Argentina, Mixed Bag

Traveling through Entre Ríos, JaJaJaJa, Itá Ibaté, Pato Chaco, Pato Macho, Chori Pato, Healing Waters, and Helping-Each-Other-Out-to-the-Tune-of-100-Pesos (or 110)

Saturday, February 23, 2008  

We have just arrived safely in Buenos Aires. Thursday before last, my boyfriend Guille (Guillermo) and I set out to visit his friend Pato who lives in the province of Chaco. We call her “Pato Chaco” so as not to confuse her with my friend Pato, who we refer to as “Pato Macho.” He’s hardly seething with machismo, actually sensitive and gay, but macho here means male. My dog Clyde is un perro macho, though he’s castrated. The full name of Pato Macho is Patricio and Pato Chaco’s is Patricia, the final “o” and “a” signify male or female. To confuse things more, Patricia’s last name is Blanco, the male form of the word for white.

9 de JulioBack to the near present: Last Thursday we left for the province of Chaco, more than 1000 kilometers north of Buenos Aires. Though I have been living in Argentina for a few years now I had only driven a car once before here, and aside from adjusting to the given that stop signs here meaning nothing, it was not terribly difficult. I rented the car from a place in the neighborhood, a nearly new Ford Ka compact. With Fernando Peña on the radio, we set out on Avenue 9 de Julio during rush hour; with 10 lanes in either direction and no one paying attention to the lanes, it was a real derby, but soon enough we were on the highway leaving the city.

PuenteLeaving the province of Buenos Aires one crosses a spectacular bridge in the direction we are going and after paying the toll, you are instantly greeted by a checkpoint. The police confront each car and either wave you past or motion you to stop or pullover. Well, we were stopped.

The officer asked for the car registration and insurance and my drivers license. He slowly looked through it all and asked us for a blue card. I asked what that was. He said it’s an official authentication, stamped by a legal agent, from the owner of the vehicle that proves that I am authorized to drive the car. According to him, without that there is no way to tell that we had not stolen the car. It did not matter that I presented the rental contract from the agency with my name on it. He suggested that since we were only 1 hour from where we started that we return to ask for the blue card. We thanked him and continued on our way with no intent of returning to Buenos Aires. We knew that was chamuyo (bullshit) but we didn’t know that that was only the beginning of our tense encounters with the police of the province of Entre Ríos.

Eucalyptus ForestEntre Ríos is a very green province. There is a lot of cows and farms there, like in most of rural Argentina, but like the name of the province suggests, it is surrounded by two large rivers. On the east boundary is the River Uruguay, and the city of Gualeguaychu which has the best-known Carnaval of Argentina. It attracts tourists from all over the world, and has also more topically it has been famous for blockading bridges to neighboring Uruguay. These protests are to prevent the construction of paper mills on the Uruguay side of the river, by Spanish and Finish corporations, which could seriously harm the environment of the river for both countries. Not even meetings between the presidents of Argentina, Uruguay, and Spain, and hearings in the Hague, have been able to resolve this conflict. A little further up the River Uruguay is the town Colón is a popular riverfront town with pristine beaches that attract thousands of Argentine visitors from Buenos Aires.

On the west boundary is the River Paraná. It is a river with roots in the Amazon in Brasil and cascades over the spectacular Iguazú Falls. Downstream in Entre Ríos it’s transformed somewhat into a red-brown color from the turbidity of the soil. Rich with fish, the Paraná is popular for sport fishing. At the south end of Entre Ríos both rivers merge into a delta and form the Rio de la Plata, the immense river that runs past the city of Buenos Aires and eventually into the Atlantic Ocean.

Beach of La PazLa PazWe head between the two rivers, and straight into the middle of the province, where there is not too much more than farms, ranches and more farms and ranches. And a lot of hardly touched forest and plains. Argentina has such a low population density, that there are many areas that are untouched or hardly touched. I like traveling through desolation, something meditative about it. But also this was the most direct route to where we were heading northward to the provinces of Corrientes and Chaco. This day we planned to stop over in La Paz. At the north end of Entre Ríos, along the River Paraná, La Paz has beaches and forest and hot springs. A seemingly perfect retreat to pass an afternoon and night.

Well, that experience with the first police checkpoint put a small damper on all this, but not too bad, we played it as well as possible. Except for one thing. We were on the wrong route. After 10 kilometers or so we realized this and turned around to pass the same checkpoint and same toll bridge. We were all ready to explain that we were heading back to Buenos Aires to get a blue card, even though the police officer probably had never expected us to actually do that. Like people in the US who travel with a thermos of coffee, all Argentines travel with a mate and a thermos of hot water. At this point Guille began the practice to lift our mate at each checkpoint, to make it visible so that we would appear as much like normal drivers as possible. We didn’t even see the cop who had recently greeted us at the bridge, and made our way back to the Buenos Aires side of the river, and then back over to the Entre Ríos side via another bridge.

