A Travellerspoint blog

´Footloose and fancy free´ proves to be relative concept

Because there are always a few things that are more important

sunny 26 °C

Last week we got the message that Gerard´s father had to be taken to the hospital for emergency surgery. Although he seemed to be doing well in the days right after the operation, that is not the case anymore. His health condition is such that we are getting on a flight back to Holland in about 3.5 hours. We have no idea what is going to happen with the rest of our plans for this trip. Will keep you posted.

Posted by Karenlee 05.11.2012 11:11 Archived in Cuba Comments (16)

More Brazil in bullet points

...because Karen needs to learn to write shorter blog posts.

sunny 30 °C

Rio the beautiful...
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  • Gerard says that Rio de Janeiro is the most beautiful city he's ever seen. His definitiveness kind of surprised me. How can you decide that ONE city is THE most beautiful, when there are so many of them - Jerusalem and Venice are the first that spring to mind - that are also absolutely amazing in completely different ways? But I must admit that if you're talking about a big city on the sea, it's probably impossible to surpass the dramatic rock formations, lush greenery, gorgeous beaches and lively but laid-back atmosphere of Rio. I CAN say that I have never left any place with a greater feeling of regret because I had not been there for nearly as long as I wanted to be.
  • For your information, ALL Brazilian bus drivers are reincarnations of Japanese Kamikaze pilots. The frustrated ones. You know, the guys who weren´t allowed to go to Pearl Harbor. And they're still trying to prove they have the 'right stuff'.
  • In Rio, during the first stages of my bikini search, I tried one on in a little boutique which I later found out was owned by Helo Pinheiro, the gal who - when she was a ´tall and tan and young and lovely´ teenager - was the inspiration for the song ´Girl From Ipanema´. From now on, I think the number should go: ´Short and tan and ripe and bouncy, the broad in Ipanema goes jouncing´.

That Rio feeling...
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  • Halfway through Brazil, we had a ´vacation within a vacation´ (thanks to our dear friend, Annette Heemskerk, for coining the term) in a little seaside village called Arraial d´Ajuda. Why, you might wonder, do you need one of those when you are gallivanting all footloose and fancy-free around South America? Well, when you have been moving for weeks and weeks from one place to another, constantly making travel arrangements to get from A to B, and trying to see all the sights and do the things you SHOULD in each and every place, you eventually become in dire need of a week or so when you have to do absolutely NOTHING! Although, I must say, even our time in Ajuda was disturbed by arrangements that needed to be made. But it was a nice little break in a place where, I think, we may well have been some of the only foreigners.

Vacation within a vacation at Arraial d´Ajuda
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  • If Rio is Brazil´s hip, cool, heart, Salvador de la Bahia is its rough, warm, soul. About 1,000 miles up the coast, it was the capital of the country when the Portuguese were one of the world´s most industrious slavers, and its African roots and population give it an amazing atmosphere. I´m in ´Bahia´- as the locals call it - as I type this. Through the open windows of the hostel in the Old Town, I hear laughter, rap and drums coming from three different directions.

Sights and sounds of Bahia
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  • In practically every country you travel in, you´ll come across touts on the streets or the beaches trying to sell you things - from embarassingly ugly jewellery to amazingly good artwork and food in every stage of edibility you can imagine (to say nothing about those who simply think you look like a soft touch for a handout). It´s one of the down sides of travelling, not only because nobody likes to feel like a walking ATM, but also because these people can (too often, in some places) act reproachful, or even rude or unpleasant, if you´re not interested. But - amazingly - we have not come across this ONCE in Brazil. If you kindly say ´no, thank you´, they just smile, maybe give you a thumbs up, handshake, or a pleasant ´Bon Gia´- and move on. What a breath of fresh air! Something else that is nice, the cats and dogs - even those that, apparently, live on the streets - look relatively healthy and well-treated.

From baubles to bubbles - what´s NOT for sale?
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  • Brazilians LOVE them some tattoos! SO many people have them, and not just a subtle decoration here or there, but multiple ones as big as grapefruits, or wrapped all around their arms or legs. Oh, and you know that popular conception of most Brazilian women having bodies like Goddesses? Well, it's true - although from what I've seen on the beaches, it's more along the lines of the Venus of Willendorf, than Allesandra Ambrosio. With tattoos.

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  • After the rather bland, unimaginative meat, meat, meat and potatoes food in Argentina (their desserts were their one saving grace!), the fare in Brazil is nice and diverse, with a good variety of herbs and spices. Our favorite discovery have been the fantastic "Weigh-and-Pay" buffets. You choose what you want from a well-stocked steam table, and pay per 100gr of food on your plate. The food is always really good, but man, do they ever love salt here! It´s not that I can confidently say the food is TOO salty, but many would consider it on the edge. I like well-seasoned food and - nine times out of ten - if I eat somewhere, I´ll usually add a little sprinkle of salt, but not only have I never needed to do that here, there have been a few times when I wished they´d put a wee bit less in. People with high blood pressure - beware when you come to Brazil!

