ARGENTINA, URUGUAY March 24 – April 4, 2012
Argentina is about the size of India (world’s 8th largest country and 3500 km north to south) and has 40 million people with indigenous people making up less than 1%. One third live in poverty and 90% live in urban areas. There was a large European immigration in the 19th century, mainly Italians and Spaniards. Spain did not get established until the 1580’s and there has been intermittent military rule, dictatorships and some democracy and a boom and bust economy. Things boomed from 2003 to 2007 but now the country has high inflation and a worsening economy. Everyone drinks mate (herbal drink) using a special mate cup and carrying a thermos of hot water to replenish the drink. 4 Argentinian pesos to the US$.
After a long, needless wait at the border, it took 24 ½ hours to Buenos Aires (pop 13 million). It is one of SA’s most electrifying cities with great European architecture, atmospheric neighborhoods, and bustling nightlife that doesn’t start till late. My first day I went to the huge market in San Telmo which takes up many blocks on one street. Everything is for sale including many antiques. With a soccer game that night and all the tours booked, I walked for a few hours to the stadium and bought a scalped ticket ($28 for what I was led to believe was a good seat normally worth $12). I cruised around Plaza de Mayo (great metropolitan cathedral, Casa Rosado where Evita energized adoring crowds from the balcony in the 1940’s, Monzana de las Luces with its solid block of 18th century buildings, and the Palacio de Congresso, modeled after Washington DC’s Capitol Building. Monuments are everywhere).
Football Game at the Boca Junior Stadium. With hundreds of police around (many in riot gear), one is allowed to only enter through your section. Barricades start several blocks from the stadium and one can only enter through the one you have a ticket for. I was frisked 4x in the two blocks and relieved of my lighter. The end zones and corners are fenced preventing any movement between sections. After climbing about 200 steps through a gauntlet of drums and crazed singing fans, I realized I had no reserved seat and was high up in one end zone! I wonder what the $6 seats were like? Banners of cloth ran vertically every few feet and many banners ran horizontally across the seats. Several guys ended up standing on heavy steel railings using the banners to maintain their balance and totally obscuring the view for 10 or so rows above them forcing everyone to stand. The drumming, singing and arm swinging was nonstop and some seemed to spend little time watching the game. Joints passed freely through the crowd. I couldn’t see variously 25 to 40% of our end of the field. It was bedlam. The final score was 3-2 for Lanus, a city an hour from BA, (all the fans in my section were Lanus and they are not allowed to mix with opposing fans) over the home team Boca Juniors. All 5 goals were scored at the opposite end and thus I saw them all. Futbol is much more exciting live and their foot control and rapid passing is truly impressive. It was very tranquil getting out of the stadium and I easily found my bus home. The singing and roof banging was nonstop in the bus. A unforgettable experience. The next day, I explored downtown especially along the big shopping street, Florida. I went to the Recoleta Cemetery with its many huge mausoleums and statues. The star attraction is Evita’s grave. I had a long walk out to Palermo with its many green parks and a Japanese garden and a long walk back marveling at the old buildings and the huge obelisk. It is a very attractive city. I did not seek out any tango and did not do the late night bar scene. On the 27th, I took the 3 hour ferry to Colonia del Sacramento in Uruguay across the ocean like Rio de la Plata.
Uruguay is roughly the size of N. Dakota and has a population of 3.42 million. Fought over by the Portuguese and Spanish for 200 years, Spain finally gained control in 1828. Great social programs were introduced in the early 20th century and many industries were nationalized. Refrigeration made beef the number one export. Since the 60’s there has been a succession of dictators and military control. Hoof and mouth disease disastered the beef industry. Building a pulp mill in 2007 has hurt relations with Argentina and some border crossings remain closed. Uruguayans are quite relaxed compared to Argentinians. 88% are white, 6% mestizo, 1% black and indigenous are nonexistent. Only 47% are Catholic and 17% are professed atheists. Abortion is legal (I believe the only SA country where it is). With only 2 small ranges of hills, the country is basically flat. Great beaches line the SW shore. Admittedly one of the reasons for coming to Uruguay was to add one more country to my list. 20 Uruguayan pesos to the US$.
