Argentina: La Parte Uno
Early the next morning the taxi does indeed get ‘removed’ to the airport at Santiago, but fortunately for the continued progress of my trip I get to keep it company on its journey. In the cab the transfer driver hands me a sheet from CTS to evaluate my experience of the Chilean leg of the tour. As the trip proceeds I find that this becomes the norm for Chimu – someone gives me a form with five minutes to complete it, just enough for a fleeting, impressionistic take on their performance, when you’d like to be take the time to be expansive about the things you didn’t like! The skeptic in me rails against this dubious, paying ‘lip service’ kind of practice, but nonetheless in the few moments I get before we get to SCL Airport I make a rushed attempt to summarise my complaints of the Chilean experience. I return the sketchily-filled questionnaire back to the driver and offer him some of my pre-breakfast snack (chocolates).
At the airport I find myself once again exposed to the vagaries of LAN customer service. The seemingly complacent, unhelpful staff are vague and imprecise with their directions as to where I go next. I try to print my own boarding pass for Argentina from the self-serve ticket machine as advised by LAN staff, but the machine is not cooperating! Fortunately, a useful Chilean representative of Chimu Adventures is at hand and he comes to my assistance and manages after a few tries to print out my tickets (I’m absolving him from my general criticism of Chimu). By the time I get to the Immigration control point for departure, SLC’s signage is misleading and some of the necessary passenger forms are missing, the immigration official at gate 17 is not only unsympathetic and typically blasé when I protest about the shambles of the setup, she is seemingly sarcastic to boot! She forces me to go back and repeat the whole immigration passport check stage. Her inflexible, uncooperative manner leaves me to wonder, following on from my earlier experience with the LAN front counter, if the phrase LAN public relations is an oxymoron! If its anything to go by, some of the staff I’d met so far were certainly oxymoronic.
The flight to Buenos Aires is uneventful and pretty smooth. After touching down at the Airport I have a lengthy delay waiting for my connection to Iguazu. I pass the time sampling my first taste of Quilmes whilst staring out of the airport bar window at the Rio de la Plata, trying to see if I can chance a glimpse of the distant Uruguayan coast (the vast River Plate is up to 40km wide at some points). The Quilmes seems quite a decent cerveza, but maybe I’m just thirsty. After a second sampling, no, I decide, I do prefer this Argentinian drop to the Cristal I had in Chile. The flight is a fairly brief one, as the plane nears Iguazú the jungle becomes more and more dense. Then just as we get the “prepare for landing” instruction, I get my first, partial sighting of the Iguazú Falls. It’s certainly partial because I can barely make out the misty spray of the falls on the horizon, spiralling upwards out of a broad patch of deep green. I sit back and wait for mañana, when all of the mystique of the Falls will be revealed, hopefully.
Iguazú Falls are a trans-border phenomena, encompassing Brazil and the Argentine, with a third country, Paraguay, also very near to the location. My hotel in Puerto Iguazú, La Sorgente, is not old but its not new either, and the room door uses those old cumbersome latchkeys which I always have trouble with, but that aside, it is a quite reasonable lodging (outstanding even if I might extend to hyperbole, if the point of comparison is the dire AH Hotel in Santiago!) After settling into my room, I wander up for a look round the town. Frankly, it is a quite unprepossessing place, old dilapidated buildings, many signs have faded or partially unhinged. The surface pavement(sic) of the roads are a strange and primitive concoction of jagged pieces of broken rock mortared together, the result of which is unfriendly to both car tyres and human feet. The local youths seem to spend all day cruising up and down Avenida Cordoba in their defect-laden, beat-up old cars, their hands manically tooting the horn for no reason. And, as in Chile, the many mangy-looking, roaming dogs are an integral feature of the rundown local ‘picturesque’. Whatever money the Government makes from Iguazú Falls tourism (and I imagine it would be lucrative), by the look of this place it is certainly not being pumped back into the Iguazu infrastructure!
My first night in Puerto Iguazú I had dinner at the popular Colors restaurant in the Avenue. I’m not really much of a ‘foodie,’ someone with an always active and overdeveloped appetite, but in the spirit of “when in Rome …” I went for the whole meat package, the formidable bife de lomo, cooked Argentinian parrilla-style – an enormous 135g slab of tenderloin steak. More rare than I would usually have it, but I did enjoy it, and managed to get through it all, probably in part because I had skipped lunch and was a tad ravenous by 7pm.