Yummy, spicy (and well salted) stuff...
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  • Something we continue to be VERY happy about, is the generally outstanding weather we are still having just about every step of the way. Yes, it was bloody cold at the start of our trip, and bloody hot in the Pantanal, but our skies have been sunny and clear so very often, and almost all our time along the coast here, the warm temperatures have been tempered by wonderfully cool breezes. My advice to anyone thinking of visiting here - do it in the Spring!

Perfect, PERFECT weather!
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  • Last, but not least - after a number of months roaming around, I can say that my wondering in my very first post about how fellow travellers would react to us old farts is something of a moot issue. Maybe it was unusual on our previous travels to see 30-plussers on the road, but that's not the case anymore. We've come across numerous 40-, 50-, and even 60-plussers lugging their backpacks through bus stations, or checking into hostels. We're surfing along on a brand-new, veritable wave of older independent travellers. Haha... Don't forget - WE started it ;)!

OK - so the tide IS coming in. Just let me finish my beer and we´ll move....
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Posted by Karenlee 28.10.2012 14:27 Archived in Brazil Comments (5)

Panta-what?

The most famous ecological area you´ve never heard of...

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When our friend Maurice (who has been to Brazil often) heard we were going to South America, his first and foremost reaction was ´Don´t miss the Pantanal´!!! And we were, like, - ´Duh... what´s that?´. It´s actually how most people would probably react, but which I now think is very strange. It is such a huge and unique geographic-ecological area, it seems like everyone should at least have heard of it, just like any school kid will have at least have a passing awareness of the Gobi Desert, the Great Lakes, or the Serengeti.

If the Amazon is considered South America´s ´lungs´, then the Pantanal is the continent´s kidneys. It´s the largest freshwater wetland in the world, covering up to 195,000 square kilometres (75,000 sq mi) over three countries. It´s more than 10x the size of the Everglades! During the rainy season, the lakes that cover the vast savannah basin of the Pantanal get fuller and fuller until they start overflowing and connecting (like water spilling over from one section of an ice cube tray to another, is how our Pantanal guide Stephan described it), until the whole area is up to 80% submerged. Depending on the topography of individual places, the water rises between 6 and 18 feet!

For months, this massive, nutrient-rich body of water is an incredible cross-breeding ground for all kinds of aquatic life. Then as the dry season sets in, the water is slowly released through the Paraguay River and its tributaries (with all the water animals desperately scrambling to make their way to and disperse into the more permanent water sources), until it once again becomes a fertile plain, dotted here and there with lakes. This annual ebb and flow nurtures one of the most diverse varieties of flora and fauna on earth, and during the dry season, the rivers and lakes that remain (some of them can completely disappear if the dry season is particularly severe) become magnets for countless Pantanal mammals and birds that converge on them for the increasingly scarce drinking water. Because of this, there are very few places where you can see so much wildlife in such a short time as the Pantanal in the dry season - the most exciting of which are its high numbers of jaguars and pumas. ´It´s probably the closest you can get to the Garden of Eden´, said Maurice.

So very early on in our planning, we´d scheduled mid-September to visit the Pantanal - right before the wet season started in October. My medical hiccups delayed us a bit, but on 3 October - right after seeing Iguazu - we jumped on a night bus that took us to Campo Grande, one of the few cities where you can organize a stay at one of the various pousadas inside the Pantanal. These are generally family-owned operations. Although parts of it are environmentally protected, the Pantanal has long been - and still primarily remains - an important, rural cattle-raising area, where´guacho´ families have lived for generations in relative isolation, travelling for days into get to the next town when they needed supplies or to deliver cattle for sale. Tourism only started relatively recently, and although some new-built lodge operations for visitors have sprung up, most accomodations seem to be adapted ranches. We picked Embiara Lodge, owned by a Dutch man (who grew up in Brazil) and his American wife, and run by them - together with one of their sons who was born in Brazil - and a small staff of locals. The common language was a big draw, as was the fact that it was very small (the high-profile lodges can accomodate up to a hundred people!) and located deeper in the Pantanal than many others. We really wanted a tranquil, natural, but comfortable experience with a lot of options for getting out into nature - and we certainly got it at Embiara! In the whole time we were there - whether trekking, boating, fishing or driving through the wilderness - we only saw a couple other people besides our hosts, their staff, and four fellow guests: two guys cleaning fish beside a bridge where we put in our canoes (and they were being eagerly surrounded and watched by hungry caymen)!

