Few creatures have been as celebrated, mythologized and ultimately enslaved as the misnamed Killer Whale, actually the largest, and most intriguing of the entire dolphin family. I was raised, like many, on a TV diet of Flipper and Sea Hunt, and later entertained by the aquatic circus at Sea World. The reality of what I was watching never hit me until much later, after the documentary Blackfish revealed the ghastly truth behind the scenes. Orcas and other wild animals are best served and appreciated wild, and just seeing them where they belong is astounding.
There is an isolated beach on the Atlantic coast of Argentina where the southern Orcas gather, and it’s the only place in the world where they actually beach themselves to hunt sea lions. This has been made famous in videos, but just like a virtuoso concert, nothing beats live.
The venue is a peninsula called the Valdez, one of Argentina’s outstanding national parks, situated about a thousand miles south of Buenos Aires. The portal entry is Puerto Madryn, an attractive city that is the wintertime retreat of avid watchers of the Southern Right Whale, which converge here by the score from June until December. Excursion boats full of enthusiasts leave here to get a close look at the mighty earthlings, and when that season fades, the Orcas begin to show.
Their happy place is out on the far northeast point of this remarkable cape, at an isolated beach called Punta Norte. Halfway there lies the only real town on the peninsula, Puerto Piramides, where a couple of hundred folks live here year round, swelling to several times that in peak season from January through March. The setting is a marvelous bay surrounded by sandy bluffs where the wildlife far outnumbers the humans, my kind of place. The dive and kayak shops fill up with customers in the make hay days, and there are dozens of lodging options available, including camping, right behind the town beach.
Punta Norte is 75 wide open, uninhabited kilometers away, a virtually treeless stretch with head high bushes and dozens of long necked Guanacos munching on them. The ranger station at Punta Norte is a well equipped outpost with facilities to handle a large amount of people, including bathrooms and a cafe. A long boardwalk overlooking the beach provides the viewing platform, and this is as close to the action as visitors are allowed. An 8 iron down the beach is a large group of sea lions that occupy a stretch of beach, and this is where your attention is drawn. A number of them are always in the water adjacent to the group, and this is where the action is.
The killers tend to show up in a six hour window surrounding high tide, when the water level provides closest proximity to the beach. Spectators arrive early in this cycle and begin setting up their vantage points for the expected arrival of the big black and whites. A majority of the visitors sport serious cameras, many with two foot lens, and the waiting begins. I was wandering around the station for less than an hour when the word came out that a pod had been spotted approaching from the south. The rangers here, and there are many, keep a constant watch out for the Orcas with binoculars, and they communicate that to the station. So everybody takes their place along the wooden rail, and soon enough clouds of vapor appear are visible a quarter mile down the coast.
In a couple of minutes the big black dorsal fins are visible, including one jumbo triangle, straight as an isosceles, two meters in height. This is a male known as Ajuela, and I had the sensation of viewing a cruising u boat. All the Orcas are positively identified by their dorsal fins and individual white markings, and all have been named. The Punta Norte Orca Research organization has catalogued 15 of the most frequent visitors, including Lea, Jasmine, and Mel, another big male who was thought to be 49 years old a few years ago. He hasn’t been seen in a few years now, and likely is deceased as the average life expectancy for males is 50 years, 30 less than the females, a giant gap between the sexes.
Most of the Orcas are consistent visitors, so many have been observed for years, although they are never touched or contacted with in any manner. So, 14 year old Pao is known the son of Ishtar, and another teenager, Mela, is the offspring of Jasmine. As of now, no more than ten of these animals are known to practice the rare technique of hunting by intentional beaching, and this is the only place in the world where it’s been witnessed by humans. And the orcas do practice the move, in preparation for the real thing, and sometimes the lions elude the end.
I didn’t get to see an attack, but had a close look at the pod of 11 as it swam by northbound, and returning about half an hour later. The principal impression was how relaxed and unhurried the killers are, casually passing by the mass of lobos, like they were just out for a relaxed family swim. Some of the veterans demonstrate the move for the greenhorns, and they always help the youngsters get back into the water if needed with a bump or a shove. Dry runs like these are common and seem to help the hunters get some reps even if they don’t result in a full seal meal.
Straight up it’s an invigorating display of nature at its’ wildest, and induces lots of visitors to come back over and over to see it again. I got lucky, going one for one, but guarantee my return next season for, so far, the best show ever.
I first became aware of this enormous peninsula years ago when I heard about the burgeoning whale watching attraction there. 1000 miles south of Buenos Aires on the south Atlantic coast, this region lies at about the same latitude as the north of Patagonia, 400 miles due west across the Argentine pampas. The terrain at either end of this stretch couldn’t be more different, with the west an emerald alpine wonderland and the coast a flat, dry, scrub desert.
It took me 8 years to finally make it, arriving in Trelew by plane and taking a 45 minute bus to Puerto Madryn. This appealing town is where a boat from Wales landed in 1865 after a two month voyage that resulted in five deaths, two births, and one marriage. The settlers fanned out across the area, establishing themselves in villages named Trevelin, Gaiman, and Trelew.
Madryn sits on the massive Golfo Nuevo, a circular bay 60 kilometers across, with a somewhat smaller gulf, San Jose, just north of the isthmus where begins the fabled peninsula. This cape is among the largest on the continent, with the farthest points being over 170 km from the big port. These dimensions add to the isolation and splendid outback of the country, and villages and commercial developments are few and scattered. It’s Baja California with a Galapagos slant.
Puerto Madryn was larger and prettier than I had expected, with a seaside promenade stretching for miles that was the hub of outdoor activities. The locals are out in decent weather, running, biking, kayaking and simply hanging on the seawall with family and friends.
This is the diving capitol of Argentina as the water visibility is as good as it gets here, ranging from 20 to 50 feet, and heaps of different sites to visit. The whale watching season starts in June and runs through the end of the year and this is when PM hits peak season. Excursions and other boat viewings draw the droves, and there is a location half an hour north of town, El Doradillo, where the Southern right whales swim within scant meters from the shore. Similar to San Ignacio lagoon on the Pacific Baja side, this spot is best viewed at high tide, and the tides here are titanic, reaching 20 feet in a six hour cycle. The extremes can display a striking difference at any geographical feature here, and they should have much to do with your recreational schedule.
Madryn is clean and well organized with a bunch of one way streets making the vehicle traffic somewhat easier to deal with. There are dozens of restaurants and cafes, hotels and hostels, and I spent two cheap nights at one of the best run hostels I’ve yet found, El Gualicho. Four blocks from the water, super friendly, clean and efficient, a recent inductee into my Hostel Hall of Fame. A fine 5K stroll along the beach towards the south passes the site of the Welsh landing and historic monument above a worthy snorkeling venue. A bit farther lies the Eco Centro, a prominent building which was closed both times that I passed by but likely worth a visit.
The municipal wharf extends half a mile out into the blue bay, and this is where the big ships, tourist, fishing, or other commercial types tie up. Shore fishermen drag nets around in waist deep water catching boatloads of small silver anchovies, and sizable light colored crabs are easily visible scurrying along the sandy bottom. There are plenty of sea lions here too, dozing and resting on the landings, and at least one energetic penguin chasing fish.
It’s an easy place to spend a couple of days, but I was here to get to the peninsula, an hour bus ride away. The park entrance is situated in the neck of the isthmus, and the $650 tariff(US 15) is beyond a bargain. The desert vegetation around Madryn resembles Arizona, with sage and creosote bush, but once out on the peninsula the creosote disappears, replaced by other varieties and grass but no cactus, no big boulders, and absolutely no trees.
