Iguazú Falls

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From Buenos Aires, we scheduled a three-day visit to Puerto Iguazú to visit the great waterfalls. They are located in the far northeast of the country, straddling the border with Brazil, situated in atmospherically misty jungle terrain, occasionally split by wide, slow rivers. The climate is quite tropical; when we arrived in town at 8:30am it was already 26°C/79°F outside.

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The Garganta del Diablo (Devil’s Throat) in the distance

On our first day, we didn’t get to the park until a few hours before closing. Having done our research though, we hopped straight on the little train to take us up to the head of Garganta del Diablo (The Devil’s Throat), the most dramatic of the Iguazú Falls.

In some ways it felt like a movie. There was a progressive build-up to the main event as we rode the train and then walked across iron pontoon bridges to the head of the waterfall; first we saw a narrow, slow-moving branch of the river, then a much wider stretch, then there were rapids, then mist in the distance and finally the roar of the Devil’s Throat itself.

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The sheer volume of water flowing over the falls is awe-inspiring

It is hard to completely describe the sensation of standing there though. The sheer volume of water rushing past you, the noise and the spray, the height as you look down into the misty depths, all convey a sense of a tremendous power of nature at work. It is quite awing. Physically, it is a horseshoe-shaped cliff, resulting in concentrated gush of water into the river below. It isn’t the only waterfall at Iguazú; there are around 270 falls in total as the river is quite wide here, but the Garganta del Diablo is the most impressive single one. We simply stood and enjoyed the view until the park ranger came to move us along as the park began to close for the evening.

On the way out we got our tickets stamped at the ticket office and so benefited from half-price admission the following day. Arriving in the morning, there were queues for the train up to the Devil’s Throat, so we were glad to have done it last night when the train was nearly empty. There are only three stations on the line, Garganta del Diablo being the furthest one. The other two are at the Visitors’ Centre and the start of the walking trails, but are close enough together that it’s easy to walk between them.

The Argentinian side of the falls is much like a modern theme park. There are broad concrete paths, good signage and plenty of toilet facilities and “retail opportunities.” They have a number of trails you can follow to explore the falls and the surrounding jungle.

lrm00883-lowresWe started on the “Upper Circuit” which takes you across the head of several of the cataracts and gives you impressive views of the chain of waterfalls along the rock faces. Along the way, we also encountered quite a bit of wildlife. The most common were Coatis, small pointy-nosed creatures with long, stripy tails. They look like small anteaters but are related to racoons – and equally as much of a nuisance; there are notices throughout the park warning you not to feed them and showing you graphic pictures of the injuries they can inflict. We also came across several lizards, the largest about three feet long, and a couple of tribes of monkeys, not to mention a variety of showy birds and butterflies – and quite a few giant ants, typically about three centimetres long.

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The coatis were constant scavengers around the falls

After completing the Upper Circuit we took a break for lunch at Cataracts Station before assaying the Lower Circuit. This one is shadier, so better to save for the afternoon. Passing along the lower river, it also gives you the chance of a refreshing shower from the spray as you get close to a couple of the falls on the way. There’s not much I can say about either trail, other than to say they are dramatic and then let the pictures speak for themselves.

The third trail we explored was the Macuco Trail. It takes you out into the jungle to a waterfall and back. It sounded quite exciting in the guidebooks but, in reality, was a monotonous dirt track that felt like it went on forever. Apart from one colourful species of insect, we didn’t get to see any wildlife we hadn’t seen already in the park. The waterfall at the far end was nice enough, but unimpressive compared to its siblings on the other trails. We took a few pictures, turned around and came home.

On the lower circuit; up close and personal. And damp.

On the lower circuit; up close and personal. And damp.

On our final day in Iguazú, I set out alone to visit the Brazilian side of the falls. Brett, being without a Brazilian visa, stayed back and explored Puerto Iguazú. (Our host had suggested there were ways of doing the visit without needing a visa, but it sounded decidedly dodgy and no cheaper than having properly obtained a visa, so we didn’t take the chance.)

It is certainly true that the views of the falls from the Brazilian side are more impressive; you get a breadth of vista there that you can’t achieve close-up to the falls themselves. The downside, however, is the Brazilian facilities and organisation compares most unfavourably to that in Argentina. It would only be a slight exaggeration to call the Brazilian Falls experience one long queue from arrival to departure. The facilities are just not sufficient for the number of visitors, resulting in long queues to get in and out and lots of congestion and jostling on their single viewing trail. It doesn’t help that the visitors’ centre on the Brazilian side is a twenty-minute bus ride away from the trail itself!

