Brazil & Argentina Tour Blog
20.09.2014 - 05.10.2014
I write this blog, based on a recent South America trip (Brazil & Argentina) taken by me and my wife. This has been perhaps the most experiential vacation for us and the memories from this vacation would stay close to our hearts for a very long time. We actually had the feeling of “living” the vacation and the places we went to, rather than visiting these countries as a tourist. I hope this blog may help fellow travelers plan their vacations to this region and live it and feel special about it like we are felt about it!
It was also very satisfying, that we were able to plan the entire vacation together ourselves, without the help of any guide or operator (of course, not without the help of tripadvisor). We believe the extent, variety and depth of experiences that we lived through may not have been possible had we gone through any of the pre-planned tours. Additionally, the overall vacation was much more cost-effective compared to any of the pre-planned tours we had checked out.
Although we have planned our previous vacations ourselves (Hawaii and South Africa), this one was very different and had its own set of unique challenges. Firstly, there weren’t too many friends/ colleagues and in general Indian tourists who have covered much of this region – whom we could refer to for planning this trip. Secondly, English is not spoken in most of the region, especially in the smaller (but the more beautiful) cities making communication a huge challenge. Lastly, these two countries span an entire continent, right from the tropical Amazon forests closer to the equator to the point what is normally known as the end of the world (Ushuaia) from where trips to Antarctica usually start. Planning a trip that covers a major region of this large land mass on a reasonable budget is nothing short of a nightmare. Having said that, here is a summary of what we covered during the trip:
- Brazil – Sao Paulo, Rio de Janeiro, Manaus and Iguassu Falls (Brazil side)
- Argentina – Buenos Aires, Ushuaia, El Calafate and Iguassu Falls (Argentina side)
- Total duration of the trip: 16 days (excluding flight duration to and from South America)
- Approximate cost: ~USD 4,200 per person (inclusive of all economy-class flight trips, ¾ star hotels, activity/ tours and miscellaneous expenses)
As I mentioned earlier, for us, this vacation has been about those unique experiences that will stay forever close to our hearts, about trying and actually undertaking new activities that we may not have done elsewhere or in the future. It was as much about knowing your inner limits, testing and stretching them, thereby giving us an opportunity to truly discover the elements of our inner selves in very surreal settings. I will in the below paragraphs, capture some of these experiences, along with our suggestions on what might work best on such a tour.
Manaus – “Breathing in the Amazon jungle”
This is where we effectively started our tour (although we had spent a day in Sao Paulo earlier) and it was just the perfect start to the vacation. Much of the credit here goes to one of the best tour guides, I have met – Pedro & Christina. It showed us two things: (a) how people passionate about their jobs go out of their way to make sure their customers get the best experiences (b) the power of the tripadvisor community, which connects Pedro to genuine travelers looking for those experiences.
Sometimes, there are those memorable moments you encounter in life, where you feel liberated and feel like you have lived an entire life in that very moment. It took a very simple activity in Manaus to give us that joy. After a long day trekking barefoot in one of the Amazon “Avatar”-styled jungles (at Presidente Figueiredo), we came across a small river tributary, overlooked by a waterfall (Iracema Waterfall) and lots of huge trees all around it and a small board at a height of 20 feet from the river. Christina had brought us there, and she didn’t tell us anything specific to do. By the time, we were taking photographs of the waterfalls, and perhaps thinking of a dip in the river, we suddenly saw one of our fellow travelers (a German PhD fellow) jumping into the river from the board. Pretty soon, his colleagues joined him. My wife said to me, “I am very scared, but I want to do this”. A couple of travelers, warned us, to jump only if we are very sure, as it is not an authorized diving place, nor are there any life guards around. Something inside told us, we had to do this, after coming all this way. My wife first went in to try. We didn’t even bother to take a photograph or a video, still captivated by the mystic surrounded in the setting. By the time she went up on the board, all the fellow travelers were cheering for her to jump to the river. And she did it – voila! I followed – jumped in the middle of a forest into a naked tributary flowing from a waterfall treading so peacefully across the logs and stones into the dense jungle. Once I was deep in the super-cold water, I saw water bubbles, which looked so green and surreal as if drawing the color from the trees around it – it was just magical. Of course, we jumped again and again, almost forgetting the coldness around us, but this time we made sure we got the pictures and the videos!
Even as this special moment stood out, there were other amazing activities we had done in Manaus, including jumping in another part of the river, trying our best to touch one of the wild pink dolphins, which were swimming really fast around us even as they occasionally poked their heads across our legs in the water. We jumped into yet another part of the huge river – called the “Meeting of the Waters” (confluence of two rivers – Rio Negro & Solimões), where you could feel both the cold and the warm waters from the different rivers just by swimming by a few meters. I also got to get hold of a mighty python – put it around my neck, later took a small turtle on my palm. And I will not forget the small motor boat that took just four of us, roaming around of the many small tributaries of the Amazon river – that’s one of the best ways to see the jungle. To top it all, we got to interact with the aboriginal tribal people of the Amazon jungle.
