Thursday, April 12, 2012

Iguazu Falls: Bigger than Niagara.... sometimes

After four days in Buenos Aires, we flew to Puerto Iguazu to spend a few days viewing the Iguazu Falls, which occur when an amazingly wide section of the Iguazu River, flowing between Brazil´s Parana state and Argentine´s Misiones Province, drops hundred of feet to form a narrow channel that shortly thereafter joins the Parana River at the meeting point of these two countries with Uruguay.

When we got to the Saint George hotel, where we were staying, we got the good news -- we had been upgraded from a standard to a larger room -- and the bad news, that our  room was not quite ready, so we ducked into a restaurant across the street from our hotel, Color.  We had an excellent mixed grill of local river fish: dorado, suburi, pacu and one other.  Not only was each fish delicious, but the quantity as so large that we left with a large portion of leftovers.  We put our bags in our room and rushed out to the  bus to the national park.  The hotel's location could not have been better for that purpose -- right across the street from the bus station.

It cost about $4 for the round-trip bus tickets; the ride itself took barely 25 minutes.  The charge for park admission was roughly $22, with half-priced admission available the next consecutive day, something we definitely had in mind to do because, arriving at around 4 PM, we did not have nearly enough time to explore the park before the 6 PM closing time.  There are three main paths to the main falls -- the upper path, which takes one along the top of the line of falls; the lower path, which provides access to viewing platforms located about halfway down the falls (providing for a much more impressive view of the power of the falls); and the walkway to the biggest of the falls, the Gargantua del Diablo.  The maps make it appear as if the only way to get to the Gargantua is by rail, and the last train to the Gargantua leaves shortly after 4 PM.  So, we decided to walk the upper and lower paths, saving the Gargantua for our second day in the Argentine park.

We did the upper path first.  The walkways consisted of fairly broad paved sections and somewhat narrower section consisting of metal grates with handrails on either side.  The landscape was lovely, but we passed place after place where there was a label or even a viewing platform for a particularly named waterfall, but no water flowing, sometimes not even water sitting in holes in the rocks; sometimes just a trickle going up to the edge and going over in a narrow stream.  We did see a few larger falls, but it was apparent that the broad line of falls that are shown in all the tourist books was not there for us to see.  We could only imagine the grandeur that the falls would display when they were full.  In fact, when we took the lower path, we passed a display sign showing what the falls look like when full; this photo reveals the contrast between the sign's promise and the reality that we witnessed.
The advertisement and the reality

View of Gargantua del Diablo

We enjoyed the walk and the sights, but were disappointed that, apparently, we had come at the wrong time. In fact, we ran into a man who told us that he works as a photographer on one of the boats that visitors can ride on the river toward the falls, but which were suspended because the water was so low that the rapids were considered too dangerous (it was apparent that the operators of the boats launching from the Brazilian side of the river had no such compunctions).  He said that it would be two or three days before the boats would run again.  This was particularly crushing because we would be gone before the water was high enough to provide the standard sights.  But he took the very nice photo of us shown above.

On the way back to the hotel, we picked up some fruit to combine with our leftover grilled fish for  a picnic lunch the next day, and a bottles of Quilmes stout to enjoy in our room.  After we bought these, we noticed a very odd hotel rule -- no bringing outside food and drink.  We decided that such a stupid rule is made to be ignored, and happily the staff made no effort to enforce it.  Before our snack, though, Nancy headed down to the exercise room while I headed for the hotel pool.  A luxuriously large pool, long enough for fifteen strokes in each direction -- reasonable lap swimming for a hotel pool.

We headed to El Quincho de Tio Querido for dinner. Because the grilled river fish had been so good at lunch, I tried grilled suburi with a roquefort sauce.  It was excellent.  We could not resist getting a wine from the Los Haroldos wine bodega given its play on my father's name.  It was a pretty good wine, in fact.  A small  band of guitarists was performing and singing, the lead singer's voice was particularly sweet, adding to our enjoyment of the evening.

We had planned to get going early the next morning, because we had in mind to start our visit to the park early enough to have a reasonable chance of seeing wildlife, but I woke up before dark because of an additional problem with our choice of hotel -- the bus station was across the street, which was convenient, but the street was large enough that noisy motorbikes could be heard being gunned down the road from about 5 to 5:30 AM onward.

As we took the bus back to the park, it began to drizzle.  We decided that our first stop  in the park would be the Macuco trail, which is supposed to provide the best chance of seeing wildlife.  This was one path that wasn't paved, but we saw no wildlife other than a few interesting birds and ants of various sizes.  The only mammals we saw were the ever-present coatimundi and one midsized rodent whose name we did not know.

These coatimundi were photographed along the paved green trail, which leads to all the others

We never figured out the name of this bird, but we saw it many times during our walks through the falls parks

One walker came out of the bush having followed an armadillo (he showed us the photos on his camera); we did not see that one, but we saw one more out in the open later in the day, on Isla San Martin.

The path ended at the small Arrechea waterfall and a swimming hole -- the one place in the entire park where swimming was allowed.  But we had not brought our bathing suits.

