My excitement was positively palpable once we arrived in Puerto Iguazu. One of the 7 wonders of the natural world was within striking distance! And waterfalls always top my list when selecting excursions out into nature. But contain myself I did because we had other important business to attend to before we could visit the falls: round 2 of attempting to obtain a foreign visa. This time it was for Brazil, whose consulate would accept payment in Argentine pesos or Brazilian Reais but maintained an extensive list of mandatory supporting documents including bank and credit card statements for the past 90 days and proof of onward travel. More on that in a moment.
Our first order of business was to find an accommodation. Being on the doorstep of a world-famous attraction, Puerto Iguazu has heaps of hotels and hostels to cater to the booming industry. Nevertheless, our thorough search for a private double room was fruitless. Normally we would've booked ahead but up until the day before our next destination had been Paraguay, not Iguazu. Hence, we'd decided to take our chances on finding something once we arrived versus booking online (i.e. paying a deposit) and risking that the hostel wouldn't receive the reservation. Probably should've known better for a place like Puerto Iguazu but the lack of vacancy was definitely compounded by the fact that half of Buenos Aires had come to see the falls as well; Argentina has a winter holiday break for most of July. We eventually settled on a dorm at a hostel located conveniently close to the Brazilian Consulate.
After reading conflicting information about what was actually required by the Brazilian Consulate when applying for a tourist visa (seemed to be a lot of discrepancies depending on what office you applied to), we decided to err on the side of caution and bring anything and everything they might want to see. This included buying a flight out of Brazil to serve as proof of onward travel. We carefully compiled a folder with electronic copies of everything and then found a store where we could print and photocopy to our hearts' content. Unfortunately the Consulate keeps (Argentine) bank hours so we had to wait until the next morning to submit our application since it was late afternoon by the time we had all our papers in order.
We awoke early the next day, dressed in our finest garb, stuffed a folder of documents under one arm, a giant bag of dirty clothes under the other and made our way through the crisp morning air to our first stop: the laundromat. Despite having the horarios de atencion clearly posted on the door, no one was around at 8 am to help us. Argentine hours, I suppose. Eventually a young lady strolled up haughtily and, doing her damnedest to ignore the line-up that had formed, slowly unlocked the door. We were first in line so we approached the counter only to be told that it was not possible to have our laundry back the same day. Surveying the business area behind the counter and noting the relative dearth of other ropa ahead of ours in the queue, we suspected this was her way of repaying us for having the audacity to actually arrive at the posted opening time. So we left and headed to the Consulate instead. With our bags of dirty laundry. Not quite the presentation we'd been hoping to give but fear of hordes beginning to converge on the Consulate made us forego a return trip to the hostel to drop off the mildly unsightly loads (there's only a small window of time for submitting visa applications each day).
As it turned out, we were second and third in line and everything went smoothly. The officials only wanted a subset of the documents we'd prepared and the entire process was over in a matter of minutes. We also scored brownie points by translating the officials' instructions to the young Aussie who was first in line and evidently had not researched the requirements to the same extent as us. He hadn't even brought his passport to the office! Psshaw, amateur.
We had to wait until the next morning to pick up our passports complete with Brazilian visas so we busied ourselves by finding a less begrudging laundromat, exploring town and eating as many empanadas as possible, and visiting the Tres Fronteras - the convergence of the Rios Paraña and Iguazu and the point at which the Argentine, Paraguayan, and Brazilian borders meet. We watched the sunset there and had a taste of how busy the falls would likely be.
|Tres Fronteras - the three borders - and the convergence of Rio Parana (top) and Rio Iguazu (bottom right).|
We were on the Argentine side, Paraguay on the left, Brazil on the right.
In our dorm we met Ali, an Iraqi American living in California, and Marco, a Chilean. We got on well with both of them, aside from when Ali confessed that he's a saxophonist (boo, hiss), and went out for dinner one night to (unofficially) celebrate Ali's recent birthday. After dinner we returned to the hostel and engaged in some serious card games (the return of "Asshole") over beer and wine.
We had to move out of our dorm after 3 nights because the hostel had previous reservations to honor but we'd managed to book a double at a hostel down the street. Overpriced as it was, we were mostly just happy to have found a room nearby. Turned out to be quite a dive with an absurdly filthy bathroom (rivalling the hostel in Mercedes but not quite as bad). It didn't matter though because that was the day we visited the Argentinean side of Iguazu falls.
