Iguazú Falls

By Kathleen Kemsley, © 2021

I’ve seen a lot of waterfalls in my life.  Tall ones, wide ones, powerful and awe-inspiring ones: some of the best are Yosemite, Niagara, Juneau Falls in Alaska and Basaseachik in Mexico.  But all those waterfalls take a back seat to Iguazú Falls on the Argentina-Brazil border.  As the Prince song says, “Nothing Compares 2 U.”

I built the whole itinerary for our trip to Argentina around Iguazú Falls.  From Buenos Aires, we could either ride a bus for 20 hours to get there, or take a two-hour flight.  My niece, who had lived in Argentina for a few months when she was in her twenties, had braved the bus ride.  When I asked for her advice, she heartily recommended flying in to the jungle, rather than doing an all-nighter on a bumpy, noisy bus. 

So I booked the four of us on a flight to Puerto Iguazú, on the Paraná River, and reserved a three-night stay at the Iguazú Jungle Lodge.  In preparation for the journey, I had seen pictures of the falls, studied maps, and read about them (“One of the planet’s most awe-inspiring sights,” according to the Lonely Planet guidebook). I was so excited to experience the place in person that I hardly slept that night.  The next morning, we boarded a van for the half-hour ride to the entrance of Iguazú National Park. 

The Iguazú Falls did not disappoint.  We hiked first toward the Lower Trail, following the route backwards from most of the other people, so that the Rio Iguazú was on our left.  When we came around a corner, suddenly, there was the panorama of the falls.  Stunning, overpowering, thundering with millions of gallons of water.  Seized with awe and gratitude to witness this wonder of the world, my eyes flooded with tears as I stared at the view. 

We went around alongside the river, stopping frequently as every mirador gave a different vantage on the massive falls.  The lower loop path ventured quite close to the bottom of the falls, so that a visitor could be cooled off by the spray.  After completing the lower loop, we then moved to the upper loop, joining a “conga line,” as the guidebook called it, of people walking on a narrow trail along the top of the falls.  We leaned over the guard rails and shouted to each other over the roar of water. 

Finally, we rode a little train out to the end of the line, then walked another half mile to reach the climax of the day: Garganta del Diablo, or the Devil’s Throat.  Here, an enormously powerful waterfall plunged off a cliff below the viewing platform.  The sound of water crashing was deafening; the mist was so thick that I could not see to the bottom of the fall. 

The question that immediately came to my mind was, has anyone ever fallen in to the water here?  I was able to ask someone at the park later, and they assured me that yes, quite a few people have gone in, and most were never heard from again. 

As I explored all the pathways around the falls I wondered: how did these falls get here?  The geological explanation was pretty straightforward.  An ancient lava flow ended abruptly here, so the Rio Iguazú ran off the edge of the lava, plunged down to the sedimentary layer, then flowed into the Rio Paraná, another river draining the jungle interior. 

The local indigenous people had a more colorful story, which involved an angry god and a brave young warrior pursuing a beautiful maiden.  The maidens in these tales are always beautiful, with long black hair cascading like, well, a waterfall.  In this case her name was Naipur.  When her lover spirited her away from the jealous god in a canoe, the god caused the riverbed to collapse.  The canoe plunged over the falls, and Naipur was turned into a rock. 

The falls were located on the border between Argentina and Brazil.  Theoretically, it was possible to visit both sides of the falls.  You had to plan ahead to get a visa, required for Americans to enter Brazil.  People also flew over the falls in helicopters, kayaked in the churning Rio Iguazú, and rode in motorboats to the base of the falls – and even motored behind them.  But I did not feel the urge to partake in these adrenalin-fueled jaunts.  I was perfectly happy to stay on the ground and feel the spray of the falls close-up on the Argentine side. 

Iguazú Falls National Park was set in a jungle – overgrown, steamy, humid, and full of plant and animal life.  Along the trail we spotted toucans, capuchin monkeys, and coatis.  The pesky raccoon-like coatis looked cute, but became aggressive if food was offered.  We watched as other tourists tried to feed some coatis a cracker, only to get scratched as the animals fought over the snack.  

It took a full day to walk all the loops of the park, but one full day was not quite enough for me to get my fill.  So I talked my friends into returning for a second day.  It helped that the park service discounted your entrance fee by 50 percent if you came back two days in a row.  The second day, we got there quite early in the morning, before the hoards of tour busses showed up, so that we could walk the metal grate and stone paths around the lower loop by ourselves, minus the crowds. 

At one point when no one was looking, I put some of my late husband’s ashes into one of the falls.  He would have loved to see these falls.  Now, he is a part of them. 

