Thursday, July 27, 2017

South America Part Two - 4th Stop: Paraguay

Welcome to Paraguay, or as it's pronounced 'Para-why', as in, 'Para-why the fuck would anyone come here?!' Nestled in the heart of South America, like a stone inside a peach, it is landlocked by Brazil, Argentina and Bolivia, just without any of the natural wonders of its neighbours.

We spent three days here in total in the capital Asuncion, and I know you can't judge a whole country on such a short stay in just one city, but after researching things to do in preparation for the trip, three days were generous. And now, after coming out the other side, we've nothing bad to say about the place, but that's about the best compliment I can give it. "Paraguay - it's grand".

That's right, a nice flower was one of the highlights!

We looked up things to do here on Tripadvisor, and it's always a bad sign when the top-rated attraction is a shopping mall. (Even worse that we were desperate enough to visit said mall). There just aren't really many tourist attractions of note, and so, there isn't really much of a tourist infrastructure. We tried to join a walking tour to get some sort of feel for the history of the place, but none were in operation. So, our time here was simply spent walking around ourselves in the hope that something would catch our eye, and funnily enough, it did...

What an incredible achievement that the O'Leary name has travelled so far! The 75th most common surname in Ireland, and yet there are streets and squares that bear our name in far away Paraguay. I say "our" name, rather the name of Juan Emilio O'Leary, poet and politician of Irish descent. But it gets better and more surreal. There's also a town in Paraguay named after him, and following some research I found that they hold a beauty contest each year, with the winner crowned Miss O'Leary! This is a real thing that happens! What are the odds?! Probably Juan in Emilio-n!

These are all of the online photos I could find of anything related to the town of Juan E. O'Leary. 

Above is the 2015 Miss O'Leary winner, Claudia Leticia Ortigoza Sanabria. Well done, Claudia! Welcome to the family!  Although, you better watch out as there's about to be a new Miss O'Leary crowned in 2018, or rather, Mrs. O'Leary.

The only other positive thing I could say about Asuncion, as you can see from the above photo, is the amount of art around the place. This actually turned out to be a recurring theme in most of the places we visited this summer. The above photo was taken in the neighbourhood of Loma San Jeronimo, but there was colour scattered all around the city.

Edit: I forgot to put in the video diary!

And that was it for Paraguay! Before I came here, the list of things I knew about Paraguay was two items long - Jose Luis Chilavert and Roque Santa Cruz. Now, well, at least I can add another name to that list; Juan Emilio O'Leary! 

Next stop, Buenos Aires for a day, and then another new country - Uruguay. See you then!

Friday, July 21, 2017

South America Part Two - 3rd Stop: Iguazu Falls

If you're looking for the world's tallest waterfall... then you've come to the wrong place - it's in Venezuela. If however, you've come for the world's widest waterfall, no, not that either. Largest flow rate? Well, number 6 in the world is respectable... Ok, so it might not be top of any formal leaderboards, but it's impossible not to be blown away by the sheer majesty of Iguazu Falls. Straddling the border between Argentina and Brazil, it's not one of those places where you simply go, snap a few pics and then leave. You could spend a couple of days here, staring in awe and still not get enough.

As the falls sit between two countries, you have two options for a base of operations - the town of Puerto Iguazu on the Argentinian side, or Foz do Iguaรงu in Brazil. Both countries overlook the falls, and each offers a different perspective, or, if you have a few days, why choose?! It's pretty easy to hop across the border and back again (well, with an Irish passport anyway), so we planted ourselves in Puerto Iguazu, and on the first day, took a little trip over to Brazil for a few hours. 

I guess it's technically a new country for us, but we're not going to count it as we were only really there for half a day. Plus, it'll give us an incentive to come back and see the other 99.99% of the place!

When you arrive at the gates, you hop on a bus to the beginning of the walking trail, which takes you all along the top of the falls, finishing up at the main viewpoint - Garganta del Diablo. And wowzers! What a sight it was. We saw enough rainbows here to last us a lifetime. It really put Ireland to shame!


This is the kinda thing they'd have on loop at a health spa, or a mindfulness seminar!

And what's better than rainbows and waterfalls? Rainbows, waterfalls and butterflies!

The scenery here was incredible, and I'd definitely recommend it, but the big downside was the queues. If there was nobody here, you could be in and out in an hour. As it stood, we were probably here for three times that. It was like being back in Beijing again, partly because half of the tourists were Chinese! Here's the view you don't see in the other photos:

It didn't take from the experience though, and it's all part and parcel of big tourist attractions. But, whenever there are big crowds of people, it's always going to attract those looking to take advantage. And we're not talking about touts or pickpockets, well, not the human variety anyway. In South East Asia, there were always monkeys hovering, waiting to swoop in and grab the food out of your bag, or even right out of your hands! Here, it was a small, raccoon like animal known as a coati, but the effect was just the same. We didn't bring food with us, so we were fine, we could sit back and enjoy the mayhem. At one point, one even dived head first into a little girls backpack, and it's one of those car crash moments, where you think your instinct would be to jump in and help, but when it happens you just stand there watching.

She was fine in the end. Probably...

We also watched The Guard that night on TV. All dubbed, but still hilarious. Even extra hilarious to hear a jumble of Spanish, and then every so often an Irish name or place. I never would've thought a movie like this would be shown on national television all the way on the other side of the world.

