SOUTH AMERICA OVERLAND #5

8-Mar-2009: Buenos Aires, Argentina (Argentina, Uruguay, Brazil, Argentina)

Pampas! Pampas! Pampas! It’s not the brand of baby diapers nor is it the brand of readymade shortcrust and puff pastry. The Pampas is prime cattle-grazing and agricultural country covering Central and Northern Argentina. The climate is temperate and the land can range from flat, wide, fertile and grassy to undulating, scrubby and from a traveller's perspective, uninteresting and monotonous. As a whole though, pampas is the mainstay of the pastoral and farming economy of Argentina.

It was a beautiful morning when we said goodbye to Simon and departed Bariloche heading East across the Pampas towards Buenos Aires. For most of the day, we were climbing and descending in altitude as we weaved our way around rugged mountains and the Rio Negro. We saw a huge damming project in progress for hydroelectricity. Once again, we were buffeted by strong winds. Perhaps Argentina should be harnessing all this wind power to generate electricity as well. We climbed to a height of 1166 metres above sea level. We passed through Parador mid afternoon. From here, the mountains flatten out to wide, grassy plains the Spanish call La Pampa.

Sometimes, the drive was reminiscent of the Hay district in western New South Wales with dry grass, salt bushes, prickles and dusty haze. Most of the time, we found the drive quite interesting especially for Geoff who grew up on a wheat and sheep farm in the Riverina area of NSW, Australia. When we drove through the farming city of Neuquen, we were very surprised to see three MacDonalds restaurants and a Walmart on the highway! The highway traffic was very busy with many trucks transporting cattle and produce from farm to city railheads. By late afternoon, we had come 481 kms to Cipolletti which is the heart of apple growing country. There were other fruits such as melons, nectarines, grapes and peaches on offer at the roadside stalls as well. Just like in Australia, the “vegetable police” were out and about checking vehicles for any contraband produce. They had a quick glance in the back of Troopy and asked the usual questions of where we were from and where were driving to. We were not sure if we were allowed to bring produce into this area or take produce out of one fruit growing area into another. Maybe they were looking for drugs? The police were very helpful in directing us to a campsite near the Rio Negro Boating Club. This seemed to be a recreational area with lots of locals having a picnic and swim in the river. We weren’t sure if we were allowed to camp the night on what looked like pristine turf at a golf club. It was another windy night so we figured there would not be anyone playing golf in this gale so no danger of straying golf balls.

The next day, we left our campsite fairly early to continue on our travels across the Pampas. We took Ruta 6. The area around General Roca was a heavily irrigated fruit farming area. We also saw some well organised housing communities like housing commission homes, all very new with tidy streetscapes and young trees planted kerbside. We wondered if this was company housing provided for employees of a big fruit growing company. From here, the road took us through flat, expansive country at 325 metres above sea level. This looked like the dry station country around Alice Springs in the NT except that the soil is not red in colour. There were also emu-like birds and some cattle at a watering station with birds of prey circling in the skies above. The road was paved and in very good condition.

By mid-afternoon as we drew close to General Acha, the dry thorny shrubs gave way to tall mulga-like trees/shrubs. There was a bit more grazing grassland for goats and cattle. We turned onto Ruta 18 and thought we were back in Australia as the road was lined with Australian gum trees. This road had less traffic. Along with a beautiful temperature and vivid blue skies, we enjoyed the drive through Macachin, Rivera and Tres Lagunas. We saw lots of cattle and tall sunflowers. This was our longest driving day where we covered 618 kms. It was about 7.30 pm when we pulled into a truck parking lot adjacent to a huge grain silo compound near Guamini. The security guard from the grain compound walked over to check us out and very kindly allowed us to camp the night. We noticed whole paddocks of very stunted maize crops and we were told that this was due to the lack of rainfall. There was just enough light left for us to cook dinner and watch the birds happily feeding on the loose grain in the compound.

The next day offered more farming land as we pushed on towards Buenos Aires through San Carlos de Bolivar and Saladillo. Just an hour before Lobos, we stopped to have a look at Laguna Lobos and found lots of families camping and having picnics at the Laguna campground. The lake was not the most picturesque as the water was a muddy brown colour, along with a suspect stench in the air. We strolled across to a nearby produce market where we tasted and bought local cheeses and salami. All through Chile and Argentina, the favourite spread on bread seems to be “dulce con leche.” It is a very sweet caramel tasting spread. Just as Aussies love Vegemite, the South Americans love “dulce con leche.”

It was after 4 o’clock when we left Lobos and joined the highway to Buenos Aires. The road was lined with gum trees. We eventually found ourselves on the freeway towards Buenos Aires, along with thousands of other vehicles. It was an unusual sight to see families having a picnic, kite-flying and kicking a football on the grassy verges alongside the freeway. There were even some kids on quad bikes whizzing up and down the length of the grass verges oblivious to the traffic speeding by. This just would not be allowed in Australia!

Buenos Aires is a large city of 12 million people. Finding our way to the German Club would have been near impossible except for the wonders of GPS. Having entered the coordinates of the German Club in to the GPS, we merely followed its every direction which led us directly to our destination. The GPS took us through a very busy light industrial suburb. The buildings and infrastructure deteriorated in standard. Things looked quite run-down. There was a lot of rubbish everywhere, big mounds of rubbish. We wondered if we were on the right track. However, we had been warned that we had to get through a very rough area before reaching the German Club. The road leading up to the German Club was a dirt road full of potholes!

Finally, Kienny caught sight of a swimming pool behind a fence. It was a busy Sunday afternoon at the Club with members and their families enjoying a birthday pool party. We drove through a whitewashed entrance archway, down an avenue of trees before turning into the German Club. The security guard raised the boom gate to let us in. We found the caretakers Laura and Pochco who made us very welcome. They took us on a quick tour of the Club facilities which included a gymnasium, indoor soccer hall, 10 clay tennis courts, 4 soccer fields, swimming pool, dining room, shower and changing rooms. The vehicles in the car park were mostly Mercedes Benz, BMWs and Audis. Many of the members at the pool looked like they had been on a sunbaking holiday in the Mediterranean. The ladies were very fashionably dressed, as were the men in their white shorts, sneakers, polo t-shirts, accessorized by chunky gold watches, silver bracelets and gold neck chains. A number of them were from a German immigrant background. We felt right at home in our daggy shorts and t-shirts!