The Brazilian side of the falls was one long queue, from start to finish!

The Brazilian side of the falls felt like one long queue, from start to finish!

Their lack of signage is also problematic. It was only sheer luck on arrival that I found my way to the queue for tickets instead of joining the hour-long queue for the transfer bus without having already paid for entry. Thanks to being in the right place at the right time, I managed to avoid that hour-long queue altogether, but still had to queue around forty-five minutes for my ticket and then again to buy lunch, to collect lunch and finally for the bus back to the entrance. Not fun.

Anyway, I gritted my teeth, patiently endured some of the worse tourist excesses I observed, and got my pictures. I was not sorry to leave though.

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Spectacular views from the Brazilian side


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Some of the wildlife we encountered


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Some of the wildlife we encountered


Some of the local wildlife

Some of the local wildlife

The Milonga

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Early in our stay in Buenos Aires, we took in a tango show at Café De Los Angelitos and I commented on how it included lots of choreography and gymnastics but little passion. Having now spent an evening at a traditional Milonga, I think I need to revise my opinion. When the locals dance, it is certainly different than the stage show we saw, but it’s also different from how I imagined it to be.

We had been recommended Salon Canning on Scalabrini Ortiz and went along on our last night in town to see what it was about. The googling I had done hadn’t resulted in clear information about what happened when, exactly – in fact, until we got there, we weren’t entirely sure it would even be open on a Wednesday night.

As it turns out it was and the Internet had been correct that the early evening consists of tango lessons, initially for beginners and intermediates and later for more advanced dancers, before becoming an open floor at 10pm. At some point, we were also expecting a show from what looked like two tango circuit professional couples.

We arrived a little before ten and, having established that we hadn’t reserved a table by phone, were led to a free table by a young, smart-casual porteño who walked with a cane. He seemed to be Maître d’Hôtel. The room was large and roughly square, with a dancefloor in the centre occupying about half the length and breadth. It was ringed by two rows of tables and chairs, only about a third of which were occupied as we sat down.

There was a bar in the corner. It took us a little while of observing other patrons to realise that there were two waitresses serving tables and you had to actively wave your waitress over, otherwise you would be ignored all night. There was a full selection on offer, we chose beer and a vodka tonic, but there was a lot of water and coffee in evidence. A bottle of wine seemed to be the most popular choice though. As we sipped our drinks, we observed the room around us.

It was a mixed crowd, with no clear dress code. The women, on the whole, were smarter than the men; all in dresses, from light flowery frocks to some really quite eye-catching cocktail dresses. The one thing they all had in common, however, was a fancy pair of strappy stiletto dancing shoes. The men were more of the slouches. Although a number of them were in suits and a lot wore smart trousers and shirts, there were shorts, jeans and t-shirts on display. The men’s footwear was more varied too, although even the jeans-and-t-shirt guys wore smart fashion trainers. There was not a gym shoe to be seen.

The lighting was low around the hall. The dancefloor was lit by portable stage lighting which seemed to be set to slowly cycle through a mix of colour washes. Pre-recorded tango singers played one after another through the sound system.

The dancing is clearly an art form. In one sense, couples dance like robots; they adopt a quite formal, defined embrace while they dance. There is no smiling or chat; tango is a serious affair. Although the embrace is intimate, distance is maintained. They navigate smoothly around the floor with no visible interaction between couples. Yet, there is clearly a strong vibe underlying the movements; a sense of pent-up emotion. It’s not the flamboyant display of Flamenco, it is subtle and smouldering and tense – but the emotion is unmistakably there.

The tango songs have an abrupt way of ending. Maybe it is easier to anticipate if you fully understand the language, but the songs don’t seem to have a particular finale or play-out. The singer just stops singing, there’s a beat, and then a chord and everyone on the floor would freeze. Given the sudden tableau this presents, I kept having to resist the urge to applaud. But, just like that, the dance was over. Suddenly the rigid postures all relax and there’s conversation as the intro to the next song plays. And then it’s straight arms and straight backs and step into the next dance.

After every third or fourth song, the tango singing would be replaced by a minute or so of rock or reggae music. The only purpose seemed to be clear the floor; everyone would sit down until the next tango song. We wondered why. Our best guess was that it helps to mix up the couples by giving people a chance to change partners or take a breather and have a drink.

