Monthly Archives: May 2006

Trying To Catch Up

May 8, 2006
Day 222

Today was mostly spent catching up on my blog and trying to plan out the next month or so. Craig and I moved to a hotel more near the center of town, found out that there is actually a tourism information center here, and learned about a few of the national parks in this side of the country.

Santa Cruz barely feels like Bolivia at times. Bolivia is the 18th poorest country in the world, but this city feels very middle class. It's almost like I'm still in Argentina, but with Bolivian prices.

For example, our hotel last night was $2.50 each, and our dinner of a quarter chicken, french fries, and rice for each of us was a little more than $1. Finally, some relief for my budget. The other strange thing about Santa Cruz is that it has a fairly large community of Mennonites. Something seems drastically out of place when I see people who look like Amish without beards walking down the streets of a large city in Southern Bolivia.

I think we'll need a few days here to recover from the long week of traveling on the boat and buses before moving on to new adventures.

Back In Bolivia

May 7, 2006
Day 221

For the second day in a row, Craig and I rode on a bus all day. We stopped at the immigration center at someplace seemingly in the middle of nowhere at 3:00 AM. Once again, I was harassed because my visa was good for nine years. Everyone who has looked at my passport since entering Paraguay has questioned my visa's validity, but nobody has given me any real trouble about it so far.

We got near the border with Bolivia sometime this morning. At one point, we made a stop and about ten members of the Bolivian Army got on board. At first I thought they were going to search the whole bus, but they just needed a ride up the road. Upon entering Bolivia, I got my entrance stamp on my passport. For some reason, Bolivia only gives tourists thirty days to visit the country instead of the usual ninety that every other country gives. I planned on staying in Bolivia for more than a month, so I nicely asked for ninety days instead, but was told that I'd have to go to the immigration center in Santa Cruz to get the extension. It's crazy how much effort I have to exert just so I can spend my tourist dollars in certain countries. At least I didn't have to buy a visa for Bolivia.

Once we got into Bolivia, we crossed military checkpoints every hour or so. People constantly boarded the bus and looked for drugs. At times, the terrain resembled a war zone, which made sense because Bolivia has fought and lost two wars against Paraguay in recent history. They seem to be on pretty good terms now, but drug smuggling still appears to be an issue.

Today's bus ride seemed to drag on for three years. We were on gravel roads almost the entire way, and we had to crawl over several sections because they were so littered with potholes. Thirty-two straight hours on a bus took their toll on me. By the end of the trip, my legs felt so atrophied, I could barely walk. I didn't have the energy do do anything but sit and stare at the blank TV screen in front of me that never played any movies.

When we got to Santa Cruz, Craig and I checked into the first hotel we could find near the bus station. Our bus couldn't actually enter the bus station, though, because it was closed due to protests. Instead, we stopped in what appeared to be some random parking lot and were given instructions on how to walk to the bus station. We got some dinner and crashed almost immediately.

The Only Way Out

May 6, 2006
Day 220

Our agreed upon destination for the day was Pozo Colorado, a few hours northwest of Concepción. The reason for going there was to get an exit stamp on our passports. There is no immigration at the border with Bolivia, and although there is a city called Filidelphia closer to the border, nobody we talked to seemed sure if it had any immigration.

The bus ride was long and boring. The entire way was down gravel roads barely as wide as the bus itself. We saw a fair amount of wildlife, but almost no signs of civilization. Our bus' fuel line broke down every three hours or so, but it seemed to be a pretty easy fix of pumping fuel back into it by hand. The good news with the trip was that there weren't many people on the bus, so I had a lot of space for my legs, I read half of my book on the way, and I managed to get through the day without any further episodes of vomiting.

When we got dropped off at Pozo Colorado at 11:00 PM, our initial intention was to get our exit stamps in the morning and head up to Filidelphia to chill out for a few days. However, some military police at the checkpoint we were dropped off at informed us that there in fact was no immigration in Pozo Colorado. On top of that, there wouldn't be any way to leave town tomorrow because it's Sunday. It's tough to find good information about such things from other cities, so sometimes you just have to go to your destination and get the scoop when you get there.

