Tuesday, April 14, 2009

The Land Before Time XIX: The Adventure at Iguazú Falls

The titles may not match, but the scenery looks quite similar

I pose you all a question: what would inspire you to travel from St. Louis to Boston, by bus, only to return just one and a half days later, no matter how nice the bus may be? 19 hours, each way, for a less than 36 hours of fun? We answered that question for ourselves before we departed Buenos Aires for Puerto Iguazú last Friday, confident that our bus-residency would pay off in a wealth of incredible experiences. Before I even arrived in Buenos Aires, one of my friends from home advised me that I could not leave Argentina without seeing Iguazú Falls, so I had been looking forward to this opportunity for almost a year. Julia, as I'm guessing she will mention in the second half our this two part coverage, had also been excited at the prospect of sitting for nearly one day to see some waterfalls. We were joined by two other characters: Dan, who we met here but knows our previous guest and steadfast blog follower, Alex, from Chicago; and Megan from GW, who had arrived but a few hours earlier after traveling umpteen hours from Washington DC. Megan provided the impetus for making the trek up north and Dan jumped at the opportunity to see the mammoth falls that straddle the Argentina-Brazil border, so the four of us embarked on an epic journey with a thermos of hot water, a tin of yerba de maté, some peanut butter and jelly sandwiches (gracias a Megan for the PB), plenty of sunscreen (or, as Julia now calls it after hangi ng around Jessica so much, suncream), and a whole lot of excitement.

Besides giving me time to get to know Dan better, eat some wondefully mediocre bus food (which, along with plane food, is an admitted guilty pleasure of Dan and myself - what can I say, I'm a sucker for mystery meat cubes, lasagna filled with highly processed cheese, and miniature apple tarts), and catch up on podcasts, the bus also gave me the opportunity to catch up on some spectacular international cinema: The Transporter 3. You can see from the trailer that this movie has everything: an unattractive female lead who is supposed to be smoking hot, a car that can balance on two wheels while speeding between tractor-trailer trucks, glib retorts to equally glib ultimatums, and Jason Statham with his shirt off. All signs pointed towards this being a must miss, and it most definitely didn't disappoint. Yet, like bus and plane food, it was strangely entertaining and I watched the whole thing, even though I had just watched a really good movie in The Green Mile beforehand. All in all, it was a fantastic afternoon and early evening of movies, and I fell asleep with the assurance that I would wake up to the reincarnation of Eden, just with tourists.

Multiple stops and 7 hours later, I woke up in the meat cooler known as a Via Bariloche bus just outside of Puerto Iguazú, the nearest city to the park. As advertised, our hostel was within blocks of the bus station and many restaurants and boliches. In fact, it was just 50 meters or so from the very boliche in which Nick suggested we dance the night away, Cuba Libre. For those of you who don't know, Cuba Libre has two meanings: the literal meaning is "Cuba Free", which was represented by an illustrated Cuban flag dissipating as it reached it's end. Cuba Libre is also the name of a popular cocktail known as a "Rum and Coke" in English speaking countries. I love clubs whose names are double entendres. Forgive me, I digress. So we got into the city at 8am and got to the park by 10am, ready to spend a day walking in wonder, pulling along our jaws dragging along the ground behind us. Our lovely hostel conci erage Richard helped arrange a Nautical Adventure (see picture to the left), which consisted of getting in a boat and subjecting ourselves to hundreds of gallons of cascading water, which was a welcome repose after walking around for a few hours with the subtropical sun bearing down on us. After tackling the entire upper circuit, a system of paths and platforms that exposed us to the falls from a higher vantage point, and most of the lower circuit, which included smaller falls, plenty of walking along the river and through the woods, and views from below some of the bigger falls, a massive shower of cool water sounded great. We got dumped on be some pretty magnificent falls, one of them being the gigantic San Martín Falls (see picture below left) that dominates of side of the park. Our boat did not go directly under this fall as it did with a smaller one, but we definitely felt strong gusts of water-saturated air from where the falling water met the river. Three times. By the end of the boat ride we were all thoroughly soaked and clapping in appreciation of our noble, raingear wearing conductor, annou ncer, and cameraman. The maze-like portion of our adventure ended with an incredible view of the Bossetti Falls, which sported a permanent rainbow thanks to the mist spraying off it, and a bagged lunch in at the outdoor food vendor.

