The Red Earth of Paraguay

Driving towards the Argentine/Paraguay border the countryside became more lush, more damp and where the land had not been cleared for farming more sub tropical forest. The earth also changed colour and the mud became very red and very sticky when wet.

DSC09388.JPG
We crossed the border into Paraguay at Posadas/Encarnation. The border was on a large bridge over the River Paraná where border processes were at each end of the bridge. The process was very smooth and everyone was very helpful and 45 minutes later we were through and in Paraguay.

Paraguay is a bit of an enigma in South America and not many people know about it or visit it. It is one of only 2 landlocked South American countries and since independence has been ruled by a series of despotic dictators up until recently. It is also the only country where the local indigenous language Guarani is still an official language of the country and is still widely spoken. We were keen to learn more.

As we set off the air was very heavy and humid and the red earth was sticky and wet. It reminded me a bit of Africa.

Our first stop was at a lovely campsite in the grounds of a small nature reserve near to the Jesuit Missions. The Jesuits set up a number of missions in Paraguay, Argentina, Brazil and Bolivia. These missions preserved much of the way of life of the local population and protected the indigenous people from the excesses of the Spanish and Portuguese colonialists. Over time they became more and more powerful and were described as a colony within a colony. This antagonised the Spanish and the Portuguese who eventually threw the Jesuits out leading to the abandonment and destruction of the missions.

We first visited the mission at Trinidad which is perhaps the best preserved mission with ruins of not just the church but also the the homes of the Guarani people who lived there.

DSC09306.JPG

DSC09286.JPG

DSC09271-0.JPG

DSC09294-0.JPG
The second mission we visited was at Jesus. Here just the ruins of the fantastic church had been preserved.

DSC09316.JPG

DSC09319.JPG

DSC09324.JPG

DSC09327.JPG
It was very interesting to learn about the work of the Jesuits and how different they were to much of the work of the Catholic Church at that time. As we had decent internet we also had to watch the movie The Mission which depicts part of the history and it was great to watch it sitting in the same scenic surroundings.

After the missions we headed to the East of Paraguay to Ciudad del Este to see the second largest dam in the world, the Itaipu dam. We arrived just in time to do the free tour so hopped on a bus to be told all the facts and figures and to see the actual dam. Unfortunately we could not do the tour going down into the dam as to do that everyone had to be over 14 years old. The dam is on the River Paraná which separates Paraguay and Brazil. Alisha was a bit concerned when I told her we had crossed over into Brazil and did not have our passports. The dam is certainly impressive and provides 90 per cent of the electrical needs for Paraguay and over 20 per cent of the total electric needs for Brazil.

DSC09348.JPG

DSC09338.JPG

DSC09341.JPG

DSC09359.JPG
Whilst the dam is not without its environmental controversy the power it produces comes from water and saves the need to burn countless barrels of oil every day to produce electricity. It’s difficult to know which is better.

We were hoping to camp in one of the nature reserves that had been created nearby by the dam company so after the tour we enquired how we could get there. The very helpful staff explained that unfortunately the reserve was closed due to the rain but they suggested a campsite near some wonderful waterfalls only 20kms South.

We were very close to Iguazu waterfalls but we would not be visiting them just yet as we would be returning this way so instead we went to camp near the Saltas del Monday falls. As these falls are much smaller than Iguazu very few people visit them. The next morning we headed down to see them and they were very impressive with the river swollen with all the rain.

DSC09374.JPG

DSC09365.JPG
We set off back west towards Ascucion. On the way we thought we would visit the large Basilica at Caacupe. This is meant to be one of the biggest churches in Paraguay. Sometimes photos do not do a sight justice and sometimes, well, the sight is just not that impressive as proved to be the case this time.

