Iguazu Falls

Iguazu Falls

Iguazu Falls was nothing short of amazing. It was not on our original itinerary and a week before we firmed up our plans to go, Iguazu Falls, one of the largest in the world, actually ‘closed’. There had been so much rain in the areas that feed the falls, some of the walkways in the national park on the Argentina side flooded and washed away thereby forcing the closure. We waited a few days until they opened up a dam down river which caused the waters to recede enough and the falls to re-open. The heavy rains also resulted in spectacularly high volumes of water flowing from the falls.

big falls I

Luck continued to run our way. It costs about $150 each for visas to cross into Brazil but I read that sometimes they don’t require a visa if you’re just going to cross the border for the day. We shared a taxi with a British couple who also were supposed to have visas to cross into Brazil. No hassles and no problem crossing the border.

We enjoyed two sunny days viewing the falls, the first day was in Brazil, the second, Argentina. The water was dark from the runoff but the sun and mist resulted in rainbows everywhere.

full rainbow

The walkway on the Brazilian side runs right out into the middle of the river. Brazil has the best panoramic views.

Panorama from Brazil

Panorama from Brazil

The second day was spent in the national park in Argentina. Some of the walkways had indeed washed away.

Iguazu falls in Argentina

Iguazu falls in Argentina

This view is also from Argentina. The Brazilian walkway is between the two falls.

Brazil from Argentina. The Brazilian walkway is between the fall’s two levels.

The town of Puerto Iguazu in Argentina is at the border of three frontiers, Argentina, Paraguay and Brazil. Aside from a couple of walks, there’s not much to do so we headed back to Buenos Aires.

three frontiers

Advertisements
Buenos Aires and San Antonio de Areco

Buenos Aires and San Antonio de Areco

This place is crazy! I heard that phrase from locals several times within the first 24 hours of our arrival in Buenos Aires. The first time was in response to my story of the taxi ride from the airport. I read that taxis were required to use meters but apparently those rules don’t apply to taxis from the airport which is outside city limits. We were already in a taxi and on our way, perhaps a few hundreds yards from the airport, by the time I understood this (and the ridiculous rate he was going to charge) so I asked the driver to immediately stop and let us out. The driver wasn’t angry or insulted. He asked us to wait a minute while he called another cab. A couple of minutes later another taxi showed up, we switched cabs and got a ride to the city for a reasonable price.

The beautiful and opulent Colon Theater

The beautiful Colon Theater. In addition to a tour, we caught a free world-class concert

Inside the opulent theater

Inside the opulent theater

The existence of the so-called blue market exchange rate (actually, a black market that is pretty much out in the open and widely accepted) is another fact of life in Argentina. It may not exactly be crazy, but it highlights the extremely distressed financial state of the country’s economy. The official exchange rate hovers around $8 Argentinian Pesos to $1 US dollar, but the blue market exchange rate is around $11 AR to $1 USD….just shy of a 30% difference. Florida Avenue, a main tourist and local pedestrian thoroughfare, is filled with hawkers every few yards yelling “cambio, cambio, cambio” (money exchange), as if once was not enough. In researching this fiscal morass before arriving, I became acutely aware how important it is to spot fake counterfeit bills which apparently flood the market. Fortunately, going to Florida Street was not necessary as we had reliable recommendations of reputable places for money exchange–at the blue rate, of course.

Plaza de Mayo

Plaza de Mayo

Buenos Aires is distinctly different from any of the other seven or eight Latin American countries visited. It looks very European and has a palpable cosmopolitan flair. There are large expanses of open public spaces and in the two rainy days we experienced, we hit four museums while leaving plenty more to explore. The residents also look distinctly different as they are taller and have lighter skin. I also noticed that the men here seem to have a much greater propensity for baldness. I’m thinking that if I wasn’t wearing quick-dry pants all the time, I might actually get away with blending in as a local.

The Obelisk is a national historic monument and symbol of Buenos Aires

The Obelisk is a national historic monument and symbol of Buenos Aires

We’re lovin’ the people here. The residents are known as porteños (an inhabitant of the port) and we found them very friendly and hospitable. Our generous b&b hosts treated us to an asado (barbecue) on their patio with some of their family. Also, we reconnected with Gerardo, a porteño friend we met on the Blue Cruise in Turkey. He and his girlfriend, Antonela, graciously had us over to their home for dinner and great conversation. What delightful treats!

