Highway to hell

Due to the recommendation of my Argentinean friends Michael and Sabri, I set off to explore the north of Argentina. From Puerto Iguazu I took another 22 hour bus ride to get me to San Miguel de Tucuman. Here I wanted to find some fellow travelers to rent a car together. While boarding the bus, I had already spotted two couples that were also heading to Tucuman. Randomly I asked one of them, what their plans were: Renting a car for one week and exploring the area. Bingo! Even if I didn’t win the free on-board Bingo game, I had just won the main prize, far better than a bottle of wine: Two new friends and a week full of adventures!

As we left Tucuman we were surrounded by thick forest
As we left Tucuman we were surrounded by thick forest

We set off the following morning with a Chrysler Corsa that Elise and Brice had booked the same day. On our way to Tafi del Valle we entered the mountains and the landscape around us changed from lush green forests to open grasslands. After a quick stop at the Menhir collection of El Mollar, we continued and took a mountain pass with a little shop, titled “Infiernillo” – little hell. And it was almost like passing a gate (to hell), because the climate changed once again and turned into a hot and dry mountain desert, favoring the growth of little shrubs and cacti in the area behind the pass.

Higher up we found green hills
Higher up we found green hills
One of the monoliths at the Menhir collection
Some of the monoliths at the Menhir collection in El Mollar

In Amaicha del Valle we spent the night and visited the Pachamama Museum, a showroom for the works of the local artist Hector Cruz, which also has exhibitions on the geological formation of the valley (Valle Calchaquies) as well as on the indigenous history of the area. The museum itself is already very artistic and definitely worth a visit. Almost next door is a little canyon with a nice waterfall – “El Remate”. We paid the entrance fee and got a private guide who took us to the waterfall.

Visiting the very artistic Pachamama Museum
Visiting the very artistic Pachamama Museum
The waterfall of El Ramate
The waterfall “El Ramate”

Further down the valley lies the ruin of the holy city Los Quilmes. It’s the remains of an old city, more than 1000 years old, that is believed to have had up to 5000 people living in it at its peak. The walls of the houses have been restored so that you can walk around and get an impression of how big the city was. Unfortunately none of the roofs were rebuilt, leaving it up to imagination how it looked like. (A few days later we visited other ruins, which had roofs.)

The ruins of the holy city of Quilmes
The ruins of the holy city of Quilmes
The ruins of the holy city of Quilmes
At Quilmes the landscape around us had turned into desert

As we drove past Cafayate we were running low on gas. Luckily, the “Quebrada de las Conchas” started right outside the town and we wanted to visit it before it got dark. However, driving to the main attractions of the gorge, “El Anfiteatro” and “Garganta del Diablo”, was further than we had expected. The grandeur of the surrounding landscape was nevertheless worth the trip. Both, amphitheater and devil’s throat, are short canyons that lead to the main gorge. Their small entrance to a huge room flanked by tall red walls and the great acoustics are used by local artists.

Local artist using the acoustics of the natural Amphitheatre
Local artist using the acoustics of the natural Amphitheatre
Climbing into the "Garganta del Diablo"
Climbing into the “Garganta del Diablo”

Getting back to Cafayate was a bit more exciting than necessary, because by the time we reached the town we had done about 80 km on our empty tank. However, with Brice’s excellent driving skills we made it back in one piece without being stranded on the small roads through the gorge.

The Quebrada de las Conchas
The “Quebrada de las Conchas”

The next day we chose to take a section of the legendary “Ruta Nacional 40” (RN40), which runs from the southernmost point of Argentina in Tierra del Fuego all the way north to Bolivia. And if we had thought the road yesterday was small, we had to revise our definition of small: A gravel road, sometimes only wide enough for one car to pass, which is sufficient, because we only met a handful of cars during the whole day. This time we had a full tank and were ready to take on the adventure.