It’s always hard to tell from reading a guide book or looking at a website, exactly what kind of a hotel you are selecting.  But the Iguazú Jungle Lodge turned out to be a pleasant surprise.  Located on a spur road away from the center of the town of Puerto Iguazú, the lodge consisted of a bunch of wooden cabin-like apartments arranged in a circular pattern.  In the center of the circle was a big pool, a game room, and a five-star restaurant.  Each “family style apartment” had a living room, a/c that sort of worked, a bathroom with jacuzzi that really didn’t work, a refrigerator, and a porch with a peek-a-boo view of the Rio Paraná.  Quiet, secluded, and safe, for $65 per person per night.

During an early morning run through the town, I noticed plenty of lodging choices, from cheap hostels to extravagant hotels much fancier than ours.  There wasn’t much to the town other than the lodging and a scattering of restaurants.  Colorful murals decorated the building walls.  Small parks with green grass and towering trees dotted the quiet streets.  A group of young people gathered in one park to drink wine, while music blared from their car – it appeared this was one of those towns stuck in the hinterlands where all the kids couldn’t wait to move to Buenos Aires.  If not for the tourists arriving to see the falls, the town would probably not even exist. 

Oh, but the falls were so incredibly stunning.  It was definitely worth the effort and expense to make a detour from Buenos Aires to the tropical northern border of Argentina.  I was awed, inspired, astounded…name your adjective.  Dazzled.  Overwhelmed.  Changed.  Humbled by the power of Iguazú Falls.

Uruguay, Part 2

By Kathleen Kemsley, © 2021

Let’s go to Uruguay!  Says no one, ever.  But in January 2017, four of us took the Buquebus (pronounced Bookie Boose) ferry across from Buenos Aires to Uruguay for a few days of exploration. 

After departing Rocha, we drove to Punta Diablo, the last town before the Brazilian border.  Vicki had picked out a rental house while we were still in the states.  On the computer it looked palatial.  In the flesh, the house, set back six blocks from the beach, had one normal-sized loft bedroom which was adequate for her and Jon.  A tiny back room was barely big enough for two twin beds, and a living room contained only two chairs.  Obviously, it was an all-right place for a couple with little kids.  But there was not room for both me and Bruce, the two singles. 

I got onto booking.com to find Bruce a nice hotel where they served dinner and he could walk onto a balcony overlooking the ocean.  Then I told Vicki that I’d try the kid’s room at the rental house for one night, before deciding whether to switch to different lodging.  The room had no a/c, only a small fan that barely moved the air.  No screens on the windows.  Sweating in the heat of the summer night, I lay awake, gradually becoming aware of a persistent buzz.  Mosquitoes had entered the house through the front door earlier, and now, in the dark, they swarmed me in the stuffy bedroom and attacked.

Sleep became out of the question.  Turning on the overhead light, I started swatting mosquitoes with a magazine.   Hit and miss.  Hit and kill.  Taking a break, I’d sit down to read a few pages, then get up to hunt again.  Standing on the bed, I hung by one hand from the closet shelf, swatting and missing and swatting some more.  At one point around 3:00 a.m., I googled the newly identified Zika Virus, then stressed out about contracting it.  Thus I passed a whole sleepless night in panic and paranoia.  I was going to die in Uruguay. 

First thing the next morning, I got back on the booking.com website and snagged a studio apartment down the beach from Bruce, where I could make sandwiches on the cheap, away from mosquito hell.  My room had what they called a “peek-a-boo” ocean view – in other words, you could see a little bit of blue water between the buildings.  Hidden at the end of a dead end street, the complex stood solidly just before the beach rolled back into vacant sand dunes and rock promontories. In the distance, I noticed a lighthouse perched on the point.

That afternoon, I walked down to Bruce’s hotel.  He invited me into his well-appointed room complete with art on the walls and a hot tub next to the king size bed.  Bruce seemed to be embarrassed by the hot tub.  “I won’t use it,” he said.

“Well then, could I use it?” I asked him, only half kidding.

“Help yourself,” he said.  “I’ll be sitting out on the balcony, reading.” 

I went back to my room and fetched my bathing suit.  After a relaxing soak in Bruce’s hot tub, I accompanied him to dinner at the restaurant downstairs.  We ordered roast pork loin with peaches and apples, fall-apart tender and delicious.   

Over dinner, we cast about for commonalities.  He read history books; I preferred mystery novels.  He enjoyed listening to jazz, while I was strictly a rock’n’roll gal.  His perfect vacation in Mexico had been a week in an all-inclusive resort at Playa del Carmen.  Mine was driving around the Yucatan in a camper van.  But we found ourselves in perfect agreement about the basics: politics, religion, and the need for a beach day tomorrow in Uruguay. 

