Chile – The scenery in Atacama

The region of the Atacama desert is one of the most beautiful spots I have ever been to.

The bus journey from Salta (Argentina) to San Pedro de Atacama (Chile) is an attraction in itself. From the road you spot snow-capped mountains, desert landscapes, high plateau lakes and even this immense salt lake, which all the passengers were gazing at:

Salt lake in Northwest Argentina

High plateau lake on the road to San Pedro

The village of San Pedro de Atacama is small and very touristy. Nearby, there are mountains, geysers, lakes, salt lakes, hot springs, dunes good for sandboarding and an endless number of other attractions. The small village is packed with hotels and tour operators.

Arid desert

The Atacama desert is the most arid in the planet. In the middle of it, some points have not registered any rain for up to 4 years. In town, there are plenty of posters prompting visitors to use water resources responsibly.

Cycling through the a road in the desert

Unfortunately, I was in a rush and I left without having seen many of the highlights of the region. What I did, however, was renting a bicycle and cycling towards one of the most impressive: the Moon Valley. This desert landscape is protected as part of a Natural Reserve.

In the National Park there is a circuit going through the salt lake, a canyon, mountains and rock formations.

Rock and salt formation

Perhaps the star of this National Park is this huge dune:

Great Dune

On the road, I could also spot some amazing landscapes with snow-capped mountains in the distance:

Snow-capped mountains in the horizon

And so I ended my cycling day through the desert with a couple of kilos less I guess, from how sweaty it was to pedal in the heat!! But naturally it was worth it. I don’t want to overload this with photos but the landscape was really spectacular.

I left San Pedro so quickly because I had to reach Santiago to take the first flight of my round-the-world ticket, to Easter Island… more to come in the next post.

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Paraguay/Argentina – Iesus Hominum Salvator

Between 1609 and 1818, territories now belonging to Argentina, Paraguay and Brazil witnessed one of the most ambitious social experiments ever undertaken: the attempt to civilise indigenous guaranis through the establishment of the Jesuit Guarani Missions.

Emblem of the Jesuit order

There were 30 villages organised by the Jesuits adding up 141,182 inhabitants in 1732. All those settlements had their own school where guaranis learned art, culture and professional trades. Music, sculpture, dance and other arts flourished in the Missions. The historical assessment of this project is very controversial: some highlight the benefits that Missions brought to guaranis such as protection from slave traders, the diffusion of culture, arts and advanced agriculture techniques; others see this undertaking as an annihilation of traditional guarani lifestyle and part of the exploitative system of colonialism.

The truth is that guarani culture didn’t go extinct by any means, and guaranis kept their traditional religious practices, despite the efforts of Jesuits to convert them to Christianity. Why? The guide in San Ignacio (a guarani) put it this way: in that village population reached up to 5,000 inhabitants, and there were never more that 2 Jesuits. Today, there are still guaranis living isolated like centuries ago, and guarani language is an official language in Paraguay, spoken as much as Spanish.

In 1767, King Charles III of Spain expelled the Jesuits from Spain and all the Spanish territories. The Missions decayed short after, under the bad administration of the new secular directors, and were finally abandoned altogether.

Today, we can appreciate the remains of some of these villages, although most of them are not preserved. The Argentinian province of Misiones and the South of Paraguay host the best-preserved ruins. It is worth going there to visit them and imagine how life must have been like in the Missions.

From Iguazú I travelled to Posadas, capital of the region of Misiones, and to San Ignacio, that host the most visited mission: San Ignacio Miní. It was established in 1610 in territories now belonging to Brazil, but had to be relocated twice after attacks by bandeirantes (slave and gold traffickers). A guide explains all the details of life in the Mission, which is really interesting. There was one big main square. To one side, the church, the residence of the Jesuits, the school and a cemetery; to the other, the houses of guaranis.

Facade of the church in San Ignacio Miní

After visiting San Ignacio and Posadas I crossed the frontier with Paraguay and reached Encarnación. The following day, I jumped on a bus and got to the ruins of Trinidad, equally well preserved.

Ruins of Trinidad

The visit was very different to the one in San Ignacio. There was no guide or tour around, and almost no other visitors. However, as it has a very similar layout to the one in San Ignacio, more explanations were unnecessary.

So there I was, all by my own in the whole complex, in a very quiet environment. I stayed reading for a while up in the bell tower. I thought I was having visions when I saw a married couple and their 7 small children going up the stairs. They were dressed like 19th century (kind of like Amish but leaner), with their wicker basket and speaking American English.

Mennonite family from Massachusetts

‘How the hell did they arrive to such a place?’, I wondered. When they were getting down, the father asked me if I could speak English and we started talking. I told him a bit about the history of the Missions. He said they were from Massachusetts, they belonged to a religious group called Mennonites and had come to Paraguay for a few months as part of an exchange with Paraguayan families of their church. Really weird to find this family there, they were like utterly out of place.

