A sliver of Argentina, a chunk of Uruguay and a morsel Paraguay

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Having decided not to spend time on the Argentine side of the Andes, I took a flight from Santiago (my forth trip to this airport) to Buenos Aires. Boarding a KLM flight destined for Amsterdam, I began to feel that my year was drawing to a close. This feeling was reinforced when I landed in Buenos Aires and computed that across the water, albeit a lot of water, was home.

However I still had 6.5 weeks remaining (poor me) and plenty of things I wanted to see. As you know, in general I don’t go a bomb on capital cities – La Paz being the recent unexpected exception, but it’s hard not to warm to BA. Despite being developed in the early1900s, its neo-classical buildings, wide boulevards and green spaces with jacaranda in full flower, fool you into thinking you’re in Europe.
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The well-healed Porteños (so called because BA is a port city) are artistic, chic, cosmopolitan and friendly. Five minutes after meeting someone it’s standard procedure to kiss (one cheek only) when saying hello or goodbye and even if you haven’t spoken to someone but you’re in a group, you kiss. This applies equally across the sexes.

It was great to be in a city where so many streets are open-air stages for people to make music and to tango. Ah yes, that electrically charged dance which a friend perfectly described as ‘the vertical expression of horizontal desire.’ It pervades the whole city, locking eyes and clasping you in its tantalising grip. Clubs abound so of course I immersed myself.

I stayed in the bohemian San Telmo quarter, full of antique shops, artists studios and good restaurants to quaff Malbec and munch succulent beef. No visit to BA is complete without a visit to Recoleta cemetery where anyone who’s anyone is buried in huge ornate graves – all barring Eva Peron whose tomb is very modest.

My most thrilling experience in BA was going to the Bombanero stadium to watch home team La Boca Juniors play arch rivers Racing. Getting hold of a ticket was a costly achievement but the centre-line, 20 rows back seat was worth every pesos. The atmosphere was beyond anything I’ve ever experienced. The build-up started about an hour before kick off with chanting and drumming getting louder and louder and continuing throughout the whole game. The 49,000 capacity stadium is home supporters only, this being the same in all stadium after too many fatalities when fans mix, so the opposition are likes lambs to the slaughter. It was noisier than Twickenham and Wembley combined and when Boca scored, the fans (me included) went nuts and the whole stadium shook – some say it throbs like a heartbeat. You can only imagine how vocal and passionate the fans were. I tell you it was emotionally exhausting! Thankfully Boca won 4-2 (Racing’s 2 goals passed almost unnoticed), Carlos Tevez scoring the final goal.

An added bonus was seeing the recently victorious Davis Cup team led by captain Del Potro, who is a fanatical Boca supporter, parade the trophy round stadium.

The only ingredients missing were Maradona and Papa Francisco!

The darker side of BA is the overflowing garbage, broken bottles and dog poo littering the streets and the large number of drunken men sleeping rough. They seemed more numerous than in other cities. Other constants are the ‘manifestations in Plaza de Mayo which cause traffic chaos. The longest running of these is the ‘mothers of the disappeared’ who have come together every Thursday for the last 40 years, wearing white headscarves – symbolising nappies, to march silently for their ‘vanished’ sons and daughters………and reference to Las Malvinas.

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Directly across the other side of the Rio de la Plata is Uruguay. I hadn’t given this country much thought until I realised that I could get there in a couple of hours so it seemed worth doing some research. I liked what I read and decided to go explore, though not before my taxi driver drove round in circles until I missed my ferry. Luckily here was another one four hours later but it meant I didn’t arrive in Montevideo until midnight and I always prefer to arrive in a new place in daylight.

My plan, which I seemed to be alone in executing was to head west from Montevideo, following the Rio de la Plata with stops in Colonia de Sacramento, Carmelo, Mercedes and Fray Bentos, my last stop being Salto where I would cross back into Argentina and continue heading north until eventually reaching Iguazu Falls. I wanted to hire a car but Uruguay isn’t geared up for dropping the car off anywhere other than back in Montevideo, which didn’t fit with my plans so it had to be local buses.

I had the best time. Uruguayans are very laid back, probably helped by the fact that cannabis is legal. Ut you can’t actually buy it on the open market. So, if you buy a T-shirt, instead of getting a free sachet of Dove shampoo you get weed! Uruguay was also the first. Ountry in S America to give women the vote, to legalise abortion and to recognise same sex marriage. The population hovers around 3m, cows number 12m so people feel obliged to eat huge quantities of beef. They also drink yerba maté all the time. You need to see it to understand the importance of the maté culture. Almost everyone carries a thermos of hot water cradled in the crook of their arm. They use it to pour over a cup full of herbs which they drink through a metal straw. The herbal mixture is very individual but the sharing of the maté is universal. The cup gets passed around in the street, on the bus, on the beach. There are hundreds of shops dedicated to maté paraphernalia. It’s a charming ritual which I enjoyed both observing and taking part in.

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I had lots and lots of unexpectedly nice experiences as I trundled up the Rio Plata (widest river in the world apparently). Traditional live music and dance in Montevideo, which also has a slew of excellent museums including one dedicated to all things Gaucho and one dedicated to the harrowing story of the 1972 plane crash in the Andes carrying the National rugby team from which the film ‘Alive’ was made.

