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Published: February 7th 2008
Last time I wrote, I had just had my bag stolen in Buenos Aires, losing two cameras and all my photos of that wonderful city. Fortunately, I managed to replace my SLR in Paraguay so I wasn´t without a camera for long. Unfortunately, I can´t upload any images in this cafe, so there are no more pictures for now.
After spending a couple of days after Xmas in the Argentinian lake district, we entered Patagonia, which is beautiful, but very bleak and windy. On our first lunch stop, the wind was so strong, we could barely hold our plates, and our sandwiches ended up containing more grit than cheese. And it was bloody freezing.
We spent 3 nights in a hostel in the touristy town of El Calafate, and on the morning of New Year´s Eve we visited the Perito Morino Glacier, one of the most memorable experiences of the trip. The glacier is 30km long, 5km wide and 60m high, and is one of only 3 Patagonian glaciers that is not retreating. It has a wonderful blue hue when the light catches it, and every now and then, huge chunks of ice break off and plunge into the water with a thunderous crash. We took a boat trip and managed to get very close, and then walked along some platforms which allowed us to view it from above. It really was an awesome sight.
A few of us decided not to do the group night out on New Year´s Eve, as many of these events are overpriced, and we are growing tired of being part of such a large group, so we went to a fantastic local all-you-can-eat steak house which we had gone to the previous night (the steaks in Argentina really are wonderful) and then on to a couple of bars. It was weird as we were so far south, it was still light at 11pm. There were lots of fireworks as midnight struck, but it wasn´t the wildest NYE night ever. Having met up with the rest of the group later on, I think we made the right decision to do our own thing.
On New Year´s Day we drove to Torres del Paine national park in Chile, which is an area of stunning beauty, containing mountains, glaciers, lakes and rivers. Our campsite was situated next to a lake, with an amazing view of the mountains. We did a tough 6-hour hike to see the famous granite towers which are a Chilean landmark, but the weather was so bad (cloudy and snowy) that we could´t see them, which was a great shame. But it was a lovely walk (albeit bitterly cold) and it was nice to get some exercise instead of being sat on the truck for 11 hours a day.
The following day we took a boat trip across one of the lakes (Lago Grey) and did a 4-hour hike up to a lookout point from where another glacier (the grey glacier) could be seen. It was bitterly cold, and the wind was almost stong enough to blow me off my feet, but again, it was lovely to be out in the fresh air, and the scenery was staggering.
Our next stop was a pretty dull town called Rio Grande, which involved a ferry ride across the Strait of Magellan, which lies south of mainland Chile and was the main route for steam ships travelling between the Pacific and Atlantic oceans before the Panama canal was built in 1914. It is named after the Portuguese sailor Ferdinand Magellan, the first European to navigate the strait in 1520.
Then it was on to Ushuaia, the capital of Tierra del Fuego and the world's most southerly city. Although a little touristy, it is a beautiful city, surrounded by mountains and water. We took a boat trip along the Beagle channel, named after HMS Beagle, on which Darwin sailed. It was a beautiful and surprisingly warm day given how far south we were. We didn´t see any beagles but there were lots of seabirds and sealions though. We thought we would get to see penguins but unfortunately our boat didn't visit the island where they live.
We stayed at a huge campsite, which obviously makes a lot of money out of the overland tours as there were a few groups there, so it was quite disgraceful that there were only a couple of showers and toilets for over a hundred people, and they weren't even particularly clean. This may be a good time to tell you something that I should have mentioned from day one... in Central and South America, the plumbing systems cannot cope with toilet paper, even in hotels, so beside each toilet is a bin in which you must put your dirty toilet paper. Which is not much fun when you are sharing a toilet with 100 smelly travellers! Let´s hope I have got out of this habit by the time I get home.
The following day we did a 4-hour coastal walk in Tierra del Fuego which gave us some stunning views of the lakes and mountains.
And then the day that several of us had been looking forward to for weeks finally arrived, the day that we split from the group for a few days and flew to Buenos Aires. There were around 12 of us who did this. Myself and an Aussie friend, Wade, rented a lovely apartment near the centre of the city (around the corner from Zurich's office - I was tempted to see if they had any jobs!) for not much more than the price of an average hotel, and my friend Susana from Santiago came to stay for the weekend, which was lovely.
Buenos Aires is known as the Paris of South America, and it's a quite wonderful city, full of beautiful parks, buildings and people. On the Saturday, Susana and I went to Recoleta, which contains a lovely cemetary in which Eva Peron (Evita) is buried. The cemetary contains some amazing statues and sarcophagi of rich and famous Argentians, although that of Evita was surprisingly modest. There was a great hippie market outside which we spent a couple of hours walking around and bought some great paintings of tango dancers, and in the evening we went out for a lovely romantic meal.
