Thursday, November 7, 2013

Iguazú and around (October 10th - 14th, 2013)

The famous Iguazú waterfalls were indeed among the highlights of the things we've seen in South America so far. Witnessing nearly two million liters of water fall every second from a height of 80 meters can not leave anybody calm!

We arrived in Foz do Iguaçu by plane from Rio de Janiero. We were a bit surprised that there was no information center at the airport, but soon we figured out how to get to the bus stop and which bus goes to town. We then had a short walk to the hostel and were positively surprised about what a nice place it was. Communicating with the staff was quite difficult, however (unfortunately, we speak very little Portuguese). We went for dinner, but had a hard time finding the place that the receptionist had recommended. Luckily, we found a good place to eat on our own.

The next day we stopped by at the local information center, and the woman there was very helpful. Not only did we get a map, she also booked us an excursion to the Itaipu dam. Originally we wanted to go a day later, on Saturday, but the tour was completely booked. Luckily there were still a couple of places for the same day, and we booked immediately.

As we could not go to the Iguazú falls on the same day, we rather started preparing for our upcoming trip to Argentina. We had already gotten 1000 U.S. dollars in Rio de Janiero, but we thought it would not be sufficient, so we withdrew some Brazilian reais from an ATM and changed them using quite a good rate to Argentinian pesos. Perhaps you are wondering why we did not just plan to withdraw the money in Argentina. This would, in fact, be an economic suicide. The Argentinian economy suffers from a huge inflation and the government prohibits its citizens from buying foreign currencies. This has led to the formation of a black market, which for some reason is called the blue market. Exchanging using the blue rate allowed us to eliminate the effects of the 25% inflation. If you are interested in this topic, we recommend two good articles with more details (here and here).

The money safely hidden in our hostel, we departed to see the Itaipu dam. Our excursion was scheduled to start at 15:30, but we left already at around 1 P.M: it took quite some time to get to Itaipu, and we also wanted to visit a nearby museum.

Just after arrival we were amazed by these four high voltage lines

The Eco-museum had quite an interesting exposition about the technical aspects of the dam, but we did not understand why it is called Eco.

Laura and a scheme of the Itaipu dam

From the museum we moved on to the visitor center of the Itaipu dam. We bought our tickets using the reservation number we'd received in the morning and had a delicious cake in the local cafe. In the beginning we were a bit worried that whole excursion would be in Portuguese, because it was the only language we heard around us. Fortunately, the excursion was completely bilingual, but we still had a feeling that more information was presented in Portuguese than in English.

Up to 2012, the dam was visited by 6485 people from Czech Republic and by 455 from Estonia

The excursion started with propaganda video about the dam. The dam is indeed quite impressive. It consists of twenty generators, each with approximately the same output capacity as one nuclear reactor in the Temelín power station. It is also similarly controversial: nearly sixty thousand people were relocated during its construction. Later on we also heard estimates that if the dam would ever collapse, it would kill more people than Chernobyl and Fukushima together.

After the video we boarded a bus and started our excursion. The first stop was the spillway. It has a capacity of 62.2 million liters per second, which is approximately 40 times more than the average of the Iguazú falls. Unfortunately for us, there was no water going through: the spillway is needed only once or twice a year.

Forty Iguazú falls could fit here

From there we continued to the next viewpoint, where we could get an overview of how huge the dam really is. From a distance it did not look so large, but we were explicitly told to remember the size of the white tubes. We would get a much better understanding later, while standing next to them.

Overview of the Itaipu dam. Notice the short and stout white tubes in the middle.

A closer view of the white tubes, in the background

From the viewpoint we continued to the top of the dam. We stopped quite close to the border between Brazil and Paraguay to take some pictures. Our guides were generally very knowledgeable, but here I managed to surprised them with a question that they were unable to answer. What is the purpose of the rings on the picture below? If you know, please let me know in the comments.

These rings were connected to high voltage lines via dedicated wires and were standing on quite high insulators

From the top of the dam we continued to the main entrance of the dam. First we walked into the upper part of the dam called the cathedral. It did not matter if we took a look up or down, it was far in both directions.

The official entrance of the Itaipu dam

Looking down through the dam

We then continued into the bottom part of the dam. First we stopped at the operation center and could see that at that time, all generators were operational. We were also told that half of the shift is always from Brazil and the other half from Paraguay.

Itaipu control center - people did not seem to be working very hard, but nobody was checking Facebook.

From there we took a lift to a huge hall above the generators. The hall was so large that you would fit several soccer fields into it. We then went even deeper and visited a chamber with a shaft connecting a turbine with a generator. It was rotating only 90 times per minute, but was a couple of meters thick.

This shaft transfers 700 MW from turbine to generator

We then returned to the bus and the visitor center. There we had one more delicious cake and went back to Foz.

