Gaz asked me to come up with a route so I gave him three options. Meandering around Uruguay, heading north to Iguazu and heading west to see the Andes and drink wine in Mendoza. Iguazu won out, because it not only involved the spectacular falls, and ticked the ‘go to Paraguay’ box Gaz had, but also passing through four countries and avoided most of the craziest Argentinian drivers. It also meant that I could get over to Montevideo to get my Rohloff package sorted out.
With a very set return date, we had a quite tight schedule to do the 1600km that I had planned out to Iguaçu and on to Asunción. Last minute planning and few Warmshowers members would mean a lot of unplanned camping, but Gaz, as I’d see along the trip, was up for pretty much everything.
It took 18 days to get up to Iguaçu with an average of 75km a day, and over that time Gaz got his legs. The first day saw us waking up with the sun at 7am, and five hours later we were just about leaving town. That got much faster, as Gaz got used to what was involved, and learnt how to use things that he had only just bought so didn’t really know what to do. He went from complaining about how far we had gone, and getting off his bike to push up molehills to thinking that there was definitely a lot more in his legs 90km into a day and wanting to keep going and rolling up any hill.
My usual ham and cheese sandwich, based on cheapness, was causing Gaz stomach issues, so we increased the number of biscuits we ate, and cooked pasta most nights. We learnt it takes about 3-4 weeks for the body get used to such an increase in exercise, as he went from being ravenous to feeling satiated with a normal-ish level of food.
Our first 7 days saw us ride up from Colonia del Sacramento to Bella Union on the border with Brazil and Argentina. Our first night saw us stay in a hotel, after we had been turned down by the fire station. I went to the church, and met Father-in-training German who invited us to his house after mass so he could contact a local hotel that put us up, and gave us breakfast, for free. The second night, after a 3rd rejection in a row by the firemen, I found us a place to stay at the Dolores community centre who welcomed us in and let us use the outdoor pool.
The 3rd day saw us breaking 100km as we headed north with a tailwind through farmers fields, and our first dirt road side trip. The police let us stay in their abandoned shed, and Gaz took it upon himself to make it dustless. That long day and a poorly adjusted bike led to some knee pain the next day, so it was just onwards to the town of Paysandú where we sat around reading in the park. Having failed at the previous three fire station visits, I went straight to the church, who directed me to the attached school where I met the director, Padre Daniel, who put us and our bikes in the back of his pickup truck and drove us a couple of km away to a crèche where we could sleep inside again..
Day five was a short 65km, although the headwind made it feel much longer, to the Aguas Termales of Guaviyu, which are basically lots of swimming pools filled with 30-40c water. Being the middle of winter, and the middle of nowhere there weren’t too many guests, and it seemed to have had a Western-European invasion as we met people from France, Spain, Holland and Germany in their caravans. The hot water seemed to do wonders for Gaz’s knees and after a night camping it was back on towards the next town of Salto, into a rather frustrating headwind.
We were stopped at a petrol station, about 30km south of Salto, when my Manta saddle got us some good attention. Juan Felicio, named after JFK, saw my saddle and came over to chat. 15 minutes later, involving him going for a test ride and we were being offered a lift to town. Gaz jumped at the offer, and so we ended up meeting him, his wife and his son. The plan of just having a shower there ended up turning into lunch, the afternoon, going to another thermal water park and then the night. His son, Valentin, loves English and was really happy to speak with us and asked his parents if we could possibly stay, which we of course didn’t turn down. It did lead to some very long discussions about Luis Suarez, he was born in Salto, a common theme during our time in Uruguay.
Our last full day in Uruguay took us the 142km from Salto up to Bella Union. We were lucky to have a powerful tailwind pushing us on as we hit our rhythm and flew along. 15km before town I saw a lady standing outside a house so said hello to her as normal. She waved me over and so I stopped. We spoke for about 10 minutes, and then she offered us some cake to go. I thanked her, and suggested we eat it there so we could talk more. That led to us getting invited in for full plates of food, and being told to save the cake for later. Such warmth.
