After a moderate breakfast, I enjoy my beachfront balcony room until checkout time.
Then I head inland on what I quickly see is the main road, im much better condition than the way I entered yesterday. Just out of town, I pass the airport and have yesterday’s conjecture regarding offshore oil confirmed. The airport is primarily a large helicopter base owned by Petrobras, the national oil company. The gate is crowded with workers lined up to enter and on the other side of the chain link fence, several large passenger helicopters are loading and then taking off oceanward headed for drilling platforms.
On my first visit to Brasil in 1984, the nation had microscopic oil reserves. The military government had messed up the economy, inflation was rampant, and Brasil had no foreign exchange for imports. As a result, everything was home grown. Volkswagen was building Beetles domestically and in lieu of gasoline, everything was fueled with ethanol, which was produced from Brasil’s plentiful sugar cane crop. This forced self reliance seemed to have some positive effect, preventing the excesses of consumerism being encouraged elsewhere by rising imports from Asia. Of course, the populace wasn’t happy with enforced economic constraints. After decades of military dictatorship, the generals were now so tired of being blamed for the economy they were taking the drastic step of handing the government back to civilians. Imagine how bad things were if the dictators said, “I want out.”
I think it’s fair to say plentiful oil almost ruined Brasil. Petrobras was formed back in 1953 as the sovereign oil company but they had little to work with until offshore oil was discovered in 1974. Even then, financing and technology limitations, and the extraordinary ocean depths where the oil was found kept offshore development at a slow pace. It took over 30 years, but finally in 2006, Brasil reached oil self-sufficiency and Petrobras started being flush with cash. That’s when corruption started going wild. Politicians and Petrobras officials received ever increasing bribes from contractors for accepting overpriced bids and embezzled even more from the company. By the time serious investigations got underway in 2013, the total looting was estimated as high as US$13 billion. Three presidents and countless other politicians have been ensnared. Complicating things are plausible accusations that the crusading investigative judge who dug into the case was politically biased and used the prosecution to fulfill his aims. He is now the Brasilian Minister of Justice. The pervasive corruption that came to light eventually put Jair Bolsonaro, known derisively by his many non-supporters as “Trump of the Tropics”, into the presidency.
I’m heading for the next Brasilian state north up the coast, Espiritu Santu. I have invitations from two Couchsurfing hosts, one in the capital, Vitoria, and one in a beach town on the way there, Guaraparí. I’ve told the latter one, Micaela, that I’ll be there today. My plan is to continue trundling slowly up the coast on small, possibly impassable, roads and arrive by evening.
That plan is about to change. Shortly after the airport, as I accelerate to pass a large truck, I notice the tachometer needle acting strangely. A few tests yield a disturbing result: when I press hard on the gas pedal, the engine races even though the speed of the car is unchanged. This is proof positive that the clutch is slipping and will shortly fail. When it does, I’ll be stranded on the road, unable to move.
I don’t know how the Subaru was treated for its first 100,000 miles, but I do know the 50,000 I’ve put on it so far have been hard ones. At least half of those have been on mud, gravel, sand, snow, and mountain roads, not to mention the tens of thousands of speed bumps, nicknamed “donkey backs” or similar, used throughout South America in lieu of police speed enforcement. While I appreciate not having to keep my eyes constantly peeled for speed traps, every single hump requires a downshift, braking to near zero speed, two big bounces, and then an acceleration through the gears again on the other side. In addition to the other road stresses, this amounts to a lot of brake, suspension, and transmission wear.
My point is that it’s entirely reasonable that the clutch needs replacement. This doesn’t make it any less of a problem. In Chile, where I bought the car. Subarus are quite common, mechanics are used to them, and parts are usually available. Argentina and Uruguay have no Subaru presence at all. To allay this problem, I’ve carried brake shoes and oil filters with me. When I did something stupid in Argentina a few months ago it required 3-days and a 16 hour round trip to Chile to fetch the needed part. So I’ve been thankful that the Subaru has been so reliable and there haven’t been any further parts crises.
