Wednesday, March 24, 2010

The Iguazu Falls Adventure

I had wanted to go the falls since arriving in Paraguay. Many of my fellow volunteers saved the falls to share with friends and family who visited them. I knew my aunt in Uruguay had already seen them, albeit 25 years ago. My other aunt, the one who would be visiting her and my uncle hadn’t seen them. That said one thing to me: opportunity. I wondered if we couldn’t coordinate a trip so that they could travel from Montevideo and I from Asuncion to meet up in Puerto Iguazu. The date was decided upon and hotel and hostel reservations made. They would fly and I would travel with at least one other volunteer by bus from Asuncion to Ciudad del Este where I would cross into Argentina either via barge or bus.

I hadn’t been feeling to well in the days leading up to the trip. I had bouts of nausea and dizziness and wasn’t sure I’d be well enough to even make the trip – though I was determined to try. The morning I left I first stopped by the Peace Corps Medical Office to check in with the doctor there. Given the all-clear to travel, I rushed off to the bus terminal where I met my friend and in a run, we caught our bus, which had already left the terminal without us. The ticket agent ran out and stopped the bus in the street so that we could get on. That should have told me everything I needed to know about this trip!

The comfortable air-conditioned bus made great time and we got to Ciudad del Este much sooner than I had planned. I had decided that we should try to cross by barge because I’d heard it was easier. No traffic, no fuss, no muss, and no lines at the immigration office in Argentina. It was just as we were about to catch a taxi to the port that I realized I had left my home without packing my Peace Corps passport. Ughh…my heart plummeted to my feet. How could I have done that? I don’t do those kinds of things! I’m a planner and an organizer and I am very careful when I travel…but still, I had done it. Now, I had to focus on salvaging my trip.

My immediate thought was, well, if I can’t travel on my Peace Corps passport (as I’m supposed to), I can travel on my personal passport which was conveniently located in Asuncion. The Peace Corps staff was understanding and amazing and helped me get my passport into the hands of one of my most trusted friends – a Paraguayan who lives and works in Asuncion. He in turn was able to send me my passport using one of the messenger services that frequents the Asuncion-Ciudad del Este route. It took 12 hours, but I had only lost one night and the next morning my trip continued as planned. I never imagined that I would’ve overlooked something so HUGE as my packing my passport, but I also would never have imagined that the problem could be solved quite so easily.

The next morning, my friend and I set out for the port. We took a taxi but were disappointed to find that the barge was on the Argentinean side. It would take 45 minutes or so to finish loading up on that side before setting out for Paraguay – a mere 20 minute crossing. In fact, from our vantage point at the port there in Paraguay, we could see both Foz de Iguazu, a town in Brazil, and Puerto Iguazu – the town we were headed to in Argentina. Our taxi driver was really helpful and negotiated our passage with a private boat owner. It cost us a little more, but the driver was ready to go right away. His little wooden boat seemed sea-worthy enough and once the immigration officer – a man with a tattoo on his forehead and ripped t-shirt and shorts, jotted down our names and passport numbers, we were all set to go. Getting there was pretty uneventful. We tied the boat up to a rock, our captain delivered a copy of our passport information to the immigration office in Argentina who then signed and stamped us in, and we were ready to hit the town. We found our hostel – it was as cute as the pictures had suggested and after settling in, were ready to get to the falls.

My aunt, aunt, and uncle had signed up for a tour that would take them first to the Brazilian side. Brazilian visas are complicated and expensive for Americans to get, so I decided to skip seeing the falls from that side and just enjoy the view from Argentina. The Iguazu Falls National Park in Argentina is massive and has hikes, walking trails, boat tours, a jungle safari tour, and a train to keep people busy. To see the falls themselves, one must choose from three trails, a lower, upper and the “devil’s throat.” All have amazing views, just from different perspectives. My friend and I decided to start with the lower. It’s the longest of the three trails and because we got a late-morning start, it was hot and we were exhausted by the time it was over. We had seen pictures of the falls before, but nothing prepared us for how they looked close up. We took a quick 20-minute boat tour also. The tour really just takes you into the falls – yes into the falls. We close – very close and the end result is that you will walk away soaked to the bone. But on a hot day – it feels great. Too bad that along with my passport I had forgotten to pack my swimsuit. Most people got onto the boat wearing just that (the tour operators provide guests with a dry-bag that keeps purses, clothes, etc from also getting wet). Though most of us had cameras in hand, the captain and his assistants gave us fair warning when we were going to get wet so that the cameras could be stowed away as well. It was amazing though for the next while we walked around the park literally dripping wet!

