We roll out of bed after 9 AM, have another of Silvia’s great breakfasts, and pack up to go.
To finish our insane 5 day diversion to the north of Argentina, we face another grueling drive of 420 miles to return to Santa Rosa de Calamuchita where the gaucho festival is beginning today. I text Chris at Cabañas Kangarú to see if they can accommodate us for another 2 nights and immediately get a “but of course!” response. No lodging search tonight.
We don’t have many boring days on this trip, but backtracking on the main highway through endless flats certainly qualifies, although we do encounter a few minor diversions. In the village of Famaillá, a roadside lawn full of statues catches our eye. It turns out to be the Bicentennial Historical Theme Park depicting various Argentine historical figures and pioneer life.
We notice two men hauling a heavy load in a one horse cart rather than the more typical pickup truck. They notice us as well when we slow up for a photo. I don’t understand how the great portrait photographers overcome the impact of a prosperous stranger sticking their camera in the face of some economically disadvantaged peasant and snapping away. They get great pictures, but how? Do they chat up each subject and get permission? Offer money? Or just ignore the potential insult and do it? Susan and I don’t have the skill or the nerve. As a result we’ve seen many interesting scenes, often touching ones, that we keep in our memories but don’t capture on camera. Having a good telephoto lens, though, really helps.
And, of course, there are the frequent police checkpoints. They’re never a problem for us, but the questions they ask seem completely random from one to the next. “Next” is sometimes just a few miles from “Last”. Argentina has many different police forces and they work without any apparent coordination. We can be asked for the same document 3 times in a row, or a different document each time, or just waved through. We’re still trying to figure out the purpose of all the checkpoints.
In some cases, our Chile license plates seem to elicit a stop, while in others they seem to trigger a “keep going” reaction. When questioned, I always make it clear immediately that I speak almost no Spanish. Unless the officer happens to know some English and wants to practice, my little deceit often results in a quick “enjoy your trip” release.
We stop shortly before our final destination in Villa General Belgrano to get some cash from an ATM, having found last week that none of the ones in Santa Rosa would put out for us. As we enter town, we pass a residential subdivision with a prominent sign declaring it “Colonía Eva Perón”. The Juan Perón regimes, 1946-1955 and 1973-1974 were very controversial, but Peronists have persisted, loud and proud through a number of subsequent governments. Juan’s second wife, Eva Perón, who was only in the public eye for 7 years before her untimely death, is still idolized by many Peronists and commemorations of her are found throughout the country.
The small town of Belgrano is one of several in South America that were founded by German immigrants, often long before World War II, but in some cases by fleeing Nazis and sympathizers. After a few generations, these “German” towns have retained and enhanced their German architecture and atmosphere in a successful effort to attract crowds of Argentine tourists. Having made eager inquiries in these places, however, we’re generally told that no one speaks German now and that there aren’t even any German descendants left. Instead, the villages have become pure commercial attractions full of German buildings, decoration, and signage.
We arrive at Cabañas Kangarú shortly after dark and unload our gear into the familiar surroundings. Last week, feeling like friends rather than customers by the time we departed for the north, we made a few suggestions for improvements to owners Chris and Yanina based on our now extensive cabin rental experience. To our surprise and delight, Yanina has already implemented some of them, including wall hooks to hang clothing and a shelf in the shower stall to hold soap and shampoo in convenient reach. To top it off, she has left a (wrapped) chocolate sitting on top of the clean towels, which was a half joking recommendation of Susan’s.
Eager to find the gauchos, we go out again looking for their encampment. Despite Chris giving us directions — in English — we’re unable to find it and, being tired from the daylong drive, we decide to give up and have dinner with our friend Josie. Early dinner in Argentina is almost unheard of, so by the time we finish at 11 PM we’re ready to hit our comfortable bed in the cabin.
