¡Hola a todos!
I am now safely returned to Buenos Aires after a magical trip north to the Iguazu Falls. This was the first of my simply “must do” experiences outside BA and it was a truly memorable start!
I departed from BA at 5pm on Monday from Retiro, the central bus station in Buenos Aires, aboard one of the legendary long-haul super-buses that Argentina employs in place of a useful rail network for travelling any large distance within the country and, indeed, often for journeying over borders into neighbouring countries. I confess that the prospect of sitting in a seat for seventeen hours at a time, twice in five days in fact, was about as appealing as receiving a scalping from an Argentine intent upon giving me a hair-cut to wow the local ladies (think mullets – but that’s another story). I need not have worried, however, as the experience was actually rather pleasant. The seats were comfortable, spacious and retracted roughly 70 degrees. The choice of DVDs was, well, eclectic and the Spanish pop music, well, pretty poor to be brutally honest. After listening to, enduring the exact same tracks on the return journey, I feel that I now know what’s hot and what’s not in this country of mullet-loving, beef-guzzling Latinos... The food was rather tasty and the complimentary wine, although chilled, was also very nice. I feel that the bus experience can best be likened to travelling by air, first class, albeit significantly cheaper. The journey to iguazu then was very enjoyable – in fact, the only thing missing was anything resembling sleep, for the lamentable reason that one poor fellow traveller seemed to have contracted whooping cough directly before embarking and, unfortunately, had been allotted the seat directly behind me, on a full bus. I was torn between a mixture of hostile exasperation, a rather fatigued sympathy for his situation and a certain incredulous admiration that he managed to sound on the verge of death, without actually expiring, for a full thirteen hours, before finally disembarking at the final stop before Puerto Iguazu, the town next to the famous falls and my end destination.
My arrival in Puerto Iguazu was rather exciting. I left the bus station with no accommodation for the duration of my stay, no-one to meet me and no idea where the falls lay in relation to my location. Help, rather dubiously, was at hand in the form of Antonio, a rather dishevelled elderly chap sat in a small heap at the entrance to the bus station, happily puffing away on some form of brandless cigarette. He asked me for the time, I gave it him and an interesting acquaintance was begun whereby I was able to practise my blossoming, or bludgeoning, Spanish while attempting to gain some insight into how Puerto Iguazu was set out. Thirty minutes, a few interesting conversational topics and a pointless walk for half a mile or so later and I was no nearer to any firm solution, except that I now knew the direction to the falls, that I could not hope to walk there and that the hostel that I sought, recommended to me while still in BA, was in the self-same direction but, again, too far a walk away. Common sense finally, belatedly, kicked in and I made my way to the Tourist Information office and a very helpful guide who also happened to speak intelligible English, although I saddled him with some perfunctory Spanish to begin with, just so that you know.
So it was that a full two hours after first arriving in Puerto Iguazu, I found myself the recipient of a ticket to see some of the falls that very afternoon from the exhilarating position of a speed-boat (the best way, so I had been told, of seeing the falls close-up), seated in a bright yellow, though far from garish, local bus – ‘El Practico’ – bouncing along a local road, headed for ‘Hostel Inn, Iguazu’, a hostel recommended to me by just about everyone I met in BA who had already taken in the breath-taking delights of the falls themselves. True, the hostel had a gargantuan swimming pool – the largest in Puerto Iguazu in fact – and seemed more like a hotel than a hostel, albeit, thankfully, with hostel-prices. All of this was, of course, lost on me, as I swiftly signed into one of the last available beds for the next two nights, dumped most of my travel-gear in the storage room and hopped straight back onto the trusty ‘El Practico’ to continue my journey to the falls themselves and my date with the obligatory boat-ride.
I arrived at the falls at approximately 2.30pm, grabbed a map of the national park within which the Iguazu Falls are situated and paid the grossly over-priced tourist fare (Argentine tourist attractions value everything at two rates: one Argentine, and naturally quite cheap, the other for foreigners and, of course, exorbitantly more expensive). I took the advice of a park guide and rushed through the ‘lower falls’ section of the park and straight to my date with the boat. I must admit that after the rush from town to my hostel and on to the falls, being able to sit and relax on the boat was highly appreciated by the outlandishly dressed Englishman at the head of the vessel, lumbered with an obscene amount of electrical items to be stowed in the accompanying waterproof bag. Normally, in such a situation, I would be found at the back of said vessel, far from the action, trying to look as local as possible and laughing politely along with everyone else at the poor touristic miscreant. In this situation, however, the miscreant was myself, although I still permitted myself a small, laconic smile all the same. I should hasten to add that I looked outlandishly dressed simply because I was wearing my, frankly, less than fetching anti-mosquito trekking gear, appearing to have just turned up at the wrong time/location for the latest shooting of ‘Bear Grylls: Survival Expert’ or some-such other humorous serial. In any case, I am sure that I exaggerate the embarrassing state of the situation: the key point is that the boat-ride was excellent; hugely exciting and a brilliant manner in which to be introduced to the mighty falls. Of course, when I had been informed that I was to be drenched, I had not expected the comment to be at all literal: indeed, I was still blithely ignorant of my predictament when I turned to the boat attendant to enquire as to just how close we were permitted to float towards the falls, only to witness the man donning full waterproof overalls. Ah, quite close then. I was baptized into the cult of the Iguazu Falls, it is as simple as that. Three times I was battered by the deluge and three times washed clean (quite literally, as I had not even stopped at the hostel long enough to freshen up after my bus-ride north). My survival gear dripping, my glasses steamed, hair streaming and with my waterproof bag, the saviour of my personal belongings, clutched possessively to my chest, I emerged from the boat laughing hysterically – much to the apparent discomfort of some of my fellow voyagers – but having thoroughly enjoyed my ride nonetheless.
