Sunday, January 30, 2005

Swimming With The Fishes

Ouf, it's been over a week since my last post, my longest interval to date, but there is a reason; from Foz we travelled west (almost to the Bolivian border) to the Pantanal, the world's largest wetland area (and by now you know that I won't settle for anything but the largest, highest, smallest, etc.). It is a haven for wildlife as human settlement is limited by the constant flooding, and it is also great for wildlife spotting as, unlike your typical rainforest, there aren't as many pesky trees in the way to obstruct your view.

Oh, before I get waxing all lyrical about the Pantanal I should mention that on the way there we stopped over in a town called Bonito (a pretty name for an unremarkable town) which is renowned for the clear waters of the rivers surrounding it (which is quite amazing when you notice that all the other rivers here in Brazil are the colour of hot chocolate from the vast quantities of silt that they carry). Anyway, Bonito's big attraction is snorkelling along these rivers and getting up close and personal with all the fish and other beasties that live in them. Even though I took the cheapie option ($15 in a river next to the campsite as opposed to $50 in a nicer river 50km away) it was still a unique experience and good fun. What was even more fun was the fact that the public swimming pool was just a stretch of the very same river, and so you could swim with the fishes there as well. However there were far more fish there as the locals would feed them grains of corn, causing little feeding frenzies amongst the fish. This gave several of us (Daniel, Liam and myself) a brilliant idea: we would throw grains of corn next to unsuspecting swimmers and watch their reactions as the fish would start to swarm around them. This was particularly amusing with Jenny who was rather skittish around the fish and so we just dumped a whole bag of corn on her head (ah, what fun!).

From Bonito it was on to the Pantanal. We didn't come at the best time for wildlife spotting to the Pantanal as it is the middle of the rainy season and so the animals are all spread out (in the dry season they all congregate around pools of water and are therefore easier to find), and what's more the mosquitoes are out in full force. Nonetheless over the course of a couple of days, and several different excursions (horse-riding, trekking, boat tour), we managed to see a fair amount of wildlife of which the most notable animals were: caimans (a sort of crocodile), capybaras (the world's largest rodent, which can grow to around 1m in length), howler monkeys, crested caracaras (birds of prey), herons, storks, marsh deer, a (dead) false water cobra, coatis (a racoon-like animal), piranhas, and many others. However, the king of them all, the anaconda, eluded us. But I suppose that's the way with wildlife, you can't guarantee anything if you want to see it in the wild.

I also spent a bit of time piranha fishing, although not at dusk because the mozzies were particularly voracious at that time. Here Jenny managed to get her own back at me because, even though we were standing almost next to each other on the pier, in the 3 hours or so that we were there she managed to catch 10 fish whereas I caught diddly-squat. We then went swimming in the same river (which also happened to be home to a not-insignificant number of caiman). Apparently piranha only frenzy if there's blood in the river, which must be true as I'm still alive right now (and not even missing any body parts). So woohoo for me, I've now swum in a river alongside crocodiles and meat-eating fish. Thankfully I can now strike that one off my list of things to do before I die and not need to do it again.

So now, after 2 days of solid driving, we are back on the Atlantic coast in a town called Paraty, our last stop before Rio and Carnaval, but more about that in my next post.

Saturday, January 22, 2005

Don´t Go Chasing Waterfalls

Because there´s only one that you need to see, and that´s the Iguazu falls on the border between Argentina and Brazil (actually that´s not quite true, as the Iguazu falls are actually a complex of over 100 seperate waterfalls that stretch over 3km across the wide Rio Iguazu). I consider myself quite knowledgeable about geograqphy and the like, but I´m ashamed to say that before looking into this trip I knew nothing about Iguazu, which is a shame as the falls easily dwarf its more famous cousins in Niagara and Victoria as it is both higher and has a greater flow of water than either of them. There are many catwalks that get up close to the many waterfalls including the famous, and truly awe-inspiring, Devil´s Throat. I´m glad that I saw a fair number of pretty waterfalls before coming here, because if I had seen these first I would have found the others ridiculously tame.