Brasil, by contrast, has Subaru dealers, so I thought getting parts would be easier. To my dismay, though, I haven’t noticed one other Subaru on the roads here in almost 3 months. I don’t know who’s buying them in Brasil but they’re keeping them pretty well hidden. When I stopped at a dealer in Rio de Janeiro to buy one non-critical part, it took an hour of searching to find out they didn’t have it — but they said if I hung around for two weeks, they could get it from Japan.
Now I’m concerned. Finding a replacement clutch disk could be a big problem. My tests show the clutch only slips noticeably if I step fairly hard on the gas, so with conservative driving, it could last for weeks before complete failure. Since this approach means no back roads, no steep mountains… no fun, I want to handle the repair quickly. The ride to Guaraparí is now constrained to the main toll highway.
I arrive in the evening to be welcomed by Micaela, husband Fabricio, little son Henrique, and Micaela’s mother. There’s also another Couchsurfer from remote western Brasil staying in their big house. Everyone’s very friendly, but the dinner table conversation is in rapid fire Portuguese, leaving me behind a lot of the time. In this case, that’s not as frustrating as usual because I’m pondering how to proceed on the repair. Tomorrow is Friday, and after that everything grinds to a halt for the weekend, so I need to work fast.
I retire early to my room and text my next host in the capital to ask if he knows any competent mechanics. He suggests a shop where he has his repairs done. Given the potential parts difficulties, I decide to forego custom and leave in the morning after just one night. This carries the danger of looking like a freeloader rather than a sincere guest, but I feel compelled to risk it.
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I’m up early at Fazenda dos Cordeiros because this morning I’m going into the field to see the golden lion tamarin (mico leão dourado). I’m packed and out of my room in plenty of time, walk the few steps to the main house, and find a sumptuous breakfast awaiting — almost everything homemade or homegrown.
After a leisurely meal with Ana Beatriz and her family, I make the 10 minute drive back down the road to the Golden Lion Tamarin Association’s (AMLD) private reserve. Already gearing up as I arrive are several AMLD staff members and a two-person Swedish news crew. They are the reason today’s excursion is open to me. Normally a group less than four is charged a substantial minimum fee. I don’t know if AMLD waived the fee for the Swedes or if their network anted up, but I’m only paying the normal per person charge.
We set off into the woods and fields with a staff member leading the way holding a radio tracking antenna.
AMLD has collared at least one member of each family group so they can be more easily monitored. After a fruitless initial steep and slippery climb through the forest, we turn back and head for other wooded areas across a very wet former pasture.
At the far end of the property one or two tamarins (micos) appear. Another staff member places a bunch of bananas in the crotch of a tree and within ten minutes, we are surrounded by dozens of bright orange micos, opening bananas, staring down at us, and lolling on branches just above our heads. It’s an incredibly intimate encounter and all three of the guests are awestruck by their beauty and behavior. The Swedish producer and cameraperson stick with their work, filming the micos constantly. I discover to my dismay that something is wrong with my camera, probably some errant setting, that is putting a bluish cast over every photo and preventing proper focus. Because of intermittent rain (I have the camera protected with a plastic bag) and the short time we have with the micos, I decide not to start a research project on the failures. Instead I shoot the best I can with both camera and phone. After all, seeing the micos is the unique adventure. Even without many photographs, I’m still having the experience.
After a half hour or so, we leave the micos to their meal and the Swedes film some interviews with the staff. Then we all go sloshing back across the soggy fields to the road. The producer tells me the two of them, based in Buenos Aires, Argentina, cover South America for Sweden’s main evening news program and that this day’s work will probably be presented as a 3 minute story. By 11 AM or so, we’re all taking off in different directions, mission accomplished.