For all the formality of the dance though, this feels very much like a social club. Off the dancefloor there is a continuous low murmur of conversations. Gentlemen who dance in suits, throw off their jackets and sit back from their tables in between times. The gentle hubbub picks up a bit during the empty dancefloor interludes, but it is continuous throughout the evening. People move slowly between tables, visiting with their neighbours, chatting to each other. It’s like another stately dance is taking place around the edge of the room to complement the circulation in the centre.

We ask our waitress about the demonstration dances from the celebrities mentioned on the advertising. She says they will be performing around 1am. It’s only 11:30pm, but we decide to wait to see the best of “real” tango.

Having spent an hour watching people dance, I am impressed that there don’t seem to be set steps. Each couple dances their own dance. Given that some of the idea of tango is to dance with people you don’t know, it seems unlikely that a given couple’s dance is pre-practiced. So, somehow, despite an extremely rigid posture, the couple communicate (sense?) where their partner is going and work with them. During the evening we saw plenty of fancy footwork, but not a single collision or toe-stepping incident. It was mesmerising.

At midnight, the salon is maybe two-thirds full, but our friend with the cane is still active seating people – although he seems more nimble now the place is a bit crowded. I wonder if perhaps the cane is an affectation.

We see a couple arrive who are one set of the featured dancers. They change into their dancing gear and sit with their friends, who had arrived earlier, at the table in front of ours. It’s all very social. They do get up to dance – but not with each other. It’s just the social networking of the milonga and not the demonstration they are doing together.

By 1:30am there is still no suggestion of a change in the rhythm of the night; three or four tango songs play, then a noise-break to clear the floor, then back to tango. The first tango couple continue to be part of the crowd. We haven’t spotted the second couple on the bill, so they may not even have arrived yet. Everything is running to Argentinian time, which is to say, “It happens when it happens. Don’t sweat it.”

Eventually, though, we run out of steam. After a long day, a little before 2am, we wend our way between the tables toward the exit. We will have to miss the performance of Oscar Héctor & Haydeé Esther Malagrino, as well as Lam Yuriko & Roberto Montenegro. I expect the milonga will go on through to 6am. When I got up early to photograph Recoleta Cemetery, I rode the bus through town and saw lots of people along the streets looking like they had just left a party. That’s just how it goes in Buenos Aires, but sadly these gringos can’t keep up with the pace. We have to pack and check out in the morning, so we head home to bed.

The young Maître is outside having a cigarette with some friends. He nods to us as we depart. He’s no longer holding the cane.

Buenos Aires Retrospective

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We are coming to the end of our time in Buenos Aires. I’m ready to move on, but at the same time, wish I could stay longer in this beautiful city. The time we’ve spent here has been productive in that we have used the non-touristy time to get systems in place to help us travel better. I have been working on financial admin to make sure we have a close eye on how much we are spending and how much we have left to see us through the year. Brett has been focussing on the systems he’ll need to work remotely and getting his laptop configured for the new things he’ll be doing.

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Sculpture of a sleeping angel, Recoleta Cemetery

As for the city, there are certain things will stay with me as we travel. I had quite an interesting day when I got up early to spend time in the Recoleta Cemetery. On my way there I witnessed a taxi run a red light and broadside a car which was crossing in front of it. (No-one was severely injured and I left my details as a witness.) After spending time photographing the monuments of the cemetery, I came across a funeral and observed the interment. (Not as dignified as you’d expect; the coffin essentially gets manhandled feet-first through a manhole cover in the floor of the tomb.)

On my way home by Subte, a guy was standing somewhat closer than the crowd density in the carriage required. I wasn’t sure at first if I was just being overly sensitive (Argentinians are quite casually tactile), but then I thought I felt my wallet move. I wasn’t sure, so couldn’t say anything, but I moved around so that he couldn’t access that pocket any longer. As we were coming into the station though, I spotted him reaching into the backpack of the girl lined up in front of him and warned the girl that she needed to zip up her pockets. He gave me a shrug and disappeared into the crowd.

Having made it back to Palermo, I met up with Brett for lunch. He’d been checking out places on FourSquare/Swarm, looking for good coffee and wi-fi. We also used it to find the best spot for lunch – but failed to pay attention to the pricing chart and so paid for our inattention by ordering an £80 lunch without really noticing.

The other memorable day was the one we spent on the Estancia Los Dos Hermanos, an hour northwest of the city. It was a day of riding on a horse ranch. We had ideal weather for it and, apart from the buzz of a go-kart track near the highway intruding on the sounds of nature, it was an idyllic location of rolling green fields, small copses and creeks filled with birds and butterflies.