One can also do several excursions around the national park, including a zodiac trip along the river below the falls. It´s a truly memorable experience as the boats go right beneath some of the waterfalls and you get completely drenched (luckily they also provide you with plastic bags in which to place your belongings so they don´t get wet, something Daniel forgot to do with his mobile phone!).

On the Brazilian side there is also a bird sanctuary that has an extensive collection of indigenous birds, many of which are on the verge of extinction, such as the beautiful hyacinth and scarlett macaws. And then, as if to show that humans will not be outdone by nature, just upstream along the mighty Parana river there is the biggest hydroelectric dam in the world: the Itaipu dam. This beast, that cost $18bn to build (and thereby constitues a great chunk of both Paraguay´s and Brazil´s foreign debt), provides all of Paraguay´s electricity needs and 25% of Brazil´s. The statistics are mind-boggling: enough steel was used in the construction to build 380 Eiffel towers and enough concrete to pave a highway from Moscow to Lisbon. In anybody´s books that is just BIG. There´s a free tour of the dam, including a promotional film that is just ridiculously biased and doesn´t have the slightest hint of a possibility of a mention of the enormous environmental impact caused by the construction (the dam was built on the site of a waterfall that was reputedly 30 times larger than Iguazu itself), which lets you get up close to the monster turbines and sluice gates and just marvel at the sheer size of everything. Personally I´m not sure about hydroelectric dams: on the one hand they produce an unending source of electricity with far less carbon dioxide production, whereas on the other hand you have irrepairable environmental damage. But then I suppose it does produce an incredibly huge amount of power.

Monday, January 17, 2005

You Know When You've Been Tango'd

My last two days in BA have been rather lethargic due to the heat and humidity. It's strange, but it wasn't that long ago when I was having to get dressed to go to sleep (2 pairs of socks, trousers, 2 T-shirts, jumper, scarf, woolly hat and mittens) and now I'm sweating like a big in just my boxer shorts, and it's only going to get hotter and sweatier from here.

Two nights ago I went to one of the ubiquitous tango shows and found it rather enjoyable, which was a pleasant surprise as I'm not really a big fan of that sort of thing. The dancing, of course, was entertaining and oozing sexiness but the music and singing were pretty decent too. The whole tango scene is also a bit sad as it harks back to a time when Argentina was rivalling European countries for class and sophistication, a promise that wasn't fulfilled due to too much corruption and military meddling in political affairs (lets just hope they've seen the back of both of them). Other interesting places that I've managed to visit are San Telmo (a bohemian artists' quarter full of quirky antiques shops and restaurants) and La Boca (working class suburb and home to Latin America's largest football club: Boca Juniors). What has put a bit of a dampener on things is the fact that all the nightclubs are closed due to the new year's eve disaster (in which 186 people died in a nightclub fire) and in the bars that do play music you're not allowed to dance.

Saturday, January 15, 2005

International Criminal Flees To Buenos Aires

I've just realised that I'm an international criminal! I had forgotten that lying at the bottom of my bag I had brought with me a bag of (2 year old, but still tasty) dried apples and had been shuffling them across the Argentina-Chile border with disconcerting regularity whilst blithely stating that I wasn't carrying any organic produce on numerous sworn statements! As soon as I realised the offending articles were disposed of (yummy), but still, it's hard to tell what could have happened as the Chileans are a bit nazi about that sort of thing.

Enough of my petty worries, what about Buenos Aires? Well BA (because that's what people in the know call it) bears an uncanny resemblance to urban France, namely Paris (of about 15 years ago as most of the cars are Renault 19s and Peugeot 504s). Which is a bit disappointing really because I could have just popped on the Eurostar for 50 quid return and seen roughly the same sort of thing but with added history. I mean it's nice enough and all, and there's plenty of decent shopping and I did go and see the Casa Rosada where Madonna sang "Don't Cry For Me Argentina" (oh, and apparently some bird called Eva used to talk there too), but it's just a bit too European, which is not what I'm looking for when I'm travelling to far-flung destinations. For instance the biggest tourist attraction is the Recoleta cemetery where all the great and good from Argentina's history (except Jose de San Martin) are buried. Although buried isn't quite the right word as the cemetery is chock-full of mausoleums, each one trying to outdo its neighbour in splendour and ornateness, so in fact one should say that the bodies are "stacked" instead. But even for somebody with more than a passing interest in history it would be difficult to recognise anybody except Evita, unlike Paris's Pere Lachaise which is overflowing with world luminaries from Moliere to Morrisson and Wilde to Piaf. Don't get me wrong, BA is not an uninteresting place, it's just that there's nothing that really stands out; although that may change as I am off to a tango show tonight and tomorrow I head off to the (in)famous La Boca neighbourhood.

