Iguazu Falls & Itaipu Dam, Brazil
After spending the most incredible few days in Bonito, our new favorite “nature-y” destination, I wasn’t sure I was ready to have Mother Nature blow me away again with Iguazu Falls. After taking a bus back to Campo Grande and flying (via 3 stops) to Foz do Iguacu (Brazil side), we finally made it to the Green House Hostel. The hostel was pleasant – clean and decently located near buses and a supermarket – and we made use of the kitchen and finally made some easy & healthy homemade meals after many weeks of not cooking. Our cheap, healthy on the road meals consist of stir-frying whatever veggies we can find with some chicken and ramen and adding a ton of hot sauce.
Iguacu is not a great town – there’s not much to do, it’s pretty spread out, the restaurants are tourist-priced, and not very safe. The bus system was pretty easy to use though and was a very cheap way to get to both Iguazu Falls and Itaipu Dam. The town’s population is varied in a sort of bizarre manner – the standard Brazilians, Argentines, and Paraguayans (it sits on the border of all 3 countries) – mixed with a TON of Arabs and Chinese. (The town info center counts the Buddhist Temple and Mosque as 2 of the “sights to see.”) It turns out that after the Itaipu Dam (more on that below) was built between Paraguay and Brazil, there were tons of unemployed workers, particularly Paraguayans. So the government or influential (rich) people in the country who wanted to get richer decided to make it a Free-Trade Zone and thus the Arabs and Chinese came poring in with their gray market goods. (Gray market means pseudo-legit – the types of goods made after-hours in legitimate high-end sweatshops). Brazilians (and Argentines, especially now because the national government is very protectionist and isn’t allowing imports easily) go to the border towns in Paraguay in DROVES to buy stuff – everything from iPods to Prada purses – because it’s significantly cheaper than it is in Brazil. Paraguay is also on the cutting edge of arms and drug dealing as well as terrorist cells (supposedly). We did not witness any of this firsthand since Paraguay charges $65 and requires a Visa for US citizens to enter, but did hear and read a variety of accounts.
On our first full day in town, we of course went to the national park to see the Falls. Tyler had previously visited the Argentine side, so we were excited to see what was supposedly “the bad side” of one of the 7 Natural Wonders of the World. The Brazilian government does an absolutely fantastic job maintaining the park and tourist facilities, and especially when compared to the Argentine side, it’s an easy (and clean) tourist experience. The Park isn’t cheap, as expected, but what’s really annoying is that if you want to do anything in the Park besides the 1 “included” trail – you have to pay another pretty hefty fee. Lucky for us, the included trail is really all you need to see – it is a well groomed trail and provides spectacular views. Since we were there on a Wednesday, the park was not crowded, giving us ample picture opportunities and relaxing quiet to take in the surroundings. It was a slightly overcast and extremely humid day, but the mist kept us cool.
I was stunned at the majesty and sheer size of the falls and couldn’t help but think “THIS is the bad side?!” multiple times. I’ve visited Niagara Falls twice and have fond memories of those trips, but Iguazu Falls is easily the winner for 2 main reasons: size and surroundings. Just when you think it can’t get any bigger, there’s another set of waterfalls waiting to be seen. And the national park (in both countries) is beautiful – you’re totally immersed in the untouched nature around you, which just amplifies the power of the falls. Also, the Brazil side had this really cool bridge-type structure that gives you the chance to literally walk on top of the waterfalls and be in the middle of them – including looking down many meters to the rocks below. It was breathtaking. After visiting the Argentine side, I definitely believe it provides better views, but in terms of total immersion and better overall experience (less crowds, more organized, cleaner), I think Brazil wins.
On Thursday, we visited the other main attraction in town – Itaipu Dam – located on the Parana River between Brazil and Paraguay. It is the largest operating hydroelectric facility in terms of annual energy generation in the world. It is also recognized as one of the 7 Wonders of the Modern World by the American Society of Civil Engineers. We decided to do the in-depth technical tour of the facilities which gave us access to all of the technical rooms and inner belly of the plant. Around 40,000 workers were employed during the years the dam was under construction. There is enough iron and steel in the Itaipu Dam to build 380 Eiffel Towers, and the project required enough concrete to construct five Hoover Dams. Each of the 20 generators produces about 700 megawatts of power, as around 160 tons of water flows through each turbine every second. The plant provides 90% of Paraguay’s power and 20% of Brazil’s – pretty impressive! It was definitely the first time in my life that I really fully appreciated how grand and inspiring my power-engineering father’s work truly is; moreover, in that moment I truly wished I followed in his – Georgia Tech attending, calculus and physics loving, taking pictures of wires on family vacations – steps.
We said goodbye to Brazil on Friday and ventured over the easiest border crossing ever into Argentina. For future reference, if you fly into Argentina, expect to pay USD$140/person – but if you bus over, you pay nothing. Even better, if you break the baggage x-ray machine on accident like I did (I SWEAR I didn’t hear her say “don’t push the red button”), they don’t even look at the contents of your luggage upon entering the country and just exasperatedly wave you in. Iguazu Falls, Argentina is a slightly more interesting town than its Brazilian counterpart, but very touristy and expensive. We went to our B&B – the Secret Garden Inn (highly recommend) – and awaited the arrival of my parents, Jay, and Kristal. They flew forever to Buenos Aires and then had to deal with a delayed flight to Iguazu, but they finally made it in time for a caipirinha happy hour at the B&B. It was a happy and surprisingly tear-less reunion. T&I have been homesick and have certainly missed family & friends, but I don’t think we realized just how much until we saw their faces. More on our family week together in the next post – this one is too long already.