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Brett at the end of our day on horseback

In the end, the horse-riding was the only bit I didn’t enjoy. I had gone along looking for good photographs – and there were plenty to be had – but I couldn’t make my horse stand still.  I would rein him in and he would stop but, as soon as I put down the reins to adjust my camera, he would start walking again, anxious to catch up with the horse in front. I checked with the lead rider several times and it seemed I was doing things right – in fact she ended up holding the reins of my horse a couple of times so I could take shot. Usually by the time that happened though, we had already walked past the picture I wanted to capture…

The lunch provided was delicious though; salad and lots of barbequed meat (asado), washed down with beer and wine. After lunch and before the second ride, there were hammocks to relax in that we took full advantage of. I also went for a walk around the ranch buildings and got my best photographs of the horses from the day.

A bonus was we got to share a car with two other English-speaking travellers, Michelle and Simon, she from Vancouver and he from Northampton, who were just at the end of their time in Argentina. They gave us several good tips for things to do and see both here and over in Chile.

We have spent quite a while just wandering the streets too. There’s so much lovely green space and lots of public sculpture and art around to enjoy.

The auditorium, Teatro Colón

The beautiful auditorium of Teatro Colon

On our final day we took a tour of the famous Teatro Colon, which proved just as beautiful inside as out. We got an opportunity to hear the acclaimed acoustic (inasmuch as we could clearly hear the on-stage conversations of the ballet company that were rigging that day…) Next time we visit we’ll make sure to come during a period when something is actually playing in the auditorium!

For our final night, we paid a much-delayed visit to a milonga to watch the locals tango. It wasn’t what I was expecting, but still fascinating to watch. I’ll relate our evening at Milonga Salon Canning in another post.

What’s New, Buenos Aires?

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So, what have we been doing in Buenos Aires?

We’ve done the hop-on/hop-off bus tour with Buenos Aires Bus and all of the paid-for-with-tips tours offered by Buenos Aires Free Walks and enjoyed them all. The local tourist office does a wider variety of free walks, but the one time we turned up for one, the guide hadn’t shown up fifteen minutes past the start time, so we gave up and haven’t gone back. We also did the BBC’s downloadable tour of San Telmo and Montserrat.

One of the many re-purposed neo-French Palaces; the Four Seasons

The Four Seasons Hotel is one of many re-purposed mansions

Buenos Aires is a fascinating city. Its history is relatively short – for most of the colonial period, the area was a bit of a backwater. The land was marshy and there was no gold or silver to be had here, so the Spanish crown didn’t invest resources in exploiting the area. It wasn’t until after independence (1816) that things began to pick up as agriculture came to the fore. By the end of the century Argentina was a thriving state and a lot of the best architecture dates from that period; Buenos Aires is littered with beautiful neoclassical and Belle Époque buildings.

The twentieth century was less kind however. One of our guides claimed Argentina was the only country in the world that ended the twentieth century poorer than it began. I haven’t been able to verify that claim, but it would not surprise me. Recent history seems to be a litany of economic mismanagement and corruption.

One of the more powerful moments exploring the city, was to hear from a tour guide who, as a young man was protesting outside the Casa Rosada in 2001 when the police tear-gassed and fired rubber bullets into the crowd. It’s one thing to learn about Argentine politics from a musical, it’s another to hear from someone who has lived through the more recent vicissitudes!

While the politics is less violent lately, the problems are still apparent. Until recently, inflation was running at forty percent. Everywhere we go, cash is preferred over credit cards. There is a reluctance in government to be seen to admit to the problem of inflation, so they have resisted printing larger currency denominations. Everyone carries around wads of 100 Peso (£5/$6.50) bills. While there is now a 500 Peso note in circulation, we haven’t seen one yet.

For all their economic and political woes, though, porteños are a happy, friendly bunch. With the exception of a pickpocket who made a try for my wallet on the Subte recently, we’ve only met openness and good humour.

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We have also had very good ice cream

The food is living up to expectations. We haven’t gone out of our way to sample the best but everything we’ve come across has been good. Empanadas are cheap and tasty (so long as you buy them from local bakeries.) Argentine pizza is a thing to behold; essentially death-by-mozzarella. The steaks are large and plentiful and the wine is cheap. The only area where I’ve not been impressed is Argentine patisserie. It can be a bit hit-or-miss. Their pastries are pretty good, but there are many bakeries with really fanciful cakes on display. Sadly, of the fanciest ones I’ve sampled, I’ve found them to be more sugar than flavour.