We got lucky when talking to the cops as the last bus on its way to Bolivia pulled up to the checkpoint. Its destination was Santa Cruz, which is where we wanted to end up, but it would take twenty more hours to get there. Still, this seemed to be the only way to get an exit stamp because the bus would stop at some remote immigration point along the way. It seemed that our only choice was to get on the bus and wait it out.

A Rechid Day

May 5, 2006
Day 219

The ship pulled into Bahia Negra early this morning. Craig and I got off right away, but activity continued around the ship all day. It became a market of sorts as eager townsfolk boarded to buy their much-needed fruits and vegetables from the vendors.

Our first task for today was to figure out when we could leave town. We would have preferred to stay for three days or so and take another boat or bus out of town. However, we learned that the ship we rode in on would start making its way back to Concepción tonight, so we would have to wait a whole week to get on it again. Also, the only bus out of town leaves tomorrow, and the next one isn't for another week. This is one of the most remote areas of the country, so the news wasn't too surprising. Neither Craig nor I want to stick around here for a week, so we will grab the bus tomorrow.

While walking around town today, we were approached by a white man in his fifties. He introduced himself as William from South Africa and invited us over to his house to explain a tour he is offering of the area. He takes people on a boat he bought and renovated further up the river to see wildlife. It sounded like a great trip, but he wanted $30 per day for four days and neither of us had that much cash with us, so we had to decline.

William was an interesting character to talk to, though. He grew up in South Africa and used to race horses, but he decided to move to Paraguay about fifteen years ago when things started to get rough in his country. He used to sell yogurt and other dairy products, but now he sticks to trading fish with the locals, selling ice, and running the occasional tour. He's been bitten by various spiders, snakes, and monkeys in the area, but he's lucky. He told us about one other guy who got eaten by a crocodile and yet another man who was bitten so badly that he had to spend the last year and a half in a hospital. This area is so wild that I guess it shouldn't have surprised me so much to find a crazy South African living here.

After talking to William, Craig and I decided to walk to the nearby Indian village. On the way there, I started to feel nauseous. Suddenly, I lost my lunch. My non-vomiting streak ended at nearly half a year. I felt a little better afterwards, though, so we continued.

When we were nearing the village, a fifteen-year-old girl pulled up to us on a bicycle and started talking to us. Her name was Lilian, and she lived in the village with her family. She invited us over for some terere, which is a cold drink made from yerba leaves (she appeared slightly offended when I called it mate). We gladly accepted. Lilian was a gracious host, and we learned that her family speaks a language other than Guarani, which itself is a pretty obscure language. Other than her native language, she also knows Guarani, Spanish, a little Italian, and is starting to learn English. She also plays volleyball and wants to go to college to become a lawyer. Craig and I were both very impressed. It turns out that the native people around here do a lot more than just farming.

On the way back to the metropolis of Bahia Negra, I threw up again. Maybe it was the terere, maybe not, but I wasn't willing to take any chances from there on out. I guess I was making up for all those months of being healthy.

Back in town, I could only eat a couple bites for lunch. I started showing Craig some of my pictures from the last few months. When a picture of some food came up, I felt it again. Three pukings in one day, nowhere near a doctor. Not good, especially considering that the bus tomorrow will take about fourteen hours. The only way it could get worse is if diarrhea set in. I went to one of the small shops in town, and luckily the owner had some medicine to stop the vomiting. I also decided that I better stick to fluids for the next few days just to make sure. It could be a rough ride out of here.

Rí­o Paraguay Boat Trip, Day 3

May 4, 2006
Day 218

Picture of kids playing.

Kids playing in a small village.

Once again, we got up at sunrise today and stopped all day at small villages. The boat got more and more empty the entire day. Brazil was visible on the right bank of the river all day. Somehow it seemed more exotic because it was completely packed with gigantic forests of palm trees, whereas the Paraguay side had almost none.

I ate a bunch more pears and the same rice-and-meat food that I had been eating since I got on the boat. I started to feel a little sick to my stomach and almost vomited this afternoon. I'm not sure if it was from the food or just from sitting around for three days, but I definitely didn't feel too good.

