Visitors to Iguazú Falls, the 1.7-mile-long snaking series of waterfalls that is South America’s chaotic response to buttoned-down Niagara, have three choices: one, the Brazilian side (where it’s spelled Iguaçu), known for its panoramic views of the falls; or two, the Argentine side, with its pathways winding above, below and all but straight through the tumbling cascades.
I went with option three: the Paraguayan side.
Ciudad del Este, Paraguay, just across the Paraná River from Brazil and about two miles from Argentina, does not have many tourist amenities, but it does offer its own form of chaos that is to commerce what the falls are to nature: a free-for-all tax-exempt shopping zone where yellow moto-taxis and exhaust-belching buses weave around throngs of border-crossing shoppers buying knockoff Gap sweat shirts, deflated soccer balls, underpriced appliances and just about everything else under the sun. (And, for the shadier transactions the city is known for, under the moon.)
Why stay in notoriously seedy Ciudad del Este? First, I was already in Paraguay. Second, there is cheap lodging: the shabby-but-professional Hotel Mi Abuela, near the center of the action, cost me 145,000 guaraníes a night (about $37 at 4,000 guaraníes to the dollar).
But really, it was because I didn’t see much appeal in the one-trick-pony tourist towns that serve the falls: Brazilian Foz de Iguaçu and Puerto Iguazú on the Argentine side. I’ll take seedy over scene-y any day. And from the first minutes of my visit, Ciudad del Este did not disappoint. Sticking my head in a laundromat to ask how much it would cost to clean a pair of particularly dirty pants, the man in charge responded: “Is there blood? Because we don’t work with blood.”
Was it safe? That depends on your definition of safe, of course, but by day, with the dusty, hot streets thronged with shoppers, it didn’t seem any worse than any other pickpocket-friendly central market area. But at night, that area is largely deserted and creepy. Though I could have headed to the nicer parts of town, I instead had an early dinner at one of the quiet Chinese restaurants on Boquerón Street, where the spicy tofu with a bit of shredded beef ($5; mysteriously, the menu was in dollars) at Miu Miu was a nice change from the heavy Paraguayan dishes I’d been eating for a week.
On the first of my two full days, I hopped on a local bus and took the 20-minute ride to Itaipú Binacional, the world’s second-biggest hydroelectric dam, co-run by Paraguay and Brazil. Actually, I got off about 500 yards short of the visitors’ entrance and walked through scores of peaceful protestors — workers who built the enormous dam in the 1970s and ’80s and claim to have been cheated out of the money and benefits they were owed. Several were strapped to crosses bearing the Paraguayan and Brazilian flags.
It’s good that the protestors are there (and have been since December) because the official tour of the dam is, not surprisingly, quite idealistic, ignoring labor issues as well as the sort of environmental ones raised with most dam projects (destruction of flora, displacement of locals). It’s free to enter on the Paraguayan side, but the tours are only in Spanish — although you get plenty of printed literature in English, and on my tour the guide went out of her way to translate for a few non-Spanish speakers. (Tours on the Brazilian side costs 24 reais – about $12 – but you can request one in English.)
Controversies aside, the dam is impressive. Among the stats I heard on the tour: 60 thousand tons of earth had to be moved to construct it; the metal in the dam is enough to build 380 Eiffel Towers; 700 cubic meters of water a second shoots through each of 20 white tubes, creating energy that supplies about 80 percent of Paraguay’s electricity needs and 20 percent of Brazil’s.
I was back well before noon and took off straight away for the Brazilian side of the falls, crossing the border on foot – passing other pedestrians burdened with shopping bags and boxes – and catching a 2.90-real bus to the Foz de Iguaçu terminal and a free transfer for the bus labeled “Parque Nacional.” (You can also take a bus from the Paraguayan side for 4 reais, but there’s no free transfer at the terminal. Note that the bus does not stop at immigration – Paraguayans and Brazilians don’t need to get stamped – so you should go to the immigration checkpoint, get a stamp, and catch the bus right outside.)