Our last night in Uruguay saw us camped in a local park, as seems to be the done thing. There were 3 Argentinian backpackers there too, but we didn’t speak too much as we wanted to be up early the next day to make sure we could get to our Warmshowers host.
Looking out to Argentina
The border crossing was effortless, helped by incredibly friendly officials. Although even still, they asked me about Luis Suarez. I would guess that at least half of the people in Uruguay asked me about him after I mentioned being from England. There’s some serious dislike, and some could say paranoia, about how the rest of the world was trying to stop them. It’s a small country, with 3x as many cows as people, and so I met a common belief that the world is conspiring against them.
There was 70km of farmer’s fields before the first big Brazilian town, and that’s where the Brazilian immigration was too. That worked out really well, because I was running low on days in Brazil and so when we got stamped in the day after they could only give me 7 days (after originally trying to give me 90). In Uruguaiana we stayed with Claiton, a Warmshowers host, who was a delightful host and spoke English – a great thing because I’d had to act as a translator with most of the people I’d met in Uruguay, so it was great for Gaz to be able to speak to someone directly.
We decided that instead of a whole day off in Uruguaiana we would leave in the early afternoon, which would mean a shorter day after that. We rode 45km, but even in that short ride we met some amazing kindness.
I’d stopped at a bakery to buy some snacks and told Gaz to keep riding. While I was riding to catch up with him, a guy called Edison pulled to the side of the road to chat. Even though Gaz was up ahead, I didn’t want to just run away without talking and after a while Edison invited me to see his farm, which was about 10km up the road. I mentioned about my friend and asked him to wave Gaz down, he assured me that’d be no problem and gave me 20 reals ($10) before driving off. I rode hard and found a bemused Gaz on the side of the road waiting with Edison and his friend. We were proudly shown around the warehouses at the farm, where there were huge amounts of rice seeds and other grains. Before leaving Edison gave Gaz 20 reals too and told us to get dinner.
We finished our ride to town and set about looking for a place to sleep. There was no one at the church, and the lady at the video store told me to go to a restaurant that I’d considered talking to. They said that of course we could stay, but with the following day being father’s day there was going to be a party so it could be a little noisy. I asked about the time, and of course the party would start at midnight and go on to 4am. Madness. It was about 7pm, so we had dinner and were laid down around 8ish. Even with my ability to sleep through most things, I had a pretty poor night being woken up every hour or two. Gaz fared even worse and got what ended up feeling like pretty much no sleep.
Fortunately the restaurant sold coffee and so Gaz was able to get on the bike in the morning. A tailwind pushed us on through more endless farmers fields as we headed north towards Argentina. Towns were about every 60-70km and so it was looking like we’d have to wild camp, an issue as the fields along the road all seemed quite muddy, but we found a random school just off the road. Our only company at the school were 3 cats and 2 dogs, which were very interested in our cooking and kept trying to sniff our stove as we were cooking. I was controlling them by scaring them with some splashes of water, which worked so well that the dogs took to chasing the cats away… at least until I was sleeping as I woke up 3 times with the youngest cat curled up next to my head even when this was always followed by throwing him across the school, through fear of his claws stabbing my new mat.
We got to the border, and back to Argentina, early the next afternoon and stopped early in the town of Santo Tome. It’s where we started noticing what would be an Argentinian trend, the presence of monuments dedicated to those who died in the Malvinas/Falklands in 1982. It is also where the reply to saying I’m English was to ask me about Maggie Thatcher and Las Malvinas despite not having too much say in it, what with it happening before I was born and all. After cooking dinner in the park it was a night slept on the floor of the police station garage for us.
We were woken around 6am as the shift ended and everyone was either arriving or leaving and trying to park on our heads. The tailwind continued and pushed us along the shoulderless Argentinian road that I’d heard so much about. We were lucky that traffic wasn’t that high, but we were very glad to have our mirrors so we could take evasive action into the rocky grass along the side. It meant that when we had the option of a dirt road detour we took it, after flipping the coin of destiny and being told we had to.