We arrived early and just missed being on the first train from the base station. Unsure whether we were allowed to disembark at the middle station, we ended up going all the way to the station for the upper falls and the Garganta del Diablo - the Devil's Throat (a surprisingly common name for natural formations in South America).
We'd had a few sneak peeks of the cascades from the train but getting off at the final station we were upstream from the falls and could only hear a distant muffled roar. Assembling with the crowd we followed the trail of metal platforms over the river towards an immense plume of moisture that marked the Garganta del Diablo. This particular cascade has such a massive flow rate that the spray generated as the water hits the receiving pool rises hundreds of meters into the air and can be visible from kilometers away. The thunderous roar grew louder with each step of our approach and when the white surge marking the top of the falls finally became visible I found myself almost tearing with the overwhelming glee. It was nothing short of spectacular. We got more or less drenched in the time we spent on the viewing platform but it was worth it to stare down into the white abyss, watching birds dart into the spray from nooks hidden in the cliffside, and just taking in the sheer power of nature in action.
|Plume of mist from the Garganta del Diablo, often visible from kilometers away.|
Right about now every hair was standing on end and I was so excited it took every bit of restraint not to push through the line of tourists ahead of us.
|Viewing platform and top of the Garganta del Diablo.|
|Looking over the edge into "the Devi's throat".|
Picture doesn't capture the roar or the soaking spray! There's so much mist,
especially in the early morning when the air is still cool, that you can't really see the bottom of the falls.
|Upper cascades on the Argentine side. Note the plume rising from the Garganta del Diablo in the distance.|
|Eva has her own cascade!!|
|Isla San Martin. Excursions used to be included in admission to the park but now you have to pay extra. :(|
|Looking upstream at the Garganta del Diablo.|
|Getting a closer look (that's me in the blue jacket) and a little shower too.|
|Curious bird that wanted to share our lunch|
|These guys (coatis) also wanted to share our lunch. And everyone else's.|
They're basically like the squirrels of Canada's National Parks only much bigger.
We spent the later part of the day hiking a trail into the forest region away from the falls. An unsolicited companion with a loud voice made it so we saw almost no birds or animals but it was still a pleasant reprieve from the mob at the falls. The trail actually terminated at a small cascade with a swimmable pool. We parked ourselves on a big rock and relaxed in the shade. When we got up to leave I managed to slip and twist my ankle pretty badly. Unfortunately we were several kilometers from the main area of the park so I had no choice but to shake it off and limp back. After a while it wasn't so bad... swelling numbed the pain I suppose.
|Monkey we saw while walking the wilderness trail.|
A day later we boarded a bus to Foz do Iguacu - the city on the Brazilian side of the falls - to begin our adventure in Brazil. And begin as an adventure it did indeed. After getting our Argentine exit stamps we reboarded the bus and crossed the bridge into Brazil. It was only once it became eminently clear that we were in Foz do Iguacu that we began to question why the Brazilian border control would be so far away from the border. And then one of our fellow passengers asked the driver only to be told that we'd passed immigration "way back there." The driver gave no explanation as to why he'd bypassed it. It should've been fairly obvious that we were all foreigners and would need to get stamped into the country... and you'd think the driver would've at least asked, likely having driven the cross-border route countless times. But alas, we found ourselves pretty much illegally in Brazil. We certainly wouldn't have been let out of the country without an entry stamp. So, we got off the bus, crossed the road and waited for a bus returning to the border. Shockingly, the driver that picked us up spoke enough Spanglish that we were able to explain our situation and get him to drop us at the border control. And, despite seeing us get of a bus from Foz do Iguacu, the border officials gave us an entry stamp without issue. So we were in! We caught the next bus back to the city, dropped our bags at our hostel and caught a bus to the Brazilian side of the falls to make the most of what was left of the afternoon.