I learned that boat should arrive at Bahia Negra tomorrow morning at around 8:00. It's been a great trip, but I'm ready to leave the mighty ship now and walk on dry land once again.

The photo album for this entry is here.

Río Paraguay Boat Trip, Day 2

May 3, 2006
Day 217

Picture of gringos.

Craig, Yvonne, and Jan in front of a bunch of shit.

We woke up at sunrise today, but it wasn't ridiculously early. Everyone went to bed shortly after dark, and the nights last 13 hours this time of year, so despite being woken up several times throughout the night, we got enough sleep. Jan slept in the hammock next to the one that was designated for me, right next to the engine. He informed me that somebody else took my hammock, and everyone was so close to one another that whenever anyone moved, a chain reaction of bumping was caused, similar to that of a Newton's Cradle.

After Craig and I put away our sleeping gear, a large amount of space was free at the front of the ship. Luckily for us, several chairs were stacked amongst the pile of stuff behind us, so the four gringos were able to have a comfortable ride in the sun all day.

We started talking to more and more people on the ship throughout the day. Most of them were on their way home after shopping sprees in Asunción and Concepción. In each group of people, at least one person spoke decent Spanish and was able to translate to Guarani for the rest of them, so communication wasn't an issue. At one point, a cop got on and started firing questions at us. He was just curious, though, and he got off at the next stop. Everyone was wondering if we were missionaries. I guess they don't get too many tourists here. Either that or they thought Craig looked like Jesús.

Most of the places we stopped at today were cement processing plants. Once again, everyone from the towns seemed to gather 'round to watch the ship being unloaded. A lot of the bigger items like the refrigerator, tobacco bundles, and motorcycles were removed from the ship today. The motorcycles created a particular irony as they were driven away on a donkey-powered cart.

As we continued up the river, we started to see a lot more wildlife. We regularly passed large colonies of various birds and also spotted the occasional cayman. Some kids reeled in a few fish at one of the stops.

The food was the same today as yesterday: Meat mixed with rice. It was rather bland but filling. Also scattered throughout the ship were vendors selling fruits and vegetables. I couldn't figure out if they rode up and down the river selling their stuff every week, or if they happened to be on their way home and decided to make some money along the way. I started eating delicious, juicy pears to try to prevent scurvy, which I have heard is common on ships.

Once again, things died down on the ship shortly after sunset. The front of the ship was a much better location to sleep than on the side. The only problem was that every time we stopped, a boat employee would pull the rope used to anchor the ship right past my head and get me wet and dirty. We said goodbye to Jan and Yvonne in the middle of the night as they got off near the border with Brazil. We also had to offload all of our chairs, so tomorrow we will have to sit on the deck all day.

The photo album for this entry is here.

Rí­o Paraguay Boat Trip, Day 1

May 2, 2006
Day 216

Picture of ship.

The ship being loaded.

I got up early this morning hoping to find Craig and/or get on the boat heading up the Rio Paraguay. My only idea to find Craig was to hope that he would email me first thing to let me know where he was. I found out that the boat leaves at 11:00, so I had a window of a few hours to get things straightened out.

Luckily a nearby Internet cafe was open when I got up, but I still hadn't received an email from Craig. I decided to walk to the river to get more info about the boat. On the way, I spotted a tall, skinny, white man with a big, bushy beard. There probably aren't too many people in a small town in the middle of Paraguay who would fit that condition.

Before we went to the ship, Craig and I got caught up on the last two-and-a-half months of traveling. He flew back to Ushuaia after the cruise and did some more trekking in Patagonia. Well, some trekking would be an understatement. At one point, he spent sixty straight nights in his tent. With the Patagonian winter coming on quickly, he headed to northern Argentina, spilling a pot of boiling water on his foot along the way. He got to Puerto Iguazu a few days before me, and I caught up by skipping Asunción yesterday. From what I hear, I didn't miss much. Now we are planning on traveling together through Paraguay and into Bolivia.

