The San Ignacio Miní bus terminal is a glorified parking lot just off the highway. There’s a kiosk, an empty restaurant, two tables of not-so-fresh sandwiches for sale, and about six bus parking spots. The town isn’t visible from the terminal; it’s across Route 12 and up a softly sloping dirt road.
We’d just gotten off of a 13-hour overnight bus journey. My three bags were cumbersome and I felt like a pack mule. Sweat was pooling in my lower back. The dry, dusty path was turning my pink havianas red. Fat, furry dogs with long bodies and stubby legs chased each other across the broken sidewalks.
It was nothing like Buenos Aires or Rosario, which was part of the reason why we’d come.
“This is awesome,” Jared said, already enthusiastic.
In the back of my mind, I knew I would like San Ignacio. But at the surface, I wasn’t yet convinced. I needed more time before I could appreciate this isolation. A shower, change of clothes, maybe a nap and some food.
“It’ll be good,” I said flatly. During this transitional period, between the bus and the hostel, I am unable to say much. I’m too focused on arriving, dumping the bags, and starting fresh. With my bags, I feel conspicuous, like a target, like I don’t belong. While some people relish these first few steps in a new place, I just want to get them over with, to re-emerge from the hostel with everything safely locked up behind me.
Fifteen minutes later, we spotted El Jesuita hostel and my spirits started to lift. Once I was just me again, not me-carrying-bags, everything changed. Our hostel was quiet and inviting, with a large table in the common room, clean kitchen, and spacious back terrace. The host was cheerful, and I understood most of what she said about the nearby attractions, even if I couldn’t respond with much more than “sí.”
She explained about the Jesuit ruins, and we nodded our heads. Sí, sí. The ruins were what inspired us to stop here, and what brings most tourists to this quiet little town. Next she told us about a 16-kilometer round-trip walk to a nearby national park, and Jared and I both perked up. That sounds interesting.
Not five minutes before, trudging up that dirt road, I’d have completely blanked anyone who suggested that I walk for 16 kilometers in the heat. I may have punched them. But now that I was out of that bus-to-hostel limbo zone, I was up for it.
That afternoon, we ate salami and cheese on wheat buns. I had a shower, followed by a two-hour nap. We meandered through the red sandstone ruins of the mission, cooked lentils and vegetables at the hostel, and fell right back to sleep.
The next day, we set off on that hike. It was exhausting. It was searingly hot. It was seven kilometers before we even reached the park. But, unlike the day before, it was oddly rejuvenating. There were giant lizards, butterflies, birds, wild fruit trees, and plants I’d never seen before. We had lunch on a rock overlooking the river, with Paraguay in the distance.
On the way back into town, a young guy in a shiny silver truck slowed down and asked if we wanted a ride back into town. He introduced himself as Manuel and was more than happy to let our sweat-streaked, odoriferous bodies into his clean Toyota.
Neither of us hesitated before saying yes. Bags or no bags, enthusiastic or downtrodden, you don’t turn down an offer of help when you’re four kilometers from home and just swigged the last of your water.
As we rode back, relishing the air conditioning, the town looked completely different than it had the day before. It was still isolated. The roads were still made of red dirt, and the dogs were still rolling around in it. But it looked appealing, not desolate. Interesting, not like a ghost town.
The next morning we packed up and returned to the bus station. We walked the same distance we had the first day. I carried the same bags. But none of the paranoia and exhaustion weighed me down. I was capable of having a conversation. I was positive. I had enjoyed San Ignacio and was excited about the next destination, Puerto Iguazu.
But I knew that before I could really ‘arrive’ in Iguazu, I’d have to go through the limbo zone. Some things never seem to change.