01 April 2012

Week 81: Trip to Iguazzu Falls Day 6

For our last full day of exploring, we chose to head back into Argentina and drive down to see the Jesuit ruins. It was about a three hour drive on well-paved roads. The areas we passed through appeared to focus on logging since we saw large managed forests and saw mills. It also seemed to be a place for outdoor recreation activities like camping, caving and watersports.

Just when we arrived at San Ignacio, we were stopped by the police and told us to pull over. They asked me to turn my lights on, then asked for my documentation. I think they were also curious about our blue license plates. They took my driver's license, car registration, and passport and asked me to get out of the car and follow them up to their office which was located at the entrance gate to the town. One officer sat behind a desk and opened a book full of blank forms that were probably tickets, but he didn't start to write anything. (They spoke in Spanish and I replied in Portuguese, and we mostly understood each other. I thought that was pretty amazing.) They said that I would need to pay a fine because my headlight weren't on. I told them that I didn't know it was a rule, and I asked where the law was posted to inform visitors about this law, and they said that it was the law. I then told them that I had passed through three or four other checkpoints without being stopped. They then went to a back room and returned with a book, and showed me the law, and I told them that a similar law does not exist on Brazil, so I was unaware of it, but would gladly turn my headlights on from then on. They said I would need to pay a fine. I explained that I didn't speak Spanish, didn't understand everything they were saying, was ignorant of the law, and that I worked for the embassy in Brazil. I showed them that I had all the appropriate visas and stamps, and that I all I wanted to do was take my family to go and see the ruins. I then said that I would not pay a fine until after I have had a chance to talk to my colleagues at the U.S. Embassy in Buenos Aires, and I asked them to call the embassy for me. They still had not bothered to write out a ticket for me.

During all this back and forth, I managed to get all of my documents back into my hands. My family were also still in the car, and it was hot, and they needed to use the restroom. After I insisted that I needed to call the embassy, the two officers went to a back room to talk. I was thinking about how I would manage to call the embassy since our cell phones weren't working in Argentina, and I did not have the phone number for the embassy in Buenos Aires.

When the officers came back, their mood and attitude had completely changed. They smiled and welcomed me and my family to town, advised me to turn the lights on and to wear our seat belts, and they provided me with directions on how to get to the mission ruins. I was extremely grateful to be permitted to continue, so I thanked them for the advice and assured them that I would keep my lights on, and returned to my car. I guess they figured they were losing money by arguing with me any further.

Well, the only thing that I understood from the directions was that the ruins were down the main road and to the right. I just didn't know which right. After making several right turns and a couple of u-turns, we came upon a row of huts along a fence selling trinkets for tourists. We found a parking lot next to a museum-like building, but Rebecca said that this didn't look anything like the pictures she saw online.

 We went around and parked near the entrance gate, asked about the ruins to a man in a uniform standing outside the gate, and he pointed at the white museum building. We then paid some guy with a clipboard five pesos for the parking fee, and went inside. Unfortunately, they did not take credit cards and it took nearly all the pesos I had exchanged that morning to pay the entrance fee. The fee was also much higher than what we had researched. The remaining 30 pesos I used to pay the tip at the restaurant for dinner.

The museum gave an overview of the site and told a bit about the history of the Jesuit missions in Argentina and Paraguay, the Guaraní Indians, and information on the restoration of this site. We then made our way behind the museum to the ruins, and saw what Rebecca remembered from the photos.

It site was huge, with reconstructed walls of the temple, long houses, workshops and city hall surrounding a town square the size of two soccer fields. The town had a population of over 3,000 people at its height and was run by a Guaraní town council and two Jesuit priests. Very impressive and incredible, especially here in the jungle, and it lasted for over 100 years. San Ignacio was just one of several villages, and it was not the largest.

The village was big and orderly and served and as protection for the Guaraní against the slave traders. Eventually, the missions succumbed to the politics of the church, the business of the slave traders, and were destroyed by the Paraguayan army in the 1830's. I found the entire site to be quite impressive in both the size of the settlement and the scope of the project. These were communities essentially run by the Guaraní based on ideas taught to them by the Jesuits. These communities had thousands of inhabitants and promised food, protection and social services for widows and the elderly. Also, the stone work and craftsmanship were ornate.

My younger kids thought it was a big hot place. We wandered through the long houses because there was shade from the trees. I'm glad the restoration project preserved some of the big trees. The original communities cut all the trees down.

Our tickets also gave us admission to the other sites, and we decided to try and see at least one of the other two missions nearby in Argentina. There were others on the Paraguay side of the river as well. We drove south for another 20 minutes to Santa Ana, went into the town and down the roads coming off the main square but did not find any ruins. We even drove all the way to the river, but found nothing and saw no signs. This was supposed to have been one of the better preserved sites. We found out later that we turned off the main highway too soon.

So we decided to head back up the road and turned at the sign to Loreto. This site had not been restored and represented what the San Ignacio site would have looked like at the beginning of the reconstruction. This community had 7,000 inhabitants at its peak and was one of the largest communities.

Since we were the only group there, we got a tour with one of the English speaking guides. He was able to provide insights about size, scale and practices to these missions we didn't get from our self guided tour at San Ignacio.

He showed us around the chapel and up the the courtyard. The entire place was marked by large mounds lined up in rows marking fallen walls. The grassy floor spaces were covered with broken roof tiles. Several stacks of stones from old pillars rose out of the ground, some with trees growing out of them. One large pillar was hugged by a strangler fig tree.

Another cool thing he showed is was a very large ant called a tiger ant that makes chirping noises like a small bird. It was the largest ant I have ever seen.

We left the mission and drove back to Puerto Iguazu for dinner. Rebecca read about a restaurant that served Argentinian style BBQ. As part of dinner, I ordered a plate that the waiter said included a sample of everything from the grill, such as spare ribs, a flank steak, chicken, blood sausage, intestines and a kidney. It was a bit more traditional than we had expected.

I tried everything. The intestines actually tasted like the chicken but still had the chyme inside them. The blood sausage was gooey and grainy and a deep black purple and tasted of onion and iron. The kidney had the same texture as liver, a strong flavor and smelled of ammonia. Overall, dinner was good and we only paid $100 to feed all of us. We finally getting used to the idea of sharing plates even if the menu doesn't say they are for more than one person. Portions are generally large.

Before leaving town, we stopped at a gift shop to pick up some souvenirs. I also got a box of alfajores, a cookie filled with dulce de leche and dipped in chocolate.  Unfortunately, the cookies in the first box were moldy. Some of the kids had already taken a couple bites, and fortunately no one got sick. The store exchanged them with no trouble.

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