The long, long road to Iguazu

Published: March 29th 2010
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1: Salto Bossetti 19 secs
You might expect the "special" bus service from San Pedro, Chile to Salta, Argentina, at almost three times the price of the standard service, would be a fairly luxurious journey. You'd be wrong. We travelled in a battered old minivan, myself and seven other Europeans similarly trapped by the lack of cross border bus services. The Chilean border post was just outside San Pedro, after which we climbed slowly and steadily up to 4,200m through the Paso de Jama. We eventually arrived at the Argentine border post, but here our journey came to a halt. We spent about 2.5 hours waiting for permission to cross - the driver claimed it was because the border guards were accepting bribes from others which he refused to give, we suspected he hadn't got his papers in order. Either way a complete shambles. We eventually got going again and the next part of the journey was through some stunning scenery, descending through numerous Andean valleys with fantastic vistas, not that the driver stopped for any pictures.

I was following the roadside markers which I assumed were marking the distance to Salta which meant we would have arrived at about six. Unfortunately they were actually counting down to the start of the Ruta 9 highway which meant we had at least another 3 hours to go. It was getting painful at this stage. We stopped briefly at the beautiful town of Purmamarca, situated in a gorgeous valley. A couple of hours later, the driver announced we had arrived in Salta but another traveller who had previously been there wasn't convinced, believing it to be the town of General Guemes. Luckily another guy in the bus had a SatNav system which confirmed we were still 50k from Salta. The driver then took a circuitous route south, adding yet more time to the journey, before we eventually arrived just before ten. He clearly had never done this trip before and had no clue where we were going. $120 well spent there. Usually at this point in travelling you just laugh and say "TIA - This is Africa". Except it isn't, and you really expect more from such developed countries.

I was only spending one day in Salta before heading on a 14hr overnight bus south to Rosario in an ill-fated effort to catch a football game (explained in next entry). While there are supposedly lots of activities and attractions close to Salta, the city itself probably doesn't warrant more than a day’s exploration. It's supposed to be the best preserved colonial town in Argentina and while there are several historical buildings of note, they're few and far between in the usual big gridded layout of Argentinean towns. I spent the day finding these colonial remnants and also taking to chairlift to Cerro San Bernardo for panoramic views of the city. Finally found a European style main square as well, with restaurants dotted around the edge, for some more steaks and local Salta beer, which was useful as the restaurant quarter of Balcarce was like a ghost town in the early evening when I needed a meal. Further south, Rosario may well be a pleasant town to live in but there's little of interest for visitors and it was a long couple of days waiting for my bus to Iguazu. I sought out the birthplace of Che Guevara and tried to decide if the huge concrete monument to General Belgrano was impressive or simply an ugly monstrosity before settling on the latter.

Another long overnight bus took me to Puerto Iguazu, the small Argentinean town near Iguazu Falls. The air conditioned bus didn't prepare me for the sauna like effect when I stepped off. It had been very hot and humid in Salta and Rosario but Iguazu took this to new levels. In On the Road Kerouac describes an Indian girl he comes across in a steamy, hot Mexican jungle town as being permanently covered by a film of sweat and how she would never know life any other way. This is certainly how it felt in Iguazu except when you found relief in a room or building with air conditioning. Despite the heat, the town itself is quite pleasant for strolling around with some good bars and restaurants to cool down in.

The next couple of days were spent exploring Iguazu Falls. This UNESCO World Heritage Site comes with a hefty reputation but still manages to surpass expectations effortlessly. The sheer breadth and scale of the Falls is breathtaking but it’s the ability to get so close to several of the individual waterfalls, from both above and below, that’s particularly impressive. This feature also allows you to get a good soaking from the water spray which is especially welcome in the heat of northern Argentina.

The National Park itself is very well developed with well laid out trails and a wide range of services. However this, along with the nature of the Falls, means that there’s no escaping the huge crowds, even when you get there before the Park opens. First up I took the Green Train to the Devil’s Throat, the biggest and most spectacular single waterfall. It’s an extraordinary site, standing so close to such a noisy and powerful deluge of water. The experience is also unique with each visit - the first day was dry on the platform allowing me to photograph easily but after a heavy storm that afternoon, the following day I got soaked by the spray of the Falls.

After the Devil’s Throat, I headed back to the main section of the site and walks along the Upper and Lower Circuits (San Martin Island was unfortunately closed due to high waters). The circuits allow you to get very close to several different waterfalls, from above and below, and also provide panoramic views of big sections of the Falls. It’s a site you can wander around at length and repeatedly, never tiring of the sights, sounds and refreshing feel of the waterfalls.

On the way down to Buenos Aires, I stopped in Posadas, a base to visit the Jesuit ruins at nearby San Ignacio. Posadas was yet another fairly anonymous gridded town, though the riverfront was a nice spot to hang around and walk along, with the locals exercising, drinking mate and watching the lights from Paraguay across the Rio Parana. The 17th century Jesuit ruins in San Ignacio, another UNESCO site, were very impressive. These were settlements where the Jesuits and Guarani Indians lived in unison, protecting the natives from Portugese slave hunters. The missions were supposedly very progressive settlements for the time, though that may say more about the standards of European colonisation and exploitation than any religious enlightenment.

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