We had a good night’s sleep despite the noise of aeroplanes above our heads as we were not far from the BA International Airport. The security guard’s dogs were also barking throughout the night in concert with the other dogs in the neighbourhood. We were awoken early in the morning by busloads of college boys arriving for soccer training. After breakfast, we took Troopy to a nearby service station for an oil change.

The Land Rover travelling with us had been having a differential problem for quite some time now and the service station owner found a mechanic to help. Reuben Catania the mechanic came and led us back to his workshop at home and got to work on the Land Rover. He seemed to be very knowledgeable about everything mechanical with an immaculately tidy workshop. Woe betides anyone who puts his tools back in the wrong place. Every spanner, socket, wrench and saw had a trace around it so no one can make a mistake as to where each tool belonged on the wall. He spoke no English but we spoke a little Spanish. Somehow, we managed to understand each other. He had been a mechanic for over 35 years and is semi-retired. He liked to tinker with speedway cars. He even had one in his workshop! Feeling very proud of his toy, he started up the engine and gave us all a big shock when it revved up with a loud and sharp bang like a big clap of thunder and lightning! He loved to take his pride and joy to the speedway events with his mobile bus/home. The photos and certificates on his garage wall showed that he had contact with local speedway heroes. Reuben’s wife popped over from their house to say hello. She brought along the most adorable and friendly Rottweiller we have ever come across. He was a very big dog!

After the Land Rover was fixed, we decided to ask Reuben if he knew of a welding shop where we could get Troopy’s roof pillar welded after another hairline crack had appeared while we were driving along the Carretera Austral Highway. He very kindly took us to Enganches Trabajos Especiales and begged the owner to stay open a bit longer to work on Troopy. The job was done very efficiently and professionally. The price was also very reasonable compared to that charged for the oil change earlier in the day.

The day went so quickly that it was after dark when we started cooking our dinner. The weather was very hot and humid and we went to sleep inside Troopy with our portable fan running most of the night until a big thunderstorm brought some relief by cooling the temperature down significantly.

The next day was spent tidying up Troopy and cleaning out the Engel fridge and doing some laundry. We packed some clothes into backpacks as we planned to catch a remis, a private hire car, to the airport to collect an Aussie girl joining the Land Rover and then all head into Buenos Aires for the next 4 nights. This way, we did not have to worry about parking the vehicles securely in down-town Buenos Aires. We would use the metro, taxis, buses and walk everywhere in the city. We had already pre-booked our accommodation at the Carlos Gardel Hostel in SanTelmo. We found a big supermarket to restock our food supply and found a very cheap internet cafe in close proximity to the German Club.

Our remis arrived on time at 9.30 am the next day. After collecting our new travelling companion at the Ezeizer International Airport, we caught a bus into Buenos Aires. We needed to make sure we had the right amount of coins to put into the ticket machine as no change was provided. The bus journey took two hours and it was late in the afternoon by the time we checked into our rooms at the Hostel. Total cost for the two hour bus ride was very cheap at ARG$2, AUD$0.67 or US$0.53.

The Carlos Gardel Hostel is a quaint establishment with a nostalgic tango theme featuring Argentina’s famous entertainer, Carlos Gardel. Upon stepping through the big double wooden doors with inlaid leadlight glass panels and wrought iron bars, we were greeted by the bright red paint on the walls. Posters and pictures of Carlos Gardel as a singer and tango dancer keeping company with adoring female fans hang prominently on every floor of this 4 storey hostel. One could easily imagine how grand this house would have been back in the heyday of the 50’s era. It is now a very popular hostel with a very good reputation and in a very good location. The hostel is also next door to the Federal Cafe which serves very good meals and apple strudel. It is always full of backpackers from all the hostels in the San Telmo area.

San Telmo is a very charming and nostalgic part of Buenos Aires with lovely colonial buildings. The streets in the main part of the historical suburb are paved with cobblestone. This area is well known for its opulent antique shops. There are also stalls in the open plaza area that sell bric-a-brac, craft, intricate hand woven jewellery by the indigenous people and gypsies. On certain days, one can catch the tango right in the heart of the plaza. It was very pleasant exploring this historical area on foot. There are many cafes, nightclubs, restaurants and interesting shops. We also enjoyed walking through the historic Mercado San Telmo which reminded us of the Queen Victoria Market in Melbourne. It had a mixture of stalls offering fresh fruit and vegetables, meat, small goods and cheeses, souvenirs, a wide range of antiques, tools and all things musical, kitsch ornaments and fashion.

For the past few weeks, we had been thinking about going to Brazil. It would be an ideal time to go since the Carnivale will be on. We toyed with the idea of going through Uruguay into Brazil and taking the coastal route to Rio de Janeiro. We found the Brazilian Embassy and submitted our applications for tourist visas, one of only two countries that require a visa for Australians, as well as booked ferry tickets from BA across to Colonia, Uruguay. Whilst in BA, we also booked our bus tickets to Santiago Chile, where we were due to catch our flight home to Australia in March.
 
It was very convenient to be able to do all our paperwork in the city and have time in the afternoon to visit the tomb of Evita Duarte Peron, the adored former first lady, do the river walk, as well as explore the business and shopping precincts in the heart of BA. The shopping was not much different to that in Australia, Europe and the US except for leather goods and other Argentine souvenirs. The shopping boulevard was a hive of people going to work, sales reps trying to get us to book a tango dinner or order a made-to-measure leather jacket. There were many cafes, restaurants, MacDonalds and ice-cream parlours.

