Iguazu Falls

It’s now Monday, and I’ve finally resigned myself, that I am feeling as good as I am going to get regarding our tour to Iguazu Falls on Friday.  So I thought I had better write something and post some photos before we move onto Rio tomorrow.  Getting to the Fsalls involved being picked up from the port by a local driver (NB: not a tour guide) to take us to the airport, and flying from Buenos Aires to Iguazu.  Then being met by our actual guide, and going to the Iguazu Falls National Park in the Argentine province of Misiones which borders the Brazilian state of Parana.  As anyone who has read my previous post is already aware, this was (on this occasion) far easier said then done!

We ended up arriving at Iguazu about 4:30pm giving us limited time in the park itself.  The upside of this late afternoon visit, is that there were not many people there; the late afternoon sun also made for good photography conditions.  The downside of a late afternoon visit is that we did not have a lot of time to spend exploring the area, and were only able to walk around the lower falls circuit track. 

Diego, our guide, informed us that the name ‘Iguazu’ comes from the Guarani or Tupi (local indigenous peoples) words for ‘y’ meaning ‘water’, and ‘uasu’ meaning ‘big’.  So they are literally called ‘Big Water Falls’.  

According to local legend, a god planned to marry a beautiful woman (they’re always beautiful, yeah?), who jilted him for her human lover, and in a canoe they attempted to escape down the Iguazu River.  In a fit of rage, the god destroyed the river, creating the waterfalls and condemning the lovers to falling in the water for all eternity… or something like that.

There are 275 separate waterfalls within the cataract area, with drops between 60 and 80 meters, with the highest drop being 82 metres (that’s 269 feet in the old money). The falls run right along the border between Brazil and Argentina, which crosses through the Devil’s Throat – the widest and most impressive section of the falls.  On the right bank is Brazilian territory and on the left side is Argentina.  Approximately 80% of the falls are on the Argentine side of the border.  

The falls were very impressive, but to me, walking through the rainforest overlooking this wonder of the natural world, just did not feel worth it at all. I felt as though I was forcing myself to smile and participate, and I couldn’t not stop thinking about the people in our group who were left behind. I just felt awful all afternoon.  I wished I had not come and that someone more able to shake off the incident had come in my place. Anyway, we are ‘trying not to talk about the war’, three days later, and so far; success = minimal.

On another note, we saw wild toucans in the rainforest and it was the first time this trip that I cursed leaving my heavy and cumbersome DSLR with its L series lenses, at home. Most of the tours we had done involved either vast sweeping Patagonia vistas or getting up close to the wildlife, so I hadn’t really missed it until that moment.

After we saw the falls, we went to check into our hotel, got cleaned up a bit and then went to a place called ‘The Landmark’.  The Landmark is a local hang out place where you could sit and drink mate, enjoy the company of neighbours and watch the sunset.  This beautiful look out point allows you to see the convergence of rivers that marked the boundaries between three different countries – Paraguay (on the left), Brazil (on the right) and Argentina, which was where we were standing.  It is a very unique spot.

Following our stop at The Landmark, we collectively opted to go to a very touristy local Argentinian Barbecue restaurant, called El Quincho del Toi querido, for dinner – complete with noisy folk music and later, a tango show.  The food was plentiful and quite nice (in spite of it being tourist prices, and there being lots of offal in the BBQ), but there was plenty of wine and thank god for that.
I eventually stopped feeling like I was going to be ill, at about 8pm… which is probably around the same time as we were polishing off our second bottle of wine.  I picked up a spare bottle of sauvignon blanc on the way out to have back at the hotel, which Aunty Mary and I knocked off sitting by the pool watching the stars. 