Still awestruck from seeing such unique animals up close, it takes an effort of will to focus on my driving. My tentative goal for today is a hostel in a coastal town, but thanks to today’s early start and the muddy roads keeping me on the toll highways, I get there much too early in the day to consider stopping yet. Just beyond the town is Jurubatiba, a coastal national park that, on the map at least, looks like an interesting area with a remote beach road. There’s one park entrance near me, but it turns out to be a stub road used only for local beach access. The map shows a few routes to the longer through road along the beach, so I work my way around to the first of these. Leaving the highway on small, sand roads, I know the chances of having to turn back are substantial. Sure enough, the muddy stretches get worse until I face one that I don’t want to risk and pull one of my “am I going to make it” U-turns and blast my way uphill back to the highway. The second access still beckons so I try that one. Less mud this time, but I’m clearly going through ranch property.
After dodging farm equipment on the one lane road, I reach, about 3 miles in, a locked ranch gate. Another backtrack to the highway and when I pass the third mapped access, I don’t even try it. The car, as usual on days like this, is completely covered in dried mud and looks like something out of a trans-Africa road rally.
I progress up the coast on slightly more reliable roads until it gets to the hour where I want to stop for the day. My route goes through a small beach strip town, were I’m confident I’ll find affordable lodging. Shortly before I arrive, my vaguely paved route turns into a sand dune and a detour sign forces me inland on an obviously provisional road. Apparently an ocean storm destroyed a long stretch of the original highway. The detour is really primitive and finally deposits me in a substantial community arrayed along the beach. Clearly, the way I entered cannot be the main access to a town of this size.
I find another amazingly good value, US$16 for a big, modern room with air conditioning and a large balcony overlooking the ocean beach.
I go back out to sightsee and notice a fleet of fishing boats, quite large. Rather than being docked in a harbor, they’re all beached high up on the sand. By their haphazard arrangement, I conclude that each must have been hauled out of the surf by heavy equipment.
Getting them into the water again must be quite an operation as there seems no option but to shove them with brute force back down the steep sandy beach into a substantial breaking surf. This seems like it would be a technique of last resort. I’ve seen beach based fishing elsewhere, but only with smaller boats that can be muscled around with 2-6 people. That technique won’t work here.
Along the beachfront road, fisherman are processing their day’s catch in what look like simple cooperative facilities, little more than shade, work table, and running water. The men and women are gutting, filleting, and packing in ice.
Anywhere where there’s commercial fishing, ice vending is a major occupation and I see signs advertising “gelo” all over town. As the afternoon latens, large passenger helicopters start coming in from the ocean. At first I think “military” but it dawns on me that this is the region where oil was discovered in the 1990s so there must be offshore rigs over the horizon.
I walk around town looking for decent food but it’s afternoon so most restaurants are closed. If I’m going to eat something other than Brasilian pizza, Brasilian hamburger, or Brasilian pastry, I have to wait several hours. I go back to the room, crank up the air conditioner, and attempt to read. As always, I’m out in ten minutes and the next time I wake, it’s midnight and all the restaurants are closed. Well, breakfast will be available downstairs soon enough.
I wake up refreshed here at my host’s home in the Laranjeiras district of Rio de Janeiro. I have no great ambitions for today, just take it easy after an intese two day round trip drive. The internet went down overnight so I have no access until the router is rebooted and I’m not nervy enough to wander around the house on my own to find it. When Déo arises, I tell her what’s needed and ten minutes later I’m online again. The first thing I check is email and WhatsApp and, as expected, I see the news from Berkeley that Helene has successfully given birth to Felix the Child overnight — she and James have launched a successful Silicon Valley startup. Now, I can finally stop being considered a defective human being all across South America. Everyone you meet down here asks, “Do you have children?” and when the answer is yes the next question is “Grandchildren?” When I say no, their pity and sadness for me is palpable. Today, that ends, I am now a grandfather. No more, “Tão triste…” (“So sad”).
Déo and Gilberto and I talk quite a bit through the morning. The topics of Trump and Bolsonaro come up prominently, of course, and our views on them are closely aligned.
