riverside communities have a whole different feel to other parts of Argentina – there’s more languid strolling as smells of fried fish waft around, not unlike a seaside resort.

River coast

The riverside towns can feel like seaside resorts. Rio Parana, Argentina.

We even got the chance to go to an ordinary football match across the river in Santa Fe – a fine battle between two of the bottom teams in the premier league, Colón de Santa Fe and Arsenal de Sarandí. We’ve been to many matches in Latin America and one of the best things about them is being among the fans in the stands, who are as fanatical as it’s possible to be. The drums and singing don’t cease for the full 90 minutes, and goals are celebrated with the ‘hinchas’ (fanatics) conducting songs and chants from below. The hinchas rule the school, draping themselves from the fencing, shouting themselves hoarse at every turn in the game, hanging banners that talk of their willingness to die for their team and draping flags so huge that half the ‘hinchada’ can barely see the pitch. It said something about the, erm, enthusiasm of the Colón fans that they’d had to build a moat between the pitch and the stands.

While we were waiting for our new battery to arrive we took off up the river to Cayastá. At the posh camping there we grilled some steaks and felt all summery as we looked out over to the river beach on a lovely evening. There were some pretty loud splashes in the water after dark. “Must be some massive fish in there,” we surmised.

Next morning, this chap emerged from the water and came lumbering up the beach.

Grumpy iguana

This iguana wasn’t as grumpy as his face suggests. Cayasta, Entre Rios, Argentina.

 

Iguana, Cayasta

Mr Iguana emerges from the river in Cayasta, Santa Fe, Argentina.

Shortly afterwards his friend came looking for some discarded fish heads, and got lucky.

Iguana's fish head snack

This iguana came up the beach to find discarded fish heads for snacking on. Cayasta, Santa Fe, Argentina.

Despite our love of Argentinian steak, like Mr Iguana, we were pretty excited about being by the river and able to find some fish to eat again.

For our wedding anniversary we headed down the ‘coast’ to a fish restaurant in the tiny village of Los Zapallos. With its sandy streets and sleepy feel, it doesn’t look like the kind of place you’ll find a decent restaurant. But tucked away in the corner of the village, La Vuelta del Pirata has been serving up a well-regarded fish menu since the 60s.

In true Argentine style it didn’t even open til 9pm. We sat down, starving. Señora Pirata (as she will henceforth be known) shuffled over in her cardie, doing one of those slightly scary auntie faces that is both stern and twinklingly kind. Before we could even speak she said: “It’s just fish, fish and fish, nothing else. I keep bringing it out, and you eat it!“. We took this to mean there was a fixed menu, but were a bit too dumbstruck to ask how many courses there were or what the price was.

Great!” we said, “do you have a wine menu?“. She leaned over to our neighbouring diners’ table and grabbed the bottle of white they were drinking. “This is the best one, you can have a bottle of this.”

I asked in a quiet voice how much the wine was, not being comfortable with having to ask the price of something in a restaurant. In a voice a few decibels short of a foghorn she bellowed “IT’S 90 PESOS!“. We were really starting to like this woman – as my dad said when I told him about her, the world needs more eccentrics.

“As a special gesture for our wedding anniversary, we slept in the van in the street outside the restaurant and used the pee bottle as a toilet. Romance is not dead.”

The food started arriving and we wolfed it. Then more came, and more. We really should have asked what the menu entailed, so we could have paced ourselves. By the 8th course I had a haunted, begging look in my eyes, pleading ‘when will this stop?’.

With each course we asked her what kind of fish was in the dish. Oh, she didn’t like the food being interrogated! After the umpteenth time, she waved her arm towards the other diners, shouting “they know, ask them how good the milanesa is, they’re my most regular customers!”. They nodded their approval.

And it was, indisputably, delicious. All gut-busting 10 courses of it. Baked fish empanaditas, pate, fish ‘meatballs’, fried empanadas, breaded clams, milanesa with roquefort, fish lasagne, marinero (filet in batter with pepper sauce), whole grilled fish, and seafood casserole. As she removed the final dishes she cried out, “oh, I forgot to bring the fried fish!”. Señora Pirata’s idea of a joke – I wonder how long she’s been telling that one.

When the bill came, the food amounted to just over £7 (US$11) a head. No joke.