El Calafate – “The land of the glaciers”
Imagine, trekking all the way up on a glacier and then using the ice from the glacier to have it with your Jack Daniels. This is exactly what El Calafate offers – glaciers, glaciers and more glaciers. We did two trips at El Calafate – one was a cruise through the 'Los Glaciares' National Park to see up close some of the big glaciers (Upasala & Spegazzini) which are fast receding. The other was a trek on the Perito Moreno glacier, one of the few stable glaciers trapped between the Andes ranges. Our trek lasted for almost 3 hours on top of the ice. For us, this was the first time with crampons attached to our boots, but after a few minutes it was all fine. The trek was actually comfortable, even though you are actually climbing up a steep ice block. There is so much fresh, clear water all trapped underneath the ice – don’t bother to bring any of the water bottles here. The water is looks so pristine and blue. The color has got something to do with refraction and physics. The town of El Calafate is itself small and laid-back, just about 10,000 people, and you might start recognizing people if you stay there for 2-3 days. Driving from the airport to the town is very picturesque, with large tracts of empty land surrounded by blue lakes and snow filled mountains.
Ushuaia – “The end of the world”
This is actually the end of the world – it is the southernmost city of the world. As you drive through the snow-filled Andean Patagonian forest, called Tierra del Fuego National Park, you will come across the board, which says “Del Fin Del Mundo” – which means “The End of the World”. We later learnt that Ushuaia’s motto says “Ushuaia, fin del mundo, principio de todo”. In English this means “Ushuaia – end of the world, beginning of everything”! I bet you will feel the same, even if you didn’t read this – in the cold air, in the dark clouds, on the mostly deserted roads, on the most tranquil and still lake, and in the forest which seems like an entry to heaven. We felt lost in time. It is almost like the region is wrapped in time.
We took a canoe trip and hiked across the Tierra del Fuego National Park. As you drive through the road in the park (Ruta 3), you almost feel an invisible force that wants to suck you out of the materialistic world. As the road swirls and curves, you will get to a climactic end when you reach the last piece of land. There, on the “Del Fin Del Mundo” board, it reads "Alaska 17,848 kilometers" (that’s next on my list for experiential vacations!). At the end of this Ruta 3, is the lake on Lapataia Bay, where we paddled on a canoe across the Beagel Channel.
Tranquility has a new meaning here on this Bay with even time standing still. At one point we stopped paddling, just to experience the silence and peace. Among the towering snow-filled Andes-Patagonian Mountains, the still lake, the light snow drizzle and the occasional chirping of steam ducks, I felt as if I was closest to my inner self than ever before. As we paddled, we spotted cute waterfowl, including ducks, geese and plovers that have made this region their home.
We stayed in a small inn that had a very old English-town-feel to it. It was more like a home than a hotel complete with nice home-cooked breakfast, baked cookies through the day, a lovely Labrador that sleeps next to you on the sofa and a very warm housekeeper to make sure you are well taken care of (even though she couldn’t communicate in English!). In this region that is a recluse to any other city, among the dim yellow lights in this cozy little home, both me and my wife truly cherished our quiet evenings reading a book in the living room on the top floor or just gazing out of the window seeing those mystical snow-flakes sprinkle against the background of the mighty Andes. It was an out-of-world yet truly homely experience where the region’s warmth converges with the cold atmosphere – an experience you would never get in any hotel or resort.
Rio de Janerio – “On top of the world”
Take New York, Mumbai, Cape Town, Hawaii and mix them together; then throw in a little bit of samba and football and you would get Rio de Janerio. I have always been fascinated by this city, since watching the movie – Cidade de Deus. It is one of those happening cities, where you get a little bit of action of everything – sweeping beaches, green peaks, sparkling islands, colorful dance, historic buildings, the notorious neighborhood and, not to forget, the iconic Christ the Redeemer and the incredible Sugar Loaf Mountain. The most experiential part of the Rio trip for us had to be our hang-gliding experience. Surrounded by tall mountains, expansive beaches, gushy rainforests and a steady wind, this place is best suited for this activity. It gets even better, when you have people like Rennato, our guide, who makes sure this is an experience worth remembering all your life – if you are in Rio, and haven't tried this out, you are really missing something! My wife was quite nervous about this activity, but he made sure she was comfortable, talked to her at length, and then at the end of it, she was able to do it for a good 20 minutes - a lot of time for a hang-gliding activity. Even though he has been doing this for the last 20 years, you will still feel that he is giving you that unique and special hang-gliding experience. You will see his energy and passion while in the air and just exemplifies how tour guides/ operators can go out of their way for their customers.
It has been a few months, since we went on this vacation, but the memories of these experiences still live with us as we chalk out our plans for our next vacation. Next time, you go on make on a vacation especially to a place/ region you haven’t been before, make sure you “live” it – literally and figuratively!
Some of the pictures from this trip can be found here: https://www.facebook.com/rahulr7/photos