Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Relaxing on the River Plate--February 2016

Livingstone, Zambia, March 21st

Before I get stuck into writing about the various stages of our African overland adventure, I want to finish up describing the last stage of our South American journey, eleven days spent in Buenos Aires and Uruguay.  It was a different style of travelling than we had done up until that point:  no bicycles, a largely urban setting, hotels instead of our tent, and culture and history rather than nature as the main focus.

We left Asuncion at 1 pm on Wednesday, February 3rd in a biblical downpour.  At the bus station, the TVs were showing scenes of flooding in some neighbourhoods of the capital, reminiscent of the devastating floods a month earlier.  Our bus left late, with my bicycle packed in the luggage hold after the usual last-minute negotiating and bribing with the luggage guys.  It’s amazing how the easiest, most elegant way to get around becomes so tedious, difficult and fraught with hassle as soon as you pack the bike in a box and try to get it on public transportation.  I had to pretend that I had spent most of my Paraguayan currency in order to get a discount.  And no sooner were we underway than we went through the Argentinian border and had to unload the bike and luggage for customs:  more negotiating, half-truths and bribes to the luggage guys there.  I think Argentinian luggage handlers at the borders must make an absolute killing out of the obligatory tips which they extort from passengers.
Buenos Aires Art Nouveau architecture
After that, the bus trip was quiet and very long.  We retraced our previous bus trip south along the flat floodplain of the Parana (the Argentinian side of the Chaco), then continued along the river towards the metropolis.  We were in comfy seats and slept most of the way.  The next morning I woke up in the Buenos Aires suburbs, dozed off again and woke up definitively as we drove past the huge soccer stadium of River Plate, one of the two biggest clubs in the country.  We raced past one of the two airports, Aeroparque, and the port, and quite suddenly we were in Retiro bus station, the nerve centre of transport for the entire country.  It was very early in the morning, and we sat in an overpriced café slowly waking up and making plans. 

I ended up leaving Terri with wi-fi and a second cup of coffee and lugging my bike the (considerable) length of the station to a left-luggage place, then heading out into the city to find a place to exchange dollars for pesos.  As I walked out into the early morning commuter rush, across a small park towards the tall buildings of the Microcentro, I felt as though I was in New York City.  On Calle Florida, the pedestrian heart of this business district, I passed dozens of dubious characters shouting “Dollars?  Cambio!” before finding a slightly less shady guy who led me to a Chinese shop where I got 14 pesos to the dollar.  I was unsurprised to find that the new president, Macri, had not gotten rid of the cambio guys when he got rid of the artificially low official exchange rate back in December.  I retreated to Retiro to pick up Terri and we set off on foot towards the apartment we had rented for the first two nights.  We walked back along Florida and its Belle Epoque buildings, then turned right up Hipolito Yrigoyen to find the Loft Argentino serviced apartments.

I don’t often rhapsodize about places that I stay, but I loved the Loft.  It wasn’t that expensive (about US$32 a night in the most expensive city in the most expensive country in South America), and gave us a big space to spread out our stuff.  We had a bathroom and a king-sized bed in an air-conditioned bedroom upstairs and a kitchen and living room downstairs.  The rooms faced inwards onto a courtyard and were remarkably insulated from any noise from the street outside.  Best of all, every morning we went across to the breakfast room and enjoyed a sumptuous spread while leafing through copies of the morning’s newspapers.  I couldn’t believe how good a deal it was.  We only had two nights booked, and they were booked solid over the weekend, but we decided to go to Uruguay for a few days and then return.  We made reservations for our return, and then set off to explore Buenos Aires. 

Evita on the Avenida
After a filling and inexpensive Asian buffet lunch, we caught the Subte, Buenos Aires’ excellent and inexpensive (5 pesos, or 35 US cents) subway out to a shopping mall to buy tennis tickets.  I had noticed that there was an ATP tennis tournament the next week in Buenos Aires, with Rafael Nadal, David Ferrer and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga among the featured players, and I was keen to spend a day watching pro tennis for the first time in 16 years.  I used to go to a lot of tournaments; between 1990 and 2000 I probably averaged a tournament a year, including trips to Wimbledon, the Australian Open and the US Open (twice), along with smaller tournaments in Toronto, Sydney, Santiago and Madras.  We also knew that the Rolling Stones were arriving in Buenos Aires to give three concerts and, although tickets were probably sold out, we wouldn’t mind seeing them live either.  As it turned out, tennis tickets were inexpensive and plentiful, while Stones tickets were rare and almost US$300 a person, so tennis was on but the Rolling Stones were not.  We then retreated back into town to Calle Florida to get our boots professionally shined and for Terri to do some window-shopping.  While I was having my boots done, Terri wandered off to have a look at shoes in a nearby shop and, presumably on the way there, somebody opened the top compartment of her daypack and stole the wallet inside.  Welcome to the big, bad city!  BA has a well-deserved reputation for pickpockets and for more violent crime as well, and Terri got off lightly; perhaps $50 in cash and her NZ bank card.  She decided that we would regard it as a “city tax” paid by the unwary.  We finished the shoe shining, then walked back to the apartment so that Terri could make the tedious call to her bank to cancel the card.  We nipped out to Carrefour, bought a small fortune in groceries and cooked up some excellent steaks, washed down by some equally excellent Argentinian wine.

Protest outside the Casa Rosada
Friday, February 5th was a great day of exploring the bustling metropolis of Buenos Aires.  After filling ourselves up at the breakfast buffet, we strolled towards the centre along the Avenida de Mayo, crossing the Avenida de 9 Julio, the broad Champs Elysee-style boulevard that features a huge obelisk in one direction and an immense mural of Evita Peron on the side of a building on the other.  Portenos (the Argentinian term for a native of central Buenos Aires) strolled by looking elegant, and the city looked at its best under cloudless blue skies.  Public transport buses rolled by along 9 de Julio, and at the end of Avenida de Mayo we detoured into the beautiful Cathedral, once Pope Francis’ church, before coming out into the Plaza de Mayo and its elegant buildings.  Here, during the dark years of the military dictatorship, the mothers of the people who disappeared during the Dirty War (mostly tortured and murdered by the army and then buried secretly, or else thrown out of helicopters into the ocean) held weekly protest meetings.  They were the only people who dared stand up to the junta publicly, and they were an immensely important force of moral suasion in convincing the army to hand over power after the Falklands fiasco.  The day we went there, the Plaza was a buzzing hive of protest again, this time over the arrest of a left-wing activist in the province of Jujuy.  Peronists, labour activists, Falklands veterans, students and citizens of all sorts, from all over the country, had come to establish a protest camp in the square, right in front of the presidential palace, the Casa Rosada.  Riot police had established a line of barricades to dissuade the crowd from storming the palace gates, but otherwise it was a peaceful scene, with marquee tents set up for lectures and folk dances, and vendors selling hats and handicrafts.  We admired the grandiose architecture of the Casa Rosada, then headed out behind the palace towards the harbour of Puerto Madero.

