Days 1-2: BIG TIME TRAVEL
It was Thursday morning at 5am when Julie and I awoke in Los Angeles. Having been all packed and ready to go, we freshened up and drove directly to LAX. It felt like a work day, but we knew we were about to embark on one of the craziest weekends we’ve ever done.
Since my vacation days at work were quite limited (from our recent New York and Iceland trip), we decided to seize the moment and take advantage of our 3-day Labor Day weekend (plus a couple of days off to make it a 5-day weekend). Why was this crazy you might ask?
Well, we were basically doing a weekend trip to Iguazú Falls. Basically, it was 2 nights at the falls surrounded by heavy days of traveling. My coworkers and friends think we’re nuts, but we figured if we’re going to start a family some time next year, we mind as well get all the adventurous traveling out of the way before kids tie you down, right?
Anyways at around 6:30am, we were at LAX and went through check-in and security without a hitch. As we were walking through the terminal area to our assigned gate, we noticed a Citibank ad that got our attention.
It was basically a couple standing near a cliff next to a big waterfall.
We couldn’t tell which one it was, but it was only fitting that such an ad for a credit card pop up on an Iguazú Falls whirlwind weekend tour…
We still had plenty of time for our 9:30am flight to Miami so I spent the time reading Lonely Planet Argentina. Unlike other trips, I didn’t very much planning for this one. So I figured I mind as well occupy myself reading about the country for a future visit. Julie went to read up on some tabloids.
Our flight took off on time and arrived in Miami at around 5pm (about 6 hours of flying). Not much happened during the flight. We seemed to have walked around a maze of construction work before finding our connecting terminal in Miami though. In any case, we would board our American Airlines flight to Buenos Aires and took off on time at 8:30pm.
Not much went on during this leg of the trip. We finally got to see Spider Man 3 and we also managed to get a little bit of sleep in on this 8.5-hour flight. It was 6am when we touched down in Buenos Aires. Upon claiming our bags, we changed some money to the Argentinean peso. The exchange rate there was noticeably low at 2.78 peso for every US dollar. I could’ve sworn that if you had paid by cash or something, they’ll assume a rate of $3 peso to $1 USD. Anyways, we tried to console ourselves that we’d be showing money in an enclosed area as opposed to the outside where some seedy onlooker might target us for theft or a mugging. Not sure if that bit of mental exercise was justified or not though.
Next, we had to catch a taxi (which Julie pre-booked with Manuel Tienda Leon) to connect from the Ezeiza International Airport to the Buenos Aires Domestic Airport and our next flight out to Puerto Iguazú.
It was a very chilly morning and we could see low-lying fog hovering over the lawns surrounding the freeway we were on as the taxi driver zoomed towards the city.
I thought this was a good opportunity to brush up on my spanish so after a few minutes of awkward silence, I finally engaged in a conversation with him talking about the drivers clientelle, the weather in Argentina, Buenos Aires, the safety of Venezuela (since we wanted to do Angel Falls real bad on a future trip), and even the tango.
The driver took us through the center of the city, where we drove by this tall pillar very reminiscent of the Washington Monument. I don’t know the name of it though Julie keeps insisting it’s called the Recoleta.
As we zoomed through el centro de Buenos Aires (downtown), the sun started coming up. Before we knew it, we were on a street right before the domestic airport next to El Río de la Plata (i.e. the River of Silver; probably carried over from the silver rush days of the Conquistadors). The driver kept mentioning to us that the river is on our right, but I couldn’t figure out what he meant because that body of water looked like a big bay.
“¡No es océano! ¡Es un río!” I confirmed with the driver.
“Sí,” said the driver.
Both Julie and I were amazed that a river could be so huge. Though in my mind it was probably more of an estuary or inlet than a river. Still, it was impressive.
Julie budgeted plenty of time for all these transfers to take place during the course of her trip planning and booking. So we ended up at the airport in plenty of time for our 10am flight with Aerolineas Argentinas to Puerto Iguazú.
After fidgeting and killing time while sneaking in a quick nap, we managed to board our flight without any problems. However, the number of cancellations and delays on the monitor was a little disconcerting. Fortunately, that wasn’t us on this flight.
