Monday, July 21, 2008

The South American Experience: Iguazu National Park

[NOTE: This is still a thing. Remember when I went to South America? Remember when my travelogue got delayed? Well, it's back, and better than never.]

Buenos Aires, Argentina

After another fine breakfast buffet, Matt and I packed our things and bid farewell to the TRYP Buenos Aires, which arranged for our taxi to the airport. The ride forced us to consider the worst cities in which to drive a cab. BA must rank near the top.

We waited in a long, slow-moving line populated with fair-skinned retirees. They each had several bags to check.

"Do you know why it's taking so long for those two to check in?" I asked Matt. "They have to print out their death certificates."

The wait continued, allowing Matt to reflect on his views against the elderly.

"I hate your smell, your skin freaks me out -- just stay inside," he muttered.

Then, changing his opinion slightly, he continued, "Old people should have to take buses everywhere they go."

It was our sixth day immersed in a language we couldn't comprehend, where spoken words were nothing but an additional contribution to the ambiance. When you're enjoying fresh fish and dark beer on a crowded Buenos Aires patio, you're blissfully ignorant of the potentially banal conversations of your fellow diners. When you're on a full flight to Puerto Iguazu, seated directly in front of an English-speaking couple, you're painfully aware of the female half's comments about kettle chips, or her flabbergasting comparisons ("Austral is to Airline as Tango is to Dance.").

We landed at a small airport and grabbed another taxi. As our bags were loaded into the trunk, Matt noticed a large billboard advertising the 5-star grandeur of Hotel Cataratas.

"Huh. That's our hotel," he laughed. He hadn't realized its status when booking our room, which was less expensive than some area hostels.

Our driver had a large frame and a shaved head. He spoke our language. I asked about the weather, and he told us no rain was expected until the following week. He talked a lot about the service he and his wife offered, arranging for day visas across the border to the Brazilian side of the falls.

(We had read up on the option before leaving the US, and decided we would give it a shot if we ran out of things to do within Argentina's borders. SPOILER ALERT: we never ran out of Argentinian options. Such was the bounty of Argentina that I remarked, "Brazil is for assholes" -- or something like that, I can't find it in my notes. Plus, we didn't really trust a guide whose weather forecast was off by six days. Oops. RETROACTIVE SPOILER ALERT.)

We got a look at our hotel room and dropped our bags. Wasting no time, we went back downstairs to the front desk and asked how to get to the national park. The clerk instructed us to walk across the hotel's lawn to the main road, where a bus would pick us up.

We followed his directions, waving taxis past as we looked down the road for an approaching El Practico bus. About ten minutes passed before one came into view, passed us, and drove out of view.

Our hotel was outside of Puerto Iguazu's city limits, so we walked a mile or so toward the city, found a functioning bus stop, and took a ten minute ride to the national park. Many of our fellow passengers were college-aged Brits. (At least they seemed British to me. I was basing this on one fellow in particular, who kept describing his Rio Carnival clubbing adventures as "fooking mental!".)

(Speaking of those youths...)

Girl describing Carnival: "These guys came up to us in Brazil and asked us if we wanted a ride. We looked inside and they were smoking pot. So they gave us a ride to Argentina."

That's probably a good idea. Have fun getting raped.

(The end.)

We didn't spend a lot of time in the park that day, just enough to complete the upper trail.

Back at the hotel, we lazed in the pool, watching a Spanish-speaking family's questionable attempt to play water volleyball. The employee in charge of handing out towels and equipment was blasting horrible, Lou-Bega-esque dance tracks through the PA system.

We took a shoddy basketball from him and played a few games of HORSE on the basketball/tennis court, where I experienced my first and only bug bite of the entire trip.

The evening was concluded with the hotel's buffet, which featured more horrible music. An older man, looking disinterested and possibly blind, sat behind a MIDI keyboard and played adult contemporary classics from the '80s. The food was better than the ambiance; some of the proteins were overdone, but the cold salads were outstanding. Our wine was a Latitud 33 malbec, which paired beautifully with the rich chocolate cake we enjoyed to end our meal.

Planning to get to the park early the next morning, we went to back to the room and watched TV instead of getting hammered up the road in Puerto Iguazu.

Puerto Iguazu, Argentina

Breakfast at the hotel was buffet-style, good but not outstanding. Freshly baked Italian-style bread loaves were probably the best single item, made better when sandwichized with bacon and cheese.

Another bus ride later, we headed down the lower trail of Iguazu National Park, which ended at the base of a waterfall.

