Cordoba, Snakes & Ladders, On to Iguazú

We had a fairly quiet few days in Cordoba, waiting for the new fuel pump to arrive. It was a good time to walk the city streets, look in the shops and enjoy some fine food in some fine restaurants. It is a pleasant enough city for all of these amenities but, like Mendoza, there is nothing special in the city itself to look at and after a few days we were restless to leave. It took an extra day for the pump to arrive but when it did Ricardo soon had it installed and we were ready to get back on the road. We have to say a big thank you to everyone at BIG Motorcycles, the BMW agent in Cordoba. Sergio for helping to organise everything, Anna for sorting out the warranty paperwork, Pablo for his immense enthusiasm and animated tales of the pleasures awaiting us in Bolivia & Peru (he did this trip a few years ago) and finally Ricardo for all the spanner work and sheer dedication to getting us back on the road. We had another delight awaiting us before leaving the city. Esteban & Consuela Sanchez, a young couple who we’d met at the mechanics in Rio Mayo had noted our Website address off the bike and had e-mailed us with an invitation to join them for an Asado (barbeque) should we ever happen to be in Cordoba. We duly contacted them & spent a wonderful evening at their house with Consuela’s sister Dolores & her husband Bernardo drinking beer & wine and eating an assortment of prime cuts of meat char-grilled to perfection by Esteban. Bernardo is a doctor and provided amusement by his all too literal English translations of the cuts of meat (read body parts) that we were eating – “have some glands and you must try some diaphragm!” It was a bubbly evening of laughter & merriment and it was a refreshing change for us to enjoy such family hospitality. On Thursday 18th March we finally left Cordoba and headed for an easy afternoon ride to Paraná, which we selected as an overnight stop on our way east to Iguazú. The approach to the city, in its lovely setting along the milky coffee coloured Paraná River was via a huge 1.5-mile long tunnel under the river. It was a real treat with a lot of beautiful old colonial buildings and a massive area of parkland along the riverbank. We found the excellent 4* Gran Hotel set in the central Plaza for 74 Pesos (₤15) for the night, where we ate tasty Surubi & Pacu – 2 of the local river fish.

Our trip since leaving Mendoza has been a like big game of snakes & ladders as we try to make our way up the massive game board of Argentina. We have had snakes, like when Norm’s bike broke down, that have sent us back to find a different way round the board. Then there have been ladders like the convenient lift to Cordoba with Jorge that rescued us from a snakefall! Cordoba itself was a series of lovely ladders – the whole experience of getting the bike repaired, Asado with Consuela & Esteban etc. On Friday 19th March we hit another snake, a real one this time and it was wearing a Policeman’s uniform. In all of our travels in South America we have encountered Police roadblocks – maybe 30 or 40 of them to date. They are usually to be found outside major towns & cities or at departmental borders and are manned by mostly courteous policemen, sometimes from the local police, sometimes from the national gendarmerie. You have to slow down on approaching them and more often than not we get waved on. We have been stopped about half a dozen times and asked for our licenses, vehicle logbooks & occasionally passports but the officers on every occasion have been polite, interested in our trip and have offered advice & help on the best places to see & stay. We have been warned about police corruption in Peru & in some of the Central American countries, but have had very pleasant relaxed encounters in both Chile & Argentina. We were riding east on the Ruta 127 about 20km out from a little town called San Jaime, when we were stopped around 4:30pm in the middle of nowhere at the border roadblock between the departments of Entre-Rios and Corrientes. On producing our documents to the 2 officers, we were asked for Seguro de Mercosur – some vehicle insurance that covers Brazil, Argentina & Chile. We didn’t have it – we were never advised at any border that we needed any motor insurance and research before the trip & with other travellers told that there was no point in having local insurance, even if it was available, as it wasn’t worth the paper it was printed on. At this point we were told it would cost $300 US to buy a Mercosur policy before we could continue. Mags stayed at the bikes with one of the cops, an older chubby guy who was from Brazil. I went off with the other cop, a slick fair-haired dude wearing a blue uniform who seemed to know his business, to sort out the problem at the little roadblock hut. A pad of official forms along with a tariff in a plastic wallet was produced and the $300 fee was explained on the tariff sheet. I told the guy I didn’t have $300 (which was true) and was asked how much I did have. I told him I had 300 pesos (about ₤60) and he said that would be fine. Up to now I was totally naïve thinking that these were honest policemen doing their job but they were corrupt cops – out to make a few quid from passing travellers like us and this realisation slowly dawned as I sat sweating in the little hut, with this guy demanding money from me across the table. At this point I was simply cornered – I’d told the guy how much money I had & he’d told me he was going to take it. I kicked myself later for not saying a lesser amount, but I really did believe that I would have to pay for a genuine policy. I put the money on the table and it immediately disappeared. The forms & tariff were put to one side and my details recorded on the back of a scrap piece of paper and I was told I could go. I asked for a receipt but was told I didn’t need one and that everything would now be done on the Internet. Outside Mags was chatting to the other cop & it was just like all the other road blocks with him recommending where to go & what to see at Iguaçu. We rode off defeated, ripped off and utterly disgusted at this incident.

