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.
It was a friendly Argentinian waiter in Puerto Iguazu serving us a very tasty local fish called surubi, that gave us the idea of crossing into Paraguay. “My grandpa was from Paraguay,” he said. “He actually faught in the war with Bolivia.”
“Do you ever go to Paraguay?“ we asked.
“Sure, you can cross by the local ferry. There is another waterfall there. It is called Salto de Monday. It is not so very big like Iguazu, but it is very beautiful and there are no people there.
Just don’t go in the afternoon, in Paraguay it gets a bit dangerous later. “
We looked at each other and we knew, we were both crazy enough to do it. It wasn’t in our plans, we simply wanted to spend a few days finally seeing the bucket list Iguazu Falls. But after the first day on the Brazilian side being underwhelmed by the falls and overwhelmed by the crowds and the heat, we welcomed a little adventure out of the ordinary. That night we were googling “crossing by ferry from Argentina to Paraguay” and coming up with little helpful information. “We‘ll go down to the ferry dock in the morning and see,” said my ever willing to wing it husband. Thank goodness for Maps.me to show us where it is.
In the morning we caught a taxi and headed for the ferry with a quick stop at Plaza Hito Tres Fronteras for a special photo op.
Then we bought a $2 ferry ticket, had our passports stamped and joined a few locals crossing over.
There wasn’t much of a schedule but once we were reasonably full with a few returning Paraguayan cars we left with the help of a little tug boat called Gaspar.
It was a quick crossing; first floating in Rio Iguazu between Argentina and Brazil, then pushing into the confluence of incoming Rio Paraná. It was pretty fun to stand on top of the ferry and have a 360 degree view of the three countries,
watching the approach of the Paraguayan flag on the other side.
As we disembarked, the few taxis waiting there were immediately filled by people in the know and disappeared towards the big city. We got our passports stamped (a new country for us, but we have seriously lost count by now) and crossed over to a covered bus stop in hopes that there might be some bus coming along. A man sitting there asked us where we were going. When we explained we wanted to get to the Saltos de Monday he sprang in action. “I will ask my friend if he can take you,” he said and walked across the street towards the checkpoint. Mind you, this was all conducted in very rudimentary Spanish, but luckily taxi and transport and green bucks are international words.
He returned with a large Guarani Indian in tow, dressed in a tattered red T shirt, who quickly agreed to the price of $20 for the return trip and took us to his car. But wait, where do were do we sit?
And how do we know he will take us to the falls and not some back alley? As if he felt our discomfort, he pulled out his ID to show us he was legit. Jesus Hernandez Martinez might not have functioning back seats in his car and might be missing a few teeth while owning only one holey red T shirt, but he is a jovial guy, who likes to laugh and wants us to enjoy our time. With the prospect of big payout he stops at the only gas station in this desolate border town and fills the car with a few $$ (actually a few ten thousand Paraguayan guaranis) worth of gas.
“Tranquilo,” he says when he drops us off in front of the entrance to the waterfalls. “Take your time, I will wait for you here, I have nowhere else to be.”
It is easy to get in. We buy our tickets, to our surprise, with our credit card. There is nobody in front of the booth (of course everyone is queuing up at Iguazu), and only a few young couples taking a romantic outing to the falls.
We walk through a little park and to the waterfalls lookout. Despite seeing the mighty Foz de Iguaçu the day before we find this small 45 m high waterfall quite impressive. Especially since we can get really, really close to the roar of the cascading water dizzyingly disappearing deep down, down, down…
The panoramic elevator taking us deep down to the very bottom of the fall brings us even closer to that falling water. I actually feel more excited standing (or jumping for joy)
next to this waterfall than when I jostled for a peek at the far off Iguaçu with thick crowds of sweaty people in all state of undress.
At least the Brazilian side of the falls is modern and well organized.
Everything works well, the free busses and elevators move people along different panoramic points and the walks to the viewing platforms are well constructed and not too long.