The rest of the afternoon passed in calm, peaceful reflection, as I ambled through the routes of the ‘lower falls’, shuffling along gangways and taking a ridiculous number of photographs of the falls from every conceivable angle. This was a second highlight of my trip to the falls, after that of the boat-ride, as by this time the park was emptying rapidly, as the day drew to a close and I went many minutes at a time in quiet reflection without seeing another living soul, beyond hearing and occasionally glimpsing some of the vast array of animals who call the national park home. Some of my personal favourite moments included seeing a toucan as it took flight from a tree-branch above me, witnessing loud, colourful parrot-like birds singing to one another from tree to tree and standing helpless while creatures seemingly crossed between raccoons and ant-eaters nosied up to my water bottle and attempted to carry it off into the undergrowth, a worthy prize for so daring a band of plunderers. I emerged from the small, motorized train back at the entrance/exit to the park feeling rejuvenated after the languor incurred through my long journey, my heart gay and light.
The following day, I returned to the park early in the morning, intent upon spending a full day exploring the rest of the sights that the falls had to offer, thus making the most of the deal offered by the park of visiting a second consecutive day for the half original entrance fee; over the course of my two days in the Argentine national park, I paid 90 pesos in entrance fees – roughly 18 pounds sterling. During the morning of that second day, I busied myself exploring the ‘upper falls’ section of the park, followed by a descent back to the lower section and a free ferry across to Isla de San Martin and the opportunity to view the falls from a few more, varied lookout posts. It was while viewing the falls from one such spot that a couple of excited Argentines quietly, though energetically, beckoned me over to their platform, in time for me to glimpse an iguana at least 5 feet in length. Not for the first time I was able to marvel, not only at a sight far removed from anything viewable back home (in the wild at least) but, also at the friendly nature displayed by these two strangers, intent simply upon showcasing a local treasure to an ignorant traveller. Nonetheless, with lunch fast approaching (according to my stomach at any rate), I could not help but feel a sense of disappointment almost: though I had travelled to the falls with no perceivable expectations of what to expect from the falls, still I felt that the scenes witnessed thus-far had yet to stamp such an indelible mark upon me as I had observed in others while they related their Iguazu experiences both to myself and to companions. I meditated upon this sobering thought as I ate a hasty lunch of medialunas while gulping down chilled mineral water in, thank the gods, a fully, blissfully, air-conditioned cafe at the head of the lower section of the falls. Oh well, I thought – lightly, wholly unconvincingly – perhaps this sight just isn’t one that lights my fire...
After emerging from the frigid cafe within, back into the inferno without, I headed, doggedly, uphill and back to the train. No, I was not admitting defeat, I was not headed for the exit and a way back to the cool, relaxed setting of ‘Hostel Inn’, I was instead heading to the furthest station within the Argentine park, to the head of a kilometer-long board-walk along gangways traversing the mighty Iguazu River, linking numerous intriguing, small islands stranded in the powerful, swirling currents and eddies. My destination, at the termination of the board-walks, was ‘La Gargenta del Diablo’ – the Devil’s Throat – the largest of the 275 falls that make up Iguazu. I heard the falls quite some time before I finally saw them. Of course, I had spend the past day and a half witnessing the power and musical might of the falls but, this was, quite simply, spectacular. I emerged from the board-walks onto a platform directly above the head of the falls. The roar of the water, cascading down into seeming oblivion, the hazy swirl of the spray, reaching tremulously, languidly up out of the depths to brush across my burning brow, to cool and yet, paradoxically, to quicken the fever I felt – simply incredible. This was my moment, the moment that Iguazu reached out and touched me and it was glorious. The tiredness, the apathy, the burdensome doubt fell away and at last I experienced the full power, the stranglehold of a truly awesome natural phenomenon. If my baptism began with a short, sharp drenching down below, it ended with a lasting, breath-taking, gentle caress on high and I could smile again.
Close to an hour after first arriving upon this majestic, magical scene, I finally turned and headed, compelled by time, back to the last train of the day and to the exit of the park. I walked as if on air, though truly, the magic was yet to settle, to solidify in form and then sink into the full confines of my mind. Still, the feeling, that I had witnessed something truly memorable, truly inspirational, was present at last, and it made my heart glad indeed.