06 July 2008

Poor Niagara.

Everyone who's been to Argentina told us that you're supposed to visit Iguazu Falls. Iguazu is 650 miles northeast of Buenos Aires, near the confluence of the Paraná and Iguazu rivers where Argentina, Brazil, and Paraguay meet. It's two hours by plane or twenty by bus. The pictures looked pretty, but as a side trip, it seemed expensive and cumbersome. Airfare for two? $800. One night at the dated Sheraton inside the park with views of the falls? $300. Tourist visas to see the Brazillian side? $200. Yellow fever shots? $300. Then there were the smaller issues-- transportation to and from the Iguazu airport sounded daunting. The falls can be at their least spectacular in July. The mosquitoes in the region occasionally carry Dengue, for which there's no vaccination. We tossed Iguazu back and forth, but cooler heads prevailed and we decided not to go.

Then we went.

We woke up late on Friday morning, and wandered into Casa Palermitano's dining room to see if there was any coffee and left over medialunas. We found both. We also found an American couple who had just returned from their third or fourth visit to Iguazu falls.

Nobody gets yellow fever shots.
Airfare is cheaper if you book from here than from the States.
Forget Brazil. The Argentine side alone is worth the trip.
You don't have to spend the night.
The falls are roaring now.

We pulled out my laptop, and booked a Saturday morning flight with a Saturday night return. With Lorena's gracious assistance, we used LAN's Spanish-language site and bought two tickets for about fifty percent less than they cost through the English-language site. Twenty hours later, we were in the park.

When we arrived at Iguazu Airport, we hired a driver, Mario, for the day. Mario pulled out a book with his prices; for the equivalent of $50 USD, he'd drive us to the park, wait for us, and then take us back to the airport whenever we were ready to leave. He asked for no money in advance, and offered us his advice on what to see both inside and outside the park.

Spanish conquistadors first spotted the Cataratas del Iguazú in the sixteenth century, and it's been a popular tourist destination for at least a hundred years. Supposedly, Eleanor Roosevelt exclaimed "poor Niagara!" when she visited Iguazu Falls. Indeed. As Steve commented after we left, "waterfalls are ruined for me forever." Yosemite Falls, by comparison, looks like a small child peeing off the top of a hill.

In 2001, the Argentine government completed an amazing series of metal footbridges in place of traditional hiking trails. The footbridges protect the plants and animals from the millions of visitors who flow through the park, and offer visitors views that would not be possible from trails on the ground. There's also an open "eco train" that transports visitors from one trail to another.

We boarded the eco-train, and got off at the trail for Garganta del Diablo. The "Devil's Throat" is the most impressive of the falls, and an exciting place to start the trip. The bridges start off over land, and then extend over the deceptively tranquil river. There is no picture or video that will prepare you for the Devil's Throat. It's enormous in every direction. The sound is explosive. The air is wet with a constant, cool mist. At its densest, black birds rise up out of white nothingness. There's no visible bottom. The falls surround you, and it feels like the edge of the Earth.

We loved the mist, but we quickly pulled out our souvenir plastic ponchos. We'd packed for winter in cosmopolitan Buenos Aires-- not a sunny, humid day in the jungle. Wet jeans and waterlogged leather shoes sounded bad. We had no idea what we were in for a couple of hours later.

We made our way back to the eco-train, and were greeted by thousands of brightly-colored butterflies. They're absolutely everywhere. They're in the trees, they're on the ground, they're in the garbage cans, and they're often on the tourists. Then we saw the first of dozens of coatis. A coati is in the raccoon family, but it has a long, pointy snout that appears to have evolved to snatch bites of comida basura from unsuspecting tourists. We read online that coatis are one of the few animals on Earth that eat tarantulas, but the ones in the park have a definite taste for potato chips. I hoped to spot a giant capybara, but the rodents we saw look more like guinea pigs.

We took the eco-train to Cataratas Station, from which the park's upper and lower circuits both begin. Garganta del Diablo reminded me of the "Jurassic Park" ride at Universal Studios. It's so peaceful, but it's filled with anticipation for the heart-stopping, gut-wrenching finale. The upper circuit, by comparison, is a roller coaster of constant thrills with no single drop that's more memorable than the others. It's a sustained feeling of excitement that rewards visitors with breathtaking views at every turn. The upper circuit traverses the edges of any number of waterfalls; as you reach the edge of one and marvel at the wall of water beside you, you can see dozens more crashing in the distance.

