It took us a bit of time to put the finishing touches on it (not to mention upload the 1GB video using Bolivian Internet...), but feast your eyes on a trip summary of the first few weeks of the journey! This covers Rio de Janeiro, Brazil to El Calafate, Argentina.
Back on track with the running today -- 5km around a large military camp near Jason's place (where we spent our last night). Sandra insisted on having a last blast at the Acai place, so we hunkered down and both ordered the same thing we'd been ordering for the past few days. We're both pretty big fans of the stuff, obviously!
The company we had organized to bus with was fairly "full service" -- they came to pick us up in a van taxi on the Brazilian side of the border, shuttle us across to Argentina where the bus station was located, and then hook us up with tickets for the ride from Puerto Iguazu to Buenos Aires. Eighteen hours of glory, my friends!
Upon getting on the bus, we found that the two ladies behind us were Irish: Aoife and Dervla. They were both super nice occupational therapists on a multi-month South American journey of their own. We struck up a great conversation, much of which consisted of them talking about how much better this "cama" style seating on our bus was than the junk heap they got to Puerto Iguazu on. You could recline almost fully, and the seats were quite wide. Not a bad overnight bus, all in all.
My favourite aspect was probably the enroute menu. After being on the bus no more than 15 minutes, the first part of the "meal" arrived. Whisky. Yes, a gentleman walked down the aisles offering whisky to all of the passengers. Not something like "Would you like a beverage?" or even "Is there a certain kind of alcohol you might enjoy?", just "Whisky?". Sure! I was the only one in our group to partake, but I've gotta say it's a great way to start a bus ride. Then the meal arrived. Not much to say there. It was fairly plain. However, along with the meal we got some vino tinto. That's red wine, gringos! Ice cold red wine for everybody! Pretty rough stuff, but hey, free wine right?! Once dinner was complete... well, time for a round of champagne for everybody! These guys are definitely trying to run a party bus company. They're just missing a great soundtrack and lighting system. But they're great at getting everybody hammered.
The entertainment was lacking, to say the least. Everybody gets to watch such blockbusters as "Grace of Monaco", then "Rise of the Planet of the Apes", then "Automata". But there's no volume. And the plug-in sound system doesn't work. And when they try to turn on the volume, a very unfortunate buzzing like an improperly tuned FM radio plugged into a failing amplifier comes out. Somehow it's below the threshold of volume required to alert the driver on the level below us, so the horrific noise continues until a complaint is made and the sound is muted. So now you just watch the scenes from the film and try to intuit the goings-on from the Portuguese subtitles. It's a remarkably good way to learn a language.
It wasn't long before we were dozing off. Only to be awakened by incredible rain, hail, thunder, and lightning. The bus was being hammered by torrential downpour and ice stones. It was shaking and everything was flashing and it was loud. The scrolling electronic marquee at the front of the bus that would tell you when the washroom was occupied instead showed a message stating that the maximum allowable speed of the bus was being exceeded. I fell back to sleep.
We made it to Buenos Aires alive.
Well: this was a doozy of a day. Our plan was to visit the Itaipu Dam. It turned out to be one of those travel days where almost every conceivable thing goes wrong. Here's a rundown:
Important dam notes:
Jason (our local Couchsurfing connection) took the group out for a meal of Acai in the evening. It's basically a really thick frozen yogurt kind of concoction in a super-deep purple. Not too sugary, but very tasty. You can add on all kinds of toppings like bananas, granola, pacoca (peanutty-sugary-flaky-crumbles). They also had great pao de queijo (cheese breads) with fillings available. I got a pizza-filled one and Sandra had a plain jane number.
We were treated to a lovely sunset wherein the entire sky filled with an all-encompassing orange. Not like a sunset we're used to in Canada where the colour seems to emanate from the clouds, but one in which the entire sky appeared to glow with colour. Beautiful!
After the meal, our host Jason took us across the border to Paraguay. Do Canadians need visas to get into Paraguay? Well, technically, yes. Does Paraguay have effective border control? The answer is no. We just drove on in. We visited some of the rich areas of Cidade del Este (the name of the city on the Paraguay side). A "country club" full of massive mansions. These are the estates of people who run the import/export businesses that take advantage of low taxes and tariffs in Paraguay and sell goods across the border to Argentina and Brazil. Jason then took us to the electronics shopping area that's locally famous for the cheap shopping. He showed us his business, how deserted and garbage-filled the streets are at night (people dump the trash from their new purchases so they don't pay duty fees when returning).
