Buenos Aires to Bonito

My Dragoman Overland trip was deemed to have started on Saturday, November 15 when myself and 19 other adventure seekers checked into a centrally located tourist class hotel in Buenos Aires. I wrote briefly about the first two days of the trip in my account of Saturday #20.

The actual overland portion of the trip began on Monday, November 17 with a full day drive from Buenos Aires to Concordia, Argentina where we camped just outside town. Setting up the tents and getting dinner on the table went smoothly and I had plenty of time to walk into town to buy four large bottles of beer before sunset. I shared the beer, by the way.

An old man and several teenage boys approached the campsite on horseback, presumably to check out our truck, but they were too timid to come closer than about 50 meters. Hundreds of tiny frogs, several massive toads, one lizard and one mangy dog were a little more forward. Together we watched the sunset from the banks of the glassy-smooth Uruguay River. The combined light of the moon, stars, and the odd firefly meant that we easily found our tents which were spread throughout an orchard.

As I lay awake in the tent, the rhythmic beat of tribal drumming could be heard in the distance. I’d like to think it was a tribe of undiscovered savages but in reality I think it came from a community center we passed on the way to the campsite. Either way, falling asleep to distant drumming is better than any iPod playlist.

On second day, Tuesday, November 18, we had a morning tour of the ruins of a Jesuit Mission known as San Ignacio de Mini. After preparing lunch in the town park, we set off on a 230 km drive to Puerto Igauzu, Brazil. We were supposed to camp on the grounds of a hostel but since there was room for all of us to upgrade to four-person dorms, we spent some money from the kitty and had two nights in relative comfort. I say “relative comfort” as the light switch didn’t work in my bungalow and two of the four guys in the upper level room were unaware that we were sharing a single key. This resulted in two people being forced to sleep on the truck. They weren’t happy campers in the morning and I can’t say that I blame them. Sorry, guys.

The facilities at Hostel Inn Igauzu were phenomenal. We had access to a laundry service, tour agency, slow but free wi-fi, desktop computers, table tennis, foosball, pool tables and a gorgeous outdoor pool that would put many three star hotels to shame. I don’t know what Dragoman paid for us to stay there but any traveler with a backpack could check-in for the equivalent of $14 CDN per night. Beer was about $2 and a three-course prix-fixe dinner would set you back about six bucks. Breakfasts were free. A trip into town on a modern, air-conditioned bus was less than $1 each way and a real bargain even if the ATMs in town didn’t work for most of us. At these prices, who needs an ATM more often than once every few weeks?

We spent two nights on the Argentinean side of the falls. On Wednesday, November 19 we drove the truck to a rendezvous point and set off on a moderate hike through jungle-like vegetation. After about 30 minutes on the trail we caught our first glimpse of the falls. Most of my group was left speechless.

When Eleanor Roosevelt visited the falls many years ago, she could muster only two words: “Poor Niagara.” These days, I think “Niagara on Viagra” is fitting. The infrastructure around the falls is first rate yet pristine views still await the photographer. Unlike Niagara, there are no casinos, wax museums, hotels or IHOPs to clutter the background. I can see why this was voted one of the ‘New 7 Natural Wonders of Nature’ in a 2011 online poll in which over 100 million votes were cast.

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Some of us wrapped up a very warm day with a “refreshing” boat ride to the base of the falls. You might get a bit damp on Niagara’s Maid of the Mist but here you get totally and thoroughly drenched by surprisingly cold water. Some people screamed so hard and so long that large gulps of water were swallowed. Names will not be named. The video has been destroyed. End of story.

On Thursday, November 20 we crossed the border to Brazil. Canadians require a tourist visa to enter Brazil – this being the subject of a story I will recount once I have safely exited Brazil – but there were no hitches at the border and our group of 20 was processed in 30 minutes. We arrived at the rural Hostel Paudimar around noon, which was earlier than expected due to the good-natured border officials, several of which were more interested in a televised game show than asking us questions. Thanks, boys.

I had never heard of a ‘coati’ before arriving in Argentina but these little critters are very plentiful on both sides of the falls. They look cute enough but they are conniving little buggers and they’ll fight to get what they want. One girl in our group was sitting at a picnic table with an unopened Kit-Kat bar. She dropped the bar and backed away as you are told to do when a coati approaches aggressively. The coati grabbed the bar and ran a safe distance away before sitting down and methodically opening the package with both ‘hands’, then eating the bar and licking the wrapper clean. Here a coati sneaks up on an unsuspecting woman who likely has a snack in that backpack.

The price of the Dragoman trip includes a campsite fee of 25 Real ($11 CDN) per person, per night. This can be used as a credit against the price of upgrading to a hostel when beds are available. I happily paid the upgrade fee of 10 Real ($4.50 CDN) for a bed in a 6-bed dorm. As luck would have it, most of the people on my trip are seeking the full “camping” experience, so I had the room to myself. I will have many nights over the next 20 months when camping is the only option so for now I will take a decent bed, electricity, air conditioning and dry sheets when available.

After lunch I rounded up four others from the Dragoman group (a married couple from Italy and two sisters from Denmark) and we split the cost of a cab to the Itaipu Dam. It was a 30 minute drive each way but driver waited outside while we explored the visitor center, so in total we had the use of car and driver for 4-1/2 hours at a cost of $60 or $12 per person. At the visitor center we watched a short film that would surely have won the Academy Award for Best Government Propaganda, followed by a 90-minute bus tour. Itaipu is jointly owned by Brazil and Paraguay and sits on what is now independent territory between the two countries. They are very proud of the fact that it’s run co-operatively and “Brazilians and Paraguayans work side-by-side.”

Itaipu is billed as the largest hydroelectric dam in the World. It’s not the longest or tallest dam in the World, but since it produces more energy than China’s Three Gorges Dam, the “Worlds Largest” claim is technically correct. Whether it’s the largest or not, It’s definitely impressive.

The full-size tour bus in the above photo will give you an idea of the dam’s immense size.

On Friday, November 21 we had a full day to visit the falls from the Brazilian side. While the view from Argentina was stunning, the view from Brazil put the “zing” in amazing. The Brazilian infrastructure was also first rate, including elevators to the base of the falls and a walkway out over the river. Everyone in my group elected to take the trail down to the base of the falls and back up again. With hundreds of stone steps along the way, it was a nice workout before getting back on the bus for one very long ride.

On Saturday, November 22 we left Hostel Paudimar at 6 a.m. and set out for Bonita, some 850 kilometers to the northwest. That drive warrants its own blog post so check back in a few days for an account of Saturday #21.

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