My husband and I are creating a travel blog together to keep from forgetting the highlights of our one year travel adventure and to keep our friends and family in the loop. Mirek is a retired bridge engineer and Ksenija a roving humanitarian, poet and translator. We have 3 grown daughters together, one bonus daughter and two bonus grandchildren from Mirek’s side. Oh, and two son in laws, balancing the estrogen in the family a bit.
What a strange title, you might think. While there are plenty of bodacious babes in Bohemia, real and sculpted,
the title was chosen for the other, original meaning: remarkable, noteworthy, admirable. The name Greater lands of Bohemia harken to the Czech royal past and is a much nicer moniker in my view, than the new, very unfortunately renamed Czechia.
Mention Czech Republic and immediately Prague comes into play. Or “Golden Prague”, as my grandmother used to call it.
As a poor factory worker she couldn’t travel, but she did get to Prague as a young woman, participating in a big Sokol gymnastic stadium exhibition.
Certainly Prague is golden when it comes to capitals of Europe and the world. Glitter of gold can be found on shiny roofs and spires, the mosaics and paintings on facades of palaces and townhouses.
If one has more than a few intense Prague days to allocate to exploration of Lands of Bohemia, there are a number of well preserved castles on hand.
All in all over a thousand were built, but of many only a few stones remain.
Another thousand chateaus in different state of disrepair dot the countryside.
Then there are smaller, provincial towns with well preserved historical centers like Česky Krumlov, which we extolled in our post “Photo Interlude of a Fairytale Medieval Town”.
But when you are stuck for two months, like we have been during this Corona time, in desperation you cast your net wider and you scratch deeper. Compared to our fellow travelers stuck in places with tight restrictions, we were very lucky and quite free to explore.
We drove all over tarnation and discovered many new things. We especially enjoyed finding little gems of Czech vernacular architecture. Ok, I haven’t meant for this post to be a linguistic lesson, but here goes:
“Vernacular architecture is architecture characterized by the use of local materials and knowledge, usually without the supervision of professional architects.”
I have always loved and admired the skill and design esthetic of indigenous people all around the world,
who could and in some cases still can take local materials at hand (stones, bamboo, timber, grass,) and build without any advanced technology simple, useful, yet esthetically harmonious and pleasing structures.
It is as if by living with nature they absorb the perfection of Nature’s creative hand and automatically build in the same vein. Have you noticed that no matter how strong the colors or phantasmic the designs in nature, they are always perfect and pleasing to the eye?
It takes people removed from nature, studying in concrete buildings of modern universities, toiling in ugly glass cubicles to come up with architecture that my husband calls “fist in the eye”, which is even stronger than the official translation of “sticks out as a sore thumb”. Staying away from the concrete and glass monstrosities that are inundating modern cities, we can’t believe the ugliness of many contemporary homes. The windows scattered willy-nilly on the facade, the ridiculous roofs and poisonously green or yellow or pink colors, clashing with green grass and blue sky.
Lest this becomes a ranting treatise of a frustrated art historian (yes, me), let me switch focus to our lovely local discoveries.
Driving slowly through backwater villages we found plenty of charming, well preserved cottages, now mainly used as weekend homes for city folks.
These simple, yet attractive black and white “roubenka” log cabins were all made by hand from more or less hewned logs.
I like to call them “zebra houses”.
Some of these can hardly be called cottages. In the very north there were quite prosperous farmers that expanded them to large family and cattle dwellings.
You will find care in the smallest details. Even the winter firewood is stacked just so.
I am very bold and nosy and like to peek in the little windows with lace curtains.
Or through the fence into the gardens
Geometry is the simplest way of decoration and it is fun to see how in the same village not two designs will be the same.
From very simple
to more elaborate
to more colorful
In the South a special style called Southern Czech baroque was developed and some house are downright bodacious. 😉
In the village of Holašovice the whole village square is beautifully restored and each house is slightly different and in different color combinations.
All are in gentle pastels
Except for this fire engine red door. Sore thumb and all.
In the middle of the village green is a tiny church
And like in every southern Czech village, “a kachnak”, a duck pond where carp and ducks coexist.
And where you have a pond you also have a “vodnik” – a water goblin. Parents will warn their children not to go anywhere close to the pond or the green water goblin will pull them in.
He is said to keep the souls of drowned people under the upturned cups.
There is a tradition of putting old cups on top of the fences in Czech villages, but for the life of me I can’t get anyone to explain to me why and if it has anything to do with the green vodnik.
It is cool to see the foundation dates marked on the houses and imagining the many successive generations that lived under the roof.
Oh, and if you are like me, you might be curious about the really important design feature of very house – the place where, as we say here, even the emperor goes by his own two feet.
And here is the inside of the outhouse.
In one od the future posts, I promise to finally get to the special Toilet Signs post. I have been collecting photos of the signs from all over the world and can’t believe the creativity of people. There are a myriad of ways to say Woman and Man in pictographs. And I have at leas 99 pictures to prove it.
We shoulda, coulda, woulda have been more prepared. But as other gobsmacked travelers said to us: we had no clue, why is no one writing online about the everyday challenges of independent travelers in Argentina?
We knew Argentine peso was fluctuating and we did remember well how 20 years ago on our first trip Argentina had just defaulted and peso plummeted. It made for one cheap vacation then! And now again!
Our first stumbling blocks were right at the arrival to the Buenos Aires International airport. After arriving to a new country and picking up our luggage we always head straight to the ATM to get an initial supply of local cash to get us into the country, to pay for taxi/bus/coffee/water.
Darn if we can find an ATM anywhere! After asking around in broken Spanish and getting responses in broken English we finally find two ATMs hidden behind the big McDonald’s. We join a few other befuddled foreigners trying to procure some cash. One of the lost looking American ladies asks us if we could please message her husband, arriving later, that she had lost her iPhone on one or the other of her flights. Poor woman!
We all try withdrawing money from different debit cards with no success. Finally a security guard watching us bemused, explains that we all want too much money. The max withdrawal allowed is $4000. Huh? Let’s get confused even more– the Argentine peso is in fact marked as $. 1 US $ is worth about Argentine $ 64. Well, it actually depends. There are many exchange rates as we learn in the ensuing days. A lousy 55 pesos to a US$ if/when you manage to withdraw some from ATM, 70-75 pesos if locals exchange cash on black market and 82 if you go to Western Union with a transfer through an app. If the teller is savvy enough to know how to do it, which will only happen in a few big tourist areas.
One can feel frustrated, but then feel really bad for the Argentines, who are only allowed to officially exchange US$ 100 in the bank every month. And if they travel outside the country any credit card transaction they make is taxed at additional 30% by their government. Impossible to travel, unless you are filthy rich. Certainly not if you are a retiree with the average retirement of US$ 200 per month.
At the end we don’t manage to withdraw even the minimum at the airport, but we do manage to get an official cab to downtown and we split it with a youngish German couple, paying with cash in a combination of dollars and Euros.
Uber we understand is cheap and plentiful in Buenos Aires. We have the app, it is simple, let’s try it!
Nothing is simple or straightforward in Argentina. The first driver cancels just before pick up. Another comes and explains that he will only take cash as Uber doesn’t pay drivers. A third one we use doesn’t want our cash, because we already paid by app with our credit card, but says he won’t get paid, so we give him cash. It is very small amounts, so we feel ok paying twice. We dig on the Internet and find conflicting information. Uber is banned in Buenos Aires. Uber is not banned, but Argentinian credit cards are banned for Uber use by the government and all Argentines pay cash. International cards work, but drivers cancel pick ups when they see you paying by card, because it takes time and there is a surcharge to receive money.
Finally we find instructions how to switch our payment method in the app to cash
And when we order Uber, we also immediately send a message to the driver that we will pay cash. Nobody cancels on us again. Uber is indeed cheap and plentiful and gets us everywhere. Just for fun we also try the local bus. Very helpfully our Airbnb host left us two Sube cards that you need to use public transport. We top them up in one of the many Kioscos (where you can also purchase the Sube card itself cheaply) with a dollar each and off we go for 20 cents a ride. Clean, air conditioned bus. Some lines are particularly helpful as they have stops in all the main tourist areas.
Forewarned is forearmed. We did read plenty of scary stories about renting a car in Argentina, the scams and the problems. We also remember well how we arrived at the airport with three kids in tow twenty years ago and the rental car they presented us with wouldn’t even fit the people let alone more than one piece of luggage. A real disaster and a good cause for Mom’s nervous breakdown.
We have written about our frustrating experience with Hertz in Bariloche (in our post Blue, Blue Lakes of Patagonia). We have heard of similar experiences from other travelers going across the board of all rental car companies. While in some other parts of the world it often happens that the rental car agency will not have a small size of car upon your arrival, but will then automatically upgrade you to the next category, here it is exactly opposite. Much less acceptable when you have reserved and paid for a larger car and they claim they only have small cars available.
And you can be happy they even have a car. If you think you can wing it by flying in and finding a car at the airport, don’t. We can’t offer much advice on the car rental front, except in Mendoza. Should you find yourself in the wine capital of Argentina, upon recommendation from our Airbnb host we rented a great car from a wonderful small local car rental company Bace Rent a Car company. https://www.bacerentacar.com.ar/index_i.html. firstname.lastname@example.org
Talking of cars and driving, while we hear others complain, we find Argentines quite decent drivers. They generally obey traffic rules, even if some do like to overtake recklessly over a full line before the blind curve or try to mow down people on pedestrian crossings. I guess we have driven in many much much worse countries to be excited about that. We have seen surprisingly few accidents and very few traffic police on the roads.
When thinking of driving in Argentina it is Ruta 40 that immediately jumps to mind. I have seen some epic road photos through the front car window before our trip and imagined the ruta as a grand, albeit lonely road.
It is indeed such in small glorious chunks, but at other times it is hard to believe you are on a road at all. Sometimes it is used by four legged inhabitants.