It’s easy to be disappointed by hyped-up tourist attractions – who actually enjoys elbowing their way to the “Mona Lisa”? – but Iguazú Falls will get to even the most jaded of travelers, in part because photos don’t really capture its full grandeur.
After paying 41.60 reais and taking a brief bus ride in the park, I walked along a pathway that connects various viewing platforms. Hundreds of falls spread out over the serpentine 1.7 miles; some are vast and powerful, some are staggered and spill over an island in the middle, some are almost dainty.
At the grand finale, near the Garganta do Diabo, or Devil’s Throat, the walkway extends over a briefly calm section of water until you’re practically surrounded by falls – to one side, dropping down from above and to the other, dropping off into an abyss below. It’s mind-boggling, unless you’ve been to the Argentine side first; in which case it’s … just kind of O.K.
That’s because though Brazil and Argentina are bitter rivals in many areas — including soccer, economics and grilling meat — here, there’s no question Argentines have outdone their neighbors.
I didn’t know that until the next day, when I took a different bus (labeled “Puerto Yguazú”; 20,000 guaraníes) from Paraguayan passport control through Brazil and into Argentina, switching at the Puerto Iguazú bus terminal for another bus to the falls. (That one cost 30 pesos, $6 at 5 Argentine pesos to the dollar). Though technically you need a Brazilian visa just to pass through, conventional traveler wisdom (and many guidebooks and sites) says it’s O.K. True law-abiders can take the less-convenient ferry.
The Argentine side shows its superiority from the beginning. Instead of boarding yet another bus, you pay your 170 pesos and get on a relaxing open-air train, which takes you through the park trailed — at least the day I did it — by constant clouds of yellow-orange butterflies, as if you’re in a Disney film.
There are far more pathways on the Argentine side, and their pseudo-rustic wooden railings give them an attractive adventure-in-the-jungle feel. I started by walking a footbridge across several stretches of river above the falls until I emerged at the edge of the Devil’s Throat, where water first churns and then explodes in such unfathomable volume that it looks to be erupting from the center of the earth. Meanwhile, those same butterflies went flitting out over the edge, which struck me as quite daring.
The two other routes go along the top and bottom of another stretch of falls, and are just as gorgeous as the Devil’s Throat is terrifying. There are a few semi-panoramic views that are not quite as good as the ones from the Brazilian side but are absolutely acceptable substitutes. (In case you’re left with any doubt that nature could crush your tiny self in a millisecond, you can pay an extra 150 pesos to take a boat ride right up to the bottom of a few of the falls.)
There are bonuses on both sides: I saw more rainbows in two days, easily, than I have the prior four decades of my life combined. And there is plenty of wildlife beyond butterflies. The cute-at-first, eventually annoying coati — aardvark-like mammals that are extremely good at stealing your food — are everywhere. Capuchin monkeys are common. And on my way out on the second day, I saw two totally legitimate toucans, far more colorful and impressive than anything I’ve ever seen on a box of Froot Loops.
Basing myself in Ciudad del Este meant less time around the camera-toting masses headed to the falls. I enjoyed parachuting in on dingy cross-border buses, picnic in hand (and I especially thank the staff at Hotel Mi Abuela for providing a bag for me to nab – with permission – a ton of chips from the breakfast buffet for daylong snacking).
I must end with bad news on the frugal front. Brazil, Argentina and Paraguay all charge American travelers $160 for entering their country, what they call reciprocity fees for what the United States charges their citizens for a tourist visa. For Argentina, you pay online before your trip; for Paraguay, you pay upon arrival by air to Asunción (or, if coming from elsewhere, apply at a consulate); for Brazil, you go through the mind-numbingly bureaucratic tourist visa application at your local Brazilian consulate. (Yet another reason to skip the Brazilian side.) Skipping Paraguay, of course, is also an option, unless you were already there – as I was – or are really into seedy border crossings – as I am.