It was national museums open night when I arrived in Colonia. Wandering the historic centre by candlelight felt like being part of its 1600’s Portuguese colonisation history. Continuing up river I had a couple of days in Carmelo in the most lovely hostel lovely, from which I cycled to a couple of bijoux vineyards famous for growing Tannat and hung out on the beach. It seems odd talking about the beach when there’s no sea but all the way up the river there are big beaches and lots of people swimming in the iron red river.

Not much to say about Mercedes except that it produced Manuel Suarez! By contrast my visit to Fray Bentos was fascinating. I learned more than I ever thought possible about the production of the ‘cow in a cube’ at the Frigorifico Anglo del Uruguay factory where at the height of WWII up to 1,800 cows a day were slaughtered to feed UK and German troops. It’s the only UNESCO meat factory in the world – bet you didn’t know that!

My last stop before crossing back to Argentina was at a thermal spa. Not usually my thing but this place came highly recommended. It was another one of those ‘stand on x corner at y o’clock and a man in a van will pick you up.’ He did just that, whisking me to a beautiful farmhouse surrounded by fields, woods, small natural lakes and 2 thermal pools. It was a big outfit but apart from one person who was camping, I was the only guest. I spent two gloriously relaxed days immersed in nature – cats, dogs, horses, birds, peacocks rhea, foxes and millions of dragonfly. I cannot tell you how long I spent patiently trying to get the perfect photo of a dragonfly’s irredentist wings. I think I cracked it.

Apparently there are some remote beaches on the east coast of Uruguay. They’ll have to wait for my return.

Back in Argentina, I continued my plan to head for Iguazu. More research had revealed that along the way Esteros de Iberia was a little-known haven of wetland wildlife. Comparable to the Pantanal wetlands in Brazil, it involved a few changes of buses but even so, was more definitely more accessible. The key ingredient was a good guide. Enter Jose. Having spent several years in Newmarket working for the elite of polo pony owners he had recently returned to Argentina to develop his family’s vast track of Iberia wetland. Picking me up early from my hotel we drove first to the family estancia where I met Jose’s father and watched his gauchos separating out the cows from their calves. It was thrilling to watch as they carolled the herd at break-neck speed, whooping and yeehawing in true cowboy style. On to the family cabin in the middle of the wetlands where my wildlife spotting began. After a short walk through the forest where big lizards darted about we came across a family of 4 howler monkeys. They came very close above us in the trees (present of pee and poo) so I was able to clearly see their facial features. Dad dark brown, mum yellowish brown, kids warm brown. Long curly tails, small eyes and nose but huge protruding jaw and when they howled I could see their fangs!

In the afternoon we boated along a small canal with capybara (those funny giant guinea pig looking creatures) swimming all around and loads of caiman drifting log-like on the surface. In Cuyabena, Ecuador the caiman disappeared when they heard a boat, here they are never disturbed, fed or captured, so they have no fear which means you can get really close.

I lost count of the number of birds we saw, especially kingfishers following the boat, herons, screeches, hawks, vultures, ibis and the very rare long-tailed red squirrel cuckoo. For me they were the highlight of the day

The canal feeds into one of 4 lakes within Jose’s family’s section of the reserve. He took me to a stunning ‘garden’ of water hyacinth where we ate cake and drank yerba mate and he tried unsuccessfully to catch piranha as the sun set in paradise.

With the construction of a new road already underway so that this area is reachable even in heavy rains and an airstrip to connect with other area of the reserve as well as Iguazu, Buenos Aires etc agreed, Jose has some ambitious plans. He wants to offer fishing, horse riding, a gaucho experience, polo, wildlife watching , light aircraft flights to spot jaguars, giant anteaters and marsh deer, 2-star and 4-star accommodation, glamping and 8 canabas for private sale. I may invest!

My ultimate stop, involving a quick flit into Paraguay was to visit the ruins of the Jesuit missions.

But before I got there, I became a grandmother for the second time. Max Oliver James Whybrow was born on 17 December at 3:17am, weighing a tiny 5.6lbs. I joked in my last blog that all I needed to top off the year would be for Danielle to give birth early and low and behold Max was 4.4 weeks early. As with Becca and Simon when Tilly was born, the emotions are bittersweet as once again I feel joy and happiness for David and Fan but feeling sad that I am unable to be a support. Thankfully Max doesn’t need to be in the premature baby unit but he does need help with feedig as his sucking reflex hasn’t yet developed and he needs UV treatment for jaundice. Such moving pictures of the little thing with tubes and drips.

If you had asked me before I left England what my children might get up to I would have said James & Laura might engaged, which they duly have, but 2 babies? Never!

