Through my eyes

living my life without regrets

Sunday, February 05, 2012

Catataratas Del Iguazü

By far the best transportation in Argentina is the bus. With the distances between major tourist attractions stretched across the land, we opted to visit Iguazü falls this way. The bus trip itself was an experience. A taxi delivered us to the only Terminal for buses in BA. You can imagine how large this place is, how many people squeeze together here to take a bus to anywhere, starting or ending their trip right here at the Terminal de Omnibus de Retiro, or just Retiro as the Porteños call it.
Yes, it is a beehive of activity, but well organized ‘if’ you know the system. That is where I fall short; my Spanish is just not good enough to find the correct ins and outs of the BA Retiro. I asked what platform we should be on and was told 37 or 55, about 200 meters apart from each other. We arrived too early to receive a definite answer. Ok, off we go to take a look for ourselves. This place is huge and is full of people. Each passenger or visitor carries suitcases, boxes, kids or strollers and each one is a bit confused and anxious to be at the right gate or just get out of this place. Yet it is not pandemonium. It is an amazing place just to visit, even if you do not take the bus.

After some time I located the correct information board and could read the departure section. Our bus ‘Tigre Iguazü”, was leaving from platform 36, close enough. We waited and about 5 minutes before our departure time a man walked up to us and told us to go on the ‘Via Bariloche’ bus on platform 38. Puzzled, I asked him if he was sure and he smiled and just nodded his head. Welcome to Argentina! All works well and is organized but you need to stay awake and flexible.
The bus left on time at 7 PM and travelled the 1360 KM (844Miles) in 16 ½ hours. We had booked a deluxe sleeper seat, like a business class seat on a plane, wide and large and big enough to sleep in although it only semi-reclines. Dinner was served at 9 PM, Breakfast at 8 AM the next day, just like on an airplane. Our bus was full, a lot of people do travel by bus, reservations are recommended. The bus was clean and even had a steward. The bus lines are run just like the airline industry runs their fleets.
I slept fairly well in my seat and while trying to go to sleep I thought how strange it is, to sleep with all those people behind me, in front of me. Sleeping arrangements are just a delusion anyway. We all sleep with each other. I do sleep with everybody next to me, too. I am just separated by a wall or, by a floor below or a ceiling above, like in a hotel for example. Is it not all delusionary? We all do sleep at night, together, some even on top of us or below us. Think about it!
We arrived in Puerto Iguazü at 11 AM, actually 30 minutes ahead of schedule. We were told someone would be at the arrival gate holding up a name card and would take us to our Hostel. Ok, we arrived early so we waited 10 minutes, then 20 and then 30 minutes and it was 11:30AM by now, our scheduled arrival time. At 11.45, I was pacing the floor, steaming inside and ready to take a taxi when Carlos walked up, nonchalant and with just a small “I am sorry I am late” and took us to the Hostel named ‘Stop’. On the way in Carlos pointed out a restaurant he recommended for dinner. The Restaurant, La Rueda, is the best Parrilla in town, according to Carlos. We do have dinner there later on and it was excellent.
Our Hostel is located in the middle of town and is a great place for backpackers, for young people, for bargain accommodations, it is not a Hotel. While clean, it lacks all the niceties of a B&B or even really hot water. We made do and it served us well for 2 nights but it scored low on my scale of good places. Yes, it is very convenient to any Restaurant or shops or even the bus depot. This particular Hostel just lacks the ‘nice’ feeling that older people like me are looking for.
The next day started off early and we had arranged for a tour and a pickup scheduled at 7:30 AM at the Hostel. Like clockwork, this tour ran on time and was amazing.
Mirian, our tour guide, was a pro. With just a few detours to other hotels, adding more people, the bus arrived at the National Park entrance.
Hordes of buses, tons of people spilled into the park this early of the day, all arriving to maximize the cool morning, to use the full day for the excursion. Mirian kept her cool and organized us well.
After paying our 100 Pesos admission fee to Mirian, who bought all the tickets for us, made us wear a name tag with her number and name on it, we followed her into the Park and walked to a train station. With wonderful charm, Mirian got us all aboard the train and even though we were scattered, somehow she collected us all at the other end.
Our first stop, after taking the propane gas powered train, was the ‘Throat of the Devil’ Cataract. A very long, narrow, people filled, zigzagging catwalk, sometimes just a few yards above water level, meanders towards the main attraction of the Iguazü falls, about a mile into the river. Garganta Del Diablo can be seen from quite a bit away by the spray it creates rising above its rim. But nothing prepares you for the view from the platform once you arrive. The platform is almost immediately beside the drop off. Pictures cannot do the experience justice.