At times it inexplicably becomes a one lane dirt path, or it gets totally lost in the detours through the many small out of the way towns.
Then there are plenty of dirt roads meant to be dirt roads. Of course if they are there, they are meant to be driven. That is our motto.
And because you will meet the best wildlife on a dirt road.
Lest I come across as an entitled American tourist prick, I must remind you that English is for both of us our second language and no, I am not as arrogant as to expect that the whole world should learn English and yes, I feel a certain obligation to try to communicate in the local language of the country I am visiting. I have never studied Spanish, but because I did learn French in high school and travelled enough in Spanish speaking countries I can understand quite some Spanish and always try to put a few basic words together, even if I am sounding like a two year old.
Still, we are taken aback by how little English is spoken even in the tourist areas and even by young people. We know a lot of school English around the world is really lacking in quality and the teachers are lousy (what do you expect when you train and pay them so badly?)
But, but, … young people around the world all listen to the same international music and watch movies and play video games and use Internet. I do know people around the world that managed to learn a decent conversational English without school and only through big effort and help of all that media.
Just like in Turkey, our last travel destination before South America, and many other places on our travels, we keep coming across young Argentinians (we pick up hitchhikers, whenever possible) that are dying to travel or study or work abroad, yet can not put together a simple sentence in English.
English or no, the good news is that Argentines are warm hearted, friendly, helpful, and welcoming people.
And then there is Argentine Spanish. You might be well aware that Spanish (just like English) is not a universally same spoken language in different parts of the world. There is of course much discourse about which is the purest form of Spanish, but we will not get into this now. Suffice it to say that even though written Spanish is so much easier to pronounce than ridiculously crazy English, there is a particular twist in Argentine Spanish that makes it harder for us to cope. The lovely coffee shop in ask Bolson we enjoyed so much, is called Jauja and actually unexpectedly pronounced Hauha (not dzaudza) and Villa is pronounced vidza (not viya).
Add to this a decent amount of Native Indian (Guaraní, Aymara, Quechua) geographical names and we are struggling, indeed. Try this tongue twister Lake Huechulafquen. Lovely lake underneath a grand volcano, thankfully called simply Lanin.
Our pronunciation makes for some bafflement and entertainment of the locals and difficult names make for some entertaining moments for us as well as we try to remember words by approximation. Pichi Traful becomes Pick a Truffle and so on.
Who hasn’t heard of a juicy Argentinian steak? It can make grown men weep, I heard.
Famous asado is a great memory from our first trip, especially as we were treated to this spectacle of Argentine version of bbq at somebody’s home garden. The huge complicated contraption with chains to lower and lift the grill over the fire would fit well into any medieval castle, in off hours moonlighting as a torture rack. Lamb is also famous in some areas and so is goat.
Just like with New Zealand lamb, there is a certain amount of bemoaning the fact that all the best beef is exported overseas.
It took a little persuasion for us to try lama meat, (oh, they are just so cute), but once we did, we were so impressed by a lama steak, we returned for seconds the next evening. We also enjoyed a stick of lama salama for healthy low fat snacking.
But these days I am leaning more and more towards vegetarian and Mirek is careful to not let his old gout rise up its ugly head. Therefore we were happy to find non meat alternatives with plenty of Italian pasta dishes and some lovely trout in the mountains.
But the fact remains the menus are predominantly colored red with very little green mixed in.
A very familiar, Central European diet, I feel, with lots of meat and potatoes (or perhaps gnocchi or spetzle) heaped high on the plate. A few pieces of rucola or cherry tomatoes are considered more garnish than anything else.
What is most interesting is the lack of salt and pepper on the table. We get an explanation that it is a government health directive, and salt in particular can only be brought to the table if the customer specifically asks for it. That is all fine and well, but then you look at the tables laden with bowls of sugar. At breakfast I observed a young man put four packets of white sugar into a small cup of black coffee, accompanied by a pile of cookies and cakes.
Ah, breakfast!! Breakfast is by far my favorite meal of the day and alas, Argentine breakfast is sadly a big disappointment. I understand Argentines are a bit like the French and they usually only have a few small croissants (medialunas) and coffee for breakfast. No wonder, since their stomachs must still be full from the very late, rarely started before 11 pm, enormous steak dinner accompanied by bottles of wine or beer.
Unfortunately even the best medialunas are a far cry from crispy, whispy French croissants and the jams being served at breakfast are another sugar overkill. If I can’t have a good Mediterranean or American breakfast, I will quite happily enjoy an assortment of jams and breads. I love different creative home made jams with a dash of ginger or chili pepper perhaps, though nothing beats my sister’s wild raspberry jam! But no matter what interesting fruit the jams are made from here (rosehips, anyone?) they all taste the same – Diabetes Goo!
My second favorite meal of the day is desert and man, I am struggling here, too. Same problem, too much refined sugar that kills any possible patisserie refinement. A typical example of a sugar explosion is beloved dulce de leche, sugar cooked in condensed milk! Good for my waist, bad for my taste buds!
Same goes for well known artisanal Bariloche chocolate, I heard so much about. And even good old desert fall back – ice cream is ruined. We spend a long time collecting the little plastic taster spoons at a well known busy Heladeria Jauja trying the many different fruity ice creams, and finally just had to go with dark chocolate and lemon. What a pity Italians did not manage to transplant their fantastic gelato along with pasta and gnocchi.
If I seem to be harping just a bit too much, the good news is food and drinks are extremely affordable.
Especially coming from the exceedingly expensive San Francisco we cherish the low prices and nowhere more than in (craft) beers
Happy hour at the brewery offers less than US$2 for a great double IPA and fabulous local wines at any time for US$20 for a bottle of top Malbec at a nice restaurant. I have loved Malbec since I first discovered it twenty years back and I am happy to drink lots of it this time around.
As mentioned above coffee is generally drunk with lots of sugar and many places have premixed coffee combos to make cappuccino or latte. You need to clarify that you want your coffee “sin azucar”. Of course in Buenos Aires you can find top notch coffee shops that make excellent cappuccinos and flat whites. We had a nice discussion with a young medical student moonlighting as a barista who told us about how she is educating coffee drinkers, “Try it once without sugar. If you have good quality espresso or cappuccino, correctly made, it will be sweet and creamy and not be bitter at all!”
Airplane Flights and Tickets
We start our two months trip with quite a stack of Internet bought air tickets taking us all over Argentina and into neighboring countries. It is high summer season here and personally I just don’t like the extra stress of winging it when flying. There is enough stress in decisions that have to be made daily: where to sleep and eat, which road to take, which places to visit and which to skip.
Not buying air tickets ahead of time certainly gives you more travel flexibility, but with long distances, it might also sentence you to a 24 bus ride instead of a few hours flight. Or having to buy a last minute expensive fare or getting stuck somewhere extra days paying for accommodation and food.
Buying tickets far in advance brings the risk of changes in flight schedules. Right upon arriving to Argentina we are welcomed by an unpleasant email. our Norwegian flight leaving Argentina for London two months down the line has been cancelled and rescheduled for a day later and thus we loose our Easy Jet connection to the next European flight that we purchased separately. And of course they don’t care and it is our problem to solve. And the only solution is to throw away the Easy Jet tickets and buy new, much more expensive ones. C’est la vie!
At the end of the day we get caught in COVID 19 travel disaster and are buying tickets left and right to get ourselves out of the country. You can read about our last minute escape in our post “I Cry for You Argentina, I had to Leave You”.
We relied on our standard accommodation options Booking.com and Airbnb. For one night accommodations we usually choose a hotel through Booking. Since you don’t have to pay a cleaning fee and booking fee, a one night is generally cheaper in a hotel and you get free breakfast to boot. It is also easier to arrive at night and check in with a receptionist, than waiting for someone to show up with a key to the apartment. Airbnb can be an affordable option if you stay longer and where there is enough competition, like in Buenos Aires, where the prices are kept quite low.
With Booking now encroaching on Airbnb apartments rental, it is sometimes possible to find the same listing on both platforms. Booking will possibly be cheaper as you don’t have to pay a fee as a guest on their platform. And last minute cancellations might be easier and free. Plus you get an aditional Genius discount (10%) and treatment once you have a few bookings under your belt.
Payment is a different sorry. Airbnb is easy, as everything is paid through their app. To our surprise Booking would inform us ahead of time that payment will be handled at the property, or we were told at the property that we have to pay them directly.
We carried quite a large amount of cash, both in US$ and in local currency. If it was inconvenient, it was necessary and/or advantageous. Sometimes hotels did not accept a credit card or the cc machine did not “work”. At other times they wanted a large surcharge for paying by credit card (20-30%) or they offered us a discount for paying cash. Combined with our blue market US $ exchange, paying in pesos made it even cheaper. Sometimes they were happy to accept US $ and calculated them in blue market exchange rate. Always check that you as a foreign tourist are not charged the tourist surcharge. (It is another 21%). Some cities are charging an extra eco tax, but it is a negligible amount.
In tourist areas you could get help from Tourist Information centers. We only relied on this once in El Bolson, where we arrived towards the evening and it was a challenge as their English was very limited and they only have the information about availability in those establishments that they have an arrangement with.
Personally I do like knowing where I will lay my head down in the evening, so I tend to book things ahead of time. As we don’t get local SIM cards in different countries, but rely on our T Mobile international plan, we don’t always have the best of internet service, so it is difficult to look for accommodation on the phone in the car. So I try to choose a place the night before.
Choosing accommodations is a bit more challenging in Argentina because of the many names used for different (or the same?) kinds of lodging. That can be very confusing, and even Argentinians can’t explain what is what. We have come across these different names for places to sleep, besides of course, hotel: parador, hostal, hostel, hospedaje, hosteria,
cabanas & apartamentos.
We have tried all sorts of establishments and had great luck finding lovely places to stay.
