Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Cataracas del Iguazu



Last weekend we went to see Iguazu Falls! it was kind of an impulse decision, because our friends Eamon and Lucy were going that weekend and we decided to meet up with them there. Iguazu Falls is probably the most popular natural-wonder tourist attraction in Argentina. At least once a week somebody has asked us "have you seen Iguazu yet? It's amazing, you have to go!"

Iguazu is the world's second-largest waterfall, after Victoria Falls in South Africa. It's in Misiones province, north of Buenos Aires (about 16 hours away by bus or 2 hours by plane), on the border between Argentina and Brasil. The mighty Iguazu river just spreads out and falls off a cliff. When the river is full, there are 275 individual falls. The biggest is called el Garganta del Diablo, the devil's throat.

We arrived in Puerto Iguazu on Thursday afternoon, in the middle of a rainstorm, and checked into the Hostel Park Iguazu, near the bus station downtown. Puerto Iguazu is the closest town on the Argentine side to the falls. It's pretty small, kind of simple and shabby and sweet, a bit touristy but not nearly as much as you might imagine. We took a walk down the main drag, looking for some dinner, but every single restaurant looked like standard-issue boring argentine food (steak, pizza, bla, bla, bla) and more expensive than the same thing would cost in Buenos Aires! So we ended up getting some fresh ravioli and sauce at the grocery store and cooking in our hostel kitchen. We had a nice dinner on the patio, played some cards and talked to some German tourists who were nearing the end of a year-long round-the-world trip.

In the morning we took the yellow city bus, El Practico, into the park and paid our $40 pesos entry fee. We started out on the Macuco Trail, a 7 km hike through the rainforest. It's the only trail that doesn't take you near the main falls, it's just a flat, easy trail through the jungle with a tiny waterfall at the end. It was a great peaceful way to see flora and fauna, away from the crowds at the main falls.



We passed only three other hikers on the trail all day. At the end, you can go out on a walkway over the waterfall and look down the cliff, and then you can scramble down a steep path to the bottom of the cliff and look up at the fall. We were hot and sticky from hiking in the jungle and we stripped off and jumped in the pool at the bottom of the falls! it was amazingly chilly considering that it's late summer in the northern jungle! mike climbed right under the waterfall and took a shower.
On our way out, we passed some cute cute little nutria peeking out from the bushes. We also took pictures of jungly vines, scurrying lizards, ginormous ants, and a bright-striped snake crossing the trail.



We got back to the park entrance hot and sweaty and tired and hungry, and went for the $32 pesos lunch buffet at "la selva" restaurant, which was actually way way tastier than we expected. they had brazilian black beans with sausage, and tangy hot sauce on the side! (you never get black beans anywhere in Buenos Aires, nor decent hot sauce!) also they give you a free caipirinha with lunch, yum!

After lunch we were full and lazy so we got on the "ecological" train and rode out to el Garganta del Diablo. From the trolley stop, you walk out for ten minutes on a walkway which takes you right over the wide river and marshy islands, to the very lip of the biggest falls. All around the park they've built steel and wood walkways that allow you to walk out to the edge of the cliffs, and look right down over the precipice, with a bazillion tons of water hurtling down the falls right under your feet. It's absolutely awe-inspiring standing there and seeing this rushing falling water all around. You get completely soaked in the mist and spray, and when you look down you can't see the bottom of the falls, just a great cloud of spray. There are little rainbows all around when the sun shines.



Supposedly Eleanor Roosevelt said "poor Niagara!" when she first saw Iguazu Falls.