Aboard the Uruguay in Puerto Madero
It was a blisteringly hot day, just as we had experienced for the previous few weeks in Paraguay, and it made for a long sweaty walk to the Costanera Sur.  Along the way we detoured to visit the SS Uruguay, an Argentinian naval ship which had played a key role in the drama of the Nordenskjold Antarctic expedition in 1902-04.  We had had a lecture during our cruise on the MV Ushuaia about this expedition, and had visited one of the key sites, Esperanza, where some members of the team had waited out a very long winter and summer waiting for rescue after their ship was crushed in ice and sank.  It was the Uruguay which came to the rescue, and walking around the ship and peering at the old black and white photos, it was though we were suddenly back on the Antarctic Peninsula where we had spent such memorable days back in November.  The views from the ship along the waters of Puerto Madero to the yachts and condominium skyscrapers of the new developments beyond were sweeping, and reminded us that for all that Argentina has had a lot of miserable economic news over the past few decades, there are still a lot of Argentinians who are living a comfortable, or even gilded, existence.
Fancy yachts and buildings, Puerto Madero

After all the urban bustle and architecture, culture and history of the first part of the walk, the Costanera Sur was a welcome change.  It’s a nature reserve, tucked between Puerto Madero and the waters of the River Plate estuary, and it’s a surprisingly good place to go birdwatching.  There were dozens of species of birds to be seen, particularly waders and waterbirds bobbing around in the long ponds along the road.

Me with the Bull of the Pampas
Office workers from the tall buildings nearby came out for lunch at the various food trucks parked along the road, and we joined them, eating delicious churrasco sandwiches for an unbeatable price (about 35 pesos, or under US$ 3) and watching the birds.  After a while, we decided to penetrate further into the reserve itself (so far we had just been wandering along the perimeter), but we found that there was a Formula E electric car race in town, and their racecourse blocked access to the park, which was closed for the day.  We watched a bit of the practice session (those electric cars can accelerate amazingly well, and make very little noise) and admired the statues of Argentinian sporting greats that lined the walkway:  Fangio, Vilas, Pascual Perez, Sabatini, Ginobili and others.  I had my picture taken with Vilas and my teenage idol Sabatini.

We headed back towards town via the ferry terminals for Uruguay.  The prices that Buquebus were asking for the following day’s departures were astonishing:  just to Colonia (the port on the other side of the estuary), they wanted 1800 pesos (US$130) each!  Cursing their prices, we walked to Retiro and bought night bus tickets instead for 590 pesos (US$42) instead.  Finally wilting under the heat, we walked back to our apartment and had a luxurious apero dinner of cheeses, meats, bread, salad and more good wine, happy with our day at large in the big city.
Horned screamer, Costanera Sur

The next day, February 6th, we left our luggage in storage at the apartment and headed out for another full day of exploring on foot.  This time we headed towards the upmarket neighbourhoods of Recoleta and Palermo, past luxurious apartment buildings and chic cafes.  Unlike Santiago de Chile, the wealthy have not abandoned the downtown core of the city, and it felt very vibrantly urban and chic, like New York or London or Milan.  Our destination was Recoleta Cemetery, where the great and good of BA society were buried for a century and a half.

Raul Alfonsin's grave, Recoleta
There are dozens of graves of well-known figures—presidents, generals, scientists, writers, sportsmen—but the one tomb that everyone heads for is that of Evita Peron, wife of President Juan Peron, subject of Andrew Lloyd Webber musical immortality, icon of the populist left and the most famous Argentinian (aside, perhaps, from the Pope, Lionel Messi and Diego Maradona).  She is still a potent symbol for the aspirations of the poor, and her image and name are everywhere, including all over the protest camp in front of the Casa Rosada.  The cemetery breathes Italianate luxury, with gorgeously carved funeral monuments and mausolea.  Evita’s grave still boasts lots of fresh flowers, but some of the lesser-known graves from the past were overgrown with weeds and had broken windows.  My favourite graves were those of Raul Alfonsin, the first post-military president in the 1980s, and Luis Federico Leloir, a Nobel Prize winner in chemistry in 1970.
The tomb of Evita Peron

Funerary monument, Recoleta
We lunched in a little pub just outside the cemetery, and then set off on foot through the succession of wooded parks that lead through the neighbourhood of Palermo, making for a great place for cycling, running and walking.  We later heard that Mick Jagger had been out alone on foot along the same path that morning, tweeting photos along the way; the local press were devoting pages and pages of coverage to the Stones, more than you would expect for a visiting head of state.  We eventually turned off the tree-lined avenues, past the rather dumpy-looking zoo and went up the Botanical Gardens, where we spent a happy hour wandering in the shade of the trees and watching the colourful butterflies in the butterfly garden.  A quick supper in a Lebanese restaurant, then a Subte ride back to the apartment to pick up our bags and another Subte ride to catch the bus to Montevideo. 

The bus ride was easy and uneventful, although when we got off the bus at 1 am, we didn’t realize that we hadn’t been stamped out of Argentina, only into Uruguay, and spent the next three days worrying that Argentinian immigration officials would give us a hard time on the way back.  (They didn’t.)  We woke up at 6 am as we pulled into Montevideo bus terminal, and once again spent a couple of hours relaxing and enjoying good, fast, free public wifi (a rarity in Argentina, but common in Uruguay) as we searched for a place to stay and for affordable ferry tickets back to BA.  Seacat Colonia offered us tickets for Wednesday afternoon at a much more reasonable US$ 22 per person, so we snapped them up quickly.  The bus station was the cleanest, safest, best-organized bus station we saw in South America, a far cry from the menace of Santiago or the chaos of Retiro.  No hotels online seemed very cheap, so we decided to walk into town and find a place on our own.  It was a pleasant 40-minute stroll through Saturday morning streets, past big apartment buildings that had seen better days, into the centre of town.  Half an hour of searching turned up an acceptable hotel at an acceptable price, as well as explaining the dearth of rooms:  it was Carnival season in Montevideo, and tourists from Argentina and Brazil were flooding into the city for the party. 

Palacio Salvo, Montevideo
Showers, a quick lunch and a wander through the old town followed.  I liked the Ciudad Vieja, although many of the buildings were in a state of advanced disrepair.  My favorite building was the hyperbolically grandiose Palacio Salvo, like something out of a 1930s futuristic movie.  We rented bicycles and rode along La Rambla, the coastal road, for 15 km, past the flashier suburbs where the upper middle classes live in beachside apartment buildings.  It was good to be riding a bicycle again and to get around to interesting neighbourhoods.  Montevideo sprawls a long way along the coast, and we were nowhere near the edge when we turned back.  We stopped at a lighthouse and gazed out to sea.  It was noticeably cooler than in BA, and there was a hint of rain in the air.  Uruguay is most visited by Argentinian tourists for its beaches, and we had thought of going further east to explore them, but had been put off by weather forecasts of rain.  We rode back to town, had a disappointing pizza for dinner and were in bed early, wiped out by the night bus.

