Monday, February 14, 2005

Iguazu Falls

Where Argentina, Brazil, and Paraguay meet are Iguazu Falls. These are not the biggest waterfalls in the world, nor the tallest, but located in the jungle in two national parks, some say they are the most spectacular.

It is possible to travel the 18 hour journey from Buenos Aires to Iguazu by luxury bus. Seats that recline into completely horizontal beds, movies, food served at your seat - all in all, similar to an airplane. It is possible...or so I am told. I wanted to pass through Uruguay on the way to Iguazu, so instead of that one luxury bus journey I experienced 3 days of travel hell involving one boat, four buses, dealing with border guards at a backwater border crossing who were mystified by my New Zealand passport, missed connections, getting stranded until 1:30am in Hicksville, and riding overnight on a heavily air-conditioned bus while wearing only shorts and t-shirt and sitting next to Fat Albert himself, who oozed over and under and around the armrest into my seat, leaving me to huddle next to the window without a moment's sleep all night.

My whinging doesn't stop there. When I arrived in Iguazu late one afternoon I rested for a night in a hotel then tried to catch the local bus to the falls in the morning. It is a 20 minute journey, but I made it last an hour and a half. I caught the bus from the wrong side of the road, got off where everybody else got off assuming we were at the falls, then searched the streets asking bystanders in pidgin Spanish "Where are the waterfalls?" When I was told it was a long way away (about 15 kilometres, I found out later) I demanded specific step-by-step instructions as to how to walk there. People tended to back off slowly at this stage, suspecting that I was slightly unhinged. It was only when I found an English-speaking man with unlimitedf patience that I realised I needed to take another bus back in the direction I came from.

When I got to the entrance to the falls, I was asking myself whether it was worth the trouble to have come here. Why didn't I just stay in Buenos Aires? It was nice there. Finding that foreigners were charged three times as much as locals to get into the national park containing the waterfalls made me even grumpier. I don't think I would have made good company at the time.

I walked through the jungle, listening to the distant roar of the falls get louder and louder, and at the moment when the falls first came into view my mood immediately changed. I forgot I was tired and hot. I forgot that I hated the world and especially bus companies.

Iguazu Falls is one of the most spectacular things I have ever seen. The edge of the falls is a giant crescent shape, and the water breaks up into 275 separate streams each plunging separately up to 72 metres over the edge along three kilometres. One main stream contains so much water and drops so violently that it creates a cloud of mist completely blocking the view at the bottom. The viewing paths weave in and out of the jungle, and the views seem to be better each time you come out of the jungle. Meanwhile exotic animals I didn't recognise roam along the path. I later found out they are called coatis. Death-defying herons wade in the water at the top of the falls only metres from the water drops. A walkway over the river ends in a viewing platform directly over the main stream of water. The travel hell was definitely worth it.

The best part of the falls was not viewing it. It was the high-speed boat ride into the falls. This starts a couple of kilometres downstream from the falls. We were warned that we would get wet so we should put our valuables and cameras into plastic bags. I thought "wet" meant a few drops of water. Actually we got as wet as if we had jumped off the boat into the water. The boat stopped first in a place where we could take photos safely. Then after putting cameras away we travelled up the gorge past little streams falling from the top of the falls right into the whirlpools, currents and waves created by the major stream. The mist was so thick we couldn't see, and afterwards I wandered how the boatdriver could drive blind. Finally we went back weaving in and out of waterfalls that fell directly on our heads.

After the troubles getting to Iguazu I was in no hurry to leave, so I stayed in town for three days. To pass time, I crossed over the border to Brazil for the day, and saw the waterfalls again, this time from the Brazilian side. Just as good, also in a national park, but the perspective it offers is more panoramic rather than up-close.

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