Guanacos, the odd cousins of llamas and Alpacas, are the primary land residents here, hanging in groups of a handful to a dozen, and they are a larger version of Pronghorn Antelopes, but with a longer neck lending a giraffe sensation. A local guide told me that they learn to jump before they learn to run, and the meter high fences don’t inhibit their movement at all. The Guanaco is wise enough to not trust humans much, they stay attentive, and keep the buffer zone big.
There is some isolated grazing from operations that were apparently grandfathered in decades ago, both cattle and sheep. These domestics are much harder on the land that their wild brethren, flattening the soil and consuming everything green at ground level. The Guanacos feed off the tops of the bushes and are much more low impact in terms of earth wear and tear, and far as I could tell, outnumber the introduced aliens 100 to 1. The beasts resemble their cousins of the high Andes, the elegant and streamlined Vicunas, just without the requisite wooly coat.
The road drops into Puerto Piramides about 10 minutes past the gate, and this little village is about the only commercial neighborhood 50 kilometers in any direction. Dive shops, kayak and bike rentals, cafes and hotels make up most of it, along with a few ma and pa markets and a gas station. The lodging options number close to 40 in high season but less than half that the rest of the year. There is also a municipal campground that charges $250 (US$6) per person which includes a shower. The adjacent beach is lined by steep dunes and Tamarisk type trees and makes for a very chill setting. There is limited camping allowed elsewhere in the park on a free roaming basis, as the rangers want to keep the terrain as clean and pristine as possible. This village is the ideal base for exploring the many spectacles of this area, and three to five days is enough time to do it.
For myself and lots of others, the prime attraction is the arrival of pods of Orcas, Killer Whales, who use certain stretches of beach here as hunting grounds for their meat and potatoes, the innumerable sea lions. 75k north east of Piramides lies Punta Norte, one of two locations in the world where the Orcas will beach themselves in order to snag their prey. The rangers keenly observe, identify, and keep a close watch on these proceedings, and all observers are compelled to maintain their distance from a railed boardwalk fifty meters above the beach. The Orcas don’t show up on schedule, or even daily, and witnessed attacks are infrequent. But witnesses show up every day hoping for a close look at the king of dolphins in the wild, and not captive in a pool like Seaworld.
It’s difficult to put into words the exhilaration of seeing these creatures up close, and I won’t try, but in my case it made the hair stand up on my arms, like an electrical charge. The season runs from late in the year through April, and I plan to return next March.
The peninsula is an unspoiled location to get on or in the water, or stay dry and walk or wheel, and the outdoor enthusiast will have plenty of choices. The locals say that only when the north wind blows is it inadvisable to be on the water, and outside of the winter months the odds of good weather are favorable. I took a couple of dandy hikes, one on a big wind day, and both were well worth the time and energy. The first was a 5 k scamper up a trail to a dirt road that leads to a massive loberia, a sea lion enclave below the actual pyramid shaped bluff that gave the village its name. There were two groups of Guanacos en route, and a pair of Ospreys riding the wind, and the road ends at a ranger station with bathroom overlooking the shelf where the lobos del mar congregate. I watched through my binoculars as they tried and eventually succeeded in launching out of the water and gaining the slippery bank, after getting tossed around plenty.
I was stuck by the multitude of pups, a few months old, and was sure that none of them could make it out of the water if they inadvertently fell in. None did while I watched, but I can’t help but think that infant mortality rates are high in this wild place, and not just because of the orcas’ appetite for youngsters. Much of this coastline is beneath high sandstone cliffs and ledges, and access for humans can be tricky. At this particular place, access is barred below the viewpoint, similar to Punta Norte.
My second ramble was in the opposite direction south towards the next major point, Pardelas, some 15 k distant. This is regarded as one of the finest diving and snorkeling venues in the park, with a sheltered location, crystal water and loads of fish. It can be reached entirely by beach if the low tide is timed right, but this entails good planning and a strident pace. Otherwise, a high route across the bluffs is in order for some of the trip, and this is ultra scenic and enjoyable. A rough trail up the hill at the south end of the town beach reaches the top of the sandy plateau after a steep, short incline. Here an old ATV track leads across the scrubby desert, before coming to a flat, volcanic clearing with no vegetation but millions of small rocks of various colors. Beyond this stretch lies a patch of pure sand dunes, some very sheer and a complete change from the rest of the route. Farther on, the path returns to bush country, disappears completely, and a wide amphitheater provides a gentler descent to the shore. A series of alcoves at sea level give an idea of the tidal phase, and when the entire openings are visible, the bank can be crossed dryly. When only the top of the caves are visible, forget about it until the tide drops. I didn’t make it all the way to Pardelas, but the long beach on the way is empty and pristine. This cherry point can also be reached by car or bike via a dirt road, but this makes for a stout 25k leg each way. Either way, it’s worth the effort.
When the water is flat, the Valdez is premium kayaking and stand up paddle boarding, it’s the diving capitol of Argentina, and the snorkeling, fishing, and wildlife watching are all at least 8 on a scale to 10. Southern Right Whale season lasts almost the entire Orca off season, and the sheer sea lion population is jaw dropping. This is among the seemingly healthiest eco systems is South America, and that’s saying a lot. Distances are vast, traffic is scant, and a decent mountain bike and adequate energy offers a special wilderness opportunity unobtainable anywhere else. As long as that fierce north wind isn’t blowing, peak outdoor experiences abound, and the Valdez merits a slot way up on The List.
Bondi Air is a low cost airline operating out of Palomar airport in Buenos Aires, and they fly all over Argentina. My Tuesday- Tuesday flight was dirt cheap, on time, and well worth the bread. From the Trelew airport, skip that town and go directly to Puerto Madryn. The most economic route is to walk out to the highway 10 minutes away, and simply flag down one of the frequent busses running that stretch and save yourself 300 + pesos, minimum. The shuttle price at the airport in Trelew is $500 per person to Puerto Madryn, not cheap. https://flybondi.com/
El Gualicho hostel is a winner whether springing for a private room or bunking in one of the dorms. Buy your own fruit and enjoy a solid breakfast while comparing notes with other nomads. Helpful people, clean, efficient facilities and a good location at a fair price is always a strong business formula. Four blocks from the beach, and six from the bus station. Marcos A. Zar 480, U8120 Puerto Madryn, Chubut, Argentina http://www.elgualicho.com.ar/
I stayed at the very basic but entirely adequate Bahia Ballena Hostel, the very first one on the left coming into town, and it is a good base to meet other Orca enthusiasts and find transportation up to Punta Norte if required. We were fortunate to get Carlos, a long time local, who knew everything about the area, especially the animals, and he was a great connection.
My only two meals out both took place at the ultra friendly and accommodating Covancha, in the center a block from the beach, and both meals were delicious and bountiful. There are a number of choices in the village, even in low season, so finding a quality meal is no problem. Local seafood, meat and pasta, empanadas, and the ever present pizza are offered everywhere.
In the USA and some other developed countries, bus riding is not cool, but that’s how the rest of the world gets around. In Asia, unless you have a motorcycle, the bus is the best transportation option. One of these options is the sleeper bus, with bunk bed type arrangements and seats that almost allow you to get flat. Fares are cheap compared to any other mode, and there is something to be said for the old slogan, ‘Leave the driving to us.’ Of course, the problem quite often is the driver.
Roads in Cambodia, and much of Vietnam, run about 20 feet wide, shoulder to shoulder, if there is one. That narrow stretch of blacktop holds people walking with huge loads, multitudes of bicyclists of all ages, and mind boggling numbers of motorcycles. Some of these are loaded like a Dr. Seuss cartoon- wooden baskets piled ten by eight, four live chickens tied to each handlebar, sometimes a laden fruit tree twelve feet high. Keep looking, and you’ll see some amazing sights. Entire families hop on board, Mom, Dad, Grandma, and two or three kids. If there’s not at least three on a moto, efficiency is surely lacking. Bikes with families tend to go much slower than the 18 year old kid going solo to see his girlfriend.