Déo has had an interesting life to date. She alludes to multiple marriages, a long time reluctance (now abandoned) to get involved with Brasilian men, international travel, and a general need to follow her own path through life rather than just “fit in”. Her brother, sister-in-law, and young nephew pop in to discuss family matters. Déo is leaving shortly for Florida to accompany the latter two to Disneyworld.
Brasilians have been fascinated by Disneyworld since it opened. I’m sure it’s the single most popular destination for Brasilian international travel. On my first journey here in 1984, I went to a comedy club in São Paulo (I understood a lot more Portuguese thn than now) to see João Soares, known as O Gordo (The Fat Guy). Brasil, at the time was in the throes of rampant inflation, there was no foreign exchange so very little was imported, oil was years from being discovered so engines ran on domestically produced ethanol, and the military dictatorship was so eager to escape blame for the problems that they were handing the government over to civilians. O Gordo’s solution was to emulate The Mouse That Roared: Brasil should declare war on the United States, attack the country, be defeated, and get tons of foreign aid from us. And, he said, we don’t even have to send an army to invade — we already have one at Disneyworld!
Since Déo can only stand a limited amount of theme park, she’s thinking of going off alone for a portion of the trip to visit Miami. I try my best to dissuade her from wasting precious days of her life in Florida. She’s already been to New York City and, in any case, the winter temperatures are a significant barrier. I suggest New Orleans as a unique experience and she’s receptive to that. By coincidence, the sister-in-law has visited there and adds encouragement. I might have done my good deed for the day. Sorry, Miami… not!
After lunch, I go out to photograph the neighborhood in daylight.
Déo tells me the arrangement of attached houses on a dead end alley is rare in modern day Brasil but traditional in Portugal. The name for it there doesn’t translate descriptively into other languages, including Brasilian Portuguese, so Déo has a hard time describing it to others. Does anyone have an English (or for that matter any other language) name that conveys the concept?
There’s a lot of music and rhythm emanating from the next street and Déo tells me this is a local celebration, Carnaval de Rúa (Carnival of the Street). Although the climax of the season is over two weeks away, such neighborhood parades are happening all through February.
You’re probably aware that Carnaval (what we call Mardi Gras in the US) is an enormous event in Rio and other large Brasilian cities. The obsession, expense, and intensity put other famous Carnival venues, like New Orleans and Port of Spain in Trinidad, to shame.
The local parade today is just a small event in Rio terms but the dense crowd throbs to the music and singing emanating from a full size bus inching it’s way down the street. People are dressed in outrageous costumes: women in the near-naked beachwear that is normally taboo once you step off the sand, men in tutus and other female costumes. Face and body paint, and glitter is de rigueur. The atmosphere is very infectious and it’s easy to see how a lot of crazy stuff happens. Although I arrived after Carnaval in 1984, I remember posters still tacked on utility poles warning, “DON’T have a Carnaval baby!”
Right behind the tail of the crowd comes a garbage truck and crew of street cleaners, some of whom are also dancing to the music as they scoop up parade trash.
Susan and I are planning to come to Rio specifically for next year’s Carnaval and, after today’s experience, I can hardly wait. As I head northeast up the coast, I’m sure I’ll see more parades and music before it all ends on February 25 and Brasil returns to its perpetual football (soccer) obsession.
The remainder of the day is spent indoors. The architecture of the house is interesting, three floors surrounding an open atrium – very airy and light and filled woth Déo’s paintings and other art.
It isn’t air conditioned, though, so sitting in front of the ventilating fan is essential to my survival. As the creation of three blog entries demonstrates, I spend my time writing.
I wake up this morning without Susan and the impact of traveling without her strikes me immediately. In addition, I have a message from daughter Helene in Berkeley, California that her labor has started, which means I am on the verge of being a first time grandfather. I wander downstairs and find Francisco preparing breakfast for us.
I’m not seeing much of Jairo because he is studying continuously. He’s on his way to becoming a judge which, in Brasil, means he must first become a lawyer. He’s been in law school and the day after tomorrow must take a make-or-break test. It’s similar to our bar exam but doesn’t immediately allow you to practice law. It’s very difficult, requiring memorization of tons of detail, and you only get to take it 3 times. If you fail the third time, all your law school effort goes into the trash. Jairo is determined to pass the first time and studying has consumed him.
