Saturday, November 22, 2008

Vacation: Week One

Warning: this is a long post, to be followed shortly by another long post. Sorry.

Colonia, Uruguay

The weekend before I left for the waterfalls I spent in Colonia, Uruguay with Sol and Flor, which was incredibly fun. The boat ride across the river is about an hour and they stamp you into and out of each country on the same side, which is unlike any other border I’ve ever crossed. The first day we wandered the historic area – about a six block radius – and climbed up the old lighthouse before drinking a fruit-filled white wine beverage while watching a beautiful sunset. (It should be noted that most of the time we were eating or drinking. We also ate chivitos for both lunches, a typical beef dish in Uruguay.) Here are the lovelies on a typical street in the historical district with the river in the background.

That night we played Truth or Dare, a first for Sol and something I haven’t done in at least a decade. (My dare was to kiss the pizza deliveryman, a normal yet intimate greeting.) The second day we rented a golf cart, the first motorized vehicle I had driven in 9 months. We puttered out of the city and up the coast to the old Plaza de Toros (bullfighting ring) and took a picture in front of the Shipwreck Museum (deciding not to pay the entrance fee or deal with the OCD woman running it) before heading to the surprisingly ocean-like beach (technically, Río de la Plata is the world’s largest estuary, so it isn’t so odd that there were shells and sand and the water was semi-salty). I went swimming while they took pictures of me from the shore. Both Sol and Flor are persistent photo-takers and I actually stopped taking my own in the face of their certain coverage of any possible image I may want to remember.

Misiones, Argentina (Iguazú falls)

My trip to Iguazú falls, situated in the uppermost part of the country and bordering Paraguay and Brasil, was amazing. After an 18 hour bus ride there, wherein I discovered that a ‘bed bus’ does not necessarily mean that the seat is flat but rather wider and cushier than a ‘semi-bed bus,’ I arrived at the insanely large yet lush Hostel-Inn Iguazú and was in the pool within 10 minutes. Since I had gone straight from the boat from Uruguay to the bus, I was still covered in the sand, sunscreen, and sweat from the day before. Luckily I had no one sitting next to me on the bus. Suffice to say the pool was a welcome relief.

The hostel itself was pretty cool. It was much bigger than I realized, 200 beds, but the pool was great and there were always lounge chairs to be had. They also organized lots of events and I attended two delicious asados (barbecues) while there, each of which had a dance show (tango and samba, with real Brasilian Amazonian ladies who shook their mostly-bare butts in mortified tourists’ faces). My room had 6 (comfortable!) beds, one of which was occupied by an older Argentinean lady who had been there for two weeks, kept the room shockingly cold, and snored. She was very sweet, even tucking me in one night, and I was grateful for the wax earplugs I remembered to buy.

I arrived on the afternoon of November 10, a Monday. On Tuesday morning, I hopped the yellow bus that makes the circuit between Puerto Iguazú (the main town), the hostel (5 kilometers from town), and the park entrance (another 5 kilometers). The Argentinean area is enclosed by a national park that has fantastic infrastructure; it was much like I imagine Disney would run government property if they were asked. I didn’t go to the Brasilian side even though it was allegedly possible to evade the $150 visa fee (after my near-deportation from Bolivia I’m playing it safe at borders these says). The view is more panoramic because almost all the falls are on the Argentinean side, but I got a pretty wide view from the boat and didn’t feel like I missed that much.

It’s cliché, but the waterfalls itself were breathtaking. The river was really high, so the crush of the water was deafening when you got close. Luckily the river was a bit lower than the week before since they closed the metallic walkways that cross over the river and to the biggest of the falls, Garganta del Diablo (throat of the devil), since they were essentially underwater, which is considered unsafe for some reason (joking). This particular fall was indescribable, a near-circle of fierce brown water tumbling to an invisible bottom. Here is a video I took, sideways - sorry, I can't figure out how to edit it. (I have many such videos and hope to bug one of my knowledgeable friends to edit them together for me for everyone's viewing enjoyment.)

I have to admit it was terrifying, since the whole time all I could think about was, what if I fell in? What if the walkway collapses and we ALL fall in? How long would it take to die? How long until they found my body? Etc, etc. I felt sort of grotesque for this until I talked to other people and pretty much every single person, regardless of nationality or gender, had the same issue. In addition to getting scared, I also got incredibly wet, and my camera was a real trooper (and continued to be for the next two weeks as I exposed it to fresh water, salt water, sand, sunscreen, and several unfortunate impacts).

By far the best part of the falls was the boat ride that literally stuck us UNDER one of the falls, an incredible experience I screamed through. Being in the front-most seat I definitely took the brunt and I have no complaints. At the end I had the opportunity to buy a DVD of said screaming for a shocking 90 pesos ($30). I declined. Here's a view from the boat:

It was high butterfly season and it was seriously shocking how many butterflies there were. I took a video of one of the many literal swarms I saw. My mom knows very well that I do not like it when these lovely creatures land on me, and there was one type (incidentally, the largest) that was determined to do so. I actually went running and yelping like a little girl on a few occasions and I know I drew some odd stares. Incidentally, my ‘safari’ guide told me that they land on human skin to lick the salt off of us, which I thought was interesting. I also saw huge tiger ants whose bite is apparently like a bee sting, and any number of other bugs I couldn’t identify but enjoyed watching. I made an interesting discovery about myself this way: in their natural habitat, bugs don’t really bother me, but in MY natural habitat, i.e. my apartment, they gross me out. (I will not bore you with my cockroach updates, but I have found a lethal gel and now they greet me belly-up rather than scurrying away, which is still gross but at least doesn't involve me spending 45 minutes working up the nerve to kill them.)

