Part 7: Staring down the Devils throat
We opted to take an afternoon bus to Puerto Iguazu from Buenos Aires. The bus to Iguazu is a 20 hour journey, which sounds a daunting prospect for most people, and did for us too. However having already experienced the joys of Chilean buses we were less anxious than we would have been previously, and rightly so. On boarding the bus we were greeted with traditional Argentinian hospitality (A young ‘land’ hostess, in a very short mini skirt, something Sarah seemed to be more intrigued by than me). The seats were akin with our experience of Turbus in Chile and maintained our first class bus experience.
The bus set off on time and almost immediately we realised we had booked the ideal bus for me….. Crucero Del Sur, the operating company, apparently greet their new customers with a drink of their choice, which included beer. As the journey progressed the alcoholic beverages continued, and by the time the evening meal had arrived I had had two beers and a glass of champagne. With food we then had the opportunity to have a glass of wine of our choice (Red, White and Rosé) and finally we finished the evening off with a whiskey night cap. Needles to say I slept very well, aided more so by the fact that, unfortunately, due to Sarah’s aforementioned afflictions, we concluded that it was probably not worth while risking alcohol whilst travelling. Hence: double portions for me…… I slept very well.
We arrived in Puerto Iguazu at 08:00am the next morning feeling well rested, if a little fuzzy, and immediately jumped on a bus to take the one hour journey across the border into Brazil for the bargain price of 5 pesos (The equivalent of 27p sterling).
Several people had told us to make sure you go to the Brazilian side of the falls first, and they were completely right, save the best till last. The Brazilian side gives you a fantastic overview of the falls, whereas the Argentinian side let’s you get more up close and personal, and however spectacular the Brazilian side is, standing over the Argentine edge of the highest volume waterfall in the world as the spray ricochets off your face and rainbows cascade in every direction around you is just incredible.
N.B. Something that people should note if they plan to do this journey is that although the bus driver forcefully makes you get off at the exit from Argentina to get your exit stamp, it is not the same for the Brazilian side of the border and it would be remarkably easy to find yourself sat in Rio two days later as an illegal immigrant without an entrance stamp or exit card. (Fortunately some kind locals shouted at us at the point we needed to exit and after a moment of confusion both me and Sarah realised that they were possibly trying to be helpful and not Anti-Falklands War Argentinians who had recognised the pasty white complexion of a charming English couple).
We arrived at our guest house before midday and decided we would take the remainder of the day to rest and set ourselves up for our two days in Foz Do Iguaçu. We went to the local supermarket and bought ourselves some vegetables, having not had too many vitamins, for over a month. Courgette: 0.14 Reais, Peppers: 0.25 Reais, 2 x Onions: 0.12 Reais, Small Pumpkin: 0.69 Reais, half bulb of garlic: FREE (!); or 32p all in. Brazil’s notoriety as South America’s most expensive was turned on it’s head for a few moments. We realised quite quickly afterwards that her scales had in fact been broken but we were already out of the door by that point!
The following morning we hopped on a local bus to the falls. Again, this is very easy to do from the local terminal, with buses running every 20 minutes direct to the entrance to the falls or the bird park depending on which you want to do first (They are only a couple of hundreds of metres apart, but it is well worth doing both).
We arrived at the park, weighed up the option of taking a helicopter flight over the falls (Which we had been told by a gentlemen we met in Montevideo was a bargain at $100) and decided we’d rather spend the money on a boat adventure from the Argentinian side. We then jumped on the, London style, open top bus, to the falls. There are three potential hop off points on the way to the main falls, all of which require an additional entrance fee to be paid to a private company. We decided we’d prefer to save our money for where it went further (On the Argentinian side).
Immediately as you get off the bus there are warnings to people saying not to feed the wild animals. Within five minutes you can see why, as we walk down the trail towards the falls, a troop of Coatis (Racoon like creatures) intercepted our path and insisted on taking a closer look at what we had in our hands. They have become somewhat accustomed to humans and were scared of nothing.