By now, we are all too used to pigeons harassing us whenever we eat outside. The pigeons in this city are unusually dirty and cheeky, showing less fear than any city pigeon that I've ever known. We've actually bumped into the on several occasions without intending to. At the National Park, we encountered an entirely different yet equally annoying monster: the coati. These raccoon, aardvark, squirrel, rat like creatures initially made me saw "aww" when we witnessed a clan of coatíes crossing the railroad tracks for the train that brings you to La Garganta del Diablo (The Devil's Thr oat - much more on that later). They are quite furry and awkward looking, which obviously tugs at the heart strings. To boot, many of them looked like babies, another endearing trait of
animals (I mean seriously, who hates puppies? Kittens? Baby pandas?). More than anything, I thought that we were observing a wild creatures interacting with the man made world imposed up them, a romantic notion influenced by our jungle like surroundings. It didn't take me very long to tell myself I should have known better - these cute, cuddly coatíes were merely furry, earthbound pigeons unfazed by humans. They would approach people eating their lunches outside looking for morsels to munch on, never appearing to be threatening, just very annoying. In spite of the many signs advising otherwise, people continued to feed these beggars their scraps of food, probably thanks to the novelty of having a "wild" animal eat from their hands. Fortunately for us, we were in a less than desirable position (directly in the sun) so they refrained from badgering us too much.

We emerged from our lunch break dried, full of PB & J, rested, and sick of coatíes and proceeded to head back up the path towards the mini-train that would bring us to the grand finale of our day: La Garganta del Diablo. We disembarked the train and walked a kilometer of elevated steel walkways that passed over part of the river that feeds into the mighty falls. After baking on the unshaded metal, we began to hear the thunderous rush of water plunging into the gorge just ahead of us. The first glimpse we got was the initial cascades from the riverbed to the final descent, with a thick mist extending to its left. Slowly but surely, the sound level increased as the temperature cooled, building the kind of true suspense and excitement Jerry Bruckheimer only dreams could. We finally reached the viewing platform that resided just above the right extreme of La Garganta and we were speechless. A concave wall of water nearly a football field-tall and even more wide lay before us, hundreds of thousands of gallons of water per second plummeting to the river below. Certain portions looked more green than blue or white before falling, surely thanks to the vegetation suffering the pulverizing force of the water's rage. To it's side were smaller yet still impressive falls, also reflecting the green surface beneath them but eventually turning to a frothy white as they fell towards the river. Not to sound cliche (and for what it's worth, my editor [read: I] decided to cut out a whole tangent about cliches and how we use them and their worth, or lack there of, in communication. So you're welcome for not wasting a few minutes of your prescious time), but to be in the presence of such natural power and beauty is a humbling experience, one that makes you feel even more diminutive than you may be. An equally cliched sentiment commonly expressed is that such majestic sights inspire a sense of surreality, that you cannot believe that you are where you are, seeing what you're seeing, and I had the exact opposite experience. It was one of those times when I really felt in the moment, taking in every detail in case I never got the experience again. Unlike other impressive beauties, La Garganta del Diablo is a mulit-sensory experience. As I took in the massive falls with my eyes, focusing in on a single drop and trying to follow it on its rapid descent, I could taste the fresh water since my mouth was open in amazement, goosebumps rose on my bronzing skin thanks to the steady, cool mist bombarding me, even though the sun shone down with great intensity, and the churning of the water impeded conversation at a normal volume. The view of the falls is what I will remember most, for sure, but I'll never forget the full body experience of it. This sight, and the whole park in general, definitely ranks in the top 10, maybe even top 5, of my lifetime experiences, and I only hope that I can continue to make each spot in those lists at competitive as possible by being witness to and taking part in such magnificent wonders.

An hour later we were back in our hostel, napping in a dark room with 8 beds, completely exhausted from our day of walking and previous night of non-horizontal sleep. Dan and I went on a mini excursion for empanadas and a possible spot for dinner that night, and we found a splendid outdoor parilla that served up some delicious asado de tira and vacío, which we devoured without hesistation. (Note: As I write this last section, I am mentally preparing myself for an asado on our roof this evening. We are spoiling Megan, as future blog posts will surely indicate.) It was a fine first example of Argentinian beef for Megan, and we followed one good first with another by hitting up Cuba Libre until 5:00 AM or so. Thanks to Dan for keeping up our Saturday night custom of drinking sweet, bubbly wine at bars, we really appreciated it, even if the tradition will die tomorrow night. We ended our evening at the ice cream shop across the street which sold cones at an unheard of price of 2 pesos for one scoop (Puerto Iguazú, I love you) and the hamburger stand close by. I did not indulge in one, but as pictures will show, Julia did so without shame.