Montevideo coastline by bike
Monday, February 8th was a fairly lazy day, as we slept in, then made a late start on exploring the old town, via a stop in the fashionable Facal café (Terri was surprised and somewhat horrified that Montevideo does not boast a single Starbucks outlet).  We had an afternoon snooze that somehow lasted until 4, then went out to the wonderful Andes 1972 museum which commemorates the survival story of the Uruguayan rugby team that crashed high in the Andes in 1972, and which provided the story for the movie Alive.  It was done very tastefully and thoroughly, and the proprietor’s enthusiasm was infectious.  We wandered out into the streets, had a steak sandwich in a little café, then watched a crowd of mostly older Montevideans dancing the tango in a main square.  It looked very elegant and fitting for the country that produced Carlos Gardel, the greatest figure in the history of tango.

Very nice Uruguayan wine, Colonia
The next day we had some time before our afternoon bus to Colonia, and we spent it wandering through the old city again.  We tried several museums, but they were all closed for Mardi Gras, so we ended up just walking, ending up in the lovely atmosphere of the Mercado Central, a tourist mecca full of seafood restaurants.  We sat and drank a glass of quite quaffable Uruguayan wine (we never even knew Uruguay produced wine) before heading back to pick up our luggage, catch a city bus to the bus station and then take an intercity bus to Colonia.  Once again we snoozed away the afternoon, lulled by the rocking of the bus.  I think our bodies were finally recovering from the exertions of our months of cycling and hiking. 

Sunset meal, Colonia
Colonia proved to be a very pretty colonial gem.  It was founded by the Portuguese back in the late 1600s to keep an eye on the Spanish just across the River Plate estuary in Buenos Aires.  After decades of conflict, the Spanish took over the city in the 1780s.  In the confusion of post-colonial South America, Uruguay changed hands a few times between Argentina, Brazil and independence before finally settling into a role as a buffer state between its two giant neighbours.  Colonia had a number of colonial-era buildings and ruins, but most of the buildings are slightly more recent, with a flavour of an early 20th century retreat for the rich.  The little cobbled streets of the old town make for lovely walking, and the views from the lighthouse, all the way to the skyscrapers of downtown BA on the horizon, are wonderful.  We ended up eating a tasty steak dinner in a waterfront restaurant, watching a spectacular sunset light show on the horizon, a memorable ending to our too-brief visit to Uruguay.

Back streets of Colonia
The next morning we strolled around the old town in greater earnest, visiting the ruins of the old governor’s mansion and the old city defensive walls.  I sat and sketched the lighthouse, and then, after a lunch that consumed our leftover Uruguayan pesos almost exactly, we headed to the ferry dock for the long and tedious process of going through Uruguayan and Argentinian immigration procedures. Despite our worry, the Argentinians didn't mind that we had no exit stamp from Argentina from a few days previously.  Once again we snoozed most of the way (it was actually a bit of a rough crossing, and sleeping probably prevented seasickness).  We stumbled off the ferry, stood in another long line to put our luggage through Argentinian customs and came out at cka place we couldn’t identify.  It certainly wasn’t the ferry terminal we had visited before, and we were completely disoriented, underneath a huge expressway.  A bit of random walking and we finally figured out that we were just beyond the edge of Puerto Madero.  We tried unsuccessfully to find a cab (there was stiff competition from the hundreds of fellow passengers) and ended up walking the familiar streets back to Loft Argentino.  We were tired, but looking at our schedule, we realized that it was our only chance to go see a tango show.  Many were quite expensive, but they involved an entire evening of a fancy meal, all-you-can-drink alcohol, a tango lesson and finally the show.  There was a more reasonably priced show without any of the add-ons just ten minutes’ walk from our apartment that we had checked out previously, so we quickly showered and headed over, arriving around 9:30 for a 10:15 show.  We had the bad luck to hit the one evening of the year that they had a special early schedule for a special group, so we hopped on the Subte and headed to another show, the Gardel.  There we found tickets for the show only (no food, no booze, no tango lesson) were still US$ 96, which seemed far too high, so we returned tango-less to the apartment and turned in for the night.  Buenos Aires seemed to be a study in contrasts in terms of prices:  either really quite reasonable, or incredibly expensive, depending on how far in advance you bought tickets.

Pablo Cuevas unleashes a backhand
Thursday, February 11th was Terri’s last full day in the city, and the day for which we had bought tennis tickets.  After breakfast we tried to register online for the EcoBici free bicycle rental service run by the city, but failed.  We walked into town and spent a long time finding an EcoBici office, filling out forms and then going to a municipal office to get the magnetic cards.  It took forever, and we were late arriving at the tennis.  The first match was still going on, and we sat, baking in the furnace-like heat, high in the stands watching Pablo Cuevas dispatch Santiago Giraldo.  Next up was the tenacious clay court terrier David Ferrer who handled local hope Renzo Olivo.  After a break for supper, we trooped back in for the night session.  First of all the Italian veteran Paolo Lorenzi beat another Argentine, Diego Schwartzmann, in a highly entertaining three-setter, before the main event of the evening.  Rafael Nadal, cheered on by a suddenly full stadium, had little difficulty beating the Argentine veteran Juan Monaco, although his once-fearsome clay court game didn’t look up to his usual impeccable standards, with lots of forehands sailing long.  There was a murmur in the crowd at one point as Guillermo Vilas and Gabriela Sabatini wandered in to take their seats, Argentinian tennis royalty.  We came out at 10:30 to find the trains finished for the day, so we ended up catching a cab.  Again, for a long (10 km) ride, the fare was a reasonable US$ 9.
Pleased to be back at a pro tennis tournament
Friday, February 12th we set off after breakfast to use our hard-won EcoBici cards, only to find that the system has a few flaws, like a complete absence of bicycles anywhere in the city centre.  We eventually gave up and walked to the Costanera Sur, where this time the park was open and we were able to walk the interior pathways looking for birds.  There were plenty to be seen, and it was good to get some exercise, although the heat was like a hammer.  We emerged after a couple of hours, had another tasty churrasco sandwich and then headed back to the apartment, via some last-minute shopping on Calle Florida for leather belts for Terri.  I escorted her to Retiro, saw her onto her bus, and suddenly was alone in the big city.

David Ferrer, the Energizer Bunny of tennis
I spent the last three days in BA cocooned in the air conditioned comfort of the hotel, writing blog posts, sorting through photos, napping and watching the rest of the tennis tournament on TV.  Nadal and Ferrer lost, surprisingly, in the semifinals and the young Austrian Domenic Thiem looked impressive winning.  I did venture out one day to the Bellas Artes museum, where an impressive collection of Old Masters and Argentinian paintings provided a couple of hours of aesthetic enjoyment.  And then, all too soon, on Monday, February 15th, I was on a flight back to Ottawa on my bike after three and a half months in South America and Antarctica.  It was a wonderful adventure, and I look forward to exploring more of the northern half of the continent on my next visit! 