|Iguacu Falls on the Brazilian side looking across at Argentina to the right.|
Known for offering more of a panoramic view, the Brazilian side did not disappoint even though we'd already visited the Argentinean side of the falls. I think it would take a lot of visits before I'd get sick of seeing Iguazu falls. There was a platform that allowed you to look upstream to the Garganta del Diablo, across to Isla San Martin and the gorgeous cascades on the Argentine side all while standing at the effervescent base of another waterfall that then flowed over towards the lower Rio Iguazu. The characteristic rainbows in the mist were even more prominent from the Brazilian side. Incredible. Absolutely incredible.
|Downstream view of the Rio Iguazu.|
|Isla San Martin and falls on the Argentine side in the background.|
|How can this not take your breath away?|
The following day we decided to visit the Binational Itaipu Dam. Co-owned and operated by Brazil and Paraguay, it's the world's biggest producer of hydroelectricity, providing nearly all of Paraguay's power and a large fraction of Brazil's as well. The dam itself isn't the world's largest; just the amount of electricity it generates. The tour was interesting and more than tickled the fancy of the civil engineer in Chris. AND we ended up on Paraguayan soil after all! Hah. Take that, ridiculous immigration policy.
|Binational Itaipu Dam.|
|Massive flow pipes that route the river water to the turbines.|
|Enormous spillway for the dam.|
From Foz we took an overnight bus to Curitiba, 9 hours east. Staff at our excellent hostel in Foz had found us a nice place to stay in Curitiba - a bright and cheery new hostel in a restored old house, run by friendly girls of about our age. Our first order of business was to find a new box for the items we wanted to send home and then go to the post office to see whether we could finally mail them. Success! It wasn't cheap but it was on its way and our bags were all the lighter for it.
|Unique eye-shaped exhibition room of the Oscar Niemeyer Gallery in Curitiba.|
|Walking through the tunnel to "The Eye"|
We wandered through the pleasant Old Town of Curitiba and made it to the center where we decided to get on the hop-on/hop-off tourist bus. Normally we'd avoid those things like the plague but the idea was that it would be a more efficient way to visit the city's highlights since we only had the one day. An art gallery with a very unique exhibition building caught our eye (hehe) so we disembarked and wandered around it for a while. After a quick lunch in the gallery cafe, we crossed the street to join the enormous line-up of people waiting to hop back on the next tourist bus. As the minutes rolled by we acknowledged our folly and vowed never to take the stupid tourist bus again. It finally showed up and we managed to cram ourselves into it, leaving behind at least a few dozen later-comers that were not so fortunate. There were other sites we might've wanted to stop at but we weren't interested in being stranded again, waiting for the next bus with possibly even more people. We rode it to the end of the line - a communications tower with an observation floor overlooking the city. There wasn't much of a line so we decided to go up and get a look at the city at near sunset.
|View of Curitiba from the communications tower.|
The next day we went to the terminal to catch a bus to the coast. Despite what the website had told us, we ended up having to wait more than 2 hours for the next bus. Luckily, the terminal was across the street from the Curitiba's main market so we popped in there for a bite to eat and some "window" shopping while we waited. It was a really nice market, full of fresh fruit, sausages, cheese, nuts, wine, meat, etc. We ate at an organic restaurant in the mezzanine and picked up some snacks for the bus ride.
The bus brought us to the port town of Pontal do Sul where waited for the next crossing to Ilha do Mel (Island of Honey). A storm had broken while we were en route to the town and it was pouring while we huddled under the shelter next to the docks. Still, we were keyed up. We'd reached the Atlantic! We'd crossed the continent! Finally, as dusk began to settle in, we boarded a small boat along with several locals transporting boxes of assorted commodities and the captain navigated through the channel to open water. The storm had conjured rather large swells and, I'm not going to lie, I was pretty nervous for most of the trip. We stopped at one point for some sort of discussion with another boat and as we bobbed acquiescently in the waves it became very clear to me that I did not covet the life of an ocean fisherman. When we resumed our course for shore we nearly T-boned another boat. I have no idea what it was doing in "our" path but I assume it had come over to see why the two boats were having a pow-wow.
|Port of Pontal do Sul, Brazil.|
|Boats in the harbor at Pontal do Sul.|
Barely soon enough we made it to shore at Encantadas, a small beach village on Ilha do Mel. In the darkness and gentle rain we found our pousada after asking at a kiosk beside the dock. We were met by one of the staff members who spoke almost no English but showed us to our room and advised us of when breakfast would be the next morning. She said something else that we mistook as a serious warning not to go wandering around in the dark but when I tried to confirm that it was indeed peligroso (dangerous) out there she exclaimed no, no, no and said that it was totally safe. Laughing, she pointed us in the direction of a restaurant using as much Spanish as she knew. Hilarious that Spanish was our common language, the best we could do to communicate.
