Each year, I spent two or three weeks in South America visiting family who live in Rio de Janeiro. While my knowledge of the compact South Eastern corner of Brazil – urban and rural – is solid, I’m ashamed to say that my experiences of the interior of this vast and varied country are relatively limited.
After getting agreement from my boss to take the last couple of weeks of December off work, plus the Christmas break I decided to not only cast the net a little wider than Rio de Janeiro state in terms of my travels around Brazil but to also see a small part of some of the countries on its border. After much fiddling about with SkyScanner, I decided to fly inland to Foz do Iguacu on Brazil’s western border and to then head down on a swing through Paraguay, Uruguay and on to Argentina.
Foz do Iguacu has been on my list of places to visit for a long time and, after an uncomplicated flight from Rio, I arrived there yesterday lunchtime. It’s just a short bus ride from the airport to the gates of the National Park where you are able to catch a shuttle to the top of the Cataratas – or “waterfalls” as they’re known in English.
Legend has it that, when Eleanor Roosevelt visited the Cataratas she exclaimed “poor Niagara!”. As you’ll see from these photos taken on my rather sub-standard camera phone, it’s easy to see why she would say such a thing:
Walking up to the Cataratas, the temperature was so hot that I had an almost over-powering urge to plunge myself into the waterfall. I quickly realised that there would be little left of me afterwards if I was to try… Anyway, the spray from the waterfalls was such that two minutes of standing on the viewing platform was enough to have you soaked to the bone.
After viewing the Brazilian side of the falls, I headed into Foz do Iguacu to check into my hotel and grab dinner. I checked into the Best Western Taroba Hotel which was, at £32 a night, great value with an enormous room, double bed and air conditioning. Basic but nice.
My hotel was only a five minute walk from the banks of the river that serves as the international border between Brazil and Paraguay so I wandered down to see if there was anything of interest happening. The banks of the river weren’t easy to get to, so I had to rummage through some foliage to get there. The sun was coming down fast and, after being alone for a couple of minutes staring at what was little more than fast-running, murky water and a set of buildings about 400 metres or so across the water, I was abruptly joined by a police officer who shooed me away while shouting something about “securidade“.
I shouldn’t have been surprised. The river is one of the largest smuggling routes in the world, so it’s quite possible I had accidentally disturbed an observation post crucial to Brazil’s efforts to snare the modern-day Pablo Escobar…
The smuggling takes two forms. The first is in drugs, which are sent from Paraguay to Brazil by small vessels crossing the water. The second is in electronic goods. Brazil has long had heinously over the top and counter-productive import tariffs on goods such as laptops, CD and DVD players and cameras.
Before he was ousted from office, former Paraguayan dictator Alfredo Stroessner took advantage of Brazil’s bonkers customs regime to turn what was an obscure border village into a town of almost 150,000 and the world’s third-largest tax-free goods zone after Miami and Hong Kong (no, I didn’t know that either until I visited). While Stroessner’s plan was aimed at encouraging tourists to visit the area to buy electronic goods for their own use, unscrupulous vendors have been the main beneficiaries. In one common scam, shops import counterfeit electronics from the Far East and sell them on at low prices to smugglers who then take them into Brazil to sell on at grossly inflated prices while avoiding the country’s trade tariffs.
Nevertheless, having been told to go, I legged it back up the river bank to the urban familiarity of the city and took refuge in a local churrascaria where I ate unlimited steak for the princely sum of £12 (a comparable meal in Rio de Janeiro or Sao Paulo would have cost about £30).
The following morning I got up early to get the bus across the Brazilian border into Argentina in order to view the other side of the falls.
No sooner had I arrived in Puerto Iguazu in Argentina, dark rain clouds formed. Without any resort to hyperbole, they were the darkest clouds I’d ever seen, plunging the city into near darkness. Then the clouds opened, spewing forth the most violent torrential rain I’ve ever seen. When it was over an hour later (I spent the time cowering in a coffee shop) the roads were littered with fallen branches and fallen trees. The mixture of chalk-rich water and blood-red soil means that, when rain falls in the area, rivers and puddles resemble the colour of a Thai Red Curry.
I had temporarily thought of giving up on visiting the Argentinean side and returning to the comfort of my hotel in Foz but I’m incredibly glad I pressed on. While the drizzle continued and I got soaked, the views were spectacular:
So, Iguacu Falls done, it was time to move on. After crossing into Ciudade del Este and taking a brief look around its tawdry duty-free shops/smuggling warehouses, I boarded the bus to Asuncion.
The ticket for the five hour journey costs only US$15 and is on a modern and incredibly comfortable bus. That said, what it makes up for in comfort it loses in speed with the road to Asuncion having only a single, albeit perfectly well-paved lane.
The Paraguyan countryside is incredibly flat but it wasn’t, as I had expected, arid. Indeed, I’m hard-pressed to think of a time when I’ve seen more green and healthy-looking countryside than I saw on the drive from Ciudade del Este to Asuncion. Similarly, I had expected the villages en route to be impoverished and dusty but, while poor, they appeared orderly and well-maintained. While I ought not to have been amused by something so trivial, I found the existence of the Juan O’Leary Bus Station in the Ciudade de Nuevo Londres more than passingly amusing. (Without wishing to play upon Irish stereotypes, I was amused to find out from further research that Mr O’Leary is thought of as Paraguay’s most revered national poet).
I arrived in Asuncion just before 11pm and, save for a quick sandwich from a local service station, I haven’t had a chance to explore the city yet. After breakfast, that’s exactly what I intend to do…