Iguazu Falls to the Pantanal

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January 23rd 2008
Published: January 23rd 2008
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Weeks 13-14

We set off to see the Igazu Falls from the Argentinian side and they are truly awe-inspiring. The falls split Brazil and Argentina and are within 2100 sq km of national park. First viewed by Europeans in 1542, they are formed where a hard basaltic rock plateau ends with softer sedimentary terrain which was then eroded. The River Parana divides before reaching the falls with hidden rocks and islands separating the cascades that together form the cataratas which are 2km across. We were able to get some spectacular views walking along the various catwalks and trails at both an upper level (paseo superior) and lower level (paseo inferior). We took the speedboat which went directly under the falls and got completely soaked as waves of spray and water came over the side. We had been warned about the force of the water which had completely smashed the sun glasses of a previous tourist on the boat! It was too difficult to take pictures and avoid the camera becoming soaked so it will have to remain as an experience indelibly printed on my mind. We then took a small train to Garganta Del Diablo (Devil´s Throat) which afforded a panoramic view of the cascade as it plunged into whiteness with the spray rising as a smoke like fume. We could see where a former catwalk had been washed away in 2001 after the river flooded. The national park with the falls is also noted for its wildlife and we saw plenty of coatis that can apparently become aggressive if fed. Some of our group took a boat down the river towards the falls and spotted a cayman.

The next day we drove to Foz do Iguazu to see the falls from the Brazilian side. Our base was the Albergue de Juventud hostel, ~10-15km from town, where we were camping together with another 5-6 truckloads of overlanders. Having arrived early, we took a taxi into the town which has been built in the typical grid pattern. I spent some time shopping and blogging and then took several hours trying to get the right bus back to the campground which would cost 2 reals c.f. 30 reals for a taxi. The main problem was not speaking Portuguese and getting conflicting advice as to the right bus stop - in the end I found the main bus station and managed to get back to the hostel just before they finished serving the evening meal. The following day we had a tour of the Iguazu Falls on the Brazilian side and although Brazil has a smaller chunk of the falls, they do have a grand view across the Rio Iguazu. Due to environmental concerns, we were all bussed to the only path that can be walked ~other viewpoints and trails were reserved for various expensive adventure tours. Nevertheless, it was great to get so close to the falls and see the rainbows in the spray as the sun peeped out from the clouded sky. Plenty of kodak moments from various observation points before we caught the bus back to the main reception building with its interesting albeit pricey souvenir shop. Then across the road to a bird park for rescued animals. Although this parque des aves is not particularly well advertised, it was extensive with plenty of Brazilian and other exotic species housed in cages and also in large aviaries. We saw plenty of birds - scarlet ibis, cassawary, rheas, parrots (one of which mimicked my hello after saying hola various times), toucans parakeets, flamingos...and there was also a butterfly and hummingbird house. We were able to go into the aviaries with the toucans and parakeets brushing past us as they flew from one side to the other. Then back to the campsite where the boys were having a night out to celebrate another truckmates birthday (the big 40) by go-karting.

Given we were so close to Paraguay, some of us hired a taxi the next day to take us over the border and get yet another stamp into our passport with a quick visit to Cuidad del Este, a border town in Paraquay. The town was very busy with plenty of markets indoors and outdoors and hoards of traders buying up goods in Paraquay to sell over the border in Brazil. We were told by one guy that there is a 125% mark-up on perfumes between the two countries and judging by the huge bags that various pedestrians were transporting to Brazil, this was not unique to perfume. The town reminded me of La Paz in Bolivia with its bustling streets but unlike La Paz, there were no colonial buildings in sight and no tourist attractions so, having each bought various needed items, we headed back across the bridge to Brazil joining a long line of traffic.