Driving on the RN 40
Driving on the RN 40

Driving through the “Quebrada de las Flechas” was an adventure by itself. Here, the color of the surrounding rocks was mostly light yellow to grey, a big contrast to yesterday’s red. The rocks were also very pointy, making the terrain look quite rough. We met a few people who had to use their spare wheel, but this time it wasn’t us.

The "Quebrada de las Flechas"
The “Quebrada de las Flechas”
On the road with Brice and Elise
On the road with Brice and Elise

As the day continued we stopped in different places along the way, but the most exciting one coming up later in the day – the “Puente del Diablo”, the devil’s bridge. It’s a natural bridge over the river that we had been following the whole day. Here, the river flows through a small cave, where the entrance is only allowed with a local guide. If you don’t have one, you can still get some excitement wading through the knee-deep water underneath the natural bridge, which eventually leads to the cave.

The canyon at "Puente del Diablo"
The canyon at “Puente del Diablo”
The entrance to the real cave is a little further down the river
The entrance to the real cave is a little further down the river

By now it was quite late in the day and we still had another 50 km left to San Antonio de los Cobres. This doesn’t seem like a lot, but it involved the passage of another mountain pass at almost 5000 m, which we didn’t know. We had expected to be high up in the mountains, but not that high. On the way we encountered a shepherd with his herd of lamas, who were blocking our way.

Driving up to the pass...
Driving up to the pass…
...we found our way blocked by a herd of llamas
…we found our way blocked by a herd of lamas

We reached the pass at sunset, where we got a spectacular view of the surrounding mountains. However, we did not stay for long, because it was cold, windy and the thin air made us feel a little dizzy. Additionally we didn’t want to drive down in complete darkness, which we managed quite well, because it only turned pitch black just outside of San Antonio de los Cobres. By the time we reached our accommodation “El Portal de los Andes”, we didn’t care if it was the portal to hell or out of it, we were just exhausted.

We almost reached 5000 m of altitude!
We almost reached 5000 m of altitude!
On the way down it was quickly getting dark.
On the way down it was quickly getting dark

Mega wat(ers)

Foz do Iguacu is the perfect location to explore the Brazilian side of the world famous waterfalls. As the river marks the border between Brazil and Argentina, there is also the Argentinean side to visit. But I’ve heard from friends that both sides are worth a visit. The former one is easily accessible by public transport, which takes you right to the entrance of the national park. From there it is necessary to take another bus inside the park to get you to the actual falls.

First sight of the waterfalls

The first sight of the falls is already impressive, as the water drops over the edge in several places – some with the full height of 84 meters, some with another level in-between. It is quite amazing when you look at it, wait a few minutes and notice that still the same amount of water is falling down every second. It is just so much water! And while you continue to walk along the edge, there are still more waterfalls you haven’t seen before.

More waterfalls are to be discovered as you walk along the edge
The main attraction on the Brazilian side is a boardwalk that takes you close to the center of the “Garganta del Diablo”, the throat of the devil, where you are sure to get wet just by looking at it. Or you can dare to look over the edge to see how the water must feel like just before dropping another 20 meters.

The view of the Brazilian boardwalk

The look over the edge
But Foz do Iguacu has another attraction to offer – the world’s second largest hydroelectric dam, located on the Parana River on the border between Brazil and Paraguay. The dam and the company that manages it belong to neither country, but are part of a big national contract between the two countries. It generates enough power (14000 Mega watts) to cover nearly 20% of Brazil’s and 80% of Paraguay’s energy demand. The power plant was built in the 70s and began operating in 1984, with the last turbine being installed only in 2007, after the reservoir was completely filled.

The Itaipu dam
Going on the “special tour” also enables you to get a look behind the scenes – going inside the dam, looking at the control room, which is permanently vibrating under the force of the turbines and going all the way down to the generator rooms, where it is hot and noisy. And if you thought that the Iguacu Falls had a lot of water, think again, because the amount of water would only fill two of the 20 steel tubes that lead to the generators.