We hiked on the "green trail" back to the park entrance and got out around closing time, 6:00 or 7:00. We ended up in a different hostel on Friday and Saturday night, the garish Hostel-Inn Iguazu ($36 pesos per night, mixed dorm), on the highway closer to the park entrance. It's this enormous super deluxe "hostel" with fancy landscaped grounds around a huge curvy swimming pool (and pool-side bar), with cabaƱas and a great big main hall with a cafe and bar and lofty activity hall and hang-out zone with kitschy chandeliers hanging from the rafters. It seemed like pure heaven for the college freshmen Abercrombie & Fitch crowd, but it's kind of a weird place to be if you're over 23 and you're not wearing a Hollister t-shirt. Anyway, once i got used to feeling like i was on the set of an ad for something stupid and expensive, I could hardly complain about swimming in the pool, watching the sun set while reading on the patio under the palm trees, and playing ping-pong after the sun went down. It's not easy to get into town from the Hostel-Inn, so you end up having to hang out "on-campus" all night and buy their overpriced beer and eat the food they serve you. Again, we expected the food to suck but it was not too bad at all.



We got into the park early the next morning and took a boat ride up to the falls! For $120 pesos, we got a land-rover ride over red mud roads through the jungle, with a park ranger pointing out flora and fauna along the way and telling us about the park environment. Then we got to the river and climbed in a boat, taking off all our clothes and shoes and packing them in waterproof bags, just wearing swimsuits and life-jackets. The river started out calm and quiet, and then our speed-boat started barreling up rapids and soon we were in sight of the falls. We passed a great set of falls called Los Tres Mosqueteros, hurtled towards el Garganta del Diablo, going straight under a smaller cascade, then we turned around and drifted back into a quiet pool at the base of Los Tres Mosqueteros. We could see bright dots all around the cliffs, visitors looking down at us from the various walkways traversing the falls. The boat took us straight into Los Tres Mosqueteros falls, under the pounding water so even when I opened my eyes I could see nothing but water pouring down on me! They did some crazy speedboat loops around the falls and then left us dripping at the landing on the lower trail.

Once we got wrung out and dressed again, we took a very boring 2-minute ferry ride to the Isla San Martin, the steep island sticking out between El Garganta del Diablo and Los Tres Mosqueteros. After a steep climb, we walked around paved paths atop the jungly island, and got some breathtaking views of the river and all the falls.



We took the ferry back and went around the lower trail loop, which lets you see all the falls from below. Then had some lunch at a little "food-court" sorta plaza within the park. We caught an up-close glimpse of the jarringly ugly white concrete Sheraton Hotel, built within the national park in the seventies, with some rooms facing the falls. It's so out of place, and nearby is another building, a beautiful one which apparently used to be a hospital. The old hospital is so charming, and looks like it fits inside the park, while the Sheraton looks like a slap in the face. Luckily it's not visible from most of the park.

After lunch we went out on the Upper Loop, which takes you on walkways across the tops of all the waterfalls, so you can look down on them from the edge of the precipice. There are great flocks of butterflies frolicking all about, and the mist coming up in the sunshine makes rainbows all around.



We looked for unicorns in the forest but could not see any. After the upper loop, we'd covered all the trails in the whole park! so we retired back to the Spring Break 2K8 hostel and washed the red mud from our tired feet in the swimming pool.
We actually never set foot on the Brazilian side of the falls, because we're US citizens it would've cost us US$100 to get a one-day visa to cross the border, and most of the park is on the Argentine side so we were told we didn't miss too much, except for a panoramic viewpoint on the Brazilian side looking across at the Argentine side.
That evening our friends Eamon and Lucy arrived from Buenos Aires, along with some visitors from England. The hostel put on a gigantic asado on the patio, and we ate mountains of grilled bife and fresh veggies and played travel scrabble and enjoyed all-you-can-drink caipirinhas.

So, in all an amazing experience. I wouldn't recommend that crazy hostel unless you're REALLY into that kind of thing. The park is really not a total nature experience, with the walkways and trolleys and speed-boats and food-court. But it was mostly nature, totally beautiful and wasn't as crowded and congested as we'd imagined. It was never annoying or too crowded to get around or see the falls. It was actually cool being surrounded by visitors from all over the world, we heard more different languages on the paths at the falls than I've ever heard in one day before, even way more than any day in New York! The wood-and-steel-grate walkways that carried us out over the falls let us be atop and inside the waterfalls in a totally dramatic way (and easily-accessible for people with limited mobility) that would've been impossible if the park had only dirt paths going around the outside of the falls.

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