The road was bouncy, but had almost no traffic as it lead us to the town of San Carlos where after our nightly shop I popped into the school to ask about a place to stay. I was introduced to the English teacher who spoke to a few people and we were introduced to Markus who had recently bought a place across the road that we could stay in. It was just an empty room, but it’d be perfect for us. He sat around talking with us, and it all started well, until I mentioned where I was from. He was taken back, and told us that if he hadn’t already gotten to know us a bit that he wouldn’t be helping us. As it was, we shared a cup of mate, the local tea, and then were invited over to his house for dinner and more conversation until Gaz needed to go home as he was feeling bad.
We had planned to be up to visit the ruins in town, but it was past 11am by the time we were leaving the room and Gaz had no motivation to do anything but slowly ride towards Posadas with plenty of breaks in the minimal shade. We didn’t need to get over to Paraguay, so we took an early break and stayed with the firemen, who had the same “oh… you’re English” reaction, before letting us stay. We were shown to an old storage room and given a couple of mattresses. Gaz laid down around 7pm and didn’t stir until past 9am.
Over the bridge
The international bridge between Posadas and Encarnación is not crossable by bike, but we were lucky to find a Paraguayan couple in a pick up truck that were willing to take us over almost as soon as we were told that we couldn’t ride. They’d gone past lots of people with their thumbs out, but were willing to take us because the official guy was talking to us at the same time so we must be safe. Getting help from others definitely makes these things easier. After pulling out some money from the bank, and forgetting my ATM card in the machine, it was off to get a Paraguayan flag.
I asked around at a few stores until I found a place, but they wouldn’t sell it to me. They gave it to me and then posed for photos, lovely people. Our goal for the day was to get to Trinidad, the home of the best Jesuit ruins in the area. The history of the Jesuits is an interesting one, and watching The Mission is a great way to get an idea of what happened. The ruins themselves weren’t in great condition, but Gaz was quite happy to amble playing with his camera.
While Gaz was being a tourist, I’d been doing a bit of route planning and found us a fire station to stay at that night. It was about 15km away so onwards we went, over the landscape that was finally starting to be less pancakey slowing us down with the sun setting. Just before we turned off for the fire station, as the night was setting in, a pick-up truck stopped and waved us over. Hector, a cyclist, who was full of questions, including wondering where we were heading at such an hour, drove it. He thought the road dangerous because of motorbikes without lights and so offered to give us a lift to his place where we would be welcome to stay. Gaz looked rather confused when I was explaining it to him, partly cos the whole conversation was in Spanish but mainly from not having seen so many examples of the wonderfulness of strangers.
Back at Hector’s place he asked if we like whiskey, Gaz’s favourite drink, and filled a decent sized glass. Gaz, whose eyes lit up, proceeded to sip away until Hector explained an important rule, in Paraguay it’s all about communal drinking. One drink, with everyone taking turns. It’s how they drink their mate, the tea that’s grown so much in the area, and the alcohol is the same. It’s a much more social way to drink. When Hector heard that Gaz had never had barbecue we went to the shop to buy some meat and started cooking. A Paraguayan tip for starting a fire – use a hairdryer!
Our wettest day of the trip followed, with more of the hills and with Gaz’s knee starting to get sore it dragged on a little. We were 10km short of the town we had been heading before when he came across a swanky petrol station that had Wi-Fi, a large covered area and showers where Gaz spent almost an hour.
The next day the petrol station we’d been aiming for hadn’t turned up by the time it had gone dark, so we pulled into a little community (of about 5 houses) as one of them had a car about to leave. I explained the situation and it turned out I was talking to the teacher at the school. Professor Ramirez teaches at the one classroom school where he teaches 1st-3rd grade together in the morning and then 4th-6th grade in the afternoon. He apologised for the humble school before sending his wife to grab us a mattress, blankets and pillows so we could pass the night. They went off to buy something and when they came back brought us some perfectly boiled eggs, juice and other snacks.
The road finally arrived in the Paraguay/Brazil border town of Ciudad del Este, full of electronics shops patronised by Brazilians to avoid their high taxes. It’s got a bad reputation, but we were welcomed in by the bomberos and had a lovely final night in Paraguay, before crossing over to Brazil the next morning having made it to our goal of Fez do Iguaçu where we would be staying with Val from Warmshowers.