(Excerpted from Chapter 25: The Southern Cone: The Grateful Unrich…)
El Dorado, Argentina 2-1-08
Often in life one has to hit the bottom before things can improve. This seems especially true of travel. Just when we are ready to start choking every single person in this country, we roll into the small town of El Dorado – 100 kilometers south of Iguazu Falls and the problematic tri-border area where Argentina, Brazil and Paraguay meet.
From the very first step off the double-decker Expresso Singer bus, things are different here. The bus station is tiny. There is no teeming mass of people à la Cordoba, Mendoza or Santiago. I have decided that we will try to get a hotel here rather than in touristy and expensive Puerto Iguazu. The first street out of the station is Paraguay – a good sign since I have located a cheap hotel on this street. I ask a man if he knows of the place and he kindly points me to its location, just one block away.
We walk into the lobby and are greeted with extended hand by the very friendly owner Fabian. A nice double with shared bathroom is only 35 pesos a night. We take cold showers in the tropical heat and quickly wash away twenty-two hours of bus grime. There is soap in the showers, full rolls of toilet paper in the bathrooms, mirrors, a cool shady courtyard and the rooms are spotless. Each morning Fabian changes our sheets, brings drinking glasses and greets us sincerely. Fabian is trying.
We walk to Plaza Sarmiento three blocks away. It is filled with vine-covered tropical trees and neatly trimmed hedges, a playground for kids and freshly painted park benches. It is the most beautiful park I have seen this entire trip. We order hamburguesas completos at a small cafe on the square. The friendly woman who runs the place brings us big jugs of condiments and the burgers are delicious. We get an ice cream for dessert. We return to the square for dinner at a different place. We order two lomito completos (tenderloin sandwich with egg, ham, lettuce, tomato and fries). Again condiments are set out to use freely. In Cordoba we had to beg to get a small packet of mayo. The people of El Dorado are trying.
Tonight we meet Rejina – a bubbly 23-year-old from Buenos Aires who is exploring La Misiones province. She is cooking dinner and is friendly from the start. She studies International Business, but supports the Banco del Sur Chavez solution for South America. Like all Argentine youth we have talked with, she says Christina is a phony leftist – shaking hands with Chavez one minute and Bush the next. She says Argentines are tired of this shit and that if Christina had a bowl of rice she would not share it with someone who did not. I tell her 911 was an inside job. She shares a mango and a cup of mate. I roll her a Cuatro Leguas cigarette. She talks of remote waterfalls. We take photos together. She tells me to keep writing about important things. Rejina is trying.
The El Dorado of myth was that elusive city, allegedly brimming with gold, which no one could ever find. It was not gold we were looking for. It was kindness. It seems fitting that we have finally found that much more precious commodity here in El Dorado.
We awaken to the crows of the backyard rooster at 6:00 AM and get coffee at the bus station. The owner of the restaurant asks where we are from and the conversation quickly turns political. He says America has no more friends in the world, but then corrects himself, sarcastically insisting that we still have Pakistan and Saudi Arabia.
We take the earliest bus to Puerto Iguazu, then another to Iguazu Falls. We are in the park by 9:30 AM. Admission is $12.50 for foreigners, half that for Argentines and free for Puerto Iguazu residents. We take a little train to the first set of falls and decide to hike straight on to Garganta del Diablo – The Devil’s Throat. On the way we meet a German named Michael and a Frenchman named Jacques who have also chosen to escape the tourist train hordes. We end up hanging with them all day.
At Iguazu, many of the paths include metal catwalks that allow visitors to get in close to the falls without impacting the jungle ecosystem. The catwalk leading to The Devil’s Throat crosses several cataracts swirling with tropical birds and butterflies of insane colors. As we near the grandest waterfall in Iguazu, the catwalk begins to vibrate. The “throat” consists of a 180-degree radius of massive amounts of water plunging into a bottomless abyss, where only fog can be seen. We spend the day hiking both the upper and lower circuits. There is no way to describe the buzz that being near dozens of giant waterfalls creates.
The excellent movie The Mission, starring Robert DeNiro and Jeremy Irons, was filmed here in 1987. It deals with the exploitation of the Guarane Indians, who still live here, as well as questions surrounding liberation theology. This UNESCO World Heritage Site is the most impressive natural phenomenon I have seen anywhere in the world. A park ranger even offers to take our picture. People here are trying.
We walk out of the park at 4:30 PM past scavenging coatamundis and Guarane vendors selling jaguar carvings. A park ranger’s child was killed by a jaguar here in 1997. We bum two smokes from a French Canadian woman and grab a bus to Puerto Iguazu. We get a massive Pepsi, cigarettes and cookies. We cross the street to the bus station where a big double-decker to El Dorado is leaving in two minutes. It was a good plan and a great day!
