San Ignacio Mini & The Iguazu Waterfalls

Taking the bus from Buenos Aires, I embarked on a mammoth 15 hour trip to the tropical north of Argentina, to the Iguazu Waterfalls, with a quick stopover at San Ignacio. I was initially a bit apprehensive about being stuck on a bus for such an extended of time, but to my surprise, it was a rather pleasant trip – much better than being stuck in economy class on a flight for the same length of time. I travelled with Crucero del Norte buses, whose sleeper coaches are extremely comfortable – the seats are enormous and almost recline flat, the service is great and I even managed to get a rather good night’s sleep, both on the way to Puerto Iguazu and back to Buenos Aires.

Anyway, so after departing Retiro Bus Station in Buenos Aires, I arrive mid-morning at San Ignacio (a quick detour on my way to Puerto Iguazu). The sleepy little town of San Ignacio’s claim to fame is the Jesuit Mission ruins which are located on the outskirts of the town. For those who have not seen the 1986 film ‘The Mission’, starring Jeremy Irons and Robert De Niro, here’s a quick history lesson about the South American Jesuit Missions, located primarily in Brazil, Bolivia, Paraguay and Argentina: During the 17th and 18th centuries, the Jesuit order of priest in South America formed Jesuit Reductions, in response to the Spanish Empire’s own Indian Reductions in which they gathered the native populations into centres or communities, in order to Christianise, tax and govern them. Rather than westernising native populations, the Jesuits allowed the natives to retain their own cultures whilst converting to Christianity. These Jesuit missions gained great autonomy from the Spanish Empire and were an economic success. Fear of the Jesuits’ independence and their success heightened over time and in 1767 the Jesuits were expelled from Spanish ruled South America. The mission communities slowly collapsed, becoming victim to slave raids or being absorbed into European culture. Today, only the remains of these great missions can be see today, which they themselves are slowly becoming victims of the natural elements.

The Jesuit Mission of San Ignacio Mini was founded 1632. At its hight in the 18th century, it had a population of 3000 people, with rich cultural and handicraft activity which was commercialised through the Parana River nearby. After the Jesuits left 1767, the mission fell into decay and was finally destroyed in 1817. San Ignacio Mini is one of the best preserved Jesuit ruins in South America and in 1984 was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Upon visiting the site, I was amazed at its size and construction – it was fascinating to see all the little dwelling all constructed in neat rows, their small doorways and little windows created from roughly cut local red sandstone. I could almost imagine this little community living within the parameters of the mission. I was amazed at how these Jesuit priests managed to create such a well thought out community, in which would have been dense tropical jungle. The most amazing part of the site were the ruins of the once grand church, located at the heart of the mission. It looks so grand and foreboding at the same time, especially against a menacing grey sky. It was a shame to have visited the ruins on such a grey and drizzly day (only the second day of my entire trip where it rained), as I’m sure they would have been even more magnificent in the bright sunlight. Also, if you happen to stay in the village of San Ignacio, the ruins can be visited at night, and a light show is performed for those lucky visitors.

After my pit stop at San Ignacio, I continued on to the town of Puerto Iguazu, the Argentinian gateway to the famous Iguazu Waterfalls (which can also be accessed from Foz do Iguacu on the Brazilian side of the falls). This little town, primarily surviving on the transient tourism (most people stay for only two or three days at the most – there isn’t much else to do here, except see the waterfalls, which can be done in a day), is full of hostels, hotels, restaurants, cafes, souvenir stores, you name it. I stayed at Hostel Bambu Mini, which comes highly recommended. This is actually the second half of Hostel Bambu, which is located about a few hundred metres down the road. I had a fantastic time at Bambu Mini – met some amazing people, enjoyed the BBQ dinners the hostel hosted, indulged in their tasty breakfast and home-like atmosphere – the only negative thing about the place was having to spend two nights in the same dorm room as a incessant snorer.

