Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Ignited by the Iguazzu Falls

Monday, June 8, 2015: At Foz de Iguazzu

            Going through Immigration was painless at Rio de Janeiro’s Galeao airport, but retrieving my baggage from the Claim area took forever: the No-Win Unwritten Rule of International Travel is that if Immigration is a snap, the wait at Baggage Claim is endless; if Immigration takes an hour, you get your bags in five minutes! For me, the next aim was to find the Domestic Departures section as I was to be airborne again in less than two hours, for my onward flight to the south of Brazil—for I was headed to the small town called Foz de Iguazzu which is the base for every global roamer’s wish to spy the Iguazzu Falls.       

            Well, the connection was just as smooth as peanut butter—and this time, I requested a window seat—but again, all were taken and I was placed besides an Oriental woman who seemed to have flown to Brazil from China as she slept right through the flight! What a horrible waste of a window seat, I thought! Still, at least she did not pull down the blind. Lonely Planet (my Travel Bible) had said that passengers on the left side of the plane often received a good view of the Falls at landing—and as luck would have it, there they were in all their glory. A gush of water that ended in a haze which was clearly a result of the mist that develops where the river Iguazzu makes landfall! Needless to say, I snapped a few pictures and was quite pleased with the results.

            At Foz de Iguazzu airport, as is my wont in a foreign country, I picked up my baggage and looked for the Tourist Information Desk in the Arrivals Lounge. It was a tiny little room manned by a lovely young girl named Marcella who spoke functional English. It was 12. 30 pm when we landed at Foz and at 1.00 pm, there was a public bus right outside the airport to take me to my hotel. There was little time to waste: I was grateful for the maps handed to me and being directed to the little bank kiosk next door, I changed a couple of hundred US dollars into Brazilian Reais for a far better rate than was offered at New York or at Rio airports! Feeling very pleased with myself, I raced off for the bus stop, found it in a jiffy and five minutes later, along came the bus.

It took me less than five minutes to figure out how the public bus system works in Brazil: you board the bus, wish the   driver Bom Dia (pronounced Bonjia—very similar to the French Bonjour), turn to the conductor, usually a female, who is seated at the front at a turnstile! You pay her your fare (a flat R3. 40—approximately a dollar) for any journey, then turn the turnstile around to let yourself through. If you have baggage (as I did), a kind passenger gives you a hand to pass it across the turnstile on the top—God forbid if you are handicapped! I found a seat and spent the next 20 minutes feasting my eyes on the tropical green of southern Brazil for the Iguazzu Falls sit bang in the midst of the great Brazilian Rain Forest—thousands and thousands of acres of it as is easily evidently from the aircraft. If you are familiar with Goa or Kerala, you will fancy yourself in that part of the world for the vegetation is similar: miles of coconut palms, cashew and mango trees.

            As luck would have it, the bus dropped me right outside my hotel: all I had to do was cross a busy street and there it was: Hotel Rouver (pronounced Hotel Hoover—as words beginning with R are pronounced as H in Portuguese). Five minutes later, I was checking in, opening the door to my first floor room, dumping my baggage, changing into a tank top and capris (for it was HOT!) and using the facilities before heading off to the Falls.

            Because, you see, there was no time to waste. I was only at Foz for one night and my flight back to Rio was to depart at 2. 45 pm the next day. I had little choice but to make the most of the rest of the day and I was determined not to waste a second. The hotel receptionist kindly directed me to the bus-stop (again, right outside my hotel) and in the ultra-warm afternoon, I waited for ten minutes for the bus that then made its way back to the airport and past it to arrive at the entrance to the famed Iguazzu Falls.

Sighting the Iguazzu Falls:

            I should make clear at this stage that it was our family friend and physician, Dr. Edward Pinto, who had told me that the Iguazzu Falls were one of the most spectacular sights he has ever seen—and he is well-traveled. He had advised me to make a detour and go and see them, no matter where in South America I happened to be. Since I always heed my doctor’s advice, there I was! At 3. 00 pm, there was plenty of daylight left and at least three hours to see the place. Once off the bus, I hurried to the Main Entrance to buy my ticket (R54, approx. $18) and was directed to the bus that ferries travelers through the vast expanse of the National Park in which the Falls are located. I took a seat on the top deck and within ten minutes, the bus took off with about twenty passengers on board. I was very grateful for the strong breeze that blew throughout that ride (on the open upper deck) that threatened to blow my baseball cap right off but cooled me well!

