We flew into Asuncion, Paraguay from Bolivia. Entering Bolivia we encountered our first body search going through airport security. Every person going through security was taken into a room and the door was shut behind them. I was not too anxious for this, with visions of cavity searches ahead. The other surprising thing was that the security people were dressed in street clothes and not looking very professional. I entered the room and the gentleman was going through the motions knowing that I was not a likely candidate for smuggling. He patted me down and came across my hidden wallet hanging from my belt on the inside of my pants. His eyes became very large and he imagined that he would make his quota for today. He was disappointed when I pulled my wallet out and showed him my passport and credit cards. The security at the airport in Asuncion took on a security of K-9 proportions. We set our bags down with a couple other fellow backpackers and a cute little dog walk around sniffing for trouble. One of the other backpackers had a slight problem because he had a bottle of whiskey that had broken on the plane in the overhead luggage compartment. So his entire bag smelled like Jack Daniels and he got to go into another room with the Paraguayan custom officials.
Sitting in the airport we started talking to three guys who were backpacking together and were also headed to Iguazu Falls. One guy, Sean was from the North East United States and had been traveling on and off for five years. The other two guys were from Denmark and had met up with Sean in Machu Picchu and they had decided to travel together. We had not planned to stay in Asuncion but we would need to catch a bus for a seven hour bus ride to the Argentina border. We all sat looking through our travel books trying to figure out the best way to get from Point A to Point B. Karen and I had decided to catch a midnight bus ride (our first) so staying in a hotel was not an option. This meant we would need to go to the bus station and check on bus departure times. Our fellow travelers did not know what they were going to do and we all planned on meeting up at 9:00 PM in the main square downtown. Karen and I jumped in a cab to the bus station and the other guys headed for the bus stop and a ride downtown. Karen and I both laughed because we really should have taken a bus to the bus station.
This was our first bus station and we did not know what to expect. Karen had a list of three recommended bus companies for our trip to Argentina. We checked our backpacks into storage and tried to figure out which bus we were going to take. The bus terminal has 30 or 40 bus companies with destinations in all directions. Each bus company has a small office along a long row of other bus companies, so we walked the full length looking for a ride. We discovered a couple of bus station facts that would make our travel planning very difficult. If you can speak English as a second language you do not have a job working in a bus station. If you work in a bus station you have a very heavy accent that makes it impossible for you to be understood by tourists who speak very little Spanish. We had a couple of choices that departed between 11:00 PM and 12:15 AM. We did not have visas for Brazil so that eliminated two of our three choices. We spent over an hour trying to ask questions of the various ticket agents trying to make sure we understood all of our options. Every time we would return to the counter to ask another question the ladies would laugh, roll their eyes and pretend like they were busy doing something else. Karen and I were giving tourists a bad name. Our only choice was a bus leaving at midnight that would take us to Ciudad del Este, Paraguay not to far from the border of Argentina. The cost of the bus ride was $9.75 a person.
With our tickets secure we jumped into another cab and headed for the city center to grab a bite to eat and a couple of beers. The city of Asuncion was our first town in South America that looked like it had money. As we drove around we noticed numerous Mercedes dealerships and modern shopping districts. The houses along the street were all quite large with well-manicured lawns. We never figured out why Asuncion had so much apparent wealth. We arrived at the main square and got out of the taxi to find that this main square was different from all the other main squares in South America. In almost every city in South America the main square or Plazas de Armas was the heart of the town. The Plazas de Armas would be surrounded by restaurants, shopping and the locals enjoying the park. The Plaza de Armas in Asuncion was more like a park in the US it had its share of young ladies trying to make a quick buck and only a few businesses open at 8:00 PM. We would have left but we had planned on meeting Sean and the two guys from Denmark at 9:00 PM in the center of the park. We found a small cafe on the North corner of the park and ordered a couple of beers. Our waiter was very nice and he enjoyed visiting our table to practice his English. I would walk down to the center of the park every half hour looking for our backpacker friends but they never showed. I am not sure what impression I gave the young ladies in the park but every time I would walk up they would add in a couple of whistles and they would give me their most provocative pose. I would smile and return a “no thank you” and walk off.