At the end it is generally the price that determines the quality. I will address in another post some tricks of how to parse out a good place from descriptions and reviews.
With utmost delight I have to report that Argentina is one of the cleanest countries around. And if I could nominate the cleanest town in Argentina and beyond it would surely be San Martin de los Andes. There is no plastic bottles, wrappers, bags or even cigarettes buttes lying around.
Does that mean you will find a lot of trash cans and recycling systems in place? Not at all. They have adopted a very different approach called:
Take your garbage with you! You will see such signs everywhere in National parks and along tourist routes. It seems to work very well!
If any of you are planing a trip to Argentina when this virus craziness is over, we are always happy to talk travel with anyone. Get in touch!
Note to readers: this is the last part of Argentina we got to see, before we had to leave prematurely due to Covid-19 emergency. The post is finalized, while we await border reopening in Prague, Czech Republic.
When we mentioned to any local in Mendoza that we were planing a driving trip to Salta and back in 10 days, they looked at us strangely and said, “It is a long way, you know!”
“Yes, about 3,000 km (1,900 miles) round trip. But we are used to long distances and we like to drive!”
“It is the best road trip my husband and I have ever done!” claimed my Kiwi travel pen pal Michelle. “You will love it!”
The first inkling of the grandeur of different landscapes awaiting us on this drive was already at a day’s drive distance from Mendoza at the Valle de la Luna and Ischigualasto park.
It is only possible to reach this remote, desolate, moon like landscape in an organized convoy from the gate of the park and we were lucky to get to the booth just as the convoy was leaving. Actually they already left and we had to push after them with the ramp slamming down behind us. We were worried about our car being able to handle the dirt desert roads and then we caught up and saw much smaller cars happily bouncing along.
As usual good, reliable information is at a premium and a traveler has to learn to read between the lines and see who is writing and what is their slant. When someone warns you need a 4 wheel drive to get somewhere and then offers his services, you can take the information with a salt of grain.
It was not the selfie-famous Sphynx, Submarine or Mushroom rock formations that attracted us to the area. It was something that loomed large in our mind, but ended being a lot smaller than we anticipated. It was this pile of (very old) bones
left in their place of discovery. In case you have a hard time imagining what the heck it is, here is a nice model for kids of this Triassic herbivore dinosaur.
How the heck do you find it in a vast, inaccessible landscape like this? Truth be told, despite a beautiful museum building and informative display it was a bit of a let down, but we figured we will have grown much in the eyes of our dinosaur obsessed grandson when we sent him the photos and a cute dino T shirt to boot.
Driving further north we welcomed the greening of the landscape, even if only with the saguaros (cardones), whose first white buds had just started popping up here and there.
A welcome respite from the long drive was the town of Santa Maria, where we got a little introduction to the local inhabitants at their colorful craft center.
They are still practicing indigenous arts and crafts like loom weaving
and basket making
We could imagine these same skills thriving nearby more than a thousand years back at the Quilmes settlement, the largest pre Columbian settlement in Argentina. This indigenous Diaguitan tribe fiercely resisted first Inka invaders then Spaniards. In order to offer protection in time of war they built a strong stone citadel that could take in 5,000 people. I found it fascinating that we encountered in the walls the same quartz pieces – sparkling, sacred, white stones as in the old mountain village walls of Georgia in the Caucasus. Mirek insisted we have to smuggle in a can of Quilmes beer.
At the highest point we very ceremoniously sprinkled the ground with a small libation and then drank the rather warm beer. I kid you not, a fierce wind picked up
and we had to carefully descend, lest we were blown off the mountain. Mirek joked the old gods were mad that we did not offer the whole can, but I did worry we have callously offended Pachamama (Mother Earth), the mother of Inti (Sun) and Mama Killa (the Moon).
The moon was shining bright when we finally arrivedin Cafayateforthe night.Tired or not, we dragged ourselves to the beautiful, traditional Spanish looking Bodega El Esteco, the preeminent winery with a restaurant and hotel. It is always funny (when not infuriating) to see the reaction of staff at fancy places when we tumble out of the car with our Keen hiking sandals and fanny packs.
“Good evening, do you have a reservation?”
“Um, no, we just drove 300 km and um, I see only two other guests sitting in your 50 seat restaurant. Do you think you could possibly squeeze us in?”
The good thing about these places is that we can afford the best tasting menu and the best wines. What with the strong $ and favorable exchange rate and the fact that this place is in the middle of nowhere in South America. We don’t do it often, but when we do, it is nice. The wines of Cafayate, we were told, grown at 1,800 m – almost 6,000′ above the sea level elevation, are now becoming serious competition to Mendoza wines. While Mendoza Malbec will stay my favorite, I am intrigued by the new discovery of a Torrontés, a white wine with fresh, distinctive light fruity taste and aroma.
The next day’s drive brings the most challenging stretch of the Ruta 40. The drive to Cachi is only 170 km and that distance should be covered in about 4 hours says Google maps, while Maps.me can’t locate the route at all. It takes us the whole day. Of course we do make frequent stops for pictures and special encounters. We cross chocolate rivers,
peek into colorful graveyards,
climb up colorless viewpoints,
stop for horses and mules
and again for a long leisurely lunch in the 18th century governor’s house, now Hacienda de Molino.
We arrive in Cachi just with enough light left to find our way a bit out of town to a most impressive hotel La Merced de Alto. Someone with a great taste and a great art collection built it in a perfect spot, surrounded by fabulous gardens and crowned with spectacular views. It starts to rain shortly and we stay in for dinner, grateful for a warm place to rest.
We go to sleep with pitter patter of the rain on the large windows and the romantic impression of misty mountains in the distance,
only to wake up in the morning to
sunny blue skies with fresh snow sprinkled mountain tops. I mean wow, wow, wow! You just want to sing and shout! And stay there forever.
A chance encounter at breakfast with a couple of American bird watchers changes our travel plans.
“You simply gotta press towards Bolivian border and make it to this lagoon that nobody really knows about. There are thousands of pink flamingos and herds of lamas everywhere!”
Flamingos might not have been enough of an incentive, but lamas are. Our new travel friends show us the little blue splotch on the map and off we go. And stop immediately around the corner to greet a herd of horses,that literally rush over and line up to be petted.
The whole drive onwards we look backwards to the striking snow capped mountains rising above the plain. We can’t believe our luck. So maybe Pachamama did like our beer tribute after all!
We find Pachamama at the Parque de los Cardones, established to protect thousands of saguaros. There we read the native legend of the creation of this tall elegant cactus. To protect them from the wrath of a vindictive father Pachamama transformed two star crossed lovers into a saguaro cactus.
As if we didn’t have enough dirt roads we decided to take a shortcut over Bishop’s pass. Fortunately, the road is much better than expected and so are the deep green canyon views.
Wisely we decide to skirt the busy city of Salta and push onwards towards Purmamarca. It is a very well known landmark and for the first time we have to contend with tourist crowds, tour buses and parking issues. The locals charge entrance fees for any viewpoint. The colors of rocks are indeed extraordinary (and impossible to catch with an iPhone), but we are so unaccustomed to having to share with others, that we get out of there pretty fast.
We figure we can swap out the sightseeing time with a side trip to another interesting natural phenomenon. As we drive over the very high pass – for American readers exactly 13,681 feet altitude(!) and I am disappointed to note that my altitude sickness propensity has not diminished with age. Even a few steps out of the car make me dizzy and shaky. Luckily our goal is much lower at 3,450 m. Salinas Grandes are the less famous step sister of the Bolivian Salt Pans, but they are impressive nonetheless. We don’t get the typical dazzling white earth and blue sky shots, but we quite like the dramatic before the storm photos.
We are certainly happier here with just a few fellow travelers.
The next day we head out to the secret lagoon. It is indeed secret enough that nobody at our hotel in Tilcara can give us any information. We drive north towards Bolivian border past Humahuaca, joining some other admirers of crazy geology.
We manage to find Laguna de Posuelos Park headquarters in a small town of Abra Pampa, where we finally get clear directions on which dirt road to take to the park entrance. After registration, the lonely ranger points us towards a rutted trail. Luckily the rain from the Salt Pans did not reach to here. Still, it is a 7 hair raising kilometers with split second decisions on which part is worse, the left, the right, or the middle. Only Mirek’s steel nerves and driving skills get us to the parking area.
In the distance we can see the shimmering water and birds flying above it. We head out on foot and it is slow going. We walk and walk and the water is still far away. When we finally get a bit closer, the ground becomes soft and smelly, slippery muck prevents us from going further. We can see the myriad of pink flamingos, but still too far away. If that is a bit of a disappointment, the flat cracked plain we stand on, and the sky above covered with infinite white fluffy clouds is so extraordinary that we turn around and around in awe.
If pink flamingos were not close enough, the lamas make up for it. All the way on our drive back to the main road we encounter the variations of these camelids. They all seem very cute to us, though I read that the lamas are much bigger and very aggressive, while alpacas are smaller and sweet. Then there are also the lighter colored and more slender guanacos and vicunas. Anyway, we can never get enough of any of them.
In any shape and form..
The pleasant shopping and eating evening back in Tilcara is interrupted with a loud procession of local marching bands going to the church to attend the community meeting on Covid-19 protection.
We think the tiny little tots joining the big guys
are so cute. We don’t have the slightest inkling what harbingers of trouble they are.
The next day we finally make it to Salta. The one thing that we really wanted to see there are the three mummies of Inka children sacrificed in high mountains, but the museum is closed. Instead we listen to some Bolivian Indian music in front of it. We walk around and get some coffee. We pop into the cathedral.
If we only knew that this will not be only the turning point for our return trip to Mendoza, but the beginning of the end of our Argentine adventure, we would have dropped on our knees and prayed for a safe and easy return.
For how our escape from South America and the virus restrictions unfolded, you can go back to the I Cry for You Argentina, I had to Leave You post in case you missed it before.
