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Valle Europa: Little Germany ?

May 8, 2013
German Church in Valle Europa

German Church in Valle Europa

We left the little Ihla de Sao Francisco and headed slightly inland to a rich fertile valley called Valle Europa. This region of Brasil was settled by German immigrants in the 19th century after immigration to the USA became more difficult and consequently has a distinct German character, with German as likely to be heard on the streets as Portugese. In fact as late as the 1920’s 70% of the population of the region still spoke German as their first language.

Pomerode Town Gate

Pomerode Town Gate

We first visited the small town of Pomerode which is considered the most German town in Brasil. It’s a quiet little town with not too much to recommend it. It seems prosperous but most of the buildings are fairly recent.

Jaguar at Pomerode Zoo

Jaguar at Pomerode Zoo

We visited the Pomerode zoo which had a good selection of animals in fairly good conditions.

Wunderwald meal

Wunderwald meal

The highlight of our visit to Pomerode though was our visit to a traditional German restaurant. This was an absolutely excellent meal at the restaurant Wunderwald.  The food was German but with a Brasilian influence.   Our meal was a big platter to share of Duck, Ham Hock, sausages, gammon, sauerkraut, red cabbage, cassava and a whole bunch of sauces coupled with some local brewed German beer which was also excellent. Communicating with the waitress was interesting but we managed in a mix of Spanish, German, English and even a few words of Portuguese from our phrasebook.

german architecture

In the morning we drove into the biggest town in the Valle Europa, Blumenau. It was Sunday so the traffic wasn’t too bad and we managed to find somewhere to park right in the middle of town. This allowed us to explore the centre with its odd mix of European/German architecture and Art Deco. It is however a slightly Disneyland version of Germany !

blumenau street

 

The Valle Europa is a very pleasant area that deserved more time than we gave it. Suprisingly although not very high it was a few degrees cooler than the coast and gave us a very enjoyable night’s rest.

 

Art Deco in Blumenau

Ihla de Sao Francisco

April 30, 2013

beach at Ensenada

After leaving Igaucu we wanted to drive to the coast to spend some time checking out Brasil’s famous beaches.  The only problem was that the coast is A 500 Mile cross country slog away. We managed to drive this in two days stopping off at one of Brasil’s amazing truck stops for the night.

Of all the countries that we have driven through Brasil definitely takes the prize for massive number of trucks. There are loads of them and sometimes it feels like they are the only things on the road. The plus side of the vast number of trucks is that there are lots of truck services as well – every town seems to be brimming  over with mechanics, truck washes, spare parts and other services.

The trucks also mean that there are lots of petrol stations with big areas for overnight parking – we’ve even seen nice parking areas with picnic tables and grills. They also have showers for truckers and good restaurants. These are good places to spend the night and free.

Umbrellas on the sand

When we finally hit the coast we drove straight onto the Ihla de Sao Francisco which is a small island separated from the mainland by a narrow channel which is bridged by a causeway.

 

We drove straight across the island to the beautiful East coast where we parked up for the night along the beach front at Praia de Enseada.

Monkey face

We were parked opposite a café and straight away noticed a small band of monkeys on the roof. The owners were feeding them fruit and the hung around until dark.

Rooftop Monkey

The beach itself was beautiful and mostly empty giving us a great sunset.

By the Beach

In the morning we had a lazy morning on the beach before driving to the main town on the island, Sao Francisco do Sul. This is an old colonial town, our first for what seems like a long time, and although small had a very relaxed vibe to it.

Sao Francisco Church

Igreja Matriz in Sao Francisco do Sul

The town was very pretty and despite the narrow streets we had no problems as there wasn’t much traffic.

Sao Francisco Street

Iguacu: Brasil

April 24, 2013

waterfalls from brasilian side

Once in Brasil we headed straight to Camping International which to our surprise had a number of large American style RV’s in residence. This was a much better place to stay than anything we had found in Argentina and even had a swimming pool.

Brasilian iguazu

In the morning we headed off to the Brasilian side of the falls which is much smaller than the Argentinian side and took us only 2 hours to visit all the attractions. It is also much cheaper which was appreciated.

Brasilian side view

The entrance to the national park is some way from the boardwalks and this necessitates a short bus ride which is included in the ticket price. Then there is a boardwalk which hugs the cliff with small viewing platforms every few hundred metres.

Brasil side views

The viewing platforms are very small and can easily be overwhelmed so it is important to try to get inbetween the large tour groups to get them as empty as possible. However there were not too many people on this side and certainly much less than on the Argentinian side.

edge of the devil's throat

The best bit of the Brasilian side of the falls comes at the end of the cliff side boardwalk where a long lone boardwalk heads out across the river in the shadow of a long waterfall into the mouth of the Canyon of the Garganta del Diablo. Here the spray and thundering of the waterfalls is awe inspiring and the view up the canyon is beautiful.

