Another Epic Post – Looping all the way up to Peru, through Iguazu, out for Dorado on the Parana, and back home to Patagonia

Hi Everyone.  Wow, now it really has been a long time since my last blog update.  My excuse, for what it’s worth, involves a total laptop meltdown, travel to several countries and about two thirds of the provinces here in Argentina, and the general lack of time I almost always find for writing these days as a result of having too many businesses and projects going in too many places on the planet all at once.  But oh-well; it is what it is.  And here it is!  So, once the season closed down in the south I headed north, Negra in tow (or draped across my shoulders, as the case often was) first up the ruta 40 then in towards the mountains far enough to find some deserted back-country hot springs and a blizzard, all at once, in an area not too far from Cerro Seler, the infamous site of the October 13th 1972 crash of Uruguayan Air Force Flight 571 carrying the Old Christian’s Club Rugby Union Team, whose story was later turned into the Hollywood feature film Alive.  Their story is really quite incredible.  The area was pretty remote, and although at one point I did almost get the truck stuck trying to drive it through more than a meter of loose snow luckily in the end I made it out and didn’t have to resort to eating any raw human buttock-flesh in order to stay alive.

From there I traveled on to a pretty fascinating area of the country I was not previously familiar with at all.  First stop was a really cool limestone cave called Caverna de las Brujas (Cave of the Witches).  I hadn’t actually been in a cave since before the aneurism bleed back in 2001, but immediately upon donning the headlamp and squeezing through my first “pancake” on the descent into this dramatic cavern it all came back to me.  Exploring the system for a few hours that afternoon I found it to be amazingly reminiscent of some of the caves Steven Wright and I used to spend time in which make up the Tennessee/Alabama/Georgia (TAG) system up in the states, and by the time I crawled back to the surface here in south America I was nostalgically pining for those days of youthful freedom; sleeping in the bed of a 1981 Chevy pickup (“Old Red” we called her) for weeks at a time while driving from cave to cave through the mountains, perpetually covered in mud and eating canned smoked oysters three times a day like it was all somehow normal behavior.  Youth is like that though.

After the cave I headed east a little ways then into Parque Provincial Payunia, which hosts the highest concentration of volcanic cones anywhere in the world.  Over 800 volcanoes rise from the earth within this park’s boundaries, and a rough system of four-wheel drive tracks traverse it between them.  Driving these roads is like I would imagine driving across Mars might be; the scenery is surreal to the point of being indescribable, and I’m afraid my photographs likely don’t do it too much justice either.  There are no visitor centers, rangers, or infrastructure features of any kind within the park, making it either a do-it-yourselfer or hire-a-guide type proposition, but the good old Toyota Hilux did me right yet again and I was able even to get within hiking distance of one of the higher cone-peaks in the park.  The terrain is made up of a mix of coarse volcanic ash, various types of strangely shaped rocks (some of which literally flew through the air up to several kilometers upon eruption, cooling as they fell, and landing in very odd shapes exactly where one encounters them still today), and very little plant life.  From the top of the cone I hiked to I could see where half of the mountain itself had been blasted away in its eruption, and the enormous river of lava that ensued flowed many miles before creating a strangely shaped river of liquid looking stone as it cooled.   It makes you think, standing at the top of a thing like that, and it makes you feel very, very, small as well.

Next it was off to Peru, but first by way of Santiago Chile where I enjoyed a great dinner downtown with Zachariah Tweed’s new girlfriend Marcella.  I had no idea what to expect, but she turned out to be such a wonderful person all lingering questions about my long-time bachelor friend’s sudden change of heart with regard to monogamy were immediately answered.  I only hope he is still available for a few more nice long float trips and exploratory missions this coming season before he finds his domestic responsibilities occupying a greater share of his time than does fishing, as sometimes happens to gentlemen in his position. 

