If we even did it…

Iguazu Falls is the fifth-widest waterfall in the world. It’s reported that when Eleanor Roosevelt saw Iguazu for the first time, she said, “Poor Niagara!” (Niagara is less than half the width of and one-third shorter than Iguazu.)

The falls are split between Argentina and Brasil, with about 80% of it being on the Argentine side. This means that in order to see most of it at once, the Brasilian side has the advantage, especially since right now in the Argentine park, the boardwalk across the Iguazu River to the edge of the largest portion of the falls, the Garganta del Diablo (Devil’s Throat) is currently closed for renovations. Craig had been on the boardwalk seven years ago and was immensely disappointed by the closure–he told me the falls weren’t nearly as good without that particular vantage point–on the edge of the huge cataract, surrounded in mist, overlooking the rest of the Argentine side.

But we couldn’t just go spontaneously to the Brasilian side, as all those lucky E.U. passport holders could, since Americans need a $160 visa to visit Brasil and we had, out of consideration for cost and time, already decided not to visit Brasil during this trip. We complained about this to all and sundry until one of our hostel’s guests told us that they heard it was possible to visit Brasil for the day without a visa.

“Huh,” we thought. We looked for information on the internet, but it was surprisingly silent about this particular adventure. We weren’t sure what legal lines this crossed, but we were told “lots and lots of people do it!” (Canadians and Australians also need visas.)

We asked the other hostel guests. We asked the bus companies. Nobody could tell us anything helpful. Somebody had a story about an American on their bus crossing the border, who was found out and made to pay for the visa. What if we tried it and got arrested? What if we were able to cross into Brasil but couldn’t get out? If we were successful and then blogged about it, could we get in trouble? We became increasingly reluctant.

Finally we asked somebody who shall remain unnamed. He pulled out a piece of paper detailing every move and told us, “It’s easy! Don’t worry. I’ve told many people this and they’ve done it successfully.” His confidence was reassuring. And it did indeed sound easy.

So this is how you could maybe, possibly cross the border to Brasil without a visa for one day to see Iguazu Falls. And did we end up doing it? Oh, I don’t know… probably best to be… vague… about it…

There are many buses from the main terminal in Puerto Iguazu (the Argentine side) that cross the border. These buses supposedly fall into two camps and might be labeled accordingly: 1) Those that go straight to the National Park on the Brasilian side, and 2) Those that go to Foz do Iguaçu, the tourist town that serves the Falls on the Brasilian side.

The buses in the first camp are full of tourists. Our German hostel friends went across in these and could tell us with good authority that these buses stop at the border at both the Argentine and Brasil control offices so you can get stamped in and out. They’re apparently very strict about it, hence the American who was caught out and had to pay.

However, it’s quite possible that the buses in the second camp are almost completely filled with residents who are commuting across the border regularly. They rarely, in theory, have tourists on them. These buses stop at the Argentine control offices going out and coming in (like good little buses), but it could very well be that they blow by the Brasilian side completely. It’s likely they won’t even pause unless you ring the stop bell, at which point they’re supposed to pull over to let you out, after crossing the border. If you even want to get out, which of course, you wouldn’t if you didn’t have a visa, I mean.

Once the bus is across, it should turn left on a main thoroughfare, going in the opposite direction of the park, towards Foz do Iguaçu. At this point, an opportune thing to do might be to get off after a couple of stops, cross the street, and wait for the local public transport bus that will say “Parque Nac’l” or something like that (not like I know from personal experience). And that bus, so we’ve been told, is a regularly running bus from Foz do Iguaçu to the waterfalls and back.

These two buses, it’s been said, cost about $80 Argentine peso in total, and it’s quite possible that the second bus will even take peso, despite being a Brasilian public transport bus. So you don’t even need to have reales on you, because the National Park on the Brasilian side takes credit cards (that’s easily verifiable on the Internet, no need to have gone in person to be able to tell you that).

Then the rest should be easy because to get back is just to do everything in reverse. Perhaps the Argentine migration officers will look at you funny when they see your passport doesn’t have a Brasilian visa, but it’s not their job to stop you, after all. They just want to make sure you’ve paid their reciprocity fee, not some other country’s. I mean, hypothetically speaking. How should I know?

And so that’s the totally theoretical, not done in practice by anybody we know, way to get to see the Brasilian side of Iguazu Falls for one day without a visa. It sounds quite easy. Maybe it IS really easy! But we couldn’t tell you if it actually was. No, because we wouldn’t do something that reckless and possibly illegal… or would we?!

Shoulda, Woulda, Coulda

There will always be times, when traveling, that you will smack your forehead and think, “Argh, why did we do that?!” Our entire foray into Uruguay was a 4-day-long, giant smack on our foreheads.

It wasn’t necessarily Uruguay’s fault. The weather was fairly horrible the entire time we were there–gray, cold, windy, and rainy. Besides getting American dollars in Uruguay, the only other purpose for our visit was to enjoy the beaches on Uruguay’s Atlantic coast. Apparently, they can be quite pleasant when not freezing cold. But we only made it as far as Montevideo (which is still on the banks of the Rio Plata before it meets the ocean), when the 50 F degree weather nixed that idea.

 

Colonia del Sacramento – Our first day in Uruguay was our only day of good weather.

