Travelogue Brazil 2: Iguassu Falls

FOZ DO IGUASSU

26-28 April 2017

Being devout about the pronunciation of my own often-mispronounced name, I’ve many times had the debate (with myself) about whether to refer to countries by their English name or the name that the country’s people themselves go by. For example, are we in Brazil or, rather, Brasil?

You can imagine how traumatised I became when visiting a place like The Triple Frontier, that sits at the meeting place of Brazil, Argentina and Paraguay, where two major rivers converge with magnificent Falls.

So where am I? Iguazu? Iguaçu?? Iguassu?!

In Portuguese, it is Iguaçu (with a c-cedilla and no accent on the second “u”, though putting an acute one on it is apparently a very common spelling mistake even among Brazilians themselves). In Spanish, it is Iguazú, with an acute accent (that is, slanted to the right; “ù” apparently does not currently exist in either Portuguese or Spanish). The Portuguese c-cedilla is to be pronounced as an “s”. Likewise, Spanish, with the letter “z” also pronounced as an “s”. There are 2 Spanish-speaking countries versus 1 Portuguese… but Brazil is the biggest. And we’re staying on the Brazilian side, but intend to visit both other countries while we’re here.

So, should the English spelling (or at least my spelling) be with a “z” to mirror the Brazilian spelling? Or with an “s” to make it more phonetic?

In my hour of turmoil I did the grown-up thing. I turned to Google for help.

Apparently, it is commonly felt that “Iguassu” would be the most appropriate spelling for English, according to Wikipedia. In fact, allegedly there’s even mention that the Brazilian city of Foz do Iguaçu is considering changing its official name to “Foz do Iguassu” because of the foreign tourists who come to see the falls, but is meeting some opposition from upstream towns with no tourist traffic which don’t want to change for the sake of tourism efficiencies. Proper battle of wills between pragmatism and patriotism… but it would be kinda convenient if there was a standard.

So, all that aside, we landed in… um… Foz. Stopped in at the travel agent to book our Falls tours (a half day for the Brazilian side and full day for the Argentinian side). And caught a taxi to our hotel.

From the taxi ride alone we could see that Foz is *nothing* like Rio de Janeiro. It’s got a far more obvious “developing economy” feel to it (bearing in mind that we were fortunate enough to be staying on Copacabana when we were in Rio). There was little pretty about our entrance into town nor the streets through the centre that took us across town to our hotel. And, bizarrely, everything looked shut, which is odd for midday midweek when you’d expect restaurants and shops to be in full swing.

Our hotel was nice though; our first foray into booking with Emirates Rocketmiles where you get Skywards miles bonuses on top of discounted prices for your booking. We’d paid half the rate published in the reception AND got 1000 miles for the pleasure! And we were even more pleased to see that our room had a lovely view of the pool area, which had to be better than our Rio hotel which looked onto the central service quad that obviously housed the kitchen’s extractor fan since our room had been teased with the aroma of baking bread and frying bacon from 5am!

We’d decided in our travel agent session that since we were in Brazil and putting aside a whole day for Argentina, it would only be right to nip across the border to Paraguay for the afternoon while we were in the neighbourhood. A few enquiries and some polite and guarded responses later, we were confident that the right plan was to catch a bus across the border since the Friendship Bridge that connects Brazil and Paraguay is apparently not safe for pedestrians, who frequently fall foul to muggers.

All was told to be hunky-dory on the other side though, where Brazilians often go to shop in the mega mall complexes infamous for their brand name goods, the legitimacy of which we didn’t question seeing as this was not our intended mission. We planned to grab some lunch, hit Mclaren’s for a quick Guinness (for sake of completeness on our Index) and get back on the bus and be home in Brazil well before the sun went down.

We walked down to where we were told to catch the bus, conveniently a few blocks down on our road. The landmark was the bus terminus, although we were told that we’d not be catching the bus from in the terminus, but rather just outside it. Marked with a big pen squiggle on the map had been all the encouragement we’d needed to head off… but as we got closer we realised we had no idea what a bus stop looked like!

We overshot the terminus by a block and saw nothing so crossed the street and u-turned back up the way we’d come, seeing something that looked like it had potential, but that turned out to be a taxi stop.

Turning around again we saw a bus paused in the side road we’d just crossed that looked different to the ones in the terminus – white instead of yellow – and caught the “Cuidad Del Este” on the sign in the window. Our bus!

Hurtling down the road towards the bus, we screeched to a grinding halt as a police van – siren wailing – did the same in front of the bus, blocking its path. Three armed policemen jumped out of the car and onto the bus as another police vehicle pulled up alongside the bus to surround it.

We were frozen in our spot, metres away from the excitement.

The bus driver looked nonplussed with his arms folded above his head while the policemen moved up and down the central aisle looking for who knows what. We couldn’t see beyond to how the passengers were reacting, but can’t imagine they were having much fun (for the inconvenience of the delay if nothing else).

The police got off the bus, back in their cars and screeched off again. We wordlessly turned around and headed back the way we’d came. Paraguay was not going to happen for us.