After hanging our things to dry, we ventured out in search of the restaurant. The island has no cars and thus, no roads. A series of sandy trails connect homes and businesses in the village as well as beaches that then connect to other villages via more paths. We bumbled through the darkness (forgot to bring our flashlight) and finally found the restaurant. Unfortunately it wasn't open. We'd seen some lights further down the beach when we arrived so we made our way back there and found a small restaurant open for dinner. A Belgian couple were already dining there and the guy spoke Portuguese so he helped us with our order. Shortly thereafter we were chowing down on breaded shrimp, fresh fish, salad, fries, and, of course, rice and beans. It was actually pretty tasty.
The next morning we awoke and went to the dining room for breakfast to find the most glorious spread we've seen in more than 7 months. Cereal and granola, assorted breads, cakes, cookies, meat, cheese, yogurt, and a huge variety of fruit. We loaded up our plates and gorged ourselves. The coffee was blissfully good as well. What a treat! Below are some shots of the gorgeous birds we watched while we ate breakfast.
The weather had improved somewhat but it was still a bit dreary and drizzly. Nevertheless, we headed out to explore our neck of the island in daylight after a rather motherly staff member ensured we'd applied sunscreen and were carrying hats and ponchos. A path led away from Encantadas to a beach on the other side of the island. A raised boardwalk brought us to a little cove and a large cave that we were able to climb down into since it was low tide. We then followed a windy path to another beach. It appeared the island was virtually deserted. At least in terms of other tourists. No complaints! Well, our only complaint would maybe be the shortage of dining options on account of it being low season. There were less than a handful of restaurants open in Encantadas and most had identical menus.
We spent four full days on the island and mostly just relaxed and explored. We walked several kilometers one day, traversing various beaches and picking our way over massive boulders along the shore while dodging the incoming waves. The route brought us to Brasilia, the largest village on the island. We'd planned to have some lunch but realized once we got there that we'd forgotten to replenish our money supply. We had only R$14 (about CDN$7), meaning we didn't even have enough to hire a boat to take us back to Encantadas let alone get a decent meal. We decided to stop at a restaurant and at least get a snack to give us enough energy to hike back to our village. Two plain hamburgers came to R$12. Phew! The next day we walked back and had a real meal at the same restaurant, complete with a beer for Chris and caipirinha for me (like a mojito).
|Looking out over one of Ilha do Mel's many beaches.|
|Little Benji dog that guided us around the island one day.|
|Cargo ship on the Atlantic east of Ilha do Mel.|
|Boats at sunset in the small harbor of Encantadas.|
Though we didn't do much there, Ilha do Mel was a fantastic stop on our trip to Brazil. There were so many beautiful birds and the island itself was an absolutely stunning paradise. Traveling there during low season was an unexpected way to enjoy the island in peace. We could've asked for better weather but then the crowds probably would've shown up to join us.
|Boardwalk leading to Gruta Encantada, the Enchanted Cave.|
|Pathway up to the lighthouse.|
Our next destination was uber-juxtaposed to the tranquility of Ilha do Mel. Sao Paulo is the sixth largest city by population in the world; almost 20 million people reside in the greater metropolitan area of the megalopolis. We'd booked accommodation in a dorm at a small hostel in the upscale neighborhood of Vila Madalena. It turned out to be very nice and the staff were great. Again, we really appreciated that they spoke English since our Portuguese skills had still not evolved beyond simple pleasantries like bom dia (pronounced "bomb gia"- good day), Oi! (an informal hello), and obrigado (thank you).
Sao Paulo has excellent public transportation and we really liked the straightforward metro system. We used it to visit an art gallery (Museu de Arte de Sao Paulo, more commonly known as M.A.S.P.) near our hostel that happened to have free admission one of the days we were sight-seeing and to get into the center where we craned our necks at the seemingly endless rows of skyscrapers.
