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Uruguay & Carnaval

Since Jess has written about our experiences in Iguazu Falls, I guess that I need to get caught up and write about the week in between the Falls and being in Buenos Aires.

From Buenos Aires, we did indeed head over to Colonia, Uruguay, on a ferry ride across the huge Rio de la Plata, that took about an hour. Arriving in Colonia, we expected to quickly find a hostel, since it is a relatively small town and there are several hostels. To our dismay, it wasn´t so easy to find a hostel with beds, and we had to stagger around the town in this wicked heat and humidity. Apparently, the more north that you go in Argentina, towards Brazil, the hotter and more humid it becomes; that is the marvel of Argentina, that you can go from the subartic weather of Patagonia to the subtropical forests along the Paraguayan and Brazilian borders, with plenty of various landscapes in between.

At any rate, we eventually found a hostel, and we set out to explore Colonia. Uruguay doesn´t get much news; it seems few people seem to have even heard of it, but the country is quite pleasant. There is a lot of history there, being that the country was right between the colonies of Spain and Portugal with all of their colonial interests. Today the place seems is advanced and well off, at least in comparison to nearby countries like Peru and Bolivia. Colonia itself is a quaint town, filled with historic buildings, sycamore lined streets, and cobblestoned alleys that probably date back to the 1600s. There is a nice riverwalk, where we watched the sunset over the Rio de la Plata. Back at the hostel, we had a long chat with a Dutch couple. They were the ones who suggested the next day, as we stood in the Montevideo bus station, that instead of taking a night bus to Salto, which would have had us in the town at 6 am, we should take a immediate bus to Mercedes, which is also on the border of Argentina. Of course, that had us going back east almost into Colonia, but at least we found ourselves in a nice hotel in Mercedes, relaxing in this pleasant town for the evening, instead of taking a long bus ride.

We really struggled with our travel plans in Uruguay, for some reason, starting with our three hour bus ride to Montevideo. We should have gone directly to Mercedes, where we could have crossed over into Argentina, but that didn´t really occur to us until we were already in Montevideo. That meant getting into Mercedes too late to get much further, and also finding that the border crossing near Mercedes was closed, a fact that we could have used before traveling there. That had us going north to the town of Paysandu, to cross over into Colon, Argentina, where we found a night bus leaving for Corrientes. That day involved a lot of waiting, as well as long bus rides; perhaps a bit of planning and further information would have spared some of the time involved. We do like traveling in a flexible fashion, where we make up our plans as we go, but sometimes we end up having unnecessarily long travel days and delays. 

At any rate, we were quite happy to be in Corrientes by 8 the next morning. This city is certainly not touristy, there isn´t some impressive natural formation or phenomenon to attract foreignors, so we felt that we were getting a real taste of Argentina. Of course, Corrientes is also an industrial town, so it has a bit of an edgy feel to it; we still liked the city quite a lot. We found a hostel there that could be one of the most beautiful hostels we have encountered on this trip, in a restored house that had once been the residence of some members of the city´s upper crust. We had to sleep half the day to recover from two full days of bus rides, but then we set out to see the city, which despite its rough appearance has a lot of dignity and rugged attraction. The Rio Parana runs along Corrientes, so there is an excellent riverwalk, and we walked through neighborhoods of old Argentinian style homes and buildings. Our first night (which originally was supposed to be our only night), we went to a Carnaval show, which took place in an arena style setting. Dancing troupes put up a big show where the dancing was less important than the extravagant costumes. It was a strange show to be sure, but it whetted our appetite for Carnaval related events, and back at the hostel we learned that Corrientes was having its yearly celebrations on the weekends for a month. This meant that we could go to a Carnaval street show the following night, though we needed to change our tickets to Puerto Iguazu, which we´d already purchased.

So we were up early the next morning, first standing in a long line to buy the Carnaval tickets, then heading out to the bus terminal to change our tickets. For only having been in the city for a day, I thought we were getting around pretty well. We then spent the rest of the day relaxing around town, trying not to melt in the heat, and taking a midafternoon nap so that we could stand being up all night. That night, we took a taxi with a Swiss couple that was staying at the hostel to the Carnaval, which was set up a couple kilometers away. I´d always thought of Carnaval as the kind of party they have in Rio, a huge, sweaty, weeklong street party of dancing and drinking. This Carnaval had a different focus, and was much better behaved than the Rio version. They had stands set up along a street, with flood lights all along for great views. There were several troupes of dancers who paraded down the street, a procession that went on for about seven or eight hours (we lasted from 9:30 until 3:30). Each troupe was a long line of dancers in vaguely related costumes, followed by a crashing band of drummers and the live band standing on a huge pile of speakers being powered by impressively large generators. The bands were judged by a group of jurists in the middle, so they lingered there the longest; we were past the middle, so there was usually a delay of 20 minutes or so in between the groups. The audience took advantage of the lull to hose each other down with foam spray that was being sold by some of South America´s roughest looking carnies. Seriously, these folks could teach American carnies a thing or two. I wasn´t terribly fond of having foam sprayed at my camera, but at least they weren´t getting drunk and vomiting on my head (ask me about that sometime).

The costumes were really great; they were extremely extravagant, with feathers and wings and all sorts of decorations somehow perched onto the dancers backs. Each must have cost a lot of money to make; by the end, I was thinking that the owner of some sequin factory must be making a killing on Carnavals across South America. As with the stage show, the dancing was fairly mediocre, for it is hard to dance with 75 pounds of metal and cloth on their backs, all the while wearing spiked heals. The real focus was on the costumes. Each troupe seemed to have a theme to which the costumes followed for the most part; what most costumes in the entire procession seemed to have in common was that they tended to reveal a lot of skin. In fact, thongs seemed to be a required item, regardless of the size of the dancers. I can certainly confirm that these troupes are equal opportunists; few of the dancers were the tiny sorts that most pictures of Carnaval usually depict. Good for them, I say, for everyone should have the chance to dance to samba music in high heels while making a thong disappear. Good for them. Good for me, too, because I can´t think of another venue where Jess would allow me to be a spectator to such a procession. Fortunately, she was having a grand old time herself, and there were beefcakes for the women to oogle over as well.

At any rate, it was quite a show. Sure, it was very orderly and brightly lit, which eliminated the risk of the kind of muggings that most likely happen during Carnaval in Rio. That doesn´t mean it wasn´t entertaining, and we found ourselves getting caught up in the incredible samba music and dancing ourselves. One thing about Argentina and South America in general, they know how to have fun, and they aren´t afraid of having fun all night long. That might be rough for a couple of americanos del norte who usually are in bed by midnight such as Jess and I, but when we can bring ourselves to stay up for the show, we are not let down.

Then came the 7:30 alarm to get us up for our 9 am bus ride to Puerto Iguazu...

Until next time, be safe.



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