Once back in Brazil, we headed across to Itaipu Dam which was the world´s largest hydroelectric works until the completion of the Three Gorges Dam in China. However, this US$18billion joint Paraguayan/ Brazilian venture has the capacity to generate 12.6 million KW and remains the worlds most prolific producer of electricity - 7% of which is sufficient to supply 90% of Paraguayan needs and the rest is used to supply 25% of Brazilian requirements. As Paraguay did not have sufficient funds to pay for the building of the dam, they are now paying Brazil back in kind (electricity) and will be doing so until the cost is finally paid off around 2023. We took a special tour around the facility which included a short video, a drive around the outside of the works and finally a short tour inside the dam itself. There were plenty of impressive facts thrown at us, only some of which I can remember:
* the dam has 20 turbines and only 2 would be needed if all the water in Iguazu was to come through
* the dam had an estimated shelf life of 200 years which has now been adjusted to 160 years which is still longer than many dams given the unique geology which prevents too much silt building up
* the huge reservoir (180m deep) took only two weeks to fill
* the excavation needed to build the Eurotunnel was only 1/10th that needed for the Dam
* the dam is 8km long and created a lake which covers 1400 sq km
* there are 1500 Brazilian workers and 1500 Paraquayan workers in employment on the dam
Having never had a dam tour before, it was interesting enough and is clearly an example of leading edge technology.

Then back to the campground to get ready for a night of South American dancing and an áll you can eat´buffet. The venue for the dancing was one of those geared completely for hoards of tourists packed tightly around the stage and although it was interesting to see the various dance troupes from Mexico to Brazil with their colourful costumes and fancy footwork, I really felt like I was on a package tour.

Next day we had 11 hours drive in the direction of Bonito, camping along the way in a free camp -aka private estate who took pity on us as we missed a campsite and needed somewhere to lay our heads for the night. The next day we arrived in Bonito, the major tourist destination in Mato Grosso do Sul. Although the town is nothing special, the natural resources of the area are spectacular with many caves, waterfalls and incredibly clear rivers where it is possible to see hundreds of fish literally eyeball to eyeball. As the local tourist authority has strict regulations in place for visiting the attractions, partly as some are on private land and partly to minimise the impact of tourism on pristine areas) the only way to see some of the sights is to be accompanied by a guide on a tour. Some of the places on offer included:
* Rio de Prata - clear river (fed by subterrean water) which includes a 2km swim downstream with the fish
* Gruto do Lago Azul - a large cave with underground lake reached by nearly 300 steps
* Various waterfalls - you can apparently do a rafting tour which includes literally going over the waterfalls which shows they are not on the same scale as Iguazu
* Balneario Municipal - a natural swimming pool on the Rio Formoso and the only place where you can go and swim independently of a tourist agency

I decided to to the Rio do Prata tour and after a ~20 mile drive along dirt roads, we were kitted out with wet suit, shoes and snorkels and taken a further kilometre through jungle where we spotted various monkeys etc. As there are strict rules to maintain the pristine nature of the area, we were unable to wear mosquitoe repellent and sun cream and the insects had a field day. Once in the river, we practised our techniques keeping our heads down and our bodies flat to avoid protruding rocks and rapids. According to Lonely Planet, the incredibly clear river springs from subterranean sources in a limestone base which releases calcium carbonate into the river. This calcium carbonate calcifies the impurities which then sink to the river bed which is why we were asked to stay afloat and not touch the bottom during river tours. Soon we were snorkelling down the river keeping a look out for the ~25 varieties of fish lurking in the shadows. We certainly saw some huge yellow dourado fish (known as the shark of the river) at almost a metre in length even taking account of goggle magnification as well as other species such as metre long catfish lurking in the shadows. From time to time, we could see where the underground streams bubbled to the surface disturbing the sand on the river bed. The trip was definitely worthwhile and was followed by an extensive buffet withe some strange puddings, and then a rest in one of their leather string hammocks which was not so comfortable. This snorkelling trip has certainly whetted my apetite for my PADI open water course which I will do in Cairns, Australia.

The next day, some of us decided to hire bikes and go to the Balneario Municipal about 7km out of town. It was a pleasant day leaving time for Internet and shopping for the forthcoming Pantanal trip. That evening we enjoyed a BBQ at the hostal and were joined by Georg (the guy from another overland truck) who had wanted to visit the Pantanal and we set off for our next adventure.

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