Saturday, December 31, 2011

2011, 16th - 21st December: Ilha de Santa Catarina, Brazil

2011, 16th - 21st December: Ilha de Santa Catarina, Brazil

For a full complement of photos use the following link to the corresponding set in Flickr account:

My time on Ilha de Santa Catarina was my first beach experience during my South American adventure - how different to the ice fields of southern Patagonia! While relaxing on the beaches there I felt like I had arrived in Brazil. Ilha de Santa Caterina is a large island in southern Brazil. The city of Florianópolis is located where the island almost links with the mainland. I chose to stay in the south of the island which is less developed and was happy with this choice because the area was chilled with friendly people and much quieter beaches. I stayed in a hostel right on the beach in the small town (village really) of Pântano do Sul.

The Beach at Pântano do Sul

During my time there it was great to feel so refreshed by swimming in the sea every day. Some highlights of my stay are:

A walk from Pântano do Sul across a rocky headland to the beach at Lagoinha do Leste (which can only be reached this way or by boat). On this beach I did some body surfing.

A visit to the Parque da Lagoa do Peri (a lake) for a short walk through woodland with large bamboo plants and a swim in the lake.

An afternoon near the beach at Joaquina where there are sand dunes so large people snowboard down them (a great place for photos).

The Sand Dunes Near the Beach at Joaquina

The most memorable day for me was a trip on a boat from Armaçao to Ilha do Campeche. This small island is protected (for it´s wildlife and some ancient archaeological features such as stone carvings cut into the rocks 5,000 years ago). The beach on the island is idyllic with crystal clear water, yellowy white sands, palm trees and charming rock features - possibly the most beautiful beach I have ever been on (though I´m sure South America will deliver more).

The Beach on Ilha do Campeche

One fun night, the beach bar owned by the hostel proprietors had a group of local musicians playing Brazilian folk songs. They were a very friendly bunch and made me feel welcome. One of them played an instrument called a cuíca. This is like a drum with a skin pulled taught at one end of a cylinder. Attached to the inside of the skin in it´s centre is a thin piece of straight bamboo. With one hand inside the instrument the musician slides a piece of wire wool up and down the bamboo to excite it. The resulting vibrations resonate in the cylinder. The instrument is essentially two-tone as the musician can create two pitches - one without touching the outside of the skin with a finger of his free hand and another (higher-pitched) sound by pressing down on the outside of the skin. A classic sound this makes is ´ooo-eh-ooo-ooo-eh´ and is a classic Latin-American / Brazilian sound which is present on many of the latin-influenced house records I like. It was great to actually view one of these instruments in action that I have heard so many times but never actually seen.

2011, 12th - 15th December: Foz do Iguaçu, Brazil

2011, 12th - 15th December: Foz do Iguaçu, Brazil

For a full complement of photos, follow this link to my Flickr account:

My first port of call in Brazil was Foz do Iguaçu which is just across the border from Paraguay. It is a relatively young city and much of it´s development is as a result of two local hydrological features, namely; the Iguaçu waterfalls (on the Rio Iguaçu) and the Itaipu dam (on the Rio Paraná). These two mighty rivers converge at the tri-border point where the frontiers of Brazil, Argentina and Paraguay meet.

I was fortunate to meet an American woman in the hostel called Marcia on the first night. She is very intelligent and so it was great to have some really interesting discussions and enjoy visiting both sides of the falls with her.

The cataratas (waterfalls) of Iguaçu (or Iguazu in Argentina) are shared by Brazil and Argentina. Because the complex of waterfalls is so vast, to fully appreciate this natural wonder it is best to view them from both sides of the border.

The Brazilian Side of the Falls

The Brazilian side is a gentler experience as you do not get close to the biggest and most dramatic feature (the Devil´s Throat (Garganta del Diablo)), but it does have a wonderful feature where you can walk out onto a viewing boardwalk which is located on an intermediate water covered plateau between two waterfalls, so one has a magnificent view of water falling from above and tumbling away below. One can also look up the canyon towards the Devil´s Throat (on the Argentinian side). While up close to the waterfalls I felt elated and full of excitement. The huge falls engendered a buzz that permeated right through me so I could not help but feel truly alive - as if all the spray and mist falling on me was a magic tonic.

