SAN RAFAEL RESERVE, Alto Vera Province, Paraguay – “You are about to enter the most beautiful place in the world,” Daniel advised me as we bumped along on the rutted red road, which was growing more rutted and narrower by the minute as the dark forest closed in around us. Waist-high ferns and vine-draped trees rose in the darkness.
It had been two and a half hours since we’d left Encarnacion, Paraguay’s southern hub on the banks of the Parana, and it had been nearly an hour since we’d seen any kind of human habitation. Instead, miles and miles of wheat fields stretched to the horizon – the winter crop here, which will be harvested soon to make way for Roundup-Ready soy.
“The changes here in Alto Vera have been really dramatic in the past few years,” Daniel tells me. He’s watched as the vast Atlantic forests of his native land and the small farms that once dotted them have fallen, mile after mile, to make way for these fields.
“What’s happening is very sad,” he said. “The campesinos who have lived and farmed here all their lives are in a very precarious situation – if they have one bad season, they will be hungry all year. When a big producer comes to them and offers them money for their land, many of them can’t refuse. At $6,000 a hectare, it’s an inconceivable amount of money – they think they’ll be able to live on it for years, and they move to the city. Within a year or two, it’s all gone.”
IGUAZU FALLS NATIONAL PARK – Agoutis and coaties, monkeys and toucans and brilliant morpho butterflies blessed my path in this jungle wonderland, as did a brightly colored bird whose name in Guarani means “grandchild of the rainbow.”
These waterfalls are famous the world over but are known mainly in the United States for their starring role in Robert De Niro and Jeremy Irons’ classic film The Mission. I’d dreamed of coming here for years; its majesty dwarfs the mighty Niagra, and the natural beauty of its jungle habitat bids one to linger.
I arrived first thing in the morning but waited to see the falls, choosing instead to integrate myself into the natural surroundings first. I started with a seven-kilometer hike through the jungle on the Macuco Trail, named for a reclusive, chubby brown land-dwelling bird that lives in these parts.
The jungle is best visited in the early morning, when the birds and animals are still at their most active. The insects clacking and chirping in the trees are overwhelming in themselves; the trail winds through vine- and moss-draped trees and groves of bamboo. I hadn’t been on the trail more than five minutes when a family of coatimundis ambled across my path, snuffling under leaves and bark in search of juicy ants and other insects.
POSADAS, Argentina – I had almost forgotten that today was Labor Day – which is celebrated on May 1 here in Latin America, rather than in September. Here Labor Day, or Dia de los Trabajadores – Day of the Workers – is much more of a rallying event for the working class, a concept foreign to most Americans these days, even as our own labor movement seems to fade into the sunset.
At any rate, it’s not Labor Day here, so I wished my family a happy holiday online and headed for the central plaza to find a bank to change my money. It was my first day in Argentina, having crossed the border from Paraguay last night. In any new city here in Latin America, the Plaza de Armas is always my first stop – or, as my host corrected me, the “centro,” as it’s called here in Argentina. Here in Posadas it’s also known as the 9th of July Plaza – the day commemorating Argentine independence.
“”Plaza de Armas’ is so Latin American!” he teased me. “Argentines don’t really think of themselves as Latin Americans.”
“Of course you don’t,” I joked right back. “But naming your plazas and your streets for dates is so Latin American!”
“Really?” That stopped him.