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I'm an Aussie who likes wandering all over the world but keeps coming back home to paradise and my family. If you are reading this on one of my travel blogs, I hope you enjoy reading them as much as I enjoyed creating them. If you are reading the Diabetes and weight loss blog - I hope it helps in your battle with the beast. Cheers, Alan

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Foz do Iguaçu and Puerto Iguazú

Iguassu Falls from the GOL 737

Travel Dates 25th-28th April 2010.
Please click on any picture to see the larger version.

I've been delayed by many things since I returned from South America, but I have decided to make the time to complete the record. My next post will be devoted to the mighty Iguassu Falls, with lots of pictures from both sides. This preliminary post is about the towns and travel in the Iguassu district.

The flight from Rio to Foz do Iguaçu was uneventful. I was pleasantly surprised at the quality of the GOL service, which I used from Sao Paulo to Rio and Rio to Foz do Iguaçu. The only significant annoyance was their tendency to change departure gates with no warning apart from a change on the TV screens. Watch those screens if you decide to use GOL.

I’ll use the English spelling for Iguassu Falls, just to add to the confusion. Similar to Niagara Falls being on a river which forms the border between Canada and the USA, the Iguassu River forms the border between Brazil and Argentina. Consequently the correct spelling depends on which side of the falls you are. There are twin towns straddling the falls, both very dependent on the tourist income they attract.

Foz do Iguaçu is the Brazilian city. It has a population of about 300,000 and is also the regional centre. After some pretty bad hostel and hotel experiences in Peru, Ecuador and Rio the Pousada El Shaddai hostel was a pleasant change. Nothing flash, but the beds were comfortable, the bathroom was clean and the staff were excellent with good advice on transport options. Apart from a need to change rooms when a leak appeared in my window when the heavens opened, my two nights there were pleasant.

On their recommendation I splurged on a restaurant a little above my usual budget. That led to the most interesting dining experience of my trip. Just a block from the hostel is the Bufalo Branco Churascaria. I had looked unsuccessfully for places like this in Rio, and later I was equally unsuccessful in Buenos Aires. The menu is a little misleading for those not used to the Churascaria method. I arrived about 6:30 pm; I later realised I was far too early. The lady at the entry tried to explain the system, but I did not fully understand it. The price was fixed at 43 Reais, about AU$25 at the time. This included free choice from both the salad bar and dessert table. So I made my selections and sat down and waited for service. And waited...and waited...

I had forgotten that both the Brazilians and the Argentinians consider 8pm early for dinner, so at 6:30 I was the lone diner. I started to get annoyed, but I sipped my excellent large glass of red house wine and nibbled on my salads and kept waiting. Eventually, a couple arrived, then another, then a few businessmen. Finally, nearly an hour after I arrived, a waiter appeared at my table with a lump of hot barbecued meat on a sword-like skewer and asked me to indicate which part I would like sliced from it. He showed me on the menu diagram that it was from the rump region of the steer. By selecting my own slice I could choose from the charred outer surface or the bleeding rare meat surrounding the skewer to anything between; I chose medium-rare. It was superb – tender, juicy and delicious. But I was a little surprised at the small portion size. I should not have pre-judged.

I noticed that he took that same skewer from table to table, slicing cuts on request for the diners. I had barely finished that small portion when he was back with another skewer and a different cut of meat; before I finished that he was back with the pork ribs, then the lamb, then another different cut of beef, then some delicious barbecued fish. I started visualising the Fantasia scene from the sorcerer’s apprentice, with a never-ending and constantly increasing stream of meat arriving.

Eventually, after I had skipped a few choices and slowed down considerably I got the message across that I was full. It seemed that I stopped before we got to the Turkey Testicles. Of course, I still managed to find space for a small dessert. In hindsight I realise now that they needed a minimum number of diners in the place before they started serving and that was why I had the long wait after arrival.

All of the food was superb. It was a magical dining experience for me despite the misunderstandings at the start. For the diabetics reading here, my peak post-prandial test was excellent.

The hostel was a short walk from down-town Foz do Iguaçu. The town and its people were laid-back and pleasant; I wandered around all of down-town and many of the back-streets without ever feeling insecure. I only ate at the Bufalo Branco once; I found that their house wine was unusually good when I tried the local red wine at other restaurants – the house reds in those varied from terrible to paint stripper. I don’t know what they make the regional red wine from, but I have doubts that it is grapes.

On both sides of the border I used the local bus system to go to the Iguassu Falls. The buses are frequent, clean and cheap. On the Brazilian side the same bus services the airport and is a cheap way of going from the airport to the city. Both towns have a large central bus station near down-town with buses to local, regional and international destinations.

On the Argentine side of the river is Puerto Iguazú, smaller, with a population a little over 30,000, and more tourist-oriented than Foz do Iguaçu. Both towns have their own airport; this had an advantage for me because it meant I arrived from Rio de Janeiro and departed to Buenos Aires on internal domestic flights in both cases. That simplified immigration procedures and may have also saved me some taxes.

The third city in the district is Ciudad del Este in Paraguay, on the Paraná River which the Iguassu River flows into. The Paraná River, which is second only to the Amazon in size in South America, forms a border between both Argentina and Brazil with Paraguay. I had not allowed enough time on my itinerary to visit the city or the associated Itaipu Dam and hydro facility; if I was planning the trip again I would make the time. It is a major free-trade centre and the locals from Foz do Iguaçu and Puerto Iguazú appear to travel there regularly for shopping.

This was the first time in my travels that I have used local buses to cross a border. It became a little confusing. I took a short walk from the hostel and caught the bus to Puerto Iguazú at a local stop. That took me to the border; I was advised by the driver to hold on to my ticket because the bus would not wait but the next bus would let me continue on the Argentine side of the border. After I followed the short queues through police and immigration I waited with some Canadians at the bus stop for that next bus. We declined two local buses that stopped because we had pre-paid our fares but our bus never arrived. Eventually we gave up waiting and took the third local bus that stopped. When I look back on that, I can’t believe I wasted nearly an hour to save 3 Reais.

I was unimpressed with Puerto Iguazú. Compared to Foz do Iguaçu it was smaller, dirtier and more oriented to separating the tourists from their dollars. I stored my bags at the bus station for 8 pesos and went walking to find a hotel. I tried half a dozen, plus some hostels and found that all seemed over-priced for the quality provided. Eventually I chose the Hotel Alexander, which was 3* and reasonably priced at 150 pesos (about AU$44), probably because it was closing the following day for major renovations. I suspect that was the reason for a rather grumpy and uncommunicative front desk manager. However, it was a comfortable bed and a reasonable room when compared to the opposition.

I also felt a bit less comfortable wandering the streets at night in Foz do Iguaçu. It was nothing tangible; just a feeling that I seem to have developed over the years of my wanders around the world, or even from my years driving cabs on the night shift. Little things, like the attitudes displayed by youths, or the tidiness and condition of houses and yards, or the prevalence of high walls, barred windows and security systems on better homes, or the surliness of cab drivers. Suffice to say I took a bit more care and restricted my after-sunset walking.

Later, in Buenos Aires, I realised I had left my debit card in an ATM machine in Puerto Iguazú. That was my own silly mistake; it happened to be the first card-swallowing ATM I had encountered on the trip and I was distracted while collecting the cash, so I failed to press the button to indicate I had finished and never retrieved the card. The good news is that it was not mis-used before I cancelled it. I always carry at least one back-up card on a different account, so the loss was only an inconvenience, not a disaster.

Next, the Falls.

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