Capybara, waterfalls and socks!

20 09 2008

We headed straight from the thermal pools in Salto across the border into Concordia. There isn’t much to do here, however the next day we planned to go for a hike in the nearby Parque Nacional El Palmer. This 85km square park was set up in 1966 to conserve examples of the Yatay Palm, which once covered large areas of Entre Rios, Uruguay and Southern Brazil. However intense cultivation of the region almost wiped out the palm and the park is now the largest remaining reserve of the palm. Some of the Palms are over 300 years old and grow up to 18 metres high!

After a restless sleep having been kept awake by the local students who were rioting to celebrate end of exams (lots of banging of drums, whistles, chanting etc) we headed off early on the 20 minute bus ride to the edge of the park. From here it was a 35 km walk along a dirt road to the start of the trails, and also the park museum. We decided to attempt to hitchhike… I know what you´re thinking but suffice to say we had learnt our lesson and ran a background, psychological and breath test on every car. We were in luck and managed to get a lift with a lovely couple. The husband in fact worked for the National Parks and was full of information on where to visit and where best to see the wildlife. Taking him up on his tips we decided to head down the first trail to where the river was – it was here that we would supposedly find what we had come to see… A Capybara!

This is in fact Claire and I´s new favourite animal. For those that don´t know, they are semi aquatic mammals that look like giant guinea pigs! (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Capybara) They are very docile and spend a lot of time lazing around in the river. Heading down the dirt trail, trying not to talk or make any noise we scoured the undergrowth around us, after an hour of walking though we had seen nothing. We decided to leave the path and head in to the dense vegetation in hope that might be more fruitful. Edging slowly forward, branches catching our clothes and hair we continued our search for the elusive Capybara… after twenty minutes I turned around to discover I had lost the other three and was now going solo. Heading on for another ten minutes I suddenly heard a loud snorting noise and saw a flash of reddish brown. Rounding the next tree I saw what I had come to see, before me were two Capybara. I attempted to creep forward to get a better look but before I knew they were off, literally throwing themselves off the five foot drop into the river below, leaving nothing apart from some ears and a snout above the water. Heading back to the main path I came across the others: telling them what I had seen they headed off in same direction. Luck was on our side and we all managed to get a good look at the numerous Capybara that lived alongside the river. We continued the trek around the park, enjoying the sunshine and exhausting pop culture with multiple games of twenty questions. We attempted to find more Capybara yet saw nothing but droppings, however we headed back out of the park (again hitchhiking) with smiles on our faces.

The next day we headed to Mercedes, from here we hoped to book a trip to The Reserva Natural del Ibera. The Reserva covers over 13,000 square kilometres, and is a series of lakes, marshes and wonderful floating islands, and has some of the best opportunities to see some of Argentina´s wildlife up close. We managed to get a good deal and rather than catch a bus up the 80km dirt track to the park the owner of where we had booked to stay agreed to come and pick us up in his 4×4. I´m very glad he did as the road was incredibly potholed and rough. The place we stayed was lovely, it had a large garden, an outdoor kitchen and a wooden walk way that led down to an amazing view over the esteros (marsh) We spent most of the first afternoon lounging around and reading in the sunshine before heading off on a walk. On the walk we saw an abundance of wildlife – first of all we came across several Capybara walking around. They were incredibly use to humans which meant we could walk right up to them which was very cool. Following our guide we headed into the woodland. He pointed out a number of monkey cups, which are large leaves that collect rain and which the local howler monkeys use to drink out of. After five minutes walk we suddenly stopped and there above us were three howler monkeys in the trees. The Howler monkey is the largest land animal and can be heard over 3 miles away! (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Howler_monkey) Continuing our walk we came across 2 deers and a many more Capybara!

