Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Upon leaving the relaxing setting of Cafayate we hopped a bus back to Salta, from where we would make a connection to Puerto Iguazu for a look at some of the most impressive waterfalls in the world. After a four-hour bus ride we arrived back in Salta and decided to head back to the hostel we had stayed at on our earlier visit to the city. Unfortunately it was full. The man at reception suggested a couple of other budget options...which were also full. We ended up walking around to half a dozen hostels before finding one with a room at a fair price.

In order to break up the 19-hour bus ride, just a bit, we chose to stop in San Ignacio, home to some of the most well-preserved Jesuit missions in South America. Settled in 1696, the Jesuits left the mission in 1768 after begin expelled. Although the mission was destroyed in the early 19th century it remained lost in dense vegetation for nearly a century, and restoration began some 40 years later. The UNESCO World Heritage Site is now the second-most visited place in Northeast Argentina, seriously lagging behind Iguazu Falls.

The place was quite impressive, built from local red sandstone. Equally as interesting, however, were the principles upon which the Mission was founded. Of course the Jesuits were imposing their religion on the indigenous Guarinis, but they also offered a sort of Utopia as well. The missionaries offered security, medicine and also allowed the Guarinins to keep some of their traditions...as long as they didn´t interfere with the belief in their new (Christian) God.

The next day we waited along the side of the road, and waved down a bus to Iguazu...with the assistance of a very friendly local man from the tourist office. Upon arriving in Iguazu we stopped at a booth in the bus station offering double rooms for about $25 USD, nearly double what we paid in Cafayate. Nonetheless, it seemed like one of the cheaper options so we started walking for Resedencial Uno. Although the room was rather uminpressive we decided to stay. That may have been a mistake. Quite frankly, the joint was a dump.

There was constant construction, with hammers pounding on the floor above us until 10pm. The circuit breaker for our room cut out multiple times, including twice while Heidi was showering, leaving in her in the dark with no hot water. The bed was a little gross, and Heidi woke up the first morning with bites all over her midsection. (Although I am relatively sure it was not bedbugs, I´m still a little suspicious.) The TV room smelled like dog, with common room couches covered in animal hair. The day we decided to watch a movie the power to the TV went out, as too much power was being used elsewhere in the hostel. Oh, and breakfast consisted of bread, tea, and Tang-like juice. But, we came for the falls and not the hostel...

Iguazu Falls consists of 275 separate falls over an expanse of nearly 2 miles. Local legend has it that a god planned to marry a beautiful mortal woman. When she fled with her mortal lover in a canoe the god sliced the river in two, condemning the couple to an eternal fall. Although not quite an eternal drop, some of the falls descend quite a bit...up to 270 feet. While the falls can be visited from both Argentina and Brazil, 2/3 of them are in Argentina. (This was good for us, because crossing into Brazil would have run $100/pp for visas.)

We paid the "special" price for foreigners (about $22 USD) after a 10-minute wait in line. Regardless, the spectacle is well worth the price of admission. There are a handful of different trails on the Argentine side. We started off with the Circuito Superior, or Upper Circuit. This walk provided panoramic views of the falls from the Upper Iguazu River. Next we hit up the Circuito Inferior, which take you much closer to some of the same falls as the Upper Circuit, however from much lower, allowing you to cool off a bit in their misty expanse. After eating our packed lunch we headed for the highlight of the day: Garganta del Diablo (aka The Devil´s Throat.)

On this walk you follow a series of catwalks across the river, just feet away from an older collection of catwalks which remain in the water after being destroyed during a flood less than 20 years ago. The entire time you can hear the thunderous rushing of thousands of gallons of water, however the water all around you is only moving slightly fast. Finally, you are there: looking right down into a gigantic U-shaped waterfall that is too impressive for words. The rainbow-laden mist created by such a mass of falling water makes it impossible to see the bottom. Across this enrmous falls one can eye the catwalks of the Brazilian side as well. It was certainly a spectacular natual wonder, and should not be missed on a visit to this region of South America.
We rounded off our trip to Puerto Iguazu with a walk, the following day, to Hito Tres Fronteras
where the borders of Brazil Argentina and Paraguay converge. Honestly, it´s nothing spectacular to see...but kind of cool to realize that you are only a stone´s throw away from two other countries. Each country is marked by an obelisk painted the same colors as its flag, making it easy for visistors across the river to differentiate which country they are looking at.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Cafayate: The Land of Enchantment