The only ´outsiders´ we saw for five whole days!
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DAY 1 - Pick-up early a.m. by our friendly driver Jorge in a 4W-drive, and the equally nice Ramona who was riding out to help with cooking at the lodge. Both only spoke Portuguese, but but we did our best with smiles, a bit of Spanish, and a lot of sign language. After a couple hours we arrived at the last city where the asphalt ended.

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We stopped at a grocery store to to pick up a bunch of pre-ordered supplies, and from there it was on to dirt roads that got increasingly wilder and rutted. Now and then, you´d pass a pousada, but even those got increasingly farther and fewer between. Slowly, we started getting into the territory of the real ranches, each of them marked by big wooden gates which we - apparently - had permission to go through and drive over the private land. Every time we got to a gate, Ramona had to jump out to open and close it - 23 in total!

Ramona - Mistress of the Gates
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We were almost three hours on the dirt road, but it passed quickly as the ride was a wildlife drive in itself. A lot of people apparently fly in to the lodge (it has a tiny, grass airstrip), but I wouldn´t have wanted to miss all we saw along the way. First of all, the thousands and thousands of ´Ghost Cattle' (my name for them, as they are pure white, and look wierdly emaciated, with sharply defined shoulder and hipblades). This, apparently is just their normal physiognomy, but they are a rather spooky sight when you see so many of them together, especially if there are a couple hundred being herded in your direction on the road in front of you! This happened a couple of times, with the most rough, authentic-looking, horse-riding cowboys I´ve ever seen - all the way down to the chaps they were wearing - moving them along.

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We also saw coaties, giant storks, toucans and many other exotic birds I couldn´t even begin to guess the name of. The landscape was very unique: the word ´savanah´ immediately pops into mind - areas of plains and pampas grass dotted with countless trees flowering with beautiful purple blossoms.

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But this was also interspersed by very tropical, almost jungle-like, areas bursting with palms, lingae and other creepers. I later learned that you can tell exactly where the wet season water reaches by what does - or doesn't - grow there. Just before noon, we arrived at Embiara, where we were warmly welcomed by Stephan - one of the sons of the family in his mid-30s- and Sam, a wildlife graduate student who was interning there. As well as our hosts, they were also our guides (and extremely knowledeable ones!) while we were there.

Stephan and friend
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The family apparently owns a good-sized chunk of land which also includes a working cattle ranch, but the lodge was built separate from it - about 1/2 hour drive away. It was set in a relatively small clearing, surrounded by a lush, jungle environment - there were even orchids growing from some of the trees.

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There was one rather large cabin - the back part was family living quarters, and the front a big library-sitting room for guests. Scattered around it was a separate, screened-in dining building, staff quarters, an open ´garage´ for the trucks, and a little further off four small guest houses - everything connected by slightly raised wooden walkways. Our ´home´looked rather simple from outside, but inside it was just gorgeous, and also had its own screened porch featuring rocking chairs and a hammock.

When you´re out in the middle of nowhere, you really have to ´rough it´ sometimes
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We didn´t even have to set foot outside the compound to start seeing wildlife. In the trees and walking around us on the ground were amazing birds, including a pair of rare Hyacinth macaws that were nesting in one of the compound´s trees.

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We were the only guests there - although more would be arriving in a couple days - and while we ate a delicious lunch, made plans for the afternoon. That set the tone for the whole time we were there. It didn´t feel like you were a ´tourist´, but someone visiting very good friends who just happened to live smack-bang in the middle of one of the biggest wildlife refuges on earth. With the greatest hospitality, they would describe and suggest the different things we could all do together, and it would be up to us to decide which appealed more. For this afternoon, it was canoeing on one of the nearby lakes. Sam hitched the canoes onto a trailer and drove them there ahead of us, while we set off on the 1/2-hour walk to the lake with Stephan. Along the way he pointed out a puma track right outside their gate and, through the nearby field, the remains of a kill it had made a couple days before.

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The canoeing was marvelous, with caymen swimming around, a big family of capybaras wandering along the shore, and many different flocks of birds, including egrets and spoon-billed herons, settling, rising and swirling around the lake.

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That night, as we were enjoying another fantastic meal, a tapir - which we had tried in vain to see in Manu - went snuffling right through the compound, followed quickly by a fox that we heard skulking around all night. I was very glad that the wooden pathways between the buildings were raised - and illuminated - when we headed to our little house that evening!

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DAY 2 - Even in the ´spring´- which we are technically in - it can get bloody hot in the Pantanal! That´s why the rhythm of our days was up for breakfast at six, followed by a morning excursion that needed to be finished by 10:30 or so at the latest before the temperature soared. Then it was relax time, broken by lunch (the food here was SO awesome), with an afternoon excursion starting around 15:30 when it began cooling off again. This morning we took to the river on a small boat with an electric motor. It is absolutely amazing how quiet that thing is! It enabled you to glide along downstream hardly making a sound that might disturb the wildlife.