At first light I get out of the car to look over our situation. The weather is still cloudy but the rain has tapered off. The surface is even muddier than before and there isn’t much room for error. Since the contingency plan is so grim, I scrape mud off the tires as best I can with the shovel and dig guide ruts for the front wheels. With these measures, I’m able to move forward without sliding down the slope and I get the car back to the center of the road. We proceed very cautiously, still with little traction, forced to drive through the worst of the mud to stay centered. Once again, each dilapidated bridge becomes a rest stop and wildlife viewing platform.
Twice, I get out and reconnoiter on foot to pick the best route. Fortunately, within another 15 miles, we reach the improved portion of the road and the number of tense moments starts to decrease. Along the way we spot an alligator along the road, and a tapir in the distance. Both disappear quickly at our approach so we don’t get any good photos. Within 2 hours, the driving becomes fairly easy and the symbolic end of the adventure is returning to the formal beginning of the Transpantaneira highway.
We make it back to civilization, or at least Poconé, with a little gasoline to spare. Since we got started this morning at daybreak, there’s plenty of time to move on.
We didn’t exactly have a triumphant trip to the northern Pantanal, but we got up close to an enormous selection of flowers, birds, and other wildlife and had a fine adventure, although Susan doesn’t see it that way yet. A day is either easy and uneventful or it makes a good story, never both. Moral of this story: visit Porto Jofre during the dry season!
Before leaving Poconé, we fill the thirsty gas tank and head in the direction of Goiás, one of Brasil’s historic colonial cities. This requires a further 150 mile backtrack through Chapada do Guimarães and Campo Verde before forging a new path eastward, away from the Pantanal. We stop back in Chapada for a return visit to one of the few authentic native crafts stores we’ve encountered in South America, then have a quick lunch at the Italian restaurant we tried several days ago. After that it’s drive, drive, drive through a visually endless ocean of soybean fields, their output mostly destined for China. At 3:30 pm we reach the agricultural town of Primavera do Leste. Since there’s little in the way of lodging ahead of us, we check out the options, choosing a pretty fancy, but affordable, hotel on our 3rd try. After last night in the car, even I appreciate, for a change, a swimming pool, comfortable bed, and air conditioning.
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We get up fairly early for breakfast at our poor value hotel in Poconé, Pousada Haras Santa Rita. It’s a big spread, well maintained, built on a reclaimed strip mine, but almost deserted this time of year. The staff seem to outnumber the few guests and despite the many stables, rodeo ring, and other facilities that make it very horse-oriented . there’s not one horse to be seen.
The church-size chapel seems incongruous for a hotel, so I assume the owners are devout believers. It (the hotel, not the chapel) does, however, have a giant swimming pool which is what attracted Susan. Their breakfast, we both agree, is pretty elaborate but with nothing very tasty. We eat as much as we can manage because we’re heading south today, about 100 miles of remote road to the end in Porto Jofre, the access point to the northern Pantanal swamp.
We’re into the beginning of the wet season, which admittedly is not the right time to visit. During the April – September dry season the animals are forced to concentrate themselves at water holes and river banks, making it a world class locale for viewing jaguar, anaconda, giant otter. and birds galore. But, we’re here now and we’re likely not coming back, so we’re going to see what we can see, recommendations be damned.
We head into nearby Poconé, the gateway town to the Transpantaneira highway.
Before leaving Poconé, we try to replenish our supply of local currency. Brasil is incredibly credit card friendly — even many street kiosks accept them — so we haven’t used a lot of Brasilian reais (pronounced approximately “hey-ICE”) in our first seven weeks.
Brasil has experienced several eras of hyperinflation since the Great Depression and has repeatedly changed its currency as the old one became impossibly unwieldy, When I traveled here in 1984, the currency was the New Cruzeiro and inflation was running rampant. One of my enduring memories from that trip was television and print ads constantly shouting “Sem Juros! Sem acrescimento!” (“No interest! No fees!”) to entice consumers into buying cars and major appliances with their shrinking earnings. Inflation is currently very modest and the current Real (Royal) is the fifth currency since I was last here. The average annual inflation rate has been about 60% over the last 90 years. That makes one current Real worth an astounding 2.75 quintillion 1929 Reals. Contrary to the puny examples we were given in math or finance class, that example shows the real power of compound interest!