The control room inside the dam
Two of the steel tubes carry the same amout of water as the Iguacu falls
After exploring both sights, I crossed the border into Argentina. Of course they have their own border-town, Puerto Iguazu (now with a z), mainly built for tourists visiting the falls. Again, local transport will bring you to the main entrance, but from there a little train will take you to the main attractions. Being on the first train of the day, I managed to get to the “Garganta del Diablo” ahead of everyone else, getting a superb view from the top of this large waterfall.

The difference between being among the first ones at the “Garganta del Diablo”…
…and arriving ten minutes later!
But the view from the “Upper circuit” was truly amazing, when you’re in line with the main section of the waterfall. When you look at it without camera, smartphone or tablet it will surely give you goosebumps! And if that’s not enough, there are cute and crazy coatis, wild toucans and even a waterfall to take a bath.

Nothing short of magical
Crazy coati waiting for some food
Wild toucan enjoyong the quietness of the jungle
Taking a shower under one of the smaller waterfalls

A long way

Our next stop was going to be Parati. We had heard from several people that it is worth a visit, so we decided to go there. We took a big ferry from the last century to Angra dos Reis and from there a bus to take us all the way to Parati.

Our ship to Angra dos Reis

We arrived on time for one of the free walking tours, which are offered all around the world only based on tips. This time however, there were other local guides that stepped in and told our guy that he was stealing their clients. One of the guys was really aggressive, but his friend was nice enough to hold him back and to mitigate and in the end they let us go.

The little streets of Parati
The cobblestone streets get flooded at high water

It was a really interesting city tour, as Parati, being built in 1674, is the oldest fully planned city in South America. A big role in the planning of the city had the free mason’s, the old secret society. Everywhere in the city you can find their symbols or their preferred numbers: 3 (every intersection had three stone corners and one corner was left empty) and 33 (the houses, in which highly placed members lived, had three columns, each with eleven symbols).

A freemason’s house in Parati

It was also a highly fortified town, because it used to be the harbor where the gold from Minhas Gerais was brought to for shipping it to Rio and then on to Europe. Of course the pirates also knew about the gold transports, causing frequent attacks and losses to the transporting ships. Therefore the government decided to build a new road, connecting Minhas Gerais directly to Rio, which cut off Parati and left it forgotten.

Nowadays the city has many Cachaca distilleries

But the area has more to offer than just the city. There are some rivers with nice little waterfalls just outside the city, which offer enough adrenaline for everyone. Although it’s name “Tarzan” suggests swinging on a big rope, this one was just for swimming, unless you dare to jump off the big rock like the locals do. Right next door is the Toboggan waterfall, a big rock that can be used as a waterslide. And of course there is a local way of doing it – standing up while sliding down. I didn’t try that out, as they know the curves and cracks of the Rock better than anyone else.

Of course I had to jump the rock at Tarzan’s waterfall
Locals sliding down the Toboggan waterfall

And after this little adventure it was time to get rid of my beard, as it has been a long way since the last time that I had shaved: No-shave-November had been turned into No-shave-Africa, Rio didn’t have barbers open when I had the time for them and I didn’t find any on Ilha Grande (not that I put much effort into finding one there).

The result of No-shave-Africa
Looking much better!

Afterwards our ways parted again as Nik went on to visit a friend in Minhas Gerais, whereas I continued towards Foz do Iguacu, where the world famous waterfalls are located. To add some adventure, I decided to hitchhike from Parati to Sao Paolo, because the bus was already fully booked. I was lucky and after fifteen minutes of waiting I found Alex, who took me all the way to Sao Paolo. And I was even happier when I found out that there was still space on the night bus to take me to Foz do Iguacu.

Even in the middle of nowhere I was lucky and got a ride within 15 minutes
On our way to Sao Paolo we passed the second biggest Cathedral in the world, located in Aparecida

A visit in paradise

Even if I had met Nik only briefly on the city tour we decided to travel together, because he also had the idea of going to Ilha Grande. The island is located about 130 km from Rio and is popular with tourists and locals alike. However, there were not a lot of people on the island when we arrived there, making it a great spot to relax from the hustle of Rio and Cape Town. The transfer was relatively easy and we arranged for pick up right at our hostels.