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We had barely gone a half kilometer when we saw a family of seven giant river otter ahead of us fishing. We pulled over and just watched them for a good 20 minutes. Sections of the river there were very shallow, and one of the most amazing moments was when a fish started getting away from one of the otter, and he leapt up and - in full view - kept pouncing after it on top of a sandbank. Just amazing! Eventually we went on, which sent the otter family swimming off ahead of us. As we continued we had another capybara encounter, and saw more amazing birds than you could shake a stick at, from tiny, jewel-coloured kingfishers to a HUGE stork that flew practically right over us. The wingspan was at least two meters.

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As we were stopped at a huge fallen tree, and Steph and Sam were telling us about the pair of jaguar they´d seen playing on it just the week before, two more otters came up from behind and passed us. They guys predicted that would cause trouble when they caught up with the other otter group ahead of us - which we could see in the distance sunning themselves on a bank of sand - and they were right. We heard an amazing amount of barking at a certain moment, and saw the family chasing the other two up and away into the trees. Wild Kingdom!

Giant otters sunning on sandbank
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Our afternoon excursion that day was a walk of a few hours along a couple of different lakes, in which we encountered a family of deer, piccories, wild boar (shades of Manu!) and an astonishing sunset.

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DAY 3 - Stephan stayed at the lodge this a.m. to welcome new guests, and Gerard and I went piranha fishing with Sam. No fancy equipment needed - just bamboo poles with a bit of chicken on the hook, and they start biting!

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You just had to be careful as the caymen knew what we were up to and kept lurking very close by. If you weren´t fast enough pulling a caught fish out of the water and left it dangling, they´d sometimes make a leap to try and snatch it from your line!

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We caught a good number of the sharp-toothed suckers - I got 7 or 8 myself - but many of them were too small to keep. Gerard had better luck, though, and I was satisfied that we at least got enough for the piranha ceviche which Sam had promised to make for us if we were lucky with the fishing (it was absolutely yummy, by the way)!

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On the way back, we saw another, smaller species of otter eating a fish it had just caught,

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but I was more than ready and extremely grateful to get back to the lodge again, as this was the hottest day yet - already over 40 degrees before 11am! At a certain point, Sam had even had to shift from a sunny to a shady fishing spot as I started feeling faint. But a cold shower and siesta in a wonderfully air-conditioned room can do wonders. That afternoon we headed out, along Alexandro and Marta, the nice young Italian couple that had arrived, to Stephan´s family´s ranch about 1/2 hours drive away.

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There, the gauchos got us saddled up, and we went horseback riding for an hour or so over the savannah and between the Ghost Cows, spotting armadillos as we went. Steph and Sam told us that the last time it flooded, they´d gone snorkelling over the fields we were now riding over, surrounded by countless shoals of baby fishes of all kinds that had just hatched. The sun was going down by the time we got back to the ranch, and fireflies - which I hadn't seen in ages - started sparkling all around us. Returning to the lodge, we had a `night-drive´wildlife spotting session - we had a great view sitting in raised seats on the back of the open jeep. Along the way, Steph shone around with a hand-held floodlight, suddenly revealing wild boars and snuffling tapir in the bushes beside us, and caymen eyes glittering like countless emeralds in the lakes. At a certain point, we stopped the jeep, shut off all the lights and just sat there. It was an unforgettable five minutes. The stars, sounds and fireflies all around us were amazing.

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DAY 4 - Finally - monkeys! We hadn´t come across any yet, but this morning we were woken by the unmistakable sound of a group of howlers very nearby. We found them up in a tree at the very edge of the compound.

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This morning´s excursion was, for me, the least rewarding of the many things we did. We drove deep into the bush, and went for another walk around a completely different kind of lake - a salt-water one (due to the minerals and other things in the ground there) that the fresh-water floods never reach. Because of this, many of the plants and kinds of birds were different, which was interesting, but even in early morning, it was S-O-O-O hot, and part of the walk took us through very tall grasses that very strange sounds came out of now and then. We were still dearly hoping to see a jaguar or puma, but I would rather it be from a boat on the river rather than crashing out through the foliage in front of us. We never did see either cat, but if it was a trade-off for not seeing one here, then I'm OK with it.

OK...what´s IN there...???
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What I did like seeing was the amazing strangler figs we saw. It´s almost incomprehensible how something that starts out as such an innocuous little plant can completely consume the tree it starts growing on. I've seen stranglers before in other places, but never so monstrous as these.

The fig that ate the palm tree - you can still just see the tiniest stump of it still left in the middle...
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The afternoon excursion was much more pleasant - we drove upriver this time and put the canoes in there. The afternoon light was just magical on the water, and aside from caymen and other birds we'd gotten used to by now, we briefly glimpsed a giant anteater and had a very cool and close toucan encounter.

