First Experiences of the South American Continent: Part 3

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Iguassu Falls & Paraguay

Iguassu was hot with a capital H O T. If only this deceptively clear weather had stuck with us on the following days, I might eventually have tempted a tan. Sadly that wasn’t to be the case.

But for the time-being it was gloriously sunny, and a handful of us decided to partake in a little illegal trip over the border to neighbouring Paraguay. This was never going to be a particularly cultural affair; hundreds of thousands flock over the border to the markets daily from Brazil to take advantage of the lax tax laws and ambivalent customs and excise arrangements.

Due to the brevity of the trip, I cannot comment much on Paraguay much other than saying that if the whole country is like what we saw in our brief two hour trip, tasers and musical condoms are probably the staple national exports. Also, no where else have I seen a place where on a single stall you can purchase both women’s lingerie and a selection of domestic power tools.

Notably, the mall guards carry pump-action shotguns, and the price of premium spirits is astonishingly low, so we made the most of this latter perk and acquired a quantity that would fill a small paddling pool.

That evening, those who were not feeling horrendously ill partook in a grill session out by the hotel pool. Scott and Katie had been missing for number of hours, so I went to discover them, and found them languishing in my room.

Scott explained to me that they had so far taken it in turns to challenge each other to get, letter-by-letter, down the bottle to below the ‘E’ in Cuervo. This wasn’t a small bottle of tequila, and between the two of them had managed to get through three quarters of it in one sitting, with no mixer. It went some way to explain why Scott was talking to the salt pot.

It was decided the best remedial course of action was to go to a bar, so we headed to a place called Zeppelin. The strict age policy here is relatively straightforward. It involves the doorman asking for ID, then when you complain you haven’t brought any with you, you simply write your birthday down on a post it note and they let you in.

We stayed here for a bit, drank down a few caprinihas, actively avoided the other Gap tour who had turned down our offer of a party, and then squeezed way too many of us into a cab for the trip home.

We awoke the next morning to the dissappointing sound of torrential rain. It had cleared the mugginess of the day before, but this was not ideal Iguassu Falls-viewing weather. I felt quite annoyed, but tried to remain optimistic.

Thankfully it doesn’t matter what the weather conditions are like at Iguassu. It really doesn’t.

With half the group dressed like a bunch of musical condoms (or like a visiting party of forensic scientists) our wet poncho-clad bodies were filled with hot coffee then laden into a 4×4 for a journey through the rainforest (living up to it’s name) and then onto a speed boat for the six kilometre race up to the base of The Falls.

It was spectacular, and all the more enjoyable for the drenching we received as they dipped the nose of the boat under a couple of the less torrential flows.

Afterwards, we walked the trail back up to grab lunch and catch the sit-on train to the top of the falls. From the station to the falls is a twenty minute boardwalk, and thankfully the rain was subsiding as we approached the most spectacular part.

Words cannot entirely describe the sight. I’ve seen Niagara twice and been thoroughly impressed each time with the Horseshoe, but I don’t remember as being quite so mesmerised by the sheer scale of the place, and how the seething foams unrelentingly burst out in ochre-tinted, battleship-grey and bright-white froths all around you. It really messes with your eyes, but is a stunning sight to behold.

Thousands of small birds dart around the thick misty clouds that bloom up from the pit the water falls into, and this means there is no chance of seeing anything much down below.

We stopped, did the obligatory tourist photo thing and then headed back. I was impressed. Very impressed.

That evening we let what we’d seen settle in. Juan took us to a favourite restaurant of his, where we were dished up guinea pig-sized steaks with minimal vegetable accompaniments. Mine came with two globs of dijon mustard; but there were a whole range of mouth watering accompaniments to choose from.

It was sensational stuff and I was very full.

The next day we departed. Locking our bags in a room for the morning, transport had been arranged to slip over to the Brazilian side once more to see it from the other side. The weather had marginally improved since yesterday and this made it good for a helicopter trip.

This was my fourth or fifth time doing such a thing, and once more I relished the initial sensation of rising above the treetops and taking in a fifteen minute exploration over the falls. The pilot threw in a few sneaky moves which went down well with me, but upon our return a very unwell looking Scott indicated he hadn’t been such a fan.

By this stage Sarah and Kristie were by now falling over themselves to get up close and see the spectacle, as neither had done the helicopter trip, and had both been afflicted by the messy illness the previous day, so they still hadn’t seen any of it.

Luckily they now got their chance. The Brazilian side is a much smaller affair, and consists of a long walkway that traces the edge of river then brings you up and over the two tiers of the falls, allowing you to walk out and amongst on the first level.

Equally impressive, if not more so than the previous day, the views were spectacular.

We retired to the bus and began the next night journey to Sao Paulo.

I had expected to spend some time in this city, but apparently our timetable didn’t permit it, so we only briefly skirted through. The night had been eventful. Firstly Juan had spotted someone loading contraband into the hold, so we were all praying that we wouldn’t get stopped at one of the police checkpoints.

In addition, a bunch of noisy Brazilian males seemed to be unnerving some of the girls, and in fear of being ‘snatched away‘, they all did their seatbelts up, much to our amusement. Luckily, and perhaps not surprisingly, no one was stolen in the end.

Heavy thunder and forked lightening provided a spectacular lightshow for the first part of the journey, and at the service station, the ritual of watching the girls going back to the toilet to root around in the cubicle bins to find the little yellow paper slips they had been handed when they entered the building was quite amusing. It turns out they wouldn’t let you back out without it (although this wasn’t explained at the time), so it was a case of rolling up sleeves and going back in.

