Iguazu Falls to the End of the World

A feeble attempt at capturing the enormity of the Iguazu Falls

A feeble attempt at capturing the enormity of the Iguazu Falls

This one one of a series of travel emails I sent to friends and family who wished to follow my travels through Latin America in the first half of 2007

Nothing really prepares you for the Iguazu falls. They’re big. Very big. They are the second most voluminous waterfalls in the world after Victoria falls, at the source of the Nile. They’re also one of the lesser-known attractions of South America. Everyone has heard of Machu Picchu and Patagonia and Angel Falls… but poor Iguazu falls seems to fall by the wayside. In fact, I hadn’t heard of them until I was glancing through Nick’s Lonely Planet: “South America on a Shoestring”.

The falls are situated in the rather awkward, three-borders-area between Argentina, Paraguay and Uruguay. Lucky for me seeing as I had 72 hours to get myself out of Paraguay. This is a tricky place to be because the falls themselves are on the Rio Iguazu which IS the border between Brazil and Argentina. Visiting the falls generally involves passing from one side to the other quite frequently. Lucky for me (you think I’m lucky? just wait… there’s more) I managed to get a multiple entry visa for Brazil but it turns out I needn’t have bothered because, if you plan on returning on the same day, they don’t bother to check your passport or give you a stamp. The Argentines are bit stricter… I didn’t need a visa, but I did need lots of stamps during the three days that I was there.

Another forgotten treasure in this area is the Itaipu hydroelectric power plant – the largest hydroelectric power plant in the world. I had not heard of it until I got to Asuncion. It is terribly impressive. It lies on the Rio Parana (named after the fish and spelled incorrectly (I’m kidding)) which is the border between Paraguay and Brazil… luckily, nobody checked my passport. The spillway of the dam has a capacity for a flow of water 40 times that of the Iguazu falls… and since the average flow of the Iguazu falls is about 1.5 million litres of water per second… well, I’m not great at math, but that’s an awful lot.

But I’m getting ahead of myself… our story left off in Asuncion, the capital of Paraguay, one of only two landlocked countries in all of South America. I had managed to finally get my visa (the travel permit, not the credit card) from the Brazilian embassy and arrange my bus trip from Asuncion to Ciudad del Este, which would then connect to Puerto Iguazu on the Argentine side of the falls. I was feeling pretty good about how things were going when I got back to my hotel and checked my email to find an item in my inbox from the admissions office of Columbia University…

Those who know me from Melbourne Uni know that my academic record is quite exceptional. Exceptional because one wonders how I didn’t get kicked out for failing so many subjects. Exceptional because on two separate occasions, I passed only one subject in a semester… but lets not dwell on the negatives. Anyway, the pattern of emails from university admissions offices so far had been disappointing but not entirely surprising. I sat up in my chair, took a few deep breaths, then clicked… “Dear Daniel, on behalf of the… blah blah blah…” I was skimming for the words “sorry”, “regret” and “unable”… but, quite to my confusion, I couldn’t find them. Instead, I found that I had received an offer of admission.

I was shocked. I checked the browser to make sure that I hadn’t accidentally opened someone else’s email account. I couldn’t believe it… I start in September this year…!

I celebrated by walking down to the hotel lobby and asking nicely if I could play the piano which I had noticed in their dining room. Despite it being about 11pm, because there was hardly anyone else in the hotel (and I assume the dining room had decent sound insulation), they said yes. I sat down and let rip with my fingers for the first time in over three months. I was rusty… but the piano was horrendously out of tune as well… but I didn’t mind. I played and I sang and I’m sure the hotel staff were in the lobby having a quiet chuckle. It was a good day.

So there I was, walking around Iguazu falls in a stupidly good mood. I was tagging along with a tour and one of the other people on the tour was from Boston. Someone once told me that it was very important to find an institution which had a good orientation or culture which matches my own. When I told this guy that I was going to Columbia he said “oh dear, they are going to turn you into a left-wing, tree-hugging hippie! You better watch yourself, I can’t stand those people”. In doing so, he did something which I wasn’t sure was possible at that time – put me in an even better mood…

Most of the falls are on the Argentine side. From the Brazilian side however, one can get a more expansive view of all the falls. Even this wasn’t enough for me though… so I opted to take a boat out into the middle of the Rio Iguazu and get a *really* panoramic view of the falls. These boat trips aren’t for people who don’t like to get wet. Everyone got thoroughly soaked, but it was an awful lot of fun. Good thing I had a plastic bag for my camera.

After the Iguazu falls, I hopped on a plane for the first time in over a month and flew to Sao Paulo (which is called “San Pablo” in all the Spanish-language brochures), Brazil, an expansive and very populated city. After catching my breath and eating some nice meals (though… not as nice as the ones I had in New York) I moved onto Rio de Janiero where I would stay on Copacabana beach and do some REALLY touristy stuff, like go for a morning jog.

