Crossing Argentina

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Leaving Salta, leaving the west and heading east. That was our plan, unusual for cyclists heading to Ushuaia with south being the more usual direction. But we had promised Carolina and Tiago that we would visit them in Brasil. And so on October 14th we began a 2000km detour that would bring us across the north of Argentina, through Misiones to the Iguazu Falls and then down through the south of Brasil to Porto Alegre. It has been a great opportunity to discover small town Argentina in the springtime.

As usual we have had to adapt to a new country. Argentina can be expensive and so to keep to our small budget we have been camping a lot more and cooking again. Gone are the cheap lodgings and food of the Andes. And so we have settled into a new routine in the last two weeks. Camping is very popular here, so much so that you can pitch your tent for free in a variety of places; service stations have hot showers and picnic tables, local municipal parks often have a part set aside for tents, people are not surprised if you knock on their door and ask to pitch your tent for the night in their backyard and we have even camped on the lawn of a police station in a small village.

We spent one evening in a municipal park, observing the local power walkers as we cooked up our dinner and the following morning as we took our time over  breakfast.

The route across the north of Argentina takes you through the Chaco, a vast area that stretches into Paraguay and Bolivia. It is dry and desolate in the west and turns into a natural wonder of wetlands towards the east. Much of western Chaco consisted of long straight boring stretches of road through scrubland but it also gave us a chance to discover small town Argentinean life up close.

Villages here remind me a lot of those in New Zealand. The people are very friendly and helpful and as usual, two touring bikes always seem to arouse curiosity and start conversations. We were informed in one village that we were the first “tourists” ever to spend the night there! The way of life is slow and seems to revolve around mate, food and afternoon siestas. Bikes are common too, the locals using them wander slowly through their small town slow lives, all adding to the sense of tranquility.

We found ourselves putting in long days and managed a record distance of 163km on one of the days.  In all we managed 900km in 7 days and that brought us to the lovely city of Corrientes and a well deserved day off.

Corrientes is situated by the Rio Parana, one of several big rivers that flows through the east of Argentina. The landscape changes dramatically once across the river, becoming more tropical, vivid green, a land of citrus fruits and yerba mate plantations. The roadside takes on a new life and it is hard to pass the stalls of oranges and honey without stopping to buy something. Honey and porridge, yum! We have even bought a squeezer for fresh orange juice.

It seems that our journey has taken on a new dimension. We haven’t experienced springtime for quite a while and the warm days, balmy camping evenings, cooking and eating outdoors, the green, the flowers, the birds, there is a sense of the richness of nature and of life permeating our days, the friendliness of the people, the tranquility of the small towns, all this was unexpected as we left the cold and windy highlands and we are really loving it.

This corner of Argentina is famous for the Iguazu Falls, amongst the most famous in the world and our destination before we cross the border into Brasil. The falls are situated at the border of three countries and in the province of Misiones in Argentina, a region that is similar to a tropical Scandinavia with lots of forests and water amidst the more native palm trees and deep red soils.

This area has an interesting history and is so called due to the many Jesuit missionary sites dating from the 16th and 17th centuries. One such site is at San Ignacio de Misiones. The Jesuits are one piece of a fascinating jigsaw that pieces together much of what we have seen and felt throughout our trip. I have recently started to read a book by Eduardo Galeano called “Open Veins of Latin America – Five centuries of pillage of a continent”. It is one of the most insightful, thoughtful and heartbreaking books I have read for a long time. I can highly recommend it to anyone with a sense of justice, humanity and desire to understand how Latin America got to where it is today, “after 35 years … it remains a crucial text in understanding the dynamics of exploitation and resistance”.

We hung out at a little hostel in San Ignacio for a couple of nights, camping in the little garden and took some time to visit the ruins. It was also a chance to to try the parrilla, a typical outdoor grill found everywhere in Argentina. And we met up with Jason, a Canadian photographer and ethnomusicologist currently working on a project with the local Guarani people who were the original inhabitants of this area. These evenings of warm sunshine, meat slow cooking on the parrilla and listening to the stories of interesting people over a shared bottle of wine kind of sum up our time here in Argentina. It is certainly uplifting.

We are close to Paraguay here and since arriving in Misiones and learning more of the history of this place we are sorry we won’t be spending some time there. We have heard many times of the friendliness of the people and in the little town of Puerto Rico we sat one morning over breakfast looking across the river at Paraguay on the opposite bank. So close but still out of reach.

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