We spent our entire time in the country wondering what we should do. Should we stick it out and hope for better weather when we reached the coast? Should we just call it good and head back to Argentina? Which route should we take? There are so many choices and options when you have an open plan of travel that it can be overwhelming. Craig and I we’re pulling our hair out trying to decide. Saying, “It’s up to you,” or “Whatever you want,” is also supremely unhelpful in instances like this.

Montevideo – grey skies reflected.

Finally, we decided to just leave. The weather didn’t look like it was improving and Uruguay was, to our surprise, actually quite expensive anyway. We decided to take a six-hour bus to Salto, on the eastern border, and stay for a night. The next day, we’d visit the thermal baths in Salto, and then cross the border over to Concordia by ferry in the afternoon. From there, we’d take an overnight bus to Iguazu Falls.

In theory, it all sounded like a fine plan. But we didn’t anticipate certain things such as…

  • The cheapest hostel in Salto we could find was super expensive and really grotty–not worth the price at all, especially because it didn’t include a breakfast!
  • The ferry to Concordia wasn’t running because it was raining.
  • The buses to Concordia left too early or too late for us to both go to the thermal baths and still catch an overnight bus to Iguazu.
  • By the time we made it to Concordia, all the cama seats were taken, relegating us to semi-cama, which recline at an angle of only about 120 degrees (Cama goes from 140-160, usually. We have yet to experience the magic of 180).
  • Also at the time of our arrival in Concordia, everything was closing for siesta, so we starved for about an hour looking for a restaurant that was open.

So it seemed things weren’t going too well and we were wondering how we could have done any of it better. Then we met the Russian couple.

The Russian couple had stopped us in Salto and asked us how to get to Concordia that night, which we told them was impossible on a Sunday unless you took a taxi, which would be an exorbitant amount. They said they thought they’d try for the taxi anyway.

Mmm, bus food! But at least they gave us food–something we haven’t had since Peru.

We then met them again in the Concordia bus station the next day, waiting for the exact same bus as us. “What happened?” we asked. Apparently, the taxi was too expensive (could have seen that coming), and they decided to stay at a hotel in Salto and then take the earliest bus to Concordia at 7:30am. But since all the buses to Iguazu are night buses, they then spent the next 12 hours waiting around the really crappy bus terminal. Which is probably why they seemed so happy to see us. That, and because we spoke English, and they spoke no Spanish.

They then regaled is with the story of their travails in South America so far and suddenly, Craig and I started feeling much better about ourselves.

The Russians flew into Asuncion, Paraguay first. Their rolling luggage case then broke because they wandered about seven kilometers trying to find their hostel. They ended up buying one of those old lady shopping cart things to replace it.

Then they went to Mar de Plata, south of Buenos Aires. We’re not sure if they flew or buses, but either way it would have been at least a 24 hour bus ride, or a very expensive ticket. From there, they went to Montevideo by way of BsAs. And that’s were we met them, on their way back up half of Argentina to get to Iguazu.

So in just several days, they managed to zig zag across a fairly large country to almost the exact same spot that they started in! They also told us they’d be going back to BsAs so the immense distance they were backtracking just grew even more immense! They had received really crappy exchange rates for their euros (we got 14.2 pesos per dollar, they got 10 pesos per euro), and had failed to take out US dollars in Uruguay, due to some banking restrictions or something.

When we arrived at Puerto Iguazu (I slept fairly okay despite the reclining angle, but whenever I woke up, the Russians seemed to be awake still… sleeping on a bus is a learned art), we told them about our hostel, its prices (which we thought were very reasonable), and that they were welcome to come check it out with us. They declined, citing reasons of wanting to find a private en suite room that was also cheap. Hah! Isn’t that every backpacker’s dream? And not likely in such a touristy place, but who were we to criticize?

It began raining in earnest shortly after we arrived at our own hostel, so we just hoped the Russians had found something quickly. We also hoped we’d meet up with them again at the Falls, just to see what happened.

Our wish came true as we were leaving the park the next day–the Russians were in line to buy their entrance tickets.

“How are you guys?” we asked.

The answer was not so good. Their old lady shopping cart had fallen apart as they were searching for hostels, so they had to just go to the nearest one which turned out to be awful. Cockroaches and giant tarantulas “as big as a mouse, and hairy” were crawling around their room. They were afraid to turn off the lights when they went to bed in case they were eaten alive. Basically my worst nightmare. Even our worst hostel experience doesn’t even come close to that.

They also failed to ascertain the price of the park entrance and hadn’t brought enough pesos. “Should we even go? Is it worth it?” they asked us.

Craig and I just gaped at them. They came ALL the way back up north just to see these falls, and now they were thinking of backing out of the whole thing because of a little matter of the entrance fee costing a bit more than they thought? “YES!” we said. Those crazy kids. I just hope one of them didn’t accidentally fall off a railing or something… I wouldn’t be surprised.

So, yes, there are times when I want to smack my forehead, Uruguay being one of them. But if I had been having an exhausting, pest-filled, no Spanish speaking few weeks like they had had, you can bet I’d be doing more than smacking my forehead. I’d probably be on my way home post haste! It’s great that they’re trying… it’s really commendable. But a little research and care could make their trip so much better. Craig wanted to take them under his wing and tell them all his traveling knowledge, but they didn’t seem too keen on the advice we had given them up to that point, we weren’t sure how receptive they’d be.

But now we can always say to ourselves in times of trouble, “At least we’re not as bad off as the Russians!”

It’s Iguazu Falls and a disappearing Craig! Oh, Google+, you’re so crazy.