I’m standing in the center of a patio at Iguazu Falls in Argentina, and a crowd of people is laughing at me, because what could be more funny than a stupid Gringo that just lost his newly purchased pizza pie to a band of marauding coati?
Coati (kwahtee) are the raccoons of the jungle, and I am the court jester of the world, so I am not really surprised to find myself the object of public derision and shame, having developed a knack for calling attention to my awkward social skills, poor coordination, and horrendous judgement throughout much of the developed and (freshly) the Third World as well…and not in a good way.
That is why I am not afraid (and not too proud) to double down and attempt to even the score with the little beggars.
They had launched their Japanese-style sneak attack on my tray from their Secret Coati Lair (SCL) under the table as soon as I began to sit down. One of them leaped onto the table top while another slipped onto the chair only inches from my zipper (threatening the one testicle I have left after my two divorces). Having passed by several warning signs graphically depicting just what these little cretins can do to tear open a nasty gash on your hand, I could only imagine what they could do to Ol’ Lefty, especially since I knew they were hungry, and probably sensed my fear, since I was cleverly shrieking out “Shit! You bastards!”, only in the voice of a frightened child, so in a way I’m kind of glad that absolutely no one in this country speaks English, especially the children, who are just cackling with delight as I leap from the table like I am being shot out of a James Bond-style ejector seat.
That’s when they grab my pizza, and my fear turns into primal, righteous rage. I’m hungry, too, and this means war! The one on the table top grabs half the pie, but before he scurries off, I grab my end of the tray and give him a solid jab with it. Undaunted, he recoils only briefly before renewing his effort to get the rest of my prize.
So there I am, the original Ugly American, using my tray as a weapon against two coati, a protected species, to keep them from devouring my crappy concession stand pizza, with its sawdust crust and congealed cheese, while a small crowd of tourists stand gape-mouthed and aghast at the ridiculous display. Finally, after a couple of more shoves, the animals retreat to one end of the table to eat their half of lunch, while I must retreat to the baking heat of the noonday sun or risk a fresh assault. Yes, beaten and outwitted by a brace of rodents.
Now people realize that there won’t be any blood spilled today, and that the only thing lost was some pizza and a little Yankee pride, so they all begin to chuckle at once like one of those sitcom laugh tracks, and everyone is having a great time except me, as I stand there sweating and glowering in the tropical heat, but that doesn’t keep me from eating the rest of the pizza, believing as I do that the 5 second rule applies as much to coatis as it does to floors, and, since I am writing this two days later with a normal constitution, I must be right.
In any event, I’m a minor celebrity for a short while as bemused people try to engage me in conversation about the altercation. But of course I don’t speak Spanish, so finally an interpreter is forced to relay my reaction to the whole crowd. Another day, another abject humiliation.
But that’s not what I was going to write about. What I wanted to tell you was about Iguazu Falls, which sits on the border of Argentina and Brazil, so most people stay in one of those countries for convenience-but by now you know I’m not most people, so, perversely, I stay in Ciudad del Este, which is a real world version of the Star Wars border town famous for the bar scene, wherein the primary attractions are casinos, brothels, fake Rolex watches, bars, drug dealers, arms merchants, and dirty street urchins, though not necessarily in that order-and it’s in the wrong country, Paraguay.
So, the first thing you must do when in CDE is to ask yourself: Why am I here? Followed by: How do I get out? Out to Iguazu Falls, that is, which is billed as one of the 7 Wonders of the Natural World, though I’m not really sure who exactly comes up with such lists, nor what qualifications they have to develop them. I suspect the idea came from the CDE Chamber of Commerce (motto: caveat emptor, amigo!), but that doesn’t matter right now. What matters is that I don’t know any Spanish so I don’t want to go through one of the 8 bus transfers (through 3 countries!) you must make to get the deal done while sharing my seat with repeat offenders and/or poultry.
That leaves tours. I go to the front desk of my hotel, which is strategically situated somewhere on a map, and ask about one, and the girl explains that it isn’t the season right now, so I must have a private tour for $150. I suspect strongly that it’s never the season for this hotel, or tours from CDE for that matter.
Fortunately, I still have my cab driver’s name and phone number from my bus transfer the day before, and he agrees to take me, since he has nothing better to do and knows he can rip me off. $75, he says.
So off we go the next morning, or I thought we would have, because I naively believe that he has done this before. I don’t know why I thought so, because NOBODY actually goes from CDE to Iguazu, but I am fortunate to realize that we must pass through Brazil to get to Argentina on today’s cab adventure, and I have no visa for Brazil.