We also visited a bird park where we saw toucans, butterflies, humming birds amongst many other species.

Brazilian Side  View Towards the Devil´s Throat

The Brazilian Side

The Argentinian Side of the Falls

The next day we visited the falls from the Argentinian side. This side of the border has far more waterfalls and a day spent there is one that just keeps giving and giving - when you think you have seen it all, you are awe struck again by yet another stupendous vista or waterfall.

The most dramatic view is at the Devil´s Throat. To visit this place is a truly incredible experience. The boardwalk takes you literally to the edge of the drop into the vast chasm below. In a brief moment the calm blue waters of the river transform into a vast white, chaotic and utterly powerful white abyss. The endless succession of tumbling white folds of water is awe inspiring. The forces at work and the unimaginable crushing and swirling at the foot of the falls are hidden beneath a permanent dense mist that is frequently lifted by the up-draft to give all those on the viewing platform a light shower.

While the Devil´s Throat is the showpiece of the Argentinian side, there is another feature that does not have the raw crushing power of the main falls but is nevertheless truly majestic. Numerous waterfalls are spread in a shallow crescent (the salto (falls) Escondido, San Martin and Mbiguá) - each formed of many separate white streams. The vista created is rather magical and made me imagine that the crescent was built by a king as a monument to a queen. I saw these views from an upper boardwalk, but was amazed to have vistas of even more waterfalls from the lower trail.

Before visiting the place, I would not have believed that so many truly incredible and beautiful views of waterfalls could be found in one location - I was blown away.

Argentinian Side: The Devil´s Throat (Garganta del Diablo)

The White Abyss

View Towards Salto Gpque Bernabé Mendez

A Scultured Vista Beffiting a Queen

Salto Bossetti

The Itaipu Dam

Being an Engineer, I could not visit Foz do Iguaçu without seeing the Itaipu Hydroelectric dam. While there, I took a tour that showed both the inside and outside of the structure - including the turbine feed pipes, the control room, the generator hall and one of the turbine output shafts in operation.

The dam, located on Rio Paraná, was built through a joint venture between Brazil and Paraguay. It delivers many heavy-hitting facts such as:

It has 20 turbines (normally 18 in operation at any one time (18oo20 to my ex colleagues)) and each turbine has a capacity of 700 MW - I make that 12.6 GW in operation (14 GW installed). For the non-engineers amongst the readers, to comprehend 12.6 GW, think of 210 million 60 watt light bulbs on the go, or the amount of hot air coming out of one politician´s gob during an election campaign.

The dam is 225 metres high (from the river bed) and you can see this height from the cathedral-like caverns that are formed by the triangular shaped bracing structure that provides the strength to retain all that water.

The generators are housed in a gallery that is 1 km long. The water used to feed the turbines is taken from a point towards the top of the dam, then accelerated down vast metal pipes (one dedicated to each turbine) towards the turbine. The water feed to each pipe is opened and closed by hydraulically powered gates near the top of the dam.

To the side of the dam structure housing the turbines is a spillway which is used as an overflow when the total river flow is greater than that absorbed by the turbines. The spillway is a long ´ramp´ which at it´s base shoots the water upwards to dissipate the energy and reduce erosion of the river bed. The flow capacity of the spillway is 40 times greater than the average total flow of the entire Iguaçu falls!

At it´s peak the workforce involved in the dam´s construction was 40,000 people.

The Itaipu Dam

Thursday, December 15, 2011

2011, 8th - 11th December: Encarnación, Paraguay

2011, 8th - 11th December: Encarnación, Paraguay

For a full complement of photos, follow this link to my Flickr account:

The journey from Montevideo (Uruguay) to Encarnación (Paraguay) was an interesting one because it required crossing from Uruguay into Argentina then into Paraguay in order to cross over the extreme north east section of Argentina. I was led to believe that the coach would arrive in Encarnación at 8 or 9 in the morning and so did not book accommodation thinking that all the hotels would be open by then. In fact we arrived at 4am and with nowhere to stay I was a little nervous; fortunately there was a hotel with 24 hour reception near to the bus terminal.

