Sunday 11 June – Sunday 3 July 2011

My next three weeks of travelling can only be described as ‘interesting’, with my decision making included, as I didn’t have any sort of plan. I’m not sure if they were the right decisions but then this adds to the ‘experience’ of travelling. The sights were so varied that it’s impossible for me to even attempt to put this entry under one category. Perhaps ‘random’ sums it up though ‘interesting’ is probably more appropriate. The scenery and landscape, transport, food, cleanliness, architecture, border crossings and weather were all so different in such a short space of time. But then I did travel from Argentina, to Brazil, back to Argentina, to Paraguay and then back into Brazil. The one thing that remained consistant was the friendliness and generosity of everyone in these countries, including other travellers, (oh and of course the pervyness of Latinos). I recall a time, just a few days into Brazil, where I asked a local I was sat next to on a bus if I was at the right station. He asked where I was going and showed me where the ticket office was and where I needed to get the bus from to the airport then walked off in the opposite direction so obviously went out of his way. I then tried to ask in Spanish for some tickets but the woman working at the bus agency didn’t understand me at all, and neither did her five colleagues who were staring at me confused with frowning wrinkly foreheads whilst trying their hardest to understand at least one word that I was trying to say. In the end a local in the queue who could speak really good English helped me out and translated everything, then one of the workers escorted me to where I needed to get the bus. I made the bus with minutes to spare. Brazilians really do go out of their way to help you. At times I almost found the friendliness overwhelming. It’s going to be strange to get back to dog eat dog London where everyone will think I’m trying to rob then if I merely smile at them.

I met a really sweet Swiss guy whilst in Iguazu (I only befriended him as I knew he’d still got a small supply of Swiss chocolate left) who was heading back into Paraguay as he had family there and as I had just over three weeks before my friend Suj was due to join me, I had time to do a bit of exploring so we decided to travel together for a few days. I’d not heard many interesting reports about Paraguay bar the fact that it’s cheap, everyone is incredibly friendly and you can save a few quid if you want to buy anything electrical. Slightly annoying seeing as I’d already bought a laptop and a camera, the latter in the most expensive South American country where the electronic items aren’t even that good. I was intrigued though and wanted to check it out for myself. (And not just to get a stamp and tick it off my list like many of the other travellers that I’d met).

Iguazu Falls, Argentina

Iguazu Falls, Argentina

El Garganta del Diablo (The Devil's Throat), Iguazu Falls, Brazil

Double rainbow, Iguazu Falls, Brazil

Bar the thousands of tourists at Iguazu Falls, the majority of them coach loads of visored Japanese who view the falls through their two inch Nikon screens, bat you out of the way, get ‘the photo’ complete with peace signs, then move onto the next viewpoint, they were incredible. Machu Picchu, The Galapagos and Iguazu Falls are definitely in the top five of ‘must sees’ in South America so you just have to deal with the fact that there will be millions of tourists. The Falls are actually shared with Argentina and Brazil. On the Argentinian side you get on top of the waterfalls via a series of walkways and see an amazing view of the thunderous El Garganta de Diablo (The Devil’s Throat), I stayed there for a good hour, (the Japenese got ‘the photo’ and left, interesting), while on the Brazilian side you get more of a panaramic view and more of a sense of scale of the Falls. (There are 275 falls in total making them the widest range in the world). Ask any Argentinian or any traveller that has only seen them from the Argentinian side and they will swear that they are better from that side and the same goes for the Brazilian side. I’d always planned to see both sides so I could make up my own mind and slightly controversially, although both sides were immense, I think I prefered the Brazilian side (though probably because most people prefer the Argentinian side and I like to be different – some might say awkward). There is one section on the Brazilian side where there are walkways over the top of a fall, at the base of another, panoramic views of several more with El Garganta de Diablo in the distance. For me, being at the base of a waterfall you physically feel the impact of the thunderous crashes and really get the sense of how dramatic the falls are and although I come out looking like I was competing in a wet t-shirt competition and with hair glued to my face, it’s worth it. It’s contradictory anyway as from the Brazilian side you’re actually seeing the Argetine falls and vice versa. My advice is to go and see them from both sides.