We were now on our way finally. Totally relaxed, driving along, looking forward to arriving in La Paz in the afternoon. But very soon we hit another checkpoint. This cop told us to pull over between two other cars that were recently pulled over. I had to put the mate down and handed over the registration, insurance card, and my New York State license, as the police officer had asked for. I began to make stupid comments about whatever I observed as a way to relax us. Directly along side of us were a couple dozen cars that looked like they had been there some time, and Guille and I wondered aloud if they had all been seized.

The officer returned and mentioned nothing about a blue card as did his colleague previously, so it seemed to be going ok. After asking me questions about why a yanqui like me is in Argentina and Entre Ríos, he explained in nice words that in Argentina it is the law to have the headlights on even during the day. Not just on, but with high-beams, he emphasized several times. Mine were off. I respectfully agreed and apologized, and added that more than being the law, that driving with headlights lit is safer. My Spanish is pretty good now, but when he started walking away and Guille followed him it was obvious I didn’t understand something, and Guille had to come back to explain to me that we were asked to get out of the car and follow him.

We went to the side of the road to a small brick and plaster building where we all sat around a desk like civilized people. The officer was pretty fat with the reddest eyes I have ever seen in someone who didn’t reek of alcohol. I guess he’s an officer with training. He pulled out a sheet of paper to show us, a grid of numbers and dollar amounts. He pointed to the top of the paper where there was an official number, as if to demonstrate that it was in fact authentic, just in case we had doubts. The paper was confusing enough to appear official, with law descriptions accompanied by their codes, and with columns of various prices. Basically every infraction had a base price of 300 pesos, with discounts or increases, depending on when you pay it. He pointed to the one that corresponded to my infraction, and explained that I could pay something like 268 pesos now or later on pay 380 pesos. I understood immediately what the game was to tempt me with the lesser of 2 evils, and though it was significantly more money I asked to pay 380 pesos later. Later on, Guille explained that this is also a good strategy because these infractions are easy to get dismissed.

But Gordo didn’t want me to take that option. He knew that we were at the beginning of a travel and primed with cash, and I even admitted that we had enough on hand. But I added that we would rather not cut short the trip. He was very understanding and invited us into another room. At that point I realized it was best that I keep my mouth shut and let Guille manage things. The cop asked about how much money we had and sympathized with us that the fine is very extreme. He suggested that with a “colobración” (handout) he could send us on our way. 100 pesos even did the trick, and we wasted no time getting back to the car and driving off. Even though fastened seat belts are also prescribed by law, it was wiser to take care of that detail a few hundred meters down the road. But the high-beams were definitely lit.

Thermals of La PazWe were on our way into the middle of Entre Ríos. It is not the busiest route but important enough that gigantic buses and trucks pass through this part. We passed through a few more checkpoints and in addition to holding the mate visible, we adopted a laugh. The cops in Entre Ríos do not take well to people who get all heavy and serious. The laugh we adopted, and used in every instance we spotted a police officer, was not a guffaw; a civilized ha-ha-ha-ha (that’s “jajajaja” in spanish) that says, “I am amused by all this just like you are.”

We arrived in La Paz without being stopped again. The beaches there were small and not so sandy, and Guille refused to go in, but I was all too eager to get in the water. I loved it, knowing the fish in me. We camped in this enchanted eucalyptus forest that overlooks the river, in a modest campground that was very peaceful with few people. At night we cooked asado (barbecue) over wood and it was “espectacular.” After a good night’s sleep in the tent, the next day we went to the thermal baths. This was a complex of 9 pools, some like large swimming pools, and others smaller. All were clean and well-maintained, and distinct temperatures were posted. It was hot and humid, semi-tropical, so I was skeptical about throwing myself in hot water. But it was so sublime, floating in saline hot mineral water. Blissful is a good word. I tried every pool from the hottest at 39C (102F) to the mildest at 34C. We ate sandwiches of leftover meat from the night before and walked a trail down the the river front where I threw myself into the cooler fresh water. After several hours at this retreat, the foot I broke 3-1/2 years ago never felt better and we hit the road, feeling all relaxed and rubbery and re-charged.

On the road in CorrientesTo the north we went, eventually to meet up with Pato Chaco late that night. Coincidentally, in front of an asado restaurant named Chori Pato. Though she lives in the province of Chaco, we traveled with her to the province of Corrientes, just across the river. This is the same river, the Paraná, but here it’s upstream, and even more tropical. The water is clear and turns along the north border between Argentina and Paraguay, a bit closer to Iguazú Falls and the Amazon much further upstream. We had another 2 days of bliss, camping again on a cliff overlooking the river in a town named Itá Ibaté.

Perro Fernando of Resistencia, ChacoThe campsite was a lot more crowded than the in La Paz, but generally friendly. There were many Correntinos (from the province of Corrientes) and Brazilian tourists. We cooked asado again, but this time with more vegetables than meat since Pato is vegeterian, sort of. The riverfront was just steps down a short trail so we made several trips down to the beach during the day, and even enjoyed midnight swims in the tepid water under the moonlight. There was even a simple bar there that served ice cold beer till late at night.