Added to this road stew are tractors, a sort of land version of the long tailed boat, with the engine a good 6 feet in front of the driver, and nothing in between. His load might be a dozen people crowded onto a small platform of plywood, and maybe a big live pig in a cage on the very back. Throw in a few tuk tuks, the open air jitneys that are taxis in many Asian cities. These tend to have a top speed of around 30, with a load of 3 people. Squeeze 5 onboard and you’re lucky to see half that.
There are also regular cars and trucks, and these tend to be driven very fast, unless there happen to be 14 people squeezed into the bed, or piled up with a metal mass of 200 bikes, as I saw in Siem Reap. I guessed it might take hours to unload the thing. The big trucks are next up on the food chain, although some, loaded or not, can’t exceed 25 mph. Then there are some that go like they’re in a grand prix, only hitting the brakes to prevent a fatality. Finally, there are the busses, connecting every city and town, driven by guys who know this stretch of road like their dog knows his yard. These drivers tend to be a bit hyper, no doubt trying to make it to the destination as quickly as possible, before other road mayhem finds them. So they end up doing some absurd maneuvers, like passing a convoy of slow trucks uphill on a blind corner, with a semi truck coming our direction having to slam on the brakes to avoid a head on. Variations on this theme occurred dozens of times, and some of the near misses are best not witnessed, lest you be getting very agitated and thinking about getting off this thing right now.
Most of the time, the larger vehicles take their ten foot half out of the middle of the road, avoiding the steady stream of bikes, walkers, and motos. Bus drivers also have a propensity to honk at each of these pesky annoyances, so there’s quite often a near constant staccato cacophony. The horn tends to be a button extending from the steering wheel, so it can be operated constantly, even if the driver is deep in an animated phone conversation, which is often. It’s nothing personal, really, he just wants them to know he’s there, 10 inches off their left shoulder. So the horn becomes a factor in terms of where to get your seats if given a choice. The back of the sleeper busses in particular tend to have a bit more room and are as far away as possible from the one note trumpeter. The close calls between the bus, bikes and motos are countless, and I’m sure there’s plenty of carnage at times, but I didn’t see any on seven separate trips.
The revved up bus driver hates to wait, or follow slowpokes, and he will often make passes that would make James Bond grab the seat and brace for impact. Revving the engine flat out, and coming down the middle of the road like a missile, the long distance bus is the top predator in the asphalt jungle. One driver on the stretch between HCMC and Nha Trang, did a series of high speed, high risk, very sketchy passes on the crowded highway, overtaking around two dozen vehicles including some real turtles. Almost immediately after surviving this stress experiment, he pulled over to the side of the road and jumped out. Maybe he needed to check his pants to see if they were brown, or maybe he had to relax and have a smoke, but 5 minutes later we had to do it all over again. I wasn’t a math major, but rolling the dice with catastrophic probabilities is something that is best left to bare minimums. Every multi hour bus trip has at least one leisurely stop, usually at a roadside cafe or truck stop where a half hour break from the wild ride is appreciated by all. Some of these can have some decent food choices and modern conveniences. One stop like this, little over than an hour south out of Siem Reap, featured two large woks piled high with beetles and giant crickets.
Here’s your protein fix
Departure and arrival times are very elastic with some of the bus companies, and one hour delays are not that bad compared to other possibilities. A bus I took from Sihanoukville, through Kampot and Kep, crossing the border at Hat Thien, Vietnam, and then continuing to HCMC, arrived at midnight, 5 hours past the stated ticket time. This stretch was brutal, due to changing busses a couple of times, and a very slow immigration checkpoint at the Vietnam border. Much of the travel reports I heard in Cambodia said that the hassles begin in earnest there, and that was accurate this day for sure. At one point, after waiting for a shuttle to the bus station to get our last leg into Saigon, we were informed that the van we would be loading into had absolutely no room for large packs, whatsoever. This was complete bull, of course, as a similar van from the same company was packed with people and backpacks. Fortunately, on board with us was a Vietnamese woman who now lived in Ohio and spoke good English, and apparently devastating Vietnamese, as she lambasted our driver into biting his lip and loading us all up. Onward through the delta region of Vietnam, a very watery world, and the final 4 1/2 hours of the 14 I spent on the bus that long ass day .
The bus I took from Phnom Penh to Sihanoukville had it’s goofy aspects as well. Departing from a make shift station in the heart of town, packed to the gills, it was very difficult to understand any of the announcements coming over the fuzz box PA system. There was much confusion among the foreign travelers as to which bus was which, when it was leaving, and would there be a seat when they got on it. My 12 noon bus quickly became a 1pm departure, and then that the 1pm bus was declared inoperable and we would be getting on a bus that hadn’t arrived yet. There were half a dozen busses in a dense swarm of humanity on a busy street with very little elbow room. Once our bus arrived, I managed to board amidst lots of chaotic ignorance and duplicate tickets. My seat was good, far as I could tell, but two farang girls across the aisle were repeatedly informed that they were being moved to the next bus out as their seats were reserved for other people. To their credit, they held their ground, refusing to move as the flustered bus employees each gave their best shot at persuading them to get off. These girls were tired and worn out from the goofy bus process already and they were staying on this bus until it got to Sihanoukville. At one point the driver himself came back to give it a shot but they weren’t budging. If the actual police had shown up that might not have done it either. So they stayed right where they were, the driver got over it shortly, and in an hour we were finally out of Phnom Penh Then it was five hours of bobbing and weaving and the endless games of Dare and Chicken. A pretty fascinating experience as long as you keep looking out the side window and not the windshield.
This beguiling valley is only 190 kilometers southeast of Salta, capitol of the province, and that drive is surely one of the panoramic expanses of landscape in all of Argentina. The route on Highway 68 passes through the fertile pastures of the Lema Valley before crossing into the remarkably rugged mountains surrounding the Calchique valleys. Once past the last real settlement at La Vina, the highway twists through steep, amole, aka, ‘shin dagger’cactus covered ridges before entering the eroded spectacle of the jaw dropping Quebrada de las Conchas, the Gorge of the Shells. This gave me a profound Utah flashback, with every shade of red earth carved into extraordinary forms, evoking the usual impulse of ‘let’s get in there’.
Passing through this region at sunset really puts the proper shade on these hills, and the reflection on the small yet stunning Rio de las Conchas is mesmerizing. There are several signed rock formations, including the Devil’s Throat, the Obelisk, and the Toad, and thousands more further away from the highway. It reminded me of the Canyonlands in Utah, with fluted walls of petrified mud, and hollowed out grottos and slot canyons like the Pariah Plateau. It’s the kind of place where your hiking boots are waiting like a dog at the door.
So the method is to get into Cafayate, get a place to base out of, and then get back up to this quebrada. I was able to get some excellent tips from Juan, the owner of Muna bikes, about how to get up to a sublime 8k loop. From the terminal, take any Salta bound bus to km 24, El Paso, just past the Obelisk at km 22. There is no sign other than a barrier blocking entry into this wash, and this is the entrance. Follow the abundant horse and footprints to the east, as this wash begins to tighten up and close in. Plenty of side ravines drop into this one, providing heaps of opportunities to explore more, but continuing on in the main one is the idea. The sandy bottom eventually runs out and an easy slick rock climb emerges onto a Martian red mesa which overlooks another vast high desert delta, beyond which lie cloud topped peaks, a dazzling sight.