Together with Severin, the Swiss chocolate guy, we headed to Ciudade del Este in Paraguay (right on the border) though only to visit the Itaipu Dam (the second largest in the world although its produces more electricity pro rata than the largest dam in China) before heading South and staying in Encarnacion for the night which was near to a National Park and some Jesuit ruins. I swear that as soon as I crossed the border I got the shits. After leaving Bolivia I’d been fine for almost three months in the ‘European’ countries of Chile and Argentina where they have seats, flushing toilets and toilet roll. The border crossing was an ‘interesting’ experience. We left Argentina and got our routine stamps. The full bus briefly entered Brazil and left towards Paraguay where more and more people squeezed onto the bus and crammed down the aisle. Memories of bus rides in the Andean countries came flooding back. Swiss chocolate had said that we would have to get more stamps as we entered and left Brazil but the local bus never stopped. Now we know why everyone was eager to get their stamps quickily and get back on the bus – so they could get a seat. I’d left my quick dry towel hanging on the back seat to dry. We got back on the bus and had to stand right at the front. A local parked her arse on my feet. I hoped she’d not got the shits too just from crossing the border.

Upon entering Paraguay it was crazy. There were people and traffic everywhere and so much noise and commotion. I asked the driver if he was going to stop and wait at emigration while we got out stamps but he had absolutely no plans to (we’d read that locals didn’t need stamps to get in though but obviously us gringos did). I shouted for the driver to stop but I still needed to get my towel. Swiss chocolate took my day pack for me and said he’d get our rucksacks from under the bus while I tried to retrieve my towel. It was a nightmare. There was no way that I could get past everyone sandwiched down the aisle without being accused of wanting to touch everyone up (though the Latino’s would have quite liked this) so I had to shout. Locals shouted back that it wasn’t there but I could see it. It was like chinese whispers, by the time the message got to the person in my seat, they were looking for some green pantaloons. The bus had started up again and we were getting deeper into electronic shopping caos. Before panic kicked in I eventually got my towel back very slowly as it got passed down the aisle through grubby locals hands. Grabbing it, I demanded to get off the bus only to get bombarded by electronic shopping flyers being thrust in my face. Luckily because of the traffic we’d only moved about 100m down the road. I headed back towards the immigration office hoping Swiss chocolate would be there waiting for me. Phew, to our relief we see each other in the street through the arms of flapping flyers waving in the air. Poor Swiss chocolate was almost melting after carrying my many kilos.

Itaipu Dam, Paraguay

We manage to get a local bus to the bus station where we witnessed numerous people living in homemade tent made from bin lines and cardboard boxes opposite. Kids with their dirty palms out swarmed towards us asking for money. I’d not seen such poverty for a few months so it was a bit of a shock to the system. We scurried into the bus station and ended up getting a taxi to the dam as it was the only way we’d make the tour (in English) and there was no way we were staying the night in Electronic Town. The dam was really impressive but the tour was in Spanish so hard work understanding everything. We ended up returning to Electronic Town with hours to spare before our bus to Encarnacion, further south, so we decided to check out the place. With some poor/no information and a useless map from the unhelpful woman at the information booth who couldn’t even locate where we were on he map, we headed out. We literally walked about 5 meters, turned a corner and were stopped by a man and his son. They are filthy. The father peered at us through his long, grey matted hair with his strange, blue, glazed, glassy eyeball whilst cluthching a plastic bag full of chicken feet which was completely covered in raw blood. The kid was there with his hands out and they both talked really slowly… it felt like a scene out of The Road. We jumped into a taxi where the driver tried to make a few quid and asked if we wanted to see some sites far out of town. This is after we drive to the lake whereupon he asks why we’re going there as it’s not interesting and it’s really dangerous. (The unhelpful woman at the station gave us this unuseful advice about the lake or rather, I asked her if the lake was nice and she replied with ‘yes’). We get him to take us to a restaurant and we arrive at what is probably the most expensive one in the whole of the city. We catch some rays on the balcony which is overlooking the lake, whilst sipping a beer and it’s feels like we’re in Europe. Not quite a true representation of Electronic Town.