This tour should have been one of those memorable lifetime occasions, but it had turned into a just downright god awful day, and even the beautiful waterfalls did not recover it for me.  I doubt I will ever look back on today and be glad I came. I’m still trying to just shake it off, but it is proving particularly difficult with everyone on the ship still talk about it, and with total strangers asking me if I am okay.  :/

Diego giving me a supportive hug at the airport…

Landscape from the plane…

Puerto Madryn Wildlife Tour

Today we were doing a full day wildlife tour of the Valdes Peninsula, which is a world famous, UNESCO World Heritage Area and serves as a protected nature reserve for its seal colonies, penguin rookeries, wild llamas, seabirds and whale watching,  So 21 of us set out for a Big Day O’ Nature.  Unlike the west coast of Chile which was heavily settled by Germans, here the settlements on the shores of the wide bay of Golfo Nuevo (New Gulf) were settled by the Welsh. Attempting to escape religious persecution in Britain, they were encouraged by the Argentine government with the promise of 100 square miles of land along the Chabut River.  The settlers came in 1865 and they named their first settlement Puerto Madryn in honour of Baron Madryn back in Wales.  Puerto Madryn is now a city of 120,000 people with thriving aluminium and tourism industries.

The port seemed overly chaotic when we disembarked for some reason, but we managed to find our driver and guide, Sergio and Roberto (‘Berto for short) and made our way to a nice clean, relatively comfy bus, which is a bonus.  All loaded up and off we went headed north.  No far up the road, ‘Berto introduced himself, gave everyone a map of where exactly we were going and then mentioned we were doing nearly 400km round the peninsula today.

*blink blink*

FOUR HUNDRED KILOMETRES!  I don’t remember signing up for that… but at least there should be plenty of interesting scenery on the way – we’re still in Patagonia here, and Patagonia is absolutely gorgeous.  On a trivial note, one of the guides told us that ‘patagon’ means, ‘big foot’. So ‘Patagonia’ literally translates as ‘land of big foot people’… I have no idea what that is about.

Our first stop was about an hour’s drive as we popped through the Valdes Peninsula visitors centre to have a look at a map, use the bathrooms and check out some interpretive displays on the wildlife that is indigenous to the area. Some stuffed hawks, and whale bones, and clean loos later, and we were back on the bus in 15 mins ready to go see some animals.

We drove another 40 minutes to reach the Puerto Pyramides area where were walked a short few minutes to a viewing platform that overlooked some dramatic cliff coastline. From the viewing platform, we could see a large sea lion colony, about 500m – 1km away.  Which is interesting enough, but my little happy snap camera is not up to wildlife photography at those distances.  So you’ll have to forgive the dodgy photos.  The cliffs were quite dramatic, and it seems most of the peninsula coastline is like this.

After pulling out of the Puerto Pyramides area, ‘Berto started making some ‘mate’ (pronounced ‘mah-tay’) for the driver.  It is a traditional South American brewed drink made with yerba mate, that is most frequently shared among whoever is present.  There are some protocols surrounding the sharing of mate, one of which is that it is rude to decline.  Another is regarding the direction the straw is facing in the cup when it is handed to you, and yet another is if you saying you have enjoyed it, apparently if you apply ‘yes’ this means you have had enough and you will not be offered more.  Anyway, I thought I would try it, and let me tell you it tastes as bad as it looks – it is so foul I think they may be sipping unknowingly on rehydrated sheep shit.  Never again thanks very much!

Oh, I forgot to mention earlier that we were about 25 minutes into our drive when I realised I was wrong about the interesting scenery bit.  For any Americans following this, if you’ve ever wanted to know what the Australian Outback looks like, just take a drive around this weird, dry little peninsula in Argentina and you’ll get a pretty good idea of what to expect… only I have to say, as a general rule, our Outback tends to have way more trees.

After this, we started having trouble with our air conditioning on the bus.  Which ordinarily isn’t a problem – you just open the windows. Unfortunately, however, we are on a bus which all the windows are completely sealed, so we were kinda getting very hot and it was becoming hard to breathe.  So, we made an unscheduled stop at ‘Berto’s family’s sheep ranch to give Sergio a chance to check the air con system.  Berto’s family spend most of the summer in town at Puerto Madryn, but every week or so they come out to the estancia to check on the sheep.  They have the main house, a workers dormitory for the shearing season and a small hall that is used for feeding all the workers during the season. There were some trees here, that had obviously been carefully nurtured to offer some shade, but most of the ‘garden’ was covered in a succulent similar to what we would call a pigweed type plant.  The place is so dry they keep only one sheep per hectare, and looking about the countryside, we have no idea what they must be eating.