We'd read that the central market was phenomenal and a great place to have lunch. Wandering around the approximate area we finally found an entrance to the market but were a bit underwhelmed after all the hype. It seemed we'd arrived a tad late as the merchants were mostly packing it in for the day. On the opposite corner of the open space we saw a busy cafeteria (more like a restaurant but they'd call it a cafeteria) so we meandered in that direction in search of lunch. We found a table and our friendly waiter helped us decipher the menu. It seemed they offered a couple of set lunches based on the day of the week. This was when we learned that weekdays don't have actually names in Portuguese; Monday is just called segunda-feira, which basically means second day, Tuesday is third day and so on. Only Saturday and Sunday have non-numerical references - they are Sabado and Domingo, respectively; same as in Spanish.
|Street in Sao Paulo, Brazil.|
Anyway, we both ordered the meal with roast chicken and it was delicious, albeit way too much food with all the rice and beans and fries they served. Feeling perhaps a touch overly sated, we tumbled back out into the street with no particular destination in mind. Only a short way from our lunch spot we stumbled upon the real central market. And then we fully comprehended all the hype. It was amazing. Artfully arranged fruit stands, butcher shops proudly displaying fresh hunks of meat, stalls loaded with delectable cheeses and savory snacks such as olives and salami, and bakeries stocked with cookies, cakes, flan, tarts and no shortage of dulce de leite (caramel from milk). It was a bustling place with much of the nearby office crowd enjoying a deli sandwich (and a beer) on their lunch break. An upper floor housed several restaurants that looked and smelled incredible. We gazed longingly at the food brought out to their patrons, though we were happy with the lunch we'd eaten at the other market (probably spent far less money too).
|Central Market in Sao Paulo.|
|Central Market in Sao Paulo.|
After spending a satisfactory amount of time appreciating the market, we headed to the Santander Bank building and waited in line to go up to the thirty-somethingth floor for a view of the cityscape. Two elevators, a few flights of stairs and a spiral staircase later we emerged in the observation room. It had started to rain a bit just before we reached the top so we weren't permitted to access the outdoor viewing platform. That would've been neat but it was still very impressive to see the expanse of Sao Paulo through the windows. The city just spread out forever, it seemed.
|A little bit of the megalopolis.|
Boasting a diverse array of foreign cuisine restaurants, Sao Paulo is a great city to eat out in. It might surprise you to learn that we chose to go out for pizza but the large number of Italian immigrants living in Sao Paulo has resulted in the presence of countless superb pizzerias. If you ask the locals, their pizza is better than that of Italy. We did enjoy some delicious pizza at the popular restaurant "Bras" but I don't know if I would go so far as to say it outranked pizza from the motherland. We also went out for sushi in the Liberdade district, aka Japantown. So, Chris and I both got to indulge in our favorite foods only a day apart!
From Sao Paulo we returned to the coast for a few days in the colonial town of Paraty, located in a large, island-rich bay surrounded by lush mountains. The city's Old Town is gorgeous, though its authentic cobblestone streets are downright treacherous. Especially in flip-flops.
|Doorway discussion in Old Town, Paraty.|
|Moonlight in Old Town, Paraty.|
|Old Town street, Paraty.|
We ended up staying in a huge hostel after the place we'd wanted to stay ended up being full (wasn't there a lesson I was supposed to have learned about pre-booking?). Even though we aren't really much for partying it did have a good vibe and the big bar area was always packed in the evenings. The weather was great so we decided to hike to the next beach over to spend the day. We experienced epic failure finding the proper route to take us over a forested hill and were scrambling desperately up the steep side, clawing at roots and dirt when we looked up to see a uniformed officer staring down at us. I nervously shouted that we were stuck but I said it in English so I don't know whether he understood. He just kept staring at us, probably mocking the foolish gringos in his head. He walked away when we reached the top.