We enter through one of the more spectacular gates into any town I have ever seen.
We cross over a wooden bridge.
As we look down into the Vltava river Mirek says: “Last time I was here, I took a canoe on the river with a friend. Man, it was fun, we went under on those rapids over there.”
That was about 50 years ago. He has never taken me to Česky Krumlov. Why would we have not visited this picture postcard perfect, romantic, medieval fairytale town, when we have explored pretty much any castle ruin and half decent village the breadth and width of the country?
Because yearly 2 million selfie stick yielding tourists cram into the tiny town and about 16,000 tourist buses fight for parking. It is a postcard perfect case of over tourism. Or let me say, it was.
Because today there is nobody there. Not a soul.
Actually, I exaggerate. But indeed, when all is said and done, we meet less than a dozen people in the whole afternoon.
The streets are abandoned. It is eerily quiet. The town looks like a movie set after the end of a film shoot.
Everything is shut down.
are closed until further notice.
With the bizarre exception of
The one place we are really sorry to see closed is the Austrian painter Egon Schiele’s museum.
He lived in the town as a young man for a little bit, scandalizing the conservative society with his art and relationships.
On the riverbank in the only open coffee-to-go place we order two cappuccinos and chat with the proprietor. “Even in the dead of winter, it has never been like this,” he says.
It is a gorgeous spring day in April. Some of the early trees are in full bloom.
It is a photographer’s paradise.
No one to jostle with at the panorama points,
on the narrow cobbled streets,
Anywhere you look something colorful and charming is vying for your attention:
For once I am not interested in the history of the nobility or clergy or the burghers. I am perfectly content to just wander around.
We are surprised to find the door to the church open
As we climb higher and higher we are even more surprised that the gates to the four successive courtyards of the enormous castle sitting above the town, are wide open as well.
There might be no exposition but we don’t mind one bit. And yes, we do have our face masks!
We will just take some more pictures, thank you very much.
Peek through a few windows
Wow, what a spectacular, expansive view!
And then for contrast a sweet little courtyard.
Above the castle are vast renaissance gardens to stroll through.
If your feet are not hurting yet.
Ours are… so:
Goodbye beautiful, little fairytale town! May the sun shine over you.
We couldn’t have been happier to have visited, face masks and all!
“Holly shit, I think it’s a condor. Stop the car, stop the car!” I yelled, as my husband, used to my frequent demands for photo stops, already applied the brakes. Not only that, as we watched the large bird gracefully swoop down, he steered the car to the other side of the road and came to a stop on the rocky shoulder.
With excitement we watched it touch the ground just mere meters from us. With baited breath we observed the black and white bird as it strolled through the low shrub generously sprinkled with grey rocks and boulders– a great place to blend in.
“Do you think it really is a condor, or just some kind of vulture?” I whispered.
“I think it really is a condor, look at the bald head and the white ring around his neck.”
As some locals confirmed later, we really were so lucky as to see a condor, albeit a young one, close up and it was the first of a number of wild animals that crossed our way on this incredible day.
We decided to take a break from wine tasting in Mendoza and head for the nearby mountains.
Not just any mountains, mind you, but the mighty Aconcagua in Cordillera de los Andes. As we left the valley of wine behind, the spectacular nature demanded frequent photo stops. The water and low hills
soon gave way to dry, crazy rock formations reminding us of
alongside the dried riverbed, planting silly thoughts of: Was lack of rain the reason for the demise of their civilization?
The “city” was over looked by
Soon we felt we were indeed on another planet altogether with strange jumbled rock formations and jutting plates and unusual streaks of colors coming up at every turn.
The road was a delight to drive with smooth curves and well engineered tunnels.
Until we decided to veer of and leave the safety of the paved surface and climb up a narrow winding dirt road leading to the very border with Chile.
At the freezing, wind blown crest we were greeted by a gigantic Cristo Redentor
(Redeemer) sculpture. It was supposedly made out of old canons and guns to seal the peace deal between Chile and Argentina after a bloody border dispute between the two countries. How crazy that man would fight over desolate peaks like these! Seeing that Redeemer is based on the metaphor of redemption , or “buying back” I immediately think how appropriate the redemption and the recycling of the instruments of war. I have a crazy thought: What if every church started buying back weapons in America and melting them into Jesus Christ sculptures? Ah, it must be the thin air up at nearly 3900 m muddling my brain!
On the way down we see first hand the challenge of the curvy road. We find a motorcyclist down right at the curve. He is unhurt, but unable to lift the heavy machine.
There is another, much higher mountain awaiting our admiration, if not ascend.
With a tiny twinge of regret Mirek walks towards the mighty peak, his youthful mountaineering dreams rekindled.
With summit elevation of 6,960.8 metres (22,837 ft) it is the highest mountain of the Americas. Alas, we can only do a little walk to the tiny blue lake and admire the views all around the Aconcagua Provincial Park.
At any rate the season is over, as we hear from the young doctor who just returned with the last helicopter from the base, claimed to be the second largest in the world (after Everest).
He tells us of busy days treating people afflicted with altitude sickness and helping with emergency evacuations. After months on the mountains he can’t wait to be reunited with his young son in Mendoza.
Aconcagua is one of the mountains where Incas have left children as sacrifice to the gods. Because of the cold conditions these Andes Mummies are incredibly well preserved.
Much lower we admire Puente del Inca, a colorful natural bridge formation that was visited and drawn by Charles Darwin.
This is where the incredible feat of engineering Camino del Inca (or Qhapaq Ñan=Royal Road) passed through.
Many travelers only know Camino del Inca as a hiking trail to Machu Picchu. But the road is much grander and longer.
It originated on the main square in Cusco and covered 40,000 km (25,000 miles) of roads, bridges, passes, stairways, and included roadside pubs and shelters for running messengers and lama caravans. It was used in service of Inca Empire’s communication, trade and defense and one of the major factors in success of the vast empire. It reached its zenith in 15th century and its remnants now pass through 6 different countries.
The Roman Empire accomplished something similar with their 120,000 km network of roads throughout Europe and beyond. The first and most famous great Roman road was the Via Appia, incidentally also granted a royal nickname – the Regina viarum or ‘Queen of Roads’.
Turning back towards Mendoza we had a choice of returning on the same fast new road or taking the old unpaved road from Uspallata. Is there any doubt in your mind which one we choose?
But before we turned back home for good on the long windy road towards our friendly Airbnb cottage, we made a slight detour to Cerro 7 Colores. It was not in any guidebooks, but I saw it on the map in a local coffee shop.
The vivid blue, green, and purple splotches started popping up as we drove amongst the desert mounds, but they did not prepare us for the palette of the colors on the hill, dominated by a vivid green.
There are indeed bigger and more famous Colored hills in Argentina and in Peru and in Arizona and most famously in China, but those are also beleaguered by hordes of tourists and tour buses. This tiny rainbow morsel we had all to ourselves and we could climb up it without anyone charging an entry fee, a parking fee, a photo fee, or a farting fee.
Looking close on the ground, the pebbles reflect the hues in the rainbow of colors, too.
No surprise that such special place also contained many more or less elaborate shrines to folk saint Difunta Correa.
Such shrines are numerous along the local roads in San Juan region. Legend has it that Mrs. Correa set out with her newborn child to find her soldier husband who was sick and abandoned by his unit. Tragically, she died of thirst in the harsh desert, but days later when her body was found, her baby was still alive, suckling at her breast.
Unfortunately travelers seeking her protection leave piles of unsightly plastic bottles of water for the thirsty saint.
The sun was getting precariously low as we finally hit the Ruta 52 back home.
As we pressed the pedal to the metal we realized as many times before that distances mean nothing, especially when the road is unpaved and painfully winds its way up and then down again. We have been in this situation numerous times before and sometimes with the added excitement of coasting on fumes of the empty tank. It must be the adrenalin speaking, because these setting sun driving adventures are one of our favorite travel memories.
Despite a certain sense of urgency, we could not help ourselves, but made frequents stops to take photos. Sometimes it was the undulating landscape and sometimes the spectacular clouds.
At other times we were forced to a stop by the animals crossing our path.
We were welcomed by two curious Pampa foxes with whom we had an unexpected communion. Despite many travels to Africa, I am still thrilled when I can look into the eyes of an animal. There is an intimate soul to soul connection. At least on my side. I think when it comes to the fox, from the deliberate checking on both sides for the open window, it was just looking for a leftover sandwich.
Some other encounters were less intentional and more panic stricken like this guanaco who decided to cross the road just when we drove by.
As this was our first encounters with guanacos, the wild relatives of llamas, we relished every appearance of these surefooted cameloids.
but especially their cute babies, called chulengos, who jumped about joyfully.
We saw some flocks of ñandus, too.
These flightless birds are similar to emus and ostriches.
Only as we finally descended to the unfortunately closed hotel and mineral springs of Villavicencio we saw the sign for Natural Reserve that explained the abundance of animal life. We missed out on the cougar, but as we were reminded, they are in the area.
As we breezed along the freeway on the flatlands in the last rays of sun, we marveled at the fantastic day we had, full of new experiences and unexpected animals encounters.
Note to readers: This post was finalized and posted while on Easter Sunday 2020 at the time of COVID-19 shelter in place in Prague. Happy holiday!
Note to readers: This blog post has been finalized and posted from quarantine during 2020 Covid –19 outbreak. Stay home & stay well!
I totally love my life this very moment. It must be the combined effect of an extended wine tasting and delicious picnic lunch with more freely flowing wine and freshly baked empanadas in the beautifully groomed gardens of Alta Vista winery. Oh, and what divine, chilled desert: an explosion of colors and tastes.
There is a huge horde of green parrots making a ruckus in the tops of the trees, a collection of grand specimens of special trees: oak, linden, araucaria, larch. Flanked by ancient gnarled olive trees
and a border of flowering lavender, it is a cool oasis with a nice breeze in otherwise hot, hot, hot Mendoza. Mighty glaciers glimmer white in the distance watching over rows of Malbec vines.
