The Grand Cascades

Iguazu falls is a destination people will design their entire trip around. Horizontally, the falls are about 2 km wide with various islands and rocks separating the flow into several distinct cascades of up to 80 m in height. It’s like Niagara got all his buddies together in one big gang of waterfalls. I have never seen anything like it.

I showed up at the park around 10 am and was a bit taken aback by the tourist hordes. I had been off the beaten track for a few days so to see so many hundreds of folks from other countries required a bit of an adjustment. Luckily, I moved quicker than the majority of the socks and sandals crowd so I was able to dodge and weave my way through the masses pretty effectively. After walking the major viewing trails, some of which included pathways right to the edges of the falls, I decided to take one of the small motor boats to the island in the middle of the main falls. Somehow I got in the wrong line and ended up on a boat that took you INTO the falls. I have been on the Maid of the Mist at Niagara Falls, which is pretty fun, but this boat didn’t just bring you near – it drove you through the damn thing. Suddenly the raincoat I was wearing seemed a bit ridiculous as water poured into the boat and completely soaked everyone. My last thought as we backed out from the torrent was that I probably should have stuck my camera in the dry bag they provided instead of my pocket. Luckily my little Olympus was tougher than I thought and somehow survived the ordeal.

At around 3 pm I finally headed back to town and as the bus dropped me off at the main station, I ran into a Canadian guy I had chatted with in the park. He didn’t know any Spanish and asked if I could help him buy a ticket for a night bus to Buenos Aires. I hooked him up and asked if I could get one for the same time. She told me that route was now full, but there was one leaving in fifteen minutes that I could catch. I had all my gear with me so I figured what the hell? This bus was everything the last one was not. Personal TV screen, fully reclining seats with blanket and pillow, A.C., and even hot meals delivered to your seat; I haven’t been on airplanes that nice.

We arrived in Buenos Aires at around 11 am; I was well rested and well fed for once. It was a gorgeous day so I decided to walk the 20 plus blocks to my hostel. An hour and a half later I arrived, after a couple of wrong turns and I had already fallen in love with the city. It’s like a friendly version of Paris with better weather. I think I will have to hang out here a while so we can get to know each other a little better. Tonight’s mission: An Argentinean steak.


Hell Bus to Paraguay

After I decided I was going to try heading through Paraguay, I did some research and got the address for the Paraguay consulate in Santa Cruz.  An extended search if the city revealed the office on the first floor of an apartment building.  The security guard didn’t even know it was there – maybe I should have taken this as a sign?  Luckily the ladies in the office were amazingly helpful, going so far as to write a letter for me in Spanish to the Consular General to explain why I didn’t have a ticket yet to exit the country once I got in (it is almost impossible to buy bus tickets ahead of time in much of South America).  I rounded up some passport photos and photocopies of my credit card and paid the $65 fee and then five hours later, I was officially allowed to enter Paraguay for up to 90 days.  Too bad the rest of the trip to Asuncion wasn’t that easy.

One of the requirements of the visa application was that I purchase a ticket to enter the country ahead of time, so at the Santa Cruz station I did some due diligence and checked around a few ticket offices before purchasing.  I knew from research online that one does not always get what is promised when paying for these buses so I thought I was being pretty careful.  The trip runs at about 24 hours total, so it is no small commitment to choose a company.  I settled on Yacyreta, which was recommended in the Lonely Planet guide book and appeared to have a pretty clean office and friendly staff.  The ticket seller assured me that they had television, air conditioning and reclining seats as well as three meals included.  I paid 380 Bolivianos and was pretty pleased with myself.

The evening of departure, I got there early and waited in front of the office.  Rather abruptly with about 20 minutes to go before departure, the man I bought the ticket from, hustles me through the hallway toward the departure door and we walk past half a dozen nice looking coaches.  He drops my bag in front of the smallest bus at the end of the row and quickly walks off.  I look up at my new home for the next 24 hours and realize I may have just been hustled.  They didn’t mention it at purchase, but when the various companies don´t have enough passengers to fill several buses, they just send the cheapest one.  Yacyreta may have had a very nice bus for all I know, but they weren’t going bother sending it for five or ten people.  I was shuffled onto a bus run by Rio Paraguay with no air conditioning, TV and a seat that barely reclined.  With resignation, I bordered the piece of crap and resigned myself to an uncomfortable trip, yet again.  Supper was passable with cold chicken and rice and after a long night, breakfast consisted of four small cookies and a juice box. 


By mid-day we were crossing the Chaco, a vast empty space in the north of Paraguay that totally reminded me of the outback of Western Australia- nothing but bare dirt and scrubby dry brush as far as the eye could see.  Somewhere near the Tropic of Capricorn, the dry heat drove the temperature upwards of 42 degrees; it was at about this time that the bus broke down.  Awesome.  With the nearest town hundreds of kilometers away, I chose not to think about the potential consequences and decided to have a nap instead.  The travel gods must have took pity on us as the bus roared back to life about an hour and a half later.  We finally rolled into Asuncion at 7 pm and I caught a cab to my hostel and slept for almost a full day.  I must have needed it after my little bus adventure.