Devil's throat from Brazil

After enjoying the Brasilian side of the falls we visited Parque das Aves which is just outside the entrance to the National Park. This is a bird park with lots of stunning parrots, toucans and other local birds.

Sarah with bird on her arm

There are a number of walkthrough cages here that allow you to get up close and personal with the birds. Sarah got very close to one parrot that landed on her head and started to peck at the clip in her hair. Fortunately one of the park workers saw this and rushed to her aid.

Sarah with Close Encounter

The Brasil side of Iguacu gives much more of a panoramic view of the falls despite being smaller. The final boardwalk into the middle of the canyon is also very spectacular and puts you in the middle of the fury of the falls. All this coupled with the lower number of visitors made this side my favourite. However this is not to take away from the Argentinian side which is magnificent in its own way – just with a lot more people.

small toucan

Toucan

Border: Argentina to Brasil at Foz du Iguazu

April 24, 2013

We broke one of our rules at this border crossing and arrived at the border fairly late in the day. However this is again one of the easiest and quickest borders that we have done.

On arriving at the Argentine side of the border we were directed to the bus area where we parked up. Those in cars can drive straight to a window and do the border very simply.

Argentina Migracion

As usual, we first visited Migracion where our passports were stamped (in around 30 seconds) and then we had to find Aduana which was not immediately obvious.

Argentina Border

However after asking a couple of people a woman wearing an Aduana jacket took us straight to the office and got the right person to help us. We handed over our TIP and we were on our way.

Argentina Aduana

On the Brasilian side of the border (which is on the other side of the Rio Iguazu bridge) we were directed to drive through and park just beyond the border offices.

We went to Migracion where a very friendly English speaking Brasilian woman stamped us into the country after we had filled out an immigration form. She then, very helpfully, walked us to the Aduana office!

Brasil Migracion

At Aduana there was a very friendly and chatty young guy who spoke excellent English and processed our paperwork within 5-10 minutes.

Brasil Aduana

This was again a very easy border with very friendly people and we were grateful they could speak English because as we have discovered, Portuguese is a very different language to Spanish.

Iguazu: Argentina

April 23, 2013

devil's throat

On the border of Argentina and Brasil sitting across the Rio Iguazu, lies perhaps the most impressive set of waterfalls in the world, Iguazu Falls. The falls can be viewed from both the Argentinian side and the Brazilian side, each with a different perspective but equally as stunning.

The falls are surrounded by a large expanse of protected rainforest which is thick with wildlife.

Waterfalls at Iguazu

On arriving at the Argentinian side of Iguaza we had some difficulty finding somewhere to stay. After visiting a couple of places we followed up a lead from the local tourist information office and went to the ex- municipal campsite. The site is now owned by the local basketball club but they were happy for us to camp there for the night. They seemed a little concerned about our security and at first suggested we park inside the building where the court was, later directing us to park under a light.  It was a last resort and too late to look for anything else but the night passed very peacefully.

Iguazu Falls

In the morning we set off early for the falls to get there as they were opening (the entrance to the falls is roughly 20km from the town of Puerto Iguazu).

Top of the falls

The Argentinians have certainly seen having a world class attraction as an excuse to bump up the entrance fee. The fee for foreigners is 3 times that for Argentinians at US$40 per person.

 

Once inside the park there are three trails to walk. We started with Upper trail (Paseo Superior) which takes in the top of the falls first.

Baby Coati

Then we walked around the longer lower trail (Paseo Inferior) which has better views of the lower waterfalls. On this trail we came across lots of coati who are clearly well used to people.

Coati

Unfortunately river levels while we were there meant that the crossing to Isla San Martin – which gives a great front on view of the waterfalls, was not an option.

Dos Hermanos

As well as the big sets of falls which Iguazu is famous for there are also a number of smaller falls set in the rainforest.

Little Falls

We were glad to have done this early in the morning as the walkways are narrow and viewpoints small so doing it with the least number of people is definitely preferable. The temperature and humidity were also more bearable in the early morning.

monkey in a tree

The highlight of the park is the long boardwalk that crosses rivers to the Garganta del Diablo.  You can reach this lookout by taking a small train from the start of the two other trails or you can walk along a dirt road.  We took the latter option and were rewarded with the sight of a troop of Capuchin monkeys, hundreds of butterflies and numerous colourful birds.

iguazu bird

The boardwalk out to the Garganta del Diablo is over 1km long and mostly exposed in the sun but also gives good wildlife opportunities. Large catfish swim in the river, as well as Caiman and small River Turtles.

caiman in the river

At the end of the boardwalk there is large crowd of people stuffed into a small viewing area, made even smaller by the resident photographer. However the falls are amazing with a huge volume of water pouring into a cauldron from all sides. The main waterfall here is in fact the largest in the world by volume.