Since Francisco is working and Jairo locked away, I decide to move on today so as not to be in the way. I start doing research on where to go next and it turns out to be more time consuming than I thought. There’s a private nature reserve I’d like to visit, one of the few places where the endangered golden lion tamarin, a small monkey, is thriving, but it takes hours to find out that the next opportunity is 5 days from now — longer than I planned to stay in this part of Brasil. I decide to hedge my bets by trying to stay with a host in the Rio de Janeiro area, even though we just spent 9 days there, and see how I feel about waiting around for the reserve visit. I contact a Servas host in Rio who had invited us to stay with her 3 days ago and ask if I’m welcome solo.
I start the same long drive back eastward that I just did yesterday, not sure where I’ll end up tonight. By 2 PM, I get a “welcome” email from the host, Déo, and plot a route to her address in Laranjeiras, a Rio neighborhood we hadn’t visited earlier. Six hours of hard driving, interrupted only for a 30 minute nap, refueling, and 2 tiny cups of cafezinho — the ubiquitous Brasilian expresso offered as a courtesy in many gas stations and stores, or at a minimal price in every restaurant. I roll in to my destination after dark at 8 PM. It’s a street that dead ends against a rock wall at least 200 feet high — only in Rio are the residences immediately adjacent to precipitous, wooded mountains all through the city.
The short street is populated by six residential towers of about 20 stories each and an equal number of seven story edifices.
I park the car and search out the exact address on foot. To my surprise, Déo’s address isn’t one of the high rises, but a tiny, gated, perpendicular, dead end alleyway lined both sides with small attached homes.
It’s like something out of a Sherlock Holmes setting. I find my way to the correct house, knock on the door, and am assured I have reached the right place. After carefully squeezing the Subaru into a parallel parking space in the narrow alley, I’m welcomed into the house by Déo and Gilberto.
Déo had warned me in advance that the house was messy and now I see it’s because it’s under major remodel, with construction supplies and displaced furniture piled haphazardly in much of the open space. Nonetheless, the alley is a charming anachronism in an otherwise tower-dominated residential street.
Although Gilberto speaks no English, Déo is fluent so my initial use of Portuguese quickly changes to English to enable more efficient communication. I’m wiped, so after a couple of hours of get-acquainted conversation (during which I’m watching my phone for further updates from Helene — there are none), I go to my assigned room and drop off immediately.
This morning, after nine days in Rio de Janeiro, we undertake the six hour drive to São Paulo International Airport. After almost 4 months on the road in our Subaru, Susan is flying home to her nest in the Catskills. We drag all our stuff down from the eleventh floor of the Casa Nova Hotel in the active but not very touristy Lapa neighborhood. the long drive is to give Susan the convenience of a non-stop flight to Newark instead of flying out of Rio and changing planes in São Paulo.
On the way out of town we detour to Ipanema to drop off the last of Susan’s books for Raphael, our new friend who has invited us to return next year for Carnival, promising to hook us up to the cool parties and events.
Our route out of town takes us past many iconic Rio de Janeiro sights, including Corcovado:
Expensive beachfront residences:
Tunnels that are vital links between neighborhoods:
And street murals:
It’s almost noon by the time we head out on the highway toward São Paulo. Susan’s flight departs at 9:30 PM so we have plenty of time as long as we make steady progress. In a departure from our usual style, we’ve chosen the main highway — high speed (except for traffic jams) and frequent toll booths.
The outskirts of Rio aren’t particularly attractive and Susan assumes her standard cruising posture.
We’re soon ascending through the mountains to the northwest. It’s the rainy season and everything is lush in varying shades of green.