After crossing the border in to Argentina, where we had our bags thoroughly searched by customs agents, we stopped no less than three more times for inspections. At some of the checkpoints we had to produce our documents and answer questions about our business in Argentina. At all of the stops someone inspected at least some portion of our luggage as well, both by hand and with drug-sniffing dogs. I wonder if Argentine officials are as dilgent at every border crossing, or if they take special care at all Bolivian crossings, due to the country´s notorious reputation as one of the prime cocaine manufacturers. After a total of about 18 hours on the bus we arrived in Guemes, about an hour away from our ultimate destination of Salta. We hopped another, much less comfortable, bus and made our way to Salta.

We spent three days in Salta but didn´t do anything of great import, as we were trying to pinch a few pennies, so that we could splurge a but in Cafayate, our next stop. Salta is a very European feeling town, with a lovely central plaza and a circus-like atmosphere along the pedestrian walkways after 9pm. Nearly all stores shut down in the mid-afternoon for the seemingly mandatory siesta. And a number of eateries don´t even re-open their doors until 9pm! That made finding a place to get our grub on at 8pm a little more complicated than expected.

After three nondescript days we were off to Cafayate. We had checked out hostels online and they all ran around $30/night for the two of us, which was a large chunk of our (combined) daily budget of $70. So, we decided to check out the other options in town and go with one of the onine hostels if nothing better presented itself. Well, as soon as we stepped off the bus we were nearly accosted by folks trying to get us to stay at their lodgings. We grabbed a few pamphlets, without committing to any and made our way to the two cheapest to check them out. The first was not quite as advertised and we decided to check on the next place, despite an enticing $12.50/night cost. The second place was a family´s home with an addition and three extra bedrooms for tourists. The rooms were all fairly new with nice private bathrooms. The joint also had a kitchen and laundry tub, so we booked a room for a pleasant $15/night. (Later I came to notice the other two, occupied, rooms had a TV and cable, which ours lacked. This was slightly disappointing but a TV probably would have kept us away from the good stuff the town has to offer.)

Cafayate is known for its wineries...and they certainly abound in this town. We have visited four of them, over a few days, getting tastings at every one: Domingo Hermanos, Bodega Nanni, El Transito and Bodega Etchart. All of them produce Malbec/Cabarnet Sauvignon (red) and Torrontes (white) wines. Heidi and I both enjoyed Bodega Etchart the most, which had an informative, bi-lingual, tour and a tasting of four lovely tasting wines. We even had a group of school children watching us taste the wines. (Quite the interesting field trip, if I do say so myself.) The late harvest Torrontes has a higher concentration of sugars and I love the sweetness thereof.

Argentina is also known for its beef, so Heidi and I split a steak one night (and half a pizza, all in order to save a few pesos.) It was pretty darn tasty, despite the fact that the waitress tried to jack us for an extra ten pesos! Also, as we were sitting there, a bohemian artist came by, trying to sell us some of his handmade jewelry. We declined, only to have him come back at the end of our meal and start making something out of wire, with Heidi´s name on it. I should have protested immediately, but instead got husteld for $5 after a quick show. (I did try to haggle the price, so he handed me his wire and pliers, insisting I do the same with his name.) I guess Heidi did get a nice little personalized photo holder out of the deal, so it´s not all bad.

On another day we took a hike to some hidden waterfalls, which we were told is a beautiful walk. After taking a taxi out to the start of the trail a young Argentine boy offered to guide us, to the tune of about $7.50 USD. I figured we could get there on our own, and turned him down. Luckily, some young girls pointed us in the right direction as I started leading Heidi and I the complete wrong direction. About 40 minutes into the walk Heidi began voicing some concerns about my navigation skills, but I insisted all we had to do was follow the river and it would be all gravy. She still wasn´t comfortable. I stated that if we stayed put a group of tourists would most certainly come by with a guide...and in about 5 minutes one did, to her relief. We continued the trek with the group within eyesight the entire time, until we stopped for lunch and they passed us by. But we made it to our ultimate destination after about three hours: a beautiful waterfall with frigid ice cold water. We had packed our swim gear, so we found a cove and changed, while the other tourists (with the guide) just took in the beauty and scenery. As I stepped into the water I began to second-guess our decision to wade in the waters. It was straight up freezing!!! Nonetheless, I waded to about waist deep before getting out. On a second attempt I made it under the falls. It was refreshing, I guess, but I couldn´t wait to get out and avoid hypothermia. The walk back took another 3 hours and we were both pretty beat up by the time we got to where our taxi dropped us off. Unfortunately, no taxis were around and we had to hike another 3 miles back into town. It was an exhausting day!