We arrived at the bus station early, grabbed our bags from storage and took a seat. The bus station was very busy and numerous vendors walked around selling food and drinks. Karen and I would not be spending a lot of time in bus stations. We boarded the bus and settled in for our overnight trip. The seating was very tight and became even tighter when the seats ahead of us reclined into the sleeping position. I learned at this point that Karen is claustrophobic and can get down right ugly. I am not sure what road we took that night but it did not resemble a highway. The bus stopped, started and turned left and right every fifteen minutes. Every time I would look out the window I would see a couple of houses and a dimly lit street light. It is quite possible that the bus drove around in circles all night and our final destination was really only a half hour away. They of course only take the circular route so they can charge more money. I did not sleep very well and awoke every 30 minutes to adjust because the seats were not designed for a 6’4″ 180 lb. body. We were very excited to arrive at the bus station at 4:30 AM and to get out and stretch our legs. Our next challenge was to catch an international bus to Argentina. The bus station was called an International terminal by our trusty guidebook and we did not know if that meant we had to catch a city bus first to another terminal. Karen spent an hour asking every person we came across, “Where do we catch the bus to Argentina”. Another interesting bus station fact is that if you are working in a bus station at 4:30 AM you definitely don’t speak English and you are not really interested in assisting tourists. However, there were any number of taxi drivers who would drive us there for 50 US dollars but we were determined to take the bus. We walked out of the front of the terminal and into a slight drizzle of rain. We had concluded that the city buses did not start running until after 6:00 AM and we would have to wait. We noticed about a block away people waiting on the corner next to little signs. It is raining at 6:30 AM they must be waiting on a bus so we decided to join them. We still had no idea if our bus to Argentina would be at the corner or at the International Terminal.
Finally we move to another corner and see a bus with our destination on the front — but the bus driver is just early for his route and we would have to wait for another bus when we realize we don’t have the correct currency for the bus ride. A street vendor changes $20 US at a really crummy exchange rate. We argue for a moment about the rate and he points us down the street to the bus station indicating that if we were not happy with his rate we could hike back to the station. We accepted his rate. We are finally close to actually going some place and getting out of the bus terminal district. The border between Paraguay, Brazil and Argentina is a river with a couple of bridges. It appears that the locals cross back and forth without getting a passport stamped. As Karen and I sat on the bus we watched what the locals were doing. We were actually the first ones on the bus at the first bus stop so we got to watch everyone settle in before customs. It appeared that the locals were heading to a market because everyone got on with a fair amount of stuff. One guy had a backpack that he stashed behind the door. At first I thought that was odd until the rest of the passengers started spreading stuff around various locations on the bus. One lady got on and handed the bus driver some food and then started to unload stuff that he put in and around his seat. At this point I knew we would definitely be going through customs someplace. One lady, I will call her Litterbug, had large cartons of cigarettes that seemed to be causing her problems because every time a passenger would get on she would hand them a box of cigarettes that they would promptly shove in their bag. After Litterbug lady decided she had distributed her contraband it was time to eat. During all these activities the Litterbug lady would make trash. A wrapper from a carton of cigarettes, a bag carrying her breakfast, and other forms of paper waste. She had a really neat system for dealing with this waste; she would open the window without even a moment hesitation and throw her garbage out the window. After watching her do this at least ten times I was ready to get up and say something but she would have no idea what I was saying. I was even tempted to turn her in to customs for handing out cigarettes but we were only strangers passing through a strange land and they had obviously not seen any of the “Give a hoot don’t pollute “commercials or that crying Indian guy in front of a river of trash. This was the first time that I realized how powerful those commercials were in keeping America beautiful. Our guidebook instructed us to definitely get an exit stamp in your passport. It, however, was not clear if that meant in Paraguay, Brazil or Argentina. Traffic was bumper to bumper as we approached the first bridge. It is usually a good bet that a body of water or river means that you are about to enter another country. At this point we did not know if the bus would stop for Paraguay customs. It did not and headed across the river into Brazil. Our next dilemma was that we were now in Brazil and we did not have a Visa for Brazil. After 15 minutes of driving through Brazil we arrived at the Argentinean border and it was time to go through customs.
Everyone stayed on the bus except Karen and I grabbed our bags and went to go find a line to stand in. The Argentinean custom officials were sitting around drinking from a silver cup. We had noticed that the bus driver and the guy who gave us change back in Paraguay were also drinking out of silver cups. The big difference came when the custom officials started passing the cup around and the top of the cup was covered with a mixture of green grass. This was definitely not something I was used to seeing custom officials do or anyone else for that matter. Karen and I both agreed that we would have to investigate what was in the cup. As we waited to get our passport stamped another customs official boarded the bus and started to inspect the locals on board. I am not sure if they are going through the motions or are actually looking for illegal contraband. I sure wanted to tell them about the cigarette smuggling Litterbug lady. The bus left and we waited for the next city bus to show up and we went to Puerto Iguazu, Argentina. At this point in our travels we are not real excited about bus travel and all the unknowns associated with correct bus selection.
We arrive at Puerto Iguazu and find a small bus station and a bright sunny day with a bit of rain thrown in to make sure everything shined. Karen had picked a couple of potential hotels and we set off with our packs on our backs. It was raining, it was 9:00 AM and we had been traveling since 5:00 AM the previous day. We could not wait for a hot shower followed by a nap.