The 1.5-hour flight was smooth. Somehow, both of us were lulled to sleep. I guess it was all the long flying. It had been over 24 hours since the last time we brushed our teeth or showered, but we wouldn’t address that until the end of the day. Time is precious and we wanted to spend as much time as possible at the waterfall.
We arrived at the airport a little after 12pm. Our one checked baggage arrived (always anxious about this) and we met up with someone who was waiting for us with our name scribbled on a sign. It felt strange to actually be one of those people who got to be picked up. Normally, we pass right by those people for the car rental area and do our self touring. Not so on this trip though.
So we ended up with a guy name Felipe. He was apparently our representative from Aquas Grandes who Interhabit hooked us up with. Julie booked this as a taxi for getting between the airport and our hotel as well as our taxi to the Brazil side of Iguazú Falls. But it seemed like Felipe conducted himself in a way that seemed more like a private tour guide. Certainly above and beyond what we were expecting.
While conversing with Felipe during the 15 minutes or so of driving, we naturally talked about the weather. It was gray and overcast today. But Felipe told us that now was the best time to see the falls because the temperature is around 28-30 degrees Celsius and the humidity is around 75%. Come during the peak season (starting October and going through March), and the temperatures can get up to 40 degrees Celsius with 100% humidity. So now was the best time to be here we figured. But being in a subtropical climate, clouds are part of it all I guess so we doubted we’d get blue-sky shots you see on post cards on this day.
It was 12:30pm when we arrived at the Sheraton Iguazú, which sat right inside the National Park (Guardaparque Nacional). Felipe said we’d meet tomorrow morning at 8am for our Brazil tour at the hotel lobby. In the mean time, Julie and I got settled, basked in the nice 3rd story room with a view of the falls, and sprayed on some sunscreen and deet (always conscious of mosquito-born illnesses we had read about here).
The scale of the falls was immediately apparent upon gazing out from our balcony to the falls. Most of the falls was covered in foliage from here, but we could easily see the top parts of the falls, and we couldn’t wait to start walking closer.
Anyways at the tower, we tried to give a shot to going up the tower, but after the first flight of steps, we met up with a locked door. So we headed back down. A few other tourists saw what we were doing and tried to go up the stairs with us, but they too saw the disappointing result.
We first decided to walk el paseo superior (the upper trail). That was when the walk left the concrete and onto metal catwalks. I swear some of these catwalks looked like they were in places they don’t belong because they ran right over the river near the brinks of the waterfalls. I could totally envision floodwaters racing right over these catwalks. Yet there they were. Apparently whatever the Argentineans were doing, it worked.
So we made a beeline to the end of the walkway passing by numerous signs identifying individual waterfalls along the way. It wasn’t like we could tell the difference from one or the other however though I was keeping mental notes to myself.
At the end of the catwalk of paseo superior, there was already a crowd of people here. The view of the waterfall (which turned out to be the gushing Salto San Martín) was incredible. Plus the wall of water immediately to the right of it really hit home that this was one big waterfall!
“Crazy!” Julie said to me.
Julie and I tried to get what photos we could, but the crowd seemed rather incessant. It was hard to get any people shots without people walking right in front of you and just staying there. I don’t know if it’s just people don’t have manners or they’re unaware of the activities of those around them. Some even were pushy. I guess that comes with the territory when you’re going to a world famous attraction.
Next, we headed towards other overlooks as we headed back to the start of paseo superior. We checked out the top of Salto Bossetti, which seemed to have the most impressive view from up here, as well as Salto Dos Hermanas. We could see below us that there were more catwalks but they too were full of people. If this was the off-season, I can’t imagine how nuts it would be during the peak season.
Meanwhile, a mob of kids engulfed us at the top of Salto Bossetti. Poor Julie was trying to pose for me, but she was pretty much pressed against the rail as she tried to take movies with her Cybershot camera. I was standing away from the crowd looking across a gap in the catwalk.
Julie and I next raced to Paseo Inferior trying to get by some of the slower walkers along the way. We knew we had to beat the rush of the big kiddie groups, who were tailing behind us.