After getting our fill of the Monday falls, getting back to Argentina is a breeze, as always when you know where you are going. Jesus Fernandez Martinez makes sure to get us back on time for the just departing ferry.
Back on familiar ground we call a taxi and head for the Argentinian side of Iguazu falls. Of course, the Argentinians have been telling us their side is more beautiful. I will let their nationalistic pride uninjured, but I must say it certainly is much more disorganized than the Brazilian side. There is a lot more confusion and waiting around and the facilities are more run down.
It is now the height of the hot afternoon with the temperature of 36 degrees C and 100% humidity. Altogether there are 275 falls along 2.7 kilometres. You can spend the whole day hiking different trails. We don’t have the energy left for more than one long walk, so we head to the crowning glory of the falls – Gargantua del Diablo=Devil’s Throat. We first have to wait for the small, slow moving train to take us to the very last station (reminding me of the American classic children’s book Little Engine That Could). Then we have to walk on a very long elevated path over some very calm waters, that belie what waits ahead, and past some small shady groves of trees.
There the utterly exhausted and sunburned to a crisp tourists are trying to gather strength. I must wonder at the stupidity of humankind. There are families with tiny babies, apathetic in the heat, young shirtless blond Germans and Scandinavian guys turning violent pink, women of all ages with thighs and cleavage burning hot, hot red with beginning of blisters. There are old people with aluminum walking sticks and wheelchairs, but without hats straight off the cruise liners that look like they will fall down or over the railing and into the falls at any moment. A great ploy by their relatives, who signed them for the cruise and the Iguazú Falls extension!
In the little groves local fauna happily finds refuge from the burning sun.
We have done a tour of an animal rehabilitation center the day before, but the tour was in Spanish only, so besides yellow or red beaked Toucans I don’t know any birds’ names.
I do know the coatimundis (or coatis for short)
that gather around places where tourists stop and especially delight the children. “Look, ma, coatie!” I want to join them, yelling out loud. I know they are just your basic relatives of our raccoon trash bandits, but they are awfully cute with their stripped tails , especially the little babies.
When we finally make it to the top of the falls the sceptical me has to admit they are spectacular.
Any other falls anywhere in the world fail to compare. Niagara or Victoria, not even close. I wonder how the first white people to see it, felt. It was in 1541 that local tribesmen took Adelantado Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca (imagine living with this name today Mr. Cow’s Head) to the falls they called very non poetically Big Water.
He was a Spanish explorer that had his unusually large share of misfortunes and shipwrecks. Surely he must have fallen on his knees to pray to his Christian God, the Creator. Heathens that we are, we admire Mother Nature and soft rock that my husband, the engineer, says is responsible for the falls.
Very hard to capture in words the power and majestic force of the falls and rocks. The poet in me wants to put it in verse, but my languages by now are so mixed up that I am at a loss.
You don’t have thepower to make rainbows or waterfalls, sunsets or roses, but you do have the power to bless people by your words and smiles. You carry within you the power to make the world better. – Sharon G. Larsen
Before I start singing praises to the beauty of the famous Lake country or the Wild West of Argentina I need to give you some advice on a challenging topic of transportation or more precisely renting a car in Argentina.
When we arrived to Argentina for the first time in the fall of 2002 with our children in tow, we were secure in our conviction that a reservation with Hertz will procure the high standard of service one (used to) expect from a well know travel brand.
Well, we were wrong, very wrong. Our middle sized car to transport five people turned out to be a Match Box size of the car seating less than one and half malnourished Pygmy from Amazonia with only one piece of luggage, an elegant office leather case filled with ten sheets of legal size paper plus a small gold Mont Blanc pen. Not much more! Fortunately for us, we were met by an Argentinian friend at the BA airport who was so disgusted by the service we received he made us cancel the reservation then and there, took us home and handed us the keys to his big car.