Even in July, Iguazu gets hot. It was about 80 degrees and 90% humidity when we reached the upper circuit; in the shade, the breeze felt perfect. In the sunshine, our jeans plastered to our legs like saran wrap. We wore the lightest shirts we'd packed, but they were dark and had long sleeves. We stank. The lower circuit is fairly steep and has lots of stairs; with hindsight, it would have been better to hit that one first thing in the morning when the sun was lower and we were as fresh as daisies. We paused for some lemon ices in the shade, and pressed on. I don't know if it was our timing or the fact that it required more exertion, but we encountered very few people on the lower circuit. We had vast stretches of it to ourselves. I briefly considered skipping the lower circuit too, but looking back on everything I saw in the park, it was the highlight of my day. Of my year. Those who know me well know that I'm not prone to sentimentality about nature. I've never seen anything more perfect and more beautiful than Iguazu Falls framed by the full arc of a bright rainbow. We stared at it for a long time.

We eventually made our way back up to Cataratas Station, sticky and sunburned. Steve's shirt was completely soaked. It looked like it had fallen into a swimming pool of human sweat. Mine had white mosquito-repellent streaks and splotches everywhere. We were so happy that we didn't care. We wiped our heads off with the little hand towel we brought in our backpack, and decided that none of the people who had to smell us on the flight back to Buenos Aires would know our names our ever see us again. More on that later.

After a relaxed lunch at the visitors' center, we left the park and found Mario's car. He offered that he could take us straight to the airport, or for another $30, take us on a tour of Puerto Iguazú. With a few hours to go before our flight, we decided to see the city. Mario explained that Puerto Iguazú is home to 45,000 people. It's a nice enough town, but primarily, it's a place to stay outside the park if you want to visit Iguazu Falls but don't want to pay the Sheraton's high tariff. An enthusiastic, delightful guide, Mario showed us the confluence of the Iguazu and Paraná rivers, and took us to the spot at which Argentina, Brazil, and Paraguay meet in a scenic triangle. The small skyline in the distance is Ciudad del Este, Paraguay. The middle ground in the center of the photo is Brazil, and the photo is taken, of course, standing in Argentina.

We got to the airport with plenty of time to spare. We cleaned ourselves up a bit, and then found a comfortable spot to look through our guide book and plan our next adventure. Our return flight left on time, and the plane was almost empty. I imagine it's packed on Sundays! For two hours, we joked about who looked stickier, and debated the merits of flying to Ushuaia, the city (population 430) at the end of the Earth, the next day. We had no luggage to claim, so less than half an hour after our plane landed, we were back at Casa Palermitano. We should have been exhausted, but we were totally energized by our thrilling day! We plotted a midnight dinner at Piola. Since Steve was technically far grubbier than I was, he claimed the first shower. I grabbed my Fodor's guide with Piola's number, and burst out of our room with my frizzy rainforest hair to ask Lorena to call for a reservation. Just as I did, a couple walked toward me and said We were on your flight from Iguazu. Small world!

Small world indeed. The couple, who were actually right in front of us on the plane, are from Seattle. In a city of fourteen million people and almost as many hotel rooms, another couple from the Pacific Northwest is in the room next to ours in a five bedroom B&B with no sign. We sat together over coffee and medialunas this morning and chatted about Iguazu, Buenos Aires, and the fact that we'd all chosen to leave summer for winter after complaining all spring that it still felt like winter at home.

Tomorrow we're off to Colonia del Sacramento, Uruguay. It looks lovely. No matter what we see or do in Uruguay or Buenos Aires now, this will always be the vacation when we saw Iguazu Falls.


Bronx Jack said...

I think you and Steve should do a segment of Globetrekker. You guys know how to travel and those pics are, for lack of a better word, astounding.

Laurie said...

Your description has me sooo pumped with anticipation! We have debated the same way: is a waterfall worth it? We had decided NO but I just gotta see it. We're getting old, and if not now, then when? 2 weeks to go!
Thanks Melissa, for getting us excited about Iguassu!