But that was when we noticed these mammals called coaties (or banded tail coaties). They reminded me of a cross between an anteater and a racoon. They were quite cute, but some clown was feeding the coaties at this break area with a public toilet and snack bar area.
Sure enough, the coaties came in a big group sitting on the railing waiting to be fed. I wished a park authority would fine this guy, but the rest of the tourists in the area crowded around to try to photograph the spectacle. It was certainly entertaining, but I know this couldn’t be good for the coaties.
Then, Julie and I continued walking to other overlooks of the falls. At first, we were distracted by a fork in the catwalk that went both in front of and above a waterfall in a narrow gorge called Salto Alvar Nuñez. It was an attractive waterfall but we knew there were bigger fish to fry.
As soon as I was done photographing this waterfall, the mob of kids caught up to us. As I was trying to squeeze through to catch up to Julie, one of the girls boldly came up to me and said in a strangely Italian manner while sticking out her hand, “¡Hoooollllaaaa!”
I naturally shook her hand and said, “¡Hola!” back to her.
I was caught off guard by the manner in which she said “Hi” to me. It was as if she was saying “Buongiorno,” which was Italian for Good Day. I certainly wasn’t used to hearing the spanish rendition of “Hi” being spoken in that manner. I briefly speculated that there must’ve been some kind of European mix of cultures between Italian and Spanish out here in Argentina. I was more used to what the European Spanish speakers might call “dirty Spanish” which was more commonly used in Mexico and other parts of Central America. After all, that was certainly what was frequently heard back at home in LA and even in our brief stint in Miami. Heck, I even overheard people using “¿Que tal?” (meaning “what’s up?”) which was something I hadn’t heard since learning spanish in high school. “¿Cómo estás?” was what I was more familiar with.
But before I would engage in a longer conversation, I kept going and caught up to Julie where we were at the next overlook. This one was of the Devil’s Throat (La Garganta del Diablo). It was a rather distant view and the area was like a white mess. Not real photogenic but it was hard to imagine being in that torrent without drowning (I didn’t think the boat trip we have booked for tomorrow would even get close to that area).
Not long thereafter, the kids caught up again. But they then went to the next adjacent overlook, which showed the Argentinean side of the falls frame by palm trees. This was a pretty familiar post card shooting location. I thought about waiting out the mob of kids, but they were taking their time here and Julie had already kept going.
As I was trying to catch up to her, I kept getting distracted by more gorgeous views of Salto San Martín and the rest of the waterfalls we had walked above on el paseo superior. The scene was really impressive and that Salto San Martín was gushing madly.
Eventually, the kids caught up to me. While I was letting them pass me on the narrow catwalk, that girl that said “hi” to me tried to mockingly scare me. I just smiled back and let them go. But apparently this girl liked to pick on me. I guess my tripod and big body of the Canon EOS 20D really made me look like a tourist. It was exactly the opposite of what I wanted to accomplish.
Ultimately, I caught up to Julie at the middle Salto Bossetti overlook of the catwalk. We had passed by a booth that said the boat ride to La Isla San Martín (San Martín Island) was closed. I guess the river was running too high.
The Salto Bossetti waterfall was quite impressive. We were now in the middle of its multi-tiered (though 2 conspicous ones) drop. I was doing my best to get scale shots of the falls. But it wasn’t long after that the kids mobbed the catwalk’s dead-end. So I seized this opportunity to make them subjects of my scale photographs as they were backed by the impressive wall of water of Salto Bossetti.
After continuing to take a few more photos of the falls from the other side of the catwalk, the kids started leaving again. I was content to let them leave and move ahead of us. But in doing so, that same girl asked me,” ¿Toma fotos para revistas?
At first I didn’t quite get what she was saying so I told her, “Uhh, no comprendo.”
Then she said back to me in a louder but slower voice while gesturing,”¿TOMA FOTOS PARA REVISTAS?”
I guess when she gestured the act of opening something to read, that’s when I suddenly realized that she was asking if I was photographing for a magazine. Knowing this conversation was going to be short-lived to begin with, I just told her, “No, es solo para mi.”
