We were given a “rest day” for today, so we decided to go to Iguassu Falls. At 4:00 a.m. our rest from the previous day was ended when our driver, Gustavo, arrived with a minivan for our transportation. We piled into the minivan and most of us slept for the next few hours while Gustavo piloted us toward Cuidad del Este, the Paraguayan city on its Eastern border near the Falls. The main road to Cuidad del Este from Asuncion is a primarily a two lane automobile road with large shoulders for motorcycles, pedestrians, and horse/ox drawn carts to use. It passes through many small villages, each with its own police department (read local revenue enhancement unit) and 40km speed zones. For anyone used to navigating these types of roads in the States, the game isn’t played much differently here. You can make pretty good time at the stated speed limit of 110 km/hour until you find yourself trapped behind a slower vehicle, at which point you bide your time waiting for the no-passing zone to end so that you can accelerate, pass your obstacle, and return to your lane. What is different here is the variety of all of the additional traffic on the shoulder of the road (and some would say the general craziness of the drivers).
Evidently, the wide shoulders on the road were formerly used by cars to pass on the right, but the Paraguayan “DOT” found a solution for this. They installed mini-speed bumps on the shoulders with small cutouts that allow a motorcycle, but not a car to avoid the speed bumps (see an example of one on the right hand shoulder next to the truck in the picture above). Sometimes instead of making a cutout, they just left a small amount of room on the far side of the speed bump so that a motorcycle could just veer to the right to avoid the speed bump. All of this makes for a very exciting or scary ride depending on your point of view.
The main road between Asuncion and Cuidad del Este is also a toll road. Unfortunately, there is no EZ-Pass system in Paraguay, so everyone must stop and pay cash in order to proceed. Automobiles pay a total of about $7US total each way to navigate the entire distance of the road. We pass through three or four toll booths in Paraguay before we reach our final destination. I could be wrong, but when I perused the list of the charges for the different types of vehicles, I couldn’t find one for ox or horse drawn carts, so I assume they are free.
Cuidad del Este sits on the border of Paraguay and Brazil. It is known for being one of the most porous border cities in the world. All kinds of goods (legal and illegal) pass through this border to avoid paying duty taxes. The city is a hub of commerce and shopping where one can find almost any good imaginable. As you approach the bridge into Brazil, the traffic slows down because there are fewer lanes on the bridge. Vendors line the divider between the east and west lanes of traffic and some will go car to car hawking their wares.
Crossing the bridge into Brazil, we drove past the customs guard shack without stopping. Since we had working GPS, we decided to follow its directions to the Falls, leading to the usual GPS follies of unexpected country roads and sense of being totally lost. Eventually, we arrived at the Falls and found a parking space.
Actually, there were no parking spots left in the parking lot, so Gustavo made his own. We started to get in the long line to take the bus to the falls, but found that there were new “ATM” machines to dispense tickets. While most people were waiting in another line for a human cashier to sell them tickets, we were able to get almost immediate access to the “ATM” and purchase our tickets with a credit card. Iguassu Falls charges fees based on your nationality. We North Americans had to pay about $20US to get in (much cheaper than other years due to the higher value of the dollar). The Paraguayans got in for about $15US and Hadassah (a Brazilian) only had to pay about $11US. The line to the buses was long, but progressed relatively quickly. We were soon boarding our double-decker bus and scrambling to get seats on the second level. Unfortunately, there weren’t enough for all of us, so part of our group exited and piled into the next bus.
The bus route to the Falls takes about 15 minutes. We finally arrived at the beginning of the Falls and reconnected with our group from the earlier bus. The falls are actually spread over about 2 km. You start at the lower end where you descend some steps to find this:
A picture can’t really do it justice, and you soon discover that this is only the beginning. Continuing to walk up the trail, you can view various wildlife (e.g. iguanas, snakes), most of which you hope stay off of the trail.
The quati (English: coati) are plentiful and appear friendly, but can bite, so don’t get too close (or feed them anything).
As you continue up the path, there are various openings where you can view more of the Falls and take photos. Finally near the end of the path you have the option to descend further and take a hike on an elevated cement walkway at the base of the Falls.