We had an interesting chat with a young waiter a few days previously in Cordoba who was curious to know what we thought of Argentina in the outside world as he’d spoken to some French people & was horrified when they told him how that many Europeans regard the country with suspicion based on tales of corruption. We told him that when planning our trip we looked at 2 arrival points for the bikes – Buenos Aires and Santiago, deciding on the latter as tales of corruption in BA were so bad. In our subsequent travels in this marvellous country we were quite astounded to find the opposite to be true, with wonderfully friendly open people ready to help on every occasion and have had not a whiff of bribery or corruption across the country. The waiter recognised and really hated the petty corruption in BA as he felt it was blighting the whole country. He felt that for many foreign tourists & business travellers the capital city is their first and often only exposure to Argentina and they leave with the impression that the whole country is like that. It is clearly not, from our own experience but our encounter with these bent cops has shown us that you cannot let your guard down (as we did) and that there are bad apples farther afield still spoiling the crop. The day did end however on a small ladder! We rode into the early evening and at around 7 pulled into a little town called Yapeyu on the banks of the River Uruguay, which turned out to be the birthplace of General San Martin – ‘The Liberator’, the man who led the country to independence from Spain back in the early 1800’s. We rode up the dirt high street and checked in to the delightful little Hotel San Martin, on Plaza San Martin and across the square from the church of San Martin de Tours. That evening, we dined on Pollo con Fritas and Brazilian Brahma beer on the hotel veranda under a cloudless sky splattered with stars with the magnificence of the Milky Way on full display. It was a wonderful tonic to settle the upset of today’s reptilian downslide and a reminder that we were still in a wonderful land.

Next morning we were up early and had a mooch around town visiting the ruins of San Martin’s home – the crumbling walls of an old Jesuit building, now enshrined in a low Baroquish temple, with arched windows that provided a soft illumination on the ruins. It was very tranquil and quite a beautiful National Monument. We also had a walk around the Museo de San Martin, but it looked like all the important relics of the man were elsewhere as the museum contained only a few replica uniforms and some prints & transcripts from the history of the wars of liberation. There was nothing else to detain us here so it was off to Iguazú for a look next at some Waterfalls. The ride to Iguazú was a fantastic journey taking us in through first forest plantations of pine stands and then later on into masses of ever more jungly foliage, with huge palms and monstrous trees bedecked in creepers and vines. The road was superb, long straights and swooping bends that roller-coastered over and around the low hills of the province of Misiones. We passed slashes of exposed areas of wonderful red dirt, its hues of Burnt Sienna clashing vividly with 40-shades-of-green jungle and the clear blue skies above. The light and colour here has an acrylic brightness and intensity and it is a painter’s paradise. In Iguazú we found a beautiful Cabaña – the Leñador, where we set up camp for a few days to explore the falls.

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