They began loading our boat at 10:00 this morning. It wasn't quite the same caliber as the Marco Polo; in fact, I think it used to be an old steam-engined paddle boat. It seemed like anything and everything was loaded onto the ship. There were plenty of the expected grain sacks, fruit, vegetables, and a few pigs, but also motorcycles, furniture, oil drums, and even a small, handmade boat. Combined with the 200 or so passengers, at times I didn't know how they'd have enough space for everything. However, Craig assured me that it was practically empty compared to the boat he road on for three days in Pakistan.

There were a few beds on board, but they all appeared to be rented out. I ended up buying a ticket that didn't include a bed for 90,000 guarani, or about $16 for the trip that should take about three days. Julio, the owner of the ship, is going to try to hook us up with some hammocks, though. I didn't bring any food along, but there appeared to be plenty available on the ship already. Craig and I wisely went in on a large ten-liter jug of purified water together.

The boat took off about an hour late, not too bad by Paraguayan standards. Craig and I found a place to sit on the deck and we slowly made our way up the river. Eventually, we were joined by Jan, from Germany, and Yvonne, from The Netherlands. They are both getting off the ship sometime tomorrow in the middle of the night on their way to Brazil. It was nice to have some other foreigners to talk to. Most of the rest of the passengers are Guarani-speaking natives, and they never seem to stop staring at us. I think a lot of them have never seen a gringo before in their lives. They seem to be friendly people; it's just taking some time to adjust to being stared at again after being in Argentina and Chile for so long.

All day long, we stopped at various little port towns to add and subtract a few things from the ship. It was clear that the weekly visit of the ship was the biggest attraction for the local townsfolk. Everywhere we stopped, dozens of people stopped and watched as their supplies for the week got offloaded. This region, known as the "chaco," is probably the most remote area of Paraguay, and most of the towns we stopped at are inaccessible by road. I wonder what kind of chaos would ensue if Julio decided to stop running his supply ship one week.

We watched a magnificent sunset and got to thinking about where we would sleep tonight. The hammocks we were assigned to were right next to the loud diesel engine of the ship, so we opted to sleep under the stars on the deck instead. This proved to be a problem, though, as we kept getting stepped on in the middle of the night by people offloading their gear at one of the ports. The good thing was that as people got off, there was suddenly a lot of space at the very front of the ship, so we found a new location for the rest of our trip that should be quiet and away from the main walking path.

The photo album for this entry is here.

How To Achieve Concepción

May 1, 2006
Day 215

Last night I got an email from Craig, my cabin mate from my Antarctic cruise. He was on his way to Concepción, Paraguay to go on a boat adventure up the Rio Paraguay and wondered if I wanted to join him. The problem was that the only boat this week leaves tomorrow, which meant that I would have to get to Concepción today to make it. It would be difficult, but possible.

I got to the bus station a little before 7:00, when I was told that the first bus was leaving for Paraguay. I picked a bad day to travel, though. The 1st of May is the equivalent of Labor Day throughout Latin America, which meant that there would be fewer buses all day.

The first bus showed up at 7:30 and I was off. We drove out of town and to the border, but unbeknownst to me at the time, it was the border of Brazil. I got an exit stamp on my passport, got back on the bus, and started driving to the other side of the bridge. I knew something was out of place when every sign I saw was in Portuguese. I asked and found out that indeed we were going into Brazil. This presented two problems: 1. I was trying to get to Paraguay, and 2. I wasn't even allowed to enter Brazil because I didn't have the necessary visa. To my surprise, however, there wasn't any border control for entering Brazil.

I found out from the bus driver that it was necessary to go through Brazil to get to Paraguay, but there weren't any border controls in the area to worry about. We drove through Foz do Iguazu, Brazil for about thirty minutes and got dropped off at the border with Paraguay.

I had to walk across the river that marked the border myself. It was really chaotic. Anyone can freely move between Paraguay and Brazil at that location, and hundreds were doing just that. The bridge was at least one hundred feet above the water. It was windy and the guardrail was below my center of gravity. I stayed as far away from it as possible.

When I got to the other side, I found the customs office and went in to get my entry stamp. The officer stared at the visa in my passport for a long time as if he had never seen one before. Finally, he said "Why is this visa good for so long?"

"How long is it good for?"

"Nine years. Are you planning on staying in Paraguay that long?"