That evening I finally met up with my family at their hotel. We made dinner plans and then went our separate ways to freshen up. We compared notes on our views of the falls and made our plans for the following day. My friend decided she just wanted to see the parts of the park we had missed the day before, while I decided to see everything (even the parts I’d already seen) from top to bottom with my family. We started with the “Devil’s Throat” which is an amazing view from the top part of the falls and then did the lower trail. We grabbed a bite to eat and then continued with the upper trail. My family had a free ride into and out of the park while I had to take a city bus. I wanted to get a few souvenirs, so we said our goodbye’s after finishing the upper trail and made plans to meet up at their hotel later that evening.

That evening I found my family lounging by the pool at their hotel. We ordered some fresh fruit smoothies and snacks followed by some good white wine and dinner – all by the pool. Not a bad way to spend an evening. We talked about family stuff, politics, and my plans for my last 5 months in Peace Corps. It was a great evening. Saying goodbye was more emotional than I thought it would be but at least we’d enjoyed good food and an amazing display thanks to Mother Nature.

The following day my friend and I set out with another volunteer’s cousins who we happened to meet up with at our hostel. They were headed to Paraguay and we all decided to go back together. We walked down to the port and whoops – quickly realized that immigration services aren’t opened there on the weekends. That left two options (or so we thought): bus and taxi. Well, I was prepared to do just about anything to avoid getting on a bus to go back to Paraguay – especially since the ride from Ciudad del Este would already be 6 hours on a bus. So we called a taxi and explained to the driver that none of us had visas for Brazil (we would have to transit through Brazil to get to Paraguay) but could he ask immigration if we stayed in the taxi and simply transited through … if we could pass? He drove us through the immigration checkpoint for Argentina and a mile up the road from that is the Brazilian immigration checkpoint. The line was long and eventually we got close enough so that our driver could pull over and run up to the officials and ask about our transit through Brazil. Unfortunately, they turned us down flat. Our driver drove us back to just beyond the Argentinean checkpoint – which meant that we were technically in no country at that moment. We were told that a bus that would drive us to Paraguay (and was allowed to transit through Brazil) would come along. Two hours in no man’s land and we had our doubts about the bus…but eventually it did turn up. We got on and as promised were allowed to transit through Brazil. We weren’t sure what to do once getting to Paraguay and were hoping it would be self-explanatory. Unfortunately, that was not the case…

We got to the border crossing and the bus just kept on going. Some of the other people on the bus told us to get off and go through immigration so we got off the bus and tried to figure out where immigration was. The border was nuts (that’s an industry term)! There were buses, taxis, motorcycles, and people EVERYWHERE. It took us some time to figure out where to go. As it turns out there is no “passport control” as such. It’s just a building off to one side where you have to present yourself to enter Paraguay! Oh well…once that business was concluded we all shared a taxi to the bus terminal. The bus I was hoping to take was full so we got on the next one headed out. It looked nice…big and comfy with air conditioning. This wouldn’t be so bad…however, the bus kept stopping and stopping and stopping. And people just kept piling on and piling on. Soon, the people standing in the aisle were crushed together in a mass of tangled bodies. And this continued very nearly until the end when we reached Asuncion (6 ½ hours later). Whew … stuck in no man’s land for two hours, lost at the Paraguayan border and then stuck like a sardine on a bus for six and a half hours …it was a long day!!!

So that my friends, is the tale of my trip to Iguazu Falls. I would recommend everyone go there to see the amazing beauty for themselves. I recommend not forgetting your passport and if you can fly in that’s the way to do it…leave the sketchy buses and boats to the Peace Corps volunteers!

Until next time…