The next day we took a very scenic horseback ride through the desert. It really was fun, and Heidi particularly enjoyed it...but three hours on horseback does not happen without consequences. My but is pretty darn sore today, as I type this. That being said, I did have a good time and it beat any sort of trail ride I have ever been on. And, considering it was just the two of us and our guide, it was pretty special.

Friday, October 15, 2010

Inca Ruins, Natural Beauty & Che´s Final Days

After leaving the refuge and spending a couple of days in the relatively modern town of Santa Cruz, Heidi and I headed off to Samaipata, Bolivia, a relatively sleepy town catering to tourists looking to visit any of the surrounding places of natural beauty. After a 3 hour ride on horrible roads in a cramped mini-van we found a modest little hotel for about $10/night.

Since it was still early in the afternoon we decided to hire a cab to take us to El Fuerte, an archaeological and UNESCO World Heritage site about 10 km outside of town. Although the ruins of an ancient Inca settlement are nestled around the main site, it is believed to pre-date that culture, having been constructed by the Chanes people for religious purposes. The main part of the site is a gigantic sandstone rock covered with various carvings, including animals and many other items. A History Channel series on ancient aliens gave some credence to the theory that the sandstone was once an alien launching pad. Anyways, we walked around for about an hour before heading back into town.

Our next goals were to take a guided nature hike through some part of a forest and to follow the Ruta del Che, a tourist trail following the final days of Ernesto "Che" Guevara´s life, and dream of leading a continent-wide revolution against Yankee Imperialism. After speaking with a couple of tour guides we decided to go with an outift called Roadrunner´s (for our hike), owned by a couple of friendly European chaps who loved Samaipata so much they decided to call it home. (Incidentally, one of them told us his house and land cost $65k USD and would have cost well over €1 million back in his home of the Netherlands.) For about $20/pp we were taken on a half-day hike with a four other tourists through El Refugio Los Volcanes, part of Amboro National Park with beautiful sandstone formations, but no volcanoes. (They also offered a tour on the Ruta del Che, however it was about $300/pp for a three-day tour...and that was way over our budget. Instead, we got free advice from them on how to do the tour ourselves!)

Our tour through El Refugio Los Volcanes started at the fancy Laguna Volcan Hotel and Golf "Eco" Resort. It´s a beautiful little resort which has bankrupted two previous owners, despite the land having only cost $1,000! Now it´s owned by a European consortium of millionaires as a pet project which will never realize a profit. (Inbcidentally, we learned that the "eco" in Bolivia just means the resort is in a natural setting, but there is no real concern for the surrounding ecosystem. For example, golf balls are launched from the driving range into the lagoon, since the splash allows you to better spot how far the ball flew.) Anyways, our guide Martin just took us to the resort as a jumping off point for our hike along the edges of Amboro and then along the Rio Colorado.

Along the tour we had some beautiful scenery and lovely views. While we spotted very little wildlife our guide was extremely interesting, showing us different plant life and explaining myriad things along the way. For example, Amboro is largely unexplored with many undocumented animals and bugs. (A new species of monkey was discovered there only two years ago.) Moreover, this remote part of the park has only been crossed once, and it took 20 days to hike across just over 40 miles of wilderness! We stopped along the river twice for some quick dips to cool off, before making our way back to our waiting car. The entire hike took about 5 hours and was great...with the exception of Heidi rolling her ankle four times.

There are a number of Westerners who have set up shop in Samaipata, either to operate tour outfits, or to feed the hungry tourists. As such, the gastronomic choices were much better in this quiet hamlet than in many major cities we have visited thus far. The Crazy Cow and Tierra Libre are two such restaurants, offering up excellent fare, including healthier options than your typical fried chicken with rice and potato chips, which can be found on nearly every corner in Bolivia.

