Best until last!!!
20.09.2011 - 27.09.2011 20 °C
Considering the hassle getting into Paraguay, leaving the country turned out to far simpler than I had anticipated, especially considering it would involve crossing a Paraguayan border (notorious for being difficult), entering and travelling through Brazil (where I wouldn´t be stopping), before finally arriving in Puerto Iguazu (Argentina). Having already checked with the tourist information office as to the best route to take, I was advised to make my own way to the Paraguay immigration point (just at the start of the Puente de Amistad bridge) as buses often don´t stop due to locals not needing to get exit stamps, ignoring the thousand calls from minivan drivers and motorbike taxis desperate to make a quick buck by taking you across for an inflated fee along the way, and simply catch the next direct bus to Puerto Iguazu which pass directly outside the immigration office doors. As Paraguayan nationals do not need to stop at immigration, and due to the distinct lack of foreign tourists in the country, the Paraguayan immigration office was completely deserted and within seconds I had my passport stamped and was quickly bording the next bus to Argentina. Amazingly, despite entering Brazil and travelling through the Brazilian town of Foz de Iguazu, direct buses do not need to stop at Brazilian immigration, therefore saving precious passport space (which after just two years is already running extremely low) and making the journey far simpler than it would otherwise have been. Upon arrival at Argentinian immigration I was once again pleasently surprised to find a whole row of fully manned desks, more than I´ve seen at any other border crossing, processing the entire bus in just a few minutes. After so many horrific journeys and borders, it certainly came as a relief to arrive so quickly and easily into the small town of Puerto Iguazu.
With the main attraction just a few minutes down the road, I won´t waste any time going into too much detail about Puerto Iguazu itself, other than to say that it is a small and pleasant town, satisfactorily adequate for spending a few days, yet with little attraction other than the novelty of standing at the intersection between three countries. With the river creating a natural border between Argentina, Brazil and Paraguay, it is an interesting view looking out at the two neighbouring countries, just a short stretch of water away.
And now to the main attraction - Iguazu Falls! Firstly I would just like to point out that prior to my arrival at the National Park I had not seen any pictures or read any extensive write up on the falls and so arrived thinking I would be spending the day gazing at just one big waterfall. Imagine then my surprise when rounding the first corner on the lower circuit of walking trails to be confronted by a sight such as this:
Having arrived early (on one of the first buses to the park - which still happened to be overflowing with tourists and park staff) I decided to start off small and work my way up to the big attractions so started with a 7km hike through the jungle to a small hidden waterfall far from the larger crowds. Having seen no tourists at all along the trail (assuming they must have made directly for the main Garganta del Diablo) I believed I would arrive at the small waterfall to peaceful tranquility. I wasn´t too impressed when I actually arrived to a 100 strong school group of Argentinian teenagers, climbing over every surface and rock, on and around the waterfalls. Waiting patiently (or at least outwardly patiently, while actually impatiently cursing inside) the school group finally left and I was able to take some photos without any annoying children in the lens. Unfortunately though, despite spending 20 minutes or so at the falls, the school group was so slow that I quickly caught up to them and then found it impossible to pass them on the narrow trail so had to spend the next 3km stuck in their midst. I can trully say that there is no creature, man or beast, that is quite so irritating as a wayward teenager on a school trip. Having said that, they were still far better behaved than British teenagers, which I guess is why they get to visit places such as Iguazu Falls while we end up on day trips to Thorpe Park. Unfortunately this story of getting stuck on narrow walkways behind large groups (school and tourist alike) would continue for the rest of the day, sometimes feeling as though you are queueing up for a popular ride at Disney World, however with the fantastic location and perfect weather I thought I would quickly mention that one annoyance here, get it out of the way, and then forget about it.
Following the small waterfall, I made my way onto the lower circuit of trails, which take you close down to the river and give you spectacular views of the waterfalls from below. At one point along this trail (certainly one of my highlights) is a viewing platform which sits almost directly below one of the most turbulent cascades in the park, showering the entire length of the walkway in a heavy downpour and creating strong gusts of driving water. In addition, with river levels so high that boat trips to Isla San Martin had to be cancelled for the day, the sheer amount of water tumbling over the cliff was frightening and intense. In fact, so intense that just as I arrived one woman was just being taken away in a customised waterproof wheelchair after suffering a major panic attack at the end of the walkway.
It was at this point that I managed to get a photo, which due to the effort spent trying to take it, would become one of my favourites of the entire trip. Having first asked one woman who turned out to be so infuriatingly slow pressing the damn button that she very nearly broke the camera by allowing so much water to get into it (and then still continued to wave it around as she told me that the photos weren´t coming out due to too much water on the lens). I felt like telling her to take the shot quicker and shield the camera until she was ready to use it, but in the end it was easier to simply thank her and wait for someone with a little more sense. Finally I asked a man who had taken a couple of photos for someone else and seemed to know what he was doing (so much so that I thought he was actually trying to steal the camera until I realised he was just hiding it within his waterproof jacket until I was in place). What´s more, the viewing platform was one of the busiest on the trail, with a constant stream of crowding tourists, therefore to finally get in place with not a single other person in sight was a near miracle. It may not look like much, but considering it took such a long time and very nearly broke my camera trying to achieve, I´m proud of it.
It is also from the lower circuit of walkways that you are able to take a 10 minute speedboat ride upriver, almost directly below the crashing falls. For 10 minutes it was rather expensive yet worth every peso. With waterproof bags being given out at the start of the trip for your belongings, you know that it is likely to be a wet ride. This was a major understatement when we sped upriver and withing seconds were so close to base of the falls that the turbulent water was throwing the boat from side to side, sending river water crashing over the rails, and whipping sprays so strong that you could do nothing else but lower your head and shield your eyes from its ferocity. My regular camera (still recovering from the previous soaking) was safely tucked away within the waterproof bag, however, I did use my video camera (all but the lens tightly wrapped in a clear plastic bag - learning from previous mistakes) for a few brief moments of footage before the water became too overwhelming to see anything at all.
It was then on to the upper circuit of trails, from where you get a better overview of the falls and manage to see them from above. With amazingly placed viewing points, often looking directly down into the plunging chasms below, was an awe inspiring experience.
Finally, with time passing far quicker than I would have liked, I was boarding the open air shuttle train to the main attraction, the Garganta del Diablo. As late afternoon approached and the majority of tour groups slowly left the park, it was the perfect time to visit. What´s more, having worked my way around the entirety of the park, it was a stunning ending to the day. Plunging 80m down to the swirling depths below, and with water funnelled to unbelievable intensity, creating a deafening and thunderous soundtrack, it seems as though the entire world ceases to exist as you stand at the very precipice looking over the edge into to the blinding mass of belching spray and swirling mists.
In addition to the world disappearing around you, time also seems to fade away as nearly two hours passed in the blink of an eye. I have to admit that I´ve seen some incredible sights on my travels and visited some breathtaking locations, yet would possible have to rank Iguazu Falls above them all. Possibly even superceeding the view of Mount Bromo at dawn (in Indonesia) as the single most impressive landscape captured at any one moment. I would say that Iguazu Falls (minus the mass of groups and tourists, which to be fair also accompanied Mount Bromo and Macchu Pichu - another top ranking highlight) may very well be my favourite place on earth (so far seen!). And if that doesn´t convince you, perhaps a few more photos will...
Continued in Part 2...