Passage Note #69 Part II: Argentina - Iguazu Falls and Northwest Argentina
In the northeast corner of Argentina is a little thumb-like protrusion where Argentina meets Brazil and Paraguay. At its very tip, forming the border between the first two countries, is one of the most spectacular waterfalls in the world - Iguazu Falls.
IgWOWzu Falls takes your breath away. It is the original shock and awe. It is Niagra on Viagra (even U.S. First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt was reported to have exclaimed "Poor Niagara!" when she visited). Many feel Iguazu’s only other rival is Southern Africa’s Victoria Falls, located between Zambia and Zimbabwe.
The Iguazu River courses peacefully through a lush rainforest jungle between Argentina and Brazil, plunging over a semicircular basalt plateau in a fury of roaring white water...... 2.5 miles wide and 260 feet high in 270 separate falls. At its head is the powerful Devil’s Throat (Garganta del Diablo). The sights and sounds of Iguazu are unforgettable!
We flew from Buenos Aires late one afternoon and caught our first glimpse of the impressive waterfalls from the plane as the pilot banked to give us an aerial view of the UNESCO World Heritage Site in the clear light of the waning sun.
Both countries have designated their portions as National Park and the waterfalls can be seen from either side. The Argentine experience, with numerically more falls, gives a close-up look from a variety of trails and boat rides that take you right underneath the thunderous water with bone-soaking adrenaline. The Brazilian side gives panoramic views, three sided surrounds, and the option of a helicopter perspective (the noise pollution from overhead flights is really an unfortunate detraction from the Falls). We never got to compare the two for ourselves; we stayed on the Argentinian side since we felt it was not worth the time and expense of obtaining a Brazilian visa for Linda for just a few hours (Chuck’s Irish (EU) passport negated his need for one).
Although we could have stayed at the Sheraton Resort (the only hotel inside the park, charging handsomely for a distant view) or in the ugly town of Puerto Iguazu, we decided on the Cantera Lodge, nestled in the rainforest between the two. We had a 25 minute shuttle ride to the Falls. After paying our Parque Iguazu entrance fee, it was a big disappointment to find out that both San Martin Island and Garganta del Diablo (Devil’s Throat) were closed due to damaged walkways from heavy rains. These two spots held the most impressive views. But it could have been worse - a few months earlier (July) in the wet season the entire Park had been washed out and closed. We walked along the metal walkways of two circuits - Upper Trail (650 meters) and Lower Trail (1600 meters) - and took an adventurous boat ride to the mouth of a couple of cascades, getting soaked as advertised!
Besides the Falls, the surrounding subtropical rainforest affords the possibility of seeing quite a bit of wildlife. The Great Dusky Swift is the symbol of the Park, flying in and out of the Falls all day and roosting and nesting on the basalt rock faces, even behind the falling water. Colorful butterflies and raccoon-like coatis were especially plentiful, the latter swarming over outdoor restaurant eating areas, becoming pests because they have been fed by tourists. As is our custom, we packed a picnic lunch rather than buy food at the uninteresting and overpriced cafes in the park and sat on some rocks in the bright sunshine overlooking curtains of water and rainbows.
Although we would have liked another day at the Falls, we did take the time to walk along the Parana River in Puerto Iguazu where there is a distinct color change as the River Iguazu flows into it. Here the Three Frontier Monument marks the junction of the border between Argentina, Paraguay, and Brazil. A cultural excursion to nearby indigenous Guarani villages was another possible activity. Closer to our Lodge we took an informative 1 1/2 hour tour through a Wildlife Rescue and Rehabilitation Center called Güiráoga (Guarani for “House of Birds”) where we were able to see much of the rainforest fauna in close range.
A final bit of Iguazu trivia:
The falls were discovered in 1541 by Alvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca. Mr. Cowhead named them the "Holy Mary Waterfalls".
Iguazu means “big waters” in Guarani language
The falls were featured in several movies: Indiana Jones’ The Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008), The Mission (1986) and Moonraker (1979).
The Andean Northwest of Argentina
We flew west from Iguazu, leaving the moist rainforest and landed in quite an opposite landscape in the city of Salta.
