Friday, April 30, 2010

Adventures in Visa-land, and Some Pretty Spectacular Falls

It’s 30C in the sunshine as I type this, on a perfect hot and humid day in the tropics of northeast Argentina. I’m still in Puerto Iguazú, but am catching a bus at 3:00 today back to Buenos Aires. I’ll spend another couple of days there, and probably take a side trip to Uruguay, before heading on to Mendoza and wine country.

I spent the last couple of days checking out the reason everyone comes to Iguazú: we all come to see the falls. There is a national park on both the Argentine and Brazilian sides of the falls, and they offer you different perspectives; from the Brazilian side, you get a panoramic overview of the falls, and in Argentina, you get up close and personal. So it’s a good balance when you visit both sides.

And I did visit both sides, despite the fact that I had to get a visa for Brazil. Canadians, Americans, Australians and a few other nationalities need visas to enter the country (for some reason, New Zealanders don’t), and pay handsomely for the privilege; I was thankful at least NOT to be American, as they’re charged double what the rest of us are. Europeans, by and large, pay nothing, so I’m on the lookout for a Euro passport-holder (gender and age not important) willing to marry me solely as a business arrangement so I can get the associated travel perks. Let me know if you know anyone.

They don’t make it particularly easy on you to get your Brazilian visa, but it is possible to do it in a morning here instead of waiting the 3-4 days it would take in Buenos Aires. I got up bright and early and headed to a photo place at 8 a.m. to get pictures (I look like a convict, but at the time didn’t care), then over to the Brazilian consulate. The officious man at the counter sent me packing to go get a form I needed to fill out, which I did once I found an internet place that would let me print it out (and after waiting in line for all the Aussies ahead of me who were doing the exact same thing). The internet guy even lent me a glue stick so I could stick my picture in the appropriate square.

Back at the consulate, my officious little friend then informed me that I had to have exact change to pay the fee. (He couldn’t have told me this the first time around?) I came up with 272.75 pesos – the fee is 273 – and scrounged around frantically in my bag for the missing 25 centavos. I tried to convince the consulate guy to take 274 pesos instead, and just keep the change, but he refused. Fortunately one of the Aussie girls gave me the missing 25-centavo coin and I handed over money and paperwork.

“Come back at 1 pm,” consulate guy told us all. It was about 10:30 by now. So we all went off in our separate directions and congregated back in the consulate office again a few hours later. Consulate guy tried to give me the wrong passport (an Aussie one), insisting it was me when he looked at the picture; I pulled the right one out of the pile (the lone Canadian passport in the bunch) and took it away with the precious visa inside. I discovered upon looking at it that my picture showed up on the visa, too; if I`d known that when I got the pictures taken, I might`ve been more concerned about it looking like a mug shot.

Then it was onwards to Brazil. I changed 100 Argentine pesos for 45 Brazilian rials (a bad exchange rate, but there was only one place in town to do it), and caught a bus to the border. The bus driver waited as I got the necessary Argentine exit stamps, but he left me behind at the Brazilian entry post, after giving me a ticket to get on the next bus without having to pay again. 2 minutes later, I was officially stamped into Brazil, and waited another half an hour for the next bus.

It duly arrived, and took me into the town of Foz de Iguaçu, where I had to switch to another bus (and pay another 2.2 rials) to get to the national park and the falls. Eventually, we pulled up at the gates of the national park, and 2 hours after leaving the bus station on the Argentine side, I was there.

Prices to enter the park had almost doubled from my Lonely Planet guide information; it’s been pretty good on Argentine prices (costs have gone up a bit but nothing too dramatic) but inflation is apparently running more rampant in Brazil. (Or they’ve just decided that there’s more money to be gouged out of tourists and hiked up prices accordingly.) Cost of an entrance ticket varies depending on where you’re from: for complete foreigners (e.g. me), it’s 37 rials (about $20), less if you’re from South America, even less if you’re from Brazil, and the least if you’re a retired person living in this particular province (they pay only 5 rials).

Another bus takes you into the park, with stops at various activities like rafting (cost of which is in addition to your entrance ticket, so I declined – plus I didn’t have time). There’s a path of about 1 km that you can walk along the Brazilian side of the falls, giving you some stunning panoramas of waterfall after waterfall after waterfall: Iguazu is not one cataract, but many, and collectively they cover a vast area and range in size dramatically. The sound of roaring water is deafening, and by the end of the trail you’re standing right next to the largest waterfall of all: the Garganta del Diablo, or Devil’s Throat. I stood in the mist and spray of this enormous rush of water and marvelled at the sheer force.

About 5:00, I realized I’d better start heading back, as the last bus across the border to Argentina was at 7 p.m. I made it back to town in time for a 6:45 bus, and went back to the border; once again I was left behind at the Brazilian side and told to catch the next bus. I waited ... and waited ... and waited ... and after an hour I was pretty sure that the bus that carried on without me was the last one of the night. Just as I was about to give up and go beg a customs guard for a ride to the Argentine side of the border, a bus pulled up; it was a different company than the one that dropped me off, but I was willing to pay the 5 pesos again for the peace of mind of knowing I wouldn’t have to sleep at the border crossing that night!

So it was quite late, and I was a little stressed, by the time I got back to the hostel. My American roommate cracked open 1-litre bottles of Quilmes (Argentine beer) and we ended up chatting all night to an eclectic mix of people; at one point, there were about 12 countries represented around the table. Wine and beer flowed freely, and a very intense Israeli guy, fresh out of the army, produced a joint at some point. (Yes, I inhaled. Oh, hush to anyone who has a problem with this, I’m not going to turn into a crack-smoking junkie and I wouldn’t smoke pot in, say, Thailand, where they’d throw me in jail for a really long time. Argentina’s pretty relaxed about such things.)

Walking under the falls at Iguazu (Argentine side)
Getting to the Argentine side of the falls was much easier, and I spent all of yesterday there. There are many more trails than the Brazilian side: there’s a pretty 2-hour hiking trail through the rainforest that takes you to a little waterfall and swimming hole, monkeys chattering at you all the while; there is an ‘Upper Circuit’ of the falls, with walkways that take you right over top, watching the rushing water beneath your feet; and there’s a ‘Lower Circuit’ that takes you in, around, up to and under the falls. I got drenched on the last trail (see right), but it was worth it for the close-up view.

Today, I’m sitting in the sun as I upload pictures, send some emails, and of course write this for you, dear reader. I am back on the bus at 3 pm today, another “super cama” ride back to Buenos Aires. It’s not going to be nearly so warm there, so I’m going to soak up the tropical sunshine while I can (suitably slathered in expensive Argentine sunscreen) ... on that note, I need to shut down my computer, go find a book and a sunny patch of grass. Ah, it’s a rough life.


  1. Lovely, lovely, lovely.
    You are seriously gonna have to write a book about all this.
    The crossing-the-border saga alone would be a hilarious chapter!

  2. How do you think I plan to pay for my NEXT year of travel? Maybe I can convince Doug to serialize it in his magazine and get me some free publicity :)