We were very amused to see the different ways things were done in Argentina. While traffic was stopped at the intersection waiting for the lights to turn green, three men holding advertising billboards would position themselves on the pedestrian crossing and wave at the drivers to get their messages across. At another intersection, a clown would perform a quick juggling act with balls or skittles and hope that they would have helped alleviate the boredom of drivers and receive some loose change for their performance. The most popular activity at traffic intersections would be the selling of bottles of water. How enterprising! Whatever it takes to make a living, to survive!

While in BA, we also caught up with our new found friends we met on our Antarctic expedition. Ken and Carol were in the cabin next door to us on the Clipper Adventurer, the ship that took us to Antarctica. Now here is another way to travel! They were taking two years to see the world by renting apartments in a city a month at a time and really getting a feel for the local way of life, language and culture. They could also do day and weekend trips to all the well known tourist attractions. It was lovely to catch up with them. Their rented apartment was very nice and secure.

The highlight of our stay in BA would have to be La Boca. It is a riverside neighbourhood with a colourful history going back to the Spanish and Italian immigrants who started their new lives on the Riachuelo River in the late 1880’s. This neighbourhood was once a vital port for processing and shipping beef. Apparently, the dockside workers who worked on maintaining the barges that used to ply the river used the colourful leftover paints for their homes. This started a trend that La Boca is well known for today. We were warned by our guidebooks that La Boca was a rough neighbourhood and to carry as little as possible. So we left our camera behind as we walked from San Telmo to La Boca.

When we got there, we were so surprised to see busloads of tourists with cameras draped around their necks, being dropped off at Caminito which is the most famous section of La Boca. The scene before us was a feast of colour, music and wonderful aromas of food from the parillas and cafe restaurants! The houses, walls and fences were all very colourful. It was a beautiful sunny day and the tango dancers were out offering to dance and pose for a donation. We saw life sized “Betty Boop” like statues/sculptures on the iron rail balconies of many old buildings in Caminito. Some were sculptured after famous Argentine celebrities like Maradona the former Argentine football hero, Carlos Gardel, Evita and of everyday people. Local artisans were out in force showing off their amazing art and craft. We were very tempted by beautiful paintings of Tango dancers and of the La Boca streetscape. We had so much fun and felt quite safe and at ease that we decided we had to return the next day with our camera! So glad we did!

After four very enjoyable days of exploring and experiencing BA, it was time to take the remis taxi back to the German Club. We were glad to find Troopy safe and well. We spent the rest of the day grocery shopping and checking internet. The next morning the GPS again did a great job taking us back into the heart of the city of Buenos Aires straight to the Buquebus Ferry Terminal where we were to load Troopy onto the jetcat ferry bound for Colonia, Uruguay. It was a very modern terminal building. Customs and Immigration proceedings were very straightforward. The jetcat ferry was made in Australia with very plush interior. There was even a first class section on the upper deck but we were not entitled to enter that section on our discounted tickets. The onboard duty-free shop opened for business as soon as we pushed off from the dock.

We arrived at about 6.30 pm in Colonia and Troopy was promptly processed by the customs officers and given a 12 month vehicle permit. The customs officers were very friendly and courteous. They made us feel very welcome. The old township of Colonia was not far from the port where we disembarked the ferry. It is a very laid-back former colonial town with historic stone buildings and streets paved with cobblestone. Some of the old stone quarters had iron balconies. On nearly every street corner we saw very old motorised bicycles and vintage cars. Some of the buildings have been restored and turned into fancy upmarket shops and restaurants. We walked down to the water’s edge and onto the pier. Looking back at the town, the shoreline was guarded by swaying willows and palm trees. People were chugging along on their scooters, even golf buggies, going about their business. Colonia is a popular retreat for many Argentine families looking for a weekend break. What a tranquil idyllic place. It was as if time stood still momentarily.

We found an ATM machine to withdraw cash and went down to the restaurant near the beach to have a cool drink and catch the beautiful setting sun. Quite a lot of Uruguayans spoke a little English which was music to our ears! That night, we managed to find a campsite on the outer boundary of the Colonia International Airport. We awoke to a light plane practicing take-off and landing on the runway. We left our campsite as soon as we could to avoid questions being asked about why we were camped so close to the international airport runway.
 

We arrived at Montevideo around lunchtime. The port area was just a very busy and dull looking place with lots of trucks hurrying back and forth. We parked Troopy and explored the more charming old city area of Montevideo on foot. There were lots of historical European style buildings to look at, with different styles of architecture. Once again, we found some cobblestoned streets, a pedestrian mall with MacDonalds, Burger King and Coca Cola reigning supreme. We visited a very grand palace recommended by some locals for its superior architecture and they were right. It was a very grand building indeed!

We left Montevideo quite late in the evening, taking the coastal route eastwards. It was starting to rain and the urban coastal sprawl seemed to go on forever. We were short of camping options and eventually found ourselves taking a room in the Montevideo Yacht Club. This was a 7-storey building with gym and sauna, swimming pool, restaurant and mooring facilities for yachts of all shapes and sizes. The sky was very overcast with storm clouds and the wind was howling and rushing through the whole building. The sea was very choppy and murky in colour. The rooms and bedding were very run-down but we were thankful for a roof over our heads. We sat up for a little while watching the storm and the beautiful nightlights of Montevideo along the coastline. There were lots of high-rise beachfront apartments that must surely be worth a princely sum.

The next morning, we awoke to crystal clear blue skies, sunshine and a light breeze. Ladies were in the gym doing aerobics to Abba music. Young boys arrived for their yachting lessons in the morning followed by windsailing late morning. Young ladies were dropped off for their tennis games. The older men arrived to bare their hairy chests by the pool. Kienny also discovered the cleanest and nicest bathrooms in all of South America! The tempest that occurred overnight seemed surreal now!

We left the prime real estate and surf of Montevideo and proceeded along the highway hugging the coastline. Everything in Uruguay seemed very tidy and orderly. The highways were first-class with road tolls to match too. We chanced upon a sleepy beachfront village called Rochas and found an empty lot near the beach at La Pedrera to set up camp for the night.