All we need now is a hammock or at least a blanket to take a siesta.
With so many wineries and so little time, (how is there always too little time?), how does one choose? The classic, the modern, the oldest, the biggest, or the boutique?
Well, our first choice is simple; Alta Vista speaks to us on a very personal level. We have been making our home for the last twenty years at Alta Vista in Orinda, California.
I am not a wine connoisseur by no means. I am not a sophisticated drinker, and I am far from a wine snob, but I have enough drinking years under my belt to know what I like and what I don’t like. No buttery Chardonnay. No tannins in reds. No barrique oaky taste. I am a flower power girl. I am a Zin Girl and also a Malbec Maiden. Give me fruity, give me smooth, give me blackberry or chocolate undertones anytime.
Mendoza with its celebrated Malbec grapes
was anticipated with much excitement from my side. With Argentinian wines attractively priced and Argentine peso low on the exchange market I could anticipate to afford drinking some excellent wines. On our last visit to California we were blown away by how expensive the wine has become. What I paid there for a glass, I could get in a full bottle of excellent wine. And believe you me, with my husband a dedicated beer drinker and hence dedicated wine tasting driver, I indeed managed to down a few bottles solo!
Here the ritual of wine tasting by itself is also not a money making machine as it has become in California, but a friendly introduction and fun time spent in the cellar,
the winery, and the vineyard. For years I had a privilege to help in my friends Captain vineyard, so I certainly appreciate what hard work it is to produce a bottle of wine, especially in a small winery, where everything is done by hand.
Besides tasting wine, visiting wineries for us has a second benefit – interesting architecture. Whether it be old
or ultra modern
Where there is money there is also art to stimulate your other senses.
Where there is art and wine there invariably are interesting people. Be it people in the know
or people seeking new knowledge and experiences.
Sometimes new knowledge is based on theory
and sometimes of more practical nature
Another thing we both really enjoy very much is label design. Human creativity is indeed divine and infinite. I so envy people who can take a blank page and create something new. And they are not intimidated that millions of wine labels have already been created.
How sweet is this Rosé label?
How cool is this 3D Cab lock?
I insisted we time our trip to Mendoza to coincide with the Harvest festival Vendimia. I like traditional festivals, I like costumes and ceremony. I read about Vendimia and it sounded so attractive. I even asked our friendly Airbnb host to buy me a ticket months in advance.
Alas, just like Brazilian Carnival this festival did not turn out to be what we anticipated. Just like carnival it brings in tons of visitors and makes a traffic mess. And as usual in these areas, information is hard to come by. And much of it is garnished with “maybe”. Like in: The procession will go down San Martin Avenue, maybe. As we were wandering down empty dark streets
trying to find the big fete, we were gratified to see we were not the only ones lost.
Like for the carnival the locals really don’t care for Vendimia and actually avoid it at all cost.
Except those locals whose streets have been closed down for the nightly procession.
It starts very traditional with Mary, Queen of Heaven, but quickly turns modern with trucks, floats, strobe lights, electronic music, and the queens of earthly domains.
And aspiring princesses, too.
And former queens, too!
At the end I never used my ticket for the big gala at the stadium where the Vendimia Queen is chosen.
On our last evening in Mendoza after an hour driving in circles, trying to get to the stadium and find parking, we gave up and drove back home. There is always consolation to be found in a bottle of good Malbec wine. Will toast whomever was the winner. Cheers!
All the new blog posts are being released or freshly written in our self imposed quarantine in Prague.We urge everyone to stay home with prudent social distancing. We would love to hear where you are and how you are faring. What is one positive insight you can share about this difficult situation?
A friendly message came through on WhatsApp when we were still on the comfy sleeper overnight bus to Montevideo:
Hello Ksenija! It’d be a pleasure for me to meet you. So, you’ll stay in Montevideo until Tuesday. When are you thinking of coming to Punta del Este ? Sunday 1st of March is a great day to be in Montevideo. Mr. Lacalle Pou will start being our President. It’ll be very moving. I’ll write later to give you advice about this day and places to visit in Montevideo. – Esmeralda
A quick inquiry to an (Uruguayan) friend of a (Brazilian) friend started the ball rolling in a most unexpected, interesting and entertaining way and direction. This is what makes travel so much fun, especially for a traveling extrovert, one that loves to meet new people.
Initially we thought of only staying in Montevideo for two days, transiting from Brazil back to Argentina. But when a possible visit to a Brazilian coffee plantation fell through, we suddenly had two extra days. As they say: When a door closes, a window opens. Perfect timing for an interesting experience. We have been to coffee plantations before, but never to a presidential inauguration.
I shot a message about the timetable of inaugural events to our young Airbnb host Sergio and he quickly responded: I have a friend who used to be a journalist. Let me ask him.
Within minutes the obvious response came: The ceremony is by invitation only, but there will be a procession and big celebrations.
Somehow our “influencer fame” 😉 has not yet spread to Uruguay, so with no invitations pending, we decide to just follow the crowds. We booked a cool apartment
in the Ciudad Vieja (Old Town), thinking it will be a lively spot for the weekend. My, my, were we mistaken.
There are only a few caffees and one museum open. It is actually one of those that Esmeralda has recommended. We really, really love it, the colors, the details, the playfulness!
It is dedicated to an important Uruguayan artist José Gurvich, who moved to Montevideo in 1932 as a child with his Jewish family from Lithuania, seeking freedom and safety from religious persecution. With his floating figures and sheep heads he reminds us of a much more famous Jewish Russian painter Marc Chagall.
We can’t help but ponder how ironic it is that many Nazis escaped to Uruguay for safety from international court after the WWII.
As we are wondering the largely deserted streets full of trash and homeless people, we quicken our steps and clutch our (very conspicuous) fanny packs tighter. In search of safety and nourishment we change directions from the port side inland, towards the Plaza de la Independencia. Even there everything is shuttered with big strong iron bars. The whole open plaza is barricaded with security fences and police. We see a small crowd of people with flags.
It is a natural instinct of humans to be attracted to a group of fellow humans. Maybe there is a snake charmer, or an entertaining hanging to partake in? This day and age a traveler would be wise to stay away from crowds; it can be an unruly demonstration, or a perfect opportunity for a terrorist bombing. (Or only some short weeks later, as we know now, – a lethal virus).
As travelers we might be old, but we are certainly not too wise, so of course we press on.
“Que pasa?” we ask a family with a few kids. They quickly deputize their grandma, the only one speaking English, to explain.
“We came to see the old president say goodbye. He will keep the Uruguayan flag for the last night and tomorrow the new president will get it. “
“And are you happy or sad about it?”
“The people who are here, all support the old president. It was a very narrow win and the new one only won through a coalition with diverse small parties. The country will swing to the right, we just don’t know how much.”
I could see the tears gathering in her eyes.
“I am sorry,” I said. “I feel your pain. We are in the same boat. It seems like the whole world is swinging to the right. “
We watch the small crowd sing the national anthem and wave their fists in the air. After the flag comes down, we leave to find the only open restaurant around the corner, right across from the Solis Theater.
The tours of the elegant old theater are suspended that evening due to the inauguration.
“How do you feel about the new president?” we ask the waiter bringing us a large bottle of beer.
“Well, I don’t know enough yet. He is talking a good talk, but then, they all do. He says he will keep what was working well and change what hasn’t. I would like to believe he won’t polarize the country.” Ah, we know too well about that!
Next morning we walk alongside long barricades with security watching over the corridor where
the new president will drive from parliament to the Independence square.
Soon we find a very different kind of crowd on Tristán Narvaja Flea Market.
It is one of the iconic Montevideo places on Sunday mornings. It is crowded and messy and hot. As much as I really like markets all around the world, I suddenly realize, I don’t really care for flea markets at all. Huh, it took me long enough!
In the meantime our WhatsApp pen pal is sending us more information about the inauguration and a plea to take some photos for her. She is obviously a big fan of the new president. After 15 years of the left imposing high taxes with no action, he will bring us security and economic growth, she writes.
The intriguing piece of information that 3000 gauchos on horses have come to Montevideo to accompany the new president clinched the deal. You know I am a sucker for horses. And indeed we find the whole square around the Palacio Legislativo ringed by men, women and children on horses.
A much, much larger crowd is out in force flying other flags today.
tails and ears anywhere the eye can see. Impressive sight, indeed. We heard some horses were brought by trucks and same took a week walking from the farthest provinces. We felt bad for the horses and the riders, it was a very, very hot day and they have been standing for hours and hours on the hot sun. There was no provisions for water either for the beast or man.
I realized there were also no toilets either for the riders or the big crowds who came, by horse or on foot, to welcome the new president.
Finally after all the other dignitaries got into their official cars the president Luis Pou and Vice President Beatriz Argimón Cedeira jumped into an antique car and drove a victory lap around the plaza. In the meanwhile we had a back and forth reporting with our pen pal Esmeralda, siting in front of her TV in Punta del Este.
It must have taken a good part of an hour to set all the horses into motion.
Overheated and not buoyed by nationalistic and party pride we did not follow the procession to the Independence square. We jumped into an Uber to get back home. The woman driver, who spoke good French, very excitedly shared her opinions about how only the rich will benefit from the new government. “I am worried that they will also try to roll back some of the freedoms gained under the old regime: women’s rights, abortion rights, gays rights to marry.”
Uruguay is indeed a very liberal country and the first country in the world that legalized the growing, selling and use of marijuana.
Next morning we leave our apartment to find the Old City transformed. The stores are open, the outdoor restaurant seating covered by colorful umbrellas. There are people everywhere; strolling, sipping coffee, reading the morning newspapers. Huh? On Monday you would expect everyone to be at work, right? But the old town being also the financial district, comes to life on Monday.