Upon arriving in Iquitos, Peru, on the headwaters of the Amazon river alone, Negra-less, and a bit disoriented by the tropical climate and newness of the Peruvian Spanish dialect, I checked into a very nice local hospedaje called La Casona.  Iquitos, despite being the largest city in its region and sporting a human population of over three -hundred and seventy thousand people, has no roads whatsoever that connect it to the outside world.  Unless you happen to be coming from the small and nearby town of Nauta, you must arrive here either by boat, or by plane.  I would say you could walk, but after spending a couple of weeks wandering around the jungle in this region I certainly wouldn’t suggest it.  This was my first experience in terrain of this sort, and it was daunting and at the same time awe inspiring in many ways.  I’ve spent my share of days (and nights) in places where an attack by bear was well within the realm of possibility, and even side-stepped a few copperheads and rattlesnakes along the way.  But this place,.. this is something entirely different.  There are snakes here that can actually eat people.  Not to mention jaguars, piranhas, caiman, and a whole host of spiders that I personally have no desire to meet, least of all being the Brazilian Wandering Spider, a neurotoxin carrying terrestrial beast considered by science to the most venomous arachnid in the world.  There’s even a urethra invading catfish, if you can believe it.  But luckily I failed to encounter most of these creatures throughout the duration of my wanderings in the jungle, and apart from attracting the attention of a couple cute little Peruvian girls, managed to enjoy even a few laps across the river and back without much input from the local fauna.  I did see a lot of very cool birds, some monkeys, a few caiman, a couple tasty looking Capybara (the world’s largest rodent, and one of John’s long-time favorite members of the animal kingdom), and a whole host of the most amazing butterflies, including the ever-moving, practically impossible to photograph Blue Morpho, one of the largest and also most severely threatened butterfly species in the world.  Very cool stuff.  I also enjoyed a good deal of local food and lots and lots of fresh squeezed juices, ran up and down the river a few times in boats of various description, talked to a lot of locals, and spent some fascinating days with a group of local shamans who practice an ancient form of medicine called ayahuasca, which has a rich and fascinating history in the area.   I figure anywhere you can buy an ice-cold coconut with a whole drilled in it and a straw sticking out of it from a street vendor for less than a quarter’s got to be good, so Iquitos is likely to remain on my list of recommended places to visit for as long as it stays more or less the way it is right now.

When I left Peru I headed south again and ended up at Iguazu Falls, on the border of Argentina, Brazil, and Paraguay.  There I picked up my entire family, who I had not seen hide nor hair of for almost an entire year.  For the first part of their trip we stayed in the town of Iguazu, in a place along the river just outside the park itself, and visited the falls and its trails and overlooks for several days.  I had been wanting to see this area for many years, ever since first laying eyes on it in the 1986 film by director Roland Joffé called The Mission.  The film is actually based on the true story of the Jesuit missionaries and the end of their period of work in that area back in the 18th century, with a sort of side-story thread in which Robert De Niro transforms himself from being a slave-trader into a protector of indigenous Guarani culture as the result of having murdered his brother over (you guessed it) a woman.  But to get back to my point, near the beginning of the film Jeremy Irons (or rather, I should say, his stunt-double) playing one of the Jesuit priests actually free-climbs the falls at Iguazu, making the first European ascent to the river above.  The cinematography is rather incredible, but after having seen the falls with my own two eyes I can relate to what must have been a serious frustration on the part of the camera crew making that film – there is just no way to capture the scale and majesty of this place with mere photographic equipment.  Standing on one of the overlooks hearing the roar of the water and feeling the mist on your face you can connect with the power of the place, and it is breathtaking, but having been there now I can honestly say that I’ve never seen any photo or film which succeeded in coming anywhere close to portraying the true scale and beauty of Iguazu.  I certainly don’t expect my words to get the job done either; you’ll just have to go and see it for yourselves.  Anyone interested can send me an email and I’ll be happy to set up the trip.  Apart from the falls themselves the park also has a really nice system of trails which traverse the jungle and lead to sightings of the area’s unbelievable quantity of bird species, as well as plenty of playful coatis (a sort of cross between a raccoon and an anteater, at least in my book), and the small variety of monkeys which mostly stay high in the treetops where they are somewhat difficult to photograph.

