Tuesday, August 30, 2005

Foz do Iguaçu (Aug 2005)

My first afternoon, I arrived in the town of Foz do Iguacu, Brazil. I checked into the Hotel Rouver and dumped my stuff, then took a walk to explore the city. I was pretty worn out from traveling all day, so had an early dinner and then collapsed on the bed for the night. The next morning I woke bright and early, had breakfast, then caught a city bus to Iguacu Falls. Iguacu Falls consists of 275 falls, forming a gigantic semi-circle 2.5 km long, with millsions of gallons of thundering water plunging to depths 75m below. The falls are located at the border of Brazil, Argentina, and Paraguay, and bring together the Iguassu and Parana rivers.
On the Brazilian side of the falls, the trails are mostly concrete (sidewalks) with wooden railings to prevent you from falling into the waters below. There are a few steps and some grade changes, but it is a nice leisurely stroll, unless you are part of a tour. Then they march you right along.
There were lots of birds along the trail, including this toco toucan. It didn't seem to shy around people either.

I brought Benigni along with me, so I had to take an obligatory picture of him. I tried to get the rainbow to look like it was going in the glass. The final picture didn't quite have the effect I was going for, because a toucan swooped down and tried to steal Benigni. I had to hang on for dear life. Benigni's stem was already damaged from a prior journey, and the toucan ended up damaging it further. I had all I could do to keep it in one piece and in my possession.

There were also quite a few butterflies in the area. Over 700 species have been identified in the park.
I also happened to catch this pair of mating grasshoppers "in the act".
But the real attraction was the falls.

The waters above the falls are deceptively tranquil.

Despite tons of signs warning not to feed the coatis, people did anyway. The restaurant had to hire people whose sole job it was to chase away the coaties. I almost lost half of my sandwich to one. I let go of it to take a drink and one of the sneaky devils almost snatched it off my table. After that I was more careful.
Don't let their cuteness fool you. One man had a sack of apples and they ran up and ripped open his sack and attacked the apples. Then they chased him looking for more.

I spent most of the day in the park, but left a little bit of time to visit the bird park that is just outside the main entrance to the falls. I'm glad I did, because seeing the birds here made it easier for me to identify wild birds throughout my trip.

Iguazu Falls, Argentina

The next morning, I got up and caught a bus to Iguazu Falls, Argentina. After going through customs at the border and changing busses at Puerto Iguazu, I was on my way to the park.

The Argentina side of the falls felt much more developed. There were several trails instead of just the single trail, so it didn't feel nearly as crowded. The Brazilian side gave more of a panoramic view, but the Argentina side let you get up close and personal to the falls, especially the lower circuit trails.
Great dusky swifts (vencejos) perched on the rocks by the falls. These birds flitted in and out of the falls catching insects.

Salto Bossetti - you could feel the mist from these falls.

A small waterfall and lagoon on the Lower Circuit trail. It looked like the perfect place for a swim (if not for the sign prohibiting swimming).

The calm surface waters plunge into the Devil's throat (Garganta del Diablo).
The roar of the falls was almost deafening, but the spray felt fantastic.

The Argentina side of the falls didn't have nearly the problem with coatis as the Brazil side. Unfortunately, an even worse pest attacked your lunch....wasps!

After a day at the falls, it was back on the bus to Brazil for dinner and sleep. The next morning, I had an early flight to Campo Grande.

Escape from the Pantanal

The part of my trip that I looked most forward to was visiting the Pantanal. Unfortunately, this was the most disastrous part of the trip! Despite that, I still crack up every time I think of my escape from the pantanal.

(Mom and dad - if you are reading this, stop now! There are some things you don't want to know!)

I had priced a few pantanal tours before heading there, but decided to wait and book once I arrived at the Campo Grande bus station (all the travel guides claimed that this was easy to do .... it wasn't). Forgetting the mantra "You get what you pay for" I decided to go cheap and book a budget tour. The nice girl at the bus station that sold me the tour explained that it was a rugged farm and not a hotel, sleeping was barrack-style in bunks, there was a shared bathroom, and there was electricity for only about 4 hours a day. I convinced myself that this would be a good idea. Silly me!

From Campo Grande, I took the bus to Buraco das Piranhas (Piranha hole) and waited for my tour to pick me up. Basically, the bus drops you off on the highway close to the middle of nowhere (there is a pay phone, forest ranger station, and drink stand). I sat in the sun (with a big box of rations that the tour girl put on the bus with me) for almost 2 hours before my tour arrived.