There are many varieties of birds in the park since it’s a sub-tropical jungle, and I even saw a toucan. Apparently there are macaws as well. There are also two species of monkeys, but I saw neither. Otherwise I saw tons of lizards, a few of which were huge iguanas, but only managed to get a picture of a cluster of three, by far the smallest ones saw all day.

I also saw two coatis, which are like raccoons. There are signs everywhere telling you to stay away and not to feed them; apparently they are mean and can bite. I saw tons of bunnies jumping out of the way of the train tracks (there is a free, eco-friendly train that moves through the park) and I was temporarily disappointed to find such a common animal in such an exotic place. Then I reminded myself that bunnies are adorable and have just as much right to be there as the cooler animals.

By the end of my day there the sky was starting to turn, and as I was leaving the park it started dumping rain. The power kept going on and off in the little stores at the front of the park, which resulted in some confusion with the ATM since people's transactions were cut off. Luckily I was able to use it with no problems, avoiding an unnecessary trip into town. I haven't gotten that wet in a long time, and the instant I arrived at the hostel the sun came back out.

That night the sky was mostly clear I managed to take a full moon tour, which was lucky since of the four nights I was there, it stormed – hard – for two of them. I met a girl from Spain on this tour and she managed to take some pretty rad pictures with her much more advanced camera, and has promised to email them to me when she gets home. I’ll share them with you once I get them.

The next day (Wednesday) I booked a tour to see more of the Misiones area, the northernmost region of Argentina. The first stop was at Minas de Wanda (pronounced Vanda), named after a Polish princess who killed herself rather than marrying an enemy prince in hopes of repairing relations. Apparently the Polish immigrants who settled the area were sentimental about the story. These mines are special since they produce a variety of stones, including several types of quartz, amethyst, and some others I forget. I bought a lot of rocks here.

Next we went to the Jesuit ruins at San Ignacio, which were gorgeous. I pulled a fairly idiot move in not bringing my camera charger and the battery died at the mines, but luckily I did the circuit with another solo traveler, a Peruvian who has lived in Santa Barbara for 10 years. He took some great photos and has promised to send them to me. The area the ruins encompass is huge, and apparently several thousand people lived and worked there back in the day. One of my favorite things about Misiones is the high iron content in the soil, rendering everything in the area a bright, beautiful red. (Once we were behind a truck of cut trees that looked shockingly like redwoods, but were just pine that had been reddened from exposure.) The ruins consisted of many complexes of red brick buildings surrounded by wide fields punctuated with shady trees. There was a bright blue sky with lovely clouds, and I lay in the grass nearly an hour, content with my surroundings. From there it was about 3 hours back to the hostel where an asado and a fantastic lightning storm were waiting for me.

I decided to come home a day early (Thursday evening instead of Friday) since I had done everything I wanted to and still had almost a full day (Thursday) to just lay by the pool. I changed my bus ride without any problems (except I got a much less cool seat in the back of the bus instead of the front-most one I had reserved on the upper level) and 18 hours and a thorough drug search later (apparently being so close to the Paraguay and Brasil borders is worrisome for Argentina, much to the terror of the German couple who were strip-searched since they had stayed at a notorious drug-user’s hotel) I was back in Buenos Aires.

Weekend in Buenos Aires

I packed a lot in to my three day weekend back in Buenos Aires, including going to a nightclub opening on Friday, eating a great brunch and seeing Benicio del Toro in part 1 of Che: El Argentino (I guess in the states they released all four hours of it at once!) on Saturday, going to the Noche de Museos on Saturday night, and spending Sunday at an asado at Sol’s. I have to say, she cooks a mean barbecue and rivals any of my U.S. friends and family for top honors.

Back to the Noche de Museos: it’s one night a year from 7 pm to 2 am when all the museums are open and free to the public. There were over 100 participating places with open-air art installations and performances, free busses that moved people from one spot to another, and long lines snaking from block to block. I finally saw the inside of the Congress building which is only 2 blocks from my house but almost never open to the public, and it was a delight. There was an orchestra playing and visitors had access to every room including the congressional and senate chambers. The same was not true for the Casa Rosada where I met Kirsten and her friends. The presidents used to live and now presumably work there, and the line was twice as long yet only gave access to the tiny museum that is open every day. I abandoned that claustrophobic space for El Cabildo where the Argentinean revolution was planned, and then Sol met me at 1 am to see the Manzana de las Luces (block of lights), a series of underground tunnels that used to stretch the entire city and were used at various times for communication between churches and monasteries, as well as for many types of smuggling and trafficking. It got its name since the tunnels were also used at one point to share scientific ideas that were otherwise considered blasphemous or dangerous. Overall a very fun night and it was fun to see so many old people in the streets at 2 am. Here we are waiting to get in to the tunnels:

Phew! This has been week one of the last two weeks of vacations I’ve been on. Stay tuned for part two, a truly incredible visit to the northern part of Patagonia. Also, there are new pictures on Picasa, so, enjoy!


Sunshine said...

Hello, hello my friend!
thought we see each other... you were missed in your 2 weeks away!!!
I'm so happy that you collect so many good memories from here!
Colonia was awsome... Laughs, sunset, beach, drinks, food (lots & lots), truth or dare (I love you, Uruguayyyy) :-O
Once again, thanks for sharing yourself. You, ELI, are wonderful!
Keep having fun! I most certainly do my best to make you do so!

Momma Archer said...

Just one word to describe your blog on your vacation: Amazing! And the pictures are awesome. Oh, the places you've quote Dr. Seuss.

While you must be sad to be leaving Argentina, we are happy in Seattle to have you back soon!