On Sunday we went to San Telmo, full of cobbled streets and cafes, and home to an antiques market. After a lovely lunch we went to the airport, as unfortunately Susana had to fly home that evening.
The following day I visited a lovely area called Palermo, home to many parks including the botanical gardens, and the rest of my time in BA was spent walking around the city, spending money on clothes, rather too many bootleg music dvds, eating great steaks and people watching.
Then the dream was over and reality struck back as we had to check out of the apartment and into a pretty grotty hotel with the rest of the group, who had arrived a couple of days earlier. The next day was an even bigger shock to the system, as we had an 11-hour drive and ended up camping in the grounds of a service station!
Our next destination was Paraguay, where we stayed for 4 nights. The first 2 were spent at a lovely campsite with a swimming pool, and on the first night we had a party for Luke, the driver, whose birthday was the following day. It has become tradition on the tour for whoever´s birthday it is to have their face pushed into the birthday cake (classy), but when Jo (the guide) did it to Luke (who had been drinking all afternoon), he responded by picking her up and dipping her bottom onto the cake. Things soon descended into a food-fight (I hasten to add that I wasn´t involved!), much to the disgust of the German owner of the campsite, who completely lost his temper and called us animals and said our behaviour was worse than the native Indians! He then got out a big knife and burst all the balloons! I can understand his attitude, as they had just cooked a lovely meal for us, and the behaviour of Jo and Luke was totally unprofessional. They didn´t even apologise to the rest of the group and thought it was funny (which it was in a way!). The owner wanted us to leave the campsite in the morning, but eventually let us stay.
Then we spent 2 nights in the capital of Asuncion, which was probably 1 night too many as, for a capital city, it was pretty dull. At least it is a duty-free port, so the cameras were cheap.
After Paraguay, it was time to enter Brazil. Our first stop was Foz do Iguaçu, home to the Iguazu Falls, a system of 275 waterfalls spreading 2.7km along the Iguazu River, and which form part of the border between Brazil and Argentina. The falls are much larger and more impressive the Niagara Falls, and only Victoria Falls in Southern Africa are larger. Our first day in Foz was spent on the Brazilian side of the falls. We took a helicopter flight over the falls, which was impressive but overpriced and only lasted 10 minutes, then visited a bird centre, then took a bus to the falls themselves, walking along a series of boardwalks which took us very close to them. The size and power of the falls was amazing (they have a peak flow of 6.5 million litres per second compared to Niagara´s 2.8 million and reach a height of 82m).
The following day we crossed back into Argentina for a few hours to view the falls from that side, which was much more impressive. We took a speedboat under the falls, which was great fun but did mean getting drenched, and did some more walks right up close to the water, including the Devil´s Throat, a U-shaped 150m wide, 700m long cliff with water pouring in from 3 sides. We then took an inflatable rowing boat along the river in the hope of seeing some wildlife, but we only saw a few birds. But the Iguazu Falls were certainly another highlight of the tour.
After another long drive day with a stopover in someone´s (rather large) back garden, we arrived at Bertioga, in the state of São Paulo. Some of us were a bit annoyed when we arrived, as we were told to expect a 7-hour journey but it turned into another 11-hour nightmare, so after dinner a few of us went to a local bar, which turned out to be a big mistake! The local Brazilian cocktail is called caiperina, made with rum and is incredibly potent, as I found out to my cost after only drinking 3 of them (although they were allegedly trebles). Embarrassingly, I spent four hours lying in the grass outside someone else´s tent, wretching and being sick. For some reason, for a small guy, I make a lot of noise when I am sick and woke up most of the camp. I think they thought some wild animal had escaped from the local zoo! And the mosquitoes had a field day on my back... never again!
Our next day involved yet another long drive to Paraty, located on the Costa Verde (Green Coast). It was raining heavily when we arrived at the campsite, and the journey time wasn´t helped by the fact that somehow, Jack´s windscreen had been smashed the previous night. Only a couple of people know the true cause of the breakage, fuelling rumours that Jo and Luke were (again) involved in some drunken antics. Fortunately, I didn´t have to put a tent up in the rain, as Takuya, my Japanese tent buddy, could see that I wasn´t feeling well and put it up himself. It rained solidly and very heavily until midnight, making the campsite a boggy mess, although fortunately out tent didn´t leak.
The next day was spent in the lovely cobbled streets of the town, although most of my day was spent booking a hotel and flights to Salvador, as Susana is coming to visit me again for a few days.
We left for Rio (and the Carnaval!) the following morning, but we weren´t allowed to use Jack because of the broken windscreen, so we were split into groups and ferried into Rio on different trucks, which was a bit of an anticlimax. It was interesting to see that one of the trucks had 16 spare seats, when ours only had one. One of the big gripes we have with the tour (and we have a few) has been that the group is too big.
