The road to Rio

Back on the tour we were leaving Argentina for Uruguay, by high-speed ferry to Colonia. The ferry terminal in BA was very swish, and i was pleasantly surprised how smoothly it went – straight through passport control, onto the ferry, fall asleep with mouth open, wake up in Colonia. Simples!

Colonia is a cute little town – it seems to cater largely to tourists on day / weekend trips out of BA, although what on earth you would do there for a whole weekend is quite beyond me. We arrived, went for a walk with our tour leader, and then … well, struggled to entertain ourselves actually. We got a picnic and went to a green space (I’m reluctant to call it a park), and then sat around until dinner. I was keen to eat anything but steak, so i ordered shrimp in spicy sauce with rice which was really good, although i lamented that there was nowhere near enough of it and I could have eaten it twice. The next day, lying on the bathroom floor with sweat running down my back as my stomach tied itself in knots, i would be glad that i DIDN’T eat it twice!! However, the award for ‘biggest menu selection fail’ goes to Ms. Doolin, for the burger with a side order of mash. How wrong can you go with that?! Well, when it arrived, the burger pattie was alone on the plate – no bun, no cheese, not even a limp lettuce leaf. Next to it was a smear of something that looked remarkably like ‘Smash’, only Smash actually tastes better! It was so bad it was funny – not so much for poor Em though who left the restaurant … well, pretty hungry actually!

Next stop, Montevideo. This is Uruguay’s capital, and by far its biggest city. This was another one night stay, so not a great deal to report here apart from the best paella I’ve had since Cartegena – and it was REALLY good!

The next day we caught the bus to Tacuarembo where we were to be collected for our 3 day stay on a working sheep / cow / horse ranch. Now THIS was going to be interesting! We all packed into the back of a truck for the hour-long ride to the ranch, no one really sure what to expect apart from that there was 100% absolutely, definitely … no wifi or cell service. Sharp intake of breath – how would we survive?!

Juan the ranch owner is a real character. He gathered us together for an introductory speech and i wish I’d recorded him and put it on You Tube. The general gist – it’s not the horse that’s the problem – it’s you! Don’t bring your crisis to me – take it to my wife. Don’t use your hair straighteners – you’ll kill our generator. Etc. We were informed, in a deadpan (but hilarious) manner, that we were expected to be self-sufficient, and to muck-in. They weren’t going to do everything for us, and indeed the first thing we’d be learning how to do was to saddle a horse – gaucho style. Yikes.

My first horse was called ‘Colorado’, and was chestnut-coloured. I prayed the four-legged friend of Satan would be kind to me – they can smell fear apparently. Lesson 1: saddling your horse. Put on blanket, followed by piece of leather, followed by saddle. Put band-thing around and yank it tight until horse tries to bite you – that’s how you know it’s good and tight. Put on sheepskin, followed by other band thing which you tank ‘less tight’. Sounds simple enough … and it was. Most of us were fortunate enough not to suffer from saddle-spin, although there were a couple of humerous mishaps. I’m ok on horseback at a walk. Once the trotting starts, I start bouncing. Then the panic sets in. Thankfully, being British, we seem to be genetically programmed for the rise and fall trot, and by the time our 3 days were up I was starting to get the hang of it, but then by the third day I had a really sore butt, which is a pretty good incentive.

First task – mustering sheep. Move sheep from Field X to Pen Y. This turned out to be pretty easy, partly because there were loads of us to surround the sheep, and partly because sheep are – it has to be said – exceptionally fucking dumb. Get a few to go the right way and the rest will follow. Once the sheep had been moved, the next task was to vaccinate them. This involves grabbing a sheep while someone else forces the dispenser into its mouth and someone else puts a chalk mark on it to show it’s been done. This was hilarious – they might be dumb, but they didn’t make this part easy! There’s a technique to grabbing a sheep – straddle it from behind, then grab it around the front of its neck and back against the wall. All being well, you should be able to hold on long enough to get the job done. Hilarity ensued, but we did manage to vaccinate a few hundred sheep. My toes, however, were in agony – sheep are heavy, clumsy little sods.

Day 2, and just so we don’t get too comfortable we are ordered to switch horses. I don’t remember the name of my second horse; since i struggled to pronounce it i took to calling him Bob. Bob was grey, and did exactly what he wanted to do and went exactly where he wanted to go, to hell with what I wanted. Reminds me of a few guys I’ve dated …! Anyway, didn’t take me long to realise that resistance was futile. Yesterday it was sheep, today it’s cows. Cows are slightly smarter and slightly faster, but the task is the same – move cows from A to B. On arrival at point B, it was necessary to treat some of the new calves for umbilical cord infections – pretty gruesome stuff, although i wasn’t really seeing cows by then. I was on steak withdrawal by that point, and was feeling rather like Alex the lion from Disney’s Madagascar – at the point where he goes feral and starts seeing all his friends as steaks.

Next task – filter different bunch of newly-acquired cows through a channel, spraying them along the way. The point is to keep away a type of biting fly. Firstly, the cows had to be herded into a pen, and from the pen into the ‘ring of Hell’. Three of the boys volunteered to go into the ‘ring of Hell’, where their task was to drive the cows into the channel. Whether they would have been so keen if they knew what state they would come out in is unlikely at best! It certainly wasn’t all mud …!

