Heart of darkness

The next day (Thursday 17th) was a day of travel. We had heard very good things about Tigre just north of Buenos Aires, or more accurately the large river delta just above it where people live in stilted houses and the only way to get around is by boat. Rather than go the easy way back to BA by fast ferry and then train to Tigre, we decided to head north by bus to the small town of Carmelo where a ferry connected directly with Tigre. It was a different way to get there and would give us a chance to see another part of Uruguay.

Unfortunately, Carmelo is a dreary shithole that we could not wait to escape. Dirty, dusty streets where in some areas perhaps half the buildings are derelict. An uninspiring central plaza. The leafless trees that lined every street were a nuisance because it was impossible to walk the footpath without dodging a tree every ten metres. Aggressive stray dogs followed us the entire time, which of course suggests how much dog shit there was to avoid. And easily the worst meal we have eaten on this holiday… we did the right thing: wandering town at lunchtime looking for a place that actually had customers (which was hard, as there were barely five places open at all). Things looked well when we scanned the menu and finally ordered different daily specials, but the food itself was appalling. My roast chicken was so dry it could suck moisture from the air, and came with an over-salted potato salad that was inedible. And Joel was served a truly unidentifiable piece of gristly, fatty meat. It had a very odd taste, somewhat akin to pork but unlike anything either of us have ever tasted (and I’ve tried a few unusual meats). It was meant to be beef. Speaking about it a day or two later with a friendly host in BA, he said with some caution “I don’t THINK they eat dog in Uruguay”. But he wasn’t certain.

With relief we boarded our ferry to Tigre, and were surprised that we spent nearly all of the two and a half hour trip actually travelling through the delta. Stilted houses of every type were dotted throughout the channels, from very modern and large mansions to ancient and decaying shacks. As we got closer and closer to Tigre the houses got closer together, but it was not until we only minutes from the town that we saw our first car. Out in the delta, boat is the only way to get around.

The guidebook had suggested that Tigre itself didn’t have much to offer, so we had booked a hostel that was actually somewhere in the delta. Something different, something interesting, right? I assumed it would be fairly close to town, perhaps 15-20 minutes, and all we had to do was get one of the local ferries to take us there. Due to the late arrival of the ferry from Carmelo we just missed the 5.30pm boat, so we made sure we got on the 6.30pm which was the last local ferry of the day. In fact we were almost the last people on, and crawling inside the long barge we noticed it was very full. Probably overloaded, actually, judging by the fact that the waterline was barely one foot below the window sill. That didn’t stop our pilot from drag racing with another ferry as we left port of course, and my heart leapt to my mouth when the nose of our craft plunged underwater while passing through someone else’s bow wave. Fortunately we surfaced, and after a few people got off the waterline rose a little and I was able to relax a bit.

Did I mention it was dark? And raining? Because we’d missed the earlier boat it was twilight when we took off, and within half an hour there was little to see through the windows but blackness. Our pilot drove at speed through the night, sometimes missing jutting piers by only a couple of metres, with just a hand-held flashlight and years of local knowledge to guide him. After 45 minutes I gave in completely to the experience and was enjoying this journey into nowhere – we had no choice but to trust the ferry crew with our lives. After 90 minutes, I was beginning to wonder if we were being delivered back into Uruguay… eventually we entered more open water, which I think truly was the demarkation line between the two countries. There were choppy waves all around us, and the pilot’s torch was having a hard job seeing them in the gloom. After a few more heartstopping moments the attendant tapped us on the shoulder and we got set to land. Running through the rain with our bags we saw the warm, inviting lights of our hostel up ahead and raced to the warmth.

And discovered that on this night, our newly-built hostel (a resort, really) which could house over 70 people was empty apart from us and the manager. The manager, Geraldo, had no english. And the satellite internet was down. We ordered a beer. That night we played pool for a while, then cards, while watching Latin American Idol which Geraldo was watching on the big screen TV. We then invited Geraldo to join us for a drink or two while he pumped music through the speakers at high volume. Nothing else to do, really, though we made the most of it as best we could.

The next day there was no power, which meant no hot water either. We boarded the return ferry at midday, which took almost two hours to get us back to Tigre. We certainly had a very detailed tour of the delta over these two days! By this stage we had no interest in exploring the town and just wanted to get to our next digs in BA, so we went to the train station and slept as the train headed south.

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