From Samaipata we wanted to get to Vallegrande, in order to start following the Ruta del Che. Our first goal: wave down a bus to pick us up. We waited on the side of the road and the first bus stopped when we waved. As a number of passengers got off to urinate on the side of the road we paid our fare and hopped on the rickety, and slow moving, bus. Huge bags of rice lined the aisle, forcing half of the passengers to walk over them in order to get to their seats. The bus stopped one more time, for a lunch break, before rumbling into Vallegrande.

We arrived in Vallegrande on October 9, exactly 43 years to the day that Che Guevara was executed in the nearby village of La Higuera. As such, a number of people with Che gear were milling about, including about 50 men on motorcycles, no doubt as an homage to the fallen revolutionary hero. We checked into another modest place, running just under $9/night. After shedding our gear we headed to the main square, where we checked out a sparsely adorned, yet extremely informational, museum about Che, and booked a tour for the following day, which included sites in La Higuera and Vallegrande. (Incidentally, the tour was about 20% of the cost of the one quoted in Samaipata, covering the same historic places but not including food or lodging.)

After grabbing a salteña and some freshly made juice at the local market we met with our guide at 8am. He explained that we´d be meeting a different guide after a 2-hour taxi ride to La Higuera. Well, we never got a guide but our taxi driver was extremely nice and made some stops along the route for Che-related photos, including a natural rock formation known as the Beret of Che and at a vantage point not far from where Guevara was captured by Bolivian forces.

Guevara chose Bolivia to start his South American revolution because it was relatively centrally located on the continent. There he and 51 others began setting up base somewhere outside of Vallegrande. When a group of revolutionaries asked a local man to advise them where they could find clean water their fate was sealed, as the local informed the CIA-advised Bolivian forces and 1,800 troops were called in to ambush the guerillas the following day. Guevara was wounded and captured and taken into the schoolhouse of La Higuera, where he remained until October 9, 1967 when he was executed. Today the schoolhouse stands as a museum to the man, and an homage to the revolutionary ideals which he represented.

After La Higuera we headed back to Vallegrande, where Guevara´s lifeless body was taken via helicopter following his execution. His body was taken to the laundry building of the Señora de Malta hospital, where it was washed and later displayed to the world press...prior to his hands being severed and flown elsewhere for purposes of fingerprinting. (The launsry room stands today as a place of pilgrimage for those who idolized the man and, more importantly, what he represented.) His body, and those of 6 other guerillas killed, were then buried in a mass grave, to be lost for decades.

In the mid-90´s American author and historian Jon Lee Anderson published a book, with an account from a Bolivian soldier, stating that Guevara was buried somewhere near the Vallegrande airstrip. This led to a two-year long search, ending in the discovery of the mass grave in 1997. The legendary icon would then be moved, along with his 6 comrades, into a nearby mausoleum. This was the last stop on our tour along the Ruta del Che.

Today three of the guerillas who fought alongside Guevara are still alive, one in France and two in Chile. Despite the majority of those in the movement having met a violent death, the ideals of Che live on today in the hearts and minds of people all over the world...

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Life with the Monkeys

After a six hour bus ride our driver dropped us off on the side of the road, right across from our destination: Inti Wara Yassi´s Parque Machia. The animal refuge is located just on the outskirts of the sleepy town of Villa Tunari, which once overtly prospered from the numerous cocaine production facilities in the nearby jungle...and was also the site of a CIA-backed massacre of 28 coca growers from the area in 1988. But, we had sought the village for different reasons altogether: two weeks of volunteering with some rescued animals.

We arrived early in the afternoon and were informed that a tour would take place around 5pm, so we crossed the rather dangerous Rio Espiritu Santo Bridge in order to get some grub and work clothes in the village. We had a nice meal and spent nearly an hour rummaging through second-hand clothes which we´d use for our daily chores at the park. I ended up with some women´s elastic-band linen pants and a blue dress shirt, while Heidi got some pants which still had the tags from Marshall´s and a pretty pink Liz Claiborne shirt.