After visiting the relatively affluent countries (by South American standards) of Argentina, Chile and Uruguay, Paraguay was my first taste of a less developed one. I had not read or heard great things about the capital, Asunción, so elected to limit my visit to the town of Encarnación in the south close to the border with Argentina. There are some Jesuit ruins near to Encarnación that seemed worthy of a visit.

The town centre is pleasant and fairly well organised, but this does not reflect the rest of the areas I saw. In my opinion, Paraguay is a little gritty and rough around the edges, but without the charm that is present in other countries without a lot of distributed wealth. I´m sorry to say that I would not recommend a visit to Paraguay.

I found the Paraguayan Spanish very difficult to understand as they speak quick and I think that they mix in some Guaraní as well (a widely spoken native language - in many more rural parts it is people´s first language (Spanish second)). As I stayed in a hotel (hostels are not common), it meant that I spent 4 days without a single (even rudimentary) conversation - just talking to buy things and getting around. That was quite isolating.

Paraguay was my first South American experience of hot and humid weather. The days reached 36 degrees C with high humidity, so sight-seeing had to be taken slowly.

9th December - Jesuit Ruins at Trinidad & Jesús

The Jesuit ruins near Encarnación are rather small and there is no information - not even in Spanish (apart from the odd building having a label), but they were pleasant enough to wander around. However, the ruins are not extensive so I certainly would not recommend travelling any great distance for them.

Jesuit Ruins at Trinidad, near Encarnación

10th December - Parque Manatial

This is a country park near Encarnación with areas for people to swim and hang out, but it also has a few trails to walk around which was the reason for my visit. The trail went through sub-tropical woodland and along the banks of a river.

11th December - Journey from Encarnación (Paraguay) to Foz do Iguaçu (Brazil)

The longest section of this journey was from Encarnación to Ciudad del Este (also in Paraguay) where I was then able to take a short bus ride across the border to Foz do Iguaçu. This five hour bus journey was done on one of Paraguay´s ´Billy Buses´. This is a term I came up with while sitting on one of them. The Billy bit of the name comes from Billy Onions which is a funny term for BO (Body Odor). I came up with the term ´Billy Bus´ because these basic buses have no air-conditioning, so in the heat and humidity of Paraguay you are hit by the Billy Onions when you get on the packed bus.

The bus stops frequently which gives street-side hawkers a chance to ply their trade through the bus window (ice-creams, drinks etc). Also people get on board to sell ´chipas´ which are a bread infused with cheese and sometimes onion. There is a nice corn bread version which is called chipa guasu.

I changed buses in Ciudad del Este but did not visit the town. This border town is well renowned for being the place for dodgy fake brand names and electronic goods of less reputable origins. Though I did make it clear to the cross-border bus driver that I wanted to stop at both the Paraguayan and Brazilian border posts to get my exit and entry stamps he didn´t bother stopping, so when we got to edge of Foz do Iguaçu I had to jump off and catch another bus back. The border control at this crossing point is pretty much uncontrolled (maybe it all helps to shift those dodgy goods in Ciudad del Este). Had I not got all the stamps done correctly I would have had a lot of trouble (and probably a fine) when I leave Brazil.

I was glad to get out of Paraguay and into the more pleasant Iguaçu falls area of Brazil.

2011, 30th November - 7th December: Colonia del Sacramento & Montevideo, Uruguay

2011, 30th November - 7th December: Colonia del Sacramento & Montevideo, Uruguay

For a full complement of photos, follow this link to my Flickr account:

The southern coast of Uruguay is just a ferry ride away from Buenos Aires. This small country (by South American standards) does not have the big draws of mountains, waterfalls and the natural features of other countries on the continent, so my time here was spent in the town of Colonia del Sacramento and the capital city of Montevideo.

