Sunday 14 April 2013

Big Water

“Boing, boing, BOING, BOI-ING.”  The sound reverberated through the dense rainforest. “What the hell is that?” I asked Dan, scanning the trees.  Through the twisting vines, we could just make out a black Capuchin monkey, perched on a branch, smacking something iridescent green against the wood. A creature, arms outstretched, fingers splayed, as if signalling for help. “Oh Jesus,” I gasped, “It’s a monkey killing a frog!”

This is not the culprit - but one of his friends


We watched, horrified, transfixed. The fiendish monkey was relentless, pounding the frog until it boing-ed no more. Then he stuffed the reptile into his mouth, ripped out its innards with his teeth, and feasted. I looked away. We’d come to see waterfalls - but the subtropical rainforest of Iguazu National Park was dishing up a whole lot more wildlife than we bargained for.  Huge ants and spiders, exotic birds, raccoon-like coatis badgering tourists – it teemed with life.

Huge ant 

Earlier that morning, on a hiking trail, we’d heard a rumbling, throaty cough reverberate around the jungle, inches from our path. Branches cracked. Birds fled in every direction. Dan and I stopped dead and stared at each other. In my hand, I was holding a pamphlet we’d been given on  arrival, a picture of a jaguar leering from it, warning what to do if we encountered a Big Cat. “Keep calm. DO NOT RUN (their instinct is to chase)” it read. We did not run, but we walked away extremely quickly. Definitely a jaguar. Definitely.

But whatever unexpected wildlife we encountered at Iguazu, nothing compared to the falls themselves. The first sight, even from a distance, actually made me gasp. The setting was like something conjured up by the cinematographers of Disney’s “Up.” An impossibly beautiful panorama of jagged cliffs topped by lush jungle, broken by a series of thundering falls and dozens of smaller streams cascading like silver ribbons into the wide river below. The image was framed by tall palm trees, bromeliads and orchids, with circling hawks casting shadows on the forest below.  Unforgettable.

The local Guarani people called it as they saw it – Iguazu means “Big Water”, with 275 falls within 2.5 kilometres. It’s hard to comprehend until you get there, but the falls were enough to entrance us for two full days. Each angle provided a totally different experience. The panoramic views on the Brazilian side were magic, but the real buzz was on the Argentinian side, where you could get up close, let the powerful spray jab your face like needles, and hear the falls roar as they slammed into rocks far below.  We lost half an hour trying to trace individual beads of water as they fell over the top like molten silver, and plunged to the bottom. My favourite vista was from the upper walkway, where the falls slid away beneath your feet.

We cruised out in a speedboat for the must-do drenching, where we were enveloped in torrents of water. Feeling the falls pounding down on your head was a unique way to appreciate their power.

The best moment though, was reaching the “Garganta del Diablo” – the Devil’s Throat – at the end of the day. We followed a long walkway out across the broad river for more than a kilometre to the crescent-shaped falls, which are 700m long. The name couldn’t be more apt – gallons of water are swallowed by an immense cavity, where the force of the water hitting the bottom 80 metres below is so great the mist it generates rises back to the top. It is one of the most phenomenal natural sights I’ve ever seen, and we were there just in time to see a rainbow cast its light across the cascades. If you haven’t been – put this on your must-do list. Incredible.

A final thought goes out to Aerolineas Argentina, the country’s much maligned national airline (with a Skytrax rating of only 40%.). But I won’t have a bad word said about them.  Sure, we arrived at Puerto Iguazu half an hour late – but that was because the pilot surprised us with a fly-over of the falls. He completed a full circle – giving everyone on our side of the plane an incredible first glimpse of what was to come. (Though Dan claims he couldn’t see anything because my head was in the way as I took photos… woops… sorry babe. Here they are for your enjoyment!)

Saturday 13 April 2013

The Gaucho Experience

His name was Rocky. At first glance, he certainly looked like a horseman who knew what he was doing. He emerged from behind his stables dressed top-to-toe in khaki, a cowboy hat, and expensive knee-length leather boots, a flourish of green silk around his neck. This, we had been told, was THE man to go to for a true Argentinian gaucho experience.

Yet Rocky appeared confused by the presence of 5 tourists surveying his patch. Fair to say it wasn’t quite what we expected.  We were just outside the town of Cafayate – a picturesque region of green vines and ochre mountains - but the painter’s brush seemed to have missed Rocky’s drab, dusty brown yard which was festooned with flies and littered with rusting cars. In the stifling midday heat, a quartet of saddled horses picked their way towards the shade, nudging the dirt wistfully for a blade of grass. Hmmm.  

Peering at us from behind comically thick glasses, Rocky had a slightly crazed look. His friend at our backpackers had warned us he was “un poco loco,” but he’d let us go fast.  But as he walked towards us, and staggered sideways into his horse, alarm bells began to ring – he wasn’t just crazy, he was completely, rottenly, drunk. In a country where wine goes down like water, it seems Rocky had spent the morning imbibing his mother’s home brew.

