Thursday, June 10, 2010

Iguazu and back

OK! OK! so I'm behind on the blog and people are now beginning to wonder what's happening. Well in short we're back home trying to come to terms with life off the bike. We have nowhere to live as yet and are looking at where to go next! We have loads to do and folks to see so the blog has taken a back seat. In an effort to get my arse into gear I am making a concerted effort to finish the last couple of weeks and bring you all up to date, so this installment is the penultimate blog entry in our journey DUE SOUTH.....

To say Argentina is flat is something of an understatement. With the exception of Patagonia and Tierra del Fuego the rest of the country is mostly open pampas devoid of elevation, which is great for sheep and cattle but tough on the eyes for eight hours a day.

Dave kept getting in the way!
With the recent rains most of the surrounding land was under water which was bad news for the families that lived in small huts along the roadside.

When we left Buenos Aires, Frank, a fellow traveller had informed us that the run up to Iguazu was similar to travelling Ruta 3 only greener. We'd had enough of flat boring landscapes and we knew the next three days and 1300 kilometers riding were simply a means to an end. Although the recent floods did add a different pespective to the scenery, there was nothing to see in the way of tourist attractions, so it was simply a case of sticking to the main roads and eating up the miles. We knew we would be stopped by the police at some point but the process of avoiding being ripped off by corrupt cops was now an all too familiar part of the journey and true to form it seemed that there were road blocks every couple of hundred kilometers or so. 

First of many checkpoints.

Most of the time the police or military would require you to stop or slow down enough to recognise that we were foreigners and then either wave us through or carry out the cursory document checks, on a number of occasions Dave tried playing the dumb tourist by ignoring the cops and just continued riding which worked until we arrived at the notorious kilometer 341 checkpoint.
The countryside is so flat and the roads so straight that as soon as we got within a mile of the checkpoint we could see standing traffic at the side of the road but the cars and trucks were still moving on the highway after being waved on by the police. 

The police station at kilometer 341.

We decided to tuck in behind a truck and hope we wouldn't be noticed but the traffic was moving too slowly through the roadblock and we were waved onto the hard shoulder, Dave tried riding straight through but one of the cops whistled at him and he was stopped a few meters further on. 

Dave under interrogation.
The cops must have been desperate for cash and were working both sides of the road.

At this point it was straight into friendly tourist mode, remove helmet, smile, be polite and offer documents. I was expecting the worst and as the Police station was right next to the checkpoint the chances of bluffing our way through were zero. It must have been our lucky day, that or the fact that there was too much traffic and potential witnesses but after a few routine questions and a 'don't be a naughty boy' warning to Dave we had our papers back and were on our way. I am now of the opinion that the rumours of corrupt cops on Ruta 14 could be grossly exaggerated (but ask me again in a weeks time!)

An hour later and another check.
Throughout much of central and northern Argentina the roadsides are dotted with shrines devoted to the memory of the Argentinian cowboy Gauchito Gil.

Gaugho Gil is famed as a local Robin Hood who lived as an outlaw in the 1800s after refusing to fight in the military in a civil conflict. Legend has it that after his capture and just before a police sergeant slit his throat, Gil told him he was killing an innocent man who after death could intercede on his behalf with God. Gil told his executioner to pray to him for his child's recovery from an illness. The sergeant did so and the child was cured, giving birth to the cult of Gauchito Gil. He is revered for sharing his spoils with the poor and protecting them to this day. The Roman Catholic Church does not recognize him as a saint and Church leaders are divided on whether to embrace or condemn the phenomenon.

The man himself (or rather a tacky effigy of him!) Put one on the dashboard and you're safe from harm.

It didn't matter how much you prayed, you couldn't stop the bloody tropical rains!

The further north we travelled the more the flat landscape gave way to the lush green of the jungle, it felt good to have that enclosed feeling riding the highway between the walls of foliage Once we got to within 50 kilometers of Iguazu we started looking for accommodation. Bearing in mind that this is one of world's great natural tourist attractions and as such the closer you get to the falls so the price of hotels and hostels rises accordingly. We eventually settled on the Hostel International which was close enough to the falls and cheap enough to feel as though we were'nt being ripped off. The weather over the last couple of days had got progressively hotter and humid and the hostel's swimming pool full of semi naked backpackers was a tempting sight (for a swim that is). The great thing about the hostel scene is the availability of information on tourist attractions and activities. Sue got talking to Mary a backpacker from Seattle (talking to a backpacker, what next!) whose boyfriend was the best friend of one of the staff at the BMW dealer in Seattle who Sue and I had met whilst getting a service for BOB, he was doing the South America thing and was meeting up with Mary on his way home. We all arranged to visit the falls the next day to view them from the Argentinian side, it's worth mentioning at this point that the falls and the river are a natural border between Brazil and Argentina and both countries claim to have the best views and the best facilities. The process for entering Brazil from Argentina (or vice versa) is made easier by both countries in order to boost the tourist revenue from people wanting to see the falls from both sides and we had decided to do the same, although we would be crossing the border into Brazil on our route back to Buenos Aires. The next morning we were up early and rather than ride to the falls, we took advantage of the frequent bus service which stopped opposite the hostel on it's way from the town of Iguazu to the falls. Whilst we were waiting for the bus to arrive one of the local taxis pulled up and offered to take us to the falls for not much more than the bus fare, I think we may have even beat him down by a couple of dollars but anyway it would be quicker and more comfortable than the bus. On the way to the falls we were chatting to the driver (well actually I was talking mostly bollocks and a bit of 'Spanglish'!) and trying to understand the information he was telling us about the falls, he was obviously proud of the fact that Argentina had the best views of the falls but at the same time offered to take us across the border to see them from Brazil, so we managed to negotiate a deal whereby he would take Sue, Dave and I across the border the next day and bring us back. Mary unfortunately was on her way to Paraguay the next day so would not have the opportunity to compare which side was best, she would have also had to pay the $130 visa charge imposed by Brazil on American tourists.