Swiss Chocolate relaxing after the border crossing from Argentina to Paraguay

It was like being back in Bolivia when we got the bus south to Encarnation. The bus was full of smelly locals with on average three per two seats, there was no air con, the toilet stank, (you’re lucky if there was a toilet), my seat was broken and I kept sliding forward and head-butting the seat in front of me every time the bus stopped while vendors jumped on and tried to sell you something. It’s fine if you’re lazy as goods come to you but being asked if you want chipa, chipa, chipa, (local cheesy bread there which might be tasty if they wasn’t as hard as rocks and warm) about 50 times on a three hour journey is pretty annoying. Sometimes there were even proper meals offered although the slop was usually sold in a plastic bag thinner than cling film and merely tied at the top. They looked disgusting and I’ve never sampled one because it would probably have gone right through me but also because you’re not allowed to poo on buses. Fortunately on our journey a small child was selling beer so that helped ease the pain.

Nothing much was going on in Encarnacion and we’d originally planned to go to the San Rafael National Park nearby to do some hiking but we scorned at the idea of needing to get a bus back towards Electronic Town (although nowhere near it) and instead came up with the ridiculous idea of going and staying at Hotel Tirol, literally fit for a King, (apparently it’s a favourite of the King of Spain). Or rather Swiss Chocolate who was on a slightly different budget to me talked me into it and at GBP18 each for the night it was a bit of bargain to stay in a 5 star hotel. I was easily convinced after I read that there were acres of land to go hiking in, it had a classy restaurant and had four, yes four, swimming pools.

Gorgeous view of the hairy pool, Hotel Tirol, Paraguay

Fancy a dip? Hotel Tirol, Paraguay

Two of the pools were illuminous green they had that much algea in them. One was about three inches deep and basically for small children or midgits and as I swam in the only hole that resembled a pool, I swallowed several flies, moths, balls of hair and plasters. It was freezing but then I wasn’t expecting it be heated seeing as we were the only guests staying there. The walk in the gardens was pleasant enough though the trails weren’t clearly marked but we found some fresh satsumas to eat while the mosquitos ate us. The food was disgusting. We asked for our steaks rare and they came out shrivelled and tough. Luckily we’d had a bottle of rum before hand so saw the funny side. Breakfast mainly consisted of cakes and biscuits which included some of a Christmas variety that you could whack against a table and they still wouldn’t break and probably the leftovers from the last time they had guests (at Christmas). Fit for a King my arse. Although it didn’t really live up to our expectations we still managed to have fun there. It was a treat sitting out on the balcony in the sun reading, occassionally pausing to see if the dead moths or the plasters would win the race to the end of the pool.

