Stop 6: North Argentina

The slow journey to Igauzu Falls

Argentina, like its neighbour Chile, is an exceptionally long country. We have hiked its serene snow capped mountains in the south, strolled extensively through its busy European-style capital, and because time permitted us to slowly make our way to the iconic falls up north, we decided to make a detour out west to get a holistic view of the country.

A few firsts for us on this leg of the journey:

We got off the gringo trail

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In search of the hidden Jesuit Mission ruins in San Ignacio Mini

Gringo trail = a well-trodden, established route taken by countless backpackers. Mild negative connotations as it may be seen as unadventurous to choose the conventional route rather than the less trodden path. Most backpackers endure the 24hr bus ride/1hr flight straight up to Puerto Igauzu from Buenos Aires. With 2 weeks before we needed to get there, we bought a one-way bus ticket to Córdoba, Argentina’s second biggest city west of B.A., with only a few nights of accommodations booked ahead. For two control freaks, it was unsettling to follow through.

But the result was we saw some unique treasures, places that only 1 of our 2 guidebooks covered; experienced some interesting bus journeys including arriving at a bus station at 3am with no clue how or when we’d make it to our destination; and met some of the nicest people in the least expected places. Whilst we (Jackie) didn’t love every second of the uncertainty, we are glad to fully embrace going off the beaten path.

Rode an overnight bus

Unbeknownst to us, travel by bus is the most common way to get around this huge country. So much so, that there are a number of bus companies and classes of seats to choose from depending on the length of a journey; from semi-cama (basic coach seats with/out choice of A.C.) to cama (alike premium economy seats with lots of leg room) to cama suite (business class seats with full recline, attendant service completed with entertainment set and dodgy wifi, hot food and a free toothbrush). Some buses came with curtains on all sides for privacy and to block out the heat of the sun.

The thing we learnt about overnight bus journeys is that it doesn’t just take your from A to Z but it can make multiple stops in between, A to B to C to D to E and so on till Z. These stops happen throughout the night/early morning, with announcements gently whispered from the driver’s cabin below. On our way to Mercedes, we were due to arrive at 3:30am. It was a sleepless night involving checking our phones every other minute to make sure we were awake to be thrown off the bus.

Hiked/climbed/jumped into rock pools

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Locals bathing at El Diquecito in Tanti 

700km away from the capital is Córdoba, the geographic bull-eyes of Argentina, and a university student saturated city (fun fact: anyone can go to university for free, even if you’re not Argentinean. Graduating is another story). Also an entry-point to the Central Sierras, the second largest mountain range after the Andes, access to cooler elevations and outdoor activities aplenty. We decided to give rock climbing a go. Jackie imagined a rock face with lots of nooks to hang on to, safety nets to fall into and soft landing mats if all else fails. After a gentle hike along a river in Tanti, our instructor dropped his bag, crossed the brown, not-so-babbling brook, flicked a snake away and began to scale up the cliff face, whilst we watched in awe from the other side. What had we signed up for?

It wasn’t long before he had the rock face set up for us to climb. Jon did pretty well considering he had only one good arm to rely on. The lack of dislocated shoulder was worth a celebratory suicidal jump off the cliff into the rock pools.

Sightings of new animals

Part of our detour included a few days’ stop in the Ibera Wetlands, a vast national reserve covering 7000 sq miles, northeast of the country. Our access to the wetlands was through a quiet tranquil village, Carlos Pellgrini, 3 nauseating bumpy hours away from the nearest town. Its unique environment comprises vast marshy swampland, rivers, lagoons and floating islands made of intertwined vegetation, home to native animals like:
Caimans
Close cousin of crocs and alligator, but half the length. We saw various sized caimans basking in the sun during an early lagoon tour, some as small as a shoe, some as big as a boogie board. They were also on offer as an empanada option at lunch so we gave them a try. Jon enjoyed the seafoody taste, Jackie was less keen as all she could think about is their scaly skin – not included in the stuffing.
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Capybara
The largest rodent in the world lives happily among people in Carlos Pelligrini. The hairy critters are about the size of a car tire and spends most of their day munching on grass with their family, swimming in shallow lagoons and sleeping in muddy swamps. Although they’re related to rats (not cute), they’re really adorable in real life.
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Giant hairy spiders
Ok, this we saw one of, thankfully. And it was HUGE, and also dead. No one freaked out and ran away a mile before turning around to ask the other one to take a photo of ‘it’. No prizes for guessing who was the more manly.
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Howler monkeys
Regular sized monkeys with distinct deafening call. Whilst we didn’t see them properly, but it was impossible to not hear their echoing howls among the treetop canopies. The howl is similar to a lion’s roar than a typical monkey’s squeak.

