Heaven & Hell: Iguaçu, Part One

I haven’t been completely honest with you. If you’ve read this blog, you may have come away with the impression that long term travel has its ups and downs, but in the long run – despite the difficulties – it’s very much worth it. Hopefully at some point in the future I’ll be able to look back and agree with that sentiment, but I haven’t written about the full truth of the situation. The truth I’ve left out is the part where I’ve been suffering chronic, intense, agonizing pain for the past several months.

It began in Bolivia, where I put it down to the effects of high altitude. It continued off and on through Chile, where I assumed the source of the pain was related to a known medical issue that I’ve already dealt with for several years. That assumption was incorrect.

The pain escalated throughout Argentina and became pretty much unbearable by the time we reached Mendoza. (“Unbearable” is a funny word, because when you’re stuck in the wilderness of the Argentinian outback you’ve got no choice but to bear it.) Since we had left behind the South American equivalent of the Gobi Desert and returned to civilization, I called our expat health insurance and arranged an appointment with a doctor in Córdoba.

I’m being deliberately coy about what my medical problem is because 1) I don’t want to say and 2) you don’t want to know. Suffice it to say that the doctor in Córdoba diagnosed the problem, prescribed medication, and suggested a course of self-treatment. That was five weeks ago. Treated, this problem should clear itself up in four-to-six weeks, yet while the pain has lessened (on most days) it’s still there. When it flares up it hurts worse than just about anything I’ve ever experienced, and that includes broken bones, an incarcerated hernia, and gout.

A little bit of self-care.

The result, dear readers, is that a lot of the awesome sights and experiences I’ve shared on this blog I’ve experience through a fog of pain. On some days, such as when we sat on the beach in Uruguay, I was merely squirming in discomfort. On others, such as when we visited a bird sanctuary I’ll get to below, I felt like I would rather pass out. I could have left the park but, as I told myself, the pain would follow me wherever I went, so why not suffer through it while looking at beautiful birds?

Now that I’ve bummed you out, on with the story!

Hell:

Last week I left you hanging as we were about to depart Porto Alegre for Florianópolis. That was after we’d driven our rental back to Porto Alegre, three hours in the wrong direction, instead of simply heading north. After dropping off our car, we went to the bus terminal and waited, waited, waited in sweltering, sticky heat. It had rained all day but that hadn’t dropped the temperature – especially not in Porto Alegre’s extremely busy terminal where the heat from all those buses washed through the station like steam from Lucifer’s hot tub.

Our bus didn’t leave until 11:00 p.m. The bus itself was air conditioned, but only when it was running. This particular bus stopped at every small town and off-the-main-road terminal along the route, and the driver kept turning the bus off and on again – I guess to save gas? At one point, perhaps at two in the morning, they shut the bus off for half an hour while the staff went to have dinner, turning the inside into a sauna. Yes, everyone else could get out and snack at 2:00 a.m. as well, but the whole point of taking the night bus is to sleep.

We arrived in Florianópolis at 6:00 in the morning. We weren’t staying long. Florianópolis is a large-ish city on an island just off the Brazilian coast, but it’s on the side that faces the mainland across a narrow channel. The apartment we’d rented was on the Atlantic side of the island, in the Ingleses Sul neighborhood an hour away by local bus. We wouldn’t be able to check in until 10:00, so we hung out in the station with our post-bus-ride headaches and, as long as we were there, bought really expensive first-class seats to our next destination. The trek to Foz do Iguaçu was going to be a fifteen-hour ordeal and we would be traveling on a holiday weekend, so we wanted to make sure we had seats we could tolerate.

The only break we could catch.

As in Porto Alegre, it was raining in Florianópolis. The bus to Ingleses Sul only ran once an hour, so we hiked several blocks through the drizzle and waited at the bus stop under a blessedly sheltering overhang. The bus arrived and should have dropped us off at about the right time for our check in, but that morning no one but us and two other people were taking that route. The bus blew by nearly every stop and dropped us off in Ingleses Sul an hour before our apartment would be ready.

And it was still raining.

Though near the beach, we’d washed up in a mostly residential area with not a single open café where we could wait. We ended up sheltering under a leaky tin awning in front of a closed convenience store eating pastries Lea bought at the grocery just down the street. The rain finally eased up, check-in time arrived, and we dragged our tired bodies and four backpacks down the road to our apartment.

Where the sidewalk ends.