We continued to explore the ruins separately. I enjoyed my visit to the Missions. It is somewhat original and you can imagine how life would be in that time, and think about that kind of undertaking. Visiting those two missions seemed enough to me. There is a whole circuit, but as I mentioned, they were pretty much alike at the time, and those two are probably the best preserved.

Another feature of Paraguay is the unbearable heat. To overcome that, I went for the national drink, a good tereré (iced mate).

Tereré

Brazil/Argentina – The Iguaçu Falls

After a few weeks in the big cities of Sao Paulo and Rio, I took a U-turn towards a setting of an incredible natural beauty: the Iguazú Falls.

The waterfalls are just in the frontier between Brazil and Argentina. Parts of it belong to Brazil and others (most) to Argentina. Thus, to see the whole thing you need to visit both National Parks, managed by two different countries. It is difficult to take sides on which side is better, and actually it is quite a controversial issue. In Argentina, you can wander really close to the falls along several paths. The Brazilian Park offers a great panoramic view of the falls that are actually on the Argentinian side. So you have to visit both to get a full impression of this amazing scenery.

As I was coming from Sao Paulo, I stayed in Foz do Iguacu and visited the Brazilian side first. I shouldn’t make any comments since the photos speak by themselves:

Iguacu waterfalls

Iguacu waterfalls

Hydroelectric plant at ITAIPU

Another interesting visit in Foz do Iguacu (at least for an engineer like me) is the huge dam and hydroelectric power station of Itaipu, in the frontier between Brazil and Paraguay. Its 14,000 MW of installed capacity made it the largest in the world, until the completion of the Three Gorges dam in China. In Itaipu they insist that, measuring by electricity generated (not by capacity) it still ranks as the first in the world.

Each generating unit has a power equivalent to a nuclear plant

Each generating unit has a power equivalent to a nuclear plant

This massive plant supplies 17% of the energy consumed in Brazil and 80% of Paraguay’s. Both countries hold the rights to 50% of the electricity generated, although Paraguay (a small country) resells a large part of its share to Brazil.

The following day I crossed the frontier, changed currencies and left Brazil after 1,5 months in the country. I stayed in the Argentinian village of Puerto Iguazu. This town, just as its Brazilian neighbour, lives out of the inflow of tourists that come to see the Iguazu Falls.

I spent the next day in the National Park with more and better views of the Falls:

View from below one of the waterfalls

View from above one of the waterfalls

Brazil – Gold fever, church fever

After the craziness of Carnival in Rio, I escaped for a few days to a more relaxed setting: Ouro Preto (“black gold”) and Mariana, in the state of Minas Gerais, which are two of the best-preserved colonial villages in Latin America.

Main square in Ouro Preto

Villa Rica de Ouro Preto is the quintessential gold fever boom town. In the 18th century, gold production in Minas Gerais reached memorable proportions, surpassing that of all the Spanish colonies in the two centuries before. Fortune-seekers rushed to Ouro Preto, alongside thousands of slaves to provide labour in the mines. While making a fortune from gold, the rich enjoyed luxurious and ostentatious living standards. The economic centre of Brazil shifted from the North (sugar barons) to the South, and so remains until today.

From the second half of the 18th century gold production in Ouro Preto declined, and fortune-seekers moved elsewhere. Today, Ouro Preto and Mariana are two small, laid-back towns, preserved as if frozen in time.

Bridge in Ouro Preto

The main tourist drag in Ouro Preto are the 23 churches spread along the village, also owing to the gold fever. It is quite impressive that in such a small village there are that many churches, and all of them are architecturally beautiful. There was certain competition between religious orders that made them strive to build more and better churches. Blacks weren’t allowed to attend mass with whites, so they built their own temple with what they could pilfer from the mines. The style is known as Barroco Mineiro, a variation of the European style whose most acclaimed representative is Aleijadinho, an Ouro Preto native.

Two of the churches in Mariana

Ouro Preto and Mariana are both small laid-back towns, good for wandering about and admire colonial architecture or try traditional food from Minas Gerais. After that, there’s not much else to do, and after a couple of days, I headed back to Rio.

Mariana

Brazil – Samba…de Janeiro!!

After some days studying hard, there’s nothing better to unwind than a good party: Carnival in Rio. The first thing you should know is that it’s very expensive and you need to book months in advance. All the accommodation options are jam-packed, and they force you to book a “pacote” or Carnival package for a minimum of 5-7 nights at a price which is 4 times the usual rate. That’s before mentioning tickets to the Sambodromo or what you’re likely to spend in alcohol while partying non-stop for a week. Nevertheless, it makes an unforgettable experience, one of the best parties ever.

