Sunday, August 03, 2014

Last Leg - Foz do Iguaçu

Karina and I woke up on Thursday morning ready to explore Iguazu Falls.  We wanted to do a hike taking us into the rainforest surrounding the falls and onto the Iguazu River and we knew it left at 9:30.  We hustled like crazy to get there but sadly we didn't make it in time for the morning tour.  We decided to visit the falls and then catch the next tour, which we were told would run again at 12:30.

The Coati - scourge of Iguazu Falls National Park

Now, at the last World Cup, I took a side trip to Zambia solely for the purpose of seeing Victoria Falls. In keeping with tradition, visiting another natural wonder of the world (and UNESCO World Heritage site!!) meant flying all the way across the country of Brazil to where the waters of the Iguaçu River carved out a large canyon at the border of Paraguay, Brazil and Argentina. We were staying on the Brazil side of the falls and all our activities were based on that side as well.  I was fixated on the idea of going to the Argentina side of the falls because I was so close to it.  We didn't end up getting there, which was a sore spot for me.

There were raccoon sized four legged things called Coatis running rampant in the park.  If you were carrying food, they would climb your leg and go into your pocket to find it.  They caught lots of people posing for pictures off guard when they felt their pockets being picked by a long-snouted furry beast.

So instead of the tour that morning, we went straight to the falls and walked the long trail leading along the side of the canyon with amazing vistas of the falls.  Here is some of what we saw:

Again, I found myself asking David After Dentists' timeless question: "Is this real life?".  After we went around the falls and took roughly 7,000,000 pictures, it was time for our boat safari.  Now, when I went into this boat tour, I was thinking it would be just like the Maid of the Mist at Niagara Falls.  Not so, my friends.  Not even close.

First of all, the boat you take is a zodiac, a small, open speed boat with powerful outboard motors.  Second, this wasn't just a boat ride, it was a jungle tour and we hiked for a bit down to Salto do Macuco which was another pretty, albeit smaller, waterfall on the way down to the launching dock.

Then we get to the launching dock and they say, you will definitely get wet.  And I figured oh it's because of the mists from the falls, just like on the boat in Niagara or at Victoria falls where it feels like it's always raining.  Heeding their advice, I put all my stuff, even my shoes in a locker and Karina and I climbed onto the boat.  We were allowed to sit right up in the front of the boat. Score! So we didn't have seats we were sitting on a bench and holding on to ropes, and our boat adventure began.

Our boat captain TORE out of the dock slamming the zodiac at top speed against the current.  Even then the boat was working like crazy to go upriver because the current was incredibly fast and strong so close to the falls and in such a narrow channel.  That didn't stop him from hot-dogging his way up to the falls, zig-zagging this way and that and leaning the boat way over on one side and then way over on the other.  Some of this was to avoid huge rocks I'm sure, but some of it was probably just for show. One minute into the ride I felt like I was on a combination log flume, rollercoaster, bumper car.  And those are my top-three amusement park features!

So we're speeding and sliding our way up the river towards the falls and we get close to one outcropping and we see another boat go in and right up to the falls. We paused for a few pictures but we didn't get any closer.  I was a bit disappointed.  Why did they get to go right up to the falls and we didn't? Patience,  grasshopper.

Our boat slams into full speed again and hurtles towards one of the closest falls on the Argentina side, that's 100 feet high and swollen from the recent flooding rains they experienced a few weeks prior.  We were literally going INTO the falls and towards VERY big rocks and the boat stopped just in time actually underneath the falls, getting completely soaked.  Karina, ever the masterful photographer, managed to turn her underwater camera towards us at just the right moment.  Water water everywhere. I turned my face towards the cool, cascading water and screamed with delight.  We must have gone under three or four different times and then the boat turned around and we sped and snaked back towards the dock.  Best boat tour ever.