In Corrientes the police were very pancho (laid back). We never encountered a problem, and when driving most checkpoints seemed abandoned, with the officers sitting off to the side in the shade sipping mate or whatever. After a few days, we were on our way back to Buenos Aires, and the entire province Entre Ríos was between us and our destination, but so was La Paz and its thermal waters, which we decided deserved an encore. Guille and I arrived in La Paz late afternoon the same day, and went directly to the hot springs. The complex is open till 11:30 pm and you can leave and return as much as you want with a single admission of 12 pesos per person. We stayed till closing and camped in the Eucalyptus forest that night.

The Beach of Itá ItabéWe left very early the next morning, before the sun rose, and set out into the middle of Entre Ríos again. The road has many potholes in parts, but I enjoyed the drive. I spotted lots of interesting birds that I could not identify. At one point we napped on the side of the road, savoring the fresh air.

After that, we began to cross police checkpoints at various junctions, and at one they stopped us and asked for the documentation. I couldn’t find my license. I thought the police officer had asked me to come with him so I followed him. Between all the other checkpoints, my license ended up shuffled in with registration and insurance card. The moment I located the license I proudly presented it to him. He turned to me puzzled because, he had already said I could go. Realizing that, I snapped back to the car and we took off.

Guille and Pato, Itá ItabéFurther along, we hit more checkpoints and at one there was a menacing fat guy looking us down. This gordo was not so pleasant, and motioned to me to pull over to the side of the road, and requested the usuals. He said nothing about the blue card, the lights were lit, our seat-belts on, everything in order. He takes all my identification over to the side to confer with the other officers. This took maybe 5 minutes, but it seemed like an eternity. He comes back and says that my foreign drivers license is not valid in Argentina. We explained that the rental agency said it was OK, and not one other police officer questioned it before. He asked me to get out of the car and Guille followed. We had just filled up for gas for the final time, and I as careful to keep only about 50 pesos in my wallet. As Guille coached me, I had the rest of my cash stashed in another place, safe from the police.

I soon realized why the first cop was such a jerk, it was the “good-cop/bad-cop” game. We went into a small office constructed below the bank of the road where there was an older, more pleasant gentleman, Sergeant Fernando Veldez. Here he pulled out the official sheet and indicated prices similar to the one before. But he wouldn’t grant me the option to pay later since I was not a citizen. We hemmed and hawed and I showed him how little money I had. Still no resolution so Guille went to the car and brought back some more money, actually the last few pesos he had. In all we gave up 110 pesos this time. We had asked the sergeant to leave us a few pesos for the tolls and to eat, and he did. That reminded me of some years ago when two friends of mine were mugged in New York and they begged the mugger to leave them with subway fare, and he obliged.

Along the road in the middle of Entre RiosHe gave us an official receipt with official-looking figures on it that totaled to 110.43 pesos. With that, if there was a problem again, my license we would be fine, supposedly. We drove on and passed a few more checkpoints and when we finally crossed the bridge to the province of Buenos Aires, I felt safe again. And we said “fuck you” to Entre Ríos. (Though, I am am told that the only police in Argentina worse than the ones in Entre Ríos are the ones in the province of Buenos Aires, outside of the capital.)

It is a shame. Entre Ríos is a beautiful place, and reasonably close to where I live in the city of Buenos Aires, but I will never go back. At least not in an auto.

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5 comments for “Traveling through Entre Ríos, JaJaJaJa, Itá Ibaté, Pato Chaco, Pato Macho, Chori Pato, Healing Waters, and Helping-Each-Other-Out-to-the-Tune-of-100-Pesos (or 110)”

  1. kate says:

    bonjourno and happy birthday! it’s great to hear about your adventures. and fuck the police as usual. love, k

  2. david says:

    hola,

    soy david another yanqui en argentina, también hace tres años acá. Funny thing me and my compañera are planning to go to the termas en La Paz next weekend and I was on the inernet looking for camping information and read your post, nice! And therefore we have decided to go by micro.

    Abrazos
    david en Rosario

  3. mikeque says:

    Well, the Argentine media caught onto this story recently:
    http://www.clarin.com/diario/2008/04/27/sociedad/s-04101.htm
    Though it focuses more on Brazilian truck drivers, they explain the same game with the arbitrary 300 peso fines being adjusted and discounted.

  4. Ethan G. Salwen says:

    Jesus! I’m glad I didn’t read this before my little road trip. I figured out about the lights fast, but never realized they should be HIGH beams. Only passed one checkpoint, and although there were many pulled over, they let me through — without mate in hand.

    I guess heading south (Tanlin) is better for driving then north to Entre Rios.

    Jajaja, indeed.

  5. Michael Kay says:

    I think using high beams unnecessarily can also get you stopped, so I ignored that demand.