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When we got back to the lodge, Ian and Karen - a couple around our age from England - had arrived, and we all went on a short night-time wildlife viewing drive before another amazing dinner. Really, the food at this lodge deserved a Michelin star. Woke in the middle of the night to the sound of - WHAT??? - thunder and rain beating down all around us!

Guests and guides in the dining hall the last evening
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DAY 5 - I almost felt bereft waking up, knowing we would have to leave in the course of the day. We'd really wanted to make our last excursion a river one - it's the best place to spot the cats - but even though it was only slightly drizzling, the sky still looked quite threatening. So we all piled into the jeep and drove off to for one last wildlife drive, and to collect the camera trap that Steph and Sam had put out the week before. We had already seen some awesome shots that the trap had captured over the past weeks, including a jaguar with a kill it had made. En route, we came across even more birds and animals we hadn´t seen yet - including one (wish I could remember its name!) which was a first for Stephan to spot in the wild.

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We were also witness to a rather pitiful tableau. A mama capybara crossed over the road in front of us, followed by four very tiny little babies, on its way to a lake. The last two were lagging behind, and by the time they'd made their way over, the mama and other two had surmounted the slight hill leading to the lake and disappeared. You could see the sudden confusion and disorientation of the ones left behind. They started circling around in all directions except the right one, and eventually went and just huddled together behind a tree. Steph and Sam shook their heads and said they'd probably be dinner for some animal before evening. Apparently the maternal instinct of capybaras is not all that strong. On our short walk to retrieve the camera trap we came across a tortoise, which the guys said was pretty unusual to encounter on land - and the first bothersome mosquitos we came across in the whole Pantanal. OK, it was bloody HOT, but at least we hadn't been tormented by BUGS!

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On the drive back, we encountered a lost calf, which we reported to the guys at the ranch, and made it back to the lodge just before a veritable DELUGE of rain hit! Talk about just skidding into the Pantanal under the limbo pole of the wet season! It pounded down like mad all the time Gerard and I were packing up and enjoying one last fantastic lunch.

Have to show pictures of at least ONE of the great Embiara meals!
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Thank goodness our jeep and driver back to Campo Grande had already arrived. The rain also thankfully stopped just as we were loading up to start back, but as we started heading out - Gerard doing gate duty this time - we saw the damage had already been done - the road had become (quite dramatically) flooded in places.

Loading up and heading out...
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The first part - especially - was just sheets of shining water almost as far ahead as you could see, and considering it was rutted dirt track underneath, really treacherous to drive through. We got stuck twice, and the poor driver spent at least 1/2 hour each time slogging in the water and wedging things under the wheels to give us traction to get out. Afterwards, he started stopping more often ahead of time to wade in and see what the firmest and most level route would be. Still, it took us almost twice as long to get out as it did to get in, and it was really very apprehension-inducing at times. Stephan´s stories about people sometimes not being able to get in or out for weeks had really stuck in my mind. A sobering reminder that the only ruler the Pantanal will ever have is Mother Nature.

Stuck!!!
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Posted by Karenlee 23.10.2012 07:12 Archived in Brazil Tagged brazil pantanal embiara Comments (2)

Absolutely INCREDIBLE Iguazu

Where the word ´water-FALL´ takes on a whole new meaning...

all seasons in one day 18 °C

I really love the overnight, long-distance busses here. Just like the overnight ski trains in Europe, you hit the sack and - if you sleep well - next thing you know you're in a brand new place hundreds and hundreds of miles further. And these busses are so comfortable, you usually CAN sleep well, even if there is a screaming infant (as was the case here) on board. Thank God for ear plugs! We awoke at dawn to a completely different landscape - lush, green and tropical with palm trees all around growing out of the most incredibly rich and vibrant red earth. The closest thing I´ve ever seen to the colour was in the heart of Georgia, and even that pales in comparison. Everything was shrouded in a mysterious, early-morning mist which - thank goodness - quickly started to dissolve into clear-looking skies. The weather forecast for the area had been getting worse over the previous days, and this day looked to be the last dry one for some time. You really want sun when visiting something like Iguazu Falls, so we were determined to make the most of every minute. We arrived at the bus station at 08:00, took a cab to the hostel, dumped our backpacks, and grabbed one of the earliest busses heading out to the falls.

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They're located right at the Argentinia and Brazil border, where a number of rivers come together from a variety of different directions. There they converge and spill over at a huge, roughly horseshoe-shaped canyon that covers almost two miles in length and in places is twice as deep as Niagra Falls. You can visit the falls in both countries, and each gives you completely different views and experiences - Argentenia for how close you get to the individual falls and Brazil for the biggest overview you get of them all. We planned to do both.