Devil's throat waterfall

We took the train back to the entrance, and after a total of 6 hours at the falls we were done with the Argentinian Iguazu and ready to hit the Brasilian side.

The Jesuit Missions

April 23, 2013

In the Argentine province of Missiones, in Paraguay and the bordering areas of Brasil there are a number of ruined Missions established by the Society of Jesus (Jesuits) in the 1600’s. In fact 30 were built in the area however most were completely destroyed and haven’t been rebuilt.

Ruined Wall at Santa Ana

They created new communities for Guarani Indians where they introduced modern technology and converted them to Christianity. They also provided protection for the Indians from the less desirable influences of colonial society. However the Jesuits were expelled in 1767 by King Carlos III of Spain and the missions quickly declined after this.  The jungle claimed much of what remained however there has been some restoration work carried out in the 20th century.

Graveyard at Santa Ana

We visited two of the missions. Firstly Santa Ana of which little remains standing. However the graveyard was used well into the twentieth century so is still in reasonable condition despite the open crypts and abandoned coffins.

Coffin

Bigger and the most restored of all the Jesuit missions is San Ignacio Mini which housed more than 4000 residents at its peak in 1733.

San Ignacio Mini Church

The centrepiece of San Ignacio is a 74 metre long church designed by an Italian architect, Juan Brasanelli and its thick sandstone walls are highly decorated.

Church Door at San Ignacio MIni

 

Church Door

Esteros del Ibera

April 18, 2013

An easy 100km drive (well 60km were a bit rough and unpaved) from Mercedes is the small settlement of Colonia Carlos Pelligrini. This is the main access point for the wetlands of the Rerva Provincial Esteros Del Ibera.

Tour Boats

The Esteros del Ibera is a wetlands reserve of around 13000 sq. km. It is teeming with wildlife most notably Capybara and Caimans.

Capybara in the Water

At the gateway to the village there is a visitor centre for the reserve – although there isn’t much to see. There is a short walking trail in the woods here where there is a chance of seeing Howler monkeys but unfortunately there were none around when we were there.

Close up Capybara

On arrival we made for the municipal campground which was completely full as it was Semana Santa (or Easter weekend). It didn’t really matter to us that it was full because a height restriction on the entrance would have prevented us going in anyway. It didn’t stop us camping outside the gate and using their facilities for free though !

Red Bird in Ibera

Tours of the Laguna Ibera and its surrounds leave from the campsite and we booked one for that afternoon.

Deer in Esteros

The tour lasts just over 2 hours and skirts the edge of the Laguna and its embalsados (floating islands of vegetation). We saw Capybara, Deer, Caimans and a variety of birdlife. Unfortunately our boatman was more interested in chatting with one of the Argentinian guys on the tour about anything other than wildlife in Ibera and didn’t seem to do as good a job as other boat men. Sometimes you just don’t get the luck !

Caiman in Esteros

After a very hot night in the camper we kept heading North on what turned out to be a very bad road. There were a few sections we were very glad of high clearance and 4-wheel drive.  Fortunately the bad road only lasted 50kms.

The road is not ideal

At one stage we had to stop to let a caiman cross the road ahead of us, much to our amusement.

Caiman Close up

Gaucho Gil

April 17, 2013

Throughout Argentina there are small shrines at the roadside decorated with red flags and often with a small colourful statue of a little gaucho man. These are shrines to a Robin Hood-esque character called Antonio Gil also known as Gaucho Gil.

gaucho gil sanctuary

We just happened to be passing Mercedes which is the final resting place of Gil and the site of a very large shrine to him.

Antonio Gil was born in 1847 and joined the army to fight in the War of the Triple Alliance. Once the war was ended he deserted from the army and turned into a cattle-rustler who stole from the rich landowner’s and shared his ill-gotten gains with poor local villagers. The villagers in turn gave him shelter and protection.

sculpture of gil hanging

Eventually the law caught up with him and he was hung by the feet from a tree and then beheaded.  However before dying he warned the sergeant in command of the police that his son was very ill and that he would only recover if the sergeant buried Gil after he was dead (it was the custom not to bury army deserters).

As the story goes, when the sergeant returned home and his son was indeed ill, he quickly returned to the site of Gil’s execution and buried him. The son recovered and so was born the legend of Gaucho Gil.