Early the next morning, alone, I left my room and walked south half a mile down the deserted beach to get a closer look at the lighthouse at Palmar Point.  There was no gate or barrier, so I entered the courtyard.  Two dogs burst out of the structure barking madly.  They seemed friendly, if loud.

A man emerged from the building where he apparently lived as caretaker.    He misinterpreted my question about the lighthouse as a request for a tour of his living quarters.  I followed him through several dark rooms, but when we got back to the bedroom, a finger of trepidation came over me.  Hastily I backed out the door, mumbling something about looking at the sea view.  He followed me to the jutting land at the front of the building, where I took a couple photos before realizing that we were completely invisible to anyone on shore or down the beach.

The lecherous lighthouse keeper indicated for me to turn my camera around for a selfie, then put an arm around my waist. I froze and pushed away.  For an old guy with no teeth, he was surprisingly strong.  We fought briefly before I spun and fled.  He followed me for some distance, but I was younger and faster.  I escaped over a sand dune, uninjured but certainly more aware of the potential for danger when I went wandering alone in a foreign country.

Later that morning, I met up with my travel companions for a drive north from Punta Diablo.  We walked around the Fortress of Santa Teresa, a restored eighteenth century structure originally built by the Spanish to repel Portuguese Brazilian aggression.  Situated on a high point of land looking out to sea both north and south, the fort was backed by a swamp prohibiting enemies to approach from land.  After Uruguay gained independence from Argentina in 1852, the fort was used for a time as a prison before being abandoned to free ranging cattle and bats. 

In the 1940s the Uruguayan government invested in its restoration.  We spent a couple hours walking around the pentagon-shaped fortress walls which were four or more feet thick.  At least 20 cannons mounted at the corners demonstrated the strength of the fortress’s protection.  Inner rooms were furnished to show living conditions for the 300 soldiers who staffed the fort.   

Between the fortress and the Brazilian border lay a beautiful empty beach.  Remembering the harrowing trip to the lighthouse earlier, I stuck close to my friends as we walked barefoot over several miles of clean, empty shoreline.  The whole length of beach was designated a national park, protecting whales, dolphins, and sea turtles in the waters off shore, while cormorants and other sea birds flocked along the edge of the sea. 

We did get our beach time in the summer sun at Santa Teresa.  A little too much, as it turned out.  The strong rays not far from the Tropic of Capricorn caused a bright sunburn to blaze on my shoulders at the end of the day.  Jon, who had forgotten to put sunscreen on his legs, received second degree burns to his ankles and calves, resulting in several painful days of salving blisters. 

We drove all the way back across Uruguay from Punta Diablo in one long day.  Before boarding the Buquebus back to Buenos Aires, we spent a morning wandering in the old town of Colonia del Sacramento, where Jon had spent some of his teenage years.  He scarcely recognized the town.  Run down and neglected back in Jon’s day, the historic quarter had since been restored and was designated a World Heritage Site in the 1990s.  We walked on cobblestone streets built by the Portuguese in the 1700s, and photographed churches returned to their former glory.  From the top of the sea wall, you could almost see across the Rio Plata to Argentina, 30 miles away.

All too soon, it was time to leave the picturesque colony by the sea, and ride the ferry back to Buenos Aires.  Would I recommend for an Argentine visitor to take a side trip to Uruguay?  Yes, definitely.  It is a mellow country, easy to travel around, with gorgeous historical buildings and unspoiled beaches.  Just watch out for the killer mosquitoes, the strong sunlight, and one lecherous lighthouse keeper. 

Uruguay Part 1

Let’s go to Uruguay!  Says no one, ever. But in January 2017, four of us took the Buquebus (pronounced Bookie Boose) ferry across from Buenos Aires to Uruguay for a few days of exploration.  One of our party, Jon, had spent some of his teenage years during the 1960s in Colonia Sacramento, staying with his dad.  What was Jon’s dad doing in Uruguay?  The answer was hazy, something to do with either the U.S. Agency for International Development, or possibly the C.I.A.  Half joking, Jon said that “the revolution started six months after Dad left each country.”

In Uruguay, Jon’s dad married a local woman and had a couple of kids.  Teenage Jon was not well supervised while there; he ran wild, engaging in typical teenage shenanigans.  When he got kicked out of his dad’s house, he returned to the United States and had never been back to Uruguay – until now. 

We crammed into a tiny economica rental car and drove from the ferry dock in Colonia to the end of the road in Uruguay.  It’s not a very big country.  On a map, it’s a grape wedged in between a giant cauliflower (Brazil) and a zucchini (Argentina).  We stopped over for two days in the nation’s capital, Montevideo, where Jon’s half-sister, Karen, lived.  The two of them barely knew each other, as their dad left Uruguay when Karen was five, moving on to another wife and family in Korea.  But Karen cheerfully showed us around the city, narrating some of its history in surprisingly good English, and walked us through an outdoor mercado where we bought some handcrafted jewelry and tee shirts. 

