Monday, September 22, 2014

Iguazu vs Iguaçu


I first heard of Iguaçu Falls in middle school, when our teacher popped in a video on butterfly migration. As yellow butterflies fluttered through thundering clouds of mist on the tiny screen, going to this place suddenly became something I needed to do. It wasn't until years later that I discovered a member of my family had already been to the falls - I found a black & white postcard my grandfather had sent to my dad and uncle in the late 50s. This only renewed my desire to visit. When it came time to plan my trip to South America for the World Cup, there were two places I absolutely had to go - Rio and Iguaçu Falls.


I booked a bed at Garden Stone Hostel in Puerto Iguazu. At $17 per night, it was my cheapest stay of the trip and after the first night, I had an entire four-bed dorm (with bathroom) to myself! Puerto Iguazu is a neat little town that obviously relies on tourism but still has its own slow, neighborhood-y pace. It had some good restaurants - at AQVA I had fish that put what I'd had in Brazil to shame and at A Piacere  I finally had my Argentine steak with amazing rosemary-garlic fries and a mini-bottle of Malbec. Service was horrifically slow at A Piacere, but 1) I was used to that by this point and 2) Argentina had just beat the Netherlands, so I guess allowances have to be made.


Much like Niagara, the falls share an international border (Argentina and Brazil, with Paraguay only a few miles away). Crossing the border was no big deal - it's expected here. I took the bus to the Brazilian side. Our bus driver only took those who were staying in Brazil to get an entry stamp for their passports on the way in. (Yes, I was super nervous about this, but everyone else was in the same boat... or bus, as it were.) The morning I left Argentina to fly out of Brazil, my taxi driver did things far more officially, and promptly - if your driver knows people (and he probably will), you'll move up the queue in front of hapless tourists who are there on their own.


One more thing worth mentioning is to keep an eye on the weather forecast. Technically, I was there for three days, but since by the time I got into town, it was afternoon, I opted to take a walk down to Tres Fronteras instead. While the walk was worthwhile - you can see Brazil and Paraguay across the rivers - that afternoon ended up being the sunniest few hours of my time there.


The following morning, it was grey and overcast, and the morning after that, I waited till the afternoon to head for Brazil anyway, as it rained all morning. On the plus side, all the mist reminded me of 'The Mission', a film I watched in 12th grade English (my teachers must have been plotting together to make sure at least one of their students would someday go to the falls). Arriving on the Brazilian side was depressing - the first opening on the trail looked out over a white blanket of fog, and a single coati greeted me. "There were LOADS of coatis in Argentina," I muttered to him. But soon, the fog began to lift, just in time for the most spectacular views.


While I didn't get to see the falls in sparkling sunlight, or see the butterflies that first introduced me to the place, the extra trip was 100% worth it. The sheer force of the water is mind-boggling - even more so when I visited. Two weeks earlier, more water had gone over the falls in a single day than any previous record. I missed out on a bunch of stuff on the Argentine side, as half the trails were closed. And still - worth it. Feeling the engine of your little boat pulling against the tug of the current gives you a healthy respect for the power of the water. Even half-closed, the number of waterfalls was incredible.

None of the maps I could find give a decent overview of both sides, so here's mine.

Pretty much every blogger who goes to Iguazu/Iguaçu Falls writes a post comparing the two, so here is my take on Argentina vs Brazil...


A: National Park feel
B: Nature Theme Park feel

Like the Grand Canyon, there's a side that's more sedate and natural-feeling and a side that feels more commercial. While both sides had plenty of amenities - food, restrooms, souvenir shops - the ones on the Brazilian side were definitely slicker. Like, 'you could imagine you were in Jurassic Park'-slick.


A: Lots of trails
B: One main drag

In Argentina, there's a central station, and everything branches out from there. You can take a little train to get to several of the trail heads, or you can walk. Meanwhile, Brazil has one main road. There are a few stops along the way, but if you just want to see the falls, you get off at one station and walk along the trail to the next. Because of this, I'd give Argentina a full day, while you can really do Brazil in a couple of hours.


A: Walking amongst the falls
B: Great panoramas of the falls

Like Niagara Falls, the side with the most falls doesn't actually have the best view of them. Argentina gives you the amazing opportunity to walk below and above the falls. Brazil has the sweeping views, plus a cool elevated platform from which most of the postcard-worthy-pictures seem to be taken.


A: Greatly affected by recent flooding
B: Not affected by flooding

When I was there, over half of Argentina's trails (San Martin Island, Garganta del Diablo, and about 1/3rd of the Upper Circuit) were closed. Many of the viewing platforms had been either damaged or destroyed by record water levels two weeks before I arrived. As far as I could tell, Brazil didn't have any problems. (To be fair, they only have one trail and just a small - but breathtaking - part of it runs over the water.


A: Take the boat ride
B: Visit the bird park

Both sides have options like boat rides and jungle tours. I'd read the Argentine side is better for boats - you cruise around the base of the falls, right into their spray. I wore a bathing suit under my clothes, but still didn't get as wet as I did walking around Recife. Pick the shorter ride - it's only about $35. The Brazilian side has a bird park just outside the entrance to the falls (easily walkable) that's worth seeing, especially, if like me, the only wildlife you encountered at the falls were coatis.


A: Roving hordes of coatis
B: Roving hordes of coatis

The coatis were a fun surprise. Because it was winter, and rainy, I didn't see any wildlife - aside from tons of these little guys. In Argentina, signs - that were apparently made in MS paint - warn you that coatis will cut you. In Brazil, they tried to steal my sandwich. I even saw them chase a bus.


The Verdict? Visit both. Seriously. This natural wonder is worth clearing two days out of your schedule for, and that's really all that's needed to see both sides. That said, I would recommend visiting Argentina first and Brazil second. And keep an eye on those coatis!

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