I was greeted by a ragged pickup truck. It had benches strapped on to it with fraying rope and 4 "girls" in the back. There was a footstep underneath the truck and I was supposed to shove my foot 4 inches under the truck, pull myself up, and swing my leg over a fence that was built on the gate of the truck. Yeah, right. Sure. That was going to happen!

Because I was too uncoordinated to climb up over the flimsy fence put around the back of the truck bed, I got to ride in the front seat. It was difficult to find a place to put my feet, since most of the floor had been rusted out. Between me and the driver was an oil can that leaked, dripping oil down the side of my leg when we went over a big bump.

The driver, who was also the owner of the fazenda (farm), could only speak Portuguese. I speak very little Portuguese. It didn't matter that I didn't know what he was saying. The truck was so loud I could barely hear him, and enough dust to choke me was coming up from the floorboards and through the window that didn't have glass.

It was dark by the time we were back at the farm. I was handed a bottom sheet and shown my bed. No top sheet, no blanket, no pillow. The mattress was oddly warped from body dents on both sides. Lovely. I had been told that there were separate areas for men and women to sleep. I pictured two bunk houses. It was actually the left row of bunks were for women and the right row were for the men (who also consisted of the farm hands, tour guides, and cook).

After dinner we had a campfire. At the campfire, we were promised caipirinhas, but instead got straight cachaça - which was passed around in a single cup for 9 people! (us 5 women, the owner Durvan, his son Flavio (who was also a guide), another guide Rodrigo, and the cook). Durvan and Flavio acted like they hadn't seen women in years and kept staring at and brushing up against all 5 of us women and tried to get us really drunk. It was pretty creepy - good thing there was safety in numbers. The single cup passed around in a big circle, and if one of us women passed it without drinking, Flavio would try to force us to drink. We got to the point where we would put the cup to our mouths and pretend to drink just to keep Flavio away from us.

Flavio had a crush on one of the French girls. She didn't speak any Portuguese, so she asked me if I could tell Flavio that she wasn't interested. I conveyed the message, but he didn't seem to care. Finally she asked me if I would pretend to be her girlfriend, hoping he would get the message. That seemed to help - a little.

During the evening, Flavio and Rodrigo got into an argument. I don't know if I had too much to drink or didn't know enough words in Portuguese, but I convinced myself that Flavio was threatening to chop up Rodrigo and feed him to the piranhas, because nobody would ever find the body. This was not a comforting thought! Finally, the men passed out and we could go to bed.

I woke up early the next morning and took a 2 hour walk at sunrise (the bed was killing my back, so I couldn't have slept longer if I wanted). By the time I came back, everyone else was waking up and getting ready for breakfast. I went to use the toilet, and it was full of a brown murky liquid. I flushed it thinking somebody before me didn't flush, but then it refilled with the same brown murky liquid. I realized that it must be river water. After flushing, I hopped in the shower. It wasn't until I was rinsing shampoo out of my hair that I realized that the big cistern providing water to the shower had a pipe that ran directly to the toilet. I was showering in the same brown murky water. EEwwwww! So much for a clean and refreshing shower!

The four girls were on the last day of their tour and were scheduled for a horseback ride. Because it was my first full day, I was schedule for a nature walk. They got stuck with Flavio, I got Rodrigo. Flavio was icky and creepy - Rodrigo was nice, "safe" and really cute! ... and he spoke a decent amount of English. He and I had a nice 4-hour walk. I saw all sorts of animals and got great pictures, and we talked about the camp. He confirmed that my interpretation of the evening's argument was pretty close to what was said. That did not make me feel comfortable. I told him I was a bit uneasy about staying at the farm by myself after the girls left today, if no new tourists arrived. He told me that he was getting a bad energy from the place, but assured me that he would protect me from Flavio, or he would help me escape if I wanted to leave early. He even told me what time the last bus of the day passes Buraco das Piranhas.

We got back to the farm in time for a late lunch and an afternoon nap. While I was trying to nap on a hammock, Flavio and Rodrigo argued again. I saw Flavio show Rodrigo his knife - and not in a friendly way. A little bit later on, Rodrigo told me that my afternoon activity was piranha fishing - and that Flavio was insisting on taking me and didn't want Rodrigo to go. YIKES!!!!!!!!

I flashed Rodrigo a look of panic! He didn't look thrilled either. I told him "Let's go!" He told me to tell Durvan that I was sick. In my broken Portuguese, I told him I was very sick and needed a doctor. I must have been pounding my chest to emphasize the point, because he asked if it was my heart. I seized this opportunity and shook my head yes, then emphasized that I thought my heart was dying (I didn't know how to say heart attack) and that I needed a doctor or hospital.