On arriving, we got a map at the visitor's centre and oriented ourselves as to how we would go about exploring. On the Argentina side, there are three different routes - an upper boardwalk trail that takes you over the top of the falls to about 1/3 of the way along the "horseshoe" as it bends towards the Brazilian side, a lower one that runs along the bottom of a big gully at the very beginning of the Argentinian side, and a train that takes you out to the very top of the horseshoe bend, where you walk along a one-mile boardwalk to get to "Devil's Throat" - the most stupendous area of falling water. After hearing that the light at the latter was best in the afternoon, we decided to do everything in that order, and set off along the Upper Trail.

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I'd read up on the place beforehand, studied maps and seen photos, but nothing - nothing - can prepare you for the reality of Iguazu Falls. Even when you see them, it seems they almost can´t be real - as if they are something from another, better, more paradise-like planet. For those who have seen the movie "Avatar" - remember how gobsmacked everyone was by the first glimpse they got of the Misty Mountains? It was just like that, and I would not be surprised if James Cameron hadn't been here and gotten inspiration from Iguaza. Ditto Roger Dean and his famous album cover for Yes.

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We wandered along the upper trail with our mouths open. Although it was rather busy (this is one place I WOULD have been delighted to have all to ourselves) we managed to pace ourselves in between the tour groups, and had relative tranquility in which to soak up the amazing sight of approximately 275 (count 'em - someone apparently has - from the multiple modest sprays to massive Devil's Throat) waterfalls thundering down as far as they eye can see, with toucans and parrots flying overhead in the fine, constant spray of the mist they send up. As you walk along, you constantly encounter coaties (pronounced co-AH-tees), playful creatures about the size of a small dog that look like a cross between an adorable fox and a large squirrel. They are not shy of people at all, and run right by your feet, or along the boardwalk hand right next to you!

Cute coatie
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Upper trail awesomeness
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By the time we got back to the central area where the (circular) upper and lower trails meet, I was dazed - and starving! We hadn't had a decent breakfast, so decided to share a sandwich and potato chips at a snack bar there before starting on the lower trail. There were even more coaties gambolling around there, and lots of signs by the outdoor tables warning you to watch your food, as they might try to snatch it. So when I came out with my cling-wrapped salami and cheese sandwich, cup of coke and tube of Pringles (gah, fake potato chips - I know - but Gerard REALLY wanted chips and those were all they had) I was anticipating some cute begging - but NOT the Vicious Attack of the Ravenous Zombie Coaties that took place!!!

It started innocently enough. As I made my way to the table with our tray, a group quickly started gathering around. As I placed the tray down and picked up the Pringles to hand to Gerard, I thought (obviously way too much Disney in my life), "Oh, I need to get my camera out and take pictures of this cute, hopeful ring of little animals around us", and at that very second a huge coati LEAPT up halfway across the table, and started scrabbling at the sandwich trying to drag it off the table! Without thinking, I whirled the Pringles tube and whacked him over the head with it. That threw him for a loop, but he still managed to drag the saran wrap and top layer of the sandwich bread with him when he went down.

From that moment on, it was a test of will and nerves. Aside from the fact that the group kept getting bigger (and, I swear to God, they got more red-eyed and drooly-mouthed by the minute), there were two other full-blown attacks on our food. The first one was quickly parried, but the second completely upset my glass of coke. We then immediately decided to move to another - more distant - table, and from there we watched how an increasingly bigger swarm of coatis moved in and, hissing and aggressively squabbling, sucked up every last drop on the table and ground like Coca-Cola vampire junkies. They may look cute, but when there is food around, those beasts are fucking SCARY!

Evil coaties showing their true colours!!!
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After that, we were glad to escape to the lower trail. It goes all the way down to the river that emerges from the falls and, aside from a completely different viewpoint, also offers you the opportunity (at an exhorbitant price) for the most up-close waterfall experience you can get - a small boat that goes up each side of the horseshoefter and drives right into the foot of one of the falls on each side. I don´t think I have every so fully and completely understood the meaning of Water-FALL before! You see one from a distance and think - "Oh, isn´t that beautiful?" - but I´m starting to have a suspicion that your brain somehow interprets it as a repeat loop that´s just going round and round and round. But when it is coming down almost on top of you, there is absolutely no mistaking what is going on. That water is bloody FALLING, and with such astonishing force and quantities that it is utterly mind boggling.

Boat heading in (lower right) to get ´dipped´in the falls
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Afterwards, soaked to the skin (but quickly drying off thanks to the still very warm and sunny day) we got on the train to Devil's Throat. After a 15-minute ride, we got off to find ourselves amidst some of the biggest swarms of butterflies I´ve ever seen. Was there no end to the magic of this place? No... Devil´s Throat was still waiting for us. When Eleanor Roosevelt visited Iguazu some 80 years ago and stood next to Devil's Throat, she stared in silence for a few minutes, and only said, "Poor Niagra".

