2010 SOUTH AMERICA TRIP REPORT
Upon embarking at Puerto Iguazu, the first order of business was finding a hostel for the night. I thought about staying at the Sheraton hotel inside the national park, but even with a U$S170/night corporate rate I could not justify the extra expense. As I made my way down the street from the bus station, I stopped in a small hostel and reserved a room for the night for about U$S10. I often ask myself why I subject myself to hostels with no hot water, cardboard-like mattresses, and unwashed sheets, but then I try to convince myself how much money hostels have saved me over the last five years. It’s becoming a monumental task…
I had a very specific plan for this Friday: visit Paraguay and Brazil. Although both countries are only a relatively short distance from Puerto Iguazu, both technically require visas for U.S. citizens to enter. I had read many reports on Lonely Planet that Brazilian immigration officials would often wave tourists, even Americans, over the border while instructing them that they could not remain in Brazil overnight. Recent reports, however, suggested that Brazilian officials had tightened up border patrol and were not allowing anyone into the country without a proper visa. Somewhere, I read that the local public bus to Paraguay from Argentina goes right through Brazil without stopping at passport control. The border checkpoint in Paraguay is not right at the border but a few miles into Ciudad El Este, so my only concern was getting through Brazil.
A local bus was waiting when I returned to the bus station and after paying the driver four pesos, I made my way to the back of the bus. I really had no idea what I was in store for, but resolved to check two more countries off my list, while at the same time *hopefully* seeing some interesting sites and meeting some interesting people.
The bus quickly filled up. I didn’t exactly fit into the crowd and was unsure of how the border checkpoint would work, but moments later we pulled out of the bus station and rumbled down the road to Brazil. Presently, we came to the Argentina border, where everyone was required to alight and have their passports stamped out of the country.
As we entered a no-man’s land between Argentina and Brazil, my heart started racing. What would the border agents say? Would I be allowed to enter Brazil for the day so I could see the falls from the Brazilian side? Turns out there is a special lane for public bus traffic that bypasses the border checkpoint. Moments later I was in Brazil.
I could have hopped off at the first stop over the border, but continued on to Paraguay. After about 15 minutes of driving in Brazil, we approached the “Friendship Bridge” that links Brazil and Paraguay. Traffic was stacked, but about 20 minutes later I was over the border and into Paraguay.
Looking out over the Friendship Bridge.
In Ciudad El Este, I jumped off the bus and was greeted with a frantic street scene. Vendors lined the street and thousands of people were milling about. Drops of rain began to fall, but the temperature remained moderate. From my guidebook, I read that Ciudad El Este specialized in cheap electronics. As I explored the city for the next hour and a half I not only noticed a great deal of electronics, but the usual knock-offs found in so many shopping centers around the world. Fake designer purses. Check. Fake Rolex watches. Check. Fake designer sunglasses. Check. I had already had my fill in Marrakech, so I bought nothing.
I stopped for a late breakfast at a schawarma stand that really hit the spot.
Now came the question of how I would get back into Brazil. There were public busses, but the border crossing was much, much more crowded than coming in the other direction (recall, there is no formal border checkpoint as you enter Paraguay, but there is in Brazil). There was pedestrian access on the bridge, but that would have required a stop on the other side of the bridge to check my passport—I couldn’t risk that. For anyone who has traveled to this region of the world, you know what that leaves: motorcycle taxis!
I hired a motorcycle taxi for a buck to take me over the bridge. After putting on a helmet, off we went—weaving through traffic on the bridge to get me back to Foz, Brazil in under five minutes, with no stop at the border. The plan worked perfectly and I enjoyed my first motorcycle ride in years. Check back here later for a short clip of my ride from Paraguay into Brazil that I intend to post on YouTube.
Safely back in Brazil, it was now just before 2pm. I started walking, thinking I could make it to the falls by foot. Shoulda brought a map along… I walked for miles, retracing the path my bus had driven earlier in the day. I kept passing road signs to “Cataratas” (the falls), but there were no kilometer indicators to show how much further they were.