Photo from Sarahs angle
And from mine
Shortly afterwards we got our first view of the falls…… WOW!
Walking down a South Atlantic Rainforest lined track, which runs parallel to the river, you actually feel the falls before you see them, starting with with a small tremor in your feet that gradually builds into a guttural crescendo that you feel in the depths of your bowels. The dense trees mask the spectacular view that surrounds you until you reach the first mirador (view point) and the rainforest gives way to a vista across the whole horizon. In front of you is a huge valley covered in rainforest canopy, as you look down to the river below hundreds of black vultures circle in the updraft of the closest waterfalls. The landscape is a streaky green canvas where the river Iguazu has carved its way through the dense vegetation leaving several hundred waterfalls (It varies between 150 and 300 waterfalls depending on river levels) tumbling over the hard basalt rock of the upper river to the canyon below.
Sarah poses at the first mirador
Vultures circling in the updraft of the waterfalls
And from above
Eighty percent of the falls sit in Argentinian territory. The other twenty percent in Brazil. Hence the Argentinian side has many more opportunities to get up close and personal. That isn’t to say that you don’t get an opportunity to get your hair wet in Brazil. You can walk to the base of the devils throat, which I can assure you gives you ample opportunities to get well and truly soaked.
Getting absolutely soaked infront of the Devils Throat
The whole of the Brazilian side takes roughly three hours (without doing any of the private excursions) and after taking the double decker bus back to the entrance, having already had a thoroughly good day, we headed across the road to the bird sanctuary.
In the sanctuary you have the opportunity to become better acquainted with some of South America’s (and the wider world’s) more exotic birds. All these birds have been rescued from dire situations and the sanctuary has taken them in to be rehabilitated and, where possible, released back into the wild. Unfortunately that is not always possible and hence many birds remain in captivity.
Whilst there, it is possible to enjoy the company of Macaws, Tucans, humming birds, Harpy eagles and many many more. I even got a small pang of homesickness when I was introduced to the Screamer bird (For those of you who are unaware my Mother (Susan) and brother (Stephen) both have the nickname “Screamer”, for obvious reasons). Sarah on the other hand was more taken by the Tucans and has now perfected her Tucan impression which she has continued to demonstrate at regular intervals, ask her to show you on our return, it is something special to behold.
Sarahs particular speciality at Tucan impressions is in their movement, but if you ask nicely I’m sure she’ll try and pose like this for you
The next day Sarah wanted to exercise her Physicist muscles so we headed to Itaipu dam; a huge cross national venture between Brazil and Paraguay which holds the world record for the largest active energy producing Hydroelectric dam in the world and also holds the record for the largest man made reservoir in South America.
“Five-miles-wide and requiring enough concrete to build five Hoover Dams” (it needed its own ice production factory to cool the concrete during construction), “the Itaipu Dam spans the Parana River at the Brazil/Paraguay border. During its construction, workers shifted the course of the seventh largest river in the world by digging a 1.3-mile bypass. To accomplish this they had to remove 50 million tons of earth and rock.
The main dam, as high as a 65-story building, is composed of hollow concrete segments; while the flanking wings are earth and rock fill. Enough iron and steel was used at Itaipu to build 300 Eiffel Towers. Another marvel of Itaipu is its powerhouse. Measuring one half-mile long, it is partially submerged and contains 18 hydroelectric generators, each 53-feet across. Some 160-tons of water-per-second pour onto each turbine, generating 12,600-Gigawatts on average” (What the hell is a GigaWatt?! Well, I’ll tell you; it’s 1,000,000,000 Watts) “Itaipu supplies 28 percent of all the electric energy in Brazil’s south, southeast and central-west regions, and 72 percent of Paraguay’s total energy consumption.” – ASCE (American Society of Civil Engineering).
In direct comparison to the highest volume falls in the world- Iguaçu’s water flow rate would only power 2 out of the 16 turbines at their full capacity.