We walk through the small park behind our building to visit the Museum of Decorative arts (open on Monday morning!) when we notice a well heeled crowd spilling out from the museum’s courtyard.
“Que pasa?” I asked two gentlemen in suits. (You might notice my frequent use of this universal expression in my limited Spanish vocab).
“It is the inauguration of new ministers.”
“Oh, is the president here? We saw him at the Palacio Legislativo yesterday.”
“Oh, yes, he is here.”
“How about the Vice President? I appreciate that you have a woman vice president.”
“Sure, here she comes!” pointing at the elegant blond woman in a white coat followed by a woman in uniform. “Why don’t you say hello to her?”
“Are you kidding, the security will arrest me!”
“No, no, you can take a picture with her, too.”
Well then, here goes…
“Madam Vice President, congratulations on your win.” Her hand goes out to shake mine and the woman in uniform grabs my phone to take our picture.
It is a campaign strategy they have employed, I am told later, taking pictures with their supporters on the trail.
Oh, and here comes El Presidente. It is slow going, every guy in a suit or office shirt wants to shake his hand and give him a hug.
Here I am in my T shirt, magenta fanny pack and blue baseball cap, sticking out like a sore thumb. He catches my eye. It worked once, why not again…
“Mr. President, congratulations on your win!“
He smiles and then he grabs my phone and with a practiced hand switches it to selfie mode… and snaps away!
You can only imagine the reaction of our friend Esmeralda, when she receives our photos. “You are a genius, you are my idol!”She insists we have to come immediately and she will wait for us at the bus station with her car. She has a whole day of sightseeing including lunch planed. “You should stay for two days, there is much to see!” she writes.
Next day, our last in Uruguay, we take an early morning bus to Punta del Este. Finally we meet Esmeralda in person. She is a lively, colorfully dressed widow.
She has two small grandkids that live in Florida. Only at the end of the day we find out that her late husband was actually a senator. No wonder then, her interest in politics.
Without her driving us around we would have had no clue what Punta del Este is beyond high vacation apartment buildings and beaches.
We know it is the playground of the Latin America’s elite, albeit a bit more low key, family oriented. Many Argentinians and Europeans buy houses or apartments here.
“The season is really very short,” she explains, only during Christmas and school holidays. In the winter you can pass all these apartment towers and there will be only one light on.” We take a certain pleasure in seeing the abandoned Trump tower. Another successful business venture of our el presidente.
How wonderful to get a break from the daily grind of independent travel! No need to look for directions and find parking, decide on a place for lunch or wonder about opening hours. On top of it have a pleasure of an enlightened conversation in great English. As our travel motto says: Making friends along the way.
Knowing of Mirek’s engineering background Esmeralda goes out of the way to drive us to and over interesting bridges
and past and to beautiful structures.
The most famous one is probably
The white and blue home, atelier, museum, gallery
and now also a hotel
by Uruguayan artist Carlos Páez Vilaró was built organically, without architectural plans in 36 years. It evokes the blue and white of Greek islands or Spain, and it is enhanced by the fun large scale ceramics.
There is also an area that pays tribute to artist’ s son Carlos Miguel, one of the sixteen Uruguayan survivors who spent 72 days trapped on a glacier in the freezing high altitude Andes, after their airplane crashed in 1972. They were only rescued after two of the men walked for ten days over high mountains with no equipment and food. What a terrible ordeal for the young men and their parents. Some of you might remember the movie Alive with Ethan Hawke. I remember being very shaken up when I saw it as a teen.
I remembered meeting an Argentinian hiker (hi Marcelo!) in Tronador glacier area who told us about the three day trek to the site of the crash and spoke of the challenge to get there and the difficulty of being in a place of such tragedy.
Weeks later at a wine tasting we met an Argentinian couple who have a house just around the corner from a great restaurant where Esmeralda and us broke bread together.
Luckily we came early as it is the place to see and be seen even outside of the high season. Wonderful food, too! Yummy locally sourced camarones to start with
and grilled black figs for desert, oh my.
It was probably the most expensive lunch of our trip, but it was well worth it, we thought. Until the American Express bill came…
Don’t cry for me Argentina The truth is I never left you All through my wild days My mad existence I kept my promise Don’t keep your distance
Songwriters: Andrew Lloyd Weber/Tim Rice
It was a lovely day, the first full day on our drive to the south from the salt pans near the Bolivian border through the Wild West of this remote corner of Argentina.
Despite scary world news about the new virus, Argentina still seemed unscathed and we were in good spirits and full of energy, as you can see for yourself. Our children have been bombarding us with messages, begging our return. We reveled in their sudden attention, but intended to finish our trip as planned.
We should have known better! It Was Friday The Thirteenth! Something was bound to ruin our travelers’ euphoria that had lasted for nearly six glorious weeks!
As the sun was setting over the sharp edges of Quebrada de las Conchas (Gorge of the Shells) we pulled into a spectacular hotel Los Castillos de Cafayate at the foothills of the red ridge of the same name (Castles of Cafayete).
Over two bottles of cold beer, one lager and one stout, with the view to kill for, we looked at each other:
“Are you thinking of what I am thinking?”
This would be a nice remote hideaway to dig in and hide from the pandemonium virus fever! We could relax here and write those parts of our blog we couldn’t get to over the last days, driving from sunrise to sunset, before hitting the sack, dead to the world.
Oh, Friday the Thirteen! How quickly everything can change. The pleasant empty country roads suddenly became menacing with frequent check points
set by police, military, gendarmery, national guard… who knows what those guys in wide variety of uniforms call themselves. They were still polite enough while checking our papers, with flowcharts in their gloved hands, questioning our entry dates and past moves, inquiring about our future plans, filling in their freshly printed forms,
stepping aside to call the distant seats of power for advice on what to do with us. After passing through the fourth check point that morning we tried, with the first sign of a working phone signal, to call a small resort in the vineyard
where we spent the night on our way to the north a few days back. When we tried to make a reservation for the night, we learned our predicament was far worse than we thought.
Overnight the government imposed a new nationwide protocol for dealing with foreign passport holders. Every hotel was to report to the local hospital all foreigners checking in, so the doctors could come and check them for fever. Through US embassy warnings we also learned of cases of foreigners being detained in hotels and kept in involuntary quarantine even past 2 weeks. The bad news kept rolling in. The Argentinian land borders with Chile, Bolivia, Paraguay, Brasil and Uruguay were being closed. The direct flights to the US, UK and EU were shutdown. All National Parks were closed effective immediately.
The writing was on the wall. Coronavirus reached the southernmost tip of this continent and we better deal with it immediately. Our air tickets to fly out of Mendoza to Buenos Aires were for March 18, long five days later. Our Norwegian airways tickets to fly out of Argentina to London Gatwick for April 1 were clearly too late for us. Our situation was ridiculous. We have been in Argentina already for 6 weeks and without any exposure or symptoms we could hardly be considered as somebody bringing the virus here. But with the number of cases in the country rising, we were simply singled out with all other foreigners as dangerous people threatening the health and well-being of Argentina. Our daughters in the US started sending us possible air flights to get out, but we were still far away from a main airport. Taking turns we sped on empty Ruta 40 at 150 km/h.
Our depression lifted momentarily when we screeched to a halt, spying animals along the road. Some still very much alive like this elegant guanaco
enjoying her sandy bath
or barely a mile down the road this Nandu family, a mother with her chicks
and, if not alive, fossilized animals were impressive, too.
Even without the occasional stop, the drive would have been too long, so we hunkered down in a cheap motel. We figured the receptionist/cleaner/cook would not bother with much paperwork. Indeed he only had us fill out a paper and didn’t even ask to see our passports or make copies. But hours later a knock came on the door.
“My owner called, noticing you are foreigners, can you show me your passport with the entry stamp.”
“Sure, my friend!” I said sweetly. “Why don’t you call your boss right now and even take a photo of our page with the entry stamp.”
While I stood by, he placated his boss and nobody made the call to the hospital. Whew.
In the morning we texted our Mendoza Airbnb. We have stayed in a cottage of a lovely Belgian-Argentinian family on our way in. “When we return, are you supposed to report us to the authorities?” The answer came immediately: “No, don’t worry. This is your home in Argentina. Just come, whenever you can, we will put the keys in the mailbox, if you are late. “ We have always been fans of Airbnbs, but now our love was cemented forever.
In the moments the internet worked, we looked at our options to fly out of the country. With our tickets to London deemed worthless, we abandoned our last planned excursion to Southern Patagonia and focused on any option to leave Argentina with any airline flying out of Buenos Aires to any airport outside of US, UK, or EU which may have a direct connection to Prague.
Why Prague? We do have a place to stay there with family support, health insurance, AND Prague airport was STILL open to flights from so called safe countries. We found two options: Qatar Airways flying daily through Doha, and Turkish Airlines a few times a week through Istanbul. We chose Turkish, as we are familiar with Istanbul and we have some friends there, who might be willing to help us. And if the Prague Airport shuts down (rumors were of 30 day total air travel ban throughout the whole of Europe being negotiated by heads of EU States) we would much rather be stuck in Istanbul than Doha. With this important decision made, we bought new tickets to Prague for March 20, ￼connecting nicely to our March 18 evening Mendoza flight to Buenos Aires.
Late at night, unhindered and unchecked, we entered Mendoza, where our AirBnB family was waiting for us with open arms.
What a relief, a real friendly safe home away from home! A lot of laughs, food, drinks and latest news and rumors was shared. Everyone agreed that our plans to get out seemed realistic, so around midnight we all called it a day and off to bed we went to get some sleep.
We did not have to wait for another change of our plans for too long. In the morning we got news that people entering Mendoza will be asked to be in quarantine for two weeks, so we decided not to drive and walked over to the bakery, where we usually had our breakfast. We were greeted with a big smile by the guy who always served us, the only one speaking some English. “Look at the silly face mask they make us wear. They don’t fit and are totally useless!”