The next morning was a scheduled early start to fit in a full day at Iguazú Falls. This left me less than 15 minutes for a ‘run-through’ breakfast, even less given that the Iguazu bus arrived five minutes early, meaning I had to quickly grab my bag upstairs and scoot out the door brushing away the bread crumbs as I go. Like the early morning departure from Santiago, this was basically a sans breakfast day. I find that the bus isn’t ‘full’ as claimed by la guia who was obviously trying to hurry me up to keep on schedule, however we do make several hotel stops on the way to pick up a lot more people, so in retrospect I can understand his desire to expedite the action. We get to the entrance of the Falls complex and of course it is full of visitors, international, Argentinians from other regions, school groups, etc. After getting our tickets and navigating the turnstiles, the guide decides that we should by-pass the train immediately inside the gates and walk a couple of kilometres through the bush to the next train station. This sounds a bit curious to me, walking when the train is just there, but when we get to the second station he explains the method in this, the entrance train (which didn’t get to the second point until after we had got there by foot) had to terminate, and so passengers would have to alight to await the other train which is the one which goes to the Waterfalls. Our advantage, the guide was at pains to stress to us, was that by getting there first, it would ensure that we were in the first train to the Falls. Fine! But I was left wondering why, a) there was wasn’t more trains scheduled seeing that Iguazu was a world-class highlight on the global tourism calendar, and, b) the first train just didn’t go straight through to the Falls, considering that both trains left from the same track! To me, that would be logical, but it may not be the Argentinian way!
The tour’s main guide, Rodrigo (who I renamed ‘Rodrigid’ as the day wore on), a smug dude with good English, displays an irritating trait of always referring to members of the tour group only by their surnames (no mister, señor, señorita,and so on). He annoyingly persists with this military-style form of address. Now, he may just be lazy and not want to bother to learn tour members’ first names, but I find it disrespectful and decide to throw it back at him by pointedly calling him “Mr Rodrigo” or sometimes plain “Apelido“, which made him laugh but I’m doubtful if he got my point.
The entirety of the Argentine section of the Falls can be split into two parts, the Cataracts and the Gorge. We arrived at the Gorge first, the entrance to which in Spanish is called Entrada to El Diablo Garganta, still needing to walk almost 1200 metres on a linear footbridge to the actual ‘Devil’s Throat‘. This recently-constructed metal and wood bridge or catwalk is somewhat of a marvel of engineering in itself, as it would have posed considerable challenges to erect across such turbulent waters. As you get closer to the throat, the roar of the powerful waters gets louder and louder and a couple of hundred metres away the spray shooting up from El Diablo can be seen. So, two trains, a hike through the jungle and a further ‘walk on water’, all of the preamble is worth it, 100 per cent, when you finally get to see it! At the edge of the waterfall, the footbridge bends round into a U-shape (more accurately, fork-shaped) to maximize the number of people that can view the waterfall from point-blank range. The viewing platform extends out over the edge of the land (as it does at the Grand Canyon), so that anyone standing on it, cannot avoid getting a decent old drenching! Ponchos are definitely the preferred fashion garb at the Throat! Standing on the catwalk, getting soaked by the spray, trying to look and take photos and videos at the same time, you get the overwhelming sense of all that cascading power! There is water everywhere you look, the impact of the spectacle is just totally fixating! I was fascinated by dozens of little birds that would rapidly dive into the enormous mouth of the waterfall, disappearing into the all-encompassing spray as if the mouth had swallowed them up, only to return skywards several seconds later. It was like they were playing ‘chicken’ with this, most powerful beast of nature, the whole spectacle was quite mesmerising.
Later we explore the multiple, other reaches of the Falls, walking on the National Park’s two trails, the Paseo Superior (Upper Trail) and the Paseo Inferior (the Lower trail). This gives us a different viewpoint and lots more photo opportunities. We also explore the Park’s flora and fauna. Unusual, dazzlingly beautiful butterflies can be seen as can the coatí, which are plentiful in number. These small, long-nosed relatives of the raccoon show no fear of humans and tend to hang round close to the Park kiosk and restaurant having recognised the visitors’ role as purveyors of food. As we cross one of the waterfalls on a catwalk we notice a family of the raccoon-like mammals directly below our feet on another rung of the bridge making the same crossing but seemingly unperturbed about how close they are to getting swept into the rushing waters of the falls.