The tour took us through monkey quarantine, the bird area, the kitchen, clinic, cafe and other essential places. We did not get to see any of the large cats or Balu, the giant bear. (The cats are stictly off-limits to anyone not assigned to their care. I did end up seeing Balu later on in my time there, but never had my camera in-hand at the time.) After the tour we were assigned our jobs and asked to pay up. I was assigned to Monkey Park, Heidi got the clinic and Emily (a French woman who arrived the same day) got monkey quarantine. We were all pleased with our new duties and made our way to our hostel: Copa.

The hostel was a dump, to say the least. Ants were crawling around in our shower, the door to our room was "secured" with a janky little loop for a padlock, our pillows were soiled and stinky and the screens on the windows were full of giant holes, big enough for entire mosquito colonies. The crazy thing is we were told, by other volunteers, that we had the NICE room, complete with an ensuite shower...that didn´t catch on fire occasionally like the other one.

We had dinner with about 10 other volunteers at Jazmin´s, one of the more popular eateries for the volunteers in town. Heidi and I had a Hawaiian Pizza, which was complete with ham, canned fruit cocktail (minus the juice) and LOTS of cheese. We had a nice conversation with a couple of the volunteers, including a lovely British couple that had arrived only four days earlier. Stan had been jumped by Roy, his puma, earlier in the day and was still visibly shaken.

The next morning our jobs as endentured slaves began. We got to the Inti Wara Yassi (IWY) cafe just before 7am and ordered some scrambled eggs. After about 20 minutes I was off to work with Renaldo, a Bolivian in his mid-twenties who has been at the park for about two years. We carried two large plastic barrels of food up to Monkey Park and so the day began.

Monkey Park is really just a park for capuchin monkeys. The refuge also houses Spider Monkeys, but they stay in Spider Park, so as to keep confrontations at a minimum. Capuchins are rather small monkeys, although the larger males (especially Solin, the alpha) are incredibly strong and have some teeth which can inflict lots of pain. Speedy, one of the larger males, was lacking a tail: a battle scar from another large male who wanted to ensure that Speedy would never become the big boss. All in all, the park consisted of about 40 capuchins, the majority of which were all free to come and go as they pleased. Three newbies were kept on cords, and in cages overnight, to give them time to be accepted by the group. Since the park is in the lower Amazon basin, it was rife with other wildlife too. In my two weeks I saw numerous species of birds, tejones, yellow squirrel monkeys, capybara, a giant armadillo, turtles, an anaconda, various butterflies, and spider monkeys.

The first couple of days were absolutely grueling and it took some time before I got into a groove. Even so, fourteen srtaight days of work is no fun. (If you work a month you get one day off!) Almost every volunteer wore Wellie boots, which are basically just rubbers for you feet and ankles. While they kept us dry, and our hiking boots intact, they were incredibly uncomfortable, especially walking up and down hilly and uneven terrain.

A typical day for me went something like this:

6:20am- Time to wake up. Since we´re going to get dirty anyways, there is no point in showering. We brush our teeth, get dressed and head down to the cafe for breakfast.

7am- Breakfast. Wolf down some scrambled eggs and a banana.

7:15am- Prepare monkey breakfast. Break bananas in two and toss them into one of two large plastic barrels.

7:30am- Up the hill. A ten or fifteen minute walk up numerous steps gets us to the entrance to Monkey Park, which is off-limits to tourists. We then have to negotiate tricky, and often slippery, slopes to actually get down into the park. Along the way we almost certainly encounter Solin, who is challenging us for our food. On two occasions he jumps on my back, but I remain calm and he doesn´t sink his teeth into me.

7:45am- Feed the monkeys. We walk through the Amazon to a series of 8 feeding bowls, which are hoisted high into the trees on a pulley system. We place bananas in 5 of the bowls and api in three. (Api is a special porridge for the animals, injected with vitamins by the vets in the clinic.)

8:00am- Chill and observe the monkeys. Renaldo and I just hang out with the monkeys, interacting with them and making sure that the big bad boys don´t attack any of the new guys in the group.

9:00am- Clean. Scrub pooh out of the three small monkey cages, used to house the little guys at night. I also clean the larger cage, where the little guys feed without the hassle of the big boys. Other tasks include raking and shoveling dirt.