For some reason, gasoline in Rio de Janeiro state is about 25% more expensive than in neighboring São Paulo state. I’ve been tanking up on costly fuel in Rio for the past two weeks so I’m trying to drive economically to reach a particularly cheap station I encountered previously along our route. Alas, the long uphill climbs and the air conditioner mean I can’t quite make it, so I stop on the Rio side of the border to get a small refill.
Another 60 miles brings us to the desired gas station where I fill up and we check out the fairly elegant looking restaurant next door, curiously from a US viewpoint, named Wimpy, The House of Cod. A look at the menu surprises us with prices double or more the usual range. At $35 a plate and up, Susan decides to wait for something more modest that she likes. She’s had breakfast and will be getting dinner on the plane in about 7 hours, so all she needs is something to tide her over.
Shortly afterward, we reach the town of Aparecida and exit to look for more restaurants. We’re turned off by the aggressive touts, standing on front of the moving car in an attempt to force us into their restaurant. What astounds us though is the religious theme of the town. It contains a giant cathedral, many religious artifact stores, and a skywalk (Stairway to Heaven?) .
Also above our heads is a cable car from the church grounds to an adjacent hilltop cross monument. Incongruously, there’s an amusement park next door. Roller Coaster to Christ?
The remaining two hours of driving is uneventful: superhighway, toll stops, and intermittent heavy rain. Near the airport we insert ourselves into a traffic jam looking for a hamburger restaurant which seems to have disappeared, at least its mapped location is now occupied by a traveling circus. The airport is identical to virtually every other one in the world. We’re pleasantly surprised, though, that luggage carts are free and United Airlines has a Special Assistance queue, allowing people over 60 and with children to jump the line to the ticket counter. Are you listening Port Authority of NY/NJ?? Equally surprising: the United employees at the line entrances speak no English, although the ones at the counter do — fortunate because the queue guards won’t let me accompany Susan there because I’m not flying.
Susan still hasn’t eaten, so after check in we opt for the Pizza Hut on the concourse. In the US, I wouldn’t even consider eating their vile food. Many years ago, I stopped at one on a business trip because it advertised all you could eat pizza. I am a lifelong all-you-can-eat customer and restaurants break even — if they’re lucky — on my meals there, but I couldn’t even come close to eating my fill of their crap. In Brasil , though, (with abject apologies to all the millions of Brasilian pizza lovers) even a good pizza is mediocre by my standards, so how much worse could Brasilian Pizza Hut be? The restaurant advertises a suspiciously cheap $5 lunch that includes one slice of pizza, a side dish, a tiny espresso, and unlimited salad. I understand the strategy when I pay the bill and find that a standard fountain soft drink costs (price not posted) as much as the lunch itself.
I escort Susan to the security portal, we say our good byes, and she is vacuumed around the corner on an inexorable path to takeoff.
I race back to the car because the exorbitant parking fee is accruing rapidly.
Now, I’m on my own. As I’ve often acknowledged, I can’t remember a single time in my life when I’ve said to myself, “I wish I could be alone.” I’ve been made to realize over the years that this is very odd among homo sapiens. I can be solitary, of course, but I prefer companionship. Two’s company, three’s a crowd, and eight’s a PARTY. I think the longest I’ve ever traveled alone is about two weeks and now I’m either facing an aborted trip with a long drive back to Chile to sell the car or a sustained solo journey north along the Atlantic coast to Belém on the shores of the mouth of the Amazon River, before an even longer return to Santiago. We’ll see if I stick with it.
With Susan gone, the loneliness will be offset by some practical changes: staying with more hosts, cheap hostel beds instead of hotel rooms with private bathrooms, economical all you-can-eat lunches of standard Brasilian fare, and more camping and hiking. Driving, sleeping, and eating by myself will be a fundamental change. Susan’s and my strongest point is that, even after 10 years together, we never run out of things to talk about. That’s tough to replace during long days on the road and long nights in hotel rooms.
Once in the car, I contact our friends Francisco and Jairo to see if they’d like a last minute visit from me (our third on this trip) and head for a nearby hostel as a backup. Just as I arrive there, they send me a message welcoming me to stay with them, so I point the car toward the highway for the 75 minute backtrack to their comfortable house.