“¿Para usted?” she reiterated.
“Si,” I said back.
Afterwards, she joined the rest of her group as they appeared to head down the stairs towards the lowest parts of Paseo Inferior. Julie and I opted to walk back up to the top where we next decided to head for the little trolley train leading to the Devil’s Throat catwalk.
On the way back to the upper concrete walk, we checked out a tiny waterfall called Salto Chico. Not a real special waterfall, but could’ve easily been a standout by itself in a place where decent waterfalls are rare like say Southern California.
Not long thereafter, we checked out Salto Dos Hermanas, which was a pair of waterfalls that obviously reminded people of two sisters. There were wildflowers growing in a rock in front of the falls basking in the mist. It added a bit of color to the scene of an otherwise gloomy gray day.
As we were walking towards the train stop, I told Julie sarcastically, “I think that little girl likes me.”
“Hehe! Why was that?” she said.
“Because she wouldn’t leave me alone. She actually asked if I was a photographer for a magazine.”
“What did you tell her?”
“I was just doing it for myself.”
It was about 4pm when we got to the train stop. It was a good thing we got there when we did because the last train was at 4:10pm. So when the train arrived, we got on and caught a little bit of a break for the 2km ride to the start of El Paseo de Garganta del Diablo. Though I suppose if we missed the train, there was still a 2km walk along the dirt road paralleling the train tracks.
Finally at the train stop, we got off and headed straight for the signposted catwalk for Paseo de Garganta del Diablo. The weather seemed to start to clear up somewhat as the afternoon sun was starting to peek through the clouds casting a deep orangish glow.
This catwalk was quite long though (I think 1km one way). We had about an hour or so to walk all the way to the end, snap photos, and walk back in time to catch the very last train back to the main train stop. I was amazed at the length of the boardwalk and how it went right above the very long river. Again, I couldn’t help but think how a catwalk like this could survive high water year after year.
Well just as we were approaching the end of the catwalk, we did pass by a conspicuous catwalk that was detached from the rest of the catwalk we were on. A sign on it indicated that it was destroyed in a major flood in 1992. So I guess that kind of gave me a sense of what it would take to break these catwalks since the ones still standing still seemed to work and it’s 17 years since that flood.
Nonetheless, we got to the end of the catwalk where the roar of the thundering Devil’s Throat was deafening. The scene was immense as heaps of water came rushing down in a three-sided horseshoe into a white misty mess. There was certainly no way to see the river nor the bottom of the falls from here as the mist acted like fog shrouding everything below the middle of the falls.
Anyhow, we tried to soak in this incredible scene while still keeping an eye out for the last departure time of the train at 5:30pm. It was still difficult to get a decent photo of each other due to the crowds so we were content to snap what we could before it was time to go. The employees lowering the Argentinean flag kind of signaled to us that they were about to close the park.
And so we got back to the train and caught the last one back to the main part of the park. Before leaving, Julie snapped a few photos of an interesting-looking fuzzy worm with a tomato-like eye or head. Pretty weird. But I guess it goes to show you the degree of bio-diversity the rainforests down here have. That was reassuring to see though we knew that the forces of industrialism and development continue to threaten these sanctuaries of nature.
We returned to the Sheraton Iguazú just after 6pm. That was when we finally got to shower for the first time in almost 48 hours!
We discussed whether we should eat at the hotel (which was never an attractive option for us) or go through the trouble of going into the town of Puerto Iguazú to try something a little more authentic. Well it turned out that it would be a bit of a hassle to eat outside this hotel and we didn’t feel like paying 45 peso (or 90 peso round trip) just for a meal. So we just stayed in the hotel and ate.
Well the food was surprisingly good and Julie managed to get a three-course meal out of it. When we added up the cost, it only costed us 154 peso (or just about $50USD) for something we normally think about shelling out $100USD or more for in any upscale restaurant. Julie particularly liked her fish dish of the local Surubí and Pacu. I had lamb chops, which was my safe choice.
And so ended a rather hectic couple of days of both travel and finally getting to see the great waterfall. It was time to brush our teeth and get some rest for another eventful day tomorrow…