Unfortunately, Sergio couldn’t get the air con going, but he did get the window near the driver opened and popped up some vents in the roof, so… all good and we were on the road again.  We drove for another half an hour or so and came upon a large natural salt lake.  There are two on the peninsula, but unfortunately, they are on private property so we couldn’t go in to have a good look.  *sad face*

Next, we drove to Punta Cantor, to check out an elephant seal colony.  Again the coastline was beautiful and very dramatic after spending hours driving through the low, flat and dry terrain.  The elephant seals were all flopping about on the beach – what a life, just laying about in the sun, go for a swim for some fish later, and then lay about in the sun some more. Some of these big male elephant seals weigh in at just over three tonnes!  One of the ladies on our trip was just observing what a great life they must have when I thought I saw a black fin about three metres off the beach.  Waited a few moments, and it saw it again – YES, that there is an orca cruising the beach looking for easy prey.  Okay, maybe life is not so stress-free for seals after all.  We watched this amazing whale, with the bad reputation, swimming slowly past all the seemingly oblivious seals, but I bet they knew exactly where he was, and that they were safe.  The orca could not risk attempting to swim up onto the beach there to snap up a seal because the waves were not strong enough to carry him back into the water, and he risked being stranded on the sand.  We were all watching enthralled at how close he was going to the seals, all hoping for a David Attenborough documentary-worthy moment, but he just cruised on slowly past.

On the way out we met a hairy armadillo, who happens to live in the area.  His primary activity seems to be running away from tourists who are chasing him for photos.  Poor thing.  When everyone left him alone, he pretty much came trotting over to curiously meet people, but chase him and he was running away.  Again, I saw people trying to pet this animal – no idea how wild it is, no idea if they bite or can harm you, but people were doing it anyway?!  Maybe it is the fact that we are from Australia… where nearly all the fauna and half the flora can kill you, and that makes us somewhat reluctant to touch strange creatures.  Not sure.  But we all look at these people trying to touch unknown animals and think, ‘what a wanker?!’

Then there was a quick drive by stop for a penguin rookery and more Magellanic penguins… very cute.

After our brief encounter with the orca, which absolutely made nearly everyone’s day, we were faced with a two-hour drive back to the ship.  The noisy corrugated road, that was in sad need of grading, the endless ‘desolate’ landscape (someone else’s word, not mine), and before you knew it – there was nearly 20 people sleeping all the way back.

All up it was an interesting day, but far too long, and not what we were expecting – I think most of us were expecting short drives with lots of wildlife stops, not long drives and only three wildlife stops.  Had we known that we were in for a 400km drive, I strongly doubt that many of us would have chosen to spend our short time in port sitting on a bus all day driving through terrain that looks just like home.  It was just way too long, especially when we understand Puerto Madryn has plenty of points of interest to offer visitors.  Oh well, not every day can be Easter Island ( the benchmark for amazing days out for the rest of my life, I think)… there’s alway tomorrow.  🙂

Ushuaia, End of the World, Beginning of Everything

Ushuaia is the capital of Tierra del Fuego, Antartica e Islas de Atlantic Sur Province in Argentina.  But it is more commonly known as Ushuaia – the End of the World!  Generally considered the southernmost city in the entire world, Ushuaia is located in a wide bay on the southern cost of the island called, Isla Grande de Tierra del Fuego – which is bounded by the Martial Mountain ranges and the Beagle Channel.

We sailed in through the beautiful Beagle Channel glacier field, just watching amazingly beautiful glacier after glacier appear as we sailed through the channel.

Getting ready to go ashore, I saw this little notice in the Port Guide… never seen that before.  I was just a kids when the Falklands war was going on, it never would have occurred to me that tensions might still run high.

Once at the port, we met our guide, Andres, and our trusty drivers, plural, for the day Coco, and Juan Emannuel (don’t ask, long story), and we head off towards the famous Train at the End of the World to take us into the Tierra del Fuego National Park.