It’s all downhill from here, treading the well worn path across the vermillion scape past some curious rock figures and down into the jumbo wash. This marks a solid left turn, and this drainage is followed all the way back to the highway just a flat half hour away. The end intersects the highway at a site known as ”La Yesera’, where fossilized fish are the remnants of the last ocean to cover the Americas 15 million years ago. The stone layers surrounding the area are visual evidence of the array of minerals found here, with gypsum, borax, cobalt, copper and sulfur all lending their tint to the terracotta scape.
The river on the other side of the highway is easy to get down to and offers a fine place to cool off and splash. I startled a flock of parrots that were ensconced in a bushy tree and other than that the only sound for hours was the wind. There’s a roadside store called El Zorrito that is visible a quarter mile away and that’s where I hung in the shade until the Cafa bound bus rolled by again. 50 pesos going out, and 58 from 4k further away on the return. This theme can be repeated at any number of attractions farther into the quebrada, such as the Garganta del Diablo and Anfiteatro 20 k up the road, both of which attract plenty of visitors. There is no lack of shade in the recesses of the canyon I walked up, but none the rest of the way, so adequate water and a hat are essential, and some grub is a fine idea.
This entire panorama is utterly astounding, with loads of other named formations such as the Friars, and the Castles, and several good long days could be spent investigating the area. Depending on the amount of sun and the time of day, the earth changes colors here much like sections of the Grandest Canyon, in Arizona. Visually, it’s a treat, and easy to access, as the busses from Salta are running at regular intervals. The chalky white hills called the Medanos are found at km 6 on the way back towards town, another inviting place to walk through the sand dunes.
The town of Cafayate is a unique locale, sitting in the middle of these spectacular canyons to the east and the hulking cordillera to the west and much closer. Surrounded by 30 something bodegas, many quite celebrated, in some respects it’s like a much smaller Mendoza. It’s certainly on the tourist circuit, judging from the quantity of long distance motorcyclist groups which roll through here, and obviously a favorite stay over location. The central plaza is one of the best in Argentina, loaded with trees and birds, grassy and shady, and the locals hang out here for hours. This unsullied square is fronted by businesses on all sides, primarily sidewalk cafes, shops, and wine stores. The foremost church here is resplendent yellow on the north and is next door to an exceptionally helpful tourist office, providing details on accomodations and all things vital to travelers.
I rented a bike from Juan at Muna twice and tooled around town, first heading west out through the vineyards, towards the mountain range which was usually capped with clouds. Passing by the Quara vineyards, I pulled in for a free tour but the place was closed during siesta time in the early afternoon. This is the rule around these parts, similar to the hot parts of Mexico, but that’s when I tend to be most active. I’ve taken plenty of tours in Mendoza, California, and New Zealand, so although I enjoy them, it’s not a priority. One km further on is Etchart Vineyards, and much of this stretch features a paved bike path which parallels the road and provides a safe buffer zone from the motorized parade. When I crossed over 3 meters of brushy dirt to get on it, my tires picked up a few dozen ‘goathead’ sticker thorns, which took me a few minutes to remove but fortunately none punctured the tubes, which can happen easily.
Directly across the highway from Quara is the renowned Estancia de Cafayate, a well financed development that includes a posh hotel and villas, golf course, homesites, and its’ own 70 year old vineyards. I was curious to see what the spread looked like, but the gate guard informed me that I could neither ride nor walk in, but I was welcome to return in an automobile. I wasn’t that curious, and never made it back. I did wheel around for long enough to get hot and tired, and a significant portion of the residents use bikes for transportation. It’s a fine community to ride in, as traffic isn’t too excessive or manic, and most of that is in the center.
The next day I biked towards the east, crossing the bone dry Rio Chusche and rolled north on Route 2 beneath rows of Poplar trees and through miles of grapevines similar to the westward ruta del vino. The Piatelli Vineyards are 3 km up the road on the right, and this path can be followed for many more across high desert to Domingo Molina. I explored the northern limits of Cafayate on my return, and there’s much more to the northern residential section than the southern part.
All the blocks are laid out on a grid, but not all the roads go through and almost all are dirt. I managed to get a little lost and turned around as I was searching for a different way to get back to the town centro. There is also another excellent route to roll on, by taking 25 de Mayo north off Hwy 40 on the west edge of town and heading towards the Rio Colorado. This will lead to Cueva del Sur, an archeological site with caves and petroglyphs, and just up the road a small bodega named Finca las Nubes, the Farm of Clouds. The small town of Divisadero is a kilometer away, with ruins of an ancient setlement and more intriguing geography, at the edge of the mountains where the Colorado and Lorohuasi rivers converge. There are more choice hiking and biking options here, winding through boulders, and across creeks to scattered small waterfalls, reminiscent of the lush Catalina mountains in my old homeland.
I spent my downtime roaming the streets of Cafa, looking for new places to check out, relax, and refuel. There is a range of choices for food and drink, especially on the plaza, but I returned to the reliable as often as not. These were El Hornito, with its’ trademark empanada oven out front, and El Chelo, where the locals converge for hearty, cheap sandwiches. Both are on the same street, Rivadavia, a quick walk from the plaza. The former serves excellent grilled meals and empanadas and a sidewalk table is a terrific vantage point to watch the locals on the move. I met several travelers here from Europe and North America and we traded information and ideas over fine wine and cold beers. El Chelo was where I started each morning with first class coffee accompanied by a sandwich to go, to munch on later.
Cafayate lived up to its reputation and I plan to return to the area soon, along with some time in the very different Tafi del Valle on the way towards Tucuman. Passing through here on the bus back south gave me a glimpse of countryside that evoked Switzerland, pastoral and beyond pretty, and the wet cloud forest dropping off this high plateau is a drive not to be missed in any weather conditions. The more of northern Argentina I visit, the more motivated I am to get back.
Muna Bikes, where I rented my metal steed, is also a casual cafe and tavern, serving homemade meals, snacks, and ice cold beers. Juan is a wealth of information about biking and hiking options in the area, and his place is located on the street directly behind the cathedral on the plaza. This is a good place to start any outdoor adventure in the area, and the bikes come with helmet, pump, repair kit, lock and map. Very handy, and very economical. Calchaqui 70 +54 291 418 2122
Hostal ‘El Portal de las Vinas’, is located on the same street as the cathedral, Nuestra Senora del Rosario 165. All private rooms, very cool and quiet due to thick adobe walls, with a nice courtyard and good wifi. Air conditioning, cable TV, and budget friendly. +54 3868 42 1098
I traveled to this region earlier in the year, spending my time in Tilcara, 45 kilometers to the south in this massive quebrada. I was focused on learning a new area, so I came to Humahuaca, a much larger village, and that much closer to my real objective of the otherworldly settlement of Iruya.
Humahuaca is situated at 1100 feet altitude, much like Tilacara and Purmamarca, its closest neighbors. Tourism seems to be the economic driver here, and there are a few features that visitors can access, such as the giant salt flats to the west, Valle Grande and Calilegua National Park to the southeast, and the celebrated multicolored hills throughout this immense gorge. The town itself has a historic center with narrow cobblestone streets, a clean traditional plaza with lots of shade trees, and all sorts of monuments. Chief among these is the very prominent memorial to the ‘Heroes of the Independence’ two blocks west of the plaza, with a promenade of steps leading up to a towering statue of the heroes, sitting atop the municipal museum of archeology. The views from the top are splendid, and it’s obvious a lot of work was devoted to this site. Colonial style street lamps lend a lovely light, and this is a worthy place to witness the dusk settle over the big valley.
As in many of these isolated towns, there are a number of renowned old cathedrals and cultural centers, along with open air markets, a clock tower, and souvenir shops galore.
