Marked as a highlight of all of South America and although super touristic, a must see of Brazil’s South is Parque Nacional do Iguaçu. This area is where Brazil and Argentina meet and where Río Iguaçu after its route of 1000km or more majestically crashes, creating the world’s biggest cascades known as Iguaçu Falls. Thousands of years before they were ‘discovered’ by Europeans, the falls were a holy burial place for the Tupi-Guarani and Paraguas tribes. It is from here that the falls take their name; Iguaçu (Great Waters). UNESCO declared this region a World Heritage site while the title of New Seven Wonders of Nature followed a bit later. In our plans straight from the day we left Greece was to visit the falls from both the Brazilian and the Argentinean side, as each of them takes a different approach to the falls. Starting from the Brazilian side, as our friends had already been to the Argentinean side, we took a short bus ride before we picked the “Waterfall Trail”, a 1200m trail following the shore of the Iguaçu River, terminating at the Garganta Del Diablo.
Getting wet here is given as you literally walk on a platform on the rim of the falls. Further you can move on for a view of the falls from above. At this point Rochelle had almost a heart attack when she found out that she had to go on the panoramic elevator above the falls. As for me I just enjoyed the ride (and had a bit of fun teasing Rochelle!!!) A tip worth keeping in mind here is that as you are literally in the jungle. Bug infected and wet areas are common, so rain gear and repellent must be your second “must bring” after your camera. Later that day was the turning point of our plans going the wrong way, as the rain that started that day didn’t stop for the upcoming month. That fact made us drop the Argentinean side and leave it for our way back (a different season and hopefully a drier one as well).
Our next destination was the little-visited and little-known Paraguay. A country at the heart of the continent that lacks mega-attractions but it’s ideal for people like us, keen on a truly authentic South American experience. Paraguay is diverse, rustic and sophisticated; it’s extremely poor and obscenely wealthy (2% of the population holds 95% of the wealth); it boasts exotic natural reserves and a massive man-made dam. It’s a place where horse-pulled carts go alongside with fancy 4×4 vehicles and Jesuit ruins lie just a few kilometers from sophisticated towns. Always under rain, as mentioned above, our visit was definitely wet and at times unpleasant during our 10-day crossing (I admit that here my trip planning didn’t go so well). Let’s start though after crossing the Brazilian-Paraguayan border and at the entrance of Ciudad Del Este, “the Supermarket of South America”. This part near the border is chaotic and there is nowhere else quite like it. It was without a doubt a massive shock as a first impression of Paraguay. In case you are still wondering, of course we paid a visit to this shopping chaos but first we made sure we had a secure place for our cars (Melissa and Derek were for one more time with us). After finding an amazing camp a bit outside of the city, we took a taxi downtown and treated ourselves to the necessary supplies. With the exception of shopping, most of Ciudad Del Este’s tourist attractions are just outside the city. In the next days we visited the Iguaçu Dam, the second biggest man made dam in the world and a couple of other minor sites before we headed south towards Encarnación. (Big tip: do the Paraguay side tour.
It’s free while Brazil wanted 10 Euros per person). Along the way some more stops were mandatory as this region is home to some of the country’s most important historical sites, “the Jesuit missions”. Always with an umbrella in our hands – my first one after 45 years by the way – we visited the three most important missions before we entered Encarnación. Yianni just found out how cool it is to have an umbrella but he still had his 2-dollar poncho on too!!! “La Perla Del Sur”, as they call it, is Paraguay’s most attractive city. It’s known as the “Capital de Carnaval” and sometimes referred to – rather ambitiously – as the new Río de Janeiro. If you ask us, that’s not even close but with that said, the new costanera (riverside promenade) is rather pleasant to stroll and watch the world go by, UNDER THE F*%#$&G RAIN again. Here was the place where our routes would split with our travel buddies. Melissa and Derek headed back into Uruguay and we continued our Paraguayan trip west. Before we said goodbye though, we celebrated our last night with a huge “asado” and a lot of wine. The food and the wine probably for 10 people consumed by just 4 left us a lot of leftovers for the upcoming days. The next morning, we took off for Asunción, the country’s capital that claims to have 2.5 million people. In reality, it seems to hold many more if you add the neighboring small towns that are nowadays joined with the capital. After arriving late and under fog as well as rain, this time we found shelter in one of the suburbs. The next day we had enough. The rainy weather, together with the heavy traffic and the diesel fumes in the historic city centre, made us decide to cross back to Argentina. It’s hard to get your head around Paraguay and even if you ask us now, we are not sure if we liked it or not. Maybe it was the bad weather or the short time we spent there but it didn’t seem to cut it as a destination that someone would be eager to go back to.