When we entered the park the attendant tried to sell us some cheap ponchos and protective gear for our cameras, but we turned her down. As we began walking out, we began to get much wetter than we expected. Nevertheless, the temperature was heading for 90 degrees Fahrenheit and the cold water felt good. The walkway gets very crowded at some points, but if you’re patient, you can eventually get a chance to get views and photos at the best spots. Meanwhile, you can’t escape the awesome power of the water’s roar all around you and the thick mist soaking your clothes as you hold feverishly onto your phone or camera hoping that you won’t lose your grip.
After you, navigate you way back down the walkway, you can get a drier view of the Falls from multiple levels of the observation deck next to one side of the Falls. This view is no less spectacular or amazing and if anything the roar of the water is even more deafening.
After winding our way back up the pathway, we proceeded to the tourist center at the bus pickup station. We stopped for something to eat and got back in line for the return bus trip to the main entrance to the park.
The bus trip back to the entrance gate was uneventful, and we were able to use the “ATM” to pay our parking fee (21 Reals – pronounced “hey-ice” – less than $7US) before we returned to the parking lot. This was when things began to “go south” as we would say in North America (maybe in the Southern Hemisphere they “go north” instead). As we were pulling out of the parking lot just before we got to the main gate. The Brazilian police at the entrance gate motioned for us to pull over. They made Gustavo show his driver’s license, the ownership papers for the van, and apparently some kind of chauffeur’s license. Fortunately, for us, all of his papers were in order, and we were allowed to continue after they checked us out.
Next we stopped to put enough gas in the tank to get us back into Paraguay. We got out, used the bathrooms, and piled back in the van. About 20 minutes later we were at the border just getting ready to enter the bridge back to Paraguay when Hadassah discovered that she had left her phone in the bathroom at the gas station. Gustavo made a sudden U-turn cutting off some traffic coming across the bridge and was able to just navigate the van onto the last exit ramp before the bridge. We returned to the gas station and miracle of miracles the phone was still sitting where Hadassah had left it. By the time we returned to the bridge it was around 5 p.m. and traffic was heavy. We finally crept back into Paraguay and stopped again to add more gas to the tank. The Paraguayan and Brazilian service stations are “full-serve”, meaning you wait for the attendant to come to your car, they pump the gas for you, you pay the attendant, it all takes forever, and you marvel at the efficiency of “self-serve” gas stations in the U.S. (unless, of course, you live in New Jersey, in which case it’s pretty much the same as getting gas in Paraguay).
On the way out of Cuidad del Este, it appears that they are flattening the land next to the road and working on adding additional lanes to the road. In my mind I see four lanes for cars and four shoulders for motorcycles, horse/ox-carts, bulls, sheep, chickens, and pedestrians.
The scenery between Cuidad del Este and Asuncion is primarily rural. As you drive by, you see farms, animals grazing, seed corn advertisements, and farmer’s co-ops (and yes, we really did see a double-yoked ox drawn cart, going the wrong way on the shoulder, but weren’t fast enough to get a picture of it). When you enter the small towns you see a gas station or two, perhaps a “hotel”, some stands selling food or produce, and a police station. Actually, you usually see the police standing in the middle of the road motioning random vehicles to pull over.
Unfortunately, one of those vehicles was ours. We had just entered the outskirts of a small town and Gustavo pulled partially into the left lane to see if there was anyway to get around the slow moving vehicle in front of us. I don’t remember him even actually attempting to pass, but nevertheless, the police pulled him over for “crossing the double yellow line” and we had to wait while he ran over to the police station and paid his fine. Meanwhile Brian’s body suddenly realized that he had deprived it of sleep and sent him the usual messages that this was not a good idea (i.e. migraine headache, followed by vomiting). This led to three more stops plus another one for gas and a bathroom break. By the time we arrived home, it was after 10:30 p.m. and our bodies were all in various stages of reminding us that too little sleep, too much junk food, and a long trip, aren’t a good combination. Thankfully, Oscar and Karen suggested that we could sleep in and go in later to school tomorrow, and we gratefully accepted their offer.