30th November - 3rd December
Colonia del Sacramento

The location of Colonia del Sacramento (shortened to Colonia by most people) on the banks of the Rio de la Plata (The Silver River) reflects it´s origins as a strategic post during the fight between Spain and Portugal for control of the river which is a key waterway providing access to the southern part of the continent. The Portuguese founded Colonia, while the Spanish responded by founding Montevideo.

The previously walled-in Barrio Histórico (Historic Area (Old Town)) of Colonia is sited at the end of the peninsula and this is the main attraction of Colonia - a charming collection of old cobbled streets, leafy plazas and restaurants. All close to the water which surrounds the old town on three sides. My exploration of Colonia simply involved moseying around the old town and drinking strong coffee (bought my own flask now and make it in the hostel kitchens as struggling to find good coffee in cafés - strange for a continent that produces the stuff).

My 39th birthday (ouch the big 4, 0 is next) passed while I was in Colonia. Fate delivered me a nice surprise as that evening I met a guy in the hostel called Stuart who lived in Brighton for 15 years (small world eh). Stuart has a good sense of humour; so a great evening was passed enjoying many laughs and sharing a big plate of Uruguayan meat, beers and a wonderful view across Rio de la Plata to the setting sun.

A Street Scene in the Old Town of Colonia del Sacarmento

4th - 7th December

Through my membership of Servas I was able to connect with Marcelo, a 27 year old architectural student who lives in the suburbs of Montevideo. Marcello really made my time in Montevideo enjoyable as he was so hospitable and included me in all his socialising, so I met some of his friends too.

Uruguayan Football

After my arrival on the first day (Sunday), Marcelo took me to a football match between National and Liverpool (yes you did read correctly, Liverpool here are a small team (attendance of 5000 or less) in the lower regions of the top division in Uruguay. Marcelo was interested in the match because if National lost, and another match went the right way, then Marelo´s team, Peňarol, would have won the mid-season league (they do it in two halves here). Alas National won and their crowd went mental.

The National Fans Greet the Arrival of Their Team

For me, seeing the passionate National crowd took me back to the days when football in the UK had a seemed a little more genuine - a gritty edge, a sea of (cheekily) foul-mouthed geezers packing out a rough and ready (standing) terrace in which everyone can jostle and jump around - (think back to those days of the North Stand at the Goldstone). My first taste of South American passion for football saw the usual coloured flares and torn-up paper let off and some serious singing and jumping from side to side as a big mass. The stadium which a number of clubs share (generally speaking clubs are too small to have their own large ground) was built for the 1930 World Cup, so the ground still has some classic old-school crowd control measures. The ´more boisterous elements´ are separated from the pitch by a fence, then a bit of land I´m sure they could fill with cops if necessary, then another seriously high fence, then a moat - a football ground or a Berlin Wall esque bit of architecture?

The City

Montevideo is located on the coast at the start of the estuary of the Rio de la Plata, so also has a history as a strategic point on the seaway. Like Colonia, it has a previously walled-in old city (Ciudad Vieja) built on a peninsula. The old town is not as picture postcard quaint as Colonia but has a number of pleasant leafy plazas. The district immediately outside of the old walls has architecture that reflects the desire at the time to demonstrate the newly granted independence from Spain, so it adopted a lot of Parisian grandeur.

Spiral Staircase in Casa Rivera, Montevideo

If one purely treated Montevideo as a tourist destination, other than a pleasant enough place to mosey around for a day there are rather few typical tourist spots. The galleries and museums bring home that Uruguay is after all a country with a small population (just 3 million, with 1.5 million in the capital), and the content of the galleries etc is correspondingly small. However, if you are lucky enough to have a local to show you around (as I did) there are some really nice areas in which to hang-out.

I met some very friendly people while out socialising in the evenings - Sebastian and Clara (friends of Marcelo) and Veronica (another member of Servas who lives in Montevideo.