DSC09384.JPG
We headed out of town looking for somewhere to camp. Along the road we saw a sign that said Ecocamping so followed the little track to a small farm where we were able to camp for the night. The farm was set in subtropical forest and the next morning we took a hike up the small hill on the farm. Leaving the farm behind we headed into San Bernadino which was full of people visiting from Ascuncion. We decided to do what they were all doing which was to pull into one of the restaurants and tuck into one of their Sunday buffets.

From there we headed into Ascuncion, the capital of Paraguay. In capital cities finding somewhere to stay is always difficult. We have stayed in car parks, hostels etc. well this time we would be staying in the grounds of the Botanical Gardens. As it was Sunday afternoon when we arrived we had to thread our way through the throngs of visitors enjoying the park to find the small camping area. This would be our base for our visit to Ascuncion.

A long drive across the Argentine Chaco

The drive across the mountains from Cachi to Salta was gorgeous as we wound our way past the fertile valley in the early morning light and up into the scrubby dry hills. The high plateau of Parque Nacional Los Cardones was strewn with huge Cordón Cacti, the sort of cacti a child would draw with a cowboy underneath. The excellent dirt road took us down over 2000m towards Salta, it zig zagged down through a deep valley. The sun peeked though the layer of fog blanketing the pass above lighting up the valley ethereally. It was the sort of road: twisting down the mountains with blind corners, over massive drops and without safety barriers that filled my nightmares before we left on this trip. Everyone has their particular weak spot and being suspended over a precipice with tumbling river hundreds of metres below is mine, even if the scenery is absolutely breathtaking. However now over a year in, it just seems rather routine and anyway this road was far, far wider and in better condition than many we’ve driven on in the mountains. Once down the trees and surroundings became more lush, so different from the desert we’d started in that morning, or the high altitude plateau we had driven through.

DSC09201.JPG

DSC09217-1.JPG

DSC09213-3.JPG
The rather scruffy municipal campsite in Salta contained the biggest swimming pool I’ve ever seen, it must have been 300m long and 100m wide, unfortunately for the girls it was empty. Supposedly it is filled for just 3 months of the year and it takes 10 days to fill. Although the campsite was huge, we were advised to park up with several other campervans and overlanders in one corner, due to petty theft at night. It was pleasant enough though in our shady spot. Spring has definitely come to this part of Argentina and it has been so lovely to sit out again in the evenings. It had done a lot to improve family relations too, all of us huddled inside in the evenings because of the cold, while the girls “tried” to go to sleep was rather wearing.

Dressed at last in summer dresses, we had a pleasant day wondering around colonial Salta before enjoying another excellent lunch with a bottle of red. This might not be what “proper” overlanding is about….where is the mud, rough roads and mosquitoes?……but it sure makes a nice change.

DSC09228-3.JPG

DSC09230-0.JPG

DSC09236-0.JPGWe had to change dollars in Salta, the Argentine economic problems mean that there is a big difference between the official rate and the “blue” street rate. Pausing outside an exchange office on the corner of the main square, we were approached by a couple of guys asking if we wanted to change money. I thought we might have had to look harder as there were a couple of policemen nearby but although the transaction is illegal, they didn’t take any notice and the Changer wasn’t at all perturbed by their presence. We were surprised how much the rate had changed since we arrived, they were now quoting 14.3 pesos to the dollar compared with two weeks ago which was 12. Great for us but the high inflation rate must be having a terrible effect on the Argentinian people. In the cities it looks prosperous enough but you can see the cracks underneath. Whipping out a big stack of Pesos the Changer handed them over, this is when I really appreciate Steve’s accountant brain. He instantly calculated the correct amount, counted it twice, gave some change and pocketed it all within a minute.

