Back in South America after thirty five years, it’s immediately clear that there is so much to see on this vast and varied continent that we would have to be traveling for another year at least if we wanted to experience it properly.
So for our few remaining months we’ve set ourselves the task of exploring a few regions of Argentina and Brazil, with the ambition to return – but maybe with a shorter interval between visits next time.
Landing in Buenos Aries after a long flight from New Zealand gave us the chance to adjust to a new continent. All the basic things work – water, money, transport, eating, pavements, accommodation. Indeed it’s considered the most European of Latin America’s big cities, and though of course Spanish is universal there were plenty of locals who took pity on us and helped out with English.
We’d booked a room in Milhouse Hostel, a good choice in the heart of the city with lots of organised activities, including a walking tour of the barrio of La Boca. A traditional working class area, with a history of European immigration and radical politics, it is famous for its colorful tin covered buildings and walkways. These are said to have been inspired by one of its most famous sons, artist Benito Quinquela Martín who used his fame and wealth to provide medical care and facilities in the area.
And of course La Bombonera football stadium is in the heart of La Boca, where large sections remain standing areas, ensuring a ‘waterfall’ of fans when Boca Juniors score.
La Boca, despite the tourist visits remains a vibrant community.
We spent the rest of our time in BA, visiting museums, watching a Tango performance and walking through the eerie streets of mausoleums in La Recoleta cemetery, where Eva Peron is buried.
Salta, in the mountainous north west of Argentina, with its Spanish colonial buildings and Andean culture, was a real contrast to cosmopolitan Buenos Aries. It is also a popular destination for Argentineans, and we had trouble getting accommodation in the local holiday season. Luckily we found an Airbnb place in the centre of town (Posta del Àngel) and our plan was explore the city for a few days and then hire a car and drive into the mountains. The town square, elaborate churches, yummy empanadas, cold Salta beer and local restaurants all gave off a very relaxed vibe, and the Andean culture reminded us of Bolivia, all those years ago.
We also visited the museum of High Altitude Archaeology, where the three mummified bodies of the Children of Llullaillaco are kept. They were discovered in 1999, at 6,800 metres on the border between Argentina and Bolivia. The mummies are Inca child sacrifices from the sixteenth century who were sacrificed to appease the gods and it was usually the children of the elite who were chosen. They were taken to Cusco and then sent high up in the mountains across the Empire where they were drugged, froze to death and then entombed. Seeing these mummified children was a sad, poignant moment, and to me a reminder of the insanity of religion.
Our planned journey in to the mountain regions around Salta quickly fell apart when we turned up at the local Hertz car hire, only to be told they had no cars, despite having booked the car a week in advance and visiting the office twice beforehand. There were no other cars available in town. Luckily, even though we had checked out of Posta del Àngel, Marta was kind enough to let us back, and we then spent hours booking day tours of the area, which it must be said turned out to be well organised and informative.
North to Humahuaca
The tour ran along the Humahuaca gorge and the Rio Grande, once part of the Inca trails across the altiplano, connecting the vast empire.
The startling colours of the sedimentary layers, twisted and thrown up in dramatic patterns were a striking feature of this journey. The village of Purmamarca set at the base of the seven colour hill also had a busy artisan market.
The village of Humahuaca is dominated by a large statue, commemorating the native chasqui in the fight for independence.
The Pukara fortress in Tilcara is impressive, because of its size and because it is the most extensive example of the pre Inca society that existed before the mid 16th century. It’s a harsh landscape, with giant cacti growing down the valley.
The next day we were to head high in to the altiplano, following the original route of the ‘Tren de Los Nubes’, the train of the clouds, with some track, viaducts and switchbacks still in place. This region is important for its mining, as you get higher, very little grows in this immense dry climate.
Lower down we spotted some ostriches that had come off the mountains in search of water, a Vicuna and a heard of llamas, brightly tagged and running across the path of our van.
From a high point of 4,170m (around the height of the Matterhorn), where the air is thin, we dropped down to the Salińas Grandes at 3,400m (Ben Nevis in Scotland comes in at 1,350m).
We tried some fun pictures with two great people from Barcelona, but I’d say I need to work on my technique🤣
On our third day out of Salta we headed South to Cafayate. Again we encountered dramatic rock formations and vast empty landscapes, particularly as we headed through Quebrada de Las Conchas, the gorge of the shells, with 60 million year old sedimentary rock.
We saw a condor soaring above our heads at Tres Cruces, visited a winery in the quaint town of Cafayete and headed for home before an early morning flight down to Puerto Iguazú and the falls.
The Iguazú National Park covers an area of subtropical rainforest on the border with Brazil. Within the park on the Iguazú River, the Iguazú Falls encompasses over 200 separate cascades, including the iconic Garganta del Diablo or ‘Devil’s Throat’.
It is, first and foremost, an experience of the power and wonder of a natural phenomenon and, as such descriptions and photos cannot do it justice. The Argentinean park is brilliantly designed to bring you close to the falls on accessible tracks through the rainforest. If you can, go!
On our second day we explored the lower area and took the boat through the rapids and into the falls. It was a great way to get close and appreciate the waterfalls intensity. You also get very wet!
Brazil – Foz de Iguaçu
It’s just a short bus ride to Brazil, though our driver abandoned us at the visa checkpoint, and we had to catch the next one to Foz de Iguaçu. As a town it lacks the charm of its Argentinean neighbour, but we were there to see the falls from the Brazilian side, before heading to the east coast – Rio and beyond. They say that Argentina has the falls, but Brazil has the views. While it certainly is an impressive perspective, we preferred the varied experience from Argentina.
We also caught some wildlife in a sanctuary near the park.
So our plan is to head to Rio, then up the coast to Bahia, Salvador and beyond. After nearly two years on the road it feels strange to have an end date – a flight out of Recife at the end of September.
Lots left to see and do before then. 🌏