Other than a few good pubs and bars, there wasn’t much to do in the Paraguayan capital so after a night of dancing with some fellow travelers from the hostel, I moved on to Encarnacion, which was near some Jesuit ruins listed as a UNESCO world heritage site.  I meant to check the place out in the morning but I slept in and the afternoon was way too hot for me.  The weather had reached the low 40’s every day I was in Paraguay.  Tired of the crazy heat, I decided to just head for the more temperate climes of Argentina.  Bolivia had been too cold, Paraguay too hot, so hopefully Argentina would be just right.  I splurged for a private room with air conditioning in Ciudad del Este and stayed for two nights.  The town shares a border with both Brazil and Argentina so it was a really interesting mixture of cultures.  It also is home to the second largest dam in the world in terms of energy production, second only to the Three Gorges project in China.  After some public transit confusion I took a cab to see the big man-made behemoth that was the Itaipu Dam.  Started in the 70´s, it was pretty controversial as it flooded a huge swath of pristine wilderness, including a pretty spectacular waterfall.  The upside being that it provides electricity to almost all of Paraguay and a good percentage of Brazil as well.

I left the hot and dusty and disorganized world of Paraguay by catching a small boat across the river to Puerto Iguazu in Argentina; a town famous mainly for the insanely breathtaking waterfalls there.  But more on that next time!!!



Lethal La Paz and the Death Road

Having spent less than 24 hours in La Paz before Carnaval, I decided to backtrack a bit and give the city another look.  It also helped that Hannah, Tijs, and Bethune from my Salar tour were all heading in that direction anyway.  My cold was still pretty bad, so I wasn’t going to do anything too crazy (at least that was the plan to begin with…).  Bethune and Hannah convinced me to go on a little bike trip down the world’s most dangerous road.  Downhill for 63 km with a vertical loss of 3500 m, you start in the frosty highlands near La Paz and end up in a jungle-like valley at the bottom.  What better way to get over a cold?  For 400 Bolivianos we got a pretty serious hard tail downhill mountain bike and lunch included.  An extra hundred would have paid for full suspension and my sore ass regretted my stinginess later.

A van picked us up from our hostel and then it was a short ride to our starting point.  Our guides seemed pretty experienced and gave us a thorough safety briefing before passing around a small white bottle.  We were to pour some of the liquid (which turned out to be about 98% alcohol) onto our front bike tire and then take a swig from the bottle.  This was to honour Pachamama (basically a Bolivian Mother Nature) and get some luck for our journey. The next four hours were spent hurtling down what was at first a full paved highway which eventually graded into a narrow gravel road with a 600 m cliff on one side and a sheer wall of rock and vegetation on the other.  Occasionally the route was interrupted by moderate sized waterfalls pouring directly onto the road or by small landslides, partially cleared.  At one point I briefly lost control and crashed into a rock face along the road.  Better that side than the other!  Immediately after my little accident, a guy who was riding with another company came up to me screaming that he almost died.  I learned later that his bike had come apart and he had fallen part way down the cliff, with only some small bushes saving him from going all the way down.  Some of the less reputable companies were known to use shoddy equipment and I guess he was an unlucky statistic of that issue(or really lucky, depending on your perspective).  

By the time we got to the end of the trip, the weather had warmed by 20 degrees and the wind and sleet had morphed into a humid, clear sky.  We stopped for lunch at a small hotel at the bottom of the road and had a bit of a wash before getting back in the van.  We now had to drive back up that crazy road.  Luckily we were allowed to stop for beers for the trip back, which dulled the fear somewhat as we bumped along up the narrow path (don’t worry, the driver just drank soda!).  Our guide filled us in with some interesting information on the drive back, including the fact that 16 cyclists have died on the road, and dozens of people in vans and trucks over the years.  He personally lost an Israeli girl once when she tried to take off her goggles while still moving and lost control and went over the edge.  I was really glad he didn’t mention any of this before we started.  I don’t think I would ever do it again, but the rush of hurtling down the Death Road was absolutely crazy.

After the trip, my travelling companions all went their separate ways and I was on my own again.  In my dorm at Wild Rover were three English gals and though I wasn’t quite 100% recovered from my cold, they convinced me to go out with them for the night.  We started at the in-hostel bar and moved on to the club after that.  Just as I was lining up to buy a drink, a fight broke out between a couple girls near the dance floor.  I stepped in to try help break it up and pulled one of the combatants out of the fray.  She was bleeding pretty badly from a cut on her forehead and I dragged her into the bathroom to clean up.  In the process I managed to get blood all over my arms and some on my face-  my friends were freaked out when they saw me until I assured them that I wasn’t bleeding myself.  After I washed up, I went to check on the girl and make sure she was okay.  I found her outside the club with her boyfriend and when I asked how she was doing, she basically told me to fuck off, so I guess no good deed goes unpunished.

After that night, I decided I had had enough of La Paz and left the next afternoon on a night bus to Cochabamba followed by a second nigh bus to Santa Cruz in the far eastern end of Bolivia.  For once both my buses were functional and somewhat smooth.  Cochabamba, other than having the second largest statue of Jesus on a hill (smaller than the one in Poland but larger than Rio´s), was a bit dull.  At least the weather was better- by the time I got to Santa Cruz, the air was positively tropical! In my search for a hostel (the first three were full), I met a young Danish guy named Mikal and we decided to split a room to save on cash. He had just finished high school and was on his first trip abroad.  So adorable! (No funny business though, as I am pretty sure that crosses into cougar territory with the ten year age gap).

With a couple days in Santa Cruz to relax, I decided I had some time to organize a visa to Paraguay.  My ultimate goal was Iguazu Falls on the Brazil-Argentina border and cutting through Paraguay seemed to be the most direct route.  The whole process ended up being much more…. interesting…. then I anticipated.