So we spent a couple of days up to our knees in mud and shit and livestock, but it was great fun, not to mention that our efforts were rewarded with some fantastic home-cooked food! There were also pigs, and a litter of ridiculously cute piglets for me to chase with my camera. For me the ranch stay was certainly one of the most fun parts of the trip, and I’m sure I’ll be looking into working ranch holidays next year. After some riding lessons of course …!

I was very sad to leave – i could quite happily have stayed on the ranch for a month. It was completely different to anything I’ve experienced before and i felt much more alive there up to my eyes in actual bull shit than i did back in London, up to my eyes in corporate bullshit!! Still, since the corporate kind funded the trip and will also fund the next one, i won’t complain about it too much!! I guess it’s about balance, and somehow I’ll work out a way to have both lives. Answers on a postcard please …

Next stop – Foz do Iguazu. Close to the borders of Argentina, Brazil and Paraguay, Foz is Brazil’s gateway to Iguazu Falls – another bucket list item!! At 2km long, Iguazu Falls are actually a series of cataracts. There are over 270 falls in all, and with some reaching up to 80m high, they are wider than Victoria Falls and higher than Niagara. We were going to have the opportunity to see the falls from both the Brazilian and Argentinian sides, and by both helicopter and boat!

Foz do Iguazu is a tourist trap. It seems to exist entirely to cater to tourists visiting the falls, and consequently it is expensive and lacking in charm. On the upside, it was the first time we’d had a pool at the hotel since Mancora which went a long way to compensating for the overpriced and overcooked steak i ate that evening. I was spoiled in Argentina, but that aside the Brazilians really struggle to cook a decent steak. Sorry, but it’s a fact. On the first day, we went to see the falls from the Brazilian side, where you get great panoramic views. Some of us also took a helicopter flight over the falls, which was really impressive if a little brief! It really gives you an idea of the scale of the falls – they are absolutely immense!!

The next day, we crossed the border to see the falls from the Argentinian side. On this side you can walk along a series of bridges and platforms to get right up close to the falls and bathe in the spray – a welcome relief from the stinking heat. Also, a cracking photo opportunity – i got soaked in the time i spent in a certain spot waiting for the spray to blow the right way to make a rainbow appear. We also got to take a speedboat ride into the falls, and this was the part I’d been looking forward to the most. It didn’t start out so well – standing in the queue for life jackets, i brushed an wasp off my leg just as it sank its stinger in. I haven’t been stung by a wasp since i was a child, and I’d forgotten how much it really f@cking hurts!! Thankfully one of my companions had been savaged by a similar beastie on the ranch and had a tube of anti-sting cream to hand. Wasps are horrible – they just sting for the sake of it, just because they can. They don’t deserve to exist.

Waspgate aside, the ride was absolutely awesome! We got right up close to the falls, and then right underneath them. It was one of those moments of pure, childish joy, and i put my arms in the air and shrieked as i got utterly drenched through. Great fun, and has a good chance of making the top 5 ‘magic moments’ of the trip.

The next morning we were out of bed at 3.30am to catch a 6am flight to Sao Paolo. This was a change to the agenda and the 3am part sucked, but it was preferable to 24hrs on a bus! At Sao Paolo, we picked up a transfer to Paraty, situated about half way between Sao Paolo and Rio. Paraty is one of the world’s best preserved Portuguese colonial towns. It also turned out to be fantastic for shopping …!

We were in Paraty for 3 days. On our first evening we were introduced to the concept of the ‘weigh and pay’ buffet, popular in the touristy parts of Brazil. This suits everyone, as you can eat exactly what (and as much) as you like. They weigh your plate and you pay accordingly. Naturally, this led to a degree of competition as we all compared the size of our plates. Prices are quoted by kilo, although (no shock here) Aussie Matt was the only one to actually eat a kilo of food! Over the next fortnight i would be pulling a respectable average of 8-900 grams each time. Paraty also has a Havaianas store (that’s Brazilian-made flipflops, mum). Between us, we managed to purchase over 50 pairs while in Paraty. Personally, i have 7. You can custom-make them – stick little sparkles on and everything! Bikinis were the other desirable item, and despite initial reservations about the back having no more fabric than the front, i think every girl on the trip owned at at least 1 by the time we got to Rio! Paraty also has a fantastic ice cream shop, where you pick a tub, then grab a scoop and serve yourself from the 30 or so flavours of ice cream (how much can you cram in the tub?!), then add sauce, then add toppings. Then pay by weight. More of those lost Bolivia pounds were creeping back on …

As well as shopping and eating, we did manage to have a day out at the beaches, doing a little swimming and sunbathing. I also got paella on the beach, which arrived piled high on the dish, easily enough for 2 people. Really the price should have tipped me off, but it didn’t, and i made a valiant attempt and eating (almost) half of it.

This part of the trip was feeling a bit more like a holiday! After 3 nights in Paraty (spending 3 nights in one place was a luxury!), we headed to our island getaway on the Ilha Grande for another 3 nights. Ilha Grande gave us 3 more days of beaches, shopping and caipirinhas, and was a great way to relax pre-Rio. We took a boat trip and went beach-hopping, and swam and snorkelled in the warm water. I think I’d have gotten stuck here for a while if I’d have turned up as an independent traveller without a fixed agenda – i loved how laid-back the place was. But it was time to move on again, and the destination this time was a big one and another bucket list item … Rio de Janeiro!

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