Our coastal trek continued the next day as we drove through Cabo Polonia where we found many families parking their conventional cars and jumping on board a safari 4WD with high viewing seats. These vehicles were going to take them down to the beach for the day where they could swim, picnic, indulge in whale watching activities and see seal colonies and penguin rookeries. It was lovely to see so many families enjoying time together. No doubt the owners of this lucrative business would have made a lot of money by stopping public access to this beach.

We continued on to check out the beach at Aguas Dulces. This was a lovely sandy beach with a lot of people relaxing on the beach, working on their suntans. A little further along was Punta de Diablo which was the busiest of all the beaches we have been to. The surf was modest but that did not stop the novices from trying. Lots of tourists were at the point to see the waves create a blowhole effect near the jagged rocks close to the beach. There were many lovely beach houses and holiday shacks all along the coastline. The streets were busy with art and craft market stalls and roadside cafes and restaurants. This area was popular with many backpackers, local and foreign.

By late afternoon, we had arrived at Laguna Negra where we met 4 lovely Argentine lassies. They were childhood best friends and all were attending university in BA. They spoke reasonable English even though they had learned it as an elective in high school. We wondered how they were getting around as they did not have any backpacks and they were walking from the main road to the Lake which was quite a few kilometres. We were not exactly sure where they were going to spend the night. All they had was a small rucksack containing mate leaves, hot water flasks and the traditional mate gourds and metal straw. They joined us for a swim and paddle down at the black volcanic lake. We also met a young Uruguayan family swimming in the lake and started talking with them. The husband was a medical researcher while the wife was the Director of Intensive Care at the hospital. They spoke very good English and gave us the impression that the public health care system in Uruguay was very efficient and accessible to all. They were very proud of their country. After spending the night camped in the deserted car park at Laguna Negra, we took another detour to the Santa Teresa Fort. This historic fort was strategically located atop a hill and commanded a very good panoramic view of the whole territory and the coast.

Though we had not seen very much of Uruguay, we were very impressed with all that we saw. The towns and roads seemed very tidy and well planned. People were very friendly and seemed content. Life here seemed very peaceful and relaxed. We were very pleased to have seen a little of Uruguay, a country that took us by surprise, a gem of the East!

We arrived at the border towns of Chuy/Chui depending on which side of the border one was standing on. Chui is in a free-trade zone. The town was divided into the Uruguayan side and the Brazilian side by a divider in the middle of the road. Shops selling duty free alcohol, electrical and all sorts of other consumer goods lined both sides of the street. We were told that the famous Brazilian made Havaianas thongs (flip-flops) were the cheapest here! So, we went on a mission to buy Kienny a pair of these most desirable flip-flops. We darted from one side of the street to another to find a bargain. After much persistence and patience, we found a good deal and had just enough Uruguay pesos left over to buy ice-creams.

From Chui, we had to drive about 20 kms before we came to the Brazilian border post. We were helped by a very lovely female customs officer with blonde hair, tanned complexion, wearing a knitted jersey, tight denim jeans, red high heeled shoes and lightly shaded aviator sunglasses. She looked like Farrah Fawcett from the old TV program called Charlie’s Angels! We had no problems clearing customs and getting a one month temporary vehicle import permit. After customs, we had to drive a further 20 kms to the next town called Santa Vitorio du Palmar and find the Federal Police Immigration station to get our passports and visas stamped into Brazil. We found this to be a very unusual procedure as we were used to clearing immigration first followed immediately by customs usually at the next counter.

Southern Brazil was very lush green and a little humid. We saw lots of rice plantations and the ever adaptable Australian gum tree. As we made our way towards Rio Grande, the road took us through an ecological corridor. We had to stick to the speed limit of 60 km per hour so as not to disturb the abundant wildlife being protected in this sanctuary. That gave us plenty of time to enjoy the drive and look out for birds and other critters. We saw some wombat like creatures in the muddy waters on the sides of the road. After consulting our guide books we finally concluded that this was a Capybara, the world’s largest rodent. Forget the mouse trap! The Capybara weighs about 70 kg and can grow up to a length of 1 metre. It had a face like a guinea pig with a bulky hairy body, no tail and is a herbivore. They seemed very happy foraging for food and hiding in the marshlands.

It was getting late by the time we arrived in Rio Grande. We tried to find a ferry to get us across to a National Park but to no avail. We also tried to get Brazilian cash from the ATM but that was not easy as not all ATMs liked our array of debit and credit cards. It was not easy to tell which ATMs had an international connection as there were no stickers on the machines. Finally, we struck gold! As we headed out of town, we pulled into a large truck stop. We positioned ourselves in between two long-haulers who were also spending the night there. The truck driver of one of them was very friendly and he did not mind us being there. So after setting up camp and having had dinner, we pulled out our Portuguese phrasebook to try and communicate with our friendly truck driver. It was disappointing not being able to communicate more, but we somehow managed to get a few points across. It was hard enough speaking Spanish but Portuguese was a big ask. Fortunately, they could understand a little Spanish. All night long there were trucks coming and going as this was a big port city in southern Brazil.

The next morning, we left the truck stop in Rio Grande and headed for Porto Alegre and Canoas. We passed through very green fertile countryside reminiscent of driving in Malaysia. Porto Alegre and Canoas were big cities with very colourful high-rise apartments. The supermarkets were very big with lots of fresh food and vegetables on offer. We had to make a stop at MWM International, Canoas for our travelling companion in his Land Rover to look for more parts for his vehicle. Three hours later, we pushed on towards Gramado through Sao Leopoldo, Novo Hamburgo and Nova Petropolis.

