Adventure in Paraguay ... and Brazil

I first fell in love with this part of the world when I saw the movie "The Mission".  I bought the cassette sound track (Yes, the movie is that old.) and took it with me to Africa when I was in the Peace Corps. The music is both beautiful and haunting.  But, for me, it also pulls up another memory.  There is little you can do when you contract malaria.  Well, I mean you can shiver uncontrollably, soak more than a few sheets with sweat, endure overall body aches and blinding headaches, dehydrate, and if you don't get medication in time, you can die.  On top of that, what you can't do is sleep.  Insomnia was one of my symptoms and it left me exhausted.  But, what I meant to say is, there is little fun you can do once that mosquito bites you and you get sick.  With first-hand experience FIVE TIMES I can tell you that malaria will make you really sick for a week.  Then, it takes a full month to get your strength back.

During one of my attacks, I traveled with "friends" on a canoe trip.  I knew I didn't feel quite right on the entire trip, but it was the last night when the malaria kicked in.  That night my "friends" shared one room and I was in the other, very sick, with a couple from Switzerland.  In the morning, my so called friends left - without saying goodbye - and I was in the care of the Swiss couple until some local Peace Corps volunteers took over my care.

All of this introduction is to explain what I did while I was trapped in bed for a week, with my mosquito net securely tucked under the mattress in all directions. I listened to my cassette tapes.  So, when I hear the soundtrack of "The Mission", I am not pulled to the falls on the mighty Iguazu River where Argentina, Brazil, and (almost) Paraguay meet.  No, I'm dragged back to a sweat soaked mattress near the equator in Africa.

In spite of this connection to the falls and malaria, I always wanted to visit Iguazu.  And, just like I stated earlier, when Tally provided the hook of a trip to the falls, there was no turning back.  This time I wasn't dragged to Africa, a malaria sick bed, and fortunately not over the falls while tied to a cross.  (You have to see the movie.)  But, I was on my way to Brazil.

Some people say half the fun is getting there.  I'm not really sure that applies to crossing Paraguay.  Like many places that grew faster than their planning, Asuncion's roadways were not set up for a population of over a million and a half people.  Few roads are more than two lanes and there are no freeways out of the city.  Just getting out of Asuncion took an hour!  I was told we would "fly" after we left the capital.  Well, that didn't exactly happen either.  The main road to cross the country was usually a "two-laner".  There were little towns, stoplights, and speed bumps (humorously called donkey backs or sleeping cops) just to make sure nobody came close to ever going a reasonable speed for such a long haul.

Of course, I'm not complaining.  Well, not too much anyway.  We arrived safely. That's better than several transportation mishaps that I've had in Haiti, Morocco, Liberia, and the Ivory Coast on horseback, motor cycles, buses, and trucks. Seriously, I'm lucky to be alive!  So, a safe arrival is always appreciated.  But, after six hours, I was ready to squeeze out of the seat and get my legs moving again.

There are many cities around the world that have more than a million people which I have never heard of.  Cuidad del Este, Paraguay, is one of them.  It isn't far from Iguazu Falls, but the actual destination is on the border of Brazil and Argentina.  Still, after crossing Paraguay, it was far enough for one day of travel.

Travel in a new country is always best when you know somebody.  And, Tally was somebody who knew somebody.  She knew our taxi driver Daniel.  He met us at the train station, drove us to the hotel, and then picked us up the following day to take us to the falls.  It sounds simple.  But, the traffic problem I mentioned in Asuncion multiplied exponentially when crossing from Paraguay to Brazil. There was only one bridge.  It was built for two lanes of traffic but actually ran three and a half.  I didn't mistype that.  Two lanes ran from Brazil to Paraguay. You can guess the direction of the third.  And, the half lane was reserved for motorcycle taxis that drove like maniacs on the little space left.  After nearly killing myself at least twice on motorcycles in Africa, I've never ridden one since. I had no intentions in starting back up with them on the bridge between Brazil and Paraguay, no matter how absolutely congested the traffic was!

When the roads cleared and the cities were left behind, the rest of the way to Iguazu Falls was so easy.  Yes, it was a lot to get through to get to the easy part, but Brazil has the falls so well organized.  There is a magnificent bird sanctuary on one side of the road and the entrance to the falls on the other.  Once you enter the grounds of the park, prepare to be enthralled by one of the natural wonders of the world and a UNESCO World Heritage site.

I kind of feared that the park would be ruined by mass tourism.  I mean, there were outrageously expensive hotels, boat rides, helicopter trips, and opportunities to repel as well as ride zip lines across the tree tops.  However, most of the development was discretely hidden behind tree lines.  The beauty of the falls remained stunning and mostly unspoiled - except for an abominable hotel on the Argentinian hotel.  It should be destroyed.  No discussion.  No argument.  No reason for it to scar the landscape.

On both national borders, trails along the falls permitted people to explore at their own pace instead of their own risk.  You could, of course, hear the falls before you could see them.  And, it was a wonderful moment when I glimpsed my first peek of them through the trees.

Photos and movies don't really prepare you for how huge Iguazu Falls really is. It's made up of around 275 falls over a distance of 1.7 miles (2.7 kilometers).  And just like the size, the beauty is also hard to put into words.  The waters of the Igauzu River came around a bend in the river and spread out over the falls region.  The water cascaded in a stairstep effect, first falling halfway down the valley to a plateau and then continuing on down from that step.  That extra step allowed for so many more falls.  It was one of life's "take my breath away" moments.

Compared to most of Paraguay in the summer, the area was cooler because of the mist coming off the falls.  You could feel the difference from miles away. However, once walking along the water's edge in the tropical sun, that difference seemed to dissipate.  It was hot.  And, when it is hot, I am sweaty.

Fortunately, oh, so very fortunately, nature provided a bit of relief.  And, that doesn't often happen in tropical nature.  A walkway led out over one of the steps to a much closer view of the falls.  And, with a closer view, you had an up close and personal experience with the glorious, cooling mist.  Nobody walked away from the falls dry.  And, in that heat, I don't think anyone ever complained.  I know I certainly didn't.  Like I said, it was glorious!

Normally, I want to keep natural wonders as natural as possible.  That's why I would gladly bomb that outrageous eyesore of a hotel in Argentina.  However, in the heat of the tropics, I very willingly accepted one eyesore on the Brazilian side of the falls.  An elevator took people from the ground level of the falls back up to the top level.  I did not want to re-walk my path going uphill the entire way. Yep, I very merrily made this exception to my rule.

And so, the long ride back over the border and then across Paraguay began. This time, it was actually even longer.  Some kind of unexplained protest on the "two-laner" highway brought traffic to a stand still for three and a half hours.  I didn't complain.  Some people don't believe in guardian angels, but I do.  And, my guardian angel may be overworked and overly challenged by the places I journey to, but I seem to arrive in one piece.  Usually, no worse for the wear as long as there are no malaria carrying mosquitoes in the area.