Rounding the next corner we spotted not one but two kebab shops. Exactly we needed to stave hunger, process what we’d just experienced and make a new plan for the arvie.

A lovely crunchy, juicy chicken kebab later, we decided to take a turn past the main bar street to assess its potential and then walk back to the hotel to get our stuff  (we’d stripped all jewellery and left wallets and bags behind for our trip over the border) to head out for the evening.

Bar Street was dead. As was almost everything else we walked past. There were a number of clubs, bars and foodtrucks that all indicated opening time of 6pm and mostly open through the night.

Made the choice simpler. We grabbed a taxi and went to Marco Das Tres Fronteiras – the place where the borders of the 3 countries meet on the crossing of the Parãna and Iguassu Rivers.

Having received a pamphlet about the Frontier Crossing, we anticipated a whole complex of things to do there. It was not so. With a massive mock castle entrance, you emerge at the Frontier to a green and yellow monolith monument in a fountain marking the Brazilian Frontier, a restaurant and a few stands selling popcorn, ice-cream and knick-knacks. Over the rivers you can see Argentina’s matching blue and white monument across the Iguassu and Paraguay’s red, white and blue one across the Parãna.

With little else to do but sit and take in the sunset, we ordered a couple of Brahmas and did just that.

THURSDAY – Iguaçu Falls from the Brazilian side

Normally we would have done a single visit to something like a waterfall, but in this case had been advised that it was imperative to visit the Falls from both Argentina (where we’d always intended to tour the Falls) and Brazil.

We had planned on using Thursday, our only full day – for the Argentinian side, but the travel agent convinced us to move the full day to Friday so that the driver could drop us straight at the airport, relieving us of a homeless afternoon having already checked out of the hotel as well as the time and expense of another taxi to the airport. Hard to fault her logic; we signed our lives away and booked the half day to Brazilian falls for Thursday and full day in Argentina for Friday.

Our driver,  Claudio, collected us at our hotel at 08h30 and welcomed us into the van with our only other travel mates, a couple from Cuba (who didn’t look as though they’d be anywhere near as amusing as the Peruvian Princesses).

Claudio shared the planned sequence of events for the morning, advising we’d be visiting the Bird Park en route to the Falls to give the morning mist (it was pretty nippy) a chance to lift. After the Falls tour was an optional add-on to the Itaipu dam and hydro-electric plant, which we passed on, not even vaguely tempted.

Once on the road, Claudio pointed out landmarks of interest – mostly hotels and turnoffs to other places, like Argentina and the airport – and was nice enough to stop at the “best and most inexpensive souvenir shop in town”, should we wish to buy keepsakes to remind us of the day we’d not yet had.

Empty-handed, we were back on the bus 15 minutes later and at the Parque Das Aves 10 minutes after that. Dubbed the most spectacular bird park in Latin America, the park houses birds from the Atlantic Rainforest in their natural habitat alongside species from around the world, many endangered and most rescued from mistreatment or animal trafficking. Those that are rehabilitated to the point of release are returned to the wild; the rest homed in large enclosures in the park where they can be used for reproduction and the funds from entrance fees used to develop conservation projects and efforts in the wild including reforestation and environmental education. Helping over 1100 animals, 140+ species and preserving 16,5 hectares of rainforest, they really are making a meaningful difference.

Our highlight was a very sociable Toucan who swooped down from his perch high in the enclosure as we passed on the path below and fidgeted up and down the handrail, almost willing us to take a photo with him. Unfortunately our flash was on so we freaked him out a bit and he may reconsider a repeat performance for other people.

The tour progressed from the bird park to the main event. The largest waterfall system in the world; higher than Niagara Falls and twice as wide, most of the Iguassu Falls are located in Argentina but provide a better view from the Brazilian side.

They are located in Parque Nacional do Iguaçu, which was opened in 1939 and been a UNESCO Heritage site since 1989. The park is also home to over 300 species of birds, 40000 types of butterfly and 40 species of mammals including Jaguars and pumas in the subtropical jungle. With who know what other creepy-crawly and slithery friends. Claudio told us that there is option to walk / cycle through the jungle to the Falls, but that seems a bit too close to nature for my liking.

The viewing for the Falls is a 1.5km trail that winds from the road down along the riverbank to the water, with viewing decks protruding way into the water so you can see up and down the length of the river that catches the falls. It is an awesome sight as mammoth amounts of water throws itself over cliffs and create curtains of mist that dissipate into the jungle!

Expecting to get soaked, we kept to the outer edge of the metal jetty and moved as quickly as we could, using the slothing poncho’ed tourists as human shields against the water that misted or pelted towards us depending on the wind. It wasn’t so bad and we ended up with spectacular views, lifetime pics and little more than dripping faces and damp shirts for our trouble.

Ironically, what they don’t tell you is that the best pictures are to be had from the walkway away from the viewing decks and back towards the road. With most of the visitors waiting in the long queue for the lift to avoid the alternative couple of hundred stairs, we had relative solitude at the landing half way up which had unimpeded view of the major bowl where most of the Falls action is, was really close to the heaviest part of the Falls and allowed a host of photo opps sans plastic hunchbacks (what backpacks under ponchos look like) photobombing.