This van took me from Sao Paulo to Rio

My Carnival experience started with a fright. As soon as I finished the last exam on Friday morning, I went to the bus station and asked for a ticket for Rio. I should’ve bought it in advance, but with the exams I didn’t find the time. I was told that until Saturday night (arriving Sunday), all the buses were full. In such case, I’d lose two prepaid (and crazily expensive) hostel nights. Thank goodness I finally found some people who were making a killing out of this: they transported people in their vans for slightly more than the bus ticket. After a few hours in the van, another incident: an accident occurred in the highway, added to all the traffic jam to get into Rio the day the Carnival started. We spent several hours stopped in the middle of the highway, with everybody out of their cars.

Finally, I arrived at the hostel at 2:30 am. There was nobody in the dorm, but just a moment later, Diego (a Brazilian from upstate Rio) showed up. He asked me if I was going out that night and 10 minutes later we were in Lapa, the heart of Rio’s party on Fridays.  We saw the great party atmosphere, ordered a few caipirinhas and partied for the next 5 days.

Party atmosphere in Santa Teresa

The atmosphere in Rio is great. There are parties spread all over the city all day long, and at the same time people just living their normal lives. Walking down the street, you are equally likely to see a group of youngsters dressed as a butterfly and drinking beer or a woman walking her dog. There are dedicated areas where you can find music and drinking, like this one in Santa Teresa.

Banda de Ipanema

Every neighbourhood has its own activities, particularly blocos and bandas. In the blocos, people and music go down the street, or just stay at some fixed point in the neighbourhood. Some of them have thousands of followers and some others are small parties oriented towards families. The bandas have more musicians who play the trumpet and other instruments. The most popular is Banda de Ipanema, which parades along the beachfront.

Spontaneous street dancing

As Brazilians are very spontaneous, there was also improvised dancing in the street, with people coming and going.

Float of one of the Escolas de samba

But the most characteristic are the  escolas de samba. They prepare their floats and their performances months in advance.

The final in the Sambodromo (purpose-built stadium) is the high point. The parade sometimes goes on until 6 am, with the spectators standing and dancing for hours. I didn’t buy a ticket for the Sambodromo, because I’d already spent so much money, but went to the entrance to see the floats parading towards the Sambodromo. There were probably more people watching from outside than inside the stadium. However, from what I saw, being inside must be great. It is also popular among tourists to sign up with one of the escolas de samba and parade through the Sambodromo. If you do that, you need to buy the escola’s costume.

Guess who’s going to the Sambodromo

After 5 days in Rio, I travelled to Ouro Preto for a couple of days (see next post), but I was back in Rio on Saturday for the grand finale: the monobloco. Although it is no longer Carnival officially, the monobloco is in fact the end of the Carnival, next Sunday, before many Brazilians return to work on Monday. It starts at 8 am and keeps going all morning at Rio’s centre, attracting about half a million people.

It’s Carnival!

PS: no, I’m not gonna add pictures of me in Carnival costume, so don’t ask, LOL.

Brazil – Ilha do Amor

My second boat trip took me to Santarem. Some boats do the entire journey between Manaus and Belém, but it’s better to stop for some days in Santarem to break up this long journey.

Santarem is a medium-sized city. It has a couple of small museums, an airport and lots of trade. At night, I could notice a few Brazilian tourists having an ice cream while strolling along the waterfront. Their white skin doesn’t allow for confusion with locals. Santarem is also a good base to explore the jungle, in particular the Floresta Nacional de Tapajos.

Main square in Alter do Chao

What really attracts backpackers to this area is the nearby village of Alter do Chão, 33 km from Santarem, by the Tapajos river. Alter do Chão is nice, small, and has a square with views to the river.  The white sand river beach is 500 metres from the square, so everything here is within walking distance. The small former fishing boats here now offer “paseios“, or excursions for visitors to nearby lakes or other attractions. However, it continues to be a very nice village with a laid-back feel, unspoilt by the growing development of tourism.

Ilha do Amor

In the shore opposite the village lies Ilha do Amor, an island with white-sand beaches and, inland, places to get lost. It was the rainy season so beaches were somewhat reduced; however, the views were still pretty.

Alter do Chão has been a backpacker paradise for years. Quite isolated in the Amazon, it is a small, extremely laid-back town that features both beach and nature. The perfect place to spend some time. And many people stay here for quite a while. It seems that time doesn’t go by in Alter do Chão, one of those relaxed places where people don’t wear a watch. If you ask a traveller how long he’s been here, he keeps thinking and finally answers: “2 or 3 months, I believe…” and “it feels like I arrived just yesterday”.

Before falling into the slow pace of this little village, I remembered that my exams were approaching and I needed to get to São Paulo in time to take them. I got back to Santarem by bus and went to the port with the aim to buy a ticket for the next boat for Belem. I was informed that the next boat wouldn’t depart until Friday, so, oops! I was “forced” to stay 3 extra days in this beautiful town (how bad!! :-)).