You’d think we learned our lesson. But no, hearing lots of horror stories about car rental in Argentina we made another reservation with big name Hertz in Bariloche. It is all just a franchise name on a shingle these days so upon arrival we went through highly anticipated exercise with Hertz airport office staff, rather entertaining to fellow renters. It was the reconciliation process between what they think we deserve and what we think we should get according to English print on our Hertz confirmation email. All arguments lost their weight and validity as the reality set in on discovering that Hertz (and the other rental car companies as well) had only one size of car anyway and only in either white or a few different shades of grey to chose from, and even those in short supply or awaiting return from the car wash.
Our assigned car was white,
a little bit bigger than the Match Box of 2002 (good) and we did not have any kids in the back seat (even better). After listening to a comprehensive warning on not leaving anything in the car when parking anywhere or even stopping for a pee break (lest the car gets broken in) we compressed our duffle bags into the trunk, and refreshing the fine memories of our teenage years driving manual stick cars in Europe, we settled for what was offered. Before you would count to ten we were on our way into the sunset to discover the beauty of this land and have, now a very late lunch with a new Servas friend Brenda. What a treasure to have planing advice from a local, and someone who really knows her backyard well.
Bariloche is a natural center of this region spread on the shore of one of the largest lakes here AND headquarters of the National Park with the same name of Parque Nacionál Nahuel Huapi. Do not even try to memorize it. After a week spent driving around it, I still do not remember it. Like many others. But the Park is about 85 years old, the first N.P. in Argentina and the most visited, thus bringing to Bariloche a huge tourist crowd to ad to 100,000 residents.
So we quickly decided to leave Bariloche behind and get further into the countryside where nature prevails over the number of tourists. First, going to the north we drove to the Land of Seven Lakes between Villa la Angostura, a much smaller, cosier town, at the northernmost reach of the Lago Nahuel Huapi and another N.P. Lanín. There are definitely more than seven lakes and rivers lining up Ruta 40, a famous highway running full length of Argentina from Tierra del Fuego on the eastern sides of Andes to the Bolivian border.
As the traffic on Ruta 40 became less dense, it made it much easier to stop at frequent miradors (view points) for picture taking
or having a late picnic lunch on the river bank.
The higher end lodges and hotels were replaced by plentiful campgrounds on more than breathtaking lakes
like this Lago Traful
serving at the estuary of the Río Pichi Traful their young backpacking and hitchhiking clientèle, (that we often tried to cram into our car)
in a natural Salón de Té with their drink of choice – mate té, an old indigenous Guarani Indian crop grown from special tree leaves.
We know that nothing can beat the beauty of Iguaçú Falls (see our next blog) but you simply could not neglect the local falls
with wide variety of birds making you unhappy that you have not developed sufficient birdwatching skills. Not having a big shot camera with even bigger télé lens would be to our disadvantage, but our trip’s artistic director easily bridged this gap by mastering her latest iPhone model.
Pleased with our progress we landed that day in the real jewel on the Ruta 40, a beautiful and the absolute cleanest clean town of San Martín de Los Andes. In spite of disappointing foggy weather next morning
we pushed nevertheless further north on unpaved roads stretching our minicar’s durability
and hoping not to loose some essential parts such as wheels, or non-essential parts like suspension (no biggie, after a mile or two on those kinds of roads you do not feel like you have any suspension, anyway). We proceeded ferociously towards the Parque Nacional Lanín. It was named after its main attraction, almost 12,400 feet (3780m) high Volcán Lanín,
which appeared just like Fata Morgana with its carved pyramid shape on the horizon over Lago Huechulafquen
(another local name difficult to read, correctly pronounce and memorize, tell me about it!). We did not try to reach its top, it would have taken us more than three days of strenuous effort and we would have had to shed more than 35 years off our shoulders (yes, on February 21, almost to this day 35 years ago, we succeeded in our attempt to reach the snowy top of Kilimanjaro!). Still we were rewarded by a garden like place at the base of the Volcán with a cozy Mapuche Indian church
with a coolest carved rendition of Nativity scene!