As 80 per cent of the Waterfalls are on the Argentinian side of the river, the best panoramic views tend to be from the Brazilian shore. As I hadn’t had time to arrange a visa for Brazil before leaving Australia, I did the next best thing which was to pay for the optional Macuco Safari speedboat ride under the Falls. Before you get onto the boat, an attendant gives you a green waterproof bag and asks you to divest yourself of as much clothes as practicable. I was rather disdainful of the guy in front of me who had stripped right down to very brief swimmers, thinking that this turkey was really overdoing it, maybe he just had an exhibitionist bent? When I realised how drenched we would get in the boat, I took it all back. Only then did I remember the advice from the Chimu consultant in Sydney to pack my swimmers (I was kicking myself because I packed them but left them behind in the hotel room that morning!). Once underway, I soon realise that my concern was less about the threat posed by the precipitation from the Waterfall above, than from the action of the powerboat. As the boat accelerates and powers through the water, swerving rapidly from side to side, the huge waves rushing in over the side of the speeding boat douses me and fills up the bucket seat with water. Every time this happens, I instinctively rise from the seat and frantically start scooping the water out whilst clinging urgently to the seat in front. And as I do this the boat attendant immediately orders me to sit down. This pattern is repeated every time a horizontal flow of water rushes in. I bounce up and down continuously to keep bailing the water out; at the same time I had the added anxieties of trying both to avoid the vigilant watch of the zealous crew member and not to lose my camera overboard. Eventually, when I realise that it was inevitable that I was going to be saturated, I give up and stoically resigned myself to my fate. Mercifully, the ordeal is soon over and we return to the shore where I seek out a rock in the sun to dry myself on. Notwithstanding my discomfort due to a temporary state of sogginess, the boat afforded the perfect, up-close viewpoint of the falls.
After the speedboat escapade the tour guides shuffle us immediately on to an open-top truck for a slow drive through the Nacional Parque jungle and rainforest, stopping several times to have our attention directed towards different types of forest vegetation. If the idea to pile everyone into the back of an open-top truck was devised to help the boat passengers dry off, it was certainly appreciated – the hot jungle sun took care of the rest! If there was a disappointment with the jungle part of Iguazú ,it was with the paucity of wildlife that we managed to spot. Apart from the conspicuous, aforementioned raccoons, little else in the way of fauna could be spotted. I wasn’t exactly expecting to see jaguars or ocelots in the trees (perhaps thankfully so!), but I was hoping for a glimpse of the odd tapir and certainly, of the elusive toucan, given that this South American bird appears on just about every Falls souvenir painting, plaque and fridge magnet sold in the local shops!
Most of la Catarata visitors seemed to be be from other parts of Argentina, probably a big proportion from BA, but the day-trippers in my tour group were a real mixed bag, North Americans, Britons, Australians, other South Americans, Spanish, Italian, German, Dutch. I engaged in a stimulating conversation with a young Spanish honeymooner who has surprisingly good English. An endearing sidelight of our talk was, if I said anything she thought of note, she would turn and patiently translate it to her new husband who was both monolingually Spanish and seemingly monosyllabic. As the señora and I conversed in English at great length, this was considerate of her, making him feel connected to the discussion.
Argentinians like to refer to Iguazú Falls as ‘la maravilla‘ (the wonder), witnessing its massive power and sheer scope is undeniably one of the world’s great sights. Given that ”comparisons are odious”, as the cliché would have it, I am be reluctant to speculate as to which is the greatest waterfall, Iguazú or Victoria Falls in Southern Africa (even leaving aside the problematic question of what we mean by ‘greatest’). That I visited both waterfalls when they were not at their peak complicates this issue further. Rather than trying to rank them, it is more useful to recognise that both waterfalls are stupendous natural phenomenons in their own distinct ways.
For another thing, it is a bit of an “apples and oranges” comparison, they are both waterfalls but are quite different in their form and composition. Victoria Falls or Mosi-o-Tunya, is the largest, single curtain of water in the world, at its highest it is 26 metres taller than the highest point of Iguazú. Iguazú, conversely, is composed of approximately 275 discrete waterfalls (rather than one continuous stretch of water), and extends all of 2.5km along the Argentine-Brazil border, the sheer number of individual waterfalls scattered about the place makes for an unforgettable spectacle. The pros and cons can be stacked up against each other, one after another. there is nothing at Iguazu to equal the Devil’s Pool in Zambia! The metal footbridge at Iguazú allows you to get right on the edge of the waterfalls, palpably face-to-face with an incredibly imposing curtain of water known to Argentinians as the Devil’s Throat, but at Iguazú you can’t leap into the rushing waters of a rock pool which pushes you to the very precipice of the waterfall, as you can at Victoria Falls. Both of these falls, you can see, have their own distinctive characteristics, and both are world-class natural wonders, exceptional in their own ways.
On returning to the hotel I had intended to eat at the hotel restaurant, until I notice that they are still painting the interior. Accordingly, I decide to avoid the paint vapours and head back to the township to eat. I discover that Puerto Iguazú is much larger than the one street (Av Cordoba) ‘hick town’ I had assumed it to be on my first day. Cordoba Avenue is not even the main road but leads on to Victor Aguirre, a much more central street with its own little side streets. This part of Port Iguazú is made up of a liberal smattering of largely unexciting bars and eateries, and a welter of souvenir and gift shops all basically duplicating each other’s products as you commonly find in any tourist Mecca. After dinner I take a last look round the township and head back to La Sorgente. My last night in the port of Iguazú.