Two long day drives took us across the Argentine Chaco, very flat, unpopulated and covered with thorny scrub. We parked up for the night in the municipal campsite in the small town of Pampa del Infierno, we had considered boondocking but a constant fence on either side of the road made it difficult. Empty apart from a few truckers having a siesta, it seemed an alright place to break the journey. That evening we came across another example of the cultural difference we just can’t seem to get a handle on: personal space. Almost every town in Argentina seems to have a municipal campsite, it’s really nice that they are used by everyone in the community, not just for campers, but for asados (barbecues), playing, football or just hanging out. As we were washing up and the the sun was setting, we were alone in the site apart from a couple parked up in the furthest edges behind some trees, as I said all types of recreation are catered for. A group of guys ambled over with a big bag of wood obviously going to have a barbecue but instead of choosing one of the 8 grills scattered throughout the campsite they chose the one just 1m off of the back of our truck. Argentinians have long siestas in the afternoons, so they often don’t eat their evening meal until way after 10 at night, so we knew it would be a long evening. Unfortunately we were too busy getting the girls to bed to notice what they were doing until they lit their fire. They were nice and friendly enough guys but they couldn’t seem to understand why we might have a problem with them having a party a metre from our bedroom window. Steve did a tricky reverse through the trees in the dark to give us a peaceful night.

All through Argentina we have seen small shrines covered in red flags at the side of the roads. They are all in memory of a cowboy, Robin Hood type figure called Gauchito Gil, who is supposed to bestow miraculous gifts on those who pay their respects. Supplicants leave offerings of alcohol, cigarettes, car parts and other very random gifts.

DSC09115.JPGThe Chaco became more populated and agricultural as we neared Resistencia. The town was filled with over 500 sculptures, which made it a good place to stretch our legs before we slept there overnight.

DSC09255.JPG

Another long flat straight drive took us to near Ituzaingo on the Paraná river. Driving through a town we noticed how many drivers were enjoying their morning gourd of yerba mate or mate, as it is more commonly known. This bitter herb tea is somewhat of a national obsession with its own equipment and rituals. Everyone carries their own gourd, bombilla (a silver straw with a filter) and flask of hot water. There is special machines at petrol stations and campsites to fill your flask with hot water and people drink it everywhere. Yesterday I even saw the third person on the back of a motorbike sipping away on it while they sped past. Sorry there are no photos of the Argentinians sipping their morning mate, I wouldn’t want a photo taken of me before my morning cup of tea, so I didn’t try to take one . We’ll definitely post a photo of the equipment when we come back to Argentina.

The campsite at Ituzaingo was part of an Estancia (large cattle farm) and was teeming with birds, it made for a relaxing stop before crossing the border to Paraguay.

DSC09259-2.JPG

Ruta 40 Norte – And yes, more wine!

DSC09193.JPG
The Ruta 40 is a classic overlanding route and stretches the full length of the spine of Argentina from the Bolivian border in the North until Tierra del Fuego in the South. The road is over 4500kms long. It used to be unpaved but now most of it is tarred although there are still some dirt sections left. We would be following this road a lot during our time in Argentina. First as we head North from Mendoza and then later when we head into Patagonia.

We took the Ruta 40 out of Chilecito back into the desert and headed on a long drive North. Our destination was Taffi del Valle a town up in the hills that involved crossing a 3000m pass. As we headed up the pass the views were stunning in the late afternoon sun. But as we neared the top we became enveloped in cloud and it was then a foggy drive all the way down to Taffi del Valle. The weather on the two sides of the pass could not have been more different.

We pulled into the town campsite for the night and it was pretty deserted so even though it was a Saturday night we thought it would be quiet. As we were cooking dinner we were aware a car had pulled in nearby and, as is often the case in Argentina, left its doors open with its stereo on loud. After 15 minutes of this we had had enough so Gilly went out to ask them to turn their stereo down. They happily obliged but said that they had a big group of friends coming for a party that night and they would be arriving around midnight (things start late in Argentina). We decided to move to the far corner of the campsite and hope for the best. Either it was a lousy party or they were quiet, but in the end we had a peaceful night.