At around five in the morning, I was awoken by a loud bang. I assumed my water had fallen down from the overhead storage, but it wasn’t until I got a tap on the shoulder and it was pointed out to me that the window behind had shattered spectacularly.

Being safety glass, it had crystallised, but with no spare seats on the bus, and the driver refusing to stop, we just played musical chairs until about forty minutes later the whole thing collapsed in on itself and over the people behind me.

Eventually the driver thought it worth having a look. He rocked up in his tired red jacket, rolling his moustache between the fingers of his left hand and with his right hand stuffed deeply into his pocket. He made a quick thoughtful assessment, laughed a little, proffered something in Portuguese, then went back into the cab and continued the journey regardless.

Thankfully the rain had stopped by now, so the next two hours weren’t so bad, if not a little windy. We hung around at Sao Paulo a little while until our transfer arrived and took us on the long and winding road through the hills to our next destination, Paraty.

Paraty

This was the second quaint colonial town we’d stopped at, this time a Portuguese settlement (this being Brazil; opposed to being Spanish like everywhere else in South America).

Boulder-sized cobbles here make road-travel through the streets like dustbin-lidding on a cattle grid, but the place was very pleasant and the surrounding hills bathed in a rich evening warmth.

Naturally, the weather wasn’t to last beyond the first day, but that balmy evening we walked into town for food at a quirky bar called Paraty 33, where we feasted on pasta and seafood. I got dragged up to dance a little here, and decided I’d have just one more drink. Inevitably the little street bar we chose was selling 5R$ caprinihas, so I later revised my night plans into a more long-term arrangement.

There was drinking and dancing, cocktail mixing, quite a few smashed glasses (I was covered in lime and sugar) and a good night had by all.

Also, never before have I watched a man with a plaster cast leg, backwards donkey kick his friend, then follow up the attack wielding a crutch like a sword. Spectacular and probably never to be seen again.

The next day was for us to do as we wished, and so a handful of us chose to jump on a local bus and make our way to something called the waterslide waterfall a few miles away.

Bearing in mind our previous experiences at South American water-based attractions, you might have assumed this could have been a little disappointing. In the event, it was nothing like what I expected at all. Rather than a carved channel in the stone, it was one huge flat slab of rock, polished by a sheet of constant running water, and made dangerously slippy by a liberal coating of green algae.

It was great fun to watch Caroline, Stephen, Matthew, Soren and Kasper glide down with such ease, but my arse is not the polished marble puck that the others seem to possess, and I constantly found myself blue-tak like, clinging to the rock like a limpit made of pure friction.

Anyway, despite these issues, I was eventually able to overcome my disabilities and build up enough momentum on the slide. For a while we all gracefully and repeatedly plunged into the murky pool at the end of the great granite sheet. Very good fun.

The spacious local bus which had bought us up to the waterfall had somewhere along the line been chop-shopped into a small rickety minibus in time for our return. At least we assumed it was our bus – there wasn’t a sign, but the bloke driving seemed quite happy to accept our money and cram us on top of other people on board, so we assumed it was right.

By the time we got to town all forty of the people on the minibus were quite relieved to get off (I may have exaggerated the number to stress a point) and go find some lunch.

After a sustained fight with a Portuguese hole in the wall, I located the others who were still waiting for their food to show up after about a hours waiting. I did ask whether they had actually placed their order. When they confirmed they had, I checked to see if they had done so in this particular restaurant, or somewhere else.

They were soon saved from my flippancy when the meals turned up. A couple of steaks, some pasta, chips, and like with everything edible in South America, four big bowls of rice.

After lunch we all went our different ways. Scott and I trekked around the harbour, beaches then up to the old fort and wasted the afternoon there.

That evening we arranged to go for pizza at a local hostel (a cute place far more appealing than that actually sounds). Perched up on the first floor with an open view out, it reminded me a little of the restaurants in Thamel, Nepal – and for the first time on the trip I found myself engaged in a thoroughly serious and cultural discussion, this one with Stefanie about British art history.

I decided to call it a night, and along with Katie and Sarah, arranged to take a lift back to the hotel with a friend of the barman.

It turns out the unexpected part of the arrangement was we hadn’t bargained for was the transport being a refrigerated van. Kristie made good of the shotgun rule, so the remaining three of us bolted into the ‘containment area’.

I think you will be most surprised to learn that just because a refrigerated van can be refrigerated, it doesn’t mean that it actually is.

After about five minutes things were getting pretty warm, and after ten, ‘sweaty’. So it’s probably just as well that the driver pulled over. We thought we had arrived, but a muffled shout from the front cab by Kristie indicated he was just running an errand. No problem Mr. Driver – after all we weren’t paying for this lift. Open-popped the back door, and in-thrown was a bag of ice. I positioned it on top of the wheelbarrow we were squatting around, and on we went again.

Just in case we were concerned about our own safety, or what the authorities might think if they caught a fifty year old man with three portuguese non-speaking adults locked in the back of his van with a bag of ice and gardening equipment, he drove really slowly, but needless to say the cobbled bit was the most uncomfortable leg. Having finally parked up right next to two full police cars, the look on the officers’ faces as we emerged was bemusement, but in the end they didn’t seem too fussed. Probably happens all the time.