P.S. I seem to be posting a few off-topic messages lately and don't want to bore or annoy people, but this article really made my blood boil. America's total ignorance and complete lack of respect for the priceless and irreplaceable archaeological treasures is a slap in the face to the whole of humanity (similar to the looting of Iraq's national museum which they also failed to stop).

Friday, January 14, 2005


Not really a post today as I've just got to Buenos Aires and I'll probably need a couple of days at least before I've got anything interesting to say about the place. However I would like to draw everybody's attention to this year's Human Rights Watch world report that has just come out, which to a large degree pillories the USA's record and their blatant hypocrisy in claiming the "moral high ground". To view the report just click on the permanent HRW link on the left. HRW is a fantastic organisation that objectively sheds light on the machinations of all countries regardless of status and cuts through the spin (and are therefore one of the few charities I support unreservedly). Anyway, I think there are some of you who may find it interesting reading.

Wednesday, January 12, 2005


In north eastern Patagonia there are several towns that were founded by Welsh immigrants at the end of the 19th century and where it is said that it is still possible to speak Welsh in some shops. I was looking forward to seeing these places because I've got a Welsh friend on the trip and I wanted to see him "in his element". Unfortunately the towns have grown so much now that the Welsh language has been diluted out (although I'm sure it still exists in some small enclaves) and so my hopes were dashed. Still, there is something else to see round here, namely the Valdes peninsula (a piece of land shaped a bit like a bowler hat attached to the mainland by a very narrow isthmus at the top of the "head") which is home to colonies of sea-lions, elephant seals and Magellanic penguins as well as visiting southern right whales and orcas (and one of only 2 places in the world where orcas have been documented to "beach" themselves to hunt sea-lion pups). Unfortunately I didn't see any whales but we did get rather close to both the sea-lions and elephant seals and within touching distance of the penguins, so I'm happy enough.

On the way back from the peninsula we picked up a French cyclist who was getting battered by the wind (in 2 hours driving we had saved her a day and a half of cycling). Kristelle, for that turned out to be her name, is travelling round the world by herself on her bike, which I'm sure you'll agree requires a hell of a lot more cojones than my (in comparison) luxury-laden trip. If anybody is interested you can check out her website here or check out the link at the side of the page.

Monday, January 10, 2005

On The Rocks

I have just spent the past day visiting one of Argentina's top attractions that lies 80km to the west of a small town called El Calafate: the Perito Moreno glacier a.k.a. one mother of an ice cube desperately in need of a large enough whisky tumbler. The glacier is one of the few in the world that is not receding due to global warming, and at its base, where it plunges into the vast waters of Lago Argentina, towers up to 60m high. I decided to book myself onto a tour that does a big 5 hour trek right into the heart of the glacier (I was in luck as that particular tour was only just starting up that day and I would be among the first group of people to try it). Our first view of the glacier as we rounded a bend in the road opposite was not too impressive as it was still quite far off and partially obscured by clouds, but by the time we got into a boat and sailed to within 100m of the ice front I fet sufficiently dwarfed by the giant sheet of ice. We landed to one side of it and started trudging up the lateral morraine that flanks the glacier. After about an hour we donned our crampons and headed onto the ice. Walking with crampons is strange at first but soon you get used to the feeling and the techniques required to scale 70 degree slopes.