I thought about the prospect. I would have to move very slowly to stay that long in Paraguay. I could probably walk to every village in that time. "No, just a month or so. I'm not sure why they gave me nine years." After that, I was free to roam through the country, for longer than I could possibly imagine.

I asked around and figured out which city bus to take to the main bus terminal. A few minutes later I was there. Almost instantly, I was being offered a ride to Asunción, the capital of Paraguay. I was off to a successful start to my day.

The bus ride to Asunción really sucked. I was jammed against the window with my knees against the seat in front of me for five hours straight. They tried playing some DVDs, but I couldn't really see or hear them and they always seemed to break down after fifteen minutes. I was lucky, though: there were at least twenty people standing on the bus for the entire trip. After spending the last five months in Chile, Argentina, and Antarctica, I was officially back in the Third World.

In Asunción, I checked my email, but had nothing new. Craig was supposed to email me to let me know where he was staying so I could meet him there, but he hadn't done so yet. I figured I'd find him later and decided to buy my ticket to Concepción. The problem was that I couldn't figure out where to buy the ticket from. I went to the top, middle, and bottom levels of the bus station, but didn't see any ticket booths. Finally, I gave up and asked a local. As expected, he answered my question like I was a kindergartener. I had to walk to the back of the upper level to find the ticket booths because they weren't visible from the top of the escalator. I feel like such an idiot sometimes when I'm traveling.

The bus ride to Concepción was long, but much better than the last one. It took five more hours, but at least I had a little bit of leg room this time. When I got into town, I walked around for awhile looking for an Internet cafe hoping that Craig had emailed me. I found two, but they were both closed because of the May 1st holiday. Concepción is a small city, so I realized why Craig hadn't emailed me: he couldn't. When I figured that out, I checked into the nearest hotel and hoped that I could find Craig tomorrow morning before the boat left.

Iguazú Falls

April 30, 2006
Day 214

Picture of waterfall.

People watching Salto San Martin.

For your reference, a map to the park can be found here.

I caught the first bus I could to Iguazú Falls National Park in Argentina this morning. It was easy because my hostel was only one block from the bus station, and the park was a short ride out of town.

The park is a big place full of tourists from all over the world. It's not very difficult to access given its proximity to Buenos Aires and the good infrastructure of roads in the area, so it's not a big surprise that it's touristy.

I decided to start by taking the Lower Circuit, which would take me along the river to the bottom of about half of the falls. Almost immediately, I saw a monkey and several coatis. I walked up to a lighthouse and climbed the outside stairs as high as they would take me. That's where I got my first glimpse of some of the waterfalls in the distance.

The next waterfall I saw was called Salto Alvar Nuñez. It was a big, solitary waterfall that whetted my appetite to see more. I also saw a lot more tropical birds like parakeets and toucans along the way. I had entered a jungle-like environment.

Eventually, I got to the river and got a great view of all of the falls to the west of Isla San Martin. The view was so stunning, I couldn't believe my eyes at times. I had stumbled into a tropical paradise. As the path continued, the views kept getting better and closer. I could tell the waterfalls were big because I could see the tiny people watching them from other lookout points, but the sheer number of them was what impressed me the most.

When I got closer to the falls, I saw a speedboat power its way into Salto San Martin and disappear briefly. When it emerged, everyone was soaking wet and hollering. By that time, there were also frequent helicopter fly-overs. Iguazu is definitely a modern-day tourist trap.

My next stop was Isla San Martín, the island that separates the two groups of waterfalls. To get there, I took a quick boat ride across the river. Lots of people were walking around on the beach and relaxing, so I decided to join in. I ate one of the sandwiches I brought and took in my surroundings.

The trail wrapped me around to the east side of the island for my first glimpse of Garganta del Diablo, or Throat of the Devil, the set of waterfalls on the east side of the park. The trail then led me to a colony of vultures, swooping around a small waterfall and sitting in a tree.

The last place to visit on the island was a lookout point that brought me right next to Salto San Martin. I got sprayed with lots of water on the walkway, but it was worth it. The views from this point were fantastic. The speedboat went right under us, as did a bunch of birds as they went for a dip.