We capped the night off by visiting a casino/hotel in Paraguay to get a nice view of Foz do Iguacu from across the Parana river. Beautiful! A quick trip back across the border to Brazil (and a stop by a bar for some beer and mohitos) and we called it a day!
Alright friends -- photos are coming first now. We'll get to the meat right away, as I'm assuming that's what people wanna see!
We went to see the falls today -- Iguazu falls technically (because we were on the Argentinian side as opposed to the Brazilian side). We took a little train to a secondary station to get access to "The Devil's Throat", which is where one of the big views of the falls is. At the first stop (where we were forced to disembark before continuing on another train...?!), we encountered a bunch of "coatis". They look like little anteaters, kind of? Very cute, but they're considered a pest that's always trying to get at your food. Although they kept us occupied nicely, we were a bit worried that we'd have to wait out in the blazing sun for a few hundred people to board a train that only departed every 30 minutes. Fortunately the trains fit a ton of people, so we only had to wait about an hour. And most of that had us under a nice shady roof, so nobody whined too loudly.
The next couple of shots show us at the Devil's Throat. You get a pretty solid panoramic of a whole bunch of waterfalls with a massive volume of water moving over the falls. I caught a picture of a really nice blue butterfly. They're all over here, and they're very graceful. They also get quite large, and this is mildly disturbing to Sandra.
We spent a long time wandering around the park and seeing various sections of the falls from various altitudes and perspectives. We thought we were doing a pretty good job of sunscreen reapplication, but that didn't stop each of us from getting mildly burned on necks, shoulders, and backs. Jackson won the award for most egregious tan with a full tank-top shaped anti-burn on his back. If he took his shirt off, he'd look like he was still wearing one. Nice work, Jackson!
I took a selfie to try to determine the extent of my neck burn as reported to me by the other members of our party. I was unsuccessful in that goal, but the picture didn't turn out too badly!
We're also starting to encounter the strangeness that is the Argentinian exchange rate. There's an official government rate, and then there's a "blue dollar" rate that you can get on the street if you have cash to exchange. Generally, US dollars are king. All prices in Argentina are in ARS -- Argentinian Pesos. Perhaps that's obvious. They'll let you pay with lots of currencies, but they'll generally give you the "official" rate. However, if you have a bunch of US cash, you can convert it at a much better (30-50%) rate. This means you can afford a whole lot more stuff for the same amount of money. Not knowing this, we don't have a ton of cash. We don't have a great way to get any, either, but we're going to do our best to bring more cash as we head towards Argentina proper in order to take advantage of this bizarre double exchange rate.
There was one short mixup toward the end of the day when we left the park at closing time expecting to hop right into a cab we had previously arranged to be there. Upon waiting for 15 minutes or so, we started to wonder if the cabbie was going to show up at all. Then we realized that Argentina's time zone is one hour behind Brazil, so we'd lost an hour just by heading into the park! Although we resigned ourselves to possibly having to wait an additional hour to make up for our error in communication, luckily the cab driver showed himself not long after to bring us back to the hostel.
For dinner, we went out with our Swiss friend Anna to a place called Zeppelin. It's a local rock and roll club that had a show on that night. All sorts of weird things going on there once we arrived, however. Step 1: Obtain a payment card at the front desk. Keep in mind, this is a restaurant. They make everybody show them a passport or other form of ID. Then the customer is issued a payment card with which they can order food and drinks. The expectation is that before leaving the customer must return the payment card and pay whatever balance exists on it. Fine, we get the cards. Then we're told that if we don't leave before the DJ starts, we have to pay half a cover charge. If we then stay until the band starts playing, we have to pay a full cover charge. We're on a timer now, folks!
We head into the restaurant. It's fairly barren at this time of the evening, so we start eyeing a booth to sit in. "Nope", says the hostess. It's reserved. We realize about 3/4 of the restaurant is "reserved", but nobody is actually present. OK, we grab a table in the centre of the restaurant. At which a massive air conditioner is conveniently pointed. Blasting us with freezing cold air. Apparently Brazilians like this, but we didn't find it overly pleasant.
The food was quite nice, but being the cheapskates we are we immediately rushed out of the restaurant when we realized it was only 5 minutes until the DJ started playing. Quick! Get out and avoid that cover charge! A bit strange to pay on the way out of a place, but I guess it works.
To bed at a fairly reasonable hour as we head to Itaipu Dam tomorrow. Engineering marvels, folks!