I suppose I should be thankful for that; I ought be eating more healthily.

The other thing I should mention is tango. Buenos Aires is the birthplace and heart of tango and we haven’t really explored it yet. October 25th was our wedding anniversary and we booked a tango show at Café De Los Angelitos as a bit of a special occasion. It was an all-inclusive dinner/show thing. (As it happened, that was a smart move because it included a door-to-door minibus transfer and there was torrential rain that evening!) The food was tasty, the wine was drinkable and plentiful. The show afterwards was spectacular. The band was excellent and the choreography energetic and in places almost balletic, but I still don’t feel like I’ve properly experienced the tango.

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Tango street art in San Telmo

The show was polished and professional but it largely lacked passion, which is supposed to be the core of the tango. I know from my time working in a Spanish resort that the Flamenco you see in a dinner show for the tourists is a pale imitation of what you will find in an old-town Flamenco bar. Tango, like Flamenco, should grip you viscerally. You should respond on an emotional level to a good dancer, because that is the purpose of the dance – to elicit emotion.

We have picked up several tips for nearby milongas (tango bars frequented by the locals, where tourists can go and watch) and we plan to go along to one before we leave town. Whether we’ll have the guts to take any lessons and have a go ourselves remains to be seen.

Our exploration of Buenos Aires continues!

Lacklustre Tourists

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So, we have just completed the first month of the trip and suddenly twelve months doesn’t seem like such a long time. I say that because I don’t feel that we’ve accomplished a lot in this first month. The first two weeks were always intended to be light on action, but the thinking was that we’d come out from that period energised and raring to get on with exploring the world.

The reality is that two weeks of doing nothing meant we hit Buenos Aires cold and spent a while fumbling for what to do. I’d imagined us alternating between days of tourist stuff and days of doing non-touristy things. At the moment though, we seem to be quite lacklustre tourists, preferring to spend more of our time on the “non-touristy things.” To a degree that worries me; at the back of mind the question is nagging, “Have we really come all this way just to spend the year surfing Facebook??” At the same time, though, a lot of what we’re doing is necessary foundation-laying for the future. (We are not actually spending all our time on Facebook!) So, I’m trying to be relaxed and just let things happen as they will.

It doesn’t help that I am still feeling quite introverted; I don’t really want to go out and meet the locals, I just want to be left alone to do my own thing. To what end? I don’t know. I just know that I don’t want to have to engage with people just yet and that is tempering my desire to explore the culture. I am sure that I will eventually unwind, so it’s best to let that happen in its own time.

However, my frame of mind has been hampering my writing. You may have noticed the scarcity of posts since we left the UK to start “our great adventure.” It’s not because we haven’t been doing things of interest, I just haven’t been able to write them down in any fashion I like enough to publish.

Now I’ve spotted that issue, however, analysing it is helping me find a solution. I think I am my own worst critic and just need to get over it. I’ve read too many blog posts by extremely experienced travel writers and compare my own output harshly. I need to do less of that and just write in my own style, regardless of the flaws which I know are there. The only way to become an experienced travel writer is to travel and write a lot. I keep reminding myself of our site’s moniker; Just Go Do It.

On the plus side, though, I seem to have found my mojo as a photographer again. I’m loving the visual opportunities that Buenos Aires presents; it’s big, colourful and dramatic in many ways and I’ve been enjoying capturing aspects of that as we go around.

I need to get my act together about publishing the bulk of the pictures though. My previous gallery of choice was Google’s Picasa Web, but that has been discontinued and the Google Photos replacement is not much to my liking. I need to work out if my Flickr account will serve, or if I need to find a different service. (Advice welcome in the comments on that front!)

On a side note, I am having a bit of a love/hate relationship with Instagram. It’s a great medium for both discovering and showcasing images, but there’s such a lot of obvious “farming” of Likes and Followers. It undermines the credibility of the platform. I am steering clear of that as much as I can, while engaging with the people who follow me and those whose work I genuinely like and follow. There are some great photographers and storytellers out there.

So, that’s what’s on my mind at the moment. Good photography and a bit of uncertainty and self-doubt, but all happening in a very picturesque location.

And speaking of the picturesque location, what have we been doing here on the days when we are not lazing around our apartment, surfing the web…?

I’ll write about that in the next post.