So far Paraguay had been a country to travel through to get to our destination of Iguazu Falls. Upon settling into Puerto Iguazu we tried to put a plan together for seeing Iguazu Falls from the Brazil side. Karen checked with a tour agency and they wanted $90 a person which included the $50 Brazil visa fee. As a United States citizen you need a visa to enter Brazil but the travel books stated that if you are only going to view the waterfalls then a visa is not required. Everywhere we turned we got different information. Karen decided to hire a taxi for a trip to the Brazil side of the falls and a trip to the Itaipu Dam on the border of Paraguay and Brazil. The cost for our private tour is $50.
The taxi driver picked us up at the hotel at 8:00 AM and we departed for the Brazil border. The taxi driver explained to the Brazilian customs agent that he was taking us on a tour and we were allowed to go through. The customs official did not stamp our passports so it would appear that we never entered Brazil. Rodrigo, our taxi driver, speaks no English but is eager and carried a big smile. The first stop of the day is Itaipu Dam and we are the first ones there. The Itaipu Dam has a very nice visitor center that offers a “Making of the Itaipu Dam” movie and a bus tour around the dam. The Itaipu Dam is the world’s largest hydroelectric dam and stretches over four miles across the river between Paraguay and Brazil. The dam was built as a fifty-fifty partnership between Brazil and Paraguay but now the dam provides most of its power generation to Brazil. The visit to the dam is definitely worth the trip.
Next stop are the Iguazu Falls on the Brazil side. The travel books all recommended going to the Brazilian side first to take in the true magnificence of the falls. The Argentinean side of the falls is more developed as a natural park but the Brazilian side allows you to see the falls as Mother Nature intended. The Brazilian side of the falls has only one walkway from the top to the bottom of the falls. Karen and I walked up and could not believe the size and magnitude of the falls. It was truly impressive. We stopped for the mandatory couple picture and headed down the walkway. We discovered that the previous view of the falls was only 20% of the actual falls. Every corner and observation point yielded an even larger view of the falls. Taking pictures became a little difficult because water vapor is everywhere and covers your camera lens before you have a chance to focus. The end of the walkway takes you into the middle of the river and at the edge of a large horseshoe shaped fall. If you venture into the center of the fall you need a good poncho because you will get soaking wet in a few seconds. The waterfalls are very wide and the area is covered with unusual landscaping that seems out of place with such tremendous water power everywhere you turn. The Brazilian side of the falls does not require more than an hour visit so we joined up with our taxi driver and set off for the 60 mile drive to get to the Argentinean side of the falls. It is kind of weird to see that the place you are going is less than a mile away across the river but you must drive an hour to get there.
As we drove out the park exit we tried to communicate to the driver that we wanted to go to Bird Park which is only a couple miles from the Brazil park entrance. The sign read “Parque Aves” and we tried repeating this as our destination. It took a few minutes for the driver to comprehend our request but he figured it out and we stopped in for a quick detour. The park entrance was $8 US and at first we thought it would only take five minutes to see the birds in the various cages. As we got to the end of the bird house we went through a door that took us on a hour worth of bird habitats inside huge cages. This allows you to actually walk through and stand next to some beautiful birds of many different species. I think the birds are used to the human visitors because they did not seem bothered at all by people walking through their home. For bird lovers this is a real treat and a great way to get some pictures of some very colorful birds. I think I enjoyed the Bird Park more than the waterfalls.
It is now getting close to 1:00 PM and I am getting hungry but we did not want to kill an hour of our cab ride by eating. We still had to go to the Argentinean side of the waterfall. The cab driver asked us if we wanted to eat and he knew of a place on the Brazil side. We at first declined but he kept asking so we gave him the OK. He pulled into a parking lot not to far from the Argentina border of a very large building and tried to explain that it was a buffet and cost $12 US a person. I am not a fan of buffets and definitely did not want to pay $12 US. Since we could not explain our reasons for objection we decided to go along. We entered a large banquet hall filled with people and waiters in all directions. We invited the taxi driver to sit with us but he was able to explain that if he sat with us he would have to pay for his meal. Great we got sucked into a tourist trap so that our taxi driver could get a free meal. The place turned out to be well worth the $12 US. The buffet was a normal buffet with 25 side dished and I loaded up on some food. Then the first waiter came with a knife in one hand a large piece of meat on a skewer in the other. Argentina is famous for their consumption of meat and this restaurant fit the bill. Every three minutes a different waiter would show up with another meat to carve out on my plate. At one time I counted nine different kinds of meet on my plate. It was being delivered faster than I could eat. I was full and the meat kept on coming. Karen the vegetarian was having more fun with the meat variety than I was. We signaled to the driver that he did good and we were on our way.
It may seem odd that we have included information about the Brazilian side of the falls in the section on Paraguay but we never officially entered Brazil so this was as good a place as any. As we enter Argentina I will be able to get back on track and put all the information in its correct place.