Trinidad Jesuit Ruins, Paraguay

One of the highlights of Paraguay were the visits to the beautifully preserved Jesuit Ruins of Jesus and Trinidad. They are supposedly the least visited UNESCO World Heritage Site’s in the world so well worth a visit. Settlements built amongst beautiful surroundings gave the native indigenous people, the Guarani Indian’s, an enhanced and equal life thanks to the arrival of the Jesuit priests, although this didn’t last very long. After visiting the Ruins of Jesus, we decided to head to the Ruins of Trinidad further afield and ended up sharing a taxi with two of the rudest French travellers ever, who we’d seen wandering around the first ruins. We tried to make converstation but they weren’t having any of it so I gave up. This is a rare occurance as the majority of travellers always seem to make an effort even if they do sound like an Indian phone operator reading off a screen, ‘Where are you from, where have you been, where are you going, yah yah yah…..’ When we got to the ruins they walked off and myself and Swiss Chocolate chatted to the guy that worked there for ages and he ended up giving us the key to the tower (the only other way to scale up to the tower for amazing views is to hire a guide). After a quick walk around, we snook up past the French while they were sat in front of the tower after their speedy viewing. Feeling like school kids we darting past windows and ducking our heads, then crawling along the roof on our fronts so we were out of view all the while giggling like naughty five year olds. I did feel a bit guilty but agreed with Swiss Chocolate when he said ‘sod the unfriendly gits’. I was trying to come up with a plan as to where we’d been as we could see them looking for us but they never peeped a word in the taxi back so that saved us a job.

Sevein and his cute family in the cutest bar ever, San Lorenzo, Paraguay

We spent the next few days staying with Swiss Chocolate’s family in San Lorezo just below the capital, Asuncion. The family were so cute and welcoming and had no quarms about this random girl staying, perhaps because they thought that I was Swiss Chocolate’s girlfriend but he set the record straight. Apart from jumping on some bathroom scales, nearly breaking them and finding out that I actually weighed exactly the same as Swiss Chocolate (OK maybe you should keep that bar of Swiss chocolate, Swiss Chocolate) and having a little cry after realising that I’d put on a stone, I had a lovely time. I got invited to a family parrilla, drank in the family owned bar, got cooked delicious food, was encouraged to take siestas and headed to the fair for the day which got the adrenline pumping. It was the equivalent of Zippo’s Circus, complete with the rickety Mouse Trap ride where I feared for my life. I’m not sure why I was expecting an Alton Towers-esque experience in such a poor country. This I can guarantee was one of the most terrifying things that I’d done in the last eight months. Forget Death Road. The Mouse Trap won hands down.

The few days with the family were really chilled and it was great to be part of and see how important families are to the Paraguayans. (There were four generations at the parilla). They live a really simple yet fulfilled life, the extended family sharing a dongle between about 15 members (which still didn’t work when I tried it). I had an all round ‘interesting’ experience in Paraguay. It was sad saying goodbye to Severin (Swiss Chocolate) but worth it so that I got the last bar of his supply. Yum and such a treat as I’d not had good chocolate for months.

My next stop was Brazil, in the winter. Florianopolis, famous for it’s lovely, remote beaches on the island of Santa Catarina, was grey and miserable so there was no point of even attempting to go and check out the sea and sand. I decided to head further South to a tiny town called Praia Grande where there were some beautiful canyons where I could go trekking. I figured that I could trek in the rain but sitting on the beach in the rain is a bit weird. After taking almost a day to get there, I found out the following morning that we couldn’t do the day trek as it involved crossing a river at the base of the canyons which was too high and dangerous. I was trapped there for three days, with about 20 locals who were all taking a long weekend off work as the Friday was a holiday. Although they were all really sweet, I could barely communicate with any of them as I didn’t know Portuguese and I was somewhat reluntant to take lessons as I want to keep up my Spanish. A group who could speak some english took me under their wing and ferried me around to see some sights. One of the girls, Paula, had an amazing contraption for her camera. ‘Do you know what this is Claire?’, she asked me on the first day that we met, ‘It’s looks like a tripod’, I replied. ‘No, it’s not, watch this’. The silver pole was already screwed into the little hole underneath the camera, (where a tripod would usually sit). Paula extended the pole so it was about a metre long, set the timer on the camera and tilted it slightly so it was facing all of us, grabbed hold of the end of the pole with her arm stretched out, and told us to smile. Throughout my life I have always wanted a Go Go Gadget Arm, and now my dream was in sight. The device was basically an arm extension so you didn’t need to ask someone to take a photo for you, everyone in the group could be in the picture, it’s ideal for lone travellers so you don’t just have an extended arm and fleshy face with no background in pictures, perfect for taking sneaky shots of things that you’re not supposed to be photographing, amazing at gigs as you can take pictures of the acts and the crowd easily rather than asking the tallest person there who is usually always conveniently positioned in front of me anyway, in fact we kept thinking of more and more uses for it. Paula’s friend had seen the device in China and was thinking about importing it to Brazil. It would definitely make millions. I wonder how it would go down in the UK? One occasion where the contraption came into use was when a group of us packed into two car loads and headed up to the National Park at the top of the canyon (we were staying at the base of the canyon). Paula’s car decided to break down in the middle of nowhere. The other car load were in front of us and luckily they headed back after about five minutes when they realised that we were no longer following them. The boys did the manly thing of getting underneath the bonnet and luckily managed to fix the problem as we were starting to freeze to death. We took a group shot so that we could remember out memorable day with the Go Go Gadget Arm. Perfect, as there was no-one around to take the shot for us.