The BR 116 highway was a smaller road that took us through hilly countryside. This area has a very German Alpine feel to it as we travelled between 500 to 800 metres in altitude. The air was cooler and the hills very green. It was very easy to forget that we were in South America! The shops, homes and towns had a distinct German architectural style. The people also had fair complexion. Many young men had fair blonde hair! We tried to find a bush campsite but it was impossible in this very agricultural landscape. Every plot had a crop of tomatoes, beans and corn. The empty ones had cattle and sheep and were all fenced off. Finally, we found hostel accommodation at Hospedaje Bom Pastor in Linha Brasil. Our Dutch friend travelling with us in Troopy took a room while the rest of us in Troopy and Land Rover camped on the side of the Hostel and paid the proprietor for the use of the toilet, shower and laundry. It was a strange thing to find everyone in this area speaking German, much to the delight of our Dutch friend who was fluent in German as well as Spanish.

Late the next morning, we left Linha Brasil. As we came to Nova Petropolis, we came upon the 36th Annual Agriculture Fair. We decided to stop and take a look as there were balloons, colourful costumes and the smell of food! Our farming friends would enjoy looking through the machinery in the front yard. There were tractors of all shapes and sizes, wood chopping machines, small harvesters and all terrain quad bikes. For the ladies, there were a handful of craft stalls and fresh produce for sale. In the main hall, there was a local church choir singing German folk songs accompanied by an Oom-Pah band consisting of the guitar, accordion, trumpet, tuba and saxophone. With all the toe tapping and swaying happening, we were half expecting some people to start dancing and yodelling. The more serious activity was the fresh produce show hall upstairs. Here, the farmers from all around the highlands submit a punnet of their best strawberries, squash, tomatoes, eggs, peaches and plums to be judged for colour, presentation, size, texture and taste. The dining hall downstairs was being prepared for a big banquet or beerfest that evening. Kienny thought the best part of this fair were the fried savoury potato cakes and salami. All in all, it was a very enjoyable fair!

Our food trail did not end at the Agricultural Fair. All afternoon, we passed through many “alpine” towns like Canela and Gramado. Troopy did very well climbing to an altitude of 1110 metres. These German towns were all very pretty with log cabins, cuckoo clocks, outdoor cafes with climbing roses and bright pink and red bougainvilleas, water fountains and interesting statues sculpted of wood and other media. These affluent towns were also very crowded with tourists, probably trying to escape the summer heat and humidity.

In Gramado, we stopped at two chocolate making stores. We were like eager beavers as we marched straight into “chocolate heaven.” We bought about 10 different pieces of chocolate as we could not decide which one was the least fattening! These stores really know how to make us long for chocolate. The chocolates were displayed very cleverly with pretty packaging, ribbons and bows. The car park had an area where the kids will have to walk through the confectionary to get to the play equipment. They even had a chocoholic’s cafe with computers set up to entertain the kids. Kienny went over to one of the computers and discovered that it was connected to the internet and so we all had a round of hot chocolate (melted chocolate) while we checked our emails!

It was late in the day by the time we finished at the chocolate factory. We took a smaller road towards the Fortaleza Canyon and followed a quiet logging track into the thick of a timber plantation. That night, we were treated to a sound and light show. The fireflies provided the light display while the mosquitoes supplied the buzzing music in our ears!
 
We woke up early on our 24th wedding anniversary. Never did Kienny believe when she married Geoff, that they would be driving around the world in a Toyota Landcruiser, camping at nights hidden away off the sides of the road with no shower or toilet facilities. She is hoping for a modest motor home when Geoff retires! As we were packing up, we heard the sound of lumberjacks starting up their chainsaws and felling trees not too far from where we were camped. We drove a short distance to Cambara do Sul where we found the tourist information office. We wanted directions to get to Parque Nacional Aparados de Serra. When we arrived there an hour or so later, we discovered that the Parque was closed. It was a little disappointing as we were told that this was a spectacular National Park.

We stopped at a highway restaurant and decided to try the “eat-by weight” meal deal. We had read about the vast array of meats, salads, vegetables and desserts on offer for quite a reasonable price. Our eyes widened as we were confronted with the wonderful selection of food before our eyes. We liked the signature Brazilian rice and black beans. It was a very pleasant lunch stop with interesting interior design making use of wood and scrap metal. It felt like being in a much bigger hobbit house. The bathrooms were well appointed with stained wood sinks and patrons could wait their turn while seated on a circular wooden bench. It was a little slippery as the wood was stained with a lavish coating of lacquer!

The afternoon was spent travelling on a dual lane carriageway past Sombrio, Rincao , Moro da Fumaca,Tubarao, Laguna and finally ending up in Pineira. We passed lots more rice plantations, brick industry, rural distributors from Ford, Pirelli, Peugeot, Fiat, Hankook, Chevrolet and lots of light-weight trucks, tractors and farm equipment. We were constantly ascending and descending in altitude. With nearly every corner, we beheld wonderful views of the incredibly lush green countryside of Brazil.

Pineara is a sleepy little fishing village and holiday destination. It has nice white sandy beaches. It is not uncommon to see Brazilian men and women walking down the street scantily clad in their bikini tops, Speedos and showing off their muscular physique. Perhaps in Brazil, this is culturally acceptable. We just had to be sure to keep our eyes on the road! We camped at a very lovely campsite not far from town. It was managed by a retired couple who were very hospitable. Unfortunately, the mosquitoes were not so friendly. The night was hot and steamy. We had a huge thunderstorm and downpour in the night, a welcome relief from the heat!

We arrived in Florianopolis the next afternoon. This island is connected to the mainland by a massive bridge which transforms into a complicated system of flyovers and turnpikes. It is a flourishing metropolis of high-rise apartments, smart shopping malls and streets. We read that there is a big congregation of Japanese residents here in Florianopolis. This was confirmed by the sighting of a few sushi bars in addition to Pizza Hut and MacDonalds. It felt somewhat like Hong Kong with apartments set against a hilly backdrop. On the eastern side of the island, the road led to smaller beachside villages. After stopping for another all-you-can-eat buffet lunch, we found our way to Mocambique Beach. It seemed quite secluded probably because it was a weekday and the surf was quite modest. It is a nice sandy stretch of beach apart from the strong wind, haze and thick ocean-spray. That night, we found a secluded wooded area to camp in. We were sheltered from the main road by trees and from the sea by a huge sand dune. Being keenly aware of Brazil’s reputation for being unsafe, we even covered our tracks carefully with tree branches.

