The turmoil in my stomach never escalated from localized skirmishes into a full-scale revolt, and I survived the 17-hour bus ride from Buenos Aires to Puerto Iguazú without any major incidents. But I was in poor shape when we finally arrived at the station. Sleep deprived and dehydrated, I stumbled into the dizzying brightness of high noon.
Puerto Iguazú is a small city located at Argentina’s border with Brazil and Paraguay, an area known as the “Triple Frontier.” Eleven miles south of the city, marking the border between Argentina and Brazil, the Iguazu River widens considerably before spilling over a long line of rocky cliffs, creating a winding curtain of cataracts that many people believe is the most spectacular waterfall in the world.
The travel agent who’d sold me my bus ticket said that for just a little bit more he’d include a guided tour of both sides of the falls, and I agreed without giving it much thought. First on the tour agenda was an afternoon trip to the Brazilian side of the river. Just two hours after I arrived in Puerto Iguazú a driver picked me up at my hotel. “Do you have your passport?” asked the driver. I assured him I did. “And also your visa?”
Ack… The travel agent hadn’t mentioned anything about a visa. My guidebook said that, while tourists from most countries (including the United States) need a pre-arranged visa to cross from Argentina to the Brazilian side of Iguazu, enforcement is very loose and many people make the short daytrip over and back without paperwork.
But the driver was adamant. He said that if I didn’t have a visa there was no point in going, and – because it was Sunday – there was no way to get a visa. So we turned around. I was disappointed, but also relieved I could retreat to my hotel room for some recovery time.
Early the next morning I waited outside my hotel to be picked up for a tour of the Argentine side of the falls. Not until I actually caught sight of the massive bus did it dawn on me how stupid it had been to book a group tour. First I hadn’t even been able to visit the Brazilian side of Iguazu, and now on the Argentine side I’d be stuck waddling from one viewpoint to another with a pack of loud, overweight retirees.
Our group assembled just inside the entrance gate. “Hola y bienvenidos al Parque Nacional Iguazú,” began our guide. I hadn’t realized the tour would be conducted in Spanish. An Asian woman, the one other member of our large group who wasn’t a native Spanish speaker, asked if English translations would be provided. “¡No!” the guide answered emphatically. “¡Solamente Español!” The Asian woman stormed off, eliciting snickers from the rest of the group. I kept my mouth shut. A day with no English would be good for me. Maybe the tour wouldn’t be a total bust after all.
Iguazu isn’t a single waterfall. The Iguazu River, almost two miles wide where it tumbles over the jungle-covered cliffs, creates hundreds of interconnected waterfalls of all different shapes and sizes. Covering the major viewpoints on the Argentine side alone took our tour group the entire day. We started at an overlook of the area’s tallest waterfall, Garganta del Diablo (Devil’s Throat), 82 meters high and 150 meters wide. Long before we reached Garganta del Diablo we heard its low roar and saw a cloud of white mist rising over the distant treetops.
Back in the sunshine, fingers crossed, I shook off my camera and gave it a try. The shutter release sounded strange, and “Error 30” appeared on the LCD screen. Oh crap… My stomach sank. I could still take a photo, but after each shot the software crashed and had to be restarted. I made myself believe that the camera – a weather-resistant Canon 5D Mark II – might recover once it dried out.
Our group moved on to the Circuito Superior, a path that loops over and through Iguazu’s upper tier of waterfalls. I was able to take a few photos, but my camera continued to malfunction. I tried not to think about the hassle and expense that would be associated with replacing it.
The boat ride turned out to be my favorite part of the day. Our pilot took us directly into the base of the falls, where the spray was so intense I could hardly keep my eyes open as I tried to look straight up at the river plunging from the steep cliffs above us, backlit by the bright sun. After our first dunking, drenched and laughing, our group chanted “¡Otra!” (Again!) until the pilot took us back for another run under the falls. Much more fun than any amusement park ride.