If you hold your left hand out in front of you with your thumb extended, you will know what Northern Argentina looks like. Between your thumb and pointer finger lies Paraguay and to the right of your thumb would be Brazil. At your fingertips lies Bolivia and on the the left side of your hand lies Chile. Right at the tip of your thumb is where Argentina, Paraguay and Brazil come together. From a geographical point of view, the reason for these borders makes sense. Two rivers come together here creating natural boundaries between the three countries. Between Brazil and Argentina is the Iguazu River, and between Paraguay and and Argentina and Paraguay and Brazil lies the Parana River. As we headed west, we followed the border between Argentina and Parauguay for several hundred miles until we reached Corrientes, where the border cuts straight north. Our short term plan in Northern Argentina was essentially to make our way back to Bolivia. Knowing this, you may ask yourself, why we didn’t go through Paraguay.
Just like Bolivia and Brazil, Paraguay charges visa reciprocity fees meaning we would have had to pay the good ‘ol $180 per persona visa application fee before stepping foot into the country. Having gone through this twice already, we decided we would pass on driving through Paraguay. But why? Aside from the financial aspect, we are beginning to run out of time as we still have the “meat and potatoes” of the entire Pan American Highway adventure waiting for us in Southern Chile and Argentina. Additionally, Paraguay is quite undeveloped due to its history meaning overlanding this country is fairly uneventful. Ill elaborate on the history in just a second. Had this country not charged the reciprocity fee, we would have passed through in a minute, but paying $360 to use their highway system is a little much.
Paraguay is a fairly quiet country in South America. As mentioned earlier, it is very underdeveloped compared to its neighbors. The reason for this can be mostly attributed to Paraguayan War between Paraguay and Brazil fought in 1864-1870. Paraguay’s military force was completely outnumbered and didn’t stand a chance against Brazil, resulting in the loss of nearly 70% of its male citizens. With such huge losses, the country’s population growth plummeted and measures were made to deal with the issue. Polygamy was legalized. Land was essentially given to foreigners from anywhere in the world to help increase population. It sounds like even today, obtaining citizenship in Paraguay is very easy and its citizens encourage people to move there. Anyhow, the country’s population woes left it at the back of the “pack” and is the main contributor to its underdevelopment.
And so our adventure skirted us along the Paraguay border for two days. Near the town of Ituzaingo, we visited the Yacyreta Dam that is a joint effort between Argentina and Paraguay in generating electricity. Officially opened in 1994 and reaching full operating levels in 1998, the dam is very new and generates 14% of the energy needs for the entire country of Argentina. We joined a tour with a bunch of school kids to visit the dam and were impressed. One feature that neither of us have seen with any other dam is the lock system that allows ships to pass through the dam. Just like the Panama Canal locks, the impressive lock system here transports ships every day from upstream to down stream and vice versa. Unlike the Panama Canal, passing through the locks here is free of charge, where in Panama, the fee can reach nearly $1million USD!
The variety of landscapes we encountered between Puerto Igauzu in the east and Salta in the northwest was numerous. We passed through dense jungles, then pine forests resembling those of the Western US. As the pine trees became more sparse, the parting of the forest opened up grazing land that any rancher would be happy to own. When the grazing land was behind us, we found our way to the hot desert region in the middle of the country. The deserts lasted for a short while before we found ourselves at the foot of the Andes Mountains. Had we been blindfolded and dropped there, it would have been easy to mistake the scenery for that of the front range of Colorado. Once on top and finally at a respectable altitude of 7,000+ feet, the massive mountains with horses scattered everywhere left us to feel as if we were in Montana. In no other country have we seen and experienced such a variety of landscapes.
Somewhere along the way in Northern Argentina, we put Laughlin behind the wheel of the Blanco Caballo. She handled the truck very well, but the truck’s power went to her head. So, after a couple hundred miles, we returned to our usual seats. While driving, she broke out her “Salar de Uyuni glasses” that she has been saving for over a year. They are awesome!
Once we arrived at the Ruta 40, we visited the ruins of Quilmes. Although we had pretty much zero information on the ruins, it was still a nice stop.
Being in Northern Argentina, we found ourselves in a perfect location to “dabble” in the wine industry the country is so famous for. Usually, we drive down the highway and see an empty beer can here or a bottle over there, but in Argentina, there are empty wine bottles in place of beer cans and bottles. Ounce for ounce (or milliliter for milliliter for our metric friends) good wine can be bought for the same price as domestically produced beer. Neither of us can really appreciate good wine, but we were sure up to the task as we approached one of the wine producing areas near the city of Cafayete.
Cafayete is located near the south end of one of the wine producing areas in the Calchaquíes Valley. As we found our way to the bottom of the valley, we found ourselves surrounded by massive mountains on either end of the valley. The desert landscape felt familiar to us. Our first stop was at the Siete Vacas or Seven Cows winery. The relatively new winery produces several styles of wines but its most famous wines are Malbecs and Torrontes. We sampled the wines and picked up a bottle of Torrontes to enjoy for a later date.
In Cafayete, the wine culture is dominating. Large wineries are scattered throughout the small town and vineyards creep all of the way to the edge of town. We enjoyed walking the streets and tasting a wine here and there only to return to our camper for an afternoon siesta. I don’t know that we would recommend a trip here to see the city for itself, but for wine drinkers, this is a great place to be with wineries, wine bars and even wine resorts surrounding the town.
While in Cafayete we met some fellow travelers to swap stories with. Charles set up a tent next to us for a couple of nights as he makes his way to Ushuaia by bicycle. From Quebec, he shared some great stories of his travels along the way and it was enjoyable to visit with a fellow North American traveler for the first time in many months. We also enjoyed visiting with Clause from Germany who had one of the more interesting overlanding rigs we have seen along the way. Using a MAN truck platform, he built a “camper” that looks more like a cabin than anything. It even had a deck on the back end!
The desert to the north was calling us after a couple days in Cafayete. We followed the famous Argentinian Ruta 40 north and ran into gravel roads not more than ten miles north of town. The landscape was similar to what you would find in the remote desert regions of the Southwest US. Sandy flats, dry riverbeds, rock wall canyons and rugged mountains as far as we could see. After 50 miles of dirt roads, we found our way to another winery called Colome, which boasts the highest alltitude vineyarsds in the world at about 9,500 feet. We enjoyed a glass of wine on the deck overlooking the vineyards and surrounding mountains.
Northeast of the Colome winery, we continued driving towards Salta. Although we used the city as a place to regroup we did run into our friends Andy and Laura from Sumo Goes South and were finally able to meet Ernesto and Taisa from Overland the Americas, Ashwin and Olivia from Ash Livin, and Mike from our neighboring state to the south of Colorado. Coincidentially, we were all camped in the same municipal campground in Salta. Small world.
Over the next two days, we continued driving north towards the Bolivian border. The fine development and good infrastructure gradually faded the closer we got to Bolivia. The housing began resembling mud brick homes with thatch roofs. The highways were littered with pot holes. Communities began to be almost entirely indigenous people and our elevation gradually climbed to 11,500 feet. We set up camp late in the afternoon, saving the border crossing for the morning. Our excitement grew as we were on the brink of crossing into Bolivia for some of our most exciting adventures!