We rejoined the main highway BR116 all the way to Sao Paulo, the second biggest city in the world. The roads in Brazil were in very good condition. Tollways were also painfully common. This highway was very busy with mostly trucks in all three lanes scurrying to meet their delivery deadlines. We could have bypassed Sao Paulo but the Land Rover was still hoping to track down spare parts. So the GPS lived up to the challenge and we were guided safely into and out of the city of Sao Paulo.

After Sao Paulo, we turned towards the coast. We thought we would approach Rio de Janeiro from the south coast rather than have to find our way through the city to the Sheraton Rio Hotel and Resort near Leblon Beach. Yes, Geoff’s Sheraton Platinum card was instrumental in securing us 3 free nights at the Sheraton in Rio de Janeiro. The coastal drive via Angra Dos Reis was a beautiful drive with lots of expensive sailboats anchored in the calm waters in the bay. The beaches were also very nice with many families soaking up the sun and surf. We got a sense of carnival atmosphere even just driving along with beachgoers carrying their CD players belting out the samba. Women wore G-string bikinis and muscle men looking cool in white rimmed sunglasses, showed off their sweaty bronzed six-pack upper torso. There was a lot of traffic coming at us in the opposite direction that traffic came to a standstill for about 20 kms. Maybe it was not such a good idea to leave Rio during the Carnivale season!

We have been told by local Brazilians and read from various travel guidebooks that Rio de Janeiro was a very dangerous city and that we needed an extra pair of eyes behind our heads if we were to visit. With personal and vehicular safety foremost in our minds, we decided it would be prudent to stay at the Sheraton Hotel where we could park Troopy securely and take a taxi into the city centre and to various tourist attractions for which Rio is famous.

The Sheraton that we had booked into was one of two in Rio. This one was close to Leblon Beach just a short distance away from the very famous Copacobana and Ipanema Beaches. It was situated on a small “private” beach called Vidigal.The view from our balcony overlooked the Copacabana Beach and the cable car going up to the top of Sugarloaf Mountain. We could also see the Vidigal Favelas on the slopes of the rock face opposite the Sheraton Hotel. What a stark contrast to see the run-down housing right in front of a 5 star international hotel. The people living there were most likely struggling very hard to make ends meet. Some may even have been fortunate enough to have a job at the hotel. Yet here we were at a hotel where tourists walk in draped in gold, silver and other fine fabrics. As for us, we probably looked and smelled like hillbillies with our overland vehicle and camping clothes. We made sure we parked well away from the shiny matchbox cars with BMW and Mercedes labels belonging to the other guests. No other vehicle could possibly park next to Troopy! We felt Troopy would be quite safe in the hotel car park since the security guards couldn’t take their eyes off our baby.

It’s marvellous what a platinum card can do to change one’s circumstances! We had preferential treatment like club lounge privileges, breakfast, nibblies and supper throughout the day and free internet use in the business centre. Fortunately, we each had a pair of Havaianas flip flops! So we were able to blend in with the beach crowd and carnivale revellers throughout the hotel. The hotel facilities just above beach level were just fantastic with a couple of swimming pools, pizza cafe, buffet restaurant, formal restaurant, gym, sauna and aromatherapy centre and a whole troupe of masseurs waiting to do their magic on the 4 poster massage beds complete with white organza curtains blowing in the ocean breeze and fresh coconut drinks from the poolside bar. One could just laze away in a hammock tied between coconut trees and be lulled to sleep by the sound of gentle waves breaking on the sea-shore. We were constantly entertained by the music, rhythm and dance of the Samba singers.

The next day, we took up the offer of touring the H.Stern headquarters and then get dropped off to any location in the city. H. Stern is a worldwide group of jewellers. It is well respected for its jewellery designs, quality and workmanship. They tried very hard to get us interested in the jewellery but got no joy from Kienny who only liked rubies which unfortunately (or fortunately for Geoff) was not on offer. All the jewellery was indeed very exquisite and beautiful! True to their word, we were dropped off at Corcovado to catch the funicular railway up the rocky hill to see the Christo Redenter, the very famous statue of Christ which towers over the city. This is a very popular attraction with throngs of people trying to get the best vantage points for the perfect photograph of the statue. The view out towards the ocean was breathtaking, just like what we have seen in magazines and in the news.

After Christo Redenter, we took a taxi down to Copacobana Beach, from where we hoped to walk all the way back to the Sheraton. What a beautiful beach despite the fact that it was over-run by a sea of humanity. There were bodies of all shapes, shades and sizes. Most were in Speedos and G-string bikinis. We have never seen so much flesh in all our lives! There were different sections of the beach for different groups of people marked out by flags in rainbow colours, the favela section and the elite section. The guide books have warned about not stumbling into the wrong crowd or risk being mugged and pick-pocketed. The whole esplanade had been blocked off to traffic and street stalls were doing a roaring trade in football t-shirts, Havaianas and Ipanema flip-flops, towels, jewellery, tapioca pancakes, chorizos, fresh coconut juice and beer. We were very careful to lock all our valuables in our hotel safe and only took photocopies of our passports and enough cash just for the day’s excursions. The camera was tucked out of sight in a small backpack which Geoff carried in front of his chest. We were extra security conscious! Thankfully, we did not encounter anything unsavoury.

As we approached Ipanema, we could hear samba music over the loudspeakers. Lots of people were in a very jolly mood and were dancing the samba as they walked along the esplanade. The crowd began to swell and before long we found ourselves in the midst of a sea of people. We could not dictate which way we should go. We were just carried along by the surge from behind. There would not have been room for anyone to faint. We were in close contact with sweaty bodies. People were singing, dancing and splashing beer from all directions. There was a palpable camaraderie amongst the throng as strangers were hugging, kissing and leaning heavily on each other. We started to get concerned for our safety as night encompassed us. We decided we had to push our way out to a side street and try to take a taxi back to our hotel. The streets were like a war-zone as it was wet, full of rubbish, spilled alcohol and the stench of urine. Up against the walls of public buildings, men were relieving themselves. It seemed a lot of people had the same idea and it took us a long time to hail down a taxi. We were very relieved to be back safe at our hotel. So, that was a not to be missed Carnivale street party. Wild indeed!

