Bob & Lynne Douglas's Great
Chapter 5 - Uruguay and Brazil
By Lynne Douglas
Here begins a short history lesson: The German pocket battleship Admiral Graf Spee had sunk several merchant ships in the Indian and South Atlantic oceans from the very start of the World War II. The Royal Navy South American Cruiser Squadron heavy cruiser Exeter and 2 light cruisers Ajax and Achilles had tracked down and engaged the Graf Spee in a naval punchup that became known as the Battle of the River Plate.
The Graf Spee was damaged enough to need repair and her captain turned to Montevideo in Uruguay a neutral country for help while the British fleet lay anchored offshore waiting for the German battleship to return to sea. Captain Landsdorf, after reaching an impasse with neutral Uruguay over repairing or leaving Montevideo, scuttled his ship in the shallow waters of the river Plate. The superstructure of the ship remained exposed until it gradually sank into the mud.
A high speed ferry crosses the estuary of the river Plate between Buenos Aires and Montevideo. It was on this ferry that we sailed over history. The Admiral Graf Spee is now in the process of being raised and restored to be eventually housed in the National Maritime Museum in Montevideo. The museum already houses the anchor from the Graf Spee and the ships bell from HMS Ajax.
All this went over our heads at the time we were pre-occupied trying to get the immigration and customs people to stamp our passports and give us a temporary import document for the TC. Despite repeated attempts, they still waved us out of the dock area and straight out onto Uruguays roads. We later found out that tourists simply drive in and out of Uruguay, no questions asked.
Uruguay looks like north-eastern Argentina, as you would expect. It is one long stretch of wonderful sandy beaches and a gently rolling hinterland perfect for cattle ranches. We drove from Montevideo to Punta del Este, a sprawling resort of high rise apartments and holiday homes. We had already decided that it would be easier to get the front suspension mounting brackets remade in Punta del Este it is small enough to physically find a solderer, and Uruguay is full of older vehicles so they still have the skills to do such repair work.
The workshop we were recommended to use was up a dirt road; a scruffy looking, untidy place but with real atmosphere. They were a good bunch of blokes, listening to a radio station that played campesina (country) tango music from the 1930s. The oppressive heat, hiss of cicadas, sleeping dogs, tinny crackling recordings of old style music, junk everywhere, banter and joking, numerous teabreaks it was like stepping back in time. The pace was slow but measured, no-one is in a hurry in Uruguay, everyone has the time of day to be friendly. We liked Uruguay.
Chile and Argentina have a problem with stray dogs. The people dont have a problem they simply stick rubbish wire trays atop high poles so that dogs cant reach them. Strays sleep all day and at night they howl, fight and trash household waste. Heard of the saying "raining cats and dogs"? Well, Uruguay has had a tropical rainstorm of them. They particularly like to spend the day sleeping in the middle of roads.
Brazil beckoned; we were on our way to Rio de Janiero via the coast road for as much as possible. Leaving Uruguay, sandy beaches gave way to fresh water wetlands teaming with fish, waders and other birds of fantastic colours. Capybara were everywhere in and out of the water; they are like substantial chocolate-coloured guinea pigs the size of a bull terrier and every bit as chunky.
At the head of these wetlands lies Porto Alegro, a huge port and industrial centre. From here we picked up BR 116, a route that appears on the map to be a winding road that takes you up and along the tablelands of Brazil towards Curitiba and on to Sao Paulo. To start with it climbs and winds through stunning countryside of steep sided valleys thickly vegetated with native forest, reafforestation with pines and plantations of various crops we didnt recognise.
Bare ground is bright brick red, known as Terra Rossa. When dry it gives off a fine red dust that coats everything and when wet turns to red slippery slime. Off the beaten track most roads in Brazil are dirt and hence either dusty dirty or wet and often impassable. All of Brazil is densely green, very hilly, and very beautiful where the human race has had minimal impact.
The American satirist P J ORourke once wrote "poverty is not picturesque". I would take that many stages further and say that industrialization, urbanization, bad taste and poverty do terrible things to the landscape. We were not prepared for the levels of industrialization, or urbanization or poverty that we saw. This SE part of Brazil produces most of its GDP and most of it is on BR 116 on its way to Sao Paulo on the backs of lorries.
BR 116 is in fact the main arterial route servicing the full length of this productive part of Brazil. From Curitiba to Sao Paulo it becomes dual carriageway with a 3 4m wide hard shoulder and a 1-2m wide shoulder aside the fast lane. It is in a dreadful state of repair, worse than anything we have seen so far. So bad that lorries duck and weave about the carriageway to avoid potholes deep enough for someone to live in; lumps, bumps and ridges bad enough to throw you off the road. Lane discipline went out the window, cars dodged lorries dodging other lorries in a free for all. This was Sunday; we thought we were clever avoiding the bad traffic!
Chileans loved the TC, nearly as much as the Argentinians; Uruguayans are accustomed to seeing older vehicles so we were not of any particular interest to them. Brazilians were, at best, indifferent to the TC and irritated by it at worst. Driving the TC was like waving a red rag at a bull. Hell hath no fury like a Brazilian overtaken by a 60 year old MG. A very few, thankfully, wanted to take a photograph of the car while on this BR 116. They were so determined in fact that they stopped at nothing to get that perfect shot. Nothing included driving us off the road. We now have an inkling of what it is like to be pursued by paparazzi.