As a special gesture for our wedding anniversary, we slept in the van in the street outside the restaurant and used the pee bottle as a toilet. Romance is not dead.

New battery installed, holes in exhaust repaired and laundry done, we headed across to Concepción, near the Uruguayan border, for yet more admin – such as the quarterly headache of filling the propane tank and paying the fine for having overstayed our Argentina tourist visa, to allow us to leave the country.

We arrived looking forward to some camping on the Rio Uruguay, only to find the river was now on the road, and a guy was paddling around in a boat in what had been the campsite. “All the campsites in the town are under water!” said the helpful tourist information officer. Parts of Brazil were getting so much rain they’d had to open a dam upriver, flooding loads of places alongside it. Oh dear.

Instead we set up base on the city’s shiny new costanera, a safely concreted promenade with some lovely views and sunsets. It was massive, with a free outdoor gym and parking for hundreds of cars, but we had the place to ourselves each night.

Costanera camping

Sleeping on the costanera, Concepcion del Uruguay, Argentina.

 

Water on fire

The sunsets on the costanera were unbelievable.

Jobs done we headed north towards the border, stopping off for a final dose of tourism at El Palmar national park. One of the last major protected areas for the massively tall yatay palm trees, it had sounded lovely when we read about it. But we weren’t quite prepared for the strange feeling of entering a tropical paradise just a few kilometres from the highway.

As soon as we crossed the park boundary we saw fabulous, vivid birds, and hundreds of capybaras bathing in streams and ambling along the roadside. Curious little foxes stared at us from behind bushes, and in the evening little mustacheod viscachas (members of the chinchilla family) came trotting through the campsite looking for barbeque leftovers.

And then there’s those palm trees, looking resplendent in the daytime and posing obligingly before some perfect sunsets. As we made dinner, chicadas and frogs sang all evening. Yep, we were definitely getting that tropical vibe.

El Palmar's palms

Yatay palms, El Palmar National Park, Argentina.

 

Yatay palm

Yatay palm, El Palmar National Park, Argentina.

 

El Palmar sunset

Sunset in El Palmar National Park, Argentina

On the final push to the border, the weather deteriorated again. We re-visited a place we’d loved last year, where we’d crossed the border into Uruguay. This time it was soggy, windy and grey.

We camped in a wet field further north. As fellow campers will know, those persistently rainy, chilly days are the most challenging. There’s often very little you can do, especially if you’ve gone somewhere for the outdoors, like hiking or mountain views. Spending a rainy day in the van is not like a cosy duvet day at home. You can tell yourself it might be nice to laze around in bed watching movies, but by 11am you pretty much want to scoop your own eyes out with a spoon. I’d go as far as to say that spending a rainy, muddy day in a campervan is about as appealing as – and not entirely dissimilar to – a damp fart in a spacesuit.

Rainy day

Urgh.

So our instinct is usually just to try to drive away from it. Even when it’s futile, we feel we are at least using ‘dead’ time to make progress with the journey.

This time, we had somewhere else to go. We were heading to a sunny beach and we’d picked a strip of white sand that was roughly 3,500km away from where we were sat. It was a long way and we really needed to get moving, so we packed up and made for the border.

Days: 1,501
Miles: 43,766
Things we now know to be true: You can never be too paranoid about running out of teabags.

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The road to Buenos Aires

18 Oct
Vintage car, Colonia, Uruguay

Uruguay has lots of lovely vintage cars.

Buenos Aires, Argentina
[by Paula]

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.

Jesuit mission, San Ignacio, Argentina

The evening walking tour told the story of the Jesuit missions using holograms and lights.

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.

Rainy day, Argentina

Really looking forward to setting up camp tonight..

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.

Salto Grande, Argentina

The early morning view from our van, Salto Grande, Argentina.

 

River relaxation, Salto Grande

There were some incredibly tranquil spots along the Rio Uruguay. Salto Grande, Argentina.

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.

Mercedes floods, Uruguay

Anyone fancy swimming to the campsite to see if it’s open?

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.

Sunset over the Rio de la Plata

Apocalyptic-style sunset over the Rio de la Plata, as seen from our campsite near Colonia.

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.

Days: 1,111
Miles: 25,587
Things we now know to be true: Big cities, pah, you don’t scare us any more.

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