Go Go Gadget Arm, Praia Grande, Brazil

You can just about make out the crack, Praia Grande, Brazil

Finally sun, on my leaving day, Praia Grande, Brazil

Because the town was so tiny there was usually a bus every day but they were at random times so I ended up staying for longer than I had wanted to. On arrival into the town I had no idea where to get off or where I was going and wasn’t even able to find a map when researching about the place. I asked a local on the bus and luckily the guy spoke really good ‘American’ English and ended up taking me to the centre and to a cafe where the wife of a tour guide worked who would know where my hostel was. He recognised the three girls in the cafe who were having an afternoon pit stop of tea and cakes who also tried to help. The wife was really sweet, she figured out where I needed to be and actually called the hostel to have someone come and pick me up and told me about the canyons while I waited. This sort of hospitality is really hard to come by back home, maybe in small towns but then you’d always worry that you might get raped on the moors en route. I finally managed to escape the tiny town.

Fishermen stopping for a bite, Barra del Lagoa, Santa Catarina, Brazil

Hike up to the lighthouse, Barra del Lagoa, Santa Catarina, Brazil

Santa Catarina, Brazil

Santa Catarina, Brazil

My plan was to head back to Florianopolis to visit the beaches and the forecast for the next few days seemed much better so I figured I’d be able to bare some flesh. Santa Catarina turns out to be a beautiful island so I’m glad I came back. I did a hike up to a lighthouse for some amazing views but then saw some discarded trousers in there and got a bit freaked out so headed back down. I met a guy who was staying at the same hostel and he escorted me around the island one day in his car, our mission was to try and get a boat to a tiny island but there were very few going as it was out of season but we still visited numerous other beaches and stopped for a shrimp show for dinner which consisted of about six courses of prawns.

Views over Ouro Preto, Brazil

Ouro Preto, Brazil

Por kilo fun, Ouro Preto, Brazil

Colonial churches in Mariana, Brasil

Colourful buildings, Mariana, Brazil

Capoeira in Mariana, Brasil

Suddenly over two weeks had passed just like that and I still had a few days before I was due to meet my friend in Sao Paulo. I really wished I had more time to visit the North of Brazil but as were were going to travel from Sao Paulo and end up in Rio de Janeiro I didn’t want to repeat that bit of the journey so I decided to head a bit more inland to a small colonial place called Ouro Preto (meaning Black Gold in Portuguese) in Minas Gerais, famous for the gold rush and Brazil’s golden age in the 18th century. The journey there was a mere six buses and a flight but it was well worth it. Today, the remains of it’s several beautiful churches are proof of it’s past prosperity. The historic town was simply stunning, as was the neighbouring even smaller town of Mariana, the sun shone and I managed to eat a ridiculous amount of food and have a bit of a rest as I psyched myself up for crazy Sao Paulo. Deep breath. Now, time to head to the coast and get me a Brazilian…

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