Colonia del Sacramento (pop 22,000) is known for its winding cobbled streets, partial thick fortified walls, convent ruins, lighthouse, many museums and restaurants. With a lot of wind, the surf on the river was impressive. I took the 2 hour bus to Montevideo, the capital (pop 1.3 million), left my pack in left luggage and bussed to centro to see the Mausoleum (closed for renovation), and had a tour of the Theatre built in 1856. Then I wandered around – it is best described as crumbling. Surprisingly it was common to see horses and carts on busy thoroughfares. I then bussed 2 hours east to Punta del Este, the big international beach resort. My real destination has been Salto on the NW border with Argentina (and I really did not want to go to Montevideo and the beaches to the east) but chose this route as the bus at each station involved a wait of several hours, so I kept going. This is an expensive place. I had a cheesecake and coffee and almost gagged at the $15 and $7 respective costs compared to the $15 for a dorm room in a hostel. Up at sunrise to walk the peninsula, it took an hour. The entire end is residential with houses and condos, 98% shuttered as the summer season is over. All the great beaches and hotels are north of the neck of the peninsula. East of here the beaches along the coast are supposed to be spectacularly beautiful with good surf. The town was basically empty. It was an 8 hour bus ride back through Montevideo and then NW to Salto through flat agricultural country with many pine and eucalyptus plantations. I took a taxi 1 hour across the border, had a 3 hour wait, then another taxi 30 minutes outside Concordia, Argentina to a highway where we waited for the bus to Puerto Iguazu (23 hours total) – at the point where Paraguay, Brazil and Argentina meet. The flat country evolved into jungle and a warm subtropical climate.
Puerto Iguazu is the fastest place to obtain a Brazilian visa (required of Australia, Canada and the US as reciprocity to our visa requirements for Brazilians). Taking up to a month at home and 5 days in Quito, it is only one day here when they take your passport. The problem is that you require an exit flight out of the country, and thus I have had to plan by entire Brazil itinerary. The plan is to fly from Rio de Janeiro to Caracas, Venezuela on April 23. As the consulate was closed Saturday, Sunday and Monday, I have a few days to work things out. I missed many things in Argentina, but the only place I think I would have liked to have gone to is Salto in the northwest.
The main attraction here is Iguazu Falls, 240 ft high and surely the most beautiful set of waterfalls in the world. It is one of the New Seven Natural Wonders of the World (vote in 2007 to revise the previous 7 Natural Wonders of the World – Grand Canyon, Great Barrier Reef, Harbour of Rio de Janeiro, Mt. Everest, aurora, Paricutin volcano, Victoria falls). The headwaters of the Iguazu River are a few miles from the Atlantic Ocean in the coastal mountains of Brazil. It flows 1320 kms west forming the border between Argentina and Brazil for the last 133 kms. Iguazu Falls has the second highest annual water flow of any waterfall in the world after Niagara. The broad shallow river with many islands forms multiple tributaries before falling over a basalt cliff resulting in between 150 and 300 waterfalls depending on water levels. The upper falls is called the Garganta del Diablo – a narrow long canyon on the eastern edge of the river. Half of the water goes over at the top of the canyon called the Devil’s Throat creating big mist and rainbows, but the many channels create a huge horseshoe of waterfalls along the sides. All the water in the western half of the river continues on, goes through many channels and then creates multiple falls along a long cliff just downriver. Trails have been built on elevated catwalks allowing one side to see all aspects of the falls. An upper trail crosses most of the lower set of falls above the waterfalls. A lower set of trails gives great views from below and gives access to San Martin Island by small boat with its great views of the lower falls. I took a jet boat trip up both channels and got thoroughly soaked. As I didn’t bring a bathing suit, it got uncomfortable walking all over the place with wet underwear. Returning to the upper level, a train goes along the river to the Garganta del Diablo. 1100 meters of catwalk cross the many river channels (big catfish) to the top of the canyon giving other worldly views. I then had a 6 km walk through the jungle to a small fall ending a long day of walking. There were thousands of tourists many on tours from all over the place. It was a hot, cloudless, humid day and I felt pretty knackered.
The Brazilian visa is kind of a nightmare. They require your passport, a passport picture, bank statements for 3 months, a valid ongoing airline flight (bus ticket not as good), and exactly 299 pesos (they would not accept 300 and getting change here for anything is difficult at best). Handing it in at the Brazilian consulate luckily next door to my hostel at 8AM on Tuesday, I needed to wait till 11AM on Wednesday to pick it up and leave for Brazil. This has been my most relaxing time on the entire trip and it was a great hostel to chill out and organize the rest of my time. A young American couple work here and they have been good company.
Cost of Argentina and Uruguay – 12 days – $1027.44 = $85.62 per day.