We explored this beautiful and engaging world class city by bus, Subte (subway), bike, and of course, by walking. We took a bike tour through the La Boca section of the city in which resides Caminito, a street museum and alley known as the inspiration for a famous Tango song of the same name.

Tango which originated in Argentina and Carlos Gardel was one of the most prominent figures

Tango originated in Argentina and Carlos Gardel was one of the most prominent figures

La Boca is also known as a rough, hard-core working class neighborhood and home to the famous Boca Juniors futbol (soccer) club. We would have liked to have gone to a soccer game but since the World Cup is on, all other play is suspended. It was suggested that we avoid soccer games since they can also be places where some people go to brawl, as much as, or perhaps even more than watch games.

In front of  La Bombanera, the Boca Juniors stadium

In front of La Bombonera, the Boca Juniors stadium

San Telmo is one of the oldest neighborhoods in Buenos Aires. It has a bohemian flair and its cobblestone streets are home to numerous cafes, antique shops, and tango parlors. On Sundays there is a street fair; one of the longest I’ve ever seen and featured artists, tango dancers, musicians and street performers.

San Telmo street fair

San Telmo

San Telmo was also a venue to see some fabulous tango dancers for free

Street 'performer'

Street performer

We split our time in Buenos Aires by heading out of the city, first to San Antonio de Areco, a town on the plains outside Buenos Aires which stands as the center of traditional gaucho culture. Distinct in many ways from cowboy culture in the US such as the clothing, the music and the gun-slinging of the old west, it shares various functional similarities as well as the reputation of the gaucho as a rugged individual and free spirit.

Cindy plays gaucho as Julian looks on

Cindy plays gaucho as Julian looks on

We visited a ranch, Estancia Florita to experience a taste of gaucho life. We had a great day being hosted by gaucho Juan Pablo and his ‘brother’ (actually his cousin), Julian. We did (or watched) all the typical things done on an estancia, drinking wine, eating tasty asado, riding horses, singing songs and playing guitar, and showing off horsemanship skills. My horse was aptly named, Tornado, and it seemingly had two speeds, walk and full gallop–definitely his preference! It was the equine equivalent of a Porsche. I was even given the chance to rope a calf which needed to be doctored for an infection. My roping skills need more practice. We watched one gaucho game which dated back to the 17th century and involved riding at full gallop to catch a small ring which hung from above using a pencil-sized object.

 Juan Pablo belts out traditional gaucho folklore music

Juan Pablo belts out traditional gaucho folklore music

My love of irony bizarrely extends to our experience with the buses. The seats of these excellent condition double-deckers are incredibly comfortable with wide, soft, moulded cushions in which you easily melt. As I could see from our front seats on the second level of the double-decker, the bus drivers are not at all aggressive and, unlike the car drivers, they stay neatly into their lanes. There were no food vendors or unplanned stops as in Colombia and Ecuador. But the comfortable ride, tranquil mood and comfort end with the buses’ timeliness. We arrived at the docking station on time only to find that our bus had not even reached the platform for its scheduled departure. In fact, it would be another half hour before our bus arrived at the station. We were unsettled but the other passengers looked unperturbed by the tardiness and seemed to take it in stride. Buses in every other country ran on time, but here in one of the more developed countries where we comforted on rolling lounge chairs, the buses were consistently late. One of the locals explained this as ‘tradition’.

We had concerns about the ride back to Buenos Aires as we had to catch a plane to Porto Iguazu. That bus was only 20 minutes late and didn’t cause concern, especially when we got to the airport and saw that our plane was running late.

The Galápagos Islands

The Galápagos Islands

Four days before heading to the Galápagos our third camera died on us. Now we are down to Cindy’s iPhone for photos, however, we were fortunate to have had a couple of our friendly fellow passengers share some of theirs.