The initial agreement to the construction of the dam was in the 1960´s although the construction did not start until 1970 and took a further 14 years before the plant became operational. The construction did not stop there and it was a further 23 years before the plant was able to operate at its full 14GW capacity.
There are three options for the tours of the dams. We opted for the second cheapest where you get to go inside the power generation areas of the dam. After donning our hard hats and being thoroughly frisked (even Sarah’s mascot, Om Nom, underwent a thorough groping) we began our venture into the heart of the energy generation world.
This photo only captures a quarter of the dam….. this thing was mahusive
Sarah stood next to half the flow rate of the Iguazu falls in one of the 16 different intake pipes on the dam
And again stood next to one of the 16 850MW turbines (spinning pretty darn fast!)
This is the official border between Paraguay and Brazil, in the heart of the Itaipu control offices. In the room below you can see some of the Homer-Simpson-esque control room. Nerdy and eagle-eyed amongst you might even be able to make out on the screen the different operating frequencies of Brazil (on the left), who use lots of US appliances and hence operate on a 60Hz frequency, and Paraguay (on the right), who use mostly 50 Hz appliances from Europe.
This was always an awe-inspiring, controversial and ambitious venture: everything from the new innovative design of the dam (Which is largely hollow allowing them to use 30% less concrete in the construction), to the community engagement piece (30,000 people were displaced from the river valleys due to the forming of the new reservoir). However, due to the work that was undertaken with the communities during the construction, it has overwhelmingly been held as a positive impact on the community with the most recent surveys suggesting a 91% advocacy rate.
It was amazing to see how they had extended the outreach of the project beyond just energy provision; starting a new eco-research centre which pushes forwards research and development in green energy technology. They also have an educational engagement programme which works with children from all over Brasil and Paraguay, teaching them about green energy and the benefits it delivers to them and future generations. Continuing on the education theme, they are currently in the process of constructing the first ever university in ‘Binacional’ land to educate young people from across the continent in sciences.
On returning from the Dam we caught a local bus back across the border to the Argentinian side of the falls, where we staying for the next three days. Having already experienced the border in the other direction we were well prepared to enter back into Argentina and remembered to get off the bus at the Brazilian side before continuing to the Argentinian crossing.
The Argentinian crossing is slightly more laborious than the Brazilian and the staff less friendly (when they heard that I was English, their attitude turned somewhat frosty: it´s hard to describe, but if I was to say it was like someone spitting on you with their eyes, that is the welcome we got the second time we entered Argentina….. It is worth saying that this was the only time we had any sort of problem in Argentina and definitely is not a common-place problem. 99.9% of Argentinians are welcoming, lovely people).
We arrived at our next hostel “The Garden Stone” and were really chuffed to find a large spacious garden with hammocks, swimming pool and our own private cabin for the next three days.
Garden Stone Hostel and our cabin on the left
We woke early the next morning to get the first bus to the falls (For anyone going in the future early-rising is an essential, the Argentinian side of the falls is busier than the Brazilian side and by going only 1 hour later the main attractions become very crowded and you find yourself wading through camera-toting tourists to be able to get any sort of view of the falls. As it was, we managed to stay just ahead of the crowds for most of the day by getting up 30 minutes earlier)
We set aside two days to see the falls on the Argentinian side and if you have the money and the time this would be the ideal way to do it allowing you to do things at a more leisurely pace. However we did it in one day, which is still ample time, but means that you have to do a full day and you will still not see everything (the reason we didn’t do two days is that what remained to be seen didn´t quite justify the additional cost of another days park entry).
As I said earlier there is a lot more to see on the Argentinian side. It is also set up in a more commercially minded way and almost takes on a Disneyland-esque feel (Although with no theme park rides). I’m still not wholly sold by this set up, but it certainly makes the tour very easy.