Karina and I underneath the waterfall
Soaked and smiling
I was out of breath and pumping with adrenaline when I got off the boat.  We watched all the GoPro videos that they had taken of our ride.  Everyone screaming and yelling and loving it.  If you ever find yourself in Iguazu Falls, you have to do the boat tour!  They have them on the Argentina side too, I'm told.  Here's a video from a friend we made on the boat who brought his own GoPro and saved us lots of money by sending us his videos:

So after the boat tour and hiking around we were tired and completely soaked through so we went back to the hotel and cleaned up.  Then we walked around the town looking for these chocolates we had had on Fernando de Noronha.  We found a gigantic grocery store and sure enough, there in the chocolate aisle we found huge bags of these bon bons.  I purchased three of them. Within a week of returning to the US, they were all gone.  After the grocery store trip, we did some souvenir shopping and then found our way to a spot for dinner.  It was just a little street side cafe where they had pizza and of course, steak and rice.  

Karina and I had a nice long talk over our food and it was a fun evening.  We had found a very non-touristy part of town so it was nice to have a low-key local style evening.  We had a long discussion, among other things, about what to do about Argentina.  I was dying to go to the other side since I had already paid the reciprocity fee to go there and if I had been up to it, I probably could have hiked or run there if I wanted to.  So close!  But then there was the problem of getting to that side of the falls.  By bus it would take two hours, and then taxis would cost about $50 USD one way.  I kept thinking it would be worth it to try still, but then I also thought of the flooding.  

In mid-June there was a week-long period of flooding rains that brought the river to record-breaking levels.  And the records weren't just a little broken.  According to the Buenos Aires Herald the flooding that had previous set the record sent about 35,000 cubic metres of water of the falls per second.  THIS flood, "of biblical proportions" many news outlets were reporting, was sending almost 43,000 meters per second over the falls.  To give it some perspective, the week before the floods, 2,300 cubic meters of water per second was the going flow rate.  

This flooding destroyed what is widely known as the best feature of the Argentina side, the train up to the top of the falls, and the long boardwalk out to the Devil's Throat portion of the falls, which has the best view.  A Brazilian I was talking to said that the Brazil side is best for the views of the falls, but the Argentina side is where you really FEEL the falls.  That was one of my favorite parts of Victoria falls, feeling that thunderous sound and the rain everywhere.  So I felt like Argentina wouldn't be worth the trip and the cost to get there if I couldn't do that part.  Also, we weren't sure we could cancel our hike and get a refund.  So we decided to commit to the hike and just do the Brazil side of the falls.   I died a little bit inside but it seems like throughout this whole trip, that has been a recurring lesson, especially in the planning stages: you can't always do every single thing.  You have to be flexible and find joy where you can.  

So after our dinner and hanging out on the sweet rooftop terrace of our hotel, Karina and I called it a night.  The next morning, our last full day of vacation, we woke ready to explore the jungle.  We put on our hiking clothes and got to our destination just in time.  Man, if we had missed that tour again I would have thrown a fit.  Thankfully, the jungles of Brazil were spared and we started our walk with a guide.  We added one other guy, Tim from Manchester in the UK, a bit late, and then pressed on.  Karina and I had trekked through enough mud during the trip and we were told that the roads were pretty muddy and they recommended we take the jeep tour instead.  My whole goal was to go on a hike so I didn't want to concede this, but when Tim showed up, he had been on a bus for 16 hours prior and he said I am NOT getting on a jeep. So, not to be outdone by a dude from across the pond, Karina and I decided we would also walk.  

Me and Tim, our hiking buddy. 
I'm so glad we decided to walk. We got to enjoy the sweet sounds of the jungle and we had more time to talk.  Charlie, our guide, told us that the most dangerous thing in the jungle was not a jaguar, it was, in fact, a caterpillar.  This brought about peals of laughter which I'm sure scared off any wildlife we might have seen otherwise.  We found out that Tim used to be a sound engineer in Elvis Costello's studio.  I naturally had an endless flow of questions after I found that out.  We talked music for a good portion of the 6 miles we walked.  Tim left the biz though because he got disillusioned with the singers.  He loved all the musicians but never liked working with the singers who, in his opinion, seemed to have the least talent and the most complaints.  He now works in the middle east in education, so we again found a lot of common ground to talk about.  