Hearing us speak English the young couple sitting at the table next to us, immediately stood up and moved outside, slathering their hands with hand sanitizer.
“They are afraid,” he said.
“Well, we have been here for 6 weeks and in the boonies. If anyone, they could give us the virus, especially if the came from Buenos Aires, where all the cases are, for now.”
In the middle of our cappuccinos
worse news came by text: “The city has asked the federal government to shut down the airport. But don’t worry, it would only be for incoming flights, not departing.“ This is NOT how air traffic works! You can’t have departing flights with no planes arriving.
We paid for breakfast in a hurry and within an hour we packed all our stuff and were on our way to the airport. Our current tickets to Buenos Aires with Norwegian were for 3 days later, so we had to find seats for any flight right away. The scene at the airport was totally unaffected. Calm before the storm. No representative of Norwegian could be found, but we found an Austral (Aerolineas Argentinas) office. There a kind lady was willing to accept our tickets for our already abandoned flight to Southern Patagonia and exchange them for a flight checking in in 40 minutes to Buenos Aires. But wait, we still have to return our rental car! “I can put you on the next flight, if you need more time!” No way, we are going now!
We called the private company we had rented the car from and as the owner raced to the airport to take the car keys
we checked in our luggage. With a few minutes to spare we jumped on our flight, seeing the screens already blinking red. The next flight to Buenos Aires was cancelled.
By 6pm we landed at AEP, the Domestic Airport, and got a taxi. Well, the first thing the taxi driver shared with us was the latest news he just heard on the local radio station:
“All domestic air trafic will be shut down tomorrow and international traffic the day after!”
“What!!!” we almost screamed at him, the inocent messenger of bad news!
“Go to the EZE International airport, right now!” – a 25 miles long drive in the evening traffic.
“When is your flight?” asked the driver. “We don’t have one – yet, but drive fast.” As the driver was weaving in and out of traffic, we were feverishly trying to figure out what to do. Working both of our iPhones and three computers in San Francisco, where our daughters were looking for any available alternative of travel for tonight, we felt like in a Bond movie.
To make this story short, there was NO Turkish flight that night and NO representative when we arrived at the airport. Hence no chance to change our second set of tickets. We had to buy the third set for the next day, March 17, instead! It was the most expensive one way ticket of our life, but thank god for credit cards and cell phones and T mobile international phone service.
So we were bound to spend one more night in Buenos Aires. It is a great country, a great city, with great people!
But the question was where we could spend it? The kids were texting us to just stay at the airport, but no way Jose, not 24 h before two following nights of travel. Not in a hotel, for sure. Back to our trusty Airbnb app. The first request for lodging was denied by the host, despite my explanation that we have been in the country for 6 weeks already. An apartment that was available on line, was suddenly full! Yes, people were starting to get afraid.
Luckily the second request was approved immediately and we ordered an Uber. As we jumped in and headed in heavy traffic back to the city a call came in from the Uber driver, “Where are you, I am waiting for you at terminal C!”
I leaned to the front and asked, “Wait, what is your name, Mr. Uber Driver?”
“I am Pablo, are you Allison?”
Oh, oh! Poor Allison, stuck at the airport. Cancel rides, start rides, pay cash. Of we go again. Except that when we get to the apartment building in record time, nobody is there. Luckily a nice young woman sitting at the restaurant bellow used her cell phone to sort things out and soon we were safe inside. A special gift: No need to check out at noon, stay till your departure and have a safe return.
So we spent the last rainy day walking the empty streets of Palermo Soho. A quarter we stayed in when we first arrived six weeks ago and fell in love with. Spent the last few hours in cozy, but empty Lobo Café
and got our farewell haircuts (exactly 6 weeks from our last haircuts
after our arrival to this country) and we were on our way back to EZE airport.
Only a few airlines were still operating, so it was easy to find our check in. We had scheduled our flight in such a way that we could spend the second night of travel in Istanbul. We even booked the same Airbnb we stayed in last fall for a month and were looking forward to a happy reunion with our house manager. She was excitedly sending us text messages
and shopping for our favorite cheese and black olives.
“Please check our luggage only to Istanbul.“ we asked the Turkish Airlines check in lady.
“I am sorry, I can’t do that, no one is allowed to leave the transit. And anyways your flight to Prague has been cancelled. Go to the office behind the glass door and reissue your ticket for an earlier flight.”
Chaos reigns. People next to us are trying to rebook their cancelled flight to Copenhagen. We are told everything is fixed in the computer, to go back to the counter and check in. New tickets and new luggage tags are being printed. Luckily my husband who is really good with numbers notices our luggage is on the flight to Copenhagen. Back to the drawing board. The flight numbers have been mixed in the computer system. Finally the new boarding passes are in our hands and they even gave us an exit row! After a 17 hours overnight flight we will arrive in Istanbul in the evening and hopefully leave the next morning for Prague. Better get a room for the night if at all possible. In the last moments before boarding we find an airport Yotel cube hotel and book a room.
The flight is surprisingly not full and we have an empty seat between us. (That always makes you feel like you have won the lottery). But by the time we make a stop in Sao Paolo, Brasil, the empty seats get all filled up. Still Turkish Airlines has a decent service and actually pretty good food, one can actually eat.
Upon arrival in Istanbul, we have to find the hotel we reserved. We know there are two, one Airside in transit area and one Landside, and we should get to the Airside one and definitely not go through immigration control. Of course, everyone we ask sends us to the immigration. After some confused wandering around the transit area we finally discover our Yotel.
There is a lot of people trying to get a room, but of course they are all sold out. Two Israeli girls are attempting to check in next to us, only to find out that their parents have reserved the land side Yotel and they are too afraid to go through immigration, and perhaps not get back in the next morning. We feel bad for them, but there is nothing we can do, but commiserate.
We are pleasantly surprised how nice our cube is. The lighting does give it a bit of a brothel feel,
but everything is new and clean with crisp white sheets.
The next morning we feel guilty again emerging from our cube room, seeing the many people draped around chairs and sleeping on the floor. Anxiously we check the flight monitors and are relieved to find that the flight to Prague is still operational.
It is blissfully short and uneventful. We thank the crew profusely for still flying.
The last hurdle for us now is the entrance into Czech Republic. It is clear that all foreign nationals are prohibited to enter, but citizens and spouses or foreigners with permanent residency can get in. I usually leave my permanent residency card in Prague, as I don’t want to loose it and I have no use for it outside of the country, anyway. Well, by strange coincidence this time we have the card with us, so our entry is easy. We expect that there will be some checks after the immigration, like a thermal station or health check up or at least someone making sure we knew we were to stay in quarantine for two weeks. Nothing. We are only given a piece of paper with instructions that basically tell us we actually do not even need to be in quarantine as no South American country nor Turkey are on the list of countries, return from which would put us in mandatory quarantine.
Nobody mentions it, but we have learned from family about the new law requiring anyone outside the home to wear a face mask, against a steep fine. But like in a Kafka-esque drama, no face masks can be found. We check in the airport pharmacy and of course there are no face masks available. As that is the case everywhere in the country, people have started sewing their own from materials available at home. If you don’t have a grandma or any sewing skills it is also acceptable to have your mouth covered by anything, a shawl or a scarf. Luckily I have two bandanas (my essential practical travel item), that I can wrap around our necks.
While I am guarding our luggage, Mirek goes to the airport supermarket to get some essential food staples. I am standing far away from the entrance to the store with no people around when two security officers clad in black with fancy looking masks stride towards me and pointed sternly at my face. I quickly pull up my blue bandana over my mouth and nose.
When I take a few steps to help Mirek with the grocery bags, two other security officers, a woman and a man, rush to our luggage. As I walk back with the groceries they very disapprovingly wag their heads at me.
We step out to the curb fully outfitted as Bonnie and Clyde sneaking out of Argentina and into Czech Republic. Who could have ever dreamt so many years ago under the Iron Curtain that one day we will try desperately to get in and not out.
PS. We are enjoying our home, we have washed and disinfected all our travel gear. As of the date of this blog posting on March 22:
Mr. Fernandez, President of Argentina announced in televised address on March 18 (just a few hours after we left Argentina) a full nationwide lockdown till the end of March.
The last Turkish Airlines flight TK1767 reached Prague on March 21 (2 days after our arrival). All future flights on this route were cancelled until further announcement.
3. We have plenty of time to whip up some past due blogs of our other less dramatic, but more fun South American adventures. Stay tuned.
This is not what people come to Floripa, as Florianópolis is called, for.
But for us it was just what the doctor ordered, after the heat and crowds of Iguazú Falls.
Besides, we are not “beach people” so our itineraries are not driven by the “Best 25 beaches to visit” type of articles. Moreover when we discovered, by sheer coincidence, beaches of (South-)Western Australia a year ago,
all other beaches went by the way all zoos of the world were crossed off our bucket list after our honeymoon in Serengeti.
So why Floripa on Santa Catarina Island then? When my fearless leader discovered that our trip to Brasil coincided with carnival season she of course wanted to go. Hoping to avoid the craziness of Rio de Janeiro, her research led her to the festival in Floripa.
With advice of our friend’s Brasilian wife, who spent her younger (crazier) years here, we made a conscious choice NOT to spend our time on any of this island’s numerous popular, but overcrowded sandy beaches.
Instead we intentionally selected the one which is the least visited of them all. My wife, who is an Airbnb fiend, booked us a cute Red Moon bungalow, barely a fifteen minute walk from more than six mile long stretch of
pristine sand called Mozambique Beach on the northeastern shore of the island. The side open to rough and merciless surf from Atlantic.
Good choice! After more than 35 years shared with her, my smart wife knows way too well that traveling together 24/7 for many months throws inevitably once in a while a few grains of sand into otherwise well running machine of our marriage.