Several outfitters can transport travelers to other points of interest outside of town, and there are ample opportunities for biking, hiking, and long distance trekking. I stayed two nights en route to a planned circuit of southern Bolivia, but my main purpose here was to get to Iruya, a place I had been inspired to visit by many who already had.
The turnoff to Iruya is 19 km north of Humahuaca on Hwy. 9, and from then on it’s 54 km of dusty, bumpy, serpentine and steep pitches into the valley where the village sits perched on a mountain shelf at 2800 meters. Even a mountain dweller is likely to feel the altitude here which is deceiving, as this is the bottom of a valley, but there are 5000 meter mountains both north and south of here. 150 Argentine pesos was the fare, and while the destination is quite the payoff, scenic splendor wise, the actual road there is an engineering marvel. The first part climbs steadily through a number of tiny settlements and grazing animals until it reaches the crest of a high ridge. The abundant cactus is in full bloom in early December, and several familiar Arizona cousins are blended with odd altiplano plants.
The landscape becomes more dramatic and steep with the distance until it falls off that pronounced ridge into a series of switchbacks where large white rocks mark the edges. Which is a good thing, as fog or rain could render visibility near zero here, and competent drivers in a solid 4wd could feel spooked and compelled to crawl along at 5 mph white knuckling this entire stretch. Our driver, piloting a creaky old 40 passenger bus, handled it all like a maestro, no doubt due to his prolific mileage on this king’s camino.
There is a religious shrine tucked into the big rocks at the top of this pass, and a crowd of locals were congregated here to mark some holy moment. Here it was downhill all the way into the bottom of a broad valley bordered by vertical cliffs and sheer bluffs. Finally the fabled pueblo comes into view, a postcard perched on the bottom of a precipitous mountain. I’ve never seen a place quite like it, and although some of the desert on the way in is stark and daunting, the living beauty is something else altogether. As John Muir or Ed Abbey might say, life affirming, at the very least.
I complimented the driver on his road skill getting off, and he told me would be departing at 2:30, about 3 hours away. My foot ramble commenced with a search for something to eat, wandering narrow stone streets up through the mostly adobe buildings. It was Sunday, and there was a crowd of folks in and around the striking yellow church, with the sermon broadcast via loudspeakers outside. Built in 1690, this structure is the most prominent of all here and has held up quite well. Stopping into a store with a sign advertising empanadas and such, a crusty old guy answered my query with, ‘No quedan nada, hippie’, ‘there’s nothing left’, which cracked me up, not so easy to do. I was sporting a daypack and no doubt looked like a vagrant of sorts, but this response surprised me. I do imagine that some of the locals get weary of the tourist day trippers, if only because this place is so isolated that everybody is an ‘us or them’ to some degree, and as many resist the changes as embrace them. And change used to be much slower here, for sure.
Continuing my climb up to the limits of the center, I arrived at a locked up cemetery with million dollar views. Looping back down a lane which could be skied with enough snow brought me back down to the people’s church, where I knocked out 3 small empanadas, carne and goat cheese at 15 pesos a piece.
This was enough fuel to do the trick and get me across the much newer, and solid as a rock pedestrian bridge which spans the broad and usually dry Iruya river, which must be a wild sight when it actually flows. I wandered through this other half of the village, mostly residential, with a jumbo dirt soccer field where first a boy’s team, and then the girl’s, each played a game.
It doesn’t take much time to see most of what’s here, and one more leisurely stroll delivered me to the most commercial block with a few hostels, cafes, and small stores surrounded a tiny covered plaza. The pace of life is slow in Iruya, sporadically interrupted by the tourist bus arrivals, and I killed the rest of my allotted time before returning to the idling bus at 2:15. Which was fortuitous, as after I paid my 150 for the return fare we took off at 2:19, with just a handful of riders and nobody I could recall from the ride in. So maybe all those visitors were staying the night, but if not they missed the ‘boats’ early launch.
The ride out was as pretty as the ride in, with a new appreciation for the pitch, curviness and route of the mighty road, and the worshippers were all still up around the shrine when we passed over the top. A couple of pick ups and drop offs later, and a quick pull in at the only real village on the way, San Isidro. The 73 kms between Humahuaca and Iruya takes almost 3 hours in good conditions, so a day trip definitely uses up a day. It is an amazing destination and worth the time, but plenty of peeps would enjoy an overnight stay to further absorb the glacial pace of the place. There are trails heading out in all directions, most going straight up, and mountain biking is likewise an option for fun. Don’t miss it if the opportunity presents itself.
I stayed at the excellent La Humahuacasa hostel, 2 blocks from the central plaza at Buenos Aires 740. Paola and Juan are exceptional hosts, providing a tasty basic breakfast and super useful local knowledge on the area’s delights. Shared and private rooms are very economical, the wifi is good, and a fully equipped kitchen and outdoor grill is ready to go. It makes for a fine base while exploring the area.
There is no shortage of places to eat, ranging from swank tourist cafes to ultra local eateries offering everything from humitas to llama burgers. Just on the other side of Belgrano avenida is a sizable outdoor market where the locals buy everything from clothes and appliances to produce. This is the right place to stretch a peso to the limit.
There are a bunch of outfitters catering to vacationers looking to explore the countryside, trekking or biking, and excursions of all time frames and costs. The Bolivian border at La Quiaca is 160 km north, the appealing Tilcara 42 k to the south, with San Salvador de Jujuy, capitol city of the province and a major hub, another 84 k down Highway 9.
There may well be other places like this, a scruffy village of dwellings on a cape which seems like it’s from another time, but I haven’t seen any. Most locations remind you of some other place that has some similarities, but I have yet to ever meet anybody who’s been able to name one for here. It has a vibe all its own in a site that provokes photo frenzies and futile attempts at worthy descriptions. Hard to get to, harder to leave, and always generating plans for the next return trip. This is the effect this cape produces, and not many are immune to the spell.
It started off long ago, like many on Uruguay’s Atlantic coast, as a fishing village. There were, and still are, multitudes of Sea Lions here, which resulted in thousands being slaughtered for their pelts. The shipwrecks off this treacherous point are many and legendary, so the history of the place is bountiful. The blonde bombshell and animal rights activist Bridget Bardot was instrumental in ending the sea lion slaughter, and now there are, once again, loads of the beasties, often barking up a storm.
Now it’s an actual national park, protected territory, and all visitors are encouraged to do their best to keep it clean and semi pristine. There’s a modern visitors center, with excellent historical information and a colossal map on the floor to illustrate where you’re bound. After paying to board a whopper of an all terrain vehicle to roll 7 kilometers through sand dunes and coastal forest to reach the village. The option to walk is available, but very few do, as most can’t wait to get there.
And there is something else: an ultra rustic village with no electricity that’s not generated from solar panels, wind turbines, or gas generators. Besides the well worn track that the giant shuttles roll in on, there are really no streets, just sandy paths and passageways. Quite a few multicolored cabins, houses, and other structures, and many absolutely ramshackle, as if put together out of a scrap bin. The funkiest community of houses and cabins in one place ever seen, with dogs, chickens, horses and hippies running wild.
And what a lighthouse, one of a network on this coast that are situated every 20 miles or so.
This beauty offers a stupefying360 vista of the cape and everything this side of the horizon, including the expansive lair of the sea lions. To the north lie the lofty dunes that border the woods and stretch for kilometers to the closest settlement of Valizas. Southward, miles of immaculate empty beach for many miles. Cabo Polonio has become the preferred getaway for urban dwellers in 3 countries, and fills up with them every January. Vacancies are meager and lodging rates as high as they get. Nevertheless, it’s the best place you could possibly be at that time of year.