The next morning the weather was still pretty miserable but we decided to head out on what was meant to be a picturesque loop near town. With the clouds on the hills and cows in the fields it reminded me of the Pennines in England although the llamas looked a bit out of place. We went to a lovely Estancia (farm) for lunch where we could also walk around the farm. On the farm they made Manchego Cheese and we were given a tour of their cheese making plant.

DSC09038.JPG

DSC09041.JPG

DSC09044.JPG
As the weather was still not very good we decided to go back over the pass and push on to Cafayate. As we crossed the pass the clouds cleared and we had a lovely drive down in the sunshine.

Cafayate is the second largest wine producing area in Argentina and is famous for its Torrentes grape to make white wine. It also makes a lot of red wine too. The town is only small, around 15,000 people and we were able to camp a 10 minute walk from the centre of town. It was a lovely town with a delightful main square surrounded on each side with restaurants their seating spilling out onto the pavement. The weather was excellent, dry sunny and in the mid 20s. We could tell we were going to enjoy it here.

DSC09118.JPG
The following afternoon we headed out of town to the nearby canyons, Quebrada de Cafayate. This is a stunning landscape of sandstone hills and rock formations and made for a beautiful drive. Along the way there were some great places to stop where you could see how the rocks had been weathered away. The girls loved scrambling up and down the rock faces.

DSC09094.JPG

DSC09064.JPG

DSC09074.JPG

DSC09068.JPG

DSC09060.JPG
That evening we ambled into town for dinner on the square. We had to wander around for a bit as none of the restaurants opened until 7.30pm, a little late for us. After dinner we went to a wine bar where you could taste flights (5 small glasses) of wine. The wine was good and we got talking with some English and Irish people who live in Buenos Airies and were visiting so time quickly passed by. Alisha and Lucy are currently studying the Victorians in schools so while we drank they watched a number of episodes of Downton Abbey. Although it is Edwardian, they started watching it to see the servants costumes, which wouldn’t have changed that much in that time and now they are both hooked. With all the chatting and drinking it was 11.30 when we got back to the truck. We must be adjusting to the Argentinian way of life.

The next day we were keen to visit some of the Bodegas (wineries). You may recall we had done this in Mendoza but that with the public transport it had been a bit frustrating. Well in Cafayate there was no such problems. There were at least 6 Bodegas in town, all no more than 2kms from where we were camped. During the day we managed to visit 4 of them and the truck is now well stocked with wine.

DSC09127.JPG

DSC09121.JPG
To break the visits up we went for lunch at a place that specialised in Empanadas. We can confirm they tasted great.

DSC09116.JPG
As Alisha and Lucy were very good trooping around the wineries we felt they deserved a treat and also stopped at the ice cream shop. Not that you could get away from wine there either as Gilly and I both had Torrentes flavour ice cream.

DSC09123.JPG
Not having had enough wine we went back to the lovely wine bar again that evening. However this time we had a much earlier night!

DSC09144.JPG

DSC09134.JPG
We reluctantly headed out of Cafayaye, taking the unpaved Ruta 40 North through the Valles Calchaquies a drive through a rugged landscape with more sandstone rock formations along the road. Our intention was to drive to the little town of Cachi but about half way there we stopped for lunch surrounded by the sandstone rock formations and followed a little track down to the river. It was such a nice spot and very quiet and hidden from the main road that we decided to stay there for the night.

DSC09150.JPG

DSC09172.JPG

DSC09162.JPG
After a peaceful night where the only sound was the chirping of frogs we headed along the winding narrow road to the small village of Cachi. The weather was gorgeous but when we went out for a walk the wind whipped up blowing the dust so rather than head out for a walk in the countryside we headed for a wander around the town square. As it was siesta time everything was closed except the one thing that never closes for siesta the Heladeria (ice cream shop) so of course we had to indulge ourselves. That evening we were able to cook on a fire and to taste Alisha’s first attempt at Apple pie. Delicious.

DSC09192.JPG

DSC09195.JPG