So, add together the traffic, road condition, lack of joined-up thinking and lethal cocktail of testosterone and ego you may understand why we couldnt get off this damned road fast enough. We call it Bump Stop Alley. In total contrast the coastal road is wonderful to drive. Well, it would be better if they got rid of the sleeping policemen that are more like slumbering sumo wrestlers. One every 1.2kms it worked out at over a distance of around 450kms. The scenery is stupendous steep forest-clad mountains plummeting down to the sea with wide sandy bays and islands offshore.
Our intention was to follow this road all the way into Rio. Somehow that didnt quite happen and we ended up drawn along the main highway into downtown Rio at the 5pm rush-hour. Not a good idea. You could just make out road markings for three lanes of traffic that became four or five lanes depending on how congested it was. Just like stock car racing in fact. All this with lousy signage and passing through areas of total deprivation and poverty.
We pulled out Plan B stop at the first sighting of a taxi and get the driver to go to our hotel with me while Roberto follows in the TC; very closely. This worked well. We pulled up outside the hotel. Then we had to get past the battleaxe of a reception manageress. She informed us that we couldnt park outside the hotel we were a health and safety hazard. Along with the other two cars doing the same as us, we presumed.
We explained that we were checking in and would remove the offending vehicle and put it in their secure parking, as arranged via email. No, we couldnt park in their garaging. But we have just checked in. Well, youll just have to check right our again. Roberto took her aside and charmed her with the full force of his wroth. Maybe she was annoyed because she couldnt park her broomstick in the hotel car park. Welcome to Rio de Janiero. We parked in the hotel car park just fine.
Most people visiting Rio arrive by plane, are whisked away by air-conditioned taxi to their beachfront hotel with sea view, book a few organized trips, go up the cable car to the top of Sugar Loaf mountain, then do the Corcovado to see the statue of Christ the Redeemer, grab a few rays on Copacabana beach and leave happy. They enter by the shop front and spend time and money there.
We entered by the back alley where all the dustbins are kept and saw Rio as a place where a lot of its 8,000,000 people live either on, below or just above the poverty line. Favellas are not a pretty sight. Two rocks and a statue do not make an iconic city. The Costa Verde that we had driven only days before has far more to offer yet is never advertised internationally as a holiday destination. We considered going on to Buzios, another 200kms eastwards but apparently the traffic jams getting there are bad. Buzios is where the jetset go for R&R. It will have to stay an enigma.
Copacabana beach is where you go to play beach volleyball. There were even volleyball classes for schoolchildren. Ipanema is more upmarket, both beaches attract retired people who power walk all day long. As a result, you see nothing but deep tans coming towards you at speed. White skin is not allowed. Both beaches are better suited to people who prefer to surf rather than swim, or just top up the tan. We didnt go up Sugar Loaf or the Corcovado; instead we headed for the botanical gardens and planetarium.
Next on our agenda was the Iguazu Falls on the Brazil/Argentina/Paraguay border, but first we had to backtrack to Curitiba. Following the Costa Verde back to where we left BR 116 seemed the easiest way to go so we had a double dose of its beauty. We were dreading Bump Stop Alley, but something had happened it was Friday but where were all the lorries? And how come this side of the carriageway heading west was in a decent state of repair? Maybe lorries head for Sao Paulo fully loaded and return empty? Who knows.
The WNW route from Curitiba to Foz de Iguazu took a day and a half which allowed us to see the falls from the Brazilian side and go on an inflatable boat trip up the river. Only when about to get into the inflatable and donning life jackets and waterproof rainmacs did anyone mention rapids. I do not do rapids.
We did rapids. All we could do was assume that the guy with his hand on the controls had done it so many times that he should know his job by now. Just for a lark, we then got dunked under two of the Three Musketeers minor falls compared to the rest but still enough to soak everyone to the skin. And then closer to the big falls on the Brazilian side. Not too close though yesterday one raft got too close and overturned.
We still had time to walk to the many viewpoints until we found the major falls on this side of the river along with many more hot and sticky tourists. The days and days of driving had been well worth the effort. In the early evening we crossed the border into Argentina and found our hotel. Air conditioning is a wonderful thing.
There are many more viewing points on the Argentinian side of the Falls you can take a lower track where you end up at river level and can walk to Isla St Martin in the middle of the river or take yet another rafting trip; a higher track which follows the top of the falls, and/or a train that takes you to a constructed viewing platform to see Garganta del Diablo (Devils Throat), the daddy of them all. We did them all.
Argentina got the better bargain. Nothing prepares you for the spectacle; it is astonishing. You cannot comprehend the volume of water that flows over the falls, or their power. Thirty rivers that drain the inland plateau around Curitiba converge to provide the water that spews out over the falls.
National Parks on both sides protect the rainforest plants and animals and ensure the area remains unexploited. In all, 275 waterfalls plunge over a 60m drop over a distance of 2470m, making them the biggest falls in the world in terms of volume of water. They are set in tropical rainforest where 500 species of brilliantly coloured birds call home, along with the odd caiman or two. This is also the home of the jaguar, although hell would freeze over before you ever caught a sight of one. Though maybe one day soon they will develop a taste for Japanese flesh ..
© 2008 Lynne Douglas