Posada da Floresta

The backpackers who get there are a different species from those you find in cities like Buenos Aires or Paris. Young people about 18-23 years old on a gap year skip this kind of places, on a rush towards the next highlight. Those who stay in places like this are usually older, value peace and quiet, nature and travelling at a slow pace; many of them have had -or still have- their hippy years.

Beach behind Posada da Floresta

Where do they stay? One of the most popular spots is Posada da Floresta. It’s a hostel with a very, very laid-back atmosphere. Each one sleeps in his or her own hammock and cooks his or her own food. Sleeping in hammocks, self-catering and with a slow lifestyle, just cooking and going to the beach, reading and not doing much else, one can spend quite a long spell on very little money. At the back of the hostel there is a small beach which was always empty, just a few steps away. This is one of the places where internet hasn’t arrived yet, so people actually meet and talk instead of being each one connected to home, surfing facebook or writing this blog :-). Internet has certainly transformed the experience of travelling. This place is so relaxed that when I left I was looking for a member of the staff for over half an hour, to pay for my hammock spot. I finally found them, in an out-of-the-way room, smoking a few joints. If I’d gone without paying, probably nobody would’ve noticed and they’d have been just as happy!

After Santarem, the third boat took me to Belém. From there, I went to Fortaleza and after that São Paulo, where I took two exams in a Spanish school. Switching from North to South in Brazil is like travelling to a different country. The South has nothing to do with the Amazon region. I won’t blog about these 3 places, so in the next post, we’ll travel to Rio for a very special festival: Carnival!!!

Brazil – Exploring the jungle

Our expedition departed Hostel Manaus at 6 am for a jungle lodge in a tributary of the Amazon River: a couple from Hong Kong, 2 Germans, a Chinese and a Brazilian who lives in China, an Austrian guy, a Brazilian from the South, another from the Southwest and me.

I don’t usually engage in organised tours, but to get into the jungle this is a must. So I signed up with Amazon Antonio, a company that has an office inside Hostel Manaus. For you to get an idea if you’re planning a trip there, the cost is 160 R$/day, 3 days minimum. Not cheap but without a doubt, it’s worth it.

From the observation tower in the lodge, you can see a beautiful landscape. Since this was the rainy season, some areas were flooded, with the trees partially under water. This is good for exploring the area in canoe, which was our first activity.

View from the camp’s observation deck

Canoe

Going slowly in the canoe, one could hear animal’s sounds and the water flowing slowly. Every once in a while we saw a bird on the branch of a tree. We could spot the two most popular species: the toucan and the parrot.

The guide fished many piranha

We stopped our canoe trip for some minutes to fish for piranha. You should know that I’m hopeless, useless for piranha fishing :-(. Not only did I not catch anyone, but they didn’t even bite my hook, XD. As for the guide, on the contrary, it was just throwing the bait and catching a piranha. (not fair! :-)). Soooo, despite my ineptitude, we had enough piranha for dinner 🙂

Little cayman

After dinner, we went out on the conoes again. The jungle and the river feel different at night-time. More animals go out at night, and the fact of not seeing much makes the experience more misterious. From the distance, the guide could distinguish two small bright lights, unnoticeable to anybody else. They were the eyes of a baby cayman, we could later spot several in the flooded area. They were so small and soooo cute!! If you massage their belly, they fall asleep, and deeply! After that, we returned to the lodge and spent the night there.

Drinking water local style

On the second day, we woke up early and went into the jungle before sunrise. It was very interesting to learn from the guide’s explanations. He was born in a village in the jungle, and knows really well the fauna and flora, as well as the tricks of the jungle. Of course, we tried them all! For instance, putting your arm in an ant’s nest and rubbing your arm with ants exudes an odour that is a natural insect repellent. Another tip: if you’re thirsty, you just have to cut a vine and pour the water from inside. He also cut a branch with his machete and made a wicker basket in no more than 5 minutes. Well, Amazonian natives don’t need much to survive in the jungle! That night, we sprung up our hammocks between two trees and lit a fire to cook some chicken.

A little spider

The next day, we trekked deeper into the jungle at sunrise. As we got farther from the river, the rainforest got thicker. It takes at least 7 days to reach the thickest Amazonian ecosystem. Of course we didn’t get that far, but we got an idea. We continued to spot different animals: birds, insects like this spider (nice but I’d better not come across her again!).

The third day, the group split up. Some stayed for a forth day with some other activities, and the rest of us left for Manaus.

To conclude, I really enjoyed those days. In the middle of the jungle, there are no distractions and you can enjoy nature to the fullest: amazing landscapes, animals, the sound of the jungle, etc. It is certainly touristy, but this time I think you have to go for it. Exploring the jungle is a must, if you ever happen to be in the Amazon Rainforest.

View from the river