Eventually, I made my way back to the start of the park. Along the way, I walked past Salto Dos Hermanas, a set of twin waterfalls that were somewhat secluded from the main group. I also went past the old and new hotels of the park. I don't even want to imagine how expensive it would be to stay at the brand new Sheraton.

The next path I took was the Upper Circuit. I saw all of the waterfalls I had just seen, only from above this time. Once again, the views were spectacular, although not as great for me as seeing the falls from below. I walked to the end of the path, had another sandwich, and slowly returned to the park entrance once again.

The final major path led to Garganta del Diablo, on the other side of the park. A train took most people there, but I decided to walk as it was only about 3 K's away. Halfway to the other side, I stopped to talk to a park employee. He showed me some turtles that were swimming in the peaceful river. Then he said "Watch this," and threw some bread in the water. Instantly, a group of piranhas thrashed around and shredded the bread. Also on the trail, I saw lots of butterflies and a woodpecker, so it was definitely worth the walk.

From the train station at the end of the trail was another short walk to Garganta del Diablo. Along the way, I saw multiple caymans chilling in the water. When I first reached the lookout point, I couldn't see anything because there were so many tourists. There must have been a tour group of some sort there because everybody was wearing matching name tags. The line to the front was three deep, and there didn't seem to be much order to it. Eventually, I pushed my way through and took a couple quick pictures, but was pushed back out almost immediately. I decided to wait, and eventually everyone left. I had the whole place almost to myself.

The sheer force behind Garganta del Diablo was amazing. Being right on top of the waterfall made it even more dramatic. The roar of the water passing over the ridge was deafening. I stayed there for a good half hour before taking off.

I had seen all of the major waterfalls, so I took a break, ate the rest of my sandwiches, and walked back to the park entrance. There was still one more waterfall at the end of a trail a few K's outside the main part of the park. I started walking down it, but didn't get very far because it was closed. I didn't realize it, but it was already nearly 6:00 and was starting to get dark. It wasn't a big deal to skip that trail, though. I haven't even met anyone who has actually walked down it.

Iguazú falls was easy to get to, and easy to walk around, but it still is one of the best things I've done on my entire trip. The beauty of being in the jungle, seeing tropical animals everywhere, and of course, one of the most extraordinary natural sites in the world made me overlook the fact that the park is overrun with tourists. I now understand what Eleanor Roosevelt meant when she went to Iguazú and said, "Poor Niagra."

The photo albums for this entry are here.

Wood Musuem

April 29, 2006
Day 213

I arrived in Puerto Iguazu early this morning, exhausted after being in a bus for so long. The seat I was in barely reclined, so it was almost impossible for me to sleep. Passing the time was tough, too, because the movies they played sucked. I couldn't really watch them anyway because the volume was so low. They turn down the volume really low on buses because the people watching are just reading the subtitles anyway, so they don't need to hear anything. Normally there are jacks above me that I can plug my headphones into, but this bus didn't have any. And I can only read subtitles in Spanish for so long before my brain gives up.

I got to Puerto Iguazu a little to late to see the park adequately, so I decided to wait until tomorrow. Instead, I checked out the Images of the Jungle Museum. I figured it would be a bunch of paintings and photos of rain forest animals, but it was one man's collection of woodcarvings. I was bored stiff at the beginning of my guided tour because every animal was made out of a branch or log that already looked like an animal. "This one is the monkey," my guide would tell me, "But of course all the artist did was carve a slit for its mouth." Bo-ring. But at the end, I saw some much more difficult pieces that took up to a year to make including JFK, a famous pope sitting in a chair, and Jesus' head that was carved when the artist was blind for two years from cataracts. It turned out to be a nice little place to visit.

Late this afternoon, I went to the "Punta de Tres Fronteras," the point of three borders, where Argentina Brazil, and Paraguay all meet. There wasn't much to the site itself, other than the fact that I could see three countries at once. I think it's funny that on some postcards of Paraguay, Iguazu Falls are featured, even though they are miles away and are only viewable from Brazil and Argentina. A little bit of deceptive marketing is going on in Paraguay.

Tonight I went to bed early in preparation of the long day of seeing the Falls that lied ahead.