Over a large area of the River Iguazü, the water drops into a hole. While seemingly calm, even tranquil above this waterfall, a sudden explosion of greed, of thirst erupts from the bowels of the earth itself, sucking the water into it, draining it.
This hole is almost totally round and it seems indeed as if the devil, hot and thirsty from living in hell, swallows the much needed water down his throat to quench his thirst.

Chaos erupts when so much water, all at once exposed to gravity and freed to fall without order or guidance, is released. Falling and falling it swirls, falls, hisses and sprays down and down into oblivion. The power is immense, the water roars. The force of Nature is plainly visible and awe overtakes me.

The scene becomes unbelievable yet here I am a witness to it all.
The wonder is that Garganta Del Diablo is but one of about 275 cataracts; admittedly the biggest, the most dangerous perhaps, but nevertheless one of many.

In the rainy season the system of cascades swells to a total of about 350 falls, all within the vicinity of the width of the River Iguazü, which is at this point 2.7 Km wide (1.7Miles). The water falls for 82 Meters (270 feet) so it is not the height that impresses but the multitude of the waterfalls, the diversity, and the difference in panoramas, in angles of view. Each step on the well laid out walks gives a new perspective. It would take more than our allotted day to see the details if I were to study it.
Back on the train and off again at the next stop. We walked and walked, now down steep stairs, taking pictures along the way of the many falls. I am impressed. Over and over I see the waters calm above the precipice and then the sudden release of the power of the water once it is released over the edge. The contrast is so visible; I am walking right alongside the edge of good and evil, up and down, calm and chaos. I am exposed but only to the mist and roar of it, protected by manmade, sturdy walks that aid me in the encounter without allowing me to come to harm. It is a new experience to walk such a tightrope-like trail.
The group now split up, some kept on walking but we decided to visit the ‘from below’ side of the falls by taking a Zodiac boat tour. This is easier said than done because it means going down and down 300 steps to reach the river’s edge way below the falls. With the help of our guide Mirian, who hooked us up with a local photographer as a new guide, we took the easier, more evened out shortcut (only 100 steps down)
and finally made it to the dock for our boat trip. We paid 130 Pesos each to take this boat.

The temperature was now 39 C (108F) and the humidity is near 90%. Carol and I disagree slightly about the numbers but it was hot. I felt it was hotter, even more humid. On the edge of the river, below the falls, with the spray in the distance, we were hot, sweaty and miserable. No real shade to hide in. I crawled under the ledge of a rock, squeezing into the shadow of an overhang, a spot the boat crew uses to find relief from the blasting sun. Carol sat on a rock under an umbrella while we waited 20 minutes for the next boat to arrive. Did I say it was hot? It was hot. So much so, that Carol felt her legs get wobbly walking in this heat.
Once on the boat, the breeze created by the speed of the ride felt wonderful. The boat operator guided his boat towards the Throat of the Devil Waterfall but did not get close enough. Was it the half hearted attempt due to the strong opposing current, the force of the falling water, the depth restrictions, and the rocks in the way or his superstitions? I will never know. We did not get close to Garganta Del Diablo from below. Instead we were driven right under the “Salto San Martin” Falls. Yes, through the mist, and under the full force of the falling waters from about 270 feet above. How can I explain this experience?