The next day we took a boat ride across the Esteros where we were promised that we would see Cayman Crocodile. If the walk was anything to go by there would be no shortage of sightings, and true to form the boat ride proved no different. Expertly manoeuvring the small boat using a pole, we were treated to Crocodiles galore. Everywhere we looked we saw their beady eyes staring back at us. As it was during the day most simply lay in the sunshine, not moving a muscle, yet their eyes followed our every movement. Growing up to a average of eight feet, they live on a diet of fish and baby capybara. The trip was made slightly more nerve racking by that fact that a overly large American gentleman had joined the four of us for the trip. Our guide spent a long time positioning the five of us so we would balance out our tiny boat… I just prayed the crocodiles would realise that he would make more of a meal in the event of capsizing. Again luck was on our side and we made it back to dry land with all our limbs intact. Before dinner, we decided to go on the walk again to see if we could see any more Howler monkeys, after over an hour with no luck we were about to head back when suddenly above our heads the branches began to move and there appeared two large monkeys with a baby in tow. For ages we watched them play in the trees, their agile limbs reaching from branch to branch, using their tails to pull themselves up and cling on. It was an amazing end to our time in the reserve.

The next day we headed to Corrientes to catch our bus to Puerto Iguazu. Corrientes is nice enough to walk around and we enjoyed lunch by the river before catching our 18 hour bus to Iguazu. Composed of over 250 separate falls and straddling the Argentina-Brazil border, the Iguazu falls are quite simply the world´s most dramatic falls. “Their name comes from the Guarani or Tupi words y (IPA:[ɨ]) (water) and ûasú (IPA:[wa’su]) (big). Legend has it that a god planned to marry a beautiful aborigine named Naipí, who fled with her mortal lover Tarobá in a canoe. In rage, the god sliced the river creating the waterfalls, condemning the lovers to an eternal fall.” Surrounded by lush subtropical forests, packed full of exotic animals and insects, the falls are a definite must see on any trip to South America! (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Iguazu_Falls)

A word of warning when staying in Puerto Iguazu, don´t stay at Hostel Uno. We attempted to check in here, having confirmed via email, and were told to wait whilst our rooms were prepared. After 3 hours we were told that we would have to pay more for different rooms than we had reserved. When we questioned this, the arrogant owner told us to “take it or leave it, I don’t care either way”. So we left it, and took our money across the road to a lovely family run B&B. (Residencial Noellia). With the afternoon left we decided to head to the Brazilian side of the waterfalls first.

The vast majority of the falls lie on the Argentine side of the border, however the best overall view of the falls can be seen from the Brazilian side. To get there though we first needed to get across the border. This journey consists of two buses – one to the border where you get you passport stamped as you enter Brazil, then you have to walk ten minutes to catch the next bus in Brazil that takes you to the falls. Once at the entrance to the national park there is a stairway that leads down to a one and a half kilometre walk down to the viewpoint. Everywhere you look butterflies fill the air – some as big as your hands! They are the most amazing colours and have such intricate patterns on their wings. On top of that, every couple of metres we had to stop to take photos of the glimpses of the falls, the further we walked the more magnificent they became. Finally we reached the bottom and walked out on to the walkway that runs along the front of the falls. The noise and spray were fantastic, the spray causing huge rainbows that added to the immense view that we beheld in front of us. Photos do not do it justice. We sat at ate our lunch overlooking the falls, trying to take it all in; not a bad life at all!

That night, as the hostel didn´t have a kitchen, we decided to attempt to use the pararilla (argentine bbq/grill). After setting up the coals, and with a little help from the owner, we had fire! Getting the meat ready and veggies (Robin is a vegetarian – in the land of the steak!) we anxiously waited for the flames to die down before the lowering the grill and getting our dinner on the go! Despite taking a while, it was more than worth it! We had steak, potatoes, butternut squash, peppers, mushrooms and plenty of malbec! Suffice to say we slept well that night!