In the park there is opportunities to visit all the waterfalls as well as taking a speed boat ride into the waterfalls themselves. On top of the traditional speed boat ride there are additional excursions you can do; varying from abseiling from a watchtower, to dingying down the river to attempt to observe the local wildlife including monkeys, Coatis, Cayman, Turtles and many different birds (I was determined to see a Jaguar, sadly this did not come to pass).
On arrival to the park we purchased a package to do the dinghy ride and the speed boat tour which we could take up at any point during the day. However the first thing wanted to do was the highlight of the day which was “El Garganta Del Diablo”. This involves a 1.5km walk along a boardwalk a couple of hundred metres upstream of the falls and concludes at the precipice of the biggest waterfall in the park, The Devils Throat.
When you are within 500m of the falls you begin to feel the humidity rise as the water droplets thrown up by the cascade explode on impact at the bottom begin to settle again almost half a mile from where they had originally fallen. As you get closer the water molecules become a fine mist and gradually begin to turn into rain. When we eventually saw the falls it was what I imagine people used to think the end of the flat earth looked like, a huge torrent of water disappearing into an abyss. We were so taken by this experience we went back twice- it looked as though the world was flushing itself away.
The big flush
After struggling to clear my lens this is one of the clearest pictures I have
One of the many Rainbows we would see that day
On heading back along the boardwalk we observed the throngs of people heading to the mirador and realised that we had made the right call. We immediately decided that this was the time to get on the dinghy and try and spot some animals (hopefully managing to avoid as many people as possible). The dinghy was fun, we saw cayman, turtles, some birds and butterflies, but sadly no Jaguar.
Chilling in our dinghy
Our first fresh water turtle
Broad snouted giant Caimen spotted shortly after leaving the Dinghy
We then went to view some of the other waterfalls before the masses descended once again. They were all very spectacular.
View from the middle circuit of the Iguazu falls
Having had our fill of waterfalls we decided to undertake the longest walk in the park to a secluded narrow waterfall where it was possible to swim (and pose as if you were in a Herbal Essences advert). The walk was very hot and no sooner had we arrived at the waterfall then we had to turn back to go and catch the last speed boat of the day into the falls.
Herbal essence advert ahoy
It was a fantastic walk, we saw Howler monkeys, a big lizard, lots of Ants (Which squealed when you got to close, apparently they were called tiger ants, they’re very big and are one of the few ants in the world to scream a warning if you intimidate them).
Our first Howler monkey
The final most exciting moment of the walk was on our return to the boat where I in my slightly overheated delirious state saw a tail sticking out of the undergrowth and immediately shouted “It´s a leopard”… There were two errors in that statement:
-It infact was not a cat tail. It was a Coati tail something that is about an eighth of the size of a big Cat and infact doesn’t even slightly resemble a cat
-The second problem with my statement is that Leopards do not exist in South America, but in my over-excitement I shouted the first Cat name that came to my head (And the Leopard and the Jaguar are similar enough to confuse me)
Needless to say my overenthusiastic “Catcall” has been the subject of frequent mockery throughout the trip.
We raced back to the falls to jump on the final boat of the day. The boats are large rib boats with big outboard motors on the back and are well worth a go (Be prepared to get very wet. You get very close to the falls. We recommend packing goggles too, otherwise your eyes are glued shut by the sheer force of the downpour of water).
No other reason then for your own perusal. (In Brazil they have priority seating for Obese persons, including in World cup stadiums)
Walking back to the park entrance we were very wet, exhausted and triumphant to be one of the last people to leave.
Our last day in Puerto Iguazu, before jumping on a 24 hour bus to Rio for Carnaval, was spent walking to “Las Tres Fronteras” a point where Paraguay, Argentina and Brazil meet with rivers forming natural boundaries between their borders. Nothing to worry about missing but it’s the closest we got to Paraguay and Sarah does love her flags.
Three Frontiers monument on the Argentinian side.
That evening we left for Rio and tried to conserve as much energy as possible to ensure that we were ready for carnaval and 5 days of potential heavy drinking and over-enthusiastic samba dancing.