After getting a broken night’s sleep, like almost everyone else staying in Puerto Iguaze, I headed off the see the Iguazu Waterfalls. The word Iguazu comes from the native Guarani words “y”  meaning “water” and “uasu” meaning “big”. The Iguazu Waterfalls were first discovered by Europeans in 1541 by the Spanish Conquistador Alvar Nunez Cabeza de Vaca. The falls consist of 270 individual falls stretching over about one kilometre, where the Iguazu River tumbles into the Parana Plateau. The park itself is well organised to deal with the onslaught of visitors – there is an exceptionally good information centre, a labyrinth of highlighted walking tracks through the jungle leading visitors to spectacular sights, raised platforms so visitors can get as close as possible to the waterfalls (and I mean close, you can actually get so close that you can be drench in water from the spray of the falls), visitors can also go on organise boat trips down the river to the base of the falls, and a train runs through the park, linking one end to the other, to assist in transporting visitors to Devil’s Throat, the greatest and most impressive of all the falls. I was so lucky to get such a perfect day at the falls – the sun shone brightly almost all day and it wasn’t too hot or humid either. Many people debate on whether the Argentinian or the Brazilian side of the falls are more impressive – many people visit both sides in order to discover this. Unfortunately, I didn’t have enough time to visit the Brazilian side, so I had to be satisfied with only seeing the one half of the falls. Which I’m not complaining about. They were, in one word, spectacular! Definitely worth the lengthy bus trip from Buenos Aires and back.

Words & Photography by Jade Spadina

Buenos Aires, Argentina

Buenos Aires. Everyone knows this South American capital as the home of tango. But there is much more to this chaotic metropolitan city than tango. During the few days I spent in Buenos Aires, I have to admit that I didn’t even go to see a tango show (I’m sure one of my good friends, who is an amazing tango dancer, would be shaking his head in disgust whilst reading this). Rather, my time in Buenos Aires was filled with perusing through the San Telmo Markets, wandering through La Recoleta Cemetery, visiting the botanical gardens, ravelling at La Boca and just simple meandering through the streets of Buenos Aires, with a bit of shopping and ice-cream eating thrown in.

The highlight of my stay in Buenos Aires was by far the Sunday markets at San Telmo. San Telmo is a neighbour of Buenos Aires, located roughly between Av. Independencia, Av. Caseros, Piedras and Av Ing Huergo. It is the oldest and one of the best preserved neighbourhood in the city. It was originally an industrial area of the working class, which became increasingly popular in the mid 19th century amongst the middle class. An epidemic of yellow fever swept through the neighbourhood in 1871, which resulted in many of the well-to-do relocating to other areas of Buenos Aires. This resulted in many homes being left vacant, which were filled by British, Italian and Russian migrants arriving in the late 19th and early 20th century. In the mid-20th century, the neighbourhood’s bohemian atmosphere began to attract local artists, which resulted in growing cultural activity in the area. Today San Telmo characterised by its colonial building, cobbled streets, bohemian atmosphere, tango halls and of course their famous Sunday antique and arts markets.

The markets are on every Sunday, I’m assuming, rain, hail or shine. The markets are concentrated around Plaza Dorrengo and run the length of Calle Defensa. Plaza Dorrengo is where to head to first, especially if you’re after antiques and vintage collectables. There is everything and anything you can imagine. From vintage soda bottles, to stamps, match boxes, cameras, jewellery, porcelain, glassware, clothing, silverware, vases, phones, clocks etc, etc. The quality is good and the prices are dear. But the selection is amazing, at atmosphere un-matchable and looking at all these items makes one think of all the people who, over the centuries, have lived in this amazing city. Whilst ogling over the antique markets, the sound of tango could be heard. Right beside the antique markets was a tango orchestra – complete with pianist, cellist, and hand accordion players – who’s playing was absolutely superb. I guess I’m no authority on the matter, but from my own subjective viewpoint, I thought they played extremely well and I found it difficult to remove myself and continue up Calle Defensa to see the rest of the markets. The atmosphere in Calle Defense was somewhat different that of Plaza Dorrengo. Storeholders were selling their goods literary on the streets, instead of in well set-up stalls, antiques were put aside in favour of hand-made items, bric-a-brac, leather goods, CDs (the general things you find at markets), the cultured atmosphere was replaced by haggling and crowds and the sound of tango was overtaken by that of contemporary rock and rap music. Although this part of the markets was vastly different from Plaza Dorrengo, it still had it’s own charm. The best of which was big tubs of dulce de leche. If you haven’t been to South America, you may not know about this sickly sweet spread. It’s basically a caramel made from condensed milk. I first tried it in Peru, where it is called manjar, and instantly fell in love. I was amazed to see that they were selling big tubs of it at the San Telmo markets, or even better, served in ice-cream waffle cones for about US$1. Yum-my at a bargain! Of course I had one, or maybe two.