The Galápagos flightless cormorant

Flightless cormorant

The Giant Galapagos Turtle can weigh over 800 pounds and live well beyond 100 years old in the wild

The Giant Galapagos Turtle can weigh over 800 pounds and live well beyond 100 years old in the wild

The Galápagos was not on our original itinerary so it gave us the option of booking a last-minute cruise. We just had to figure out how we’d go about getting one. The least expensive way would be to go directly to the Galápagos and buy our tickets there. Then the problem would be to wait an indeterminate amount of time on the islands for an appropriate spot to open up. Not knowing how long it would take, we elected to shop travel agents in Quito thereby allowing us to spend our ‘wait time’ where we would have more things to see and do. Even though it was low season, there were very few openings and our choices were very limited. We later learned that there was an article recently published in some well-read periodical about how it was a great time to get last-minute deals to the Galápagos. A friend who we met in school in Medellin was not so lucky. He went directly to the Galápagos and booked an amazing last-minute deal which was subsequently cancelled (due to over booking?) and he never got to cruise the islands.

A Galápagos sea-lion in its underwater habitat

A sea-lion in its underwater habitat

We signed up for an 8-day cruise on a 16-passenger motor yacht called the Yolita II. It was the diametric opposite of our experience on the Blue Cruise in Turkey, where we were the ‘old ones’. This time, there were 2-3 people in the 20’s or 30’s and the rest of the passengers were all about our age.

We saw many Galápagos Hawks

We saw a lot of Galápagos hawks

One of the amazing things about the Galápagos Islands is the general lack of fear the wildlife has around human activity. With a few exceptions, it was normal to get up close and personal with almost any creature.

A male Yellow Warbler

A male Yellow Warbler

Aside from guided wildlife walks, we snorkeled every day coming within feet of many creatures including sea-lion moms suckling their young, penguins and white tip reef sharks. Once, while snorkeling with penguins ‘flying’ back and forth, we saw a huge splash right in front of us. It was a blue footed boobie diving for food. Amazing!

A blue footed boobie

A blue footed boobie

A pair of masked boobies.

Masked boobies.

I like boobies!

The seas were extremely rough for the first few days. When we motored at those times, the boat rocked and rolled so much, I felt my body lifting off the bed. Sea-sickness was common and made for a lot of conversation among the passengers. I was fortunate and never had a problem. In fact, the motion of the boat helped me sleep like a baby.

The Galápagos Marine Iguana

Marine iguana

We like to think of the islands as pristine but, in fact, they are recovering. It’s only been the last few decades that has seen serious efforts for the preservation of the Galápagos environment. It was once used by pirates who took huge numbers of land tortoises for meat on their long voyages. They were followed by Spanish colonizers, large contingents of whalers, and as a base for the allies during WW II.

A sea lion nurses its pup

A sea lion nurses its pup

A couple of sally lightfoot crabs face-off

Sally lightfoot crabs face-off

A short-eared owl

Short-eared owl

A Galápagos penguin

Galápagos penguin

Lava gull

Lava gull

Galápagos land iguana

Galápagos land iguana

Green sea turtle

Green sea turtle

From the mountains to the sea

From the mountains to the sea

After leaving Quito, we headed for Baños, a small town located in the Andean highlands and well-known as a launching pad for numerous adventure activities.

We went white-water rafting on the Pastazas River which were probably class II and III rapids and provided more excitement than I had anticipated. For $20 each, it was easy to compare the Ecuadorean rafting experience with the rafting trip we did in New Zealand. Although we hit a couple of sections containing bigger hydraulics in NZ, they were punctuations in an otherwise placid river. The Pastazas River in Ecuador didn’t have huge hydraulics but it provided non-stop action for almost the entire trip. Notable as well was cost. NZ was over 5 times the price of Ecuador!

I believe our guide was messing with us but we amazingly we didn't flip

This didn’t happen in big water so I think our guide was just messing with us; amazingly we didn’t flip

Zip-lining was another thrill. There were six stations from which to ‘launch’ and for a couple of them we were set up to zip ‘superman-style’ in a horizontal position, head-first with our legs trailing behind in a sling. Since I had never used the camera for movies, I tried unsuccessfully to take one while superman-prone; a reminder to test equipment and functions before you need to use them!

