Wednesday, April 11, 2012


Our cruise ended in Rio de Janiero, Brazil, but we booked a 3 day excursion touring Rio and flying to Iguazu Falls, probably a thousand miles away. The falls on the mighty Parana River are a virtual Niagara. They are not well known in the U.S. but they are certainly spectacular--275 separate falls along a 2 mile rim, plunging over a 250 foot cliff into the maelstrom below. They are bisected by the Argentina-Brazil border.

We began the day in steamy Rio de Janiero with a tram ride to Sugar Loaf Mountain, overlooking the harbor. From our vantage point more than 1000 feet above Rio, we could see the famous beaches, Copacabana and Ipanema. Rio is a beautiful and vibrant city, feverishly preparing for the 2014 World Cup and the 2016 Olympics. One thing that surprised me about Brazil was that most people, it seemed, did not understand Spanish. I can appreciate that they wouldn't understand English, but when I attempted to speak to them in Spanish, they didn't understand that either. I don't speak any Portuguese. I learned to just point at things.

We booked a flight on an obscure Brazilian low cost airline, Web Jet, flying out of Santos-Dumont Airport (SDU), the small harbor front airport near downtown Rio. The 8year old airline bought some used Boeing 727-300's which are cramped and uncomfortable. The seating was first come, first served, all economy seats. We couldn't take off until the plane was full. I sat with my knees up to my chin. It was hot and we were thirsty. The flight attendant sold water for 2 bucks a bottle--no U.S. dollars, no credit cards, just Brazilian reals. Needless to say, the airline did nothing to endear us, or want to join their frequent flyer program.

Fortunately, the short hop to Sao Paulo was only an hour. However, at Sao Paolo, Brazil's largest city, we had to change planes. Instead of entering the air conditioned airport and walking to a different gate, we marched across the tarmac, following the blue line, in the brutal 100 degree heat with the sun beating down, to the next plane. I had never walked across the tarmac before. The airplane's engines were off, so there was no air conditioning until the place could get started. We had another short hop of less than an hour to Cataratas International airport in Foz do Iguazu, the Brazilian city close to the falls.

The falls are in Argentina also, as well as Paraguay. This area is known as the Triple Frontier. We didn't go into Paraguay. We were told that this area, especially in Paraguay, has been known as a "Wild West of lawlessness, drug trafficking and organized crime". It is believed to be a haven for Al Queda, Hezbollah and Hamas operatives. Aside from that, it's a nice place.

Our hotel, the Hotel das Cataratas (the Portuguese word for "cataract" or waterfall) is a first class hotel on the Brazilian side. It is the only hotel inside Iguazu National Park. It was constructed in the Portuguese Colonial style with 193 rooms. It has a large swimming pool surrounded by palm trees and tropical plant life. Our room was spacious although the view was that of the tile roof. Other rooms had views of the falls, which are about a quarter mile away across the road. We arrived in the late afternoon and walked over for a view of the falls.

The walkway area is carved out of the jungle--er--rain forest, and is teeming with native animals. The ubiquitous coati is an animal about the size of a raccoon with a pointy nose. We were warned not to feed a coati because if it got too close, it could bite off your hand. The coati has no fear of humans, but we did our best to avoid it. We also saw monkeys and colorful birds in the trees. South American monkeys can swing by their tails, while African monkeys cannot.

After a fine Brazilian buffet meal and a good night's rest, we boarded a motor coach early to cross the border into Argentina for a better look at the falls. It was important to get to the border early because it can take awhile for the authorities to look over everyone's passports. It took a half hour for us to clear customs. On our way back later that afternoon, we saw a mile long line of cars waiting to cross the border.

The other reason to go early in the day is that Iguazu Falls is a major tourist attraction and we had to stay ahead of the throngs of tourists. The Argentines constructed a narrow gauge railway which winds through the jungle about a mile from the parking lot to the falls. The train cars are open air, about 4 people to each bench seat, and the whole train can carry hundreds of people. We disembarked and walked onto a metal catwalk extending about 3/4 mile over the river to the main attraction--Garganta del Diablo (Devil's Throat).

The sheer power of millions of gallons of water plunging over the cliff into the steaming abyss below boggles the mind. The loud roar of the falls is heard everywhere. It never stops. Unlike Niagara, the river never freezes, even in winter. We visited on a Summer afternoon--it was 107F with humidity approaching 100%. The swirling maelstrom (I like that word) of water creates mist and vapor which often obscures the view.

From the catwalk, we could see large catfish swimming around (downstream of the falls). It is a National Park and no fishing is allowed. Large Cayman lizards lounge on rocks. Colorful toucans with their large beaks are common in the trees as are monkeys and giant butterflies.

As I mentioned earlier, there are 275 separate falls, each with a separate name like Salto San Martin, Salto Dos Hermanas and Salto Bossetti. They are split into 2 major parts by San Martin Island, but further separated by large rock formations and small islands with tall grasses and shrubs clinging to existence between the rushing channels of water.

We ate a buffet lunch in the Argentine park at El Selva (the jungle) Restaurant, located in an outdoor shopping mall with gift shops, travel agencies and other sundry stores. One thing I couldn't find anywhere was cold medicine (e.g. Contac). I came down with a cold, and I searched the airports, the hotel and everywhere else, and nobody carried cold medicine. Ultimately the heat and humidity defeated my cold.

After lunch we got back on our bus and crossed back into Brazil for our boat ride. We jumped into rubber inflatable motorized rafts, each carrying about 30 people for our one mile trip to the falls--we were downriver, below the falls. We were warned not to take our cameras because we and the cameras would be soaked. They were right. We headed through the white water rapids directly toward the falls. Dianne and I were sitting in the front seat. We were pummeled by the water. I've never been water boarded, but it would be something like this. The water was pouring over my head in sheets, and it was hard to catch my breath.

According to the Park Ranger, nobody has ever attempted to go over Iguazu Falls in a barrel. Maybe the South Americans are more sensible than Americans in that respect.

For 110 bucks or so, you can take a 30 minute helicopter ride above the falls. Our friends on the tour did so and had a wonderful ride. Maybe next time!

On getaway day, we spent most of the day at Cataratas International, the small provincial airport serving the falls, waiting for our nonstop flight back to Rio. The plane was delayed, and we were getting upset because we had invested serious money in tickets for Sambathon, the huge Carnaval parade in Rio. We didn't want to miss it.

Eventually, we arrived after dark at Rio's Galeao-Antonio Carlos Jobim International Airport (GIG). The interesting thing about the Rio airport is that it was named after Tom Jobim, as he was called, who was a composer and arranger and considered the father of bossa nova music. He made 3 albums with Frank Sinatra, but his signature song was Girl from Ipanema performed by Stan Getz and Astrid Gilberto. Within Brazil, the name of the airport is controversial, as many Brazilians wondered why they would name the largest airport in Brazil after him, not that he was a bad guy or anything. Personally, I think that's better than naming it after a politician. We never did see any signs inside the airport with his name on it. In any event, as far as I know, no airports are named after Frank Sinatra, although other airports are named after entertainers like Bob Hope (Burbank), John Wayne (Santa Ana), Will Rogers (Oklahoma City) and even John Lennon (Liverpool) and Louis Armstrong (New Orleans). No time to think about that--we had to get to Carnaval.

NEXT: Touring Rio, Carnaval Parade and No Carmen Miranda Warning.



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