On it you can find all local flora and fauna including in the back the fantastical tree, we have never seen in the wild, only planted in the city scape or a botanical garden.
It is a national tree of Chile and it’s known scientifically as Araucaria Araucana but you may have heard it being called Monkey Puzzle tree or Monkey Tail tree.
Easily (actually extremely slowly) growing over hundred feet tall it is qualified as coniferous
but I would hardly call this green stuff on its branches needles; leaves seem to be a better fit, no matter how hard they are. What a treat to see a grove of these trees!
Our follow up trip on the comfortable boat crisscrossing one of the Lago Huechulafquen far reaching arms could not be spoiled even as the weather did not fully cooperate and soon hid the snow capped volcán behind the clouds.
We were so excited that nothing could stop us from crazily celebrating our trip on the nearby pedestrian bridge over a clean mountain river.
We knew we were in gaucho country as we started to pass estâncias. But then we started seeing people on horses all spiffed up in their best gaucho outfits. It is a yearly Puestero – a gaucho fiesta. What an amazing timing! Of course we have to stop! Let the pictures speak!
After three beautiful fun filled days spent north of Bariloche we decided to turn south and further into Andes even if it meant leaving the decent comfort of the paved Ruta 40 and more miles driven on bumpy mountain roads. We wanted to reach the base of glacier covered Cerro (Mount) Tronador where our leader hoped to secure with her charm a last minute room in Pampa Linda Lodge.
The plan was for her to ride a horse as high as she could towards the ice fields of Cerro Tronador with me following her on foot while feeding us both with trouts I would fish for in the mountain streams. Well, it did not work as planed as we overslept the crack of dawn horse expedition departure to Refugio and no fish could be found in icy waters of mountain streams and lakes this high up.
Nevertheless we did have a lot of fun even if the weather was changing by the minute.
In this part of the trip we learned an invaluable lesson about Horário enforced on certain mountain roads imposing one-way traffic in prevailing direction. We had no clue, of course, and were very surprised to find cars driving on our! side of the road, blinking their lights at us, and gesturing in unmistakably unfriendly ways! That was a hard lesson, indeed.
Then we were chased by the clouds
further south to the town of El Bolson, known as hippie capital of Argentina in 1980’s. There are still plenty of hippies left. They do all sorts of hippie things like making jewelry and jam, carving trees
or setting up great coffee shops and charming, artistic B&Bs.
Close by is a cabin where Butch Cassidy and Sundance Kid of of 1960’s movie fame
settled in 1901 with $32,000 ($2,500,000 today) of booty from their last American bank robbery. After Pinkerton detectives tracked them here, they ran away north to Bolivia where they found their end in the shootout with a platoon of Bolivian army in Santa Cruz.
We did not rob the bank, just enquired at the local Western Union office about moving some emergency cash from our home bank account to pay for our frequent visits in our favorite El Boson watering hole called Jauja (pronounced Hauha, huh?!)
Quality of their coffee
and helado (ice-cream) was unmatched by anywhere else in Argentina!
As we left Patagonia for warmer pastures the view from the plane bid us a blue goodbye!
Happy voices and laughter are wafting up to our 13th story Airbnb as I wake up from the heavy jet lag induced sleep. It is 7 am on Saturday morning and it is not that people in Buenos Aires get up early on weekends, they never went to sleep yet. It is still the continuation of the city wide party that started Friday night. The Portenos, as the inhabitants of inner Buenos Aires are called, really take the Latin partying to another level.
For once it is actually helpful for early birds like us, to have jet lag, so we can keep our eyes open for the late dinners and other fun activities planned by our new Argentinian friends.
Our trusty Servas International, the peace building organisation we have told you about many times before, comes into play again. Our main Argentinian contact is Ana. As we have exchanged plenty of emails and WhatsApp messages I know she is a glass artist, and a great organizer. (We will join her and Servas Argentina on a group trip at the end of our stay). Her husband is a screenwriter and film critic so we have fun discussions of art and movies. When we are not discussing the challenges of Argentine economics, their and our politicians, and life in general.