We headed back to the main area, debating whether to see the Gargantua next -- surely this was the main attraction, and should not be missed -- or whether to go over to Isla San Martin first, which made some sense because the last boat across the river to the island leaves at 3:15, an hour earlier than the last train to Gargantua.  We decided to be lazy and take the train from the central station (actually located at near the entry area) to the Estacion  Catarata, where a strange procedure decided our course for us -- apparently our train was not going to go on to Gargantua but rather was heading back to the central station, and the line was so long that we would not likely make the first train, while the next train not going until 25 minutes later.  So we walked back into the inferior trail and walked toward the turnoff for the boat to Isla San Martin.
As we left the tracks, we noted this pretty little bird:

As we walked, we noticed that the falls seemed to have somewhat more water than the previous day -- so obviously the rain was doing us some good!
The falls with more water than our first day

There was, happily, no line for the boat, which leaves every fifteen minutes, so we gained confidence that we could see the whole island and yet be sure of getting back to the train station in time to get the train to Gargantua even if we had to wait on a long line.  After we were dropped on the other side, we climbed several flights of metal stairs to the trail level of the island, which was about at the same height as the inferior trail itself.  The trails, partly dirt and partly metal grate, led to three nice lookout points.  One was a viewing platform that looked back toward the falls we had seen the day before. Seeing this, we were certain that there was more water than the day before; some falls were more plentiful, and in some places there were now falls where the day before there had been only labels for falls.  

Another viewing platform, the Ventana, looked toward the place where the "island" met the cliffs of the mainland; we could see a tree loaded with dozens of buzzards, and a window in a rock wall.

The ventana in on Isla San Martin Iguazu Falls National Park

The third viewpoint was not  platform but just a few places along the trail on the far edge of the island, looking toward the Gargantua.   It would have been nice to enjoy our picnic lunch at the viewing areas, but the platforms were too littered with bird shit to make it comfortable to sit there, so we hiked back down to the shore and ate our fruit and grilled fish leftovers on the shores of Isla San Martin while looking at the line of falls above.  One of the best lunches we had had the entire  vacation.

Then onto the Gargantua.  There was little line for the train, and off we went.  It turned out that there was a road running along the railroad tracks, so that it would be possible to get to the Gargantua on foot.  But the train ride was long, perhaps a couple of miles, and there was nothing to see from the train or the road, and no interesting trails onto which to turn.  So there really would have been no reason to walk other than, perhaps, to get to the Gargantua after the last train  has left.  After we reached the Estacion Gargantua, we headed off on the path to the falls themselves.  The trail was all built in metal grate, taking us across a broad section of the river, from island to island.  Here we could see for ourselves the source of all of the falls, a very broad river that barely seemed to be flowing at all.

Some of the water meandered along until it reached the broad line of cliffs from which several different falls were formed, turning into a solid line of falls; other water funneled into the Gargantua, the Devil's Throat, where it decided in a huge rush, raising clouds of mist that could be seen for miles and making  huge roar.  In some parts, the water was downright green as it poured over the final rocks before descending to the narrow channel below, while in other parts the water was foamy and white.
Gargantua del Diablo

The sight was awesome -- not bigger than Niagara by itself, but still quite something. We looked from various vantage points, taking turns with other families at the outer  railings, and  taking turns using each others' cameras to take pictures.
Posed before Gargantue del Diablo

We  lingered as long as we could to watch this marvelous sight, then we made our way back to the path back to Estacion Gargantua, and then back to the entry area.

Before we left, we took a look at the exposition area.  The part of the exhibition on the river and falls themselves was distressingly lacking in substance, focused more on how wonderful it was that the government was so concerned about the natural environment than with providing information about what it was that had been preserved.  The second part of the exhibition, devoted to the population history in the area, beginning with the Guarani, was more informative.  We headed out to wait for the next bus, but saw a bus that was late in leaving and ran to catch it.

That evening, we tried another local grill, Maria Preta.  The grilled suburi in a mustard sauce and the pumpkin tart were tasty, and there was enough left over to have a nice snack the following day.  A solo guitarist and singer began performing about half way through our meal, and although we liked what we heard, his performance was barely audible in the indoor/outdoor table we had chosen.

As we walked about the town, we noticed that although there were traffic lights at a few intersections in the immediate downtown area, there were NO stops signs at all.  Instead, humps in the road were used as traffic-calming devices at the intersections (and these were serious humps --  both cars and busses slowed down to a crawl when crossing) them.   Nancy was particularly interested in the paving stones used on many of the side streets -- they were irregularly shaped, but there was a pattern in that there was a line visible about every three feet going across the road.
Paving stones seen from our hotel room window

Before going to sleep, I wanted to finish up my blog post from our last day in Buenos Aires.  But I learned that the hotel's wifi is available only in the lobby; and even then it is hard to get a strong signal. In truth, even two bars of access were available only by standing right next to the reception counter. The hotel also makes computers available, hardwired into the Internet; but one can only buy access in thirty-minute segments, after which a new card must be used, with a new code to be entered.  So if you are in the middle of a photo upload when the access goes off, the download crashed and has to be restarted.  Even even then, the computers have a low-end operating system, which kept crashing my browser.  Altogether a nasty experience.  The hotel staff could see how frustrated I was, and tried to give me a bunch of leftover cards with a few minutes each; but once I was done with getting the post up, I gave up.  I appreciated the gesture, but the problem was the system.  In this day and age, a hotel that purports to be one the better ones in town, as the Saint George does, has no excuse for providing such crappy Internet access.

There were certainly some nice things about the hotel besides its location -- our room was nice, and the breakfast was an excellent spread, for example; I have mentioned the excellent pool.  But I just got the feeling that maybe this was a hotel that had seen better days.  Our room had a ceiling fan for example -- back in DC we use them far more often than our air conditioners, because they use less electricity and besides we don't particularly like the feel of air conditioned air.  But the ceiling fan in our room didn't work, and when we asked about that I got the impression that none of the ceiling fans in the hotel work.

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