Heaven:

We really got lucky with this apartment. It had a real kitchen with a full-size stove and refrigerator. It was better, I dare say, than the one we had in Santiago, and a million times better than any we’d had in Argentina. It had air conditioning that worked. It had a shower that worked. It had a couch. It had a shady courtyard. Unlike every other option in our price range, it was only two blocks from the beach. And get this – the owners had beach chairs and umbrellas you could borrow for free.

Plenty of room for everyone!

Ingleses Sul isn’t an exciting place, but let me tell you – they know how to beach. The beach there is long but extremely narrow. Wherever you plant yourself, you can be sure that sooner or later a wave is going to wash under you. But that’s okay. We stayed for four nights, and every day the forecast was the same – not too hot, not too cold, mostly cloudy with a little bit of sun and a chance of rain in the afternoon. On Tuesday and Thursday the beach was crowded. On Wednesday it was surprisingly empty. (Higher chance of rain, sure, or maybe Wednesday is the designated day off for all the vendors?)

Doing it right.

Oh yeah, beach vendors – Here’s a thing we didn’t see in Uruguay and that I’d been craving since Ecuador: guys going up and down the beach offering cold adult beverages. Caipirinhas. Caipiroskas. Piña coladas. Not to mention the guys selling fire-grilled cheese on a stick or chorizo in a bun with slaw. That’s the way to do it, señor. That’s the way to do it. On Tuesday I walked nearly all the way up and down the beach several feet out into the surf. On the other days we just sat where the alley from our apartment let out and waited for tasty treats to come by. When the rains came in the afternoon, we moseyed back to our apartment and napped.

Boring? Perhaps, but it was everything I’d been wanting.

Purgatory:

The day it finally got hot in Florianópolis was the day we had to leave our cool apartment and hang out in another bus station. We dropped off our luggage and went in search of a museum that wasn’t there (no one had bothered to tell TripAdvisor). The city was gearing up for Carnival, downtown was very crowded, the wind had died almost completely, and the temperature spiked over 90. We ate at a lovely poke-bowl restaurant and slugged back to the bus station sauna.

Our bus company had a V.I.P. lounge that we’d hoped would be cooler than the rest of the terminal, but so many bodies were packed in there that it felt like it was over 100. So instead, we baked in the main waiting hall and savored some quickly-melting ice cream. We didn’t have as long to wait since our bus left at 6:00 p.m. When we got on board we found out – to our amazement – that the expensive seats we’d paid for didn’t simply give us more arm and leg room, but were designed to lay all the way down and become actual beds. This, let me tell you, was wonderful beyond belief, since it let us actually sleep and helped keep my pain under control despite the fact that the road from Florianópolis to Foz was insanely bumpy.

This bird has never experienced “bumpy” in his life.

Our room in Foz do Iguaçu was one that we’d booked well ahead of time. Iguaçu Falls is one of the sights we knew we had to see on this trip, but it took us a while to decide if we would approach it from Brazil or Argentina. We decided on Brazil (though we’ll visit the Argentinian side too) but we’d also needed to make reservations well in advance for Carnival. It was my bright idea to combine the two, which let us avoid spending Carnival in the crush of Río or another big city. However, it also landed us at one of Brazil’s major tourist attractions on one of the biggest holiday weekends of the year.

The hostel we found was ideally situated just outside of the central area of the city of Foz do Iguaçu on the road that leads directly to the park, so all we had to do was walk to the corner and hop on a bus. Usually after a night trip we’re too ragged out to do anything but wander around like zombies, but since we were both able to sleep for once we decided to go ahead and start seeing the sights. We’d save the Falls for the next day, but we started with a visit to the Parque das Aves (Bird Park) just outside the entrance to Iguaçu Falls park itself.

A legend in his own mind.

The Parque das Aves is a bird rescue and conservation reserve. The birds are all in aviaries so that some of them you can only view through mesh screens. Several of the aviaries, however, you can walk through and get very close to the birds themselves. The birds are amazing, from many species I’d never seen before, and many of whom are endangered (or even extinct) in the wild. I wish I could have enjoyed it more but as I said earlier, the chronic pain I’ve been feeling kicked into full blast during our visit and it felt like I was seeing all these amazing creatures from inside a scorching hot torture box.

Seeing Heaven from Hell:

On Sunday it was time to do what we came for: see the falls. Iguaçu Falls, on the Brazil/Argentinian border, are actually a confluence of many cascades that make up the largest waterfall system in the world. You can view them from either country and there are different activities to do on each side. Some you can do and stay dry. Some will get you soaked.