The rest of the year it usually only gets bustling on warm weekends, and during the cold winter months, it’s a virtual ghost town. The hamlet has 3 named neighborhoods, though I visited for years without hearing any mention of them.
I prefer to order them by geography: Calaveras Beach, extending towards the dunes to the north; South Beach, on the other side of the peninsula reaching in the direction of the next town, La Pedrera; and the grassy peninsula between these two which is filled with granite boulders. The actual ‘town’, more of a hamlet than anything, is situated in this middle area. This is where most of the commercial businesses are, the hostels, cafes, shops, and now, 3 small grocery stores.
Calaveras Beach, facing east, has the strongest surf while South Beach facing almost due south is much more gentle. Most of the dwellings above South Beach are painted white and appear to be more solid and upscale than the rest, with a few exceptions. Many of these pads are available for rent and are among the most expensive and swank in the area.
The village center sports the most accommodations and without doubt the cheapest. There are also a few hostels and B&B’s facing Calaveras Beach. Many of the places to stay close up in the low season, which lasts from May through November, and for the ones that stay open, this is the economical season. Hostel World lists just 3 places that are operating in the off season, but this number probably triples during the summer. Rates that are $10 per bunk can easily triple in January, when Cabo is full blast.
There are some extra funky digs back away from the beach situated close to the dunes, and some of these can be rented as well, although the methods of contact are usually word of mouth. Those dunes are great fun to wander around, offering sensational views of the entire cape, and I’ve found sizable pools of fresh water here after rainy days, a special, ephemeral treat. One of the popular diversions is to hike the trail from Cabo to the neighboring town of Valizas, first starting on the beach and then winding inland through the dunes. This can take 2 to 3 hours depending on energy and time demands, and a 2 mile longer route follows the coast line the entire way, past a superb beach called Playa de Los Huevos (egg beach), directly below the prominent rocky overlook known as Buena Vista. This ramble as a round trip day hike will probably be too much of a physical challenge for most people to enjoy, but there are plenty who do it.
I’ve gone to Cabo for just a day, and I’ve made the trip to stay just a night, and neither of these are what I would recommend. Two nights even seems a bit rushed, and I have friends who won’t even consider staying less than two weeks. Generally speaking, the longer the better, as the state of absolute relaxation and disregard for time is enhanced by the day. Four nights is quite de-stressing, and this provides enough time to do everything desired. It used to be the rule to bring as many supplies, food and drink with you as possible, but besides a few essential items, Cabo this is no longer the case. With 3 grocery stores that sell most items at a reasonable cost, including wine and liquor, specialty products now make the most sense. Because of the absence of electricity, locals rely on candlelight for lost illumination, so long burning candles serve a practical need. When there is rain, there are mosquitoes, so repellent is exceedingly valuable at times as well, although most places have nets. Another essential commodity is suntan lotion, as the big light in the sky is powerful and relentless. One of the features of Cabo Polonio is the lack of trees, so getting out of the sun is not so easy in hot weather. Therefore a hat is an important thing to have, and sometimes the only shade around. I would advise anybody to bring what they can comfortably carry, and I have made the trip toting several bottles of wine and specialty snacks. If you’re a fan of marijuana, now legal in Uruguay, definitely bring your own, as it is scarce and expensive.
Driving to the entrance station is no problem, but cars are not allowed on the road through the dunes to the village. This absence of traffic is another of the positive attributes of the park, both for the lack of noise and relaxed surroundings. Parking is available and there is a daily charge. Since there are few vehicles allowed, and almost all either ‘grandfathered in’ or work trucks, it makes sense to take a bus and just get dropped off, saving the parking fee. Rutas del Sol makes three arrivals and pick ups each day, more in high season, and they can be booked and boarded at the main bus terminal at Tres Cruces in Montevideo. The cost is around US$40 for the 270 kilometer, 4 1/2 hour ride.
No matterhow you arrive, just make sure you do. Cabo Polonio has been my favorite place in Uruguay since I first visited, and years later, it still is. I make it every year regardless, and it’s a must see for every foreign visitor who comes here. I can’t recommend it when the weather is wet and stormy, but any other time it will be worth the effort. It’s a word that’s frequently overused, and almost a cliche, but Cabo Polonio is one of the rare places that is, no question, MAGIC.
It’s surely one of the most impressive cities in South America, and a must see for any traveler, even folks who prefer the countryside. Having said that, it is a gigantic mass of humanity, and for many, two days and nights could be plenty. So here’s what to see and do to get a good return for 48 hours of your precious time, and without blowing your wad, as in budget, perv….
One thing that will prove to be very efficient and thrifty is to purchase a blue Subte card from kiosks and ticket windows in the subway stations, and there are many. The cost is minimal, so put some credit on there, which for two people for two days is about AR$300, less than US$10. Thus will get you around and downtown and back, as long as it’s before midnight, when the tracks stop dead. This will cut taxi costs by 90%. There are now six lines, and though they don’t cover the entire city, most notably La Boca, but they will get you close to most of the special sites and cool places.
I prefer to stay in the vast Palermo neighborhood, which actually encompasses Palermo Viejo, Soho, and Hollywood. This sector contains much of the very best eateries, bars, and nightclubs, so it makes sense to stay here instead of San Telmo, or elsewhere in the city center. I’d rather go there in the daytime and then return to Palermo for serious night tripping.
There are hundreds of affordable places to stay in Palermo, and I always use one of the hotel and hostel websites to locate them. Locations around Plaza Armenia and Plaza Italia are ideal, and basically anywhere in the giant grid surrounded by Santa Fe and Cordoba, and between Scalabrini Ortiz and Arevalo provide walking access to the prime spots.
So, without further ado, here’s a master plan for extracting the juice from this planet sized city. Hop on the subway, lines B or D and ride to 9 de Julio station, and transfer to line C, there’s no extra charge. Get off and up at Independencia station and walk 5 blocks east to Defensa street, and follow it south to Plaza Dorrego. This is the heart of San Telmo, with heaps of old school BA flavor. There are lots of economical places to eat and drink, and every Sunday a huge street market. From here it’s a leisurely walk north through the Montserrat district to arrive at Plaza Mayo, surrounded by historical buildings and sites. Just a couple of blocks towards the water sits the swank Puerto Madero hood, which seems like it’s a different country altogether. New and modern is the rule here, and it makes for an enjoyable stroll past some landmarks such as the Puente de Las Mujeres, the Women’s Bridge.
Continuing our march, we can trod past the Obelisk, smack dab in the middle of absurdly wide 9 de Julio Avenue, and walk on up Cordoba through the core of downtown or hop on at any subway station, connect to line H and unload at Aguero station. Here it’s a 12 block walk through the scrubbed Recoleta neighborhood, with lots of luxury for sale and rent and one extraordinary cemetery.
This is truly a walled mini city of the dead, with some very over the top tombs, holding the remains of many illustrious ‘Portenos’ such as Eva Peron. For myself, almost as impressive is the enormous Gomero tree in front of the entrance. The shade provided by this mammoth is extraordinary, and some of the lateral branches are now supported by braces. It’s a Swiss family Robinson monster, but don’t try to climb it.
The massive tree in front of La Recoleta cemetery
But back to the cemetery, where many of the mausoleums are like miniature buildings and absurdly gaudy. The closest subway access is the Aguero station on the new H line, which connect lines A, B, D, and E. The cemetery is free, although aficionados of such places may want to contract a guide to help navigate the hive of walkways and seemingly endless tombs. Recoleta is a shiny, expensive part of the city, but this city of the dead is worth an hour or two. After this trek a late lunch and siesta is deserved, so get back to your lodging and take a break. You deserve a brownie or a beer, take your pick.