That got him running. He got the truck started while I tossed all my clothes into my bag. Rodrigo packed too, claiming that he needed to stay with me on the bus in case I needed help. The drive to the highway was about 45 minutes on a dirt "road", but the bus was due to arrive in about a half hour. Every time Durvan started to slow down because of road conditions, I would clutch my chest, grimace, and moan in pain. That would cause him to speed up again.

We arrived at the highway just as the bus came into view. Two minutes later, Rodrigo and I were boarding the bus to Bonito. I found a seat on the bus and broke out into giggles, which turned into laughs, until tears were streaming down my face. Just thinking about faking a heart attack to leave the scary farm in the Pantanal started the giggles all over again. Every now and then, Rodrigo would make eye contact with me from across the bus and we would both break out in laughter. I giggled most of the 5 hour bus ride to Bonito.

Even though my "cheap" 4d/3n tour was shortened to a 1d/1n tour (I didn't even ask for a refund) I still crack up when I think about it!

Beautiful Bonito

After escaping the pantanal, I caught a bus to Bonito. Since the bus arrived pretty late at night, I decided to spend the first night at a hostel. The next morning, I walked up the main drive in town and checked out several hotels. I found a nice room at the hotel Paraíso das águas and decided to spend the next few nights there - it had a queen size bed, a private bath with a hot shower, and even a TV! There was also a swimming pool (too cold) plus a hot tub and sauna (nice). All for $30 USD a night, including breakfast.

I spent a couple of days just hanging around town, visiting the public parks and talking with people. I loved the phone booths in town.
<Benigni takes on another toucan and survives this time.

Another phone booth. Normal phone booths are the green domes across the road.

During two days of my stay, I went on organized day tours. One of the places I visited was Boca da Onça (the mouth of the jaguar).

This jaguar phone booth in front of my hotel wanted a martini in its mouth!

The water flow was extremely light, since it was the middle of the dry season. Since the waterfalls were less than impressive, I got a 50% discount on the price. Not bad.

This is one of the smaller falls.

There were pretty good trails here - a combination of wood boardwalks and compacted soil or gravel. When I signed up, I was advised that there were 866 steps. That didn't seem to daunting over a 4 mile walk. About midway, there was a rest stop where we could use the bathroom, buy food or drink, and just hang out and rest for a while. I took a little stroll around the area and saw this monkey (and several more that were too far away to photograph).Near the end of the 4 miles, we came to the main falls. I can imagine how impressive it would look during the wet season.

At the base of the falls was a pool of cold water to swim in. In the summer it might have been nice, but it was just too cold for me to even think about swimming.

At this point, my guide informed me that the section of trail with 866 steps was coming up. What? Yep, there was a series of staircases that would take us to the top of the falls. He said I had the option of walking 2 miles back to the mid-point, where a truck could pick me up or to walk the steps. I decided to walk the steps.

I'm not sure how wise of a choice that was. My leg muscles were throbbing by the time I was done. The set up was quite nice. After several flights of stairs, there was usually a landing with a bench so you could rest or take in the scenery. I finished the steps about 5 minutes later than everyone else, so they had already caught their breath when I arrived huffing and puffing. A minibus was waiting for us at the top of the stairs to take us to lunch. We went back to the resort there and had a nice lunch, relaxed on hammocks, and could swim in very cold water with big fish. I took a nice nap on the hammocks, flirted with the guide, and practiced my Portuguese with anyone patient enough to try to have a conversation with me. We were back in town around 6 pm, so I took a HOT shower and a nap before heading out for dinner and to listen to live music.
Another tour I took was to visit the Cachoeiras Rio do Peixe (the waterfalls of the river of fish).

Again, we had the opportunity to swim with the fish and splash around under the waterfall. I stuck my foot in the water and decided it was too cold for me. One man on the tour swam under this waterfall, and ended up scraping a layer of skin off his back. It bled for the rest of the hike.While most of the tour was enjoying the water, I wandered down the trail a little bit alone (we weren't really allowed to leave the group) and saw some monkeys and macaws quite close.

We saw more waterfalls, and had some areas that we had to cross the cold river in knee deep water. This confirmed my decision not to submerge my entire body.

The trail looped around back to the farm where we had a nice lunch and then got to watch the owner feed some of the macaws that hang around the farm. It was quite nice to see these birds closer than what I saw them in the pantanal.
Red and green macaw

Hyacinth macaw

After leaving Bonito, I headed back to Campo Grande to spend then night, then catch an early flight to Florianopolis the next morning.