Today, we’re running low on currency and heading into a remote area, so it’s time to take on the system. Curiously, many bank ATMs don’t accept international debit cards, even ATMs of the largest, and government- controlled, Banco do Brasil. Having never encountered this problem in any other nation, the series of rejections caused us considerable consternation on our first day in the country. My son, Eric, who entered Brasil before we did, advised me that ATMs in stores and gas stations freely dispense cash to all comers — even when those ATMs carry the same bank names that reject cards at their own machines.
In Poconé, unfortunately, there appear to be no store-based ATMs, so I dutifully hit all four banks in town and get “Invalid card” responses from every one, sometimes after a sweltering wait on line in their non-air conditioned ATM lobbies. Next to one of the banks sits a depressed looking Santa Claus wishing, no doubt, for relief from alternating heat and rain. We have no choice but to head into the wild with our remaining currency and hope that credit cards will do the heavy lifting.
We fill the gas tank and head south. Not far from town the pavement ends as we knew it would and we’re driving on wide, well maintained gravel. The weather is dry and sunny, which is not at all assured this time of year, with very beautiful fluffy clouds, each of which is a potential rainstorm. At the ten mile mark, a large wooden arch declares “Start of the Trans-Pantanal Highway”
We stop for a moment and dutifully take photos of us under the sign, then proceed onward through very flat territory. There are wetlands to both sides of the road, interspersed with cattle ranches. Ahead of us is a large truck with high seating containing a small group of people on a wildlife viewing tour. This is encouraging because how bad can the road be if there are daily tours using it? We will eventually find the answer to that question.
The only mammals we see from the road are capybaras (giant freaking aquatic guinea pigs).
The swamp is filled with birds of all sorts, though: waterfowl, wading birds, raptors, songbirds, kingfishers, parakeets, and more. They are everywhere: flying, wading, perching on power lines, and occupying almost every fence post. I’m no dedicated birder but this is an amazing array.
I hang behind the truck, taking advantage of the eager sets of eyes spotting movements from its high platform. All too soon, though, in only 3 miles, the truck pulls a U-turn at a large roadside St Francis statue, retroactively assigned the role, if you believe the sign, of “Protector of Ecology”.
From this point on, we’re largely on our own, seeing only the occasional cattle truck or ranch pickup. The road has dozens of bridges and the early ones have been recently replaced with sturdy concrete structures. Some of the bridges cross substantial bodies of water, others span small sloughs, and others have no water at all beneath them. On each one, we stop and take advantage of its slight elevation to check both sides for interesting birds, plants, reptiles, and mammals. At one point we notice a Pantanal deer grazing in the brush.
Abut half way to Porto Jofre, the new bridges peter out and revert to wooden structures whose surface planks and guard rail timbers are in various states of disrepair, detachment, displacement, sprung up from their spikes (which are sometimes exposed flat tire hazards), or just plain missing. Each bridge requires a stop, a few seconds of analysis, careful steering to avoid the most hazardous spots, and usually a pause in the middle to scan for and appreciate wildlife, like caimans.
The road surface has also changes from quality gravel to dirt. There are some signs of former mud holes, but in its current dry condition they pose no problem. By about 1:30 pm we arrive at Porto Jofre, the dead end of the 89 mile Transpananeira, on the bank of the Rio São Lourenço.
Porto Jofre isn’t a town, just a collection of buildings sprinkled along the river bank and into the jungle. There are a half dozen or so lodgings shown on the map, ranging in cost from expensive to ridiculous, so we drive out to each one and inquire. All but one are closed for their vacation — not an unreasonable indulgence since there are virtually no tourists here at this time of year. Ailton, the very friendly owner of the Jaguar Camp says his employees are all on vacation but eventually offers us a room without services if we can’t find anything else.