A look back at the Brazil-Paraguay border from the Brazil side
By 2:45p, the rain had picked up and my stomach was growling. I came up to a large indoor shopping mall and ducked inside to find some food and escape the rain. There were many choices, including American options like McDonald’s and Burger King, but I tried out Brazilian-style Mexican food.
The restaurant workers arranged this, not me.
For U$S10, it was not a lot of food, but it hit the spot. Now refueled, I stepped back outside where the rain had dissipated and continued my walk toward Cataratas. I walked for the next hour, including briskly up a large hill that left me sweating, but still no sign of the falls. Since it was after 4p, I was beginning to worry that I would not make it before the falls closed. I stopped at a parking lot where three cabbies were parked and asked one of them how far the falls were. 12 km down the road…
So much for walking. I negotiated a price of $12 for the ride (shouldn’t have let on that I was in a rush to get to the falls…) and we took off in a late model white Peugeot that reeked of cheap cologne inside. The ride was quick and I was in line to buy tickets by 4:20p.
Ticket prices are determined by your country of residency, so I had to pay about $20 to access the park—a very fair price for what I was about to see. Past the formal park entrance there was a small queue for a bus that would transport visitors the 10 or so kilometers from the visitor’s center (no time for a introductory video today) to the falls. The rain had stopped and the sun was peaking out of the shadows, making the late afternoon ideal for outdoor exploration.
I was on the hunt for birds, especially toucans, and carefully scanned the forest glades that encumbered the roadway as bus rumbled down the road. No dice. The bus stopped outside a large hotel that offered easy access to the falls. Signs directing passengers to hiking trails flanked both sides of the road and the double-decker bus, only about 1/4 full, emptied out.
This wasn’t my hostel.
Walking down a flight of steps, I was met with a breathtaking image of the falls. Niagara Falls is impressive, but this took the cake. For the next hour I strolled around the grounds and snapped many pictures. The weather was perfect and the sunset was spectacular.
Yes, those are people out there.
Bus back to park entrance.
Now came the task of finding my way back to Argentina. Outside the park entrance I spied a city bus pulling up a few hundred yards away. I boarded and thankfully the cashier onboard (how very Russian…) spoke some English and said I would have to transfer to another bus to take me back into Argentina, but he would signal when I should get off.
The bus pulled away and made about a dozen stops before the cashier gave me the sign to alight. I hopped out with a group of ten other youngsters and crossed the street to a dimly lit bench. Less than ten minutes later, a bus pulled up with an Argentina flag printed on the side and a “Puerto Iguazu – Foz do Iguazu” sign. I boarded, not knowing exactly where we were going, but we soon arrived at the border and were required to disembark to be stamped back into Argentina.
A deliberate artistic effect…
The process was painless and no visas are required at Argentina land crossings (though I already had mine). The bus met the crowd on the other side of the checkpoint and after waiting for the few last stragglers, we continued the bus ride to Puerto Iguazu.
It was after 8pm by the time I got back, but I still had two more tasks to accomplish before retiring: a haircut and dinner. Earlier in the day I noted a small a hair salon a couple blocks from the bus station. The shop was open late and I had got a great haircut for less than U$S8.
Puerto Iguazu, now a major tourist destination, is filled with high-priced (by Argentinean standards) restaurants. I wasn’t interested: I like eating where the locals eat. I found a little Italian place down the street from my hostel that may not have been a local-hangout, but the prices were reasonable. I ordered lasagna (about U$S3 [+ U$S1.50 for the sauce…]) and was not exactly pleased to see a large wood-burning oven in the corner of the restaurant (that apparently was a decoration) go unused as my pasta was warmed up in a microwave on the other side of the small dining room. I like processed, frozen lasagna too, so the meal was fine.