He pulled himself together enough to show us round his stables – yep, there were the bottles of homemade wine (a fair amount missing), and in the stable next door, a tatty nativity scene (naturally). Then he pointed proudly at his piece-de-resistance: a huge stuffed condor, its outstretched wings spanning two metres, pinned to the stable wall like it had just slammed into it in mid-flight. Things were getting bizarre.

We debated whether it was wise to get on horses with the local nutcase, who owned no helmets, and had clearly made his horses’ cruddy stirrups himself. But there’s something about being on holiday that makes you throw caution to the wind, so we saddled up, turning down the offer of a wine for the road and vowing not to go at the speeds we’d hoped for before turning up.

Thank god we did. Being on horseback seemed to sober Rocky up, and we filed down a dusty, bone-dry lane to emerge into spectacular scenery. The Rio Chusca threaded its way through a landscape of burgundy sandstone, exposing layers of beautifully twisting rock formations. In the distance, the rock rose up into a dramatic canyon. It was breath-taking.

Were it not for the heat we would have ridden for hours – but we turned for home down the dusty main street of one of the oldest towns in Argentina, with bemused locals waving as the wannabe gauchos rode by.

Back at the ranch, Rocky convinced us to join him in a tasting of his Mum’s overwhelmingly sweet wines. Our taxi arrived in the nick of time. “Moi loco, eh?” our driver said, and spent the trip back to town regaling us with stories of Rocky’s drunken misdemeanours. As he turned back to chat to us in the back seat, eyes-not-at-all on the road, it became apparent our chauffeur wasn’t exactly sober himself.  Welcome to wine country. 

The best bed in Mendoza

Finding the best place to lay your head each night can become something of an obsession for the backpacker.  For me, “best” doesn't equal luxury – give me quirky any day: a musty cave in Turkey, a tree house in Laos, or a hostel in Damascus accessed up a dodgy rope ladder over the old city walls. 

Pre-internet, it was all about stumbling on these places, or meeting other travellers who recommended them. Now word-of-mouth has moved online, and while the research junkies of this world can spend hours comparing reviews (I can’t help it….), it’s now easier for the best places to stand out.

Hostel Lao was top-rated in Argentina’s wine capital Mendoza. A converted house, it didn’t have any of the wacky features that usually attract me – but this was one of those places where you wake up and ask “can we stay another night?” It did what many hostels can’t muster: it made you feel at home in a foreign country.

Reason one? Common areas. I’ve travelled a lot on my own, and this is the first thing I look for. It should be illegal to have a hostel without good places to talk to other tourists. Hostel Lao had a comfy lounge like a student flat, a grassy backyard, and the crowning glory: a pool. It was the type of place where people looked up and smiled, and each new entrant was embraced into any activity (including an inventive and very competitive game of pool volleyball using a tennis ball and some string.)

It also had owners who genuinely wanted to share their city with you. Hostel Lao was run by a Brit called Mike and his Argentinian wife Celeste. Mike was smitten with Mendoza – not just with Celeste – but with the region’s fine wines, and was keen we drunk only the best.  We’d heard good things about Hugo’s bike tours round the vineyards (Dan’s brother and his fiance may even have named their son after him) but Mike was mortified.  “Don’t do it,” he said. “You’ll rock up looking like the backpackers you are and they’ll feed you all their shit wine.” Instead, he teamed us up with a German couple and drove us round on a personal tour of his favourite wineries: which quickly descended into hazy hilarity.

Many Argentinian hostels have asado nights, where enormous slabs of meat are BBQ’d and shared, washed down with vats of (cheap) red wine. It’s a fantastic way to get to know other travellers, and at Hostel Lao we were lucky to stumble on a bunch kindred spirits, from the UK, Norway, Germany, Canada and the States. The annual wine festival on – and each night we’d head out en masse to sample wine, and dance. (I think the boys might have taken out this dance off….)


And we did go cycling – but Mike sent us off on an alternative route, where down an unmarked drive we found an old man with the best Malbec in Mendoza, Carmelo Patti, who told us his life story, fed us samples of his exquisite drop, and sent us on our way with no charge. We wiled away the afternoon chatting in the gardens of Alta Vista, and topped off the day with flaming schnapps shots.

There aren’t many days on a trip where I’m happy to abandon sightseeing and not leave the hostel. But with a large hangover, takeaway empanadas, and new friends, we spent our last day in Mendoza hanging poolside. The best bit? As we caught the bus north that night, we had half the hostel in tow.

Still alive

Dear Readers

It may have appeared I got lost somewhere between Buenos Aires and Mendoza - or maybe you thought Buenos Aires was the end of our trip. It wasn't - there are two countries to come - and I've had a series of almost-finished posts gnawing at my conscience for the last 10 months as we've settled back in New Zealand, I've got my head around two new jobs, and we've bought a house. 

So, thank you for your patience, here comes the rest of the journey!