The owner of the riverside pousada/camping has a very primitive, unpleasant room. He also offers a 4 or 8 hour wildlife viewing trip but the boat barely has any shade and he doesn’t instill very much confidence. Both room and boat are quite expensive. A boat trip is our primary objective here but the thought of all day in sweltering heat and humidity under a postage stamp canopy with uncertain results overcomes the dream. As we leave the last hotel, where workers confirm that it’s also closed, I drive across an ordinary looking piece of ground as I turn to exit. Unfortunately, it’s disguised mud and the Subaru immediately breaks through the crust and gets thoroughly stuck — the first time in 45,000 miles of South American travel! With the aid of my shovel, the 4 workers, and many palm fronds for traction we extract it in about 20 minutes.
By 3 pm, with rain in the forecast, we decide we’re not going to succeed at staying here and getting an acceptable wildlife boat tour tomorrow. We decide to return to Poconé, planning to drive the last portion in the dark. First I try to fill the fuel tank, for security, but quickly discover that whatever gasoline exists in Porto Jofre is private and I can’t buy any. Reluctantly, we set off with the half tank we have. We already know the southernmost half of the road is in poor condition with rickety bridges and a dirt surface.
About 25 miles along, the rain starts and the road quickly becomes treacherous. Strangely, the expanding mud holes aren’t the big problem as the Subaru plows through even deep ones quite well.
The mud itself is the issue. I have never seen anything so adhesive. It’s essentially modeling clay or wet cement and coats the tires over an inch thick.
Once that happens, they become effectively bald and lose almost all traction. I’m constantly fighting to keep the car from sliding sideways as we move forward. I try to keep to the exact center of the road, which is also the muddiest and least driveable portion, to avoid any downhill slant. Even so, the car yaws 90 degrees a few times but at speeds slow enough that I can correct with anti-skid steering. We fight our way slowly from bridge to bridge, pausing on the half destroyed wooden planks for a rest before plunging into the mud again. I would characterize that drive as requiring intense focus amid continuous stress punctuated with moments of near panic. Remember, the nearest tow truck is 70 miles away with absolute zero cell phone signal and virtually no other traffic in either direction. We’re making progress, but using up our remaining daylight and more gasoline than I like. At about 34 miles, there’s a point where I’m forced to move off the center line and the clay-surfaced tires immediately slide sideways toward the steep embankment.
I get the car stopped and with very little safety margin to keep from sliding off the remaining road width, I get out and look over the situation and decide there’s too little daylight left to risk moving again and maybe making things worse. Just stepping out of the car coats each of my sneakers with about a pound of sticky clay.
Susan and I agree that we have to spend the night in the car although it will be very uncomfortable. We can’t run the air conditioner because we’re unsure if we can spare the fuel. We can’t leave the windows shut because the car will become unbearably hot and stuffy. We can’t open the windows because we’ll be bitten all night by mosquitoes and flies. We eventually decide on open windows and the use of insect repellent. We later realize our level of discomfort and concern was high enough that it didn’t even occur to us to take any photos of our situation — usually one of our first reflexes.
Susan refuses to step out of the car into the deep mud, roadside vegetation, and steep slope so she improvises a urinal out of a cooking pot. She feels very lucky to, literally, at least have a pot to piss in. Although we’re delighted to see large fireflies flitting through the darkness, we’re amazed to hear very few night noises — only a few insect sounds. The Pantanal is eerily quiet once the birds go to sleep.
I spend part of the night making a contingency plan. If we can’t proceed on our own right away, we’ll have to wait for the roadbed to dry out. That would require hours of strong sunshine and even if we got it we couldn’t sit in the car under those conditions. We have plenty of water but only a few snacks. We would both have to get to environmental safety first. Abandoning the car would mean dragging quite a lot of luggage with us as well. Once our personal escape was accomplished I’d be 70 miles from the car without transportation. The plan I settle on is to flag down the first vehicle traveling north; plead, with, bribe or force them to take us and our luggage to Poconé; and then dig deep into my wallet to hire a tow truck, which I might not even need by the time I return to the car. Plan made, I relax and snore my way obnoxiously through a series of naps, waking up to adjust the windows in response to rain or not rain. Twelve hours of sitting in the car doesn’t yield much sleep –even less for Susan than for “sleep anywhere” John.