There was a park ranger kiosk at this part of the park. Matt and I discussed optional tours with a ranger about our age, a South American who spoke precise English. We were primarily concerned with crossing the basin over to San Martin Island, where visitors could get yet another spectacular 180-degree view of waterfalls. The ranger, a dedicated salesman, gave us a hard sell on the park's most expensive package, which included a boat ride into the falls' mist as well as river rafting. He told us it would be exhilarating.

"I'm not--" he stopped mid-sentence and looked to his left and right to see who was within earshot. "I'm not bullshitting you guys."

Knowing the phrase "I'm not bullshitting you" is code for "I am definitely bullshitting you", along with our already tight schedule, we told him we'd think about it and walked away. Heading to the park's marquee attraction, Gargantua del Diablo, "The Devil's Throat", it began to sprinkle. We sat on a concrete ledge under a tree until the rainfall picked up, and retreated to a tarp-covered spot along a trail. I zipped the legs back onto my convertible waterproof pants. It continued to pour. Knowing we had to take the park's small train to approach Gargantua del Diablo, we pushed on to the train station, where we stood underneath another mostly effective tarp while waiting for the train to arrive. Everything was soaked by then. Most people had donned plastic ponchos purchased from a park shop. It had been raining steadily for at least 30 minutes, which meant that I'd used the "I think it's letting up!" joke four times already. I removed my ringer tee to wring out the water and wondered if we'd see the sun again that day. It was looking grim.

We boarded the train, crowded with other tourists looking for a dry respite. Matt and I sat on a short bench. Next to us was a 50 or 60 year-old woman, and her husband sat on the short bench across from us. Though he didn't speak english, he told communicated with us by pantomime. He said, "I see you shave your chest. That's cool. I might do that too, if I didn't have this beer belly! Ha ha!"

Our stall tactic failed. The rain outlasted the train ride. Marching along the catwalks that lead over the Parana River and toward Gargantua, I used my blue Old Navy ringer tee to shield my eyes from the rain, the drops stinging my smooth torso. I was cold, but pleased that my socks and feet remained dry. "I think it's letting up," I again joked. And then it let up.

We were at the viewing platform of Gargantua del Diablo, struggling to reconcile the weather and our digital cameras, when the rain reduced to a sprinkle. We relaxed to take in the view, and it was obvious then that the trip's considerable expense was money well-spent.

"This is probably the coolest thing I've ever seen in my life," Matt said. "This or the Great Wall of China."

We held an unobstructed spot against the platform rail for about ten minutes, watching the river funnel the Statue-of-Liberty-green water down the semicircular cliff, watching the water dissolve into mist as it fell. We prepared to go back to the park train, but as Matt took a few steps toward the catwalks, he paused. The rain had completely stopped. "You know what? Let's stay here a while longer," he said. I understood and I agreed. After consecutive days of aggressive tourism -- constant movement, pausing briefly to snap a few photos before pushing on -- reflecting at Gargantua felt like kneeling in church. (Except Matt was there, so I knew that it wasn't really church.) I closed my eyes and listened to the rushing water.

We eventually left and split a salami sandwich at one of the park's snack huts. The baguette was surprisingly fresh, resulting in an unexpectedly superb lunch, accented by the comic stylings of the Big Group Of Stereotypical Retired New Jersey Jews sitting at the adjacent patio table.

A small boat ferried us and a dozen other park visitors across fifty yards of the river to San Martin Island, yet another fine place to hike and photograph waterfalls.

The bus took us back to the hotel. In the pool, Matt and I tried to decipher the relationship between an attractive young woman and her older companion, deciding she was a Russian bride and he was awesome. After more relaxation in the hot tub, we retired to our room to view the finest English-language programming available: a Walker, Texas Ranger movie. It was getting late, but I insisted we finish the film before finding dinner, and I was well rewarded for my patience. See, there was this guy that worked for this company, and he knew TOO MUCH, and he had the missile navigation thingy at his house, but then the terrorists found him, and were all, "We know Kung Fu!", and dude got beaten to death, complete with a glass coffee table
fatality. But the dude's kid was a computer nerd, and he had a dirtbike, so he took the thingy to his friend's house, and they were like, "Computer it!", and found out that it was clearly for missile navigation. Walker got involved, and beat those North Koreans at their own Kung Fu. Oh, also: there was a side story that was even worse.

Since we'd been burned by the guidebook before, Matt and I went to the front desk to ask about one of the book's recommended cafes, Latauro.