Devil´s Throat
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I second the sentiment. Not only is that particular fall the most amazing display of water at work I have ever seen, it is flanked by even more astonishing falls on either side that you can only view from this curve of the horseshoe or from the Brazilian side. Which is what we also did just two days later. We stayed an extra day in the small town of Puerto de Iguazu in Argentina to visit one of the world´s biggest hydroelectric dams. Interesting enough, but I´m afraid Iguazu Falls is a VERY hard act for any mere man-made waterworks to follow. From Puerto de Iguazu to the city of Foz do Iguacu (Brazil) it´s just an hour or so. We took a public bus that dropped us off at a kind of no-man´s land at the border where we went through the passport formalities and caught the next bus that came through going on to the city.

The bad weather was catching up with us, and it looked a little threatening the next morning, but nothing could keep us from another rendezvous with the falls. The Brazilian side WAS indeed quite different. The paths you can walk are not nearly as extensive, and you get nowhere near as close to Devil´s Throat. You need at least half a day to cover the whole place in Argentina, and Brazil only requires a couple hours. However you DO get a much better and more comprehensive overview of the whole waterfall ecosphere. You can really only comprehend it completely once you´ve been to both.

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Our second viewing experience was made even more different by the weather. It started rather low and threatening, but at a certain point we got treated to a full blown downpour, complete with thunder and lightning. Very dramatic! We took shelter in a snack bar, and continued on after it abated -the sun even started coming out again!

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There are very few places I have ever left so reluctantly. I know the chance is very small I will ever visit Iguazu again, and as we were slowly making our way out, I kept turning back again for another (and another) ´last´ look.

My last *sniff* glimpse..
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I wrote back in August that the Inca Trail more than lived up to my expectations. Iguazu more or less shattered them, because there is simply no way anyone could imagine the reality of this. But even if this was my one and only visit, one thing will always remain. I remember how when we arrived the first day, how I puzzled over the visitor guide map, trying to figure out what was where, how all the trails fit together, and which direction we had to go to get where. But now, after crossing every slat of wood on the boardwalks, after seeing Iguazu from above and below, and every possible angle (including looking up in fearful exhilaration as the water poured down on me) they are engraved on my memory and heart. I know them, and anytime I ever see a picture again, I will smile and see myself there, knowing exactly the spot from which it was taken. From now on, Iguazu Falls will always - in a way - be ´mine´.

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Posted by Karenlee 12.10.2012 09:53 Archived in Argentina Comments (5)

Somewhat Underwhelming Uruguay

But you've got to do SOMETHING while you're waiting...

all seasons in one day 18 °C

We decided to go to Uruguay as a means of seeing someplace new and different while we were killing time waiting for the results of my biopsy, and although we had a few interesting/charming experiences, "killing time" is pretty much what it turned out to be. We had the weather against us - the forecast was cloudy and rather cold, and it quickly became obvious that going all the way out to the pretty seaside resort at Punta del Este we'd heard about would cost more than it was worth in terms of time and money if we couldn't even hit the beach!

The ferry trip over was pretty cool though, on a HUMONGOUS boat with a deck almost as big as a football field, and the 3-hour trip went fast talking to a nice Dutch couple we met.

Ferry boat deck parked in Buenos Aires harbour
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Everywhere around us people were people sucking on their "Mate Yerba", something we'd seen now and then in Buenos Aires, but it's a real addiction with the Uruguayans. "Mate" is simply "tea", but the Yerba version is rather unique. Everyone has their own, personal cup - all are quite pretty and elaborately decorated - and they drink it through an equally pretty, exquisitely worked silver straw that has a little, hollow oval sieve at the end. There is a lot of variety in the style and decoration, and you can buy them ready made, but I understand some people actually commission theirs according to a preferred design. In the morning you fill your cup with Yerba leaves, pour hot water over it, and drink your first cup. Throughout the day, you just keep adding hot water when you want more, and the brew apparently just keeps getting stronger and more bitter - which seems to me to go completely against the nature of tea leaves, but that's what I was told by various people, so I guess I have to believe it. Waiting to get a coke at the boat's snack bar, I must have seen 20 people come up to get their thermos flasks filled with more hot water, and there were stern warnings in the bathroom NOT to throw used Yerba leaves into the toilet, with dire threats of huge fines for anyone who did so!