The next day was quite hazy. We had planned to go up to the Sugarloaf Hill by cable car but felt that we could not possibly endure another tour of the H. Stern Headquarters to get another free taxi ride! Considering the thick haze, we decided to have a lazy day at the hotel and rest up for the Carnivale Parade at the Sambadrome. We took a late afternoon nap and woke up just in time to catch our hotel car service at 8 pm. The Carnivale parade was due to start around 9 pm. As we drew near the Sambadrome, there were people on the streets dressed in colourful sequinned costumes, feathers, high heels, fish-net stockings and heavy make-up. All were making a bee-line to their mustering point near the Sambadrome. We were rather dazzled by the colourful neon lights, streamers, flags, loudspeaker music, colourful and outrageous costumes. A few enterprising street peddlers offered to guide us to our seating sector and padded cushions to sit on for a small fee. It was not hard finding our way to our entrance gate. Our tickets included a swipe card to get us through the turnstiles and a sector identification card for the army of ushers on duty that night. We were very impressed with the organisation of this event. It must have been a very big job even though everything seemed to run very efficiently.
 
There were already a lot of people in the Sambadrome by the time we found some vacant seats in our allocated sector. It was a hot and humid night under the bright stadium lights and being with so many other thousands of spectators. Most of them brought food and drinks with them and were very comfortably settled in for the night’s entertainment. At 9 pm, the first group was assembled and ready. Fireworks kicked off the performance by the first Samba School. A group of musicians and singers sang the special theme song of their Samba school as a warm-up routine to get the spectators to join in. This was followed by the start of the parade of floats, dancers, marching bands and solo samba performers dressed in bright colourful costumes and feathers. The atmosphere was electrifying!

The whole Sambadrome roared, cheered and applauded. Every spectator joined in the singing and danced the samba right where they were. It took about an hour for each school to get from the start to the finish of the kilometre long parade avenue. The theme song of the samba school would be sung repeatedly for that whole hour or so! We were told that each samba school had about 5000 participants! The floats were very well-done showcasing the creativity of every samba school. Each float depicted a different theme with beautiful and elaborate props. We saw creation, time, space travel and aviation, Africa, Europe, South America, Asia, North America and Antarctica depicted on the floats. The dancers on the floats showed a lot of courage to be perched on a very small platform, high above the float wearing 4 inch stiletto heels! Our senses were working overtime trying to take in all the wonderful and glorious colours, lights and sounds!
 
One samba school was very quick to rally support from spectators by passing out elongated blue and white balloons. We waved the balloons high in the air in camaraderie with our fellow revellers. Others distributed flags in the colours and logo of that particular school. All the spectators were very enthusiastic about the Samba. The songs, music and rhythm were very infectious that we sometimes break out humming or whistling the tunes 4 months after we were there. This was a real hangover!

After 7 hours of sheer pleasure and exhilaration watching all the floats, dancers and seeing first-hand the pride of the Brazilians in their national dance-the Samba, we began to slip into the zombie zone. Kienny must have snapped way too many pictures as the camera battery was flat. Our legs were tired from standing most of the night and we were hot and sweaty still. Since it was 4 am in the morning, we decided it was time to make the great escape and find a taxi to take us back to the Sheraton before the parade finished at 6 am. We fell asleep as soon as our heads hit the fluffy soft pillows, thankful that we had a late afternoon checkout that day. What a great night we had! Our daughter and son-in-law would be amazed to hear that we were such “party animals” breaking curfew for the first time in our married lives!

It was a bit sad to have to leave Rio that afternoon. We had a wonderful time and were very thankful we did not get robbed or mugged. The way out of Rio de Janeiro was straightforward with the GPS leading the way again. As we headed out, the clouds in the sky began to get heavier and darker. We had really good weather in the 3 days we were in Rio and were very glad for that. With the diminishing view of Copacabana and Ipanema in our rear vision mirrors, the skies ahead were an ominous sign that we were heading into stormy weather. Our next destination was to the Foz do Iguacu via Sao Paolo, Ourinha, Londrino and Cascavel.

We struck a very big storm late that afternoon. Troopy’s wipers worked overtime in the heavy driving rain! There was thunder and lightning and water on the highway that we felt it was safer to pull over and wait for the rain to ease a little. The next two nights en route to Iguacu saw us camping in the car park of a service station and camping in the wild again. We had to pay no less than 6 tolls a day for the privilege of driving on the highway, which consisted of very good main arterial roads. The South West region of Brazil was also rich in agriculture. We passed many sugar-cane, wheat, banana, grape, corn and timber plantations. Australian farmers would be overjoyed if their paddocks had the right amount of rain at the right time and were this vivid green!

As we neared Iguacu Falls, we decided to call into Itaipu Dam, a joint hydroelectricity project between Paraguay and Brazil. This was the biggest hydroelectric dam in the world until the Three Rivers Dam in China was opened. The Itaipu visitor and information centre was a big complex catering for busloads of tourists. It was run in similar fashion to Movie World, Disney World and Sea World. Visitors were ushered into an auditorium to view an informative introduction to the history of Itaipu Dam. Construction began in the early 1970s and the last of the turbines was completed just a few years ago. The dam wall is 7.5 kms long and 65 storeys high. We also read that the amount of concrete poured for this project was 15 times that poured to build the Eurotunnel or Channel tunnel. It was a massive construction project costing US$20 billion dollars.

After an audiovisual, we were escorted by our tour guide to a locker area where we could store our backpacks. Those wearing flip-flops and sandals had to change to covered shoes. We also had to wear hard hats as we got onto our bus to start the tour. We got to see a panoramic view of the dam, before going to the topside. There we were taken to the main complex where all the engineers sat in a control room keeping an eye on monitors and playing with the dials and knobs that control the rate of flow through the dam and the turbines that generated power.