10:50am- Back down the hill for monkey lunch. I would bring the two buckets down, as well as blankets for the three little monkeys. Clean the blankets and start soaking lunch in disinfectant, which consisted of papaya, bananas and, on rare occasions, oranges or pineapples. After 15 minutes of soaking I would start cutting them into manageable pieces for my capuchins.

11:50am- Back up the hill to feed the animals. For the first few days I went up by myself, but Solin, Speedy and a couple of other thuggish monkeys were waiting for me and would jump me for lunch. After getting wise I started seeking out and escort; often a vet who had gained the respect of the monkeys. After that I only had one incident. Solin jumped me and Luis, the vet, and took BOTH barrels of food! While I was amused at Luis´lack of control over the animals, I had to run and get help from another vet.

12:00pm- Monkey lunch time. While walking through the jungle I would constantly hear the trees rustling overhead. Most of the time it was a small capuchin, or just a bunch of pesky yellow squirrel monkeys, but I was always looking over my shoulder to see if it was Solin waiting to get me alone and chew on my face.

12:30pm- My lunch. For a little more than $1 we could buy a great vegetarian lunch at the IWY cafe below. Some folks would go across the bridge to run errands, but one hour isn´t much time, after taking the time to cross the bridge and return.

1:30pm- Back up to the park. Upon my return Renaldo would head down for lunch, leaving me alone with the monkeys. I´d put water in some of the bowls and just keep an eye on the monkeys.

2:30pm- Renaldo would return and I would head into the jungle to clean out the bowls, where the sun had begun baking the papaya.

3:50pm- Back down the hill AGAIN. Tim to start preparing monkey dinner, which consisted of the veggies in the pantry. Those included beans, lettuce, beets, carrots and cucumbers. Before cutting them, I would have to soak them for 15 minutes.

4:50pm- Last time up the hill for the day...with another escort.

5:00pm- Monkey dinner. Veggies in five bowls and api in three more.

5:40pm- Time to tuck the monkeys in. The three babies have to be rounded up and placed in their cages for the night. Afterwards, we place a tarp over the cage and head back down the hill for the last time.

6:00pm- Usually the work day is over and I chill at the cafe for a short time. Every third day, however, I was responsible for cleaning the kitchen. Typically, I was assigned to work in tandem with some cat people, but they usually didn´t show up, leaving the work to me alone.

6:30pm- Back to the hostel for a shower. Heidi and I also would wash our undergarments before putting on clean clothes and heading into town for dinner.

7:30pm- Hike across the dangerous bridge and find some food.

9-10pm- Get back to the hostel and get some sleep...so we can do it all over again the next day.

In the two weeks we were at the park somewhere near a dozen volunteers left early, for various reasons. Most of the people felt it just wasn´t for them. A number of the jobs are no more than cleaning pooh, washing blankets and sweeping ALL DAY long. Moreover, the people in charge didn´t do much to make volunteers feel appreciated or tend to their needs. I would be pretty disappointed about that too. Although days were long, I was fortunate enough to work directly with animals, as well as see a number of other species in the wild.

Although the experience was difficult, to say the least, I have sympathy for those running the park. They have an extremely tough job on their hands. The park land is owned by the government of Villa Tunari, so the mayor tells the park whether or not they are open to tourists...and all of the proceeds from ticket sales go to the municipal government. Beyond that, a road was just built right through the park, displacing the majority of the animals. The campesinos, or local peasant farmers, threatened to take the park by force if they weren´t allowed to build the road, so permission was granted. Now the capuchins are often spotted down on the road, where they used to kick it in the trees that were previously there. The capuchins are curious and thieving little bastards too, so they are often stealing stuff from people below and I predict someone will kill a monkey when it bites them.

The park wants to move some of the animals to its other locations, as a result of the new road, but the mayor is insistent that the animals are also property of the village, as the critters live on public land! That all being said, the government, municipal and federal, doesn´t give any financial support to the park...despite constantly bringing more animals by. While we were there an oscelot seized at a cocaine factory and 200 birds from an illegal breeding operation were dumped off at the park.

Needless to say, we were both ready to go. This was certainly an unforgettable experience. Although I miss my monkeys I am glad we are gone and wouldn´t really recommend the ecperience to anyone...although you could never get the kind of animal interaction I had anywhere in the United States.