When our time was up at the falls we headed south through the province of Misiones (named after the Jesuit missions I talked about above), which is now the leading producer of yerba mate and teas in the region.  This afforded an opportunity to familiarize myself with the production of a product I use daily, and so I was very happy to stop and take a tour of the Amanda yerba processing facility, which just to happened to sit along the road we needed to take.  Amanda also happens to even be my brand, so that worked out well.  It has surprised me over and over again throughout Argentina that when I would ask a person taking mate what the plant looked like hardly any of them knew.  I suppose it’s not that strange; most of the Coca-Cola drinkers in the states probably couldn’t pick a coca leaf out of a line-up either, and I certainly couldn’t; but since mate is such a foundational block in the culture down here and the ritual that surrounds its drinking on a daily basis is so defined and intricate in its specificity, the lack of general knowledge about the plant itself still surprises me nonetheless.  Misiones is chock full of plantations growing mate, which is a bush of sorts it turns out (part of the holly family) that can grow into a tree if it is allowed to but is instead kept at about a meter or so’s height on the plantations so as to facilitate easy harvest.  Once a year each plant is trimmed of all its smaller branches , and these trimmings are bailed into big burlap sacks and loaded onto trucks to be driven the drying facility.  There the trucks are weighed before being unloaded, then weighed again just after being unloaded so as to determine the amount of yerba they delivered, and the product gets moved into a big grinder that breaks it down into more manageable sizes for drying. It then travels through a system of conveyor belts and tumblers over the course of around three and a half hours span, being dried by, get this, wood-fire produced heat.  The region is apparently without any reserves of natural gas, and so most of the logging in the province provides fuel for the drying of yerba mate in these facilities.  When the yerba comes out the far end of the facility it is almost ready to be packaged, but must first be cured in these big white bags for almost a year.  I, for one, thought it was really neat stuff to see in person how it all gets produced, and was actually pleasantly surprised to find that this was all there was too it – no chemicals, no preservatives, no real processing; it’s just a dried out, chopped up plant that gets put in a bag and hangs out there until I pour it into my mate and add hot water in my kitchen or sitting by the pool (as was the case here in Misiones) or on a break from the fishing out on the banks of a stream with my clients.  Good stuff indeed.

From the middle of the province we headed yet further south, to a small town in Corrientes province on the banks of the Rio Parana, called Itá Ibaté (say that three times real fast after a couple of beers) to fish for Golden Dorado.  The river was really high due to a deluge of recent rains; the weather was unseasonably cold; and we were about a month early for the spring bite; but we managed to catch a few fish anyway.  The river here is a tail-water of sorts, though you would never know it, and spread out amongst a virtual archipelago of islands that had even me confused as to how to get back to the lodge by the end of our first day out on the water.  From a technique standpoint this fishery is a lot like the lower Etowah back home when you float it for stripers; lots of casting at blow-downs and rock-eddies with enormous colorful streamers until your arms feel like they are about to fall off, then suddenly a big toothy fish slams the fly when you least expect it, and if you are lucky enough to remember to strip-set then you’re on for the ride of your life.  For a couple of minutes anyway: until the five-kilo cross between a goldfish and a piranha flailing around on the end of your thin little wire bite-tippet decides to quit thinking it can fly and instead dives deep enough to wrap your fly line around a submerged log-jam or two.  Then it’s all over.  We boated some nice fish though and had a great time doing it, and I must say I really enjoyed being out on the water with my family again.  We also had some really nice meals in town, eating a whole bunch of surubí, which is a sort of giant catfish that gets to be well over a hundred pounds in the river there, and generally enjoyed our time together just hanging around and talking in order to catch up on all that had been mutually missed over eleven-plus months of continental separation.  It was a great time.

Like all great times though it eventually came to its conclusion, and after dropping the family off at the airport in Posadas I headed south yet again soon arriving Colonia Carlos Pellegrini, which sits inside the Ibera Nature Reserve, one of the largest, and luckily most well protected wetlands areas in all of Argentina.  I’m kind of into swamps these days, and this one was no exception.  Over the course of a couple days worth of boat trips and hiking trails I saw quite a few interesting things while learning a lot about the eco-system, and even accidentally happened upon one of the many houses in the world owned by Douglas Tompkins, who now owns most of the wetlands surrounding the park.  The place is just slap-full of birds and capybaras and caiman and deer, but from what I hear the only fish to be found are stunted little piranhas that don’t put up any real fight even on a fly rod.   From there it was down to Rosario for a series of business related meetings and then the long road home to Patagonia, driving south for what seemed like forever before eventually pulling up to the front door, some months by that time after having driven away from it initially headed north.  Another long road trip completed, and time to get myself back to work!  On that note, the season is shaping up nicely down here already; anyone looking to put a trip together should contact me as soon as possible so we can get the dates secured.  The rest of you just send me a good old fashioned email when you have the chance, and let me know how you’re doing and what the news is from wherever you live now in the world.  I’ll look forward to hearing from you then!