We wake up refreshed this morning after yesterday’s long drive. While we eat an even better breakfast than Silvia served us two days ago, she gets on the phone and finds a hydraulics shop where I can take the Subaru. I arrive there when they open and explain the problem to one of the owners.
He looks over the system, goes back into the shop, and returns with a container of steering fluid. He adds some to the reservoir and within moments the noise and the surging abate. Apparently, even though the fluid appears to be at the proper level, a substantial amount has leaked out of the system and the symptoms are caused by the pump running dry at times. The mechanic explains to me — my Spanish language limitations are definitely an obstacle here — that the loss is though the O-rings of the power steering linkage. He can replace the worn rings and I’ll be back in business. This is an enormous relief since a ruined steering pump would be a major problem. I ask him “how much and how long” and he tells me they are too busy to finish the repair before Monday,
We’ve agreed to pick up our friend Jaqui on Saturday many miles away in Córdoba, so waiting here until Monday would ruin our planned reunion. Since the symptoms occur when the fluid is low, I ask if I can postpone the repair as long as I keep topping up the level — if the leak isn’t too serious, which at this point it is not. The mechanic says I can do that so I decide to have the work done in Buenos Aires, where we’ll be staying a while anyway. He goes to his office and writes out the name of a hydraulics shop in that city. With a stern warning that I must keep the fluid level high, he sends me off, refusing to take any money despite having spent a half hour with me. Yet another example of South American generosity and integrity.
We took such an immediate liking to Silvia during our first brief stay here that I’ve offered to make tacos for the three of us tonight. Leaving the repair shop, I stop at a supermarket and pick up everything I need for dinner, along with a reserve supply of power steering fluid.
Back at the hostal, I sit in the kitchen, slicing and dicing, and talk with Silvia. She says she has found freedom running her guest house. She meets nice people, earns a living, and has time to pursue her artistic interests which include furniture reupholstering. As I prep food, she is putting the finishing touches on ornate homemade tiles with her house number on them. She sleeps in a narrow room off the kitchen and says she is perfectly content with the tiny private space.
We get into a discussion of Gauchito Gil, a sort of unofficial saint in Argentina. There are Gauchito shrines along almost every road, always marked with red flags, where people leave offerings of empty (and partially empty) liquor bottles, cigarettes, trinkets, etc. I know quite a bit about him because Susan has become fascinated with the story and we have dozens of shrine photos, not to mention a 5 pound plaster image that we lugged home after the last trip through Argentina.
Some people we’ve met say the Gauchito is revered by gauchos and peasants, others say truck drivers, and yet others say criminals visit a shrine before committing robberies. There are three basic origin stories for Gauchito Gil, variously depicting him as hero to scoundrel. The one Silvia relates is the least flattering and she thoroughly discounts the miracle which is often attributed to him. By contrast she reverently describes a church where a true miracle has occurred. I promise to send her a link to an article that presents all three Gauchito biographies and we leave it at that.
Silvia also talks about her adult children, mentioning that one daughter is a psychologist. I’ve met only a thin slice of Argentines but they are disproportionately weighted toward psychologists. It seems that half of the population are in the profession and the other half (or more) are their clients. Therapy is a major preoccupation in the country. Maybe that’s how they’ve coped with decades of murderous military rule, national debt defaults, and ongoing inflation. As the people of Chile, Bolivia, and Ecuador take to the streets in violent protest, Argentines seem tolerant of and patient with their travails.
By late afternoon, the tacos are ready and the three of us eat outdoors next to the swimming pool, complete with the obligatory table photos.
Because we’re back south earlier than we had planned, Susan is able to satisfy her ardent desire to see the gaucho festival that starts tomorrow, so we’re going to retrace our path from San Miguel de Tucumán all the way to Santa Rosa. With another long drive ahead, we withdraw to our spotless room and get some shut eye.