Back in my surreal world, learning about the missions was fascinating. Rathervthan explain it myself I took this chunk of text from the Lonely Planet:

“For a century and a half from 1609, a great social experiment was carried out in the jungles of South America by the Society of Jesus (the Jesuits). Locating themselves in incredibly remote areas, priests set up reducciones (missions), where they established communities of Guaraní (local people) whom they evangelized and educated, while at the same time protecting them from slavery and the evil influences of colonial society. It was a utopian ideal that flourished and led Voltaire to describe it as ‘a triumph of humanity which seems to expiate the cruelties of the first conquerors.’ For the Guaraní who were invited to begin a new life in the missions, there were tangible benefits, including security, nourishment and prosperity. Mortality declined immediately and mission populations grew rapidly. At their peak the 30 Jesuit reducciones that were spread across what’s now Argentina, Brazil and Paraguay were populated by more than 100,000 Guaraní. Each mission had a minimum of Europeans: two priests was the norm, and the Guaraní governed themselves under the Jesuits’ spiritual authority. The Jesuits made no attempt to force the Guaraní to speak Spanish and only sought to change those aspects of Guaraní culture –polygamy and occasional cannibalism –that clashed with Catholic teaching. Each Guaraní family was given a house and children were schooled. The typical reducción consisted of a large central plaza, dominated by the church and colegio, which housed the priests and also contained art workshops and storerooms. The houses of the Guaraní occupied the rest of the settlement in neat rows; other buildings might include a hospital, a cotiguazú that housed widows and abandoned wives, and a cabildo where the Guaraní’s chosen leader lived. Settlements were self-sufficient; the Guaraní were taught agriculture and food was distributed equally. As time went on and the missions grew, wooden buildings were replaced by stone ones and the churches, designed by master architects with grandiose dreams, were stunning edifices with intricate baroque stonework and sculpture comparable with the finest churches being built in Europe. Indeed, the missions’ most enduring achievement was perhaps artistic. The Guaraní embraced the art and music they were introduced to and, interweaving European styles with their own, produced beautiful music, sculpture, dance and painting in ‘Guaraní baroque’ style. The Jesuits’ religious music strongly attracted the Guaraní to Catholicism. However, mission life necessarily had a martial side. Raiding parties of bandeirantes (armed bands) from Brazil regularly sought slaves for sugar plantations, and the Jesuits were resented by both Spanish and Portuguese colonial authorities. There were regular skirmishes and battles until a notable victory over an army of 3000 slavers at Mbororó in 1641 ushered in a period of comparative security. The mission period came to an abrupt end. Various factors, including envy from the colonial authority and settlers, and a feeling that the Jesuits were more loyal to their own ideas than those of the Crown, prompted Carlos III of Spain to ban them from his dominions in 1767, following the lead of Portugal and France. With the priests gone, the communities were vulnerable and the Guaraní gradually dispersed.” Lonely Planet

Almost nothing remains of Argentina’s 15 missions but I visited the best preserved – San Ignacio Miní, Loreto and Santa Ana and took a boat ride across the river Paraña to Bella Vista in Paraguay where the fabulous missions of Jesús de Tavarangüe (unfinished) and Trinidad – the largest mission in S America, are located.

Over lunch (payable by the kilo), my Aussie guide Jimmy filled me in on Paraguay:
4th exporter of soya in world
Biggest exporter of beef in S America
Largest producer of yerba mate in S America
Produce a lot of steel, built own railways without help from GB
1865-70 triple alliance war wiped out 90% of the population and most land lost to Brazil.
Corruption rife

On 20 December I boarded the bus for my final destination, Puerto Iguazu where I planned to spend Christmas. Good shout Ginny. I spent a perfect week relaxing at the above-average hostel I’d treated myself to, doing a few low key things like visiting a Guarani village and an animal hospital, rapelling down a watrefall and ziplining through a forest, before hitting the Falls.

Everyone says to visit the Brazilian side of the Falls first. This a duly did, treating myself to a helicopter ride (another Christmas present) over the area. It was breathtaking but way too short. I also visited the Bird Park which has an extensive collection of feathered friends in beautiful surroundings. What was particularly pleasing was to find that I had had the experience of seeing many of the birds in the wild.

Back on the Argentine side of the Falls I got up early on Christmas Eve to start walking the trails before it got too hot. I practically had the park to myself for the first couple of hours as the trails led to once amazing waterfall after another. The jewel in the crown is The Devil’s Throat which has a viewing platform right over it. The noise from the volume of water crashing down the rock face is deafening and the sheer volume of water incomprehensible. I stole someone’s Santa Claus hat and made a water drenched ‘happy Christmas’ video for family and friends. As I said, if I couldn’t with my loved ones, I wanted to be somewhere dramatic. I think that being at one of the seven wonders of the world I hit the jackpot!

The manager of the hostel kindly invited me and other guests (10 of us) to share in a traditional Argentine Christmas dinner with them. We helped prepare the food – salads, savoury sort of Swiss roll thing and of course lots of bbq’d meat. At midnight we had cider, sweets, cakes and fireworks sitting in the swimming pool!

 

Happily I managed to Facetime my brother, my sister and all three of my kids and their babies. What a blessed human being I am.

 

And that’s a wrap for Argentina, Uruguay and Paraguay. What an interesting, eclectic range of experiences I had from tango to football, spas to monkeys, mission ruins to river beaches, beef cubes to waterfalls.

Last stop Brazil then home sweet home……….

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