Latest travels in South America
Having bid a sad farewell to Buenos Aires I arrived in Puerto Iguazu, a town close to the borders of Brazil and Paraguay and more importantly near the Iguazu Falls. I spent 2 days viewing the falls; the first day from the Brazilian side and the second up close on the Argentinian side. The falls are awesome! On the Argentinian side in particular it is very difficult to look in any given direction without seeing tonnes of water cascading down the rock faces. A highlight of my time spent here was a speedboat trip around the Rio Iguazu at the bottom of the falls – we were taken directly under some of the cascades – kind of like an Alton Towers rapids ride, but where no poncho could save you from getting drenched. To those of you who are heading there i’d recommend saving the Argentinian side until last as the views are even more amazing than the Brazilaian side.
The following day I hopped on a bus bound for Ciudad del Este, just over the Paraguayan border. I’m not a particularly big fan of border towns, but Ciudad del Este has to go down as one of the craziest and worst places I have been to. Just getting there was incredibly confusing. I got my passport stamped out of Argentina and then passed through another anonymous border post without stopping. Ok, must be Paraguay then, guess all will become clear eventually. Travelled for quite a while and arrived in a city I presumed to be Ciudad del Este. We didn´t appear to be stopping any time soon so I questioned the bus driver as to when we would be arriving in Ciudad del Este. Bus drivers the world over are an unhelpful bunch of bastards and all I got out of him was a hand waved vaguely down the street. After slightly longer the bus exited this city and arrived at a large bridge with a border post at either end and a grim-looking city on the other side. Ah, Ciudad del Este I presume. And it suddenly dawned on me that for the last half an hour I hadn´t even realised what country I was in! I had apparently entered Brazil and was now leaving (again without any kind of formalities) as we drove across the Rio Parana and through the Paraguayan border post into Ciudad del Este. The bus driver refused to stop until we were in the middle of the market that doubles as a city, despite me telling him that I needed a passport stamp as I was not just popping across for the afternoon (as most Argentinians and Brazilians do to buy tax-free electrical goods etc). So with a big sigh I walked back through the madness of the market with my backpacks and a sign on my head saying “Mug me”, got my stamp and then walked BACK into the market… The general consensus among the travellers I have met is “Don´t bother going to Paraguay” and I was to starting to understand why. Still, I soldiered on. Spent a few hours wandering around the huge market. The next destination was Asuncion, capital of Paraguay…
A nice surprise. Asuncion turned out to be a very pleasant city with green, leafy plazas and orange tree lined streets, all backing onto the Rio Paraguay and rolling hills in the distance. As I strolled around the city on a glorious day I was stared at by most people I past. It was evident that this is a city seldom visited by travellers and I enjoyed being a novelty once again. It quickly became clear that despite the clean, pretty appaerance of the centre of the city, the people here are very poor. During my stay I rode a few local buses – at every opportunity men, women and young children would jump onto the bus and attempt to sell anything from bananas to lottery tickets. After they’d finished their pitch they would jump off the bus, often whilst it was still going at a fair speed and, in the case of some of the kids, bare foot!
Being a friday night some nightlife was in order so I made my way to a pub popular with some of the ex-pats in the city. So I strolled into the pub on my own hoping to either hook up with some folks or at least get a few pointers as to where the pretty gals go on a friday night. As it happened I ended up in a conversation with one of Paraguays most well known actors! (Well, so he says anyway… you know what actors are like!). I had my doubts at first, but throughout the next hour numerous people came up to him and shook his hand! He told me he is currently known for being in an Aspirin commercial. You don’t need to go to Hollywood to mix with the stars! For him and his girlfriend the night was at an end, but he kindly offered to drop me off at a nearby club. The place turned out to be a Rock music venue, a welcome change from the myriad electronica clubs of Buenos Aires. After sinking a few more Quilmes’ the night appeared to be at an end, but I got chatting to a girl with good English (which helps as my Spanish is lingering somewhere between the levels of pathetic and shite) and it appeared that her friend liked me. We chatted in broken Spanish for a few minutes before she rushed off to find some paper to give me her number. Erm… aren’t we supposed to snog and shag in the toilets before we exchange numbers?? That’s the British way! So following a simple peck on the lips I left for my hotel having had a strange, but enjoyable night.
So after 3 memorable days in Paraguay I hopped on a bus back into Argentina…
My experience of Salta (in the north-west of Argentina) began as I was prodded awake at 7am by the bus driver who announced I had arrived. As I jumped into a taxi the sky to the east was a brilliant red and a hooker was bundled out of a car signalling the saturday night fiestas were coming to an end. I had a feeling I was going to enjoy Salta. (For non-hooker reasons…).
And indeed I did. I spent 4 nights here, at the wrong end of the week to be honest, although there was still opportunity for partying. A wednesday night asado (Argentinian barbeque) was the highlight with plenty of wine being knocked back as we watched on TV Ronaldo net 3 penalties to beat Argentina 3-1 in a world cup qualifier, much to the annoyance of the Argentinian guys watching with us!
After the all-nighter that followed the asado myself and a bunch of Irish fellas caught the bus at 7am to San Pedro de Atacama, Chile. The journey was my first experience of crossing the Andes. San Pedro is a small, dusty, middle-of-nowhere kind of place that gets very cold at night. Shaking off our hangovers we headed to a warm pub where we joined up with some American girls celebrating a 21st.
The following day we were taken on a tour into the world driest desert, the Atacama. After some amazing landscapes and tiring trekking through the sand dunes we were treated to a picturesqe sunset. We then were taken on a tour of some nearby caves by torchlight and spent a while gazing at the night sky, the milky way brightly streaked across it.
My second visit to Chile lasted only 2 nights and it was time to head north to the Bolivia via the remarkable Salar de Uyuni, the largest salt plain in the world. The first 2 days of our 3 day tour was spent driving across the altiplano taking in a variety of coloured lakes. The first night was spent at an altitude well over 4000 metres and was possibly the coldest i’ve experienced. I slept under a thick blanket, in a sleeping bag, in 4 T-shirts, 2 jumpers, a hat and I was still cold! No-one slept very well that night. The sights more than made up for it though and on the third day we finally saw what we had all been waiting for; the Salar de Uyuni. Imagine the whitest salt you have ever seen and then imagine it stretched out for thousands of square kilometres. With this contrasted against the clear, blue sky it is an incredible sight.
One memorable moment was playing football on the salt. We got a game of 4-aside going – hard work at that altitude! One thing that didn’t occur to us with it being so cold was the fact that with the clear skies and white salt we asking to be burnt to a crisp. And we were.
After a night spent in Uyuni the group of us arrived in Potosi, a Bolivian mining town. We booked a tour around the mines which have been descibed as shocking. They really were. We spent a couple of hours crawling around the tunnels (at times often on all fours) in temperatures ranging from freezing (there were icicles hanging from the roof) to 35/40 degrees celcius. The conditions these miners work in are frankly unbelievable! We were told that the miners die within 10-15 years of working in the mines due to the harmful chemicals they breathe in (including arsenic and asbestos!). If they are ‘lucky’ they work until their lung capacity has been halved due to silicosis and are able to claim a meagre pension. The highlight of their week is getting pissed – we were passed a bottle of 96% alcohol to take a sip from! I’d hate to be present at one of their drinking games…
All in all it was a very harrowing experience. Contemplating what i’d seen on the bus to Sucre that evening (which is where I am now) it really sunk in that some of the people we spoke to may well be dead in a few years due to the appalling conditions that they work. It again makes me realise how damn lucky I am to live where I do.