Yerba Mate in action
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We docked at Colonia del Sacramento (a Unesco World Heritage site that's one of the country's highlights), but it was packed with Brazilians there for what was a long holiday weekend - no accommodations available. So it was on for another 2.5 hours with the bus to the capital of Montevideo. We were there for three nights, and all I can say is "Montevideo, meh...." Part of it was that we were just unlucky in that almost everything we tried to see or do didn't pan out. The weather our first day there was actually relatively clear and warm, so we decided to walk all along the city's seaside promenade to a nice beach that was apparently at the end of it. It was a Sunday, and it seemed like half the city was also strolling or sitting on the ledges along the promenade with friends or family, 95% of them with Yerba cups in hand and thermos flasks tucked under the arm, although some of them had straps hung over their shoulder with little boxes on the end with round openings to hold all their Yerba paraphernalia.

Yerba Mate paraphenalia for sale
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That promenade went on and on, and after around 1.5 hours we kept expecting to see the beach after every new curve it made, but no go. After almost 2.5 hours we came to a big yacht club recreation area, and in the distance (W-A-A-Y in the distance) we finally spotted a long stretch of sand. We'd kind of lost heart by then, so just had lunch at a little parrillero ("barbecue") restaurant in the recreation area before catching a bus back downtown.

Barbecue here doesn't mean cooking outdoors like it does elsewhere, but simply grilled meat. But, my Lord, how they grill it here, and my God - how the people here love it! The back wall of the kitchen was a massive, open stone compartment in which a huge wood fire was blazing away. Around it were iron racks on which meat of every kind - beef, chicken, sausages and more - was being slapped, seared and sizzled. How they kept track of turning it all at the right moment so nothing burned I'll never know. The place was full of families out for Sunday lunch, and I don't think I've ever seen a bigger pack of carnivores in my life! The waitresses were practically staggering under the platters of meat they were bringing out, but every table around us - amazingly - finished each and every scrap of it. I almost felt like a pussy sitting there nibbling on a pizza.

A parrillero oven, and cook checking his orders
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The next morning was also nice, and we did see a few lovely squares and churches, but around noon the weather quickly turned. After that, Murphy´s Law seemed to hit, and we were constantly thwarted in every attempt to get to know more about the city, country and culture. Carnival Museum? Closed for renovations. City Hall lookout tower? No access due to high winds. Pre-Columbian history museum? Not open on Mondays.

A few things we did manage to see - the city´s main Cathedral, and the Lock of Love Fountain - couples who engrave their name on a lock and fasten it here are assured of undying, mutual affection, and

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Aside from the weather problem, the shops and other indoor ´communal´ aspects of the city also shut down, for my feeling, incredibly early, and the restaurants - unless you enjoyed sitting among mounds of smoking meat - were seriously uninspired. The best evening experience I had in one was because of the view - looking out over Independence Square and watching local couples spontaneously tango-ing to music from some small loudspeakers. One night we went to an Irish pub which had live music. The music was actually quite good, but the poor guys were playing for - including us - six patrons, two of whom I think were their wives. Our hotel, although it had an old-fashioned elevator I fell in love with, had no nice general sitting area as a refuge either. Thank God it DID, however, have an HBO-like channel, and we spent our whole last afternoon sitting on the bed eating potato chips, drinking way too much beer, and re-watching Slumdog Millionaire followed by Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.

We enjoyed Uruguay a bit better when we headed back for the last two days to Colonia, which was now empty of tourists (and had gone in the opposite direction of being almost dead) - we had it almost to ourselves. The historic city centre was very picturesque, but small, and after climbing the lighthouse and roaming the streets for an afternoon, we'd pretty much seen it all. But we did discover a lovely and relatively inexpensive restaurant we really liked, and our pretty little posada (hotel) had a nice, sheltered garden with a small swimming pool which we enjoyed sitting by and reading as the good weather returned.

Pretty Colonia del Sacramento and our favourite restaurant - El Drugstore
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Still, I was glad when it was time to return to Argentina. I'm now very glad we had to make the side trip to Buenos Aires, as it is definitely a city I would not - in hindsight - have liked to miss. But it had meant, everything added up, an almost three-week delay in reaching two of the most anticipated destinations on our trip - Iguazu Falls and the Pantanal - both of which we were anxious to get to before the rainy season set in, and by now we were on the cusp of it.

Back in Buenos Aires, we got the great news that my test results were OK, and after a last little cuddle and kiss with Dr Gonzalez, we booked our overnight bus tickets to Puerta de Iguazu. We spent our last day in BA visiting the world-famous Grande Cafe Tortoni (amazing coffee, grumpy waiters) and going to the movies (well, we'd DONE everything else by then!) - Ruby Sparks: it was a great flick, and we had that all to ourselves too, being the only viewers! I climbed onto the overnight bus the next afternoon realizing, by my unexpectedly deep feeling of relief and excitement, how subconsciously worried I must have been after all - because I really didn't feel it consciously - that a big, bad monkey medical wrench would get thrown into our travels. Now it was - rest of the trip, HERE WE COME!!!

Posted by Karenlee 11.10.2012 18:20 Archived in Uruguay Comments (4)

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