Friday, March 19, 2010

Holy Guaçu, Sethman!

I spent the last two days at Iguazú Falls on the Argentine-Brazilian border.  It was among the most awe-inspiring things I've seen in my entire life.  Supposedly, when Eleanor Roosevelt visited Brazil, she went to the falls, and exclaimed, "Poor Niagara!"  Poor Niagara indeed.  If you can imagine dropping a tropical jungle into the Grand Canyon, and then having 275 individual waterfalls springing out everywhere you look, that gives a bit of a sense of the place.  What I had never quite comprehended from pictures was the scale of the thing.  On the Brazilian side, your first peek is of a very impressive torrent, which I initially mistook for the entire falls.  I was left standing there, jaw agape, from what turned out to be less than a fifth of the whole thing.

Note the rainbow to the left of my legs.

As I continued walking along the path, stopping at increasingly impressive lookout points from which increasingly more of the falls were visible, I could not stop exclaiming "wow" and "oh my goodness" to no one in particular.  I sounded like Beaver Cleaver on hallucinogens.  The best way I can think to sum it up is in a way that brings back the Grand Canyon comparison:  When I was a kid, my family took a trip to Arizona.  One of my father's friends explained before we left, "you always hear that the Grand Canyon is cool, and you think 'okay' but you don't realize until you get there that it's this big freaking hole in the ground!*"  Well, Iguazú is a big freaking hole in the ground**, with a big freaking river*** flowing through it, to boot.

Let's get some basic facts out of the way.  Iguazú has the greatest average annual water flow of any waterfall in the world.  At its highest (about 269 feet), it is 1.6 times the height of Niagara, and it is two and a quarter times as wide (a mile and two thirds).  It is comprised of 275 individual cataracts, but you can't see them all at once from the ground.  Although the border between the two countries cuts down the middle of the river, the shape of the basalt shelf is such that the water roughly flows from Argentina to Brazil.  As a result, the Brazilian side offers the more spectacular panoramic views, while the Argentine side, sitting behind the falls, allows one to see the individual falls from up close.

I had the benefit of nearly perfect timing with the weather, arriving after several days of steady downpour--meaning spectacularly high flow at the falls--and on two straight days of glorious sunshine--meaning rainbows and what seemed like half the world's population of butterflies, especially on the Argentine side.  My friend Praz pointed out that if one were to design paradise from scratch, a verdant subtropical forest filled with waterfalls, rainbows, and butterflies would probably be a good place to start.

I wasn't expecting to be able to go to the Brazilian side, because American tourists need a visa to enter Brazil, and by all accounts this has to be done in advance.  It turns out, however, that "in advance" can also mean "the same morning" if you go to the Brazilian consulate in Puerto Iguazú, on the Argentine side.  There are rumors that Brazil unofficially tolerates a day trip if you have both directions of the voyage arranged beforehand.  Unfortunately, I didn't know this until after the fact, so I ended up getting a visa.  On the plus side, in so doing, I managed to avoid violating any international treaties.

I always mostly just thought of Brazil as a big country with a blue cheeseburger on its flag, but there's clearly a lot going on.   My five-hour visit to Brazil turned out to be a pretty serious culture shock.  After so much time spent learning and practicing Spanish, entering a country where it's not spoken was a major challenge.  I've been to countries where I don't speak the language before, but never without any kind of phrase book, or without even knowing how to say "hello."  So it was pretty challenging.  My conversations would generally go like this:

Employee of Parque Nacional do Iguaçu: [unintelligible].
Me: [blank stare].
Employee of Parque Nacional do Iguaçu: [unintelligible and louder].
Me: [blank stare].
Employee of Parque Nacional do Iguaçu: [blank stare].
Me: ¿Hablas Español?
Employee of Parque Nacional do Iguaçu: Não.
Me: [blank stare].

Fortunately, I managed to get through the day without any kind of major linguistic disaster, and even managed to order ice cream (twice) and a beer.  I eventually managed to learn the exchange rate, which was not posted anywhere near the ATM.  In the interim, I avoided accidentally overspending on anything, which I consider a major victory.  Needless to say, however, I was very happy to get back to good old Spanish-speaking Argentina.

The Argentine side covers a lot more ground than the Brazilian side.  We devoted about six hours to it, and still didn't see the whole thing.  This isn't actually that surprising given the sheer volume of waterfall one can see, but it's impressive nonetheless.  We managed to get pretty lucky in terms of the crowd, as there were a lot of people, but not so many that we had to wait in long lines at the various viewing stations--something I'd seen from the Brazilian side the day before.  It felt a little bit like Disneyworld if the main attractions centered around the awesomeness of nature and not Space Mountain.  There's even a little electric train--controversial, but ultimately sparing the park a great deal of vehicle traffic--that takes you out to the trails.

The eternal question before going to Iguazú/Iguaçu is whether one really needs to see both sides.  My answer would be that the Argentine side was probably a bit more spectacular, and worth visiting if one really only has one day, but I would definitely have regretted missing the Brazilian side.  I think the order in which I did it was just about perfect, getting the scale of the whole site on the first day, and then getting to explore it up close the second day.

This is a bit off-topic, but I think I should also take a moment to follow up on my Buenos Aires post from last weekend.  I have to say, if I thought that complaining about being unimpressed by things would ensure three days like the ones that followed, this blog would be the whiniest collection of words the internet has ever known.  Fortunately, as a stats geek, I know a thing or two about correlation and causation, so I'll just stick to being extremely grateful for the incredible experiences I've been fortunate enough to have.

And now, it's time to find some lunch and figure out my last few days in Buenos Aires, before leaving for Patagonia on Tuesday.


* Language cleaned up in case any children read this.
** Not as big as the Grand Canyon, but still freaking big.
*** See "*".


Parque Nacional do Iguaçu (Brazil)

Parque Nacional de Iguazú (Argentina)


  1. Come on Seth I taught you portuguese! I cant believe you didnt practice it in Foz!!

  2. Chigidishchki! iPoche restauranche!

    ¿Te parece mejor? Es portugués, más o menos, ¿verdád? Gracias por enseñarme.


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