The day after we took a bus to the Brazilian side of the Iguazú falls. Surprisingly, the bus was not very full. After arriving to the entrance of the park, we were even more surprised. The amount of people who had arrived with organized tours was just crazy. We waited in line to buy a ticket, and in another to board a bus that would travel through the park. Once we finally started walking on the path to see the falls, we got into a human traffic jam. There were just so many people who wanted to see the falls and soon we could see why.

One of the first view of Iguazú falls

We took many pictures and moved slowly among the crowds of people. We also made some stops to eat a bit, and could see coati stealing food from trash bins. Eventually we got close to a place called the Devil's Throat.

Coati stealing food from trash bins

Iguazú waterfalls - one more picture

Laura on the way to Devil's Throat and its observation platform

The observation platform provided us with a close view of the waterfalls and also with the possibility to feel them on our own skin. We got wet quite quickly. Luckily, it was rather warm, so we dried up fast.

Laura, wet on the observation deck

We spent a bit more time looking around the observation deck, but it was soon time to move on. We caught the bus back to the entrance and from there visited Parque das Aves.

This park was like a big zoo that specialized on birds. We saw many birds in large cages. The coolest thing was that we could even enter some cages, where the birds were even flying above our heads. In the last cage it was even a bit scary, because there were so many birds that were flying around, possibly fighting for the best places to sit. Plans to make more space for them are on their way.

One of the many birds which allowed us to take a close picture

Laura is always happy when she sees beautiful plants

Laura's favorite bird in a big cage

After spending a couple of hours with the birds we took a bus to town. It was quite difficult to find an open restaurant in the middle of the afternoon, but we managed. We relaxed a bit in the evening and did some more planning.

The next day morning we took a bus to Puerto Iguazú in Argentina. Compared to other people on the bus who did not have to get out at the border because they were visiting Argentina for just one day, we needed to stop by at Brazilian emigration. After getting our passports stamped we waited for a half an hour, and the driver of the next bus told us that we can't board with our backpacks. As the bus after this one would have been there in an hour, we decided to walk the two kilometers and arrive in Argentina on foot. 

Before the Argentinian border we saw a big duty free shop. Just out of curiosity we decided to take a look, and were immediately surprised that all prices were quoted in U.S. dollars. What surprised us even more was that it was also possible to pay in Argentinian pesos using the official exchange rate. As we had gotten pesos for almost half the price, I considered buying a new camera, because it could have potentially saved us a lot of money. However, we soon discovered that something strange had to be going on: an iPad mini that cost US$ 299 in the Apple Store on-line cost US$ 559 here. Cameras were similarly overpriced. Some hidden taxes? We're not sure. In any case, welcome to Argentina, we are ready for you!

We crossed the boarder to Argentina and got our passport stamped. We again did not want to wait for the bus and just walked to our hostel. After getting settled in, we went to eat and had our first steak in Argentina. It was not as good as the one in Cochabamba, but was accompanied with a great Argentinian wine, so we more than enjoyed it. In the evening we organized bus tickets to Corrientes for the following night.

The next morning we caught a bus to the Argentinian side of the falls. Once we'd paid for the entrance,  Laura was a bit disappointed about the tickets: mine said that I am from Czech Republic, but hers that she is from otros (others). She did not mind for long as we soon noticed that the park was much less crowded than on the Brazilian side, maybe because it was already Monday or because the Argentinian side is bigger and people could be more spread out.

We took a train to the first station. From there we first started with the upper circuit, giving us a great view of the falls from the top.

Falls from the upper circuit

We could get very close to the falls

After the upper circuit, we hiked down to the lower one. During our lunch break we were attacked from behind by a coati, who stole a whole pack of cookies from us. I got a bit of a scratch on my hand, but the skin wasn't broken and the paramedic at the park told me not to worry about it.

Laura at the lower circuit

More waterfalls from the bottom

The entrance to the national park even included a short boat ride to an island, where in addition to the falls, we could see a large iguana.

Falls from the Island

An iguana lurking in the undergrowth

Afterwards, we took a train to the Argentinian side of the Devil's Throat. From the station, it was a tranquil walk on a path and over a long bridge. Suddenly we arrived at the viewpoint just above the Devil's Throat. The amount of water falling down was just incredible and we were standing right above it. We could not see the bottom because of all the mist produced. We sat down for a bit and just looked at these tons of water.

The Devil's Throat

Hundreds of thousands of liters were falling here every second 

Us in front of the falls

We then walked back to the train station, took a train back to the entrance and paid a short visit to the museum there. Afterwards, we returned back to Puerto Iguazú

In town we went to an official exchange office and exchanged the small amount of Brazilian reais we still had to Argentinian pesos. In the beginning we were offered the official exchange rate, but it did not take much convincing for us to get almost as good a rate as in Brazil. 

As we had a bit of extra time we also went to take a look at the crossing point of three borders - Brazil, Paraguay and Argentina. Honestly, we were bit disappointed there. Soon afterwards it was time to take our bags to the bus station and leave with an overnight bus to Corrientes.

As usually, we have many more pictures of this magical place.

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