It is a rather strange, but auspicious coincidence that we have chosen our Airbnb not only in the same Palermo Soho neighborhood, but only a few blocks away from Ana’s home. It is great, because we will see each other more than once. The morning after our drinks and dinner together I am walking through absolutely deserted streets to Ana’s studio for an Intro to Glass class. I am joining her regular students and feel a bit intimidated, but as there is no glass blowing involved I quickly find a chair
and settle into choosing and cutting some glass pieces.
“It is not so much the artistic accomplishment,” says Ana, “it is more the experience of creative process, and totally clearing your head for a few hours!”
Then she bursts into laughter, her wild laugh cascading around her head, just like her black jaunty curls. It is a nice surprise when a day later she brings me the pieces “baked” in her studio oven.
Art is everywhere in Buenos Aires: in and on museums,
in galleries, and on any available flat surface, large
You will also find art in any public square, where a myriad of craftspeople and artists set up shop.
I can’t resist and buy just one beautiful hand carved necklace. It won’t take any space in my luggage, I will keep it around my neck!
It should come as no surprise that a simple ice cream window display can turn into art!
Even the public works are colorful. We loved this rainbow pedestrian bridge
leading to a park full of relaxed people enjoying their sunny Sunday, listening to music lying on the grass.
We tried our best to avoid tourists and touristy places. We did not go to visit Evita’s grave in Recoleta cemetery (we did 20 years ago and figured it hasn’t changed). Neither did we stand under the Casa Rosada balcony where she gave her famous speech. We were quite satisfied with this rendition.
We only drove past the famous Teatro Colon, but did go into two well known museums: MALBA (Museo de Arte Latino Americano)
and Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes. Both were wonderful and both held a special surprise. Besides grand works of art from Latin America and Europe they each also had a small, well curated room of pre Colombian art treasures.
We have a soft spot for “primitive” art! We love to see how these old patterns have been passed down through the centuries (the same textiles the figure is dressed in are still woven today) and how these striking, powerful human figures influenced modern artists.
Upon recommendation of our new friends we found a small Fundación Proa in La Boca, and were delighted to walk through a fun exhibition by British sculptor Anish Kapoor. You all know him for his reflecting Bean/Cloud in Chicago. Even though we like modern art we are often baffled by many contemporary pieces that fail to speak to us. (Perhaps you can relate?) But Kapoor is whimsical and thoughtful and engages the viewer on many levels.
Walking back through the colorful streets of La Boca
we can’t help but wade through the throngs of tourists, so we make the best of it by taking their photos.
Getting away from the crowds we come to a more serene environment of the old Buenos Aires
We feel transported back to Europe.
Especially when at the end of the day we find ourselves in front of a classic white Catholic church.
Ah, but the night is still young! How about a tango lesson? Courtesy of another Servas member Jorge, a tango teacher, who invites us to his home studio in fancy Retiro area. Mirek begs off due to his bad back, but I put on a brave face and shake off my two left feet.
Not willing to take advanced lessons 😉 we instead agree to meet next evening at Plaza Dorrago for some tango action. First we get a drink (ok, actually a bottle of Malbec) at a tango restaurant with a show put on by a friend of Jorge,
then we go out to admire the courage of regular folks– tango aficionados, young and old, that regularly come out in droves to practice their steps in the square late into the night.
Tango is synonymous with Buenos Aires, so it is encountered in many shapes and forms throughout the city, be it traditional
or more contemporary.
What else is synonymous with Buenos Aires and Argentina? Beef steak, of course. We surely will get more than our fair share of it on this trip,
and certainly must agree that
P. S. Traveling in Argentina is at times challenging, not in the least for weak WiFi, so putting together our blog posts requires additional patience and time. Your words of encouragement and remarks in comment section are therefore even more appreciated.