Tonight is the night to take advantage of early dinner happy hour pricing at one of the first rate beef houses, which is a stalwart of the dining scene in BA. La Cabrera, at the corner of Thames and Cabrera, offers a 40% discount of the total check if you make it in to eat before 7:15. This is hours before the locals even begin to think about dinner and an opportunity to experience prime Argentine cuisine at a decent price. The big ribeye is perfect to share with a salad and a bottle of Malbec, and after this the tank will be full. Time to take a walk a few blocks across the tracks to Palermo Hollywood, and sample a few bars.
San Telmo’s Sunday Street Fair
A great first stop is Frank’s, almost hidden on Arevalo between Conde and Niceto. First pick up the phone and ask to come in, or state your reservation name, Then the bouncer will emerge, give you the once over, and if you’re accepted, let you enter a classy, old school cocktail lounge with a long bar and heavy drinks. Stay as long as you like.
Then, shuffle north and a couple of blocks west to Humboldt, turn right, and enter the Ferona Social Club, another hidden gem with a comfortable rooftop patio and lots of cush sofas and chairs. Our next stop is right around the corner at Carnal, with multi levels and a great place to meet friendly Portenos. Finally, now you’re ready to cross Niceto Vega and go in the fabled Niceto Club, a big place with two sides of music, one always live. This is where you can dance and kick out the jams until the sun comes up, or you hit the wall.
Day 2 begins with a stroll around Palermo to find some coffee and breakfast, and the choices number in the dozens. After fortification walk south towards the river and check out the vast parks that stretch for several miles along Avenida Libertador. This is where the botanical garden, Japanese Gardens, Rose Gardens, and Modern Art Museum are found, and it’s where the fit folk run, walk, bike, and roll on miles of paths. On a sunny warm day there are heaps of active peeps here, and you can rent a bike, or skates, or a paddle boat and join in.
Sunday at the park
Lunch can be had at a thousand places on the way back to your Palermo pad, and a fave for healthy food is Mark’s Deli & Coffee House, at Armenia and El Salvador. Strolling around Palermo close to Plaza Armenia takes you by every hip clothing store in the city, and the shopping crowd can be very alluring. The choices for everything are countless, spend as much time as needed, but don’t blow your dough on something goofy.
Tonight dinner can be later, as there’s no deadline for anything. A celebrated spot is Nola Gastropub at Gorriti and Alvarez. Nothing fancy, just Cajun cuisine, as in Gumbo, fried chicken, and craft beer. Order off the board, grab your grub and sit outside and survey the scene. They also serve classics like sweetbreads, red beans and rice, and killer cornbread. Load up, kick back, and get ready to pub crawl.
Which begins at BrukBar, on the corner of Costa Rica and Santa Maria de Oro. Classic cocktails and a bunch of party people at a real locals hangout. Another worthy stop is On Tap Craft Beer at Costa Rica and Humboldt, with 20 local beers on tap and a chill vibe. Our main target tonight is Rosebar, a huge Miami Beach type club with a giant dance floor, outside patio, and talent off the charts. Women get dolled up here like it’s New Years Eve, and there’s a cover charge until late for all the dudes. It’s a huge scene, and sits right next to the railroad tracks on Honduras. This is definitely the place you want to be going into the 4th quarter, with the game on the line, if you’ve got it in you.
That’s enough to squeeze into 48 hours, especially in this metropolis, and likely enough special memories to reminisce for months. Buenos Aires is a whole lot of city, especially to live in, but for a weekend getaway, it can’t be beat.
In a country, Costa Rica, renowned for terrible roads, this might be the worst of the lot. 42 kilometers is all that separates Puerto Jimenez from Carate, one of the 3 entrances to the spectacular Corcovado National Park, situated on the isolated Osa Peninsula. But it’s a hellish drive with 13 major water crossings, thousands of crater potholes and various other terrain problems capable of gutting any oil pan. Every article or report I’ve read in every guide book states that even with a high clearance 4wd vehicle, the potential for disaster looms large. The National Geographic Expedition catalog, while touting an excursion by boat, declared that the park was ‘unreachable by road’, certainly a misrepresentation of the facts. So, when the opportunity to try it with a 2wd Nissan sedan presented itself, there was no question. We had to give it a go.
Leaving Puerto Jimenez, heading south, the dirt road is semi smooth, with multitudes of potholes and deep ruts, rolling through beautiful country and several ranches. About 5 k from town, the first water obstacle is reached, a small stream which is only troublesome during rainy season. The next crossing is much the same, shallow and flat, but the third presents a new degree in difficulty. This one is steep on both sides of the water, with an abrupt ridge that could stymie a tentative driver. But we didn’t have that problem, and kept on thrashing up and over a long muddy hill that climbs several hundred feet. Momentum is essential here, as a spinout could result in a stuck vehicle that would have no alternative but to back down , all the way to the water, to attempt it again. There are 3 large hills that need to be negotiated like this, so a slow truck could really get in the way at the wrong spot. Shortly, two more crossings are met, both of minimal difficulty, before another challenging spot of a wide river, flat but deeper than any before. Walking across before driving is highly advised at the worst of the crossings, both to find the shallowest line and to remove potentially problematic rocks. Number 7 is the most daunting of all, a deep river with steep banks up both sides and about 2 feet deep at it’s lowest. This is the one that requires careful study before committing, as any lack of momentum and you’re floating downstream. This crossing provides an alternative route, favored by motorcyclists, just upstream but the start is deep rutted mud, a very easy place to get stuck. If the river is running any higher than it was on that December day, the possible peril is accentuated, and we gave this barrier an 8.5. On the return trip, we had the great fortune of having a skip loader tractor scraping and then dumping gravel on the crossing to aid in underwater traction. Never the less, a couple of locals watching here were summarily amazed watching the Nissan emerge again.
There are 6 more water crossings, none worse than 3.5 on the gruesome scale, but a thunderstorm can change everything. The Osa Peninsula received almost 400 inches of rain that season, the most ever recorded, so the condition of this road is variable at best. But besides mashing the plastic cowling underneath the front bumper on a couple of rough pitches, no damage was done to the rental, and even that was quickly re rigged manually. However, a lame driver could get a Hummer stuck in a number of places, so driving expertise and finesse trumps superior equipment. Due to rental car liability and possible repercussions, our driver shall remain anonymous, but his ability and experience driving challenging roads is prolific. High clearance is certainly useful, and 4wd will come in handy, but there are no guarantees here, and no insurance for poor judgement. One round trip here brings a new appreciation for roads, period, and just how bad some can get. There’s a heck of a payoff at the end of this one. Go, and then make it back………
Yeah, I know Costa Rica’s not technically South America, but it’s actually further south than parts of Colombia, believe it or else. Besides that, it takes great care of its parks and reserves, hunting is illegal, and I love the place. Certainly, parts are being overdeveloped and some areas and towns are not so pretty, but the good places are great, and this article is about my favorite. For the most part, wild animals are treated with considerable care and respect, compared to many countries where they’re considered pests and nuisances to be eradicated. Here, they’re a big part of the family.
Costa Rica boasts 18 national parks, asylum for thousands of species and the conservation model of the third world. One of these refuges, Corcovado, is managed as a place where the wildlife rules supreme. Man is the visitor, with only slight concessions offered for our convenience, so the effort and endurance required to fully, or even partially experience the wonders there is substantial. This is how the CR government likes it, difficult for people, and low impact on the wildlife that abounds here.