Northwest Argentina is about dry desert, technicolor mountains and gorges, dramatic rock formations, and excellent high altitude wine. Visually, we were often reminded of the American southwest with its Painted Desert and the Four Corners area with the U.S.'s splendid National Parks. It's also the traditional part of the country where you find indigenous culture. We rented a car in Salta for our intensive 4 day driving excursion in a roundtrip circuit that took us south to the first-class vineyards of Cafayate and north to the indigenous town of Tilcara, passing through diverse landscapes of amazing quebradas (gorges), vicuña-filled high Andes passes, salt flats, ancient fortified pueblos (pucarás) and mountain lakes. It is a land of starkly stunning beauty.
The beautiful city of Salta (pop. 535,000) is the gateway to the Northwest and the base for arranging excursions into the surrounding countryside of the Andean cordillera. It is a surprisingly wonderful destination in itself with fine colonial buildings, excellent museums, a teleferico, central plaza, folk music peñas (more national in scope than tango), atmospheric outdoor cafes, an unexpectedly sophisticated food scene (rumored to have the country’s best empanadas), and a fledgling center for design and fashion.
We set off headed south in a rental car that Monica and Heinz, proprietors of Hotel el Relax, helped us arrange. This was an excellent option for seeing the country.....but what was really indispensable was a Self Driving Salta Travel Guide by Tracy Johnson that we downloaded from her website for $7.99. Our trip would been much diminished without her maps, explanations, tips and suggestions and it felt like we had a personal guide in the car with us.
Here’s an example: we kept seeing places along the side of the road with red flags fluttering around a tiny structure or miniature houses surrounded by a garbage dump of plastic bottles and consulted Tracy’s Guide for an explanation. They turned out to be roadside shrines and votive chapels to two popular Argentinian folk saints, akin to huge populist “cults”. The crimson homage was to Gauchito Gil, an “honorable” 19th century cowboy bandit (think Robin Hood), whose altars are painted red and marked with red flags. Another is to a woman named Difunta Correa who died of thirst and exposure in the desert but whose infant was miraculously found alive, suckling at her breast. At first glance her shrines look like trash sites but people bring bottles of drinking water as an offering for favors. She has become the patron saint of travelers.
A tragic death and fame as a healer are the principal catalysts of these folk devotions. We have heard rumors that maybe the Catholic Church will actually sanction these saints since Pope Francis is from Argentina and understands the depth of feeling that exists in the country.
Southern Circuit: Salta to Cafayate to Cachi
We left Salta in the early morning headed south on Route 68. It took all day to drive the 117 miles to our destination of Cafayate, stopping along the way for short hikes and climbing to viewpoints for a better look at beautiful landscapes of twisted and eroded rock. About half of this drive was through the Quebrada de las Conchas (Shell Gorge) containing fanciful features with imaginative names like El Sapo (The Toad), Casa de Loros (Parrot House), Garganta del Diablo (Devil’s Throat), Anfiteatro (Amphitheater), Los Castillos (The Castles), Las Ventanas (The Windows), and El Obolisco (The Obelisk).
Although we reached Cafayate in the middle of the afternoon, we carried on another 52 km to visit the Quilmes Ruins, the important archeological remains of an indigenous Sacred City dating from the 9th century, once occupied by 5,000 people. The fierce Quilmes people resisted the Incas and then the Spanish for 130 years; when finally conquered, the spaniards forced them on a death march where 300 out of 2000 survived and were relocated in a reservation near Buenos Aires. You might recognize the word Quilmes as the most popular brand of beer in Argentina; the first brewery of this national symbol was established in 1888 by a German immigrant in the same area which by then had developed into a Buenos Aires suburb. Anyway, the Quilmes Indians were finally able to return to their ancient city in 1983, evict the European concessionaire in 2008, and today control the land and tourism at the site.
We stayed overnight in what Lonely Planet refers to as “one of northwest Argentina’s most seductive destinations”, the pleasant town of Cafayate. Founded in 1840 at the site of a mission, it is the second center of wine production after Mendoza and has the highest vineyards in the world. Green twining grapevines contrast with dry brown mountains while large flocks of parrots squawk overhead. There are 19 bodegas (nearby Colomé Bodega is the highest at 8200 feet) that thrive in the Calchaquíes Valleys thanks to a favorable microclimate. Delicious Torrontes is its emblematic dry white wine - the grape varietal is mostly widely grown here. We tried it both in a glass and in a cone - Heladeria Miranda’s wine ice creams (cabernet or torrontes) are a local specialty.