Waiting for Rafa

Terri at her first-ever tennis tournament

Rafael Nadal, showing off the forehand that ruled tennis for a decade
As for my final take on Buenos Aires and Uruguay, I really, really enjoyed Buenos Aires, despite its crime and obvious social problems.  It has a confident urban feel and provides culturally rich city living to its huge population and feels unlike any other South American city I have encountered, an island of cosmopolitan sophistication.   Uruguay is an interesting country, very socially progressive (legalized marijuana, a very early welfare state) but a bit non-descript compared to Argentina.  If I went back, I would concentrate on the eastern beaches before heading off to Brazil. 

Friday, March 18, 2016

Africa Awaits! A Preview of Upcoming Travel Plans

Livingstone, Zambia, March 18

This will be a slightly atypical blog post from me:  much briefer than usual, and looking forward instead of backward.  I want to fill you in, gentle readers, on the upcoming travel plans.

Terri and I are in Zambia now, doing some work for a humanitarian project that Terri started almost a decade ago.  She and the Social Service Club of her former school raise money and donate it to help support a community-based pre-school and primary school in the impoverished Livingstone suburb of Ngwenya, and they have visited during their school’s March vacation almost every year since 2007.  I have heard lots of stories and seen lots of pictures and videos from previous visits, but this is my first time to see the project first-hand.  It’s been very interesting so far, seeing the pre-school and its new project:  the construction of a new classroom building, doubling the available classroom area of the school.  The students arrive from Switzerland tomorrow morning, and for the next 9 days it will be a blur of activity:  helping build the new structure, painting and repairing broken windows in the older building, teaching lessons and doing cultural exchanges with the pre-school students and with older students here at a youth training centre where we are staying.  I am looking forward to it.

However, it would be a long way to come to Africa just for a 9-day visit.  After Terri’s former students leave, we are flying south to Cape Town to start a much longer trip.  The plan is to buy a second-hand 4WD camper and use it to explore large chunks of the African continent over the coming months.  We haven’t made firm plans in terms of dates and routes, but the basic plan is threefold.  We will first pick the low-hanging fruit in terms of ease of travel by exploring the landscapes of Southern Africa (as far north as Namibia, Zambia and Mozambique), taking advantage of the lack of irritating visa rules and the network of largely decent roads.  I am particularly excited to visit Namibia, Botswana and Mozambique, but we plan to visit all of the countries in the south over the next few months.  We also want to try to dive and snorkel in the awe-inspiring Sardine Run that passes the South African coast, having seen amazing footage on BBC’s Blue Planet documentary series.  Having a vehicle should greatly simplify matters in terms of having access to the remote wild places that we most want to see, and in terms of camping rather than staying in the overpriced accommodation on offer in much of Africa, as well as being able to cook for ourselves.

Once the south has been thoroughly explored, then it will be time to head further afield into slightly more difficult territory.  East Africa is the likely next stage, with the familiar trio of Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda being joined by Rwanda and Burundi (the latter depending on the current state of civil unrest).  Then it will be time to go further north:  South Sudan seems unlikely, given its current civil war (although things might change), but Ethiopia and Sudan are definites, with perhaps Djibouti and Somaliland.  Sadly Somalia itself is probably completely out of the question, as is paranoid Eritrea with its closed land borders and hard-to-get visas.

Then, having gotten as far as Sudan, it would be nice if we could turn west and drive into Chad to get into West Africa.  This seems sadly unlikely, given that the route would lead straight through troubled Darfur, which the Sudanese government would like to keep nosy foreigners out of.  If (and it’s a big if) we could get through, we could make a huge loop to get back to South Africa.  If not, we might have to backtrack south as far as Zambia to get to the next stage:  West Africa.

West and Central Africa are almost terra incognito for me.  I spent two days in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), back when it was still called Zaire, visiting mountain gorillas back in 1995.  I also spent three weeks cycling in Togo and Benin a few years ago.  For the rest, it’s all new territory for me.  I would like to visit every country possible, since once we’re there, it doesn’t cost much more to keep going to another country, while having to come back on another trip to get to a country that I missed would be much more expensive.  The countries that seem least likely to get visited are Equatorial Guinea (expensive and hard to get a visa), Central African Republic (civil war) and Nigeria (unpleasant, expensive and with serious unrest in the northeast).  Angola, DRC and Mauretania seem to have tricky visas as well, while much of Mali, Niger and Chad (the most interesting bits, up in the Sahara) seem to be no-go areas as well.  Sao Tome and Principe, along with the Cape Verde islands, both will require a flight out from the mainland, but are both said to be well worth it.  Much of West Africa has the reputation of being overpriced and underwhelming, but with our own vehicle, we should at least be able to travel in some comfort and seek out areas of greater interest.  Cameroon, Congo-Brazzaville, Guinea and Mauretania sound as though they’re more interesting than some of their neighbours, and I’m looking forward to visiting them. 

Then, if we’ve managed somehow to do a complete loop and ended up back in South Africa, we would sell the vehicle and fly off for a glorious finale in Madagascar, a country that’s high on my bucket list for its (sadly fast-vanishing) natural beauty and wildlife.  If, instead, we end up in Mauretania at the end, we might drive up through Western Sahara and Morocco into Europe and try to ship the vehicle back to South Africa to sell it. 

It’s not clear how long it will take to do all of this, or even if we will accomplish it all in one long monster trip, but it’s exciting planning a big trip, reading up on things to see and contemplating seeing a new part of the world for both of us.  Stay tuned here or on Facebook to follow our ongoing progress!

Saturday, March 5, 2016

Poking Around Paraguay: January-February 2016

Ottawa, March 5, 2016

As always, the contrasts created by modern travel can be jarring.  I started writing this post sitting in Thunder Bay airport a few days ago, with the outdoor temperature hovering around -20 degrees.  I’m writing about travelling through Paraguay a few weeks ago in temperatures above 40 degrees, and it seems hard to believe that then we were seriously concerned about heatstroke, while now I’m trying to avoid frostbite. 
Cordoba cathedral
Our bus ride from Santiago to Asuncion was very, very long.  We left Santiago early on January 15th and arrived more or less 48 hours later.  It was a three-leg journey, through Mendoza and Cordoba, marked by constant squabbles and arguments with greedy Argentinian luggage handlers about how large a bribe they would receive for loading and unloading our bicycle boxes.  By the end of the trip, Terri had had quite enough of Argentinian maleteros!  We had a few hours off in Mendoza, which we spent in the bus station, but when we arrived in Cordoba early in the morning after a night bus, we left our bikes and baggage in a left luggage office and walked into the historic centre of town which was surprisingly pretty, with blocks of old colonial architecture, including the UNESCO-listed Manzana Jesuitica, the Jesuit block, with its striking architecture.
Monument to the disappeared, Cordoba
There were also reminders of the much more recent past, with memorial plaques to various local people who disappeared in the days of the military government and its Dirty War. 
Jesuit church, Cordoba

The second night on a bus went reasonably smoothly but ended early with our border crossing at 5 am, just outside Asuncion.  Paraguay counted as my 120th country, and my first new country since Sweden (six months previously).  We got into the city at about 6:30 am and sat in the almost-empty bus station for a while catching our breath and using good free wi-fi (something almost entirely absent from the country of Argentina!) to find a place to stay.  We threw the bike boxes into the back of an ancient Ford pickup truck and drove to our chosen hospedaje, the very friendly Nande Po’a, which became our base of choice in the capital.  We spent a couple of nights in our big, comfortable room, and escaping from the blazing heat either in the air con in our room, or in the breezy, shaded courtyard of the hotel.