Unfortunately the pirate ship was not our transfer boat to Ilha Grande

On the bus we met Bea, who has been working for two weeks at a hostel on the island. Since we hadn’t booked any accommodation, we followed her to the “Fleur da Ilha”. It seemed to be a bit old and run down, but the location right at the beach at the center of the village was great and we gave it a shot. And it proved to be a hidden flower of the island with really friendly staff, a sense of cleanliness and good breakfast.

A hidden gem – our hostel on Ilha Grande

The next days we set off to explore the island. First to the remains of an old cholera hospital, which was treating incoming immigrants before they could enter Brazil. Then to an old aqueduct, which has been supplying the village with fresh water for about 100 years. We followed the trail through the thick jungle, with monkeys screaming in the distance, up to a nice little waterfall, where we could cool off from the humid weather. The beach was also not too far away, so we decided to include it as well. We were quite surprised to find a few locals here selling drinks, ice cream, coconuts and other snacks, but later we found them on every beach, as it is easy to transport everything by boat to the different beaches.

The aqueduct in the middle of the forest
Hiking with Nik through the jungle
The water was nice and refreshing after the hike

Another hike took us to the other side of the island to the Lopes Mendes beach, which is considered to be one of Brazil’s most beautiful beaches. The beach is located on the south side of the island and is unprotected from incoming waves from the Atlantic. Unfortunately there were high waves making it impossible for snorkeling and going in the water past your waist line. We still enjoyed the soft sand and the sound of the waves while relaxing under some trees.

On the way to Lopes Mendes Beach we passed other beautiful beaches
High waves at Lopes Mendes Beach make snorkeling impossible

If you want to see more of the island you have to do a multi-day hike, or you take one of the many speedboats that will take you to one of the more remote beaches around, which is what we did. As it didn’t matter to us if the beaches are on Ilha Grande or some other islands in the area, we chose a tour that would take us to “Las Ilhas Paraisicas”, the paradise islands, where we were hoping for less crowds than with the popular trips to the “Blue Lagoon” and the “Green Lagoon”.

Enjoying ice cold beer at an almost deserted beach

The trip included four stops on different islands, where we got some time for snorkeling or just relaxing on the beach. We saw quite a few colorful fishes, but also turtles. The beaches were really nice, with clean, white sand and turquoise water. I’m sure this is what paradise looks like for many people, but not for me. Don’t get me wrong – I do think that those are beautiful places, but it didn’t give me the same “wow”-feeling that I get in the mountains, plus I got a really bad sunburn, which usually happens to me at the beach even if I put on sunscreen.

One of the paradise islands that was great for snorkeling

We saw many colorful fish while snorkeling

To conclude our trip to paradise, we had to dine like the gods. What better way is there than to have the best homemade pizza? At least that’s what everyone at the hostel was telling us about Soldado’s pizza. So we got curious and asked him to make it for us, if we paid for the ingredients. Soldado works at the hostel and used to be a paratrooper for the Brazilian army. He doesn’t speak any English, seems a bit crazy, but he’s still a nice guy and managed to give us a lively impression of what it’s like to be with the special forces of the Brazilian army. And of course he did make really good pizza!

Soldado is making pizza
Bye bye Ilha Grande!

Oh solo Rio

When I arrived in Brazil I was quite fascinated – everything was different compared to the airports of Windhoek and Cape Town: The staff was friendly, helpful, English speaking and quite well organized and the suitcases arrived very quickly. I was off for a good start. However, my luck did not last very long, as there is only one ATM per terminal, which charges a lot of money for withdrawals. Nevertheless I had to take it in order to pay for the bus. Another issue is the language, since very few Brazilians (except for the staff at the airport) actually speak English. Spanish helps in several cases, so I was happy to see how much I already learned using Duolingo frequently.