On the way, Andres gave us plenty of information (much of which he had to repeat later, poor fellow – the bus PA system wasn’t working).  The term Ushuaia (pronounced u-sua-ia / u’swa ja), comes from the yagan language ush and waia, which means ‘deep bay’ or ‘bay to background’.  I asked Andres how the region got the name Tierra del Fuego, ‘Land of Fire’, which seemed a name more likely for an active lava field than an alpine tundra spotted with peat bogs, and he told us that the original peoples of the area, the Selk’nam Indians (also called the Ona people) first arrived in the region about 10,000 years ago, and they would have enormous bonfires that were visible from the straits – the same fires that Magellan spied from his ship; hence the ‘Land of Fire’.

You can see by this map, that very little care was taken when drawing the boundaries between Chile and Argentina on this particular island – they have quite literally taken a ruler and sliced through the countryside, with one side of the mountain in one Chile, and the other half in Argentina.  As we traversed the park, it was a bit, ‘Oh 3kms that way is Chile’… and ‘half of this lake is Chile, and that half of the lake is Argentina’.  Seriously?  That’s gotta make conservation efforts a little tricky!

Tierra del Fuego is the southernmost national park in Argentina, and it is full of dramatic scenery – waterfalls, dense forests, mountains, glaciers, lakes, peat bogs, and rivers.  It is a simply stunning place, and I think you could easily explore here for months without seeing the same spot twice.  The forests here are of Antarctic beech and Lenga beech, which looks very similar to Tasmania’s alpine forests which are also heavy in Lenga beech trees.  There are many species of fox, rabbit, muskrats, mink and beaver here… most of these species have been introduced, and several are now actively culled – the meat used for crab bait, and the furs sent for tanning and sale. Interestingly, and this makes total sense but I probably wouldn’t have considered it at all, had Andres not mentioned it; there are no reptiles in this entire region.  It is too cold for them here, so there are no frogs, no snakes and no lizards at all.

The park stretches 60km from the Beagle Channel on the Chilean border and is quite frequently accessed by the very quaint, heritage listed, ‘End of the World Train’.  The End of the World Train, which was more properly named, the Southern Fuegian Railway was established as a narrow gauge steam railway, which replaced an old wood track rail system that was drawn by bullocks – the primary purpose of which was to supply Ushuaia’s prison.  The steam engine trains were built over a 25km length on the Ushuaia waterfront, past Mount Susana and then through the Pipo River Valley into the Tierra del Fuego National Park.  The railway, which is a cute 500mm (20”) gauge, was designed to connect the prison camp with a forestry camp for timber supplies.  

The prison train was used to transport prisoners to the camp, and transport out logged timber from the forest.  The conditions under which the prisoners worked and were accommodated sounded appalling – they worked long hours in deep snow; lived in dank tiny cells, and suffered cruel conditions with guards who make Alcatraz guards sound like candy stripers. Men were stood in sopping wet clothing for hours in the freezing cold for minor infringements, locked in small cells in the dark, indefinitely, these and many other cruel punishments were devised for transgressors.  Being allowed outside to go work cutting timber, under armed guard, was a privilege – even if that mean standing in deep snow, working with tools with freezing fingers for hours on end.

The landscape is scattered with tree stumps everywhere – nothing grows quickly down here, and likewise, nothing rots away quickly here either due to the low temperatures.  At the time the trees were cut, they were taken at ground level, but you can see umpteen stumps left behind by the prisoners all appear to be at different heights… this apparently is indicative of how deep the snow was when each particular tree was cut down, as ‘ground level’ constantly changed with the snow depth.

The prison was eventually shut down in 1947 and the railway was closed in 1952 following the reduction in forest resources (that will happen when you cut down really old, slow growth forrest), and the train tracks suffered some damage during an earthquake.  It was some 40 years later that the train was revived and repurposed as a heritage tourist attraction.  The 7km route takes about an hour to traverse into the park and every view from every window is just stunning.