We poked around Asuncion a bit, less for historical interest and more for practical purposes.  The town had a tropical, slightly derelict feeling to it that reminded me most of Yangon.  The downtown historic core, as is so often the case in South American cities, has been allowed to decay while the centre of economic activity shifts to newer suburbs.  We walked around, buying groceries to cook up at the hotel, trying (successfully) to get a couple of cavities filled in my teeth and also trying (unsuccessfully) to get my malfunctioning watch fixed.  We also searched for a guidebook to the country, along with a decent map and a guide to birds; we failed utterly in all three quests, as it turns out that Paraguay is such a small tourism market for gringos that it’s not worth producing quality English-language guides and maps.  It was certainly annoying not having a bird book, although we did manage to figure out a few of the birds we saw.

We also had to decide what our cycling route was going to be.  My original idea had been to take a bus to Montevideo and then cycle north from there to Iguazu Falls and on to Asuncion.  Since our Carretera Austral trip had taken longer than anticipated, we had decided to start and finish in Asuncion, but we hadn’t picked out a route yet.  My inclination was to cycle south towards the Jesuit missions and then head upstream towards Ciudad del Este and Iguazu Falls.  Terri, however, wanted to get to Iguazu Falls as soon as possible, so we ended up riding east towards Ciudad del Este first, and then turning downstream towards the Jesuit missions and Encarnacion.  We were worried about heat and traffic, and the trip was about to show that both were things worth worrying about!

Tuesday, January 19th, 67 km:  Asuncion to km 57, near Caacupe
On Tuesday, January 19th we were up by 6 am, breakfasting by 7 and on the road by 8 am, hoping to beat the intense heat.  It was a long ride through city traffic out towards the airport, and it was already 37 degrees by the time we got to the small commuter town of Luque.  We had chosen a route that avoided the main highway, Route 7, for much of the day.  We rode from Luque along a less-trafficked road to the lakeside tourist town of Aregua, although we barely caught a glimpse of the lake.  We stopped for cold drinks near the lake and sat in the shade, guzzling water, trying to rehydrate after the sweatbath we had been riding through.  As we approached the town of Yparacai, on Route 7, more and more signs announced new housing developments; the middle classes of Asuncion are either moving out of the city, or buying weekend homes.

When we turned onto Route 7, we emerged into a rushing torrent of trucks, buses and cars, some of the heaviest traffic I had ridden in in years.  Luckily there was almost always a paved shoulder for us to use; unluckily, the people who built the road put speedbumps on the shoulder to dissuade cars from driving on it.  This made for a lot of bumps and evasive manoeuvres on our part.  The terrain began to get hillier as we rode along, and Terri began to melt in the heat as we climbed more steeply.  We had one particular climb of 200 vertical metres in the hottest temperatures of the day (42 degrees on my cycling computer) that almost finished her off.  We looked for a hotel in the town of Caacupe and failed to find one, so we cycled on. 

End of the first day of baking in the heat
Just as Terri thought we would have to cycle another 25 km in the heat to find a place to stay, I spotted a sign for a swimming pool beside the road and we turned in after 67 km to find a lovely property run by a Paraguayan woman who was living and working in New Jersey.  We could camp at the back of the yard, swim to our hearts’ content and escape the non-stop roar of grinding truck engines.  It turned out to be a brilliant spot to stay, with lots of birds, a shady spot to cook, all the mangoes we could eat from the mango trees, and the delicious feeling of water on our skin to cool off.  We ate empanadas from the little stand next door, and went out at dusk to look for birds down by the little stream at the back of the property.  We tried out our new sleeping wraps; we had left our heavy sleeping bags behind in our bike boxes in Asuncion, and bought a few dollars’ worth of sheets and light terry cloth to keep ourselves warm at night instead.  It was actually a bit chilly at night; once the sun was down, the temperatures dropped right down to the low 20s.

Wednesday, January 20th, 73 km:  km 57 to Coronel Oviedo
Our second day began even earlier as we tried to get a jump on the heat.  We were cycling by 7:35, definitely a record for our trip, after some cold tea and coffee and some morning mangoes.  The thermometer stood at only 26 degrees as we set off, although it rapidly rose.  We had lots of smaller climbs as we made our way into Cordillera Province (the name is kind of a giveaway!), along with heavy traffic and the annoying speed bumps of yesterday.  After 18 km we stopped beside the road in a traditional Paraguayan chiperia for the national food obsession:  chipas.  These are a bit like chewy bagels or buns, made with a mixture of wheat and manioc flour and flavoured with cheese.  We ate, drank lots of cold drinks and then continued on our rolling route across the hills.  Eventually we dropped down to a long flat stretch through the lowlands after San Jose, with herds of cattle grazing beside the road and the heat assaulting the senses.  Around noon, at the 48 km mark we passed a fruit stand where we stopped and devoured an entire bag of oranges in one sitting.  We were beginning to appreciate the low prices for food in Paraguay after the higher prices in Argentina and Chile. 
Life-saving fruit stand on a hot day
At 2:30, just as the air was reaching its blast furnace maximum temperature, after 73 km we arrived in the bustling crossroads town of Coronel Oviedo, where we passed the second-grandest building we had seen in the entire country so far.  The most impressive had been the new Mormon Temple in Asuncion, but the Teleton building in Coronel Oviedo was also immaculate, a gleaming new building set in manicured grounds.  It seems as though the Teleton organization collects lots of overhead before passing on the funds it raises to its constituent charities!  We were keen to swim again, so when we spotted a hotel set in spacious grounds and featuring a swimming pool, we turned in.
Terri trying to cool off in a hot pool, Coronel Oviedo
We paid 120,000 guaranies (about US$ 21) for a big double room with air conditioning and breakfast, and again were grateful for the relatively low prices in Paraguay.  It was a great place to stay, and we loafed in the pool for a couple of hours (it was so warm in the sun that the pool itself was almost too hot, and Terri had to find a garden hose to cool herself) before having a nap and a then a takeout meal of roast chicken.  In town I met a Korean shopkeeper who had emigrated to Paraguay back in 1980 when Korea was still relatively poor and South America seemed to be the continent of opportunity.  We went out for a dusk stroll and were rewarded with dozens of types of birds, including hummingbirds, along with a breathtaking display of fireflies that set the garden alight.