Pizotes in the park
Some of the wildlife is not only wild, but downright dangerous, like the Bull Sharks and crocodiles that inhabit the bays and rivers in the park, some of which need to be crossed on foot, ideally at low tide, for obvious reasons. The only camping allowed in the entire park is on the grass at the 3 ranger stations, all situated on the Pacific coast- San Pedrillo, Sirena, and La Leona, from north to south. Besides short loops around the stations, there are only 2 actual trails, one running from north to south from San Pedrillo to La Leona, and another west to east from Sirena across the interior to Las Patos, which has no ranger station. Each of the stations is about 20 kilometers from the other, so serious stamina and wilderness savvy is compulsory. Ideally, a 4 or 5 day backpack across the park and back should be enough to get the jungle fever out of the system, and wildlife opportunities promise to be off the charts.
Another possible feat would be to get dropped off by a vehicle at the Los Patos entrance, then covering the 20 k to La Sirena, and spending the night there. Then another 20 k ramble southward, crossing both the Rio Sirena and Rio Claro rivers, and exiting the park at La Leona. The Rio Claro holds crocodiles, and the Sirena Bull Sharks, so timing the tides will be critical. This trek entails 40 jungle kilometers in two days, so maybe two nights camping at the Sirena station would be more practical.
I have stayed at the Corcovado Tent Camp, on Drake Bay and accessible from the north via the airports at Palmar Sur and Drake Bay. They offer economical packages including transportation from either airport, accommodations, meals, and guided park tours, and it’s a good value. The roads are funky and rough on the Osa peninsula, but the place can probably be accessed on the ground as well. At the time I went, it was definitely the best deal to get into the northern section of the park. The setting is idyllic.
There is no travel permitted off the trails whatsoever, as any venture off the beaten path is foolishly dangerous, poisonous snakes like the Fer De Lance and Bushmaster are numerous, and crocodiles inhabit virtually every river and stream. Lago Corcovado is a large inland lake that the ranger reported is absolutely packed with crocs and completely off limits to non reptiles, probably the closest this hemisphere gets to sub tropical Africa.
Guides are recommended for visitors, but anybody with minimal observation skills will see enough wildlife to keep scanning the bush nonstop. All four types of Costa Rican monkeys, Capuchin, Spider, Howler, and Squirrel, reside in large numbers here, along with sloths, anteaters, pizotes and lots more usually seen only in zoos. There are enough exotic birds to keep a fanatic binoculared for years, and reptile populations found elsewhere only in the Amazon basin. Because of Corcovado’s limited access points and resulting minimal human impact, the animals in the park have flourished, and that’s the key. The vibe of a primitive, primal, somewhat ominous jungle is obvious to all, and anybody looking for convenience and ease is dreaming.
But this is one of the great independent adventures still possible, and getting to the Osa very straight forward and uncomplicated. Fly or drive to Puerto Jimenez, and then take the bus or drive the sketchy 42 kilometer road to Carate, adjacent and just south of the park entrance at La Leona. Although two tent camps are slightly closer, the finest and best value accommodations are at the Lookout Inn, with luxurious open air cabinas built on the slope above the road. Outstanding meals are included, served in the main building, which sports two tremendous patios frequented by dozens of local birds. This is the place to stay before and after the jungle trek of a lifetime, and is also close enough to take day hikes into the park and make it back for a hot shower, a great meal, and a soft bed. The staff is endlessly friendly and helpful, and park passes are available, which otherwise have to be purchased on line, or in person, at the Bank of Costa Rica. Park visitors can no longer just show up at the entrance and pay the fee, passes must be procured in advance. All of this hullabaloo further insures that the human visitors will never intrude on the residents, and from all present indications, this is a place that will last.
Waterfalls are among earths finest features, happy places for millions and landmarks that punctuate the terrain and mark a change in levels. A torrent of water dropping off a cliff can be stared at for quite a spell, and many in the USA are fabled and mighty- Yosemite, Havasu, Yellowstone, Niagra. There is, however, one waterfall, way south of the equator, which exceeds almost all the others put together, and the effect it has on the senses makes it worth any effort to visit. The sheer scale of the place defies description, and invites absurd visual analogies, mine being, “As if the Mississippi River plummeted off the edge of the Grand Canyon”. No matter that the Canyon is close to a mile deeper than Iguasu Gorge, but the disbelief index is still fully engaged. Ansel Adams would have difficulty doing this place justice with pictures. It has to be seen to be believed possible, much less merely believed.
The Brazil portion of the Falls sports very nice and new visitor facilities, and everybody is loaded onto modern double decker busses for the ride a few kilometers to the viewing paths. A number of vista platforms connected by a kilometer of walkways provide very misty perspectives on one large section of the Falls. As many are just above the water, plastic bags and rain gear are invaluable, especially for photography purposes. Park admission was 37 reis, about $20, and there is an elevator to bring visitors from river level back up to the top where a restaurant and gift shop are located. The bus ride back completes the circuit, and several optional tours, on land and water, are available. Both parks are situated in prime rain forest, and critters abound, from coatimundis to monkeys, with lots of tropical butterflies and birds, including two types of fish eating eagles.
The Argentine side of the Falls offers a different experience altogether, with 6 kilometers of metal walkways and trails through the rainforest, and many more vistas of this extraordinary site. Admission is almost identical to Brazil’s park-$20, but that’s where the similarity ends. On the Brazil side, most of the trails are lower, just above the river, and the view is mostly up. Argentina’s park paths are almost all on top of the Falls, and the views are out, down, and superior. In addition to all the paths and trails, a small passenger train transports visitors several miles along the edge of the river out to a walkway that is perched on the rim of the river.Directly above the ‘Garganta del Diablo’, the Devil’s Throat, where a huge portion of the river drops into a 3 sided gorge, this is by far the most stunning section of all the Falls. The sheer force and volume of river dropping here literally leaves one reeling, and the hydraulic energy being released is seen, heard, and felt like an earthquake.
From Argentina’s side, many of the comparatively smaller falls, still huge, all named, and in the hundreds, can likewise be appreciated individually. The tremendous network of pathways makes it possible to leave the crowds behind and really enjoy some stellar rain forest, and the wilderness of Isla San Martin is just a short boat ride across the river. Lots of concession stands sell food and drink to fuel the footwork on the walkways, and there’s room to roam. If one day is all the time allotted for Iguasu, spend it here. And if you don’t get soaked, and I do mean waterlogged, you haven’t gotten close enough.
Iguasu straddles the border between Brazil and Argentina, and each country has it’s own national park with visitor facilities designed to get a really good look at the spectacle. The Brazilian side is reached from the city of Foz do Iguasu, 10 miles away. Brazil’s park development is newer, with modern shuttle busses that transport several miles from the Visitor Center to the one kilometer of walkways adjacent to one section of the falls. Various optional tours are available, including boat trips as close to the chaotic water as is possible. Just like the Argentine side, Brazil’s park also provides a luxury hotel steps away from the viewing paths, Hotel Das Cataratas, rates starting about $250 per night and maybe worth it. The Argentine park has it’s own posh counterpart, the Sheraton International, also nicely located walking minutes to the Falls. But there are many better value hotels towards and back in both towns. On the Argentine side, Puerto Iguasu has dozens of accommodations, budget to plush. Across the big river, in Foz do Iguasu, The San Rafael, directly downtown, has clean rooms, a nice pool and many amenities for a quarter of the 4 star price. Taxis are plentiful and a short ride can take you to Paraguay, just a bridge across the river, where care and safety precautions should be exercised. Some border areas can be dicey, and this is one of them.
It’s actually quite easy to get from one park to the other by using the city busses that continuously connect Foz do Iguasu with Puerto Iguasu, with a quick stop at the border crossing. And each country has it’s own airport adjacent to their park, if you’d rather forego the 8 hour night bus from Curitiba which I took. Connections from Sao Paolo, Rio, Porto Alegre and Buenos Aires are frequent.