The (very long) Road to Rio: Part 3 – Paraguay & Iguazu Falls

I last left this blog with us leaving Buenos Aires and heading towards Iguazu Falls on our way to Rio.

First up, a 6 hours bus north to Concordia, a small town close to the border with Uruguay (whom I will always associate with this clip from the Simpsons). I’ve mentioned a few times about our bad luck with Sundays (withdrawing cash and sorting out buses), needless to say we arrived on a Sunday afternoon with no onward service into Uruguay until the following day.

This left us needing a hotel for the night. To save lugging our bags around town I left Katrina at the bus station with them and set off around the 3 ‘budget hotels’ nearby. Finding the first one full, the second trying to charge a rate close to $100 and the third claiming to be full I was concerned. Doubting the last hotel was really full with all the keys hanging behind the reception I sent Katrina back to try again. She was told to come back with her bags as they had rooms, no problem. The lady who had turned me away beforehand didn’t seem pleased to have me back and promptly gave us a room with a broken bed. Cheers luv.

Cheered up by another incredible Argentinian steak and bottle of wine I didn’t moan too much and early the following morning we nipped into Uruguay for a day. Despite the lack of time I wanted to tick another country off my list. We passed the time by wandering around the city of Salto and topping up our tans at one of the nearby water parks fed by hot springs.

In the evening we quickly headed back to Concordia to catch the last overnight bus of our trip to Posadas, I couldn’t have been more delighted having hated pretty much every such journey like that since arriving in South America. Buses and tall people with short attention spans just don’t go together.

Arriving tired we didn’t do much in Posadas. After taking a nap in a hostel owned by an incredibly sprightly and welcoming old lady we ventured into the sapping heat of the day. We hadn’t experienced temperatures this hot since the jungle. Sadly virtually every area of interest in the town appeared to be closed for restoration…..so we watched the new James Bond movie instead.

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Just over the river from Posadas is the town of Encarnación in Paraguay. I knew very little about Paraguay, in fact I probably still do considering the brief amount of time we spent there. However, it felt like we were back in the likes of Ecuador, Peru or maybe somewhere in Central America. It felt less developed, less sterile and full of life. And all importantly for a backpacker whose budget had been stretched over recent weeks, it was cheap again thanks to run down buses, local cafes serving bargain set meals as well as reduced price accommodation. Huzzah!

Close by to Encarnación are sets UNESCO of Jesuit ruins in and around the town of Trinidad. I had never even heard of such sites, believing the Jesuits to be rather primitive. In fact they build impressive settlements such as these before being forced to leave by the Spanish colonisers who did not appreciate their presence and success.

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Left behind are impressive stone structures and sculptures in place of cities where up to 400 families including foreigners and indigenous people would have lived. On the day we visited in 40 degree heat, we had the place entirely to ourselves! Not something you’ll ever have at other sites like Machu Picchu or Angkor Wat!

We headed east from Encarnación to Ciudad de Este, a city which formerly held a gruesome reputation for violence during Paraguay’s former dictatorship, but now a trading hub with Brazil. The city is compared to a giant shopping mall where many Brazilians and Argentinians come to access cheaper goods, many arrange annual coach trips for their neighbours to all visit and buy electronics and clothing with lower taxes.

We stopped here to check it out, only to find prices no cheaper than at home along with the risk of purchasing counterfeit items. Probably best to exercise some caution. Nearby however is a bit of a geeky tourist destination, the Itaipu Dam.

Prior to the completion of the Three Gorges Dam in China, this was the largest Hydroelectric facility in the world and still the 2nd largest today. Split across the border with Brazil and Paraguay, power production is shared between the two nations. Brazil may take 90% of the output but pay Paraguay good rates for the production they do not need. Almost 80% of the entire electricity requirement for all of Paraguay comes from the dam compared to around 20% in Brazil.

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Prior to completion, a set of waterfalls even more impressive than the nearby Iguazu was destroyed to make way for the reservoir required behind the dam. That hasn’t stopped the tourists coming, over 500,000 visited in 2012, a ridiculously impressive number!

But we honestly hadn’t come through this part of the world to see a dam. We’d come this way to visit Iguazu Falls. Having not seen Niagara myself I was rather excited for this. Eleanor Roosevelt did allegedly say upon seeing the falls “Oh, poor Niagara”. So no pressure then.

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You can probably tell from the pictures but they’re amazing! You can choose to see the falls from the Argentinian or Brazilian sides. Popular opinion from many backpackers appeared to favour Argentina, so for a 3rd time we entered a country I had mixed feelings about. That said, I think it was the right decision!

After paying a hefty entrance fee, we entered the park and set off to see as much of the massive area as possible. The falls aren’t in one place, they form an arc that probably goes on for a couple of miles allowing the budding photographer copious angles from which to get the perfect shot.

Despite a cute little train ride to take tourists to a 3 different stops, there’s a lot of walking involved. On a hot day like ours, it’s thirsty work, with the spray from the falls a massive refreshment at various points.

The highlight of the visit, is the walk to the “Devil’s Throat”, the biggest and loudest part of the waterfall. Gangways lead you from the station across calm running water where huge catfish occasionally come for a gulp at the surface of the water. All the while a load rumbling noise grows and grows until you reach the end, where plumes of spray spiral up to the viewing area.

Having rushed to reach here ahead of the many other tourists behind us, we were mesmorised by the scale of this wonder. Across the other sides is Brazil, below is simply white water with no sight of the bottom while a rainbow is forming out of the surge. I spent ages with the camera and probably messed it up with my Instagram attempt below.

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After all this we were waterfall-ed out. We passed on time to see the Brazil side the following day, partly due to sleep (I admit) and partly due to the Brazilian struggle with ATMs (don’t ask).

Shortly after that we were on an early morning flight to Sao Paulo, nearing our return home 😦

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Ecuador without the Galapagos

Most people think about visiting Ecuador and head for the Galapagos Islands for animals galore. Sadly on our budget we left out a visit there for a time in later life and we’ll do it the luxury way. Despite that, our trip to Ecuador was incredible and my addiction to Instagram kicked in all over again!

If you’re thinking of a trip there then you’re in for a treat.

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First stop for us was Quito, one of the highest cities in the world and it showed! With a hostel up a very steep hill, we were pretty breathless whenever we returned back to our room. However, instead of taking it easy we decided to go higher, firstly by going up a very long cable car for a view of the city and later improving that by climbing to the top of a gothic church.

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If you’re ever in Quito, find the large gothic church and scale the ladders to the top – no health and safety rules to go with the holy view!

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From Quito we headed south to take in a bit of the countryside. Firstly by mountain biking down the side of Cotopaxi through stunning scenery and later by heading up to the incredible crater lake of Quilotoa. Upon reaching the edge, not only was I breathless from the altitude but by the the scenery too. I’m sure you’ll agree.