            The plan on a bus tour of this sort is something akin to the Hop On, Hop Off bus service found in many of the world’s cities. You get off wherever you please (usually an Observation Deck) and wait for about 20 minutes for the next bus to come along and take you to the next stop. I had done my homework and had found out that Stops 14 to 19 were the most crucial because they offered the most stunning views. At Stop 14, most of the passengers alighted and climbed down the ramp leading downhill for their first glimpse of the Falls. From that point, I walked for about 4 kms (2 miles) along the periphery of the canyon stopping frequently to take pictures and appreciate the sights from many varied vantage points. For what is unique about Iguazzu is that, unlike Niagara, is it not just one gushing wall of water but several different falls—some narrow, others wide; some very tall, others much shorter; some close at hand, others far in the distance; some a drop over a single shelf, others comprising multiple tiers.  Overall, the variety of scenes and the fury of the Iguazzu Falls make Niagara look like a trickle! With every step I took further along the trail leading eventually to the piece de resistance, Devil’s Throat, at Stop 19, I was awed! At some points, there are simply no words. You just gaze and try to get your camera to do justice to what you see—but you soon realize that the impact is only partly visual. Much of the effect is audio—you hear the gushing, you take in the deafening roar. And tactile—for you are sprayed gently at some points and well soaked at others. It is a completely sensual experience to be drenched by the spray of hundreds of tons of gushing water as the mighty Iguazzu goes over a succession of rapids and plunges into a foaming cauldron of white blindness! What is also spectacular about this spot are the multiple rainbows that form across the ravine as the tearing waters catch the sun’s rays. Cameras work overtime to capture it all—and often fail. But I did spot at least two rainbows through the length of my stay at this spot.

            Enough said! As often happens to solo travelers, you request fellow sojourners to take your picture against the sound and the fury—and before you know it, you have a new friend. This was the case with me as I requested a sweet young man to take my picture and in turn offered to take his. He happened to be one Mohamed Saad, Algerian by parentage and heritage, French by birth (he was born and grew up in Lyon) and now working in Bristol, UK, as a petroleum engineer. I enjoyed trying my French out on him for size and was delighted to receive compliments on my fluency! We got into the natural rhythm of discovering each other in French as we discovered the Falls and were grateful for each other’s company. As we trekked through the rain forest to the next vantage point, we squealed at the sight of raccoon-like furry brown wild animals who stomped around in packs. They are called Quatchi in the local lingo and they amused one and all with their hunt for food.

            Ultimately, after walking for about an hour, we arrived at Devil’s Throat, a spot where visitors actually walk right over the falls on a concrete trail that takes you to the heart of the ravine. This part of the Falls is very similar to Niagara and boat trips (similar to the Maid of the Mist) take visitors to the base of the Falls (for an additional fee earlier in the day). We contented ourselves walking to the absolute edge of the canyon and watching the water swirling in mighty pressure beneath us. Right across the ravine is Argentina—and, as in the case of the Niagara Falls where one has views from the America and Canadian sides of the borders, so too here, one can view the Falls from both countries. There were many people across on the Argentinian side also walking along a concrete trail—which led me to investigate the possibility of getting on the opposite side the next day. However, I nixed it when I discovered that US citizens need a visa for Argentina which is available at the border but costs a whopping $160! Not worth it, I thought for just a few hours! Overall, I was very thrilled with the visit to the Falls from the Brazilian side and did not regret my inability to cross international borders to see them again.    

The trail was wet with the constant spray and we were quite drenched by the time we tore ourselves away from the Devil’s Throat and returned to the bus stop to take the bus back to base. Restaurant, restrooms, souvenir shops and other amenities are frequently available along the trail. Had one the entire day to spend at the falls, one could do all sort of trails, take the boat to the base, etc. But I was perfectly content with the three hours I spent there and felt that it had certainly been worth my while to make the long two-hour flight to South Brazil to catch a glimpse of this astonishing natural wonder.

The drive to base took another 20 minutes, at which point I spied the public bus that would take me back to my hotel. Mohamed and I took the same bus and got off at the same stop—he had reservations at the local Youth Hostel near by. We exchanged contact information and parted and I walked to my hotel. En route, I spied a McDonald’s—yes, I have to admit that when I am alone in a small outpost where I cannot speak the language, I am rarely tempted to enter a restaurant. McDee’s suits me just fine and with a salad, a fish burger and a cold chocolate milk, I was content to return to my hotel, eat my dinner and spend the rest of the evening catching up with email—for I had free wifi. Sadly, the TV only transmitted in Portuguese—of which I do not understand a word. One hot shower later, I prepared for bed and having taken the red eye flight from New York, slept the sleep of the dead!

Ciao until tomorrow…  

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