I hope this was tested well

I hope this was tested well

We rode the cable car over Manto de la novio falls

We rode the cable car over Manto de la novio falls

The trip to the small fishing village of Mompiche on the Pacific coast was long and grueling. We got on the first bus at 6am backtracking to Quito. Once there, we caught another bus which crossed a spectacular mountain pass that was so high, the sky got dark as we passed through the clouds. We landed in a horrid stop-over city ironically named “Esmeraldas” (Emeralds) where we waited over an hour to board the final bus to Mompiche. It took a total of about 11 hours and we got there just as night fell. Getting to a destination before dark is always a good strategy.

Also, the trip was not without drama. At some point, we came to a stop and within seconds a guy yelled out, “Mi mochila!” (My backpack!). He came running forward and grabbed his backpack out of the hands of someone who tried to steal it. Fortunately, the thief didn’t get away with the goods and, although I couldn’t see everything, it appeared they held him upfront by the bus entrance for a short while. The woman across the aisle from me was vociferous in wanting the bus employees to call the police but the victim had gone back to his seat in apparent resignation and the thief walked away. Perhaps theft is so common and/or no one wanted to hold up the passengers progress.

The road to Mompiche ends at the beach

The road to Mompiche ends at the beach

Although most people there were friendly, Mompiche was the first place we traveled that I would describe as having a down-beat vibe. They just completed a newly paved road in 2012 and perhaps not all the residents were keen on all the new traffic and visitors. We did, however, find a restaurant on the beach that had the best ceviche of anywhere we ever visited.

Head straight 200 meters for the best ceviche ever! Turn around for a 7km stretch of pristine beach!

Head straight 200 meters for the best ceviche ever! Turn around for a 7km stretch of pristine beach!

We took a tour of the mangroves and commercial shrimp farms, but first…..

Happy island hopping!

Happy island hopping!

A cultural disconnect…?

Exiting Mompiche was the start of what could best be described as a strange chapter in our travels. We were running out of cash and since Mompiche and Canoa (our next destination) did not have an ATM, we had to stop in Pedernales for cash. It would not easy as it would involve several bus transfers. We were describing our situation to the restaurateur at our favorite ceviche haunt and he immediately introduced us to a guy who was heading in our direction and offered us a ride to Pedernales. What great luck! However, two days later at our scheduled meeting time and place, our ride was a no-call and no-show. (I saw this kind of behavior in Colombia, too. I had set up a few Spanish-English language interchange sessions with locals in Medellin, but they were often late or might not even show up. This was consistent with their reputations and could be very frustrating for people who are not accustomed to this way of life.)

By now, it was questionable if we’d make it to Canoa by dark. We hustled to take a taxi to the bus stop at the main road and the driver pulled a trick I hadn’t seen in a while. He explained that the $1 fare he quoted me before we got in was for one person not two and that I owed him another $1. Well, OK, you got me this time.

At the bus stop we met a group of 6 young people who were hitchhiking together. Interestingly, they got a ride in the back of pickup truck before the bus picked us up. (Though, we met up with them in Canoa and found out we arrived at about the same time.) This was getting more interesting.

Just before we hit the town of Chamanga, the Perdanales-bound bus was going out of town while ours was going in, so they both stopped on the fly to exchange passengers. Later, as we pulled into Pedernales, the bursar for a departing Canoa-bound bus was hawking tickets. I explained that I needed to stop at an ATM and he assured me there was one in Canoa. This was against all I read and heard so I confirmed with him at least twice that that was a fact. My gut told me this wasn’t right but we got on anyway and when we got to Canoa I asked where the ATM was located. He pointed in one direction, then the other, and then scurried back on the bus. Spanish was sure coming in handy but in the end there was no ATM and I got smoked anyway.

Canoa

Canoa was another fishing village turned tourist-town, though, larger and with a far more advanced infrastructure for tourism–except for not having an ATM, of course.

This is the last photo I took with the third camera that broke on this trip

This is the last photo I was able to take with the third camera that broke on this trip

Like Mompiche, I found most people in Canoa very friendly but a remarkable number of those who were not so. Perhaps they had enough of outsiders, or perhaps they just didn’t like the changes that had occurred in their town. Someone suggested they didn’t like people who came for a long time and didn’t bother to learn Spanish. I can understand how those things might frustrate some native residents.