After our train journey, Andres and Juan-Emmanuel picked us up and took us to a few different areas of the National Park.  First we went to have a look at a beaver dam… which if you’re North American may not seem such a big deal, but when you’re Australian and you’ve never seen a beaver, was really quite curious.  The island has several introduced species that have all wreaked havoc on the sensitive ecosystem here to the detriment of the local flora and fauna.  The Tierra del Fuego National Park is studded with mountains, lakes and rivers carved out by glaciers which form deep valleys and beautiful water courses – and we went to checked out a dam across one of these rivers, that was built by two beavers in barely two months and I could not believe the size of the endeavour!  It brought a whole new relevance to the saying ‘busy beavers’.  I couldn’t’ believe that it took just two industrious rodents to create such a huge dam across a whole river in such a short period of time – meanwhile, back home, I can’t seem to get my back fence finished in two years… not even with ready money! Incredible work, pesty beavers.

After this we went to the actual (literal or metaphorical, I am not entirely sure?!) ‘End of the World’ site within the park.  We are approximately 17,818kms from Alaska.  And yes, apparently you can walk it!  Andres told us he met a man who had walked from Alaska to Ushuaia and it had taken him almost three years to do the entire trip on foot… absolutely remarkable.  Apparently he has set some kind of record in completing the epic adventure and has written a book about it, though my notes have deserted me and I can not remember his name or the title of his book!

Here, for our viewing pleasure was some of the most stunning scenery I have ever seen in my entire life… it is a wide sweeping landscape of mountains, lake, river and low alpine vegetation.  Impossible to truly capture with my dinky little happy-snap camera, but it was a truly breathtaking vista.

Also here, for our sensory pleasure, our guide, Andres, introduced us all to Legui – a local spirit made of sugar cane, oranges and herbs, so that we may all toast the occasion on our having travelled to the End of the World!

After enjoying our Legui, the scenery and admiring the landscape, we returned to our bus and took a short drive through the National Park to a beautiful lake; Lago Acigami.  On the way the the lake, Andres was telling us about a previous tour group that he took to this lake… he had 20 or 22 people, and when he got to the lake, three Russian men from his tour, all stripped down to their bare bums and went swimming in the lake, even though it is freezing cold all year round!  He said, there was nothing he could do – swimming is not advised because of the risk of hypothermia and mostly the locals use the lake for kayaking, fishing and other recreational activities, but no one goes swimming there, and here he was – three of his passengers stripped butt naked went running down and dived on into the lake.  Of his trying passengers, Andres said, “There was maybe ten tour bus going into Tierra del Fuego that day, and me?  Why Me?  Why I get the group with the crazy naked Russians!”  While Aussies are usually up for a lark, and we all thought this story was hilarious; oddly none of us wanted to follow suit!

Nearby at the lake we saw some caro caro birds – a native scavenging bird about the size of a smallish eagle.  They didn’t seem to mind being surrounded by a dozen people with cameras and they appeared to have found something from the nearby campground to rip apart.

Further into the park, we went to the post office at the End of the World, where they often drop tourists to get a special stamp in your passport to show your travels to Ushuaia.  Of course being from a cruise ship, our passports were all safely stored in the ship’s administration office, so none of us had passports to get stamped – but they are normally happy to stamp papers as a memento of your having travelled so far.  Alas, the post office was closed by the time we got there… but I have to admit I have never seen such a scenically located postal service, ever!  Such a pleasant view from work everyday, wouldn’t you say?

On our way back to Ushuaia, we saw more beautiful scenery, and then drove through town back to the port, where we encountered large housing projects and quite a quaint but thriving town, which reminded me of Queenstown in New Zealand, but with a stronger military presence loitering about… not sure what that was about, but there were both police and army seemingly posted on every other corner.  Someone mentioned a strike that was happening in town that day and that banks were all closed, but this is one of the drawbacks of not speaking the language – things can be happening all around you and you can be completely unaware because you can’t read the headlines of newspapers or hear what is being said on radios or televisions.

After a short wander around town to pick up supplies (read: Legui to bring home!) we went back to the port and were swiftly back home on ‘ze friendliest ship on ze seven seass, ze beautiful Sea Princess’.  🙂   It’s strange how the ship becomes home away from home.