"Si," the man hombre behind the desk said. "Si, cafe," he said, pantomiming a delicate sip of coffee. He seemed to give it a good review, and said that it was "two kilometers" from the hotel. Matt and I set out into the dark night, walking in the red, clay soil of the highway's shoulder, toward Puerto Iguazu. Three or four kilometers later, we found 03 Brasil Avenue; Latauro's had been replaced by Angelo's Cafe. Sitting outside, we both ate big beef loins (ordered more or less blindly) and cheese empanadas, and shared a bottle of malbec wine.

The check paid and the wine finished, we sought and obtained more liquor (and a corkscrew) from a small market, and hauled everything back to the hotel. One of the street signs in our path was puzzling.

"That's easy," Matt said. "It means Businessman Crossing."

"I think it means Caution: Blockhands," I said.

(NOTE: Thinking I'd never find this sign online, I attempted to draw my recollection with MS Paint.)

(Not too bad, eh?)

We had some beers in our hotel room and called it a day.

SUNDAY, FEBRUARY 10 Puerto Iguazu, Argentina

It was raining when we got out of bed to eat another breakfast buffet. I went to the tiny computer room and struggled to find a weather website that showed real-time radar images of the Brazil-Argentina border (and to find a map that showed where exactly the park was in relation to the radar's map). When I finally defeated the internet, it was apparent that the sun would return in a matter of hours. I went back to the room to watch "White Men Can't Jump" in its entirety while Matt napped.

On our final scheduled day at the park, Matt wanted to take the wildlife trail -- he wanted to see a monkey. When we arrived at the trailhead, a large puddle sat in the red clay. Unwilling to trudge through a mile of muck, I negotiated a split from Matt. We agreed to meet at the Gargantua train stop in a few hours. I walked through the upper trail one last time, soaking in the views, before taking the train to Gargantua del Diablo. I saw the giant waterfall, in full sunlight this time, and a caman.

It was clear by that time that Matt and I had missed each other, so I went to the park's gate to meet him. The last Practico bus was loading, but Matt wasn't on board or in line; the bus left without us. He wasn't in the restroom. I sat at the gate, watching visitors trickle out. An hour passed. It was getting dark.

I was alone except for the two park rangers, who sat in a small office near the gate.

"English?" I asked.

The woman shook her head. "A little," the man said.

I held one hand to indicate "mi", and the other to indicate "mi amigo", splitting their paths to show our divurgent paths.

The ranger listed the trails, indicating that all were checked at closing except for the Macuco trail, the one that Matt took earlier that day.

Since the sun was almost down, the ranger hopped on his scooter to check the trail for whatever remained of Matt's body. I was left at the park entrance with the female ranger, who was suggesting I do something with the telephone.

"No tango nombre," I said. (I might have correctly used "numero" instead, but who really knows? My mind was clouded with fear.) She took me to the office, dailed the number for Hotel Cataratas, and handed me the receiver.

"English?" I asked.

I got a negative response and handed the phone back to the lady ranger, who arranged to be connected to my hotel room.

"Where are you?" Matt asked. "I just got off the phone with the police."

"I'm at the park. I just sent a park ranger to search for you."

I was nearly out of pesos, so I walked a few hundred yards into the park to conduct an ATM transaction, and returned to the gate. A taxi was waiting for me. The male ranger was back from his fruitless search -- he smiled and told me that no one was on the trail. Thanking him, I shook his hand and left the park forever.

It turns out Matt did try to meet me at the appointed time and place, and never did figure out how we missed each other. Matt left the park via bus, only after calling the hotel's front desk to ask if I had returned. The desk clerk, the same one that recommended a nonexistent cafe to us the night before, told him I had taken the room key, so Matt took a bus back to the hotel, only to find the key where we'd left it.

"At least we like each other enough to call the cops or park rangers to find each other," Matt said.

We made the 2+ kilometer walk to Puerto Iguazu to eat at El Gallo Negro, a restaurant that was crowded when we passed by the previous night, but now sat empty. Dinner came with a complementary salad bar. After a tasty chick pea salad, I enjoyed potato gnocchi with ham, garlic, and tomatoes. Matt's grilled river fish (he recalled its name was Surubica, but Google shows no similarly named fish) was a gigantic and strangely fatty.

Back at the hotel, we drank our remaining bottle of wine, and then we slept.


adrienne said...

"sandwichized?" that one's not going to catch on.

dn said...

Oh, you and your jokes! I get your jokes.

barbara said...

eek! a fiasco on your inaugural trip. hey, you never said, did he see a monkey?

dn said...

No monkeys. Aside from camans and coatimundi, we didn't see any neat animals.

dn said...

I just found out the local river fish is named SurubĂ­.