After the unintentional detour we spent the day at Jabaquara beach, sipping cerveja and gobbling up bite-sized pieces of a breaded whitefish while we watched the gentle waves roll in. The water was actually so calm that it felt as though we were at a lake, not at the ocean. On the other hand, all the islands and the green mountainous landscape reminded me of the BC coast.
|View of Paraty Bay from the hilltop we reached via an improvised route.|
The next day we'd made arrangements (or so we thought... stupid ditzy hostel receptionist) to go kayaking around the bay. We joined a group of 3 Aussie guys and a British girl; our guide was an Argentinean girl. We kayaked to a remote beach first and went ashore where were told we could wander along the shore or swim or whatever. The property up from the beach was private so we couldn't go far. Next we kayaked to a small inlet where we had to get out and walk our kayaks to the beach in order to access the mangroves. The shallows were comprised of a squishy mud that absolutely gave me the heebie-jeebies as I struggled to hasten to shore. We got into the mangroves and I was totally feeling in my element. Mangroves are my favorite. So long as I'm not swimming in them. Unfortunately our guide had neglected to consider the tide and we had to turn around after going only a few hundred meters because the water level was too low. Bummer.
Even more of a bummer (slightly, I mean we were still kayaking in the beautiful sunshine) was that our next destination was the very same beach where Chris and I had spent the previous afternoon. We beached the kayaks and ordered lunch at one of the beachfront restaurants. While it was being prepared we walked to the end of the beach where there was allegedly special therapeutic mud that we could cover ourselves in if we wanted. Chris was totally not into that and, after watching the Aussie boys ham it up for a bit, he began strolling back towards the restaurant. I'd decided to just cover my legs so cleanup would be relatively easy but the moment Chris was out of earshot one of the Aussie boys decided to include me in their fun. It wasn't so bad. In truth, the mud was thick and silky so it felt good on the skin. I gave in and joined them, frolicking like a pig in shit, happy as could be. I was cleaning mud out of my ears and hair for a good while afterwards but it was worth it.
After Paraty we went to Rio de Janeiro, our final stop in Brazil. I was pretty excited to visit Rio actually. I felt a strange sort of comfort knowing I would soon glimpse the iconic landmarks that make Rio unmistakably recognizable. Perhaps that's exactly what it was; Rio would be the first city on our itinerary that I could've easily conjured an image of despite never having been there.
We'd booked accommodations in the dorm of an extremely hip hostel on the recommendation of Ali (the guy we met in Puerto Iguazu). It was located just a block from the beach in the upscale neighborhood of Leblon. We started our visit off right with a stroll along the malecón (waterfront walkway). Rio is an undeniably attractive city. At least from our vantage points... not sure how things look from the favelas (slum neighborhoods). We took things easy and just enjoyed the city and the beach. Oh and we saw the new Batman movie in a cool old theater about 8 blocks from our hostel.
|Chris soaking up the sun on Leblon beach.|
|Tiny monkey hanging out at the top of Sugarloaf Mountain.|
We indulged in one touristy activity and took the tram up Sugarloaf mountain for a view of the city and sunset. It was epic. See photos because they are better than any rambling description I could give. Although there were quite a few people up there it didn't feel overly crowded. Well constructed, spacious viewing areas I suppose.
We didn't do any partying in Rio. Maybe that was a mistake but we aren't really partiers, especially when it's just the two of us. Our hostel had a massive tour group (churchy-folk, we suspected) and a few other guests, some of whom spoke English but all of whom were in their early or pre-twenties. What I mean to say is we didn't hit it off with anyone in particular and didn't really feel like braving the club scene on our own. What if the locals tried to make us dance?? Gasp. Maybe we'll go back to Rio with a group of friends some day. I don't really feel like I missed out on anything but who knows.
|A bit of Rio as visible from Sugarloaf Mountain.|
|Chris making friends with a tiny monkey.|
|Helicopter coming in to land after a tour; statue of Christ the Redeemer in background.|
|Crowd assembled to watch sunset from Sugarloaf.|
|Iconic statue of Christ the Redeemer overlooking Rio de Janeiro.|
|Sunset from Sugarloaf Mountain in Rio.|
|Cable car descending from Sugarloaf mountain at dusk.|
The strip on the far left is the famous Copacabana Beach.
Our relatively brief foray into Brazil was without a doubt one of the more expensive portions of our adventure (second only to special multi-day tours and our trip to the Galapagos) but we definitely feel it was worth it. In fact, I'm more interested in returning to Brazil sometime in the future than I think I would've been had I not had this little taste. I think I might work on learning some Portuguese before the next trip there though....