The Cubans were a ways behind us (no surprise there; we are very efficient tourists) so we had time to laze and dry in the sun.

A quick look around the hospitality options had told us that we would rather return to town than spend an hour in the overpriced restaurant that didn’t even have a view of the Falls and fortunately Claudio and the Cubans were amenable to we made our way back to Foz. The Cubans were going to see the Itaipu hydro-electric station from there so we parted ways as soon as we got back to town.

Being mid-afternoon following a rather athletic morning, we were quite peckish so went up to the local mall to forage at the food court before spending well-earned leisure time at the hotel.

Rested and ready for action, we went out around 6pm to see if the town had come to life.

It had.

The roads were busy, the restaurants opening (only just, as in still setting up and pulling chairs off tables) and there were hawkers flogging all sorts of stuff from tables on the pavements.

We made our way down the few blocks to a pub that Claudio had pointed out as we drove and, as the first to arrive, took a non-commital cocktail table at the entrance so we could beat an easy retreat if we chose not to stay.

Once again, nobody spoke any English (hardly surprising since Spanish, as spoken by the rest of their continent, is their second language and we’d encountered very few English speakers through our stay) so we muddled through a drinks order and got the wrong size beers.

The place started to fill up quickly and by the time we finished our first beer we were engaged enough in our people-watching to need to stay for another. By the third, we’d seen enough people eating to want to try some of the food ourselves, so we got a table and ordered the pork barbecue.

Served on a hot skillet mounted on top of a bunsen flame, succulent pork strips were nestled on a bed of boiled potatoes that were sizzling on the skillet. Served with toasted herby slices of baguettes and salsa, it was delicious! And a bargain at R$28 (ZAR140) compared to the food prices we’d experienced so far.

As we made our way back to the hotel, we were pleased to see that the restaurants were open and trading. The clubs though, had turned their neon signage on but still weren’t yet open for the evening. There must be a hell of a nightlife in Foz that we were missing out on!

FRIDAY – Iguazu Falls from Argentinian side

Claudio fetched us from our hotel at 8am. It was – for a holiday day – very early! And barely enough time to get through our usual multi-course breakfast, with fruit (we’ve eaten more this week than all of last year!), cold meats and cheese, hot buffet (scrambles and a variety of sausages) and pastries and cakes (how can you not have chocolate cake when it’s served with breakfast?!)

First order of business was to make sure our group (6 of us, with a French couple and 2 girls from London) had admin in order. We obviously had passports with us since we were taking everything to be dropped at the airport directly after the tour, but were caught a little short with the revelation that we needed 500 pesos to enter the Argentinian park and 25 pesos to pay our tourist tax on the return journey. And all had to be cash.

Claudio took us past a Cambio to change cash but, stupidly, the exchange desk didn’t accept credit cards (?!) and we were 41 Reals short of what we needed, with not an ATM in sight (or that we could recall seeing anywhere, now that the thought arose). Kindly, Claudio lent us a 50 so we were back in business.

The border between Brazil and Argentina is in the centre of the Iguassu River so the only indication of change of country as you drive over the bridge is the colour of the bollards on either side transitioning from green and yellow to blue and white.

We entered the Parque Nacional Iguazú  – all 67000 hectares of it – and set off on the eco train that took us from the entrance to the first walking trail, 1.7km to Devil’s Throat to view the top of the waterfall that we were at the bottom of the day before. Most of the walk was on a steel grating catwalk so you could see the water beneath you, babbling excitedly and hurrying off to throw itself over the cliff like a sort of liquid Thelma and Louise.

Again we walked into the mist, applying skills from the day before to prevent getting drenched in the name of the perfect view and a great photo. It was well worth it. A magnificently fierce river and explosive waterfall, showing off the power that has earned the Falls its place in the Seven Natural Wonders of the World.

Having gained some perspective relative to the experience the day before, we were ready to take on the Upper and Lower circuits that provide contrasting and often up-close Falls along a trail circuit almost 10km long.

The Upper circuit gave us panoramic views of the giant arc of the 200+ waterfalls that make up the curtain and following the catwalk all the way around allowed all different angles, from in front of, within and behind the Falls and the tributary river – or sometimes rivulets – that feed them.

The Lower circuit is an even more integrated experience with 1.7km of catwalks leading through the jungle forest and viewing points that are as close to the water as is safe and manageable.

The Lower circuits also leads to a jetty for adventure boat rides that take passengers right up to the Falls in the water. Judging by the shrieks of delight carrying across the water, it was a thrilling experience!

Claudio walked us around and talked us through everything we were seeing, including some birds and trees of interest. My interest was more captivated by the Coaties; racoon-like furry creatures that were so used to people that they’d walk freely on the catwalks, unperturbed by us. Scavengers, they are known to dig in or steal handbags in their search for food and while they look cute and cuddly, if the warning signs were anything to go by, they had a mean bite!

We rounded off the day with a visit to the market near the park exit. It’s a pity we didn’t have the Peruvian Princesses from Rio with us – they’d have had a ball with the wide selection of tops with bedazzled logos and felt fur patches in the shape of animals!