We woke up the next morning and headed out to the Tres Fronteras, or corner of the city where you find yourself at the crux of three borders: Argentina, Paraguay, and Brazil (see picture below: Argentina in the foreground, Paraguay to the left, Brazil to the right). It was pleasant and relaxing, even if our tereré did not work out as well as we could have hoped on such a hot day. The aforementioned Richard suggested we take the scenic route along the river back to the hostel, and it was the one time it may have been wise to not listen to him. Besides some mildly interesting wall art at one point of our walk, we basically saw a lot of the same side of Brazil (so many trees), had little shade to walk in, and ended up having to ascend a steep hill to make our way back into the town. It was definitely more physical activity than I was ready for, but kept going because in the back of my mind I knew I would soon have the luxury of sleeping on our Super Cama bus back home. One of the selling points of traveling so long for so little time was the prospect of riding back to Buenos Aires in style, well rested and revived from our tiring weekend. Even better, since we were sitting on the bottom of the bus, we paid 30 pesos less than the top of the bus! All around, it seemed like a stellar deal and we couldn't wait to lay back and relax...for 20 hours. We patiently waiting at the bus station as 2 other Via Bariloche buses pulled in and subsequently left (there were buses at 3:05, 3:12, and 3:20...very strange), and finally hopped on the last one. We were correct in that our discount was definitely because we were sitting on the bottom floor. What we didn't expect was that the bottom floor would NOT be Super Cama, but regular Cama instead. Granted, the seats were slightly bigger than our trip to Iguazú, but they were not the fully reclining, plush seats we had hoped for. We were genuinely disappointed with our bad fortune, but quickly got over it and settled into a deep sleep until early evening. And after inhaling another deliciously bad bus-dinner, we had both sleeping pills and one of Robin Williams' finest to put us to sleep and we awoke the next morning back in Buenos Aires, albeit 2 and a half hours late.

So looking back, especially after our failed bus expectations, was it worth it? Was it all it was cracked up to be, worthy of being one of the New 7 Wonders of the World? Without a doubt. It did not look markedly different than in pictures, but seeing it in person was an absolute thrill, and I urge anyone who has the chance or ganas (will) to get there to do so, you will not regret it, I assure you. I'm not saying I would do the same trip under the same time restraints next weekend, but I would love to get back up there at some point, time and money permitting. Despite the fact that I was surrounded by other tourists doing the same thing as I was, I still felt I had a very unique, personal experience with the falls, and my senses are still tingling from it.

Here are some additional pictures that I could not skillfully integrate into the text of the post. Feast your eyes on these beauties and try not to drool all over your keyboard. Double click on the photos if you want a larger view, I accidentally imported the pictures on Julia's computer since mine (bless her soul) no longer uploads pictures or supports attachments.
Have a great weekend!

One especially fat Coatié.

At the "Dos Hermanas" Falls, or Two Sisters. Julia just wondering where her's is...

San Martín Falls

The first waterfall that we went under and got us all wet.

First views of Garganta

A view from the Garganta platform into the gorge.

Julia at Garganta

La Garganta del Diablo from the other side of the park.

Our brave travelers on their way to the boat.

Add butterflies and rainbows to the list of things everyone loves.

The majority of the Argentinian side during our
boat adventure - another Land Before Time shot.


Austin said...

Oh, so you say the coaties were BADGERING you? Add EXPERT WIT to the list of things everyone loves...

Shelley Rolf said...

i haven't seen little foot and cera and petrie in a very, very long time. wow, wow, wow. looks like an amazing adventure. great photos. xoxo

Mary Rolf said...

What beautiful pictures! The memories of all of your adventures will stay with you a lifetime! My first Cuba Libre was in NYC when I was 19 yrs. old. It is the drink of choice for 2 of my friends. xoxo

Josh said...

EXPERT WIT, indeed. It's on the list.