Today we traveled to Foz do Icuacu -- at least that's what the Brazilians call it! We had a 10am flight from Rio to Foz. The first shot is me showing some Canadian pride thanks to a Christmas gift from Gramma. Thanks Gramma!
At the airport, I saw a nice sign in a custom bathroom stall. This one bathroom stall was labelled as being restricted for use only by "People of Small Stature". I didn't realize short people had a lot of trouble using toilets, but I guess the cries have been heard here in Brazil. You get a custom bathroom, shorties!
Our flight connected in Sao Paolo. That is one big, big city. Please see the second image. It just goes on and on in a seemingly endless parade of skyscraper apartment buildings. Whoa. About 11 million people live in the city proper, and about 19 million if you include surrounding cities. That's a lot.
After exiting the plane, connections to Foz were herded onto a shuttle bus. After most of the passengers deplaned and were split into two shuttle buses, we started moving. We drove about 25 metres. To the next plane over. At which point the shuttle stopped and let everybody out. I guess they didn't want people wandering around on the tarmac, but it was pretty funny to be driven to an adjacent gate in a shuttle bus. At least we had an awesome cartoon plane to get onto on our way to Foz. And we made it successfully, so it looks like cartoon planes function just like real planes.
One interesting thing we noticed about Gol Airways is that they actually take your boarding pass when you enter at the gate. So once you've gotten onto the plane... you have no idea where you're sitting. I'm not sure how other passengers managed to deal with this, but we had to madly search for the printout receipts of our boarding passes to determine which seat we were supposed to be in. Maybe people here in Brazil have better memories than us.
The bus ride from the airport to the hostel was straightforward. That being said, the bus met the Canadian standard of "full" upon pickup at the airport. As we drove closer to the city centre where our hostel was located, we continued to pick up new arrivals from the side of the road. With the two of us carrying two bags each, it was not the most comfortable bus ride. Shoulder to shoulder buses in 35 degree weather in which the bus driver likes to take roundabouts at 50km/h are... entertaining? Mostly draining and stressful, I suppose, but a funny memory!
Our hostel is actually comprised of upcycled shipping containers. Like the ones they put on big boats to bring goods across the ocean. There's a whole story about how they started the hostel as a big art project involving local interior designers, but I'll spare you the details. Suffice it to say the hostel is brand new (about 2 months old), and full of great people!
Not long after arriving, we met up with fellow hostellers Anna (Switzerland), Jackson (USA), and Michel (Peru). As is the case for travellers, we became fast friends! I was already hatching a plan to meet up with a local named Jason (USA) whom I'd met through Couchsurfing. He's been living here for 13 years, so he speaks fluent Portuguese but grew up in the States. As such, he's an awesome guy to hang out with on a trip such as this! He picked out a local restaurant for us (Agua Douce or "Sweet water"), and we all piled into two cars for the meal!
In the photo, clockwise from bottom left we see Anna, Jason, Lucinae (Jason's Brazilian friend), Michel, Ian, Sandra, and Jackson. Not pictured are Ricardo and Karin -- a Brazilian brother-sister team who run the hostel. We had a lovely meal of shared escondidinhos (translates to "little hidden things"). What's hidden behind the cheese curtain is the meat surprise! We had a beef and chicken version. Meat and cheese eaten with rice. Very tasty. It's pictured above.
Jason also ordered the table a set of cachacas. They're rice alcohols in various flavours. We tried many including grape, coconut, cinnamon, and one called "new moon" -- supposedly because after trying it you're not likely to wake up until the new moon. They ran the gamut from smooth and tasty to rough and untasty. Quite fun to try!
Sandra got a bit nuts and ordered a Strawberry Daiquiri she was assured was quite good by Jason the Local. It came in two glasses. And by some kind of alchemist magic appeared to contain more than two glasses worth of pure ethanol. Needless to say she required a bit of assistance knocking it back, but the group happily obliged.
We learned during the meal that Portuguese slang for a condom is "camisinha", which translates directly to "little shirt". I thought this was hilarious, and made it a goal to enter multiple clothing stores asking for little shirts to see what kind of reaction I get.
By the late evening/early morning (about 2am), the group had hatched a plan to head to the Argentinian side of Iguazu falls the next day. I'm spelling it with a "z" here because that's how they spell it on the Spanish/Argentinian side. Brazil calls it Iguacu. Anyway, at 2am I was busily paying reciprocity fees online which Argentina requires for Canadians to enter the country. Intoxicated administrative tasks are never easy, but we're pretty sure it went off without a hitch.
Tomorrow we see the falls!