By 8:00 we’re showered and heading to the plaza for another lomito completo. The four high school students who serve as wait staff are very excited that we’ve come back and begin to talk with us. One brings little snacks ahead of dinner. Another asks if we are Russian. The sandwiches are so big I have to finish Jill’s for her. They nearly faint when we tell them we are Americans. Americans who are trying.
We sleep like the worn-out, uplifted, satisfied babes that we are – rolling out from under our clean sheets at 9:30. We get coffee on the square and buy a dozen small mangoes and two chipa so’ós for lunch. The latter are a local specialty originally made from cassava flour and stuffed with ground beef, eggs and onion. They – like this ‘trying” business – are endemic to this part of Argentina. Both, I suspect, are products of Guarane influence. The townspeople are generally darker-skinned than the typical Argentine, with the long slender noses that often typify indigenous people.
Surely the fact that El Dorado is a small town also contributes to the friendly caring nature of its people. I’ve noticed that tropical humidity has a way of relaxing people. There’s no shortage of that in this steamy corner of Argentina. Still, I suspect that what we are experiencing here is the same Indian vibe that makes countries with a large percentage of native peoples such a joy to visit – countries like Guatemala, Ecuador, Laos, Indonesia and the Philippines – my favorite countries.
Fabian is full-blooded Italian but he studies the Guarane language and loves their culture dearly. He proves that kindness is not about skin color or one’s ancestry, but instead results from a worldview based on an animistic responsibility towards the rest of creation, rather than some monotheistic obedience and subservience to a savior god who – if prayed to often enough – will magically alleviate you of these responsibilities.
Fabian – white as a bed sheet – has learned the Guarane ethic as has much of this town, whether they know it or not. This includes the Chinese woman where I buy our Quilmes at 4:00 each day. Many Chinese business people the world over can seem aloof and indifferent, but this woman offers conversation and laughter each time I enter her store. Argentina and Chile both get whiter and more European as you go south, since the more temperate climate is conducive to raising cattle and growing wheat and grapes. As for me, I am very glad to be in the yellow fever-infested north at the Hotel Ideal in Room #7. Tonight we go to the town’s Carnival celebration on the square. It is risque to say the least.
Misiones Province is a special place, a land between raging rivers. Bordered to the north by the Rio Iguazu, to the west by the Rio Parana and to the east by the Rio San Antonio, Rio Periri Guazu and Rio Uruguay – it is a land of dense jaguar-filled jungles, grandiose waterfalls, tea and flower plantations and the remnants of Jesuit missions.
This trip has taken us through so many different ecosystems. First we saw the cold cliffs of the South Atlantic, then the dry barren pampas, then up the surreal Patagonian steppe to the Yukon-like alpine forests of Bariloche. We crossed into verdant Chile with its snow-capped volcanoes and fjords, then passed through the Mediterranean breadbasket of middle Chile before climbing the incredible Santiago-Mendoza pass beneath the 6th highest peak in the world. From Mendoza we passed through the Chaco wetlands, where pink spoonbills share potholes with storks and flamingos. Now we swelter in the lowland tropical jungles of La Misiones.
We say our goodbyes to Fabian. He gives us a calendar and a keychain with the hotel logo so we do not forget him. We try to get to Colonia Pelligrini, where we’ve heard it’s possible to see anacondas, caimans and capybaras. But there is no local transport, so after a long day we rack out in Santo Tome, checking into the adequate Hotel Brazil after more than one hotelier tries to take us for a ride.
We find good coffee at a YPF gas station and nice Danishes at a nearby panaderia. We catch a morning bus to Paso de los Libres on the Brazilian border. A nice rancher strikes up a conversation with us on the bus. We talk about cattle prices and capybara meat. Something about him reminds me of Dad.
The bus station in Paso provides another magical experience. We get tickets on the next bus south to Colon, which boards right after we pull in. I buy contraband Paraguayan cigarettes and empanadas. Two small girls ask for pesos. I give them only half what they ask for and make them split it. They frown. I say, “Como se dice?” They say, “Gracias”. We keep following the Rio Uruguay south.
Dean Henderson is the author of five books: Big Oil & Their Bankers in the Persian Gulf: Four Horsemen, Eight Families & Their Global Intelligence, Narcotics & Terror Network, The Grateful Unrich: Revolution in 50 Countries, Stickin’ it to the Matrix, The Federal Reserve Cartel & Illuminati Agenda 21: The Luciferian Plan to Destroy Creation. You can subscribe free to his weekly Left Hook column @www.hendersonlefthook.wordpress.com