Iguazu Falls
Just a small section of the upper falls.

The Iguazu Falls are actually a collection of over 270 individual waterfalls that stretch almost two miles along the Argentinian and Brazilian sides of the Iguazu river. The largest of the falls is known as the Devil's Throat and spans 700 meters across the border of the two countries, the amount of water flowing over the falls varies depending on the time of year but due to the heavy rains recently, it was estimated that the flow rate could have been in excess of half a million cubic feet a second!! 
Before we arrived at the falls it was possible to see the mist created by the force of the falling water above the jungle canopy. When we arrived at the park we payed the entrance fee and caught the train through the park to the one kilometer walking trail that terminates at the Devil's Throat.

The falls are divided into upper and lower falls, the upper falls cascade out of the jungle along the length of the trail and descend to the river below. The lower falls can be accessed by boat for around £25 which includes a  ride underneath some of the smaller falls, we decided not to miss out on the opportunity to view the falls up close and booked a ride later in the day.

One of the upper falls, and Sue.
Nice hat Sue!.

The Devils Throat is another one of those jaw dropping spectacles that overwhelms the senses, the noise and sheer volume of water have to be seen close up to appreciate the full effect. It's mind blowing to consider the volume of water that constantly crashes hundreds of feet to the river below.

The view up the river towards the Devil's Throat.

As usual with visual spectacles such as this it's impossible to capture the full beauty in a single photo, the best I could do was stitch three photos together as a panorama.

There was so much water going over the falls I couldn't avoid getting plumes of mist in the shot.

Once we'd done the tour of the upper falls we headed back along the trail and made our way to the makeshift jetty for our boat tour of the lower falls. This was a totally different experience altogether, within a couple of minutes of being on the river we were up against the falls and completely soaked! the inflatables were fitted with a couple of hefty outboard motors and had enough power to reverse under the falls and escape without getting submerged. Obviously, having already had one waterlogged camera I wasn't about to risk a second disaster or start messing about putting the camera in a plastic bag, so what you see on the video below are shots of the same boat but filmed by me on the riverside.

Isn't she ....Wet!

After we had finished our tour of the lower falls we returned to the hostel for the buffet meal and a quick Tango demonstration. 

The next day we were woken at 6:40 by some pillock playing his guitar in the next room, I resisted the urge to go round and restring his instrument and achieved the desired result by beating on the wall until he got the hint and went upstairs to the communal area to annoy anybody keen enough to be about at that time in a morning.
The return trip to view the falls from the Brazilian side involved crossing the border into Brazil but thanks to our friendly taxi driver it simply involved sitting in the taxi whilst our passports were checked. It felt strange not having to go through the whole immigration/customs procedure than we had endured over forty times in the last nine months.
It was definitely worth viewing the falls from both countries, the Argentinian side probably gives you access to get closer to the falls but the views from the Brazilian side are far superior. To see the lower falls from the Argentinian side it really is necessary to take the boat trip but from the Brazilian side almost all the falls are visible, either way we were glad to have done both days and are still undecided as to which side we prefer. 

Iguazu Falls from Brazil

We had arranged to visit the falls early in order to leave enough time to pack and get across the border on the same day. Once the bikes were loaded we headed into Brazil, the border crossing started off promisingly but ended up taking an hour and a half due to idle customs officials.

Here's Sue standing on the bridge over the Parana river. The concrete barriers are painted in the national colours to denote the geographical border between the two countries.

From the bridge it's possible to see three countries, Argentina, Brazil and Paraguay.

The next three day were spent riding in sweltering heat and tropical storms across Brazil to Florianopolis on the coast.

Florianopolis is an island of the coast of Brazil and linked to the mainland by a series of bridges, the main towns on the island are tourist resorts which suited us just fine and we decide to stay for a couple of days after finding an apartment on the beach. For most of the time it was hot, humid and the skies were cloudy which is normal for this time of the year, unfortunately it's still possible to get burnt by the sun as Sue found out!

After a two days rest and relaxation (and rain!) it was time to return to Buenos Aires. Dave had three days to get back to BA in time to ship the bike home, we had time to spare and by now we had seen and done everything we wanted but decided to take the long route down the coast through Uruguay. We would ride one more day with Dave before he left and headed across country to take the shorter route into Argentina. The night  before we had emailed Charles who we met on the Carratera Austral in Chile in the hope that we could meet up on our way down the coast. I knew he lived in Brazil somewhere close to the border with Uruguay but didn't have an exact address, however, as we were travelling out of Puerto Alegre later that day we were passing a police station and got flagged down. I expected it to be another shakedown from dodgy cops but as we slowed down I recognised it was none other than our old friend Charles.

We're nicked!

It turned out he hadn't even read my email and had passed  us a few miles back down the road without recognising us but decided to pull us over for a bit of biker chat. Dave, not recognising Charles had hightailed it down the road and was waiting for us to catch up thinking we were being given the third degree!. Over a cup of coffee in the station we caught up on our journeys since we last met and Dave eventually returned (sheepishly) and rather than continue on the road, Charles escorted us to a nearby hotel (blue lights and sirens) in Puerto Alegre where we spent the night. In the morning Charles joined us for breakfast and we said our goodbyes once more before heading South, Dave had already left as he needed to make up time and we set off for Uruguay. There were now only a few days left on the road before we returned to Buenos Aires, pack our bags and head back who knows what!