Itaipu Dam generated enough electricity to meet 90% of Paraguay’s power and 26% of Brazil’s electricity, Brazil being a much bigger and more populous country. This dam consists of 20 turbines each with an output of 14,000 megawatts of electricity. Geoff found the turbines and the whole complex very interesting. Kienny was simply thankful to be able to flick a switch and turn on a light!

After Itaipu Dam, we headed towards Iguazu Falls, our final tourist attraction for this first stage of South America Overland. We found an excellent International Youth Hostel not far from Iguazu with beautiful lawns to camp on. The other facilities were also very well set up with pool, cafe serving great meals, hearty breakfasts and communal kitchen.

To see Iguazu Falls well, one needs to see it from both the Brazilian side and the Argentine side as the views and experiences are quite different. On the Brazilian side, we did the panoramic walk to see the 274 mini-falls that make up the magnificent Iguazu Falls. It was quite hot and humid as we walked under canopies of tall trees. All along the walkway, we were able to see the different mini falls stemming from the mighty Iguazu River. Tourists could take a speed boat ride under a few of the mini waterfalls but they had to be prepared to get totally drenched. For the more adventurous, they could try canyoning or rafting.

The Coatis were out playing on the pedestrian footpaths and sniffing for food from passing tourists. These looked like a cross between a possum and raccoon. They had a long soft looking snout and a striped tail. They scampered about with tails high in the air. Though they looked very playful and cute, they carried rabies and tourists were discouraged from getting too close or touching them. We were also welcomed by many colourful butterflies fluttering freely above our heads. A few of them even landed on Kienny’s face and arms. They seemed to be partial to perspiration.

At the end of the panoramic walk was a lovely restaurant where we ended up having a very nice Brazilian buffet lunch. It was late in the afternoon when we exited Brazil and crossed into Argentina. Once again, the border proceedings were very straightforward and amorous. We filled up with diesel at the town of Misiones and were very grateful we were charged the local price. Diesel in Brazil is much more expensive than in Argentina even at the Argentine tourist price! We found a lovely camping ground called “Americano.” It was nice to be hearing some familiar Spanish again after many weeks of Portuguese. We felt very comfortable to be back in Argentina!

The next morning, we made our way to see the Argentine side of Iguazu Falls. There were two walks we could do. We decided to do the inferior one first as it was a longer walk. The monorail took us from the park entrance to our first drop-off point. We followed the well established walkways to different vantage points to view different mini waterfalls. It was certainly very beautiful to see the water cascading gracefully over the mini waterfalls. The tiered mini falls looked like the stepped contour rice fields of Nepal. In some places, the water came down in a big gush while at others the waterfall was wispy, gentle and graceful. We took a short ferry ride across to San Martin Island and climbed uphill to a lookout where we got a little wet from the fine misty sprays of water. We then took the walk to the superior lookout. The walkway took us over the top of the lesser waterfall where we looked down over where we had walked earlier that morning. Again it was a very nice view of the series of waterfalls but from a different height and angle.

We had lunch in a little cafe back at the monorail stop. We then took another connecting train right to the end to view the “Devil’s Throat” or Garganta Del Diablo. It was a very long walkway taking us nearly the whole way across the Iguazu River to see the main section of the waterfalls proper. What an experience! We could hear the thunderous roar of this massive body of water rushing to heave itself over the cliff’s edge. The sheer power and energy from this waterfall was very palpable. The lookout deck was so close to the throat that we all got wet from the water’s spray! We have decided that Iguazu is our favourite waterfall being even more impressive than Niagara (USA/Canada) and Victoria Falls (Zimbabwe/Zambia).

We finished Iguazu just in time to get back into Troopy and start driving. All afternoon, the clouds had been building up to a thunderstorm. The drops of rain were very big and they hurt as they landed on our heads. We took Ruta 12 which got us on a bee-line back to Buenos Aires via Posados, San Ignatius and Santa Ana. We then turned into highway 105 passing bamboo forests, tea and citrus plantations and ancient Yatay Palms near El Palmer National Park.

We arrived back at the German Club after two nights on the road. We cleaned and packed up Troopy ready to be rested for the next 6 months or so while we returned to Australia. After bidding farewell to Troopy and to Laura and Pochco the caretakers, we took a remis-taxi into the city back to Carlos Gardel Hostel. We had pre-booked seats on a CATA bus to Santiago, Chile via Mendoza. We had reclining leather seats on this double-decker bus with a hostess giving out disposable trays of dinner, lunch and breakfast. We could not eat all the meals as they were very greasy and sweet. However, the journey across the Andes was truly breathtakingly spectacular! The road up to the Argentine and Chile border post of Los Liberatodores at 3250 meters was amazing. The views of Aconcagua, the highest mountain in South America at 6962 m (22841 ft), was awe inspiring.

We arrived at Casa Roja Hostel in Santiago Chile late afternoon. We spent a day looking around Santiago, visiting the Columbian Museum and just generally unwinding before we boarded our flight home to Australia. We have had a fantastic 3 months in South America and Antarctica. We have enjoyed travelling with our friends from the UK, the Netherlands and Australia. We have seen many beautiful places, met many friendly people and were pleased that Troopy once again did not let us down as we travelled though sun, wind, rain, snow, mountains, rivers, forests and deserts. We look forward to the next stage of our South American adventures! Hasta la vista!

The pictures for this section of our trip can be found by clicking here, here and here or by selecting the Next arrow button at the bottom of this page.

A map of our trip can be seen by going to http://dreamers1.com/americas/GoogleMaps/SouthAmerica.html or by selecting the Map button at the bottom of this page.

The WEB site containing our travels in Africa, Russia and South America is http://overland.dreamers1.com or by selecting the Contents button at the bottom of this page.
 
Best Wishes,
Geoff and Kienny Kingsmill

Email: gkingsmill@yahoo.com
WEB: http://overland.dreamers1.com

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