After crossing the Río Paraná, we entered for the last time Argentina and as the weather finally started clearing up temporarily, we headed to Termas del Río Hondo, halfway between Santiago Del Estero and Tucuman. This place is known nationwide as a winter destination for its thermal water and nearly all the hotels have hot mineral baths. Entering outdoor pools that are at 36 degrees, while the outside surroundings are 5 degrees, was just a delight. If you have been following us, you should know by now that wine in this trip is a must, so our next visit to Argentina’s second centre for quality wine production was to be expected. After a steep vertical climb in the Andes and a smooth ride into a plateau that follows, we reached Cafayate, a popular tourist destination but still with a tranquil small-town feel. This village is spectacularly scenic and one of northwest Argentina’s most seductive destinations, with wineries backed by high mountains beyond. With a selection of variety of accommodations for every budget (we chickened out and got a room), and several vineries to visit in and around town, an extended stay was clearly indicated. As almost everybody who comes here, we kept busy with checking out wineries that specialize in torrontés, a grape producing aromatic dry and sweet white wine, as well as fine reds, cabernet sauvignon, malbec and tannat. Rochelle’s favorite winery experience was Piattelli. We broke the budget that day too! Just take a look why she loves it at www.piattellivineyards.com.
Heading north of Cafayate, the Salta road heads through the barren but spectacular Quebrada de Cafayate, a wild landscape of coloured sandstone formations. Río de las Conchas, which runs through the canyon, transforms the rocks while giving them a variety of colours, from rich red to green. This for us was by far one of the country’s most memorable drives and so we took our time exploring parts of the canyon and flying over it with our new drone (check out the footage in the movies). A series of distinctive landforms are named and signposted off the road but two of them stand out, Garganta Del Diablo (Devil’s Throat) and Anfiteatro (Amphitheater). Nature has carved on the rock natural amphitheaters that even the best architect in the world would envy. As for us, we were left speechless. After a couple of hours of driving, we entered Salta, a city that offers the facilities, the traffic and the noise of a large town. But at the same time it retains the comfortable pace of a smaller place and preserves more colonial architecture than most Argentinean cities. Here our bad luck with the weather caught up with us once again, in a drier form, as we found out that the Jama Pass towards Chile was closed by 2m high snow. The Paso de Jama is an international high mountain pass at an elevation of 4320m above sea level, located in the Andes between Chile and Argentina. It is the northernmost road border crossing between the two countries and our way towards San Pedro de Atacama in Chile. As altitude from here onward would have been a problem, we decided to move forward so we pushed and waited at Purmamarca that sits at 2200m, a good altitude to acclimatize. Purmamarca’s main attraction is Cerro de los Siete Colores (Hill of Seven Colors), a spectacular sight that has literally 7 different earth colours, almost like a rainbow. The village itself is as well postcard-pretty, with colourful mud houses and ancient algarrobo trees, shading the main plaza and the 17th-century church. According to the most recent local information we got here, the pass would probably open in the next couple of days or so. While waiting, we visited the spectacular salt plain of Salinas Grandes, 3350m above sea level. It’s an ancient lake that dried up and is now a 525-sq-km crust of salt, up to half-a-meter thick.
Further west, we pushed higher to the village of Susques at 3600m, where we were told that the pass was open only from the direction from Chile to Argentina. Disappointed and with no other option left, we returned and passed Purmamarca (we didn’t want to stay in the same place again). By pure luck we ended up staying in picturesque Tilcara, which is many people’s choice as a base for exploring Quebrada de Humahuaca.We weren’t interested to do so as we were standing by to go back to Jama. So after two days the owner of the hostel where we were camping told us that “Yes, the Jama Pass was confirmed open by the local police”. Early the next day we headed back for one more attempt to cross Jama at 4200m. Just ask Yianni about the curry egg sandwich trips. At both attempts to cross, we had made fresh curry egg sandwiches just by coincidence. Yummy!) When we finally reached the border, we faced a long cue of trucks, with their drivers protesting as they were there for more than a week. The border guards told us that they had no idea when we would be able to cross as the weather was closing in again. At this altitude, your body goes through a shock and automatically starts shutting down. We definitely wouldn’t be able to wait at such a high altitude. We were therefore left with only one option. Go back and turn straight north through the Quebrada de Humahuaca in order to sneak our way upward towards Bolivia. With a feeling of disappointment we drove through this colourful valley that the rock formations, as in Quebrada de Cafayate, share shades of creamy white to deep red, before we spent our last night in the village of Humahuaca.
It was almost seven months ago when we first entered Argentina and now after more than 65 days and with nine times in and out, the time had come to say the last goodbye. The next day we were on our way to Bolivia. Sad on one hand but happy on the other, we drove the last kilometers before entering Bolivia… New country, new adventure.