Lush vegetation on the way to Rio

The airport of Sao Paolo is close to a city called Guarulhos, which also has a bus terminal. I was told to go there, because they also have busses leaving to Rio de Janeiro, saving me the trouble of going 25 km to Sao Paolo and back. What the people didn’t know was the fact that this terminal is way less frequented than the one in Sao Paolo. In the end I spent four hours at the bus terminal, including one hours delay of the bus. Luckily they had free WiFi and I had a few things to do, like downloading the offline dictionary from Google translate, so it didn’t get boring.

The landscape has many hills and valleys

Since I hadn’t gotten any recommendation on a hostel in Rio, I looked at some online reviews and booked my hostel based on that. However, once I got there I had to find out that the location was safe and quiet, but a bit too much as it is located in a residential neighborhood. Additionally there were no other solo travelers my age, so it was difficult to meet new travel mates. Therefore, and because I only wanted to spent two days in Rio, I booked a tour that would take me to all major sights in one day.

My hostel was located in a very residential area

We started off with visiting “J. C.”, as our tour guide named him, being quite familiar with the statue. With its height of 30 m, the Redentor is very impressive, located on the Concorvado hill top overlooking the city. It was built in the 1920s with donations from mostly catholics all over Brazil. The open arms are forming a cross with the rest of the body, but also represent a welcoming gesture to the ships entering the port of Rio, as well as being a sign of peace.

The mighty statue of Cristo Redentor is towering above Rio

Up next was the neighborhood of Santa Teresa, which is an area where only rich people used to live. Now it has been overtaken by alternative people and artists, giving it a nice vibe. Very artistic are also the Seleron steps, a set of steps that were turned into artwork by a guy named Seleron. He decorated them with lots of tile fragments in the colors of the Brazilian flag. After getting internationally famous through music videos and social media, people started to send him tiles from all over the world. Now it includes tiles from over 60 countries, making it one of the most international pieces of artwork in the world.

The streets of Lapa
At the Seleron steps

The huge cathedral, a modern structure which is made of concrete and glass, is big enough to seat 5000 people or 20000 people standing. However, it’s capacity is hardly ever needed, as our tour guide explained: Brazilians like to pray on the beach on Sundays. I guess that’s why some towns do have their churches right at the beach. Rio’s most famous beaches, Ipanema and Copacabana, are bordered by high-rise hotels, leaving no space for other buildings. Nevertheless you can still get a prime spot on sunny weekends.

Difficult decision for Brazilians on Sundays: Church…
… or beach, like here in Ipanema

In the evening I tried to meet up with Nik, a guy from England that I had briefly met on the sightseeing tour. We were staying in different hostels and agreed to go to Lapa for some drinks. When we decided for a meeting point we had no idea of how crowded the streets would be. In the end we couldn’t find each other (no WiFi/phone), so I just walked through the streets enjoying the atmosphere.

The streets in Lapa are busy on a Friday night

Another great experience was the guided walking tour through the favela Rocinha. Nowadays, favela is the word used for slums/townships in South America, or for a really messy and dirty place. Originally it is the name of a plant that was growing on the steep hills, where the townships were built. As it was hard work to remove the plants with their thick network of roots, the people identified themselves with the hard work and called the area favela.

Inside of the favela
One of the wider and livelier streets of Rocinha

Rocinha is Brazil’s largest favela, with about 120,000 people living in a very small area without high-rise buildings, so everything is build very compact, with tiny alleys that are not big enough for cars to pass through. Some favelas are more dangerous than others, and here they seemed to have made some sort of agreement with the tour company to ensure their safety: Every stop on the tour is used to get more money from the tourists – the gallery with art from local artists, the drumming session of some locals, the bakery, women selling their handmade craft and the daycare center for children, which is funded by a part of the tour fee. Overall it’s still a very interesting tour!

Locals using improvised drums for some Samba beats
The local bakery has homemade delicacies