Although I was there for about five days, it really wasn’t enough. Aside from the obvious touristy things to do, such as taking the cable car to the top of the Sugar Loaf Mountain and visiting the statue of Christ the Redeemer, I also attended a football match. Let me just say now that Melbourne football crowds have NOTHING on Brazilian ones. Not only is everyone a little bit more passionate (yes, even more passionate than Collingwood supporters), there are samba bands, massive banners, illegal fireworks and flares constantly throughout the game.

Next stop – Montevideo, Uruguay. Suddenly I found myself in a city which was more like Europe than South America. A slightly poorer Europe, to be sure… but even the climate matched. First thing that stood out for me – good beef. Uruguayan beef seems to live in the shadow of Argentine beef, but it is, in my opinion, just as good. This could also be because Argentina exports all of its best beef, leaving it’s “B” grade beef for the locals (which is still exceptionally good). Montevideo is also a very safe city… and, due to Uruguay’s location and being, at various times in its history, caught in the middle of a tug-of-war between Spain and Portugal… then Argentina and Brazil… has an eclectic mix of architectural styles.

On my last night in Montevideo, I went to a shopping mall which used to be a prison… this shopping mall was so large that it had not one, not two… but three cinema complexes attached to it. I went to see Spiderman 3 with two other people because the other cinema company had beaten this one to a copy of the Spanish dub… which everyone flocked to see (especially because it happened to show at exactly the same time).

Colonia del Sacramento, across the Rio de la Plata from Buenos Aires, was established by the Portuguese… on land claimed by the Spanish. This did not end well… there was some fighting. It also served as an important smuggling port because security wasn’t as tight here as it was in Buenos Aires (it still isn’t). Two hours from Montevideo by bus and about one hour from Buenos Aires by boat, I spent an afternoon here before catching the ferry to the Argentinian side. Despite being an hour by ferry, it was a clear day and one could actually see the taller buildings of Buenos Aires from the shores of Colonia, which I thought was pretty neat.

Buenos Aires

Buenos Aires

Apart from eating lots of beef and seeing some tango (two things I’d promised myself that I’d do when in Argentina), one of the first things I did was visit the ‘local’ cemetery. Why? I had that stupid song from the musical Evita, “Buenos Aires” I think it’s called, stuck in my head… so I thought I’d pay a visit to Eva Peron’s final resting place. The cemetery itself is extensive and there are free tours. Good thing too because there are a fair few dead people here (c’mon, its a cemetery) who had very interesting life stories. People who were buried alive by accident, couples who had quarreled in life so in death requested that their busts face in opposite directions and a fair supply of eccentric political figures.

I spent the rest of my time just walking around the city, admiring the architecture (definitely looks like a European city) and planning my next move. The question begging was… how far south do I dare to go? I finally decided to go somewhere where, at the time, there was only one flight a week – Ushuaia. I city I had never heard of before but is, apparently, the southernmost city in the world.

It feels like the southernmost city in the world. It has snowed every day that I’ve been here and it is very cold. It feels much colder that 4-6 degrees (what the thermometer says). Although it is low-season, it is still one of the most spectacularly beautiful places I have ever been to (and I’ve been to a few…). Ushuaia has a great deal in common with Australia. For a start… it is pronounced similarly… well, if you’re an aussie who pronounces Australia “ostraya”. It also received its first significant boost in population as a penal colony… and most sailors at the time would have agreed that it was about as inaccessible as a place could get.

The waters around here and cape horn are notorious for sinking ships. When the industrial revolution came along and made wooden ships with sails obsolete, this was a favourite location to have an “accident” to collect a bit of insurance to go towards replacing your fleet. Even the Beagle channel, on which Ushuaia is located, supposedly one of the calmest bits of ocean in these parts… made me feel quite ill (my head is still rocking back and forth and its been two days dammit!).

Argentina’s tourism infrastructure is impressively well-developed. In addition… Ushuaia has a disproportionately large number of specialist photographic equipment stores and wireless internet hotspots… which is how I’ve managed to send this email. The food here is also quite excellent, the seafood is fresh (I wonder why) and the meat is of typically high quality.

After this, I am going north in search of warmer weather and the Perito Moreno glacier which flows into Lago Argentina… Calafate is meant to be a good place to start that particular quest. I will probably meet up with Nick on the Chilean side at the northern end of the lakes district after which we will go to Santiago de Chile from where our flight departs for Melbourne. I can’t believe there are less than three weeks left… it doesn’t seem like five months have passed…

Overlooking Lake Fagnano

Overlooking Lake Fagnano

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