It took a while to get to Rio, but I was immediately struck by its beauty. We stayed in a lovely hotel and had a farewell group dinner (half of the group leaves in Rio). Once again, I was reminded why many of us don´t like doing the big group meals, as it took hours to be served, but at least the food was good.
On our first full day in Rio, the sun was shining so 3 of us headed to the famous Copacabana beach, which turned out to be a big mistake, not because the beach was disappointing (far from it, it´s a 4km stretch of sand covered with beautiful, and some not so beautiful, Brazilan people). Rather, it was the only day of sunshine we had in Rio and therefore I missed out on some of the other amazing sites.
In the evening, I had a lovely meal with Haukurm, my friend from Iceland, and then went for a walk to Lapa, where the first of the Carnaval street parties was taking place. An open-top bus was driven slowly through the streets, followed by thousands of samba-dancing locals and tourists... quite a sight.
On the Saturday, most of us went to the Maracanã stadium, one of the largest football stadiums in the world, and the holder of the record for most people ever to attend a match (around 210,000). We watched Botafogo play Vasco de Gama, and fortunately Botafogo won 3-2, as we were sitting in their end. There were only around 35,000 people there in a stadium which now can hold 95,000, but the atmosphere was still amazing, better than at any other match I have been to, and it was a pretty good game too, with a sending-off, penalty and 5 goals, including a 30-yard screamer. We were held behind by the police for half an hour after the match, which was frustrating as we didn´t know why, but we later found out that there had been some crowd trouble which had to be quelled by charging police horses.
We awoke to torrential rain on Sunday, but it didn´t stop us doing a tour of one of the favelas, or shanty towns. It was shocking to see how millions of people live, in cramped, unhygienic conditions, with raw sewage flowing along canals at the side of the street. They only have water for 3 days a week, and although they have electricity, the way all the cables are strung together outside the houses looks dangerous to say the least. Our female tour guide was actually very proud of the favela (she lives there) and painted quite a rosy picture of life inside it. The have their own shops, a wonderful market selling the nicest-looking fruit and veg I have seen in months.
Being Carnaval, nothing in the central district of Rio, where our hotel was located, was open, so a couple of us again took a bus to Copacabana, where at least some of the shops were open. In the evening, we went to the Sambadrome, a purpose-built parade area along which several samba schools parade competitively. We were given our tickets (which were not cheap) before we left the hotel, and I somehow managed to lose mine before getting to the stadium (I must come across as being really careless, with all the things I have lost during this trip, but I´m not normally like that!). I was quite upset and ready to go home, but fortunately, I managed to buy a spare ticket from one of the other tour guides (for less than the price I paid for the original!) and took my place with the rest of the group. We didn´t have the best seats in my opinion, far at the back and overlooking the finishing line, whereas I think the best atmosphere would have been nearer the front and further to the middle) but it was still pretty impressive! The floats and costumes were incredibly creative and colourful, but there is only so much of this kind of thing that I can take before I get bored, so a few of us only stayed til midnight, having watched 2 out of the 6 schools do their stuff. Plus, samba music is incredibly repetitive and not very melodic!
On Monday, it rained heavily again, and once again all the shops were shut, so there was little choice but to head to Copacabana again to wander around the streets. A few of us then went for a lovely sushi meal in Ipanema, which is the next beach along from Copacabana. It was quite sad as all the people I have become friendly with leave in the next couple of days.
On Tuesday, the weather brightened a little, so Haukur and I took a bus to Sugarloaf mountain, a spectacular granite peak rising 396m above sea-level. The top is reached by 2 cable cars, both of which lead to viewing areas which offer stunning views around the city. The weather was quite cloudy so it wasn´t the best time to visit, but we could occasionally see the other of Brazil´s well-known landmarks, the statue of Christ the Redeemer, peering out through the clouds.
Rio is a quite stunning city, one which I will definitely return to, hopefully when the weather is better.
The end of the Carnaval also marked the end of this leg of the tour, as a few new people joined yesterday, and we are now on a different truck (Magaly) with a different tour guide and driver (Mark and Euan). It will be interesting to see how this leg differs from the first part of the tour, as there were many people who were unhappy with Jo, Luke and Tucan as things did not run as smoothly as they could have, and in fact a few of us have signed a letter of complaint which has been sent to the head office. Don´t get me wrong, I had a wonderful time, met some great people and saw some amazing things, but we don´t feel we got value for money, and the attitude of the leaders left something to be desired at times. First impressions of the new guides and truck are very good.
I am currently in Ouro Preto, heading up the east coast of Brazil. The highlight of this leg will be a 5-day cruise along the Amazon river, followed by a 3-day excursion into the jungle, and of course spending a few days with Susana in Salvador next week.
Speak to you all soon and hope all is well back home.
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