We spend the next 20 minutes debating the issue with the front desk personnel at the hotel, the rental car people, and finally some wandering Jehovah’s Witnesses (really!), and it’s inconclusive whether we can actually make it across the border without a visa. I decide that it’s better to take the Argentine rout than spend much time in a Brazilian prison, so we take off for Puerto Iguazu on the border with Tangoland.
Puerto Iguazu is on the other side of the Parana River, so we must take a ferry ($7 for me and the car) to get there. After clearing Paraguayan Immigration, which is a plywood hut on the riverfront, we board a ferry, and after passing up river past old rusting hulks, Brazil, and some subsistence fishermen, we arrive at the port, which is basically a boat ramp.
At Argentine Immigration (a concrete box), I hand over my visa and passport and a man behind a nearly opaque smoked-glass window examines my documents carefully. He asks me a question, which I defer to my guide and cab driver. The cab driver listens, then, being unable to translate anything into English, asks me the same question. This goes on for a while, but eventually, I get my passport stamped and away we go.
We drive around the city for a while when I notice that we’re seeing the same landscape again. I ask him if he knows where the falls are, and he answers by pulling over and asking an old man. I should note that during the interlude in which he was apparently blundering around aimlessly, his manic full-throttle driving did not change one iota. Blasting from stop to (rolling) stop, impatient horn blasts, vector-like weaving into narrow slots in traffic…and he had no clue where we were going. But he was still in a hurry.
Finally we do arrive at the park, and I feel a little like the Griswald family in Vacation when they arrive at “Wally World”-but I’m not disappointed. This truly is a beautiful place, and indeed worthy of the designation of One of the Worlds Seven Wonders (or at least the top 10).
Once in the park ($20), you have two basic choices, the Upper Trail or Lower Trail. If you arrive in the afternoon, take the Lower trail first, as the sun will be more favorable for photos at that time of day. Go counterclockwise to avoid the crowds, as the path does loop back just like Disney. There are plenty of concessions, facilities, and English-speaking guides. Wear quick-dry clothes because even on the paths you’ll at least get damp.
I’d skip the train (free). It doesn’t really do anything but scare any potential wildlife you might have seen if you stayed on the trail, and goes nowhere near a Falls view. I’d also skip the boat ride ($15), which goes upriver into the maw of one of the horseshoe-shaped canyons, Niagara style. But if that’s your thing, do it!
In fact, it’s so civilized it’s almost a disappointment. I’d pictured an Indiana Jones-style adventure, but I got Wally World instead. That’s OK. It’s a beautiful place. The park is well maintained, there are adequate signs (Beware of Coati!), there’s some wildlife, especially birds and monitors, and the scenery is just spectacular. Once you round the corner and you see that huge white wall of water roaring over the edge of those high green cliffs and into the deep abyss below while a rainbow glistens and dances in the fading light of late afternoon, you know it was worth all the trouble.
Comparisons to Niagara are inevitable, I suppose. Indeed, they have a lot in common. Both falls lie in 2 countries. Both have horseshoe shapes. Both are broad rather than tall. But really, they’re both just magnificent, and should be enjoyed on their own. Niagara is much easier to access and the books tell me the flow volume is much higher-though I wouldn’t have known that from looking at either. Niagara of South America? No, that cheapens both. It’s Iguazu Falls, and it’s got a majesty all its own.
A couple of final notes. On the day I was there, many of the trails were closed because high rainfall created a water surge that washed away many of the trails. I saw the aftermath of this when walking over one of the streams. There, bent around a rock, was a large section of I-beam steel. Ponder the strength required to bend a section of hardened metal like a twist-tie and you get some idea of the force of this beast. But my point is, these sections have been out for some time (months), and there is no anticipated reopening, but if you have any flexibility in your schedule, wait. Find out the trail status before you go. I understand some of these paths give you even better views than what I saw.
I did not go to the Brazilian side. I was told if you have time to only “do” one, take the Argentina side. I later found out that I could have crossed the border into Brazil with no problems even without a visa, which is kind of amazing in this day and age.
Allow three hours once in the park for the existing trails that are open. That will give you time for Upper and Lower trails plus the train ride and the boat tour as well. But really this is an all day trip.
My total trip cost was about $100. That got me a cab ride to and from (the driver waited for me the entire time in the parking lot), the ferry to and from, and the cost of admission.