One of my best loved places in Buenos Aires was La Recoleta Cemetery. Like Pere Lachaise Cemetery is Paris, which I absolutely adore, La Recoleta has an unusual charm, even though some may think spending an afternoon is a cemetery rather morbid. Especially since  there are many coffins which you can actually see and touch. I was rather disturb and uncomfortable at seeing this – as you can see by some of the following photographs, there are a number of coffins which have been exposed to the elements, due to the wear and tear, as well as perhaps the odd vandalism of a number of the mausoleums. It was interesting to see how these tombs were constructed – many were build above ground, but a few of which I peeped into, seemed to have stairs leading downwards, beneath the ground. Some were simple and plain, and others were very ornate, lined with gold and marble. Many mausoleums appeared to be well maintained and lovingly cared for, whilst others were obviously forgotten and have fallen into disrepair. La Recoleta cemetery was inaugurated in the mid-19th century, taking up 14 acres of land in the middle of today’s cosmopolitan Buenos Aires. The cemetery contains many elaborate and decorative mausoleums, fashioned in may styles including Art Deco, Art Nouveau, Baroque and Neo-Gothic.  These mausoleums, which usually house the remains of multiple members on one family, are arranged in sections, similar to city blocks, which wide tree-lined avenues, fanning off into little side streets. Many notable Argentine personalities are buried in the cemetery, the most famous of which being Eva Peron. On weekends, the parkland in front of the cemetery is home to some amazing arts and crafts markets (I have to admit I spent a bit of money and bought a beautiful stone tea set) as well as some local street food – not forgetting the famous Argentine BBQ.

Although La Boca is extremely tourist focused, I rather enjoyed spending an afternoon amongst the hoards of tourists, tango dancers, Argentine BBQ restaurants and the sound of tango being played as you stroll down the street and marvel at all the sights, sounds and smells around you. This neighbourhood of Buenos Aires, located in the city’s south-east near the old port, was originally home to migrants from Genoa, Italy. Today, the neighbourhood is well known for La Bonbonera, the home of the Boca Juniors football team, it’s colourful architecture and its pedestrian street, The Caminito. I was initially somewhat apprehensive about visiting La Boca, especially after reading my Lonely Planet travel guide warning about frequent muggings in the neighbourhood, as well as some fellow travellers relating stories about others being held-up a gun point for a digital camera or a wallet. So I grabbed a fellow traveller I met on my adventure, who looks rather scary anyway, to come with me to La Boca. But surprisingly, the neighbourhood seemed rather safe and full of life – that is to say, along El Caminito and the surrounding streets, which we didn’t stray far from, getting a taxi to and from there. The area was full of life, and full of tourists too. After taking a few typical Buenos Aires shots with my camera, we sat down to an Argentine feast of BBQ meats of every shape and form. These people sure do love their meat and take great pride in cooking and serving it to perfection.

This is only a sneak peak of Buenos Aires – there are many more things to see and do in this big and vibrant city. I only had a few short days there, so I was unable to see it all.

Words & Photography by Jade Spadina