She also knows darn well that in such moments I should be:
either institutionalized OR at least provided with a beach of sufficient length to walk in solitude, complemented only by solitary seagulls
and kite surfers,
while performing deep self psychoanalysis. And hope I would come back to co-operative terms of life in long term relationship.
The surf is rough here, and the south wind brutal. Mind you that in the Southern Hemisphere this is the equivalent of freezing Arctic air pushing south to the Great Plains wrecking havoc in winter traffic in the US. Not conducive to lying on the beach and suntanning, in either case.
The day after the storm, coinciding with our arrival, hit the island. Not a human soul to be seen. Steely sky. Perfect timing to start psychoanalytical walk/work.
While I walk, my wife jumps on a horse at the other end of the beach.
Horses, as you know, are a great therapeutic tool. God knows she needs it, putting up with me.
This is the day when the strong south wind cleared the sky, but temperature dropped beyond comfort for crowds usually to be seen at the peak of the summer season on any decent beach.
This picture is not a selfie, so I am already enjoying occasional company of my fellow traveler who kindly agrees to assist the patient in his return to normalcy. In a sign of mental improvement I agree to attend the first day of carnival
in Floripa, the island’s nearest point to Brasil’s mainland.
No matter how low the south wind presses the thermometer in Floripa, and we shiver in long sleeves, nothing can limit the excitement of hot blooded and scantily dressed attendees of the carnival parade.
What a great sight to help uplift my depression. Not even scalpers selling us fake
tickets for the sold out stadium extravaganza can bring me down. In a sign of her incredible mental strength, determination and personal courage my wife proves her worth by getting our money back from the toughest guys in town, without being shot on the spot. As they hand over all their ill gotten cash, they look at me with pity in their eyes: You gotta live with her, man!
Hey, assholes, this is my girl and I am proud of her!!!
Clutching our precious recovered stack of cash we wade through the sea of revelers. They have come to the island from all over Brasil. They have not come to admire the elaborate costumes of samba schools, they have come for a night of plain and simple debauchery. Drunkenness and freedom of (bodily) expression do not always mix in attractive ways.
We now understand why none of the local people we pressed for information about how to attend the carnival knew nothing about it, nor wanted to join us. Only after we returned, they straightforward admitted they hate the carnival.
Look at my body language! What a posture!
With the return of sunny weather, blue sky and warm water,
I feel ready, thanks to my wife’s assistance, to return to the fabric of society as a fully contributing member.
With my psychological treatment nearly completed, we decide to visit some of the famous sandy spots in the vicinity.
At Praia de Barra we can hardly believe our eyes. There is a dense wall of bodies of all shapes and sizes (many XXL) in the tiniest of swimming suits. As I walk this beach and observe diligently the latest swimming suit fashion
of the better half of human mankind, I detect a strong trend.
If you are, as I am, avid reader of business news, you probably know that right leaning President Bolsonaro’s Brasilian Government Department of Beaches and other Entertainment Venues imposed, after finally getting leftist President Lula out of power, a strict control on import of suitable fabric for manufacture of women’s swimming suits. With number of women in Brasil reaching well over one hundred million and exhibiting strong growing trends, the average area of fabric per swimming suit drops every year by 5.6 square inches.
Under those circumstances females may be walking Brasilian beaches in 2025 with bottom parts consisting of one horizontal and one vertical thread and two top elements reduced to two independent pieces of precious fabric glued to their skin, barely covering essential parts.
I have already booked my solo trip back here for January 2025!
We may have found the crowd here a little bit rowdy, but we manage with the help of a pint of
caipirinha. A good caipirinha, my wife’s favorite drink, has to be made with Brasilian cachaça and only Brasilians can mix it right. Drinking this simple, yet strong sour sweet concoction always makes me think of the many terrible watered down margaritas I have been served in my life.
We are not keen to join the Brasilians in their holiday activities, but it is always fun to observe.
A little exercise before the next steak and beer.
Children playing in the waves.
And boys? What would you expect in Brasil, a multiple World Cup winner? They play soccer, dreaming of becoming the next Pelé!
And what about us? This is our last day. We have to have a last walk on our quiet Moçambique Beach. And the last swing in the forest on the way back home.
The time has come to enjoy a last romantic dinner on
this beautiful island with lula grelhada (grilled squid), nailed
with the last, at least for now, well deserved caipirinha.
I never expected to be cold in tropical Brazil in the middle of summer, but for the last few nights I was glad for the extra blanket at the foot of our bed.
Then again people do come from all over the country to the city of Gramado
to experience the winter atmosphere, including frost and a dusting of snow in the winter at the elevation level of 850 m (2,790 ft).
The other times of the year the stores and restaurants, the tourist board, and the whole city administration try their very best to convince the many visitors they have been magically transported to Italian Alps,
a Swiss chalet (with fully functioning fondue),
or a Bavarian mountain town.
And to the mix an entirely non European Gaucho culture from the pampas stretching out in the lower elevations of the state of Rio Grande del Sur.
and everyone’s shopping needs can be satisfied. Because when you have hordes of tourists, they will certainly need an assortment of appropriate souvenirs, gifts and items for home
clothing for work and leisure
Seeing that we are NOT particularly interested in shopping, we very quickly realized that our only other option would be to spend our days eating through either mounds of meat and pasta, sampling chocolates at countless chocolateries (quite possibly the most per square foot of any town in the world) or finding something entirely out of character with this fake Europe concept.
In all fairness we do have to reference the fact that Gramado and surrounding towns have been established by German and Italian immigrants in 19th century who did bring with them their culture and language.
As a matter of fact our first morning in town we stepped into a bakery&caffe, immediately recognized by our lack of shopping bags as foreigners and greeted in Italian by the old proprietress in crispy white blouse. She was absolutely charmed by our entire vocabulary of 5 words of Italian and continued to check on us twittering in Italian and telling us how delighted she was she could converse (!) in Italian with us, as nobody spoke The Language around here any more. Secondly, on our last evening we went to dinner to a German Brewery where we not only tasted a wide variety of excellent beers, but also got an extra portion of sauerkraut with our meals.
This dinner was shared with our Brazilian Airbnb hosts, who abhorred sauerkraut, but were otherwise absolutely without fault and the most wonderful of people (in a sea of other very wonderful Brazilians).
Betti and Carlos were simply tops. They just recently moved from Sao Paolo and with their own two hands built a small B&B with 6 en suites and a breakfast area where the most delicious and rich breakfast was served including a variety of fresh juices and different breads baked daily.
By the time our 4 days were over we had all improved our language skills to such an extend that we had long conversations in Portuguese and English with only occasional help of Google translate. Lots of laughs over mistakes, too, of course. Who knew that my 5 private lessons on Portugal’s Algarve coast two years ago would be such a great springboard and in truth a lifesaver for travel in Brazil.
With summer vacations just finished, we were the only guests, so we had their undivided attention. In the evening Mirek played with their two dogs
and Betti tried to (unsuccessful) introduce me to the ritual of yerba mate té drinking.
OMG! I never tasted anything as intensely bitter and green!
When they heard we were looking to rent a car for a day and drive to the canyons, they immediately offered to take us with their own car. “Only if we can pay for gas and dinner!” we countered. Reluctantly they agreed and we spent the most wonderful day traveling together to the far flung and spectacular places
that we would have had a hard time finding in the first place and secondly, and even harder driving to them on the pretty bad dirt roads.
We spent more time at the first of the two – Fortaleza Canyon, where we only met a handful of people. And it was lucky that we did, as they told us we had to wade over the top of the waterfall and hike on the rim trail to see the whole deep canyon and the whole length of the fall.
The day was just perfect with the white fluffy clouds in the blue sky. Every color was intensified, the green of grass and ferns,
the purple of wildflowers.
But what really stole our hearts was the many araucaria trees. These were Brazilian relatives of the ones we encountered in Argentina. Very different in shape, but impressive in their own special way.
At the second, Itaimbenzinho canyon we were first sidetracked from our trek by homemade signs for coffee and baked goods. We followed the path past some horses and cows
to a fairytale garden cottage
that hasn’t changed much since 1945, when it was built by a German immigrant couple. It was like stepping back into our grandparents’ home.
From there, full of caffe con leite, pastels de chocolate and old memories, we easily reached the edge of the canyon with more waterfalls.
It was a long day with all our senses and our old brain overstimulated.
Closer to home we visited, what in our view is the best Gramado has to offer– Gramado Zoo. We are usually not into Zoos, especially after having had a chance to see so many animals in the wild, but many people, even a vet, told us it was the best Zoo in the whole of Latin America.
Hearing that many animals were actually rescued from traffickers or nursed back to health from traffic accidents, we decided to go. Dr. Mariela, whom I know through a volunteer project in Cambodia, and whose sister incidentally owns the Zoo, arranged for us a private tour by the biologists on staff. Poor guys, what they probably thought will be a quick VIP walk through, turned into the whole afternoon of Q&A in a mix of Portuguese and English. Tachi, Marcus and Andre did a marvelous job, they even treated us to a close encounter with a falcon
and an owl.
It has been my wish for a long time to go to Brazilian Pantanal region, which is a notoriously hard and expensive proposition. Now we had a chance to see many Brazilian animals up close in large, well built enclosures. We were especially impressed with huge and tall aviaries where birds could even fly and nest on top of trees. The colors of some of them were just brilliant
and we figured they must have been the inspiration
behind the local state flag.
Our visit would deserve a whole blog on its own, but let me just share a few favorite Brazilian animals.
I could go on and on but let me serve you with the last piece of information: Brazil is a country with the most biodiversity in the world. We didn’t expect to find so many tropical species in the Mountains of Gramado, but we are sure glad we did.
We might have not enjoyed Gramado for the same reasons as other visitors, but we couldn’t have had a nicer time and it was much to do with the warm-hearted Brazilians we met along the way. Now we jump on an overnight sleeper bus to Montevideo, Uruguay.