The site of the execution is now a major destination for Argentinians with a shrine surrounded by gift shops selling Gaucho Gil related memorabilia.

plaques thanking the gaucho

Around the shrine and in separate buildings close by, are walls of plaques thanking Gil for performing life-changing miracles for those who have petitioned him.  There is even one from an Argentinian football player thanking him for making the squad.

presents to the gaucho

As well as plaques, there is also a room which displays the gifts that have been given to Gil as offerings over the years. There are a number of guns, knives and even swords amongst these gifts.

touching the gaucho for luck

There is even a campsite at the shrine to allow pilgrims to stay overnight. We took advantage of the campsite and visited the shrine rubbing the head of the small statue of Gil for luck.

Parque Nacional El Palmar

April 17, 2013
Moonrise in El Palmar

Moonrise in El Palmar

At the end of a day’s drive from Buenos Aires we reached Parque National El Palmar. This park consists of the original flora of the area before man’s clearance for agricultural purposes.

Palms in El Palmar

On the road into the park we saw our first Capybara, the largest rodent in the world, just grazing on the verge.

Capybara 2

The road ends at the Rio Uruguay which is the boundary between Argentina and Uruguay. There is a really good campground here. The campground has many fenced off areas which surround the holes of Vizcacha. As dark falls the vizcacha would come out of their holes and snuffle around the truck.

Vizcacha

Near the campground is a great viewpoint over the river where capybara liked to hang out in the evening.

Capybara

We explored some of the roads in the park (there are only a couple) but they were a bit small for us and didn’t really lead anywhere too exciting.

El Palmar roads

However we did find a nice walking trail down the river which passed by some ruins and accessed a small but gravelly beach.

Riverside

El Palmar was the perfect place to relax in warm weather with relatively cool nights after our hectic visit to Buenos Aires.

Vizcacha 2

Police Stop !!

April 11, 2013

After driving more than 5000 miles around Argentina we hadn’t been stopped by a single police checkpoint or had any problems with the police but we’d heard rumours that North of Buenos Aires we would likely encounter some problems with the police and unfortunately this was true.

At the border of Entre Rios State we were flagged down at a large checkpoint and the policeman asked for license, insurance and Import papers.

He disappeared off with these (this isn’t really unusual) and then a couple of minutes later told me to get out of the truck. He took me round to the back of the truck and then told me that it was illegal to not have a rear under-run bar in Argentina. I looked at him blankly and after a couple of minutes he told me to go into a building and talk to an officer there.

Once inside the desk officer first told me that my ‘copy’ licence was not acceptable and was an infraction (I have no idea if this is true or not but it sounded plausible). I produced my original licence and explained that copies had been acceptable in other South American countries and he begrudgingly accepted this.

He then told me I had two fines.  I asked him what for and after he explained I told him I didn’t understand. Usually not speaking Spanish is a great way to get out of any police hassle because they soon get bored and let you go. Not this time – he fired up his computer and opened up Google Translate!

His first problem was our lack of a rear under-run bar.  In the UK this is not required on vehicles registered as Motorhomes (which ours  is). I told him this and he insisted. I then explained that there is an international agreement on temporary import of motor vehicles which says that if a vehicle is legal in its home country then it is legal on a temporary basis in any signature country.  I don’t know how that all translated in Google but it certainly irritated him as he began to strike the keyboard quite hard.

A little annoyed he moved on to the second point. Apparently we had driven into the checkpoint too quickly and not “Respected the police”. I asked him how quickly you should drive through the checkpoint (on a dual carriageway) and he said 40km/h. I replied that was how fast we were going (although in truth I wasn’t sure). He then told me they had cameras proving I was speeding. So I asked him to show me the tape. Ah but only the boss can look at the tapes!  He insisted it was Argentinian law and he did not need to prove that we were speeding .

We went back and forth many times on the issue of disrespect, with him insisting that we had a fine worth 170 litres of fuel, though Google translated ‘Litros’ into Gallons which shocked us until we looked at the Spanish and realised what had happened (I assume to be paid in cash not siphoned off fuel, though it struck me as quite an odd fine).  Finally after 40 minutes of this debacle a senior officer arrived and asked us where we were going, he reeled off some quick fire Spanish at the officer we’d been dealing with and within seconds  we had our documents back and were sent on our way but if looks could kill Sarah and I would still be lying on the floor of that office!

This was the worst of 4 stops in total that day, through approximately 10 checkpoints but I’m pleased to say after that short interlude things returned to normal and we happily applied the ‘tourist wave’ that Biker Mike shared with us many months ago!

This was actually the first time that any police had stopped and tried to fine us since Peru !