Karen suggested a parrilla (grilled meat) restaurant for dinner.  Dinner was served late in Uruguay – like, way late, 9:00 pm, or later.  I thought I would starve to death before they served us.  Then, as we sat at a picnic table, the waiter brought a lazy susan piled high with all kinds of barbecue – beef cheeks, kidney, blood sausage, spare ribs, and well-done sirloin.  Exotic eating is supposed to be part of the fun of foreign travel, but the organ meats were a struggle to swallow, so I filled up instead on the side dishes of grilled vegetables.  After dinner, we walked to an ice cream parlor on the Rambla (waterfront path) where a double scoop of chocolate gelato rewarded me. 

The next morning at 5:00 I went for a run along the Rambla.  A lovely orange sunrise over the South Atlantic was witnessed only by me and a couple homeless guys curled on benches next to the water.  The rest of the city was sound asleep, having stayed up past midnight the night before.     

Departing the urban area, we drove through countryside as green as Ireland.  Cattle grazed, and fields of corn and alfalfa, groves of apple trees, and grape vineyards lined the roadway.  A couple hours later, we departed the highway at the town of Rocha.  Six miles up a dirt road in the Rocha Mountains (which were really hills, not mountains, to this Rocky Mountain dweller – elevation of only 1400 feet) we arrived at an organic estancia (working ranch) called Caballos de Luz – Horses of Light.     

We passed two days on the farm, riding horses across the rocky hills and nearly starving on vegetarian fare.   The couple who ran the place, Lucy from Austria and Santiago from Brazil, had bonded over their shared love of horses, and spent the past nine years living on 400 acres off the grid.  Lucy told us the small settlement in the region had begun as a commune, but in recent years everyone sort of broke away from each other, and now it was more of a neighborhood. 

They owned a dozen horses, plus they boarded horses for their neighbors, and hosted occasional small groups of travelers.  Growing much of their own food, they utilized solar power and a propane stove.  The huts we stayed in had thatched roofs and no air conditioning.  I walked out onto the back porch of my hut, spreading some clothes to dry, and stepped on a rotten board.  I nearly fell through as it broke off.  One board – overlooked!  I made a mental note to mention it to Santiago, as maintenance obviously proved tough to keep up with in the hinterlands of Uruguay. 

Down a path from my hut was a composting toilet for communal use.  Of course, it was home to a million flies.  I went in to use it and was startled by a frog which jumped neatly out of my way.  As soon as I stepped away, the frog hopped back onto the toilet seat.  The lid was up.  In less than five minutes, I watched the frog expertly catch three flies.  I had to admire his clever adaptation to resources at hand.  He had found the perfect gig on the toilet seat. 

The food they served us was bland, but undoubtably quite healthy.  Salad, breaded eggplant, goat cheese and a loaf of bread with a crust so hard it could have doubled as a football.  The salad dressing was some weird peanut concoction.  No bacon, no potato chips, no chocolate.  The one standout dish was home grown tomatoes in balsamic vinaigrette.  Now I could see why both Lucy and Santiago managed to stay as thin as string beans.  After dinner, in my hut, I secretly munched a bag of pretzels, some dried fruit, and several handfuls of trail mix.  And felt like I might survive until we got to another parrilla restaurant. 

Beyond the huts and down the hill, past the garden, ran what they called a river – creek was more accurate – complete with a swimming hole deep enough for immersion.  Several palm trees leaned over the cool, clear water. A couple flat rocks on shore provided a seat next to, as Lucy described it, the world’s smallest white sand beach. 

Besides dipping in the river and taking hour-long horseback rides into the hills, there was not a lot for a guest to do on the ranch.  I was glad that I had brought a good book to read in the hammock that hung between two trees in the shady front yard. 

During a morning run, I spotted a tiny deer (the size of a dog) disappearing into the tangled brush of an arroyo.  The deer was no doubt heading for the river, the only water for miles around.  Farther up the dirt road, a one-room schoolhouse sported a sign in the yard that translated to, “Pray for Rain.” 

Dry, dusty and hot, at the height of the South American summer, the ranch existed outside the press of civilization.  It was obviously a lot of work, with limited electricity and no hot water or indoor plumbing.  But it was quiet, except for an occasional horse whinny.  To Lucy and Santiago, craving solitude and freedom, Caballos de Luz Ranch was a slice of paradise. 

My stay provided a much-needed break from the stress of travel in a foreign land.  For those couple days, suspended away from civilization, I felt a glimpse of paradise as well.   The only thing was, I was still hungry.  For a stuffed-full carne asada burrito, dripping with cheese and grease, I was willing to keep moving.