I was not scared, yet I could not look up nor even open my eyes at first to look up. I tried but could not do it. I could not operate my waterproof camera; I was in self preservation mode. I used one hand to hold on to the boat, the other to shield my eyes to protect them from the falling water. It was instinct. I moved my head bending downward, away from the full force of the splashing. Water roared past me, soaking all my clothes instantly and cooling me off as well. The water was not cold; it felt like a tepid shower. I could breathe but the water, bucket upon bucket load, never ending, sprayed and swirled off me, mixing itself with air and foaming, misting off my body. I believe I held my breath but I do not remember. The experience did not last that long, it was just an in and out.

Then the boat went in a 2nd time to repeat the experience, again soaking me and giving me a longer exposure to the drenching effect. Again there was no way to look up or to take pictures. I held my hand in front of my eyes, protecting them in a fashion similar to the brim of a baseball cap. The agitating water was all around me. I was under the falls, pummeled by water hitting me from above, never ending. I heard the roar of the water, the constant gushing; I felt the full force of the pressure. I heard the whine of the motor going further forward only to be pushed back by the pressure of the oncoming water.
The boat finally veered off, shedding the accumulated water on its deck by leaving on a steep angle. A feeling of relief but also of shared excitement flowed through all the passengers. Smiles erupted all around us. We were all wet to the skin, hair matted down.

We just looked back, stunned for a few moments to have been exposed to such raw power, so simple yet so strong. It was a unique view of Iguazü falls and while short, we all left with a smile on our faces.

The boat took us down river after our soaking and immediately the heat gripped us again. Dense, lush jungle greeted us now on the side of the Iguazü River. Red soil was exposed near the banks. A few roads in the jungle showed the red earth, the color so ubiquitous even the paper currency in the area turns red from exposure to the dust. We were told that the mixture of soil, water and heat makes pine trees, that take 7 years to grow in let’s say Scandinavia, grow here in two years to the same dimensions.
The water is starting to calm after its exciting experience with gravity, getting back into a familiar rhythm. We disembarked about two miles downstream in the jungle, back again in the sweltering heat; but now we were wearing soaking wet clothes. Luckily, before we started the boat trip, we put items that could not be wet, such as wallets, passports, even shoes, inside a water proof bag. Once off the boat we collected our dry stuff leaving the waterproof bags behind.
Having done the best we could to look presentable we now trekked up endless steps, (100)
always leading upward away from the river to a truck station. We were still wet.
Old army trucks, converted to tourist vehicles to explore the jungle delivered us to our lunch stop. On the way a futile attempt was made to educate us about the wildlife along the way but with the noise of the trucks we saw no life signs of animals, only an occasional coati, a hog-nosed, raccoon like creature.

We had a buffet lunch in the Park in wet clothes, good but too expensive at 100 pesos per person without tips and drinks. Then the bus dropped us off at our hostel about 4:30 PM. Lucky the AC worked in our room; we were still hot and wet and not even in the mood for dinner that night. First thing we did was change our still wet clothes and then we just passed out for the rest of the afternoon. We ate 2 plums each for dinner that Carol had taken from the lunch buffet.
Our trip back to BA’s Retiro, the next day, was without incident and again we slept on an overnighter. I say without incident because now getting a late pickup from the tour agency seemed to be the rule. Having arranged a 2.45 PM pick up at the Hostel, later revised to be 3.00 PM, turned into a 3.20 PM pick up for a 3.45 PM bus trip. The buses leave on time, they are like clockwork. Getting to the bus station just on time was too close for my comfort level. I am more North American oriented; I am driven to visions of missing a bus if not at the station ahead of time. For Argentineans, the pace of life is different, more relaxed, and more nonchalant. The heat must have something to do with it; I noticed I walked slower in Puerto Iguazü than I usually walk. I noticed that I was less worried about missing the bus in Puerto Iguazü than I was in Buenos Aires. Jungle living sure is different, pine trees might grow faster here, but I seemed to slow down.
All that said and done, back in BA having fought traffic jams again,
in our pad again writing this, I end by saying the trip was a wonderful, new experience and showed me that Nature although seemingly benign, has tremendous power. And a simple thing like falling water, calls people from every corner of the world to bear witness.
We met a man from Vietnam who travelled 38 hours by plane to visit the falls.
We met a lady from Colorado who just had to see the falls.
There were many of such people, all called somehow by the majesty of it all.

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