These aren’t even the big ones..

On Day One we opted to get soaked. We brought shorts, water shoes, Lea’s waterproof camera, and a small dry bag. We’d read that there was a lower trail where you could view the falls but get wet doing so, and that there was an into-the-falls boat ride you could do for an extra fee.

We also decided to sleep in and go to the falls in the afternoon. Big mistake.

We arrived and bought our tickets at an electronic kiosk rather than wait in the line for the ticket counters. There was a deep discount for buying two days at once, though it locked us in to coming right back on the following day and not skipping one in between. Then we got in line to get into the park.

Ladies and gents, that line was an hour and a half long. There were three parts: a loop-de-loop through the bus drop-off area, an outside rat maze, and indoor rat maze. Halfway through the indoor maze they scan your ticket, and at the end of all this you get on a bus to take you to the drop-off point of your choice in the park itself. Entry to the park closes at 5:00, and the last bus to bring people out runs at 6:30. We left our hostel at 2:00, and it was 4:30 before we even got into the park. We decided to skip any trails and go right to the boat ride.

Speedboats for scale.

The boat ride was disappointing. First, the wayfinding at the park is awful in general, but particularly at the boat launch. First you ride a very slow open-air wagon down to the upper platform where you can rent a locker to store anything you don’t want drenched, then you take a short funicular down to the river where you get in line for your boat. At every point along the way you have to ask someone “where do I go next” because there is absolutely no signage to direct you and there is no logical flow to the human traffic.

The boat ride takes you up the rapids towards the falls, which is fun, but doesn’t get nearly as close to the big falls as we’d hoped. You can glimpse them in the distance, but the boats never venture farther than several of the lower, smaller falls, which they slowly dunk you under. The ride does have some nice views, but for several key minutes of the journey there’s a member of the boat crew in a blue rainsuit standing right in front of you taking pictures with a GoPro to sell to you later. The whole thing is a disorganized, overpriced theme park ride. Leaving the boat launch at the end went so slowly that we barely made it out of the park before they shut down and locked up behind us.

One boat was mysteriously empty.

On Monday we got up early and hopped on the bus to get there when the park opened. This involved arguing with the bus driver, who didn’t want to drive his route all the way to the end and instead wanted to dump his passengers at the Bird Park and make them walk. Thankfully we weren’t the only ones to argue about this and when we got to the park entrance there was hardly a line at all.

The line, or rather the mosh pit, would be at the falls themselves.

The viewing, pushing, shoving, and squeezing platform.

Beyond the stop for the boat cruise, there is a bus stop at the beginning of the hiking trail. The next one is the stop for the restaurant, shopping area, and main viewing platform. What the park wants you to do is get off at the trail, walk to the falls from that direction, and then spend your money at the gift shop and buffet. We chose to ride all the way to the end, start from the viewing platform, and work our way backward. I’m not sure if that made things better or worse, but we would have been fighting the swarming mass of humanity either direction.

Here we go… The Devil’s Throat

The falls themselves are magnificent. They’re amazing. They go on forever, it seems. And while viewing them it feels like being crushed against the stage in the front rows at a Metallica concert. Given that there were this many people there in the morning when the entrance line was low, I can’t imagine what it must have been like later in the day. Busload after busload poured into the trails, with more people taking selfies instead of enjoying the beauty around them than even at Machu Picchu.

I want the power to make selfie sticks explode with my brain.

We never did find a trail that would soak you with anything more than a fine mist (unlike visiting Victoria Falls, which felt like walking through a carwash). We did find that people were rude in the extreme and we had to stand our ground many times to avoid being shoved off the narrow path.

But what a view.

The path was also crawling with coati, cute little members of the raccoon family. We saw one of these fellows from a distance way back in Guatemala, but the coati at Iguaçu have identified humans as a food source (despite all the signs advising not to feed them) and will come right up to you. If you have a bag, they will at the very least sniff it, if not outright steal it. I think my favorite moment was watching one lady get her purse invaded by a clever coati while she was posing for a picture.

The South American Trash Panda.

Four days of peace, three days of excitement, two long bus rides. We’re about to take a dip back into Argentina and experience the falls again, despite impending rain in the forecast. On a lighter note, the pain I’ve been bitching about has been getting better, and aside from that one horrible flare-up at the bird park has been steadily improving.

But wait, you say, wasn’t this also Carnival weekend? Hopefully I’ll have more to report on that. Stay tuned, dear readers. Stay tuned.

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