We drove north from Cafayate - this time on Argentina’s fabled Route 40 which was all ripio (gravel and stone). The Quebrada de las Flechas (Arrow Gorge) with its pointy spear like rocks pointing upward to the sky was a marvel. We followed our plan to go through the once-isolated village of Cachi and stay overnight at the picturesque Sala de Payogasta Hotel (a century-old working estancia) with a gorgeous view of the Nevado de Cachi mountains from our bedroom window.
Northern Circuit: Cachi to Tilcara to Salta
But here is where we departed from our planned itinerary and did not continue through the spectacular Cardones National Park; Alejandro, the owner of the hotel, encouraged us instead to continue on Route 40 through the Andes, telling us that although impassable in the rainy season, it was now the dry season and easily doable in our little rental car. Well, we found out it was just barely......it really was a 4-wheel drive track. The rental company probably would have had a fit if they had known.
We forded six rivers of varying depths, climbing higher and higher into the remote Andean mountains on one-lane gravel roads until it was just us, the rocks, and golden pastures of grazing wild vicuñas. When you see these graceful and shy relatives of llamas and alpacas, you know you are off the beaten path - they are highly endangered (and thankfully protected) and exist in the wildest, more remote parts of the cordillera. We topped out at the summit of Abra del Acay at an altitude of 16,000 feet and began our descent to San Antonio de Los Cobres, the dusty town where tourists go to catch the Tren a Las Nubes (Train to the Clouds - which was not operating at this time).
Quebrada de Humuhuaca
From San Antonio de Los Cobres it took us the whole afternoon driving on deep sand “paths’ in remote puna, taking a few wrong turns to cross the Argentinian salt flats called Salinas Grandes, up to the switchback Cuesta de Lipan and down again before entering the World Heritage Quebrada de Humuhuaca. The Humuhuaca Gorge combines a stunningly colorful geology with equally colorful cultures.
Driving its 155 km. distance is to experience ancestral Argentina and see traces of “a complex heritage system” going back to indigenous pre-Incan tribes; a 10,000 year old culturally rich trade route called the Camino Inca (Inca Road) follows the impressive narrow valley of the Rio Grande (linking Potosi Bolivia with Buenos Aires) and is “the most important physical linkage between the high Andean lands and the extensive temperate plains in south-eastern South America”.
The long shadows of dusk were engulfing the canyon when we finally reached the evening’s destination of Purmamarca. Here the Cerro de los Siete Colores or Hill of Seven Colors is one of the highlights of the northwest. The small touristy pueblo is dominated by its ribbons of rainbow rocks (described as a "marzipan fantasy of a megolomaniac pastry chef” by Lonely Planet). It didn’t take us long to walk its narrow low-key streets lined with small adobe structures and filled with artisan shops, cafes and surprisingly upscale tourist accommodations. The central square was filled with wall to wall tables of colorful textiles - to our dismay mostly imported from Guatemala and Ecuador.
Early the next day we climbed a small mirador to get a good panorama of the town beneath the Cerro de los Siete Colores and walked the trail around it, before departing for Tilcara, our northernmost destination, just 23 km further up the Gorge. On the way we passed Painter’s Palette Hill, aptly named for the layers of colored sedimentary rock.
Tilcara was more satisfying to us than Purmamarca although there is a hippy and touristy component here as well. But it felt more authentic here as you do get to rub shoulders with indigenous residents who frequent the marketplace, central plaza, and go about their business on the streets. Local textiles and indigenous dress was in evidence; coca leaves were for sale, only allowed legally in Argentina in this province and neighboring Salta.
We walked uphill through town and across an iron bridge and came within sight of the Pucará - a reconstructed pre-Columbian fortification. Although 20 pucarás have been identified in the Quebrada area, Tilcara’s is the only one that’s been excavated. The indigenous tribes here resisted the spanish for half a century. We chose not to walk on into the fort but instead climbed a small hill to get a good view of the pucará and its commanding and strategic position above the river bed. After lunch, we started the long drive to Salta rather than continue further north to the indigenous settlements of Uquia, Humahuaca, and Iruya.
Deciding to take the longer picturesque route back to Salta rather than the highway, we arrived at Hostal el Relax about 6 pm, called the rental car office to come and retrieve the car, and got ready for our flight south the next morning.
Next stop: Patagonia!