The next day we decided to head to Paraguay – for one simple reason – cheap electronics! Ciudad del Este lies just across the border and is a cornucopia of electronics, perfume and socks! Everyone we had spoken to had warned us that it could be dangerous and to make sure that we left before 5pm, so we headed off nice and early, shopping list in hand (a pair of earphone, memory card and batteries) with the plan to get in and out before lunch. The moment we got off the bus at the border we were hit by the noise; after two weeks of exploring the national parks and the falls it was an attack on the senses to say the least. Either side of the road were shops, with every owner hassling you to purchase their goods. The road itself was full of market stalls and street vendors. You couldn’t walk without someone shoving an electric shaver, perfume or flyer in your face. However we knew what we wanted and how much we were prepared to pay and we set off to find it. Seventy percent of the goods are fakes, but for the amount you pay you take the risk. Considering the goods are fake, the security was particularly heavy. Every shop had at least one security guard, each one brandishing a shotgun and cartridges across their chest. We weren´t taking any chances! After much haggling we had what we wanted, and had no desire to hang around so we headed back the bus. Unfortunately for us, the buses were as reliable as in Uruguay, so we ended up waiting in the sweltering heat for over two hours! Thank goodness the earphones and memory card are still working now, the trip was not in vain!

The following day we headed back to the falls, this time to the Argentine side. Whereas the Brazilian side offers the best overall view of the falls, the Argentine side without a doubt offers the most extensive experience of the falls. Numerous walkways and viewpoints provide you the opportunity to view the falls from numerous angles and the chance to get right up close to it. We first decided to take a separate walk that promised an opportunity to see some of the wildlife the park has to offer – the thing we most wanted to see was a toucan! Half way down the trail we came across a large party of twitchers – these guys were the real deal. They had laser pointers, telescopes and one guy even had an ipod rigged up to speakers on his chest, that projected the bird´s call! We asked them about toucans but they replied they were more interesting in the brown billed something or other… each to their own!

At the end of the trail, and still no toucans, we came across a mini waterfall; it had begun to heat up by this time, so Robin and I couldn’t resist stripping off and going for a swim. The water was ice cold but worth it, if not for the chance to pose under the waterfall! The ladies loved it… Heading back along the trail to go and see the falls, we suddenly heard what sounded like a boar or pig in the woods – a loud guttural noise. Looking around we saw nothing, then Claire suddenly started pointing up at the tree. Looking up we saw a glimpse of orange – the toucans beak! We watched it for a while before it took flight and flew away – its sunset orange beak gleaming in the sun.

We decided to visit the section of the falls named the Garganta Del Diablo first. To get there you need to take a small train through the park, before walking down a long walkway that branches out over the water to the falls themselves. The only problem with the Argentinian side is that it is very touristy. Numerous fast food joints and souvenir shops are dotted around the park, and once off the train you are herded down the walkway like cattle. That said, the immense views more than make up for it. The Garganta del Diablo was the highlight of the whole thing – at the end of the walkway is a small viewing platform that hangs over the edge of the top of a section of the falls where several immensely powerful falls combine – a powerhouse display of natural forces in which 1800 cubic metres of water per second hurtles over a 3km semi circle of rock into the boiling canyon below. Tiny birds dart in and out of the falls to their nests behind and the refreshing spray fills the air and soaks you to the skin. Everyone of your senses is employed in an attempt to try and take in the truly breathtaking scene.

There are a number of other paths that take you to different sections of the falls. The best of these is the Paseo Inferior which winds down through the forest before taking you right below some of the smaller but equally beautiful falls. There is also a small regular boat service that takes you across to Isla San Martin – a rocky island in the middle of the river below the falls that allows you to see the falls from the bottom from a number of angles. On the way back to the main centre we took the Paseo Superior, which takes you along the top of the falls. The highlight of this walk was the large number of monkeys playing in the trees. We watched them for ages, the falls providing a perfect backdrop to an already amazing sight!

The next day it was finally time to bid our farewells to Robin and Emma and head solo on the 20 hour bus journey to Cordoba. The bus system in Argentina is such an easy and effective way of getting around. There is no train system in Argentina and it is very difficult to rent or buy a car. With the buses, not only can you travel large distances very easily, you also save on a nights accommodation. The companies offer you the option of cama or semi cama, the difference being how far the seat reclines, then you have legs rests on top to create a semi decent bed, comfortable enough to get some shut eye before arriving in a completely new place! On some buses you also get dinner – a bonus to any backpacker to get some free food! On one bus however not so much of a bonus, as the dinner they offered (in keeping with the Argentine tradition of making everything sweet) was swiss roll filled with ham and cheese…

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