Thursday 26th March – we had a sad farewell with Monica Ponces, the lovely owner of the Cabaña Leñador in Puerto Iguazú. Over the 5 nights we stayed here, we both agreed that it has been one of our finest accommodations to date. It is set in a beautiful location with a jungly feel to it, complete with superb breakfasts and a swimming pool, which being out of season we had to ourselves. Monica made us really feel at home and let us have the run of the restaurant kitchen to cook our own food when we wanted to – when travelling for long durations, this option is not only cheaper but is a welcome change from eating restaurant / café food all the time. Our next target was Salta a 2 – 3 day 1000-mile ride across the Gran Chaco, where we had arranged to meet with Peter Deck, a fellow traveller riding a BMW GS 1150 around South America. We’d met Peter initially in Rio Mayo, the day after Mags had her tumble and we got on like a house on fire. Peter went on to Ushuaia on his GS and like us was totally absorbed with travelling in Argentina. He was currently staying with some friends in San Lorenzo near Salta where he was convalescing after a minor tumble on a local rocky road, in which he unfortunately broke his hip.
The ride out across the Gran Chaco promised to be boring – the road on the map looks like someone drew it with a ruler, running straight as a die for some 600 odd miles. It was boring but again we were in for another game of snakes & ladders. On the early stages it was enlivened by spectacular grass fires all around us giving it the resemblance of a battlefield after an air strike with huge columns of smoke drifting up into the afternoon sky and on occasion blotting out the sun. We had an overnight stop in Corrientes a confusing jumble of a city but with a spectacular dawn ride out across the impressive General Belgrano Bridge taking us back across the Parana River for the last time. Day 2 on the Chaco was good miles on good roads and then all of a sudden the snakes struck again. First the good road went bad, deteriorating into masses of potholes, which forced us to ride slower. Next up we hit another snake in uniform, this time an older guy on the state line between the Gran Chaco & Santiago Estera departments. We have been watching out for these checkpoints and have been through quite a number since our ill encounter last week with everything back to normal and happy smiling helpful policemen at each turn. This time however, I saw the old guy run out to stop us when he saw us coming and immediately knew that something was up. He took our papers and then pointed at my engine muttering something about ‘Mata de Fuego’ and $60 pesos per bike. When we failed to understand, we were taken inside and an ancient statute book that had been typed & photostatted some time ago was produced and we were shown the ‘Mata de Fuego’ section & asked to pay $120 pesos (around ₤25) or the 2 bikes. Official receipts were also tabled but again we noted our details were being recorded on a scrap of paper. This time we were two onto one. First we told him we had no money – we were living on credit cards and a cash machine had taken our cash card so we had no cash whatsoever. We explained that we were headed to Salta to see a friend who was baling us out with some cash but until then we had 2 apples & some water to see us through. Mags was particularly good at eliciting sympathy from the guy about our ‘dreadful’ predicament. We asked to speak with his officer but this was not possible (of course). He then dropped the price to $20 pesos but we re-iterated our yarn about the cash machine and no cash etc and he finally gave up, returning our papers to us. It was interesting that he thought we were Germans and couldn’t understand how Germans would not have cash (presumably they pay easily?) and we had to explain that we were from Ireland and therefore very poor, which seemed to do the trick! We rode off elated at the successful outcome of this second encounter with corruption.
The poor roads and the time wasted with bent cop number 2 saw us head into a cheap hotel in a place called ‘Joaquin V. Gonzalez’, completing the ride to Salta, back up in the Andes, by midday on Saturday. It took a while but eventually we found San Lorenzo and El Castillo, the place where Peter was staying. What a delightful surprise awaited!