On the second day, we stayed on the Argentinian side, and learning from our mistake, got up extra early to beat the hoards. And it was a great success! There were still crowds of people at that time, but we raced past them, and in the end, had most of the viewpoints all to ourselves. So much so, that we could even make a video diary in peace!

In terms of things to see, the Argentinian side was superior to Brazil, and so if you just have one day and you can only see one or the other, this is the side I'd recommend. There were a number of walking trails with different views, you can get a ferry across to the central island (for free), and there's a train that brings you up to Garganta del Diablo. We had already seen it the day before from the Brazilian side, and the queues were insane at that stage of the day, so we gave it a miss this time, but the Argentinian side certainly gives you more bang for your buck.

As a town, Puerto Iguazu itself was small but very nice. Our accommodation couldn't have been better positioned either, located at the crossroads (or crossrivers) of Argentina, Brazil and Paraguay, so you could just laze by the pool, looking out over three countries in one go. 

And that was our time in Iguazu. Our next stop was Asuncion, but the easiest way to get there was to travel across the border into Brazil, across the next border into Paraguay, and then fly from the infamously dodgy city of Ciudad del Este. A lot of scope for something to go terribly wrong... but it didn't! So, off we flew to Paraguay's capital, which is where I'll pick things up next time.

Friday, July 14, 2017

South America Part Two - 2nd Stop: Jujuy & Salta

Last year was always going to be a tough one to top, with big heavyweight destinations like Machu Picchu, the Uyuni Salt Flats and Death Road. But now, after a nice start in Buenos Aires, we're going to kick this year's adventure up a notch with the Argentinian provinces of Jujuy and Salta. We were in the area for six days in total and it would be rare that we would spend so much time in one place, but it was time well spent. And I know I say we were just in this "one area", but the provinces of Jujuy and Salta combined are nearly three times the size of Ireland! So, plenty to see.

It was all about the natural scenery here, and you could just drive for hours, staring out the window and still have the best time. Which is why we hired a car for ourselves to make the most of our stay. I've driven motorbikes around Asia and we've hired cars across Europe, but this was my first time driving in South America, and it was a very different experience...

First of all, when you rent a car in Europe, it's always brand new, straight out of the factory, with all of the latest mod cons; which then makes us feel like crap when we have to go home to our 13 year old Avensis. But here... we had roll down windows, had to manually lock each door, and at one stage, the engine wouldn't stop making noise, even after we turned it off. We just had to walk away and hope it wouldn't burst into flames in our absence. 

And secondly, as you'd expect, the roads and drivers are a lot less predictable than Europe, but I can't complain really. We made it through the six days with no problems, mostly knowing where we were going, and seeing things that would've been impossible without wheels of your own.

After landing in Jujuy from Buenos Aires, we grabbed our car and drove up to the tiny town of Purmamarca, where we would be spending the first two nights. You could walk around it all in ten minutes, but it was really lovely. There was a small little viewpoint in the centre of town to walk up, and an old woman had set up a booth to charge people going up and down. I don't think it was legit, but it was only 25c each, so good luck to her! She had a little ticket book and everything! From there you could see the surrounding hills and we watched the local kids play soccer.

Our accommodation was great too - Colores de Purmamarca. We had a small room in a shared house, but as we were the only ones there, we had the whole house to ourselves!

Now that's the kinda view you want to be waking up to every morning!

The next day, we drove to Humahuaca, a slightly bigger town about 70km away. The town itself is quite nice and we parked up and walked around the place.

The main attraction though is about 20km out of town, and over 1,300m upwards through rocky, winding mountain roads to El Mirador del Hornocal. It's a good thing we had Google maps because there's no way you'd just stumble across this place. The bumpy drive in our even bumpier car was well worth it though. We've travelled quite a bit now, and seen quite a bit too, but the world is still finding ways to blow our minds, and this is right up there with the best of them.

It was a long way back down too...

The next day, we left Purmamarca for good and paid a visit to Las Salinas Grandes. We saw the world's best salt flats last year in Bolivia, but the trip out to Argentina's version was worth the journey.

It was only an hour from Purmamarca, but as I said before, the journey itself is as good as the destination here. The looping roads, coloured hills and general Wile E. Coyote scenery are their own attraction. It would remind you a lot of San Pedro de Atacama which we visited last year in Chile, and it's no wonder seeing as they're less than 300km apart as the crow flies.

Also, check out the random Power Rangers graffiti in the middle of nowhere!

And that was that for the Jujuy section of the trip. Now it was time to go from salt to Salta, as we took the 3 hour drive down south to the eponymous capital of the Salta province. The city was a lot bigger than what we were expecting, and especially compared to the small towns we had been passing through over the past few days. And being honest, Salta city didn't have a lot going on. We were there for three days, one of which was spent on another road trip, but yeah, Salta city wasn't a lot to write home about.

That was as good as it got, although our accommodation was fierce swanky, and the rooftop pool made it easier to enjoy the otherwise fairly dull city.

Going back a step, we did go on a road trip down to Cafayate on one of the days. It's another small town, and similarly, the place itself isn't up to much but the journey was great. Just more valleys, rocks, cacti - the usual kinda stuff...

And that was about it. Of the two, Jujuy had more going for it, even though Salta is probably far more well known. If you have five or six days, get a car and drive around both, but if you're tight for time, Jujuy province is the one I'd be recommending.

We made a video diary on our Salta rooftop too, if you feel like hearing us speak.

Our next stop will be Iguazu falls on the border of Argentina, Brazil and Paraguay, so three countries for the price of one. See you then!