We almost went to Fray Bentos, birthplace of the OXO cube
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Much to Jon’s chagrin, we never made the pilgrimage to then-British owned, now-dilapidated factory/UNESCO World Heritage site – scraping the bottom of the barrel no? The ubiquitous cube fed thousands of British troops during WW1, and eventually became a meat processing factory. It now stands vacant, windowless, deserted, a perfect stage for an episode of The Walking Dead. A visit there would’ve meant we needed to hire a car, navigate Argentina’s roads, cross the Uruguayan borders and cover over 610km in a day. It would’ve been a great postcard story had we made it but we (Jon) eventually came to our senses and abandoned the (stupid) idea.

Spent a couple of days switching off… unintentionally

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Going backpacking may seem like there’s infinite opportunities to switch off. Sure, being on-the-go means we’re away from the pressures of everyday life. But it can also be mentally and physically draining: moving from one hostel to the next, endless unpacking, repacking and lugging of our heavy bags, history lessons overload. So we took the opportunity when we arrived in Rosario, the third biggest city in Argentina. Disappointingly, we saw all it had to offer in an afternoon. It also was pelting down with rain most of the time, and it appeared to be a complete ghost town. Our hostel was in the centre of town and yet, the streets laid dead empty… It gave us good reasons to hibernate in our room and catch up with overdue writing, research our next steps, Facetime with friends & family, launder things that needed laundering. An antisocial but much welcomed hiatus.

Jon entered his 80th country 

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Blending in at Ruins of Jesus de Tavarangue
Only one of us made it across the bridge to Encarnacion in Paraguay from the Argentinean border town, Posadas. On the day we went to the Paraguayan embassy to apply for a visa for Jackie, the cost had doubled since we last researched. Albeit, the visa would’ve lasted 10 years had we gone forward with it, but neither of us thought we’d be back in Paraguay anytime soon. So Jon had an eventful day finding his way through the less organised, seemingly lawless and often confusing town to see the remains of the Jesuit Missions, archaeological ruins of the once-sophisticated civilization from the 17th century.
Things in Paraguay are significantly cheaper than its neighbouring countries. Whilst Jackie spent her day splurging at the local pharmacy, Jon’s day trip cost him a total of £8.
  • Cross-border return bus ticket: £4
  • Lunch – 2 empanadas: 24p
  • Bus ticket to Trinidad: 88p
  • Jesuit Mission Ruins entrance ticket: £2
  • Bus ticket back to Encarnacion: 88p
The Jesuit remains were impressive and well preserved considering they were built throughout the 1600-1700s and endured a lot of civil unrest in between. But the journey it took to get there was far more thrilling than the site itself. It felt pretty good to navigate through a less visited town, where Jon came across no-one who spoke English. He had to jump on a rusty local bus, stop by the side of a barren road, then walk for 15 minutes to find the ruins. Plus, Paraguay thought it’d be a good time to let loose with a massive tropical rainstorm. Standing at the side of a highway in the pouring rain, trying to flag down a bus (no bus stop!) was an adventure! It felt so good to return to civilisation in Argentina at the end of the day.

 After a month spent travelling through Argentina, consuming too many empanadas along the way, we eventually reached our final  stop at Puerto Igauzu. Whilst we didn’t love every moment of our slow slog to the north, we enjoyed going at a different pace, and taking a chance on the road less traveled.
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Roaming around Cordoba Plaza

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Taking a stance for England
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Don’t be fooled by the buildings, Rosario’s a ghost town!
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Monumento a la Bandera in Rosario

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