In the familiar surroundings, Francisco and I spend the evening talking. I describe some of the cool places we’ve been in the last 2 months and he talks about his job and what they’ve been doing with their new car over the same period. I eventually hit the hay after the long day of driving.
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.
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.
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Early this morning, I check the steering fluid level under the hood, because inadequate hydraulic fluid could cause the steering symptoms we’re seeing. The level seems to be at the marked line on the reservoir, although it’s hard to see clearly. This is worrisome, because loss of fluid would be a simple fix. Instead, I have to consider the possibility that the steering pump is failing, which could be a major problem in a nation where Subaru factory parts are virtually unavailable.
We pack the car and vacate the impressively named but very economical Cabañas El Reposo de Mandinga, cross the bridge into Humahuaca, and find some parking along a narrow side street. While I wait in a long line (in the shade) for the town’s only set of ATMs, Susan checks out some of the tourist shops and works her way up a bright, hot, long, wide set of steps from the town square to the elaborate monument at the top.
We’re noticing that the residents of this relatively remote portion of northern Argentina often bear a physical resemblance to Bolivians. The border is 50 miles to the north and it seems visually evident that many of the people here share more of their heritage with indigenous Bolivia than the more European Argentina that extends 1,600 miles to the south.
Even early in the day, the sun is brutally hot so we’re soon on the move, heading south on the same road we came up yesterday. Since we’re unexpectedly passing Pumamarca a second time, we make the short detour again and Susan hits some of the hundreds of shops and stalls searching for gifts for her enormous family.
I play my usual role of cockroach/translator, keeping her in sight while scurrying through any unavoidable stretches of sun from one shady spot to the next until she beckons for language assistance. In one shop window, Susan is entranced by a cat with two different color eyes.
We grab lunch just before all the restaurants close for the afternoon and head out of town.
From Pumamarca it’s a long slog south. Since the steering problem isn’t very noticeable on the highway (where there are no sharp corners), we decide to avoid searching for a suitable mechanic along the way and try to make it 250 miles back to Tucumán, a small city, where there will be more resources. We text Silvia asking if it’s ok to arrive back at La Providencia at 10:30 PM and she immediately assents.
Since we just drove this route yesterday, we have no great incentive to make scenic stops, although I continue to marvel at the abandoned railroad that used to connect Bolivia to San Miguel de Tucumán, almost 400 miles to the south. This line was part of the route followed by Paul Theroux in the 1970s and described in his book, The Old Patagonian Express, but left to deteriorate since 1993 (the railroad, not the book). Theroux’s travel books, including this one, are widely renowned and he’s a compelling writer but, as a traveler myself, I find him unbearably cynical and contemptuous. Many years ago, I started underlining all the negative statements in Patagonia Express. I ran out of ink in the second chapter. He claims to love traveling yet he seems to dislike almost everyone and everything he encounters. Why bother?
The railroad right of way parallels our highway, In some places, it looks like a functioning line, but every few miles the rails suddenly disappear for a while, or you see the track plunge into a big sand dune, or there’s a missing bridge.
At the same time, you pass unused stations and freight cars stranded on their segment of remaining rails.
Yet, hope springs eternal: In the absence of action from the federal government or private railroad companies, the Jujuy provincial government has undertaken to rebuild and reactivate 230 miles of the route as a tourist attraction. They’ve borrowed a lot of money and track work has begun but progress is excruciatingly slow, We did pass one billboard proudly announcing the delivery of ballast rock for 4 miles of track, but no sign of the ballast itself.
It would be great to see the scenic route functioning again but I have my doubts that large numbers of tourists will abandon tour buses and vans in favor of riding the rails.
The last 220 miles of our day’s drive is the same flat, monotonous scenery we traversed yesterday in the opposite direction and it’s with great relief that we reach La Providencia B&B after 10 PM with the steering still functional and a warm “welcome back” from Silvia. It’s not long before we’re sound asleep in our same comfortable room.