Thursday, January 21, 50 km:  Coronel Oviedo to Caaguazu
Typical Paraguayan highway cycling
Our third day on the road was a relatively short one, at only 50 km, but between incandescent heat and lots of hills, it was a tough slog.  We were saved by a series of fruit stands that served us iced fruit salads and fresh fruit juice.  We stopped for lunch (more roast chicken and a pitcher of fresh fruit juice) and then knocked off early as we seemed to have a long hotel-less stretch in front of us.  In the big crossroads town of Caaguazu, we found another good, inexpensive hotel with a swimming pool, and spent the afternoon lounging in the pool and napping in the cool of the room.  We got up, watched the birds that came to the little oasis of the hotel garden, and then headed out for a great meal at a street kebab stand, a spot that attracted quite a big crowd of locals on their way home after work.  Again I was reminded of evenings in southeast Asia, with street food and crowds in the streets.

Friday, January 22nd, 72 km:  Caaguazu to Juan E. O'Leary
Our fourth day heading east started slowly, with headwinds and hills slowing us down.  I stopped on the way out of town to buy a baseball cap to protect my scalp from the intense sunlight.  We took some time off the bike and out of the 40-degree heat in JE Estigarribia, a town surrounded by extensive Mennonite farmsteads.  The landscape had changed from the small subsistence farms of the first few days to much bigger commercial operations, with huge fields of soybeans, corn and wheat festooned with signs from Monstanto, Dow Chemical and the other giants of the agro-industrial complex.  The headwinds died out, the landscape grew flatter and the population grew taller, blonder and more Germanic-sounding, with farmers named Jakob Braun and towns called Colonia Bergthal.  We flew along, keeping pace with each other, via stops for fruit salad and cold water, before arriving at Juan E. O’Leary, a town lacking in quality hotels or restaurants.  No swimming pool for us that evening, sadly, and it was a challenge finding a restaurant that was both open and had anything to serve.  Luckily, there was an exceptionally good ice cream parlour to drown our sorrows.

Saturday, January 23rd, 82 km:  Juan E. O'Leary to Ciudad del Este
Japanese immigrants have completely integrated into Yguazu
Our fifth day out of Asuncion, Saturday, January 23rd, saw us arrive in bustling Ciudad del Este at last.  It was our longest day of cycling so far in Paraguay (81 km) but also had the best scenery at the end of the day.  Terri seemed a bit more acclimatized to the fierce heat, and we made quite good time along the roaring highway.  Terri led the way on downhills and on flat sections, and kept the gap close on uphills.  The day’s culinary specialty was melon, eaten at a roadside stall, and produced at a Japanese-settled area just down the road in Yguazu.  We stopped in for snacks in Yguazu, noting lots of Japanese family names on signs (like the Churrasqueria Shirosawa), and then embarked on the last busy stretch into Ciudad del Este, the second-largest city in Paraguay and a relatively recent creation, springing up since the creation of the immense Itaipu hydroelectric dam in the 1960s.  We stopped for lunch at a very friendly little restaurant and car wash, where the friendly proprietress took an instant liking to us and decided to fatten us up.  Not far from the border crossing into Brazil, we turned south towards the Monday waterfalls and found a pleasant but quite expensive hotel, the Salzburgo, to stay. 
Monday Falls, near Ciudad del Este
We splashed around in the swimming pool for a while before I dragged Terri out to go sightseeing.  Monday Falls turned out to be very impressive indeed, with chocolate-coloured water thundering over a precipice at a great rate.  The power in the water was awe-inspiring.
Monday Falls
We chatted with several locals who were very welcoming; Paraguay is not overflowing with gringo tourists, and so local people were genuinely curious about our impressions of their country, and very welcoming.  The forests around the falls are some of the scattered remnants of what was once the Atlantic rainforest, and have been maintained as a tiny park, full of birds, flowers and butterflies.  Terri and I wandered around looking for birds, and then sat at a little restaurant having a beer and an empanada while watching the waterfalls. 
Monday Falls

Sunday, January 24th, 31 km:  Ciudad del Este to Foz do Iguacu (Brazil)
The view from the Brazilian side
Early the next morning we rumbled across the bridge into Brazil, my 121st country.  The usual frenetic cross-border shopping trade was at a low point at 7:40 am, and we rolled into Brazil with minimal delay.  Foz do Iguacu, the Brazilian city on the other side, was a modern, wealthy-looking city with well laid-out streets and transport, a contrast to the chaos and grittiness in Ciudad del Este.  We cycled 28 kilometres from Hotel Salzburgo, through the sprawling suburbs of Foz do Iguacu and out into the countryside beyond.  We had booked a hotel on Booking.com that looked improbably upmarket, but it turned out to be the right place.  After a bit of messing around and waiting for our room to be ready, we dumped our luggage and rode our bikes the 2 km to the entrance to Iguazu Falls. 
Coatis swarm a stolen bag of potato chips
Butterfly at Iguazu Falls

Iguazu Falls is one of the great natural wonders of South America, and on this Sunday morning it seemed as though half of the populations of Argentina and Brazil were there at the same time.  It took 20 minutes to get through the huge ticket queue, and then a long bus ride to get to the falls themselves.  Once we were off the bus, though, it was all worth it.  We spent a couple of hours wandering around, taking photos and staring out across at the immense number of individual falls that cut across the width of the river.  Black vultures soared in huge numbers over the falls, catching the updrafts, and bands of marauding coatis, animals rather like raccoons, prowled around trying to steal any plastic bags that tourists might be holding and rooting through snack bars and trash cans in search of food.
Brazilian side of the Devil's Throat
The Brazilian side of the falls is the place to get an overview of the entire vast spread of the falls, and we certainly did just that.  We were also blown away by the colourful butterflies and birds in the jungle; Iguazu Falls is in a national park that preserves a fair-sized chunk of Atlantic rainforest, and even has (somewhere in the back corners of the park) jaguars.  We enjoyed the breathtaking, soaking experience of gazing out at Devil’s Throat, the very centre of the falls, and then caught the bus back to the entrance in order to visit the Bird Park.
Butterfly at Iguazu Falls

We didn’t know what sort of experience the Bird Park would provide, but we lined up in the heat, paid our admission and went inside.  We were late in the day and concerned that they would close on us, but we needn’t have worried, as they only close the admission at 5, allowing people already inside to stay until 7 pm.  We wandered around for two and a half hours open-mouthed with amazement.  The park is very professionally run and does a lot of rehabilitation of birds captured from the illegal pet trade, as well as captive breeding of rare species.
Butterfly at the Bird Park
Toucan at the Bird Park
They concentrate on Brazilian birds, although they have birds from all over the world.  Their parrots and parakeets and macaws were captivating, as were their toucans.  The park has a number of enclosures inside which the birds roam and fly freely, and Terri and I spent a long time sitting quietly while toucans and curassows crept right up to us to investigate us.  One huge highlight was the butterfly and hummingbird enclosure, full of whirring hummingbirds and lazily flapping colourful butterflies.  We were the last people out of the park, and our heads were whirring with sensory overload as we cycled back to the hotel, had a swim and dined in the buffet dining room.  My one day in Brazil left me eager to see much more of this huge and diverse country; it will have to be next time!
Terri meets a toucan

Monday, January 25th, 18 km:  Foz do Iguacu (Brazil) to Puerto Iguazu (Argentina)
Me wearing a butterfly on the Argentinian side
Early the next morning we cycled partway back towards downtown Foz before turning south across a bridge into Argentina.  It was possibly the easiest crossing into or out of Argentina we had yet had, and we were quickly in Puerto Iguazu, the scruffy little town on the Argentinian side.  Compared to Foz do Iguacu, this side seemed much poorer and less planned, and we had great difficulty in finding our cheap accommodation, as there were no street signs to be found.  Eventually, down a muddy anonymous track, we found our little homestay, dropped off our gear and set off on foot for the bus to the park. 