I'm not sure what preconceptions I had about glaciers before today, but whatever they were I don't think the Moreno fit any of them. First of all the surface of the glacier is highly irregular, with thousands of cracks, crevasses and holes that disappear hundreds of metres down to the bottom of the ice (moulins). The irregularity, coupled with the dynamic nature of the surface, which is continually changing, makes navigation on the ice rather difficult, even for experienced guides, and leads to a certain amount of backtracking when one reaches an impasse. Secondly the surface of the ice is far dirtier than I thought it would be, often being covered in dust and stones of various sizes (although this does lead to the production of many interesting ice formations as well). And finally (and probably most spectacularly) the colour of the ice: deep blue. The ice is actually transparent but absorbs light, with the blue wavelength being absorbed the least, hence the blue colour. Although physically demanding the trek was ultimately very satisfying and allowed me to get a good understanding of these awesome geological beasts (the Moreno glacier is almost 40km long, over 700m deep and advances at about 2m a month) that form our landscape by gouging out entire valleys. Again, the superlatves fail to impress sufficiently the grandeur of the glacier and even the picture below can't capture the sheer scale. If you ever get the chance to trek a glacier, do it.

Saturday, January 08, 2005

Chilean Beauty

It's been some time since my last post because we have just spent the past 5 days in Chile's Torres del Paine national park. It is a must see for travelers coming down to Patagonia. Apart from the impressive towers of granite (that give the park its name) that jut into the sky like cracked fingers (although they would have been more impressive if they weren't surrounded by clouds when we hiked up to them) there are the cuernos (horns): mountains produced by an extrusion of light-coloured granite through a layer of darker rock, making them look like the worlds biggest sandwich. There are also a few glaciers and more secluded lakes than you can shake a hiking stick at. I spent 4 days doing various hikes around the park, and on the last one I didn't see a single soul for the whole 8 hours I was walking (probably because I got lost, took a wrong turning and ended up miles away from the lake I was planning to visit!) and arrived at a crystal clear lake that must have been a shallow, tropical sea many millions of years ago because it was surrounded by fossilised coral reefs. I could go on but my words would be totally inadequate for the beautiful landscapes, so instead I have trawled the web and recommend you have a look at the picture below of the cuernos, a view I was lucky enough to wake up to every morning there.

Saturday, January 01, 2005

The End Of The World Is Here

At least that is the way the town of Ushuaia, the most southerly in the world, markets itself. I knew the name Ushuaia even before I knew where it was because it is also the name of a well known brand of shower gel and shampoo in France. Funnily enough though, in all their adverts they always show exotic Tahitian locations and lots of tropical fruits. Nothing could be further from the truth of the real Ushuaia which is at the tip of South America in Tierra del Fuego. Despite only being at the same latitude as Newcastle, it is a very chilly place, even now in Summer. And I am yet to find some long-haired beauty washing her hair in a waterfall surrounded by lush vegetation. Actually you probably aren't likely to see anybody's hair here for most of the year as it's usually covered in a woolly hat.

Apart from the bleak nature of most of the surroundings it's very pretty round here. Yesterday I went to do some hiking in the local national park and I was struck by the similarities shared with the Highlands of Scotland. And even though the plants are different (for example there are no pines or heather here) they are similar and you can see they fill the same ecological niches.

Anyway, I hope you all have a very excellent 2005 and wish you success and happiness in this year that has so unfortunately been overshadowed already by misfortune. I also hope that the politicians will finally pull their fingers out of their arses and do something useful for a change (although there's fat chance of that happening).

P.S. I thought I might also leave you with an amusing little anecdote from my camping experiences (though it wasn't so amusing at the time). It was the last night at El Chalten, only a few days after Daniel (a Czech guy on the tour with whom I share a tent) and I had christened our tent Prdel (for those of you who don't speak Czech you might want to look up the meaning of the word here). The wind was blowing in off the mountains and bringing with it a fair amount of rain as well, but we managed to get to sleep OK, until about 2:30 that is, when I first felt a puddle next to me. When I properly came to (and found my torch) we found that a small, yet important, part of the tent that separates the flysheet from the inner lining of the tent had blown away, causing the flysheet to become stuck to the lining (allowing water to pour in) and one of the internal poles had also fallen down, in turn causing the soaked lining to lie on top of us. We were unable to fix the tent in the dark and howling wind and so had to quickly pack up our belongings and retreat to the truck to try and get some fitful sleep. As I write Prdel is hanging up to dry and so I am fervently hoping I will have somewhere desiccated to sleep.