Our hike went about 6 miles into the jungle to the mouth of the Iguazu river above the falls.  We then got on a flat-bottomed boat and skitted across the water's surface to a collection of "islands" which are basically just the tops of trees/bushes growing out of the water.  At night, these islands are home to thousands of macaws which sleep there.  I'm sure it's quite a sight in the evening and pretty noisy too.  As we scanned the banks for otters, monkeys, and birds, Charlie stopped the boat and had it turn around.  We felt sure he had seen something, and sure enough, he pointed and: 
Badass alligator with half a tail.  I bet he's got some stories...  
Honestly, I would have missed it if we hadn't pulled the boat up closer.  From the distance we were at originally, the alligator looked like a log.  Animals are so well suited to the environments in which they live! It's amazing.  So that was a great sighting.  Among other things we saw lots of beautiful butterflies too:

We finished the river portion and then had a short hike back to the place where the bus picked us up.   Tim went on to explore the falls, Karina and I went to go get a snack and watch part of France v Germany at the cafe by the falls.  We sat around for a while and then caught the bus back to town, which Tim happened to get on! So we all decided to go together to watch the Brazil v. Columbia game at a bar.  The game was at 5 and we wanted to post-up by 3pm so that we could get a spot, knowing that the entire country was about to shut down for the match and head to the closest gathering place.  

We got off the bus when we passed a place that said "beer garden" in Portuguese and decided that was the place for us.  I ordered yet another pizza and we got great seats for the game.  We ended up sitting near a large group from Liberty University who were there on mission with Lion's Raw which is a really fascinating organization.  All the people we met were really engaging and had amazing stories to tell.  It was easy to pass the time before the match started.  

Watching the match was, again, just a fantastic experience. The town completely shut down and we knew everyone was watching with us.  More than anything else, that has been what I have taken away from my time in Brazil... the harmony and togetherness that happens during the world cup and especially in the host country and their team.  

So Brazil won, and again the streets were alight with flags, car horns, people flooding in, blocks shutting down, fireworks, dancing and music.  Tim, Karina and I made our way back to our area of town, and then we parted ways.  Traveling is fun because you get to meet all kinds of great people and have amazing interactions with people you never would otherwise, sometimes deep ones.  But in the end, it's all over so quickly.  And you just say goodbye, and you don't ever see your new friends again.  That is sometimes hard. I still think about some of the people I've met while traveling.  There's Nayla, the Aussie I met in Rome.  Angela, the American girl I met in Ireland.  Steve, the guy I met on the train in France.  There were so many!  And now add to the list Tim from Manchester and a bunch of soccer guys from Liberty University.  They just come in and out of my life in an instant but it's still fun meeting them, however brief it may be.  And some of the people I have met while traveling have become great friends!  It doesn't always have to end with the trip. 

Karina and I went back after that to pack up, have dinner, and get ready to start traveling home the next day.  It was another marathon travel session, with a very long layover in Sao Paolo (now my least favorite airport in the entire world because it is simply horrifically ugly and dark and inhospitable).  But there was a match on while we were in the airport and they WERE NOT TELEVISING THE MATCH IN THE INTERNATIONAL TERMINAL.  That is probably the most egregious oversight the Brazilian tourism board could have made.  But it did create some great bonding with strangers as we all frantically got on the wi-fi network and started gathering around people's computers/devices who could get enough bandwidth to watch the game. It was a great sight to see and again, that harmonious, communal moment I don't think happens much outside of a situation like the World Cup where everyone is united in purpose.   

I am glad to be home.  And I'm sorry it took so long to finish this blog post.  

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