Argentinian side of the Devil's Throat
The Argentinian side of the falls was a very different experience to the Brazilian side.  There were far fewer tourists, and the walking trails were more extensive and felt much wilder.  We walked for a few hours, covering all the major trails and getting very up close and personal with the individual cataracts.  We started off with a very slow train trip to the furthest part of the park.
River turtle at Iguazu Falls
We absorbed the overwhelming power of the Argentinian view of the Devil’s Throat, then walked through the jungle track (instead of taking the little train again) back to where the upper and lower circuits cut through the jungle over and beside some of the hundreds of individual falls.  Again the jungle was full of coatis, butterflies and birds, and we got in lots of walking and oodles of wildlife.  One of the most impressive species were the great dusky swifts who nest on the cliffs behind the thundering waterfalls.
Partway through the afternoon the sky turned orange with dust as winds kicked up dramatically and looked almost as though a tornado was imminent.  Fifteen minutes later the dust storm was gone, having given us nothing more than dramatic light over the falls.  (We heard later that the same storm hit the city of Encarnacion and did quite a lot of damage; we were lucky to get off so lightly.)  We caught the bus back, having decided that we didn’t want to pay an extra 550 pesos (US$ 37) for a full moon experience over the falls.  We bought some juicy Argentinian steaks, some good veggies and some good red wine and cooked up a small feast back at the hospedaje.

Terri having a rave moment at the falls
The next day we had a much-appreciated day off from sightseeing and from cycling.  We had originally planned to go back to the falls for another day of hiking, but we realized that we had covered almost every bit of possible trail, and the weather forecast was far from encouraging.  In fact a torrential downpour came down for much of the day, so we felt clever for not having gone out hiking.  It was good for the mind and body to spend a day reading, juggling, doing laundry, eating and playing guitar.

Wednesday, January 27th, 74 km:  Puerto Iguazu (Argentina) to Tavapy
Wednesday, January 27th saw us retracing our steps back to Ciudad del Este, as our original plan, to cycle through Missiones province on the Argentinian side of the river, foundered on the realization that much of the road had the same traffic as in Paraguay but without the luxury of a paved shoulder.  Some of the cycling blogs we read made it sound quite nerve-wracking and perilous, so we decided to stick with the Paraguayan devil we knew.  It took surprisingly little time to cross back into Brazil and then across into Paraguay; I wish all South American border crossings were so quick and easy!  We rode out of Ciudad del Este.  The traffic was insane; we were lucky to have ridden the other way early on a Sunday.  Now every Brazilian and his car were heading across the bridge in search of cross-border shopping opportunities.  We crawled out of town back to the friendly Minga restaurant in Minga Guazu (on the south side of the road, between km 19 and 20 if you’re counting from Ciudad del Este, or between km 307 and 308 if you’re counting from Asuncion) where we had lunched a few days previously.  Erica, the owner, was glad to see us and fed us sumptuously again like long-lost family.  We eventually tore ourselves away and backtracked further to the highway junction where Route 6 turns south towards Encarnacion. 

The traffic lessened noticeably as we moved onto Routh 6, although it was still a busy road.  We ground out another 24 km, making 74 for the day, before we found a place to stay.  We looked at a promising-looking swimming pool park beside the road for camping, but it was, sadly, no longer in operation.  In the tiny settlement of Tavapy, we found a small hotel, the Emi, and downed a couple of ice-cold beers to cool off (in the absence of a swimming pool).  It was much cooler than on previous days, thanks to the rains and overcast skies, but it was still 36 degrees by 1 pm and pretty humid.  We set out that evening to see if the music we could here in the distance was some sort of carnival celebrations, but nothing was going on, so we retired to the hotel for an early night.

Thursday, January 28th, 87 km:  Tavapy to Naranjito
Meeting Nestor and Ariel beside the road
From this point on, our ride passed through endless big commercial farms, through a changing quilt of ethnic and religious affiliations:  Mennonites, Germans, Brazilians and Japanese all featured.  Our second day, at 87 km the longest ride we did in Paraguay, saw us leaving fashionably late at 8:15.  Not long after rolling out of town, we were passed by a couple of local mountain bikers in spandex heading back from a training ride.  We ended up having a long conversation with them beside the road, and Ariel and Nestor recorded a short interview with me beside the road (in Spanish) that they posted on Facebook.  Ariel is a serious competitive rider, off to the world championships in Canada in August.  As was so often the case in Paraguay, they were curious about what we thought about Paraguay and Paraguayans.  I mentioned the heat and the crazy traffic, but also the hospitality and friendliness of the people we had met.  After we got rolling again, we seemed to ride forever through the sprawling town of Santa Rita.  We had the one and only attempted tourist ripoff of the Paraguayan trip, as a juice stand wanted to charge us four times the usual price for fruit juice.  We declined and cycled further to find cold drinks at a gas station.  We continued to roll past big soybean fields and signs for Syngenta, Cargill and Monsanto.  After 45 km we found an isolated restaurant which served an expensive but huge all-you-can-eat feast over which we lingered, using internet and escaping the heat.  (Of course “expensive” is all relative; if I were paying US$ 7 for an all-you-can-eat lunch in most other countries, I’d be overjoyed!)

After lunch we undulated over increasing hills, as we got up to an eventual altitude of 450 metres above sea level.  We had to ride further than we had anticipated looking for a hotel, and when we got to the town of Naranjito it wasn’t at first obvious that there would be a place to stay.  Eventually we spotted a hotel tucked behind a big churrasco restaurant and settled in for a well-earned cold beer.  The couple running the restaurant and hotel were both Brazilians, and everyone in town seemed to be Brazilian, to the point that all the TV channels were in Portuguese and all the shops in town sported posters of Brazilian soccer teams.  We chowed down on some delicious meat in the restaurant that evening, discussing what to do when our cycling was over.

Friday, January 29th, 77 km:  Naranjito to km 66
Arno Sommerfeld, quality leader in a Mennonite district
We set off the next morning breakfastless, stopping in at a small shop after 7 km to have some coffee, tea, bread, jam and in a small grocery shop.  We had a long discussion with the owner and her daughter.  It was another day of lots of hard work cycling without much to look at.  I found myself longing for the wonderful natural setting of the Carretera Austral; this was too much cycling to survive rather than cycling for the joy of it.  The temperature soared up to 41 degrees again, and we ended up staying the night in a small, isolated hospedaje in the middle of nowhere after a series of steep hills.  There was no restaurant around, but the lady who ran the hospedaje offered us some of the leftovers from her lunch and between that and a supper of macaroni and cheese, we staved off starvation.  The surroundings were full of interesting birds, including hummingbirds and a crowd of noisy parakeets, and it was pleasant to sit out in the back yard playing tennis and juggling and watching nature, including an immense toad and a big, alarming looking tarantula.

Saturday, January 30th, 64 km:  km 66 to the Country Hotel (km 27), via sidetrip to Jesus de Tavarangue
I'm a little mate gourd, short and stout
We were now only 66 km from Encarnacion, but the main attraction of this leg of the trip, visiting the old Jesuit missions of the area, was coming up, so we planned on taking two days to get to Encarnacion.  We started the day with some tea, coffee and oatmeal cooked out in the garden, and were underway by 8 am.  We rolled easily to Bella Vista, the first of three towns known collectively as Las Colonias Unidas, the wealthiest communities in the country.  We had mid-morning snacks at a bakery next to the giant mate gourd that marked the fact that Bella Vista produces much of the country’s yerba mate.  The town was full of German last names and blond hair and blue eyes.  We continued cycling through Obligado and Hohenau and by 11:30 we had reached the crossroads leading towards Jesus de Tavarangue.  It was a tremendous relief to turn onto the road and suddenly be almost alone on the pavement, with only a handful of cars heading out towards the ruins.  We rode side by side, admiring the views and chatting, something we had barely done since arriving in Paraguay.  Fields of yerba mate lined the road and we climbed steadily up to the village of Jesus.
Ruins of Jesus
Jesus ruins
It had been our plan to spend the night in Jesus, but there were no places to stay that we could find, so we decided to visit the ruins and then return to the highway.  I loved the ruins, set atmospherically on the edge of town.  The Jesuits had established a series of “reductions”, or villages set around a church, in the area in the late 1600s and early 1700s.  By the standards of the time, the Jesuits were enlightened rulers, helping teach the Guarani villagers skills and how to survive in the colonial economy.  They were eventually evicted by the Spanish crown in the 1760s, either because they had become too powerful and rich, or because the Spanish (and the Portuguese across the border in Brazil) were not interested in having educated, skilled villagers who were harder to exploit and force into near slavery.
The Jesuits looking military in their coat of arms
The ruins show the epic scale of the Jesuit ambition, with a huge church (that, like medieval cathedrals, didn’t ever get completed), a big school, workshops and the foundations of the houses built for the villagers.  The views over the neigbouring hills were pretty, and we sat behind the church reflecting on the changing fortunes of history.
Terri contemplating Jesus
Pretty woodpecker at Jesus

On the ride back to the main road, we realized how much we had climbed going the other way, as we coasted downhill almost the entire way.  In Trinidad we looked at places to stay and found them severely wanting, so we again decided not to sleep there.  The ruins were amazing, even bigger in scale than Jesus and more complete.  The tropical heat and red brick ruins made me think of Southeast Asian ruins like Ayutthaya and Bagan.  Parakeets flittered around from palm tree to palm tree, and we were pleased to see a few burrowing owls sitting on walls and in the grass.  There was 18th century graffiti in the ruins of the church, along with gravestones of long-dead missionaries.  I found it a moving place to wander around.
Trinidad Jesuit ruins
Burrowing owl at Trinidad
We rode away from Trinidad around 5 pm, stopped for a fruit break to try to rehydrate and then pushed onwards, aiming for a hotel we had heard about, the Tyrolia.  We heard from a passing local guy on a racing bike that the Tyrolia sat atop a steep hill, news which did not please Terri.  Luckily we soon passed a sign for the Country Hotel and turned in to have a look.  They wanted a lot of money for a room, but we could camp in the garden for a very reasonable 50,000 guaranies (about US$ 8).  The place is owned by a German guy, Wolfgang, who has lived in Paraguay for 30 years.  We ate lots of yummy food, drank home-made beer, bought honey and German-style bread and generally spent much of the money we had saved on accommodation.
Camping under shelter at the Country Hotel
It was interesting to talk to Wolfgang and hear how the area has changed over the past 15 years, with paved roads, big agro-industrial farms and clearcutting replacing dirt tracks, tiny subsistence farms and big tracts of Atlantic rainforest.  We swam in the pool, put up our tent under a thatched roof and slept well, despite the torrential downpour that lasted much of the night.

Sunday, January 31st, 25 km:  Country Hotel to Encarnacion
Our last day of cycling in Paraguay, January 31st, was a short one, as we only had 25 km separating the Country Hotel from downtown Encarnacion.  We rolled along through relatively light traffic into the city, then combed the streets looking for a hotel.  Our map was hopelessly inaccurate, but we eventually found a decent hotel with an indoor pool and quiet rooms.  We went out for a celebratory lunch at a churrasco restaurant, bought our bus tickets for the next day to Asuncion, had a long swim, then went out in search of sushi.  It took forever to find the Hiroshima, but it was worth it.  We got takeout sushi and brought it back to the hotel along with a bottle of Argentinian bubbly to mark the end of two and a half months of riding in South America.

Running the bikes through the car wash, Encarnacion
The next day saw us bring our bicycles, which were covered in the fine red dust of Paraguay, to a car wash to be properly washed before loading them on the bus.  The bus ride to Asuncion was long but fairly comfortable, and we spent part of it talking to Colleen, an American Peace Corps volunteer on her way to welcome a new group of volunteers.  We rode from the Asuncion bus station back to Nande Po’a to find that our room seemed to have been given away despite having made a reservation.  Luckily by the time we started to put up our tent in the courtyard, the manager realized that he did have a room for us and we slept indoors.

A day of administration in Asuncion saw me get the finishing touches put on my dental work (two cavities filled for US$80, a lot cheaper than in Canada, by a very professional outfit) and get my watch fixed properly, while Terri visited the beautician to repair some of the ravages of life on the road.  And then, on February 3rd, we took a pickup truck through a spectacular rainstorm and the rapidly flooding streets of the capital back to the bus station to catch a bus to Buenos Aires, where we had decided to spend the last 10 days of our trip. 

Paraguay was an interesting country to visit, not least because I knew so little about it before visiting. It’s definitely poorer than either Chile or Argentina, but it seems to be riding the agricultural commodity boom to greater prosperity, and it is one of the friendliest countries I’ve been to outside of Central Asia.  There was never any undercurrent of desperate poverty or social unrest, and I really enjoyed meeting the people along the road who were genuinely curious about us and what we were doing.  Unlike, say, Chile, we met no other bike tourists, although local people said they did see cyclists on a regular basis.  The cycling was pretty grim, to be honest:  the incessant heavy traffic wears on the senses and makes cycling not much fun, while the heat is pretty fierce.  I wish we had had the time to ride up into the wilder parts of the country like the Gran Chaco.  We decided not to rent a car and visit national parks, as we weren’t sure how much real wilderness and jungle remains to be found in the country, and how accessible it is.  What we did really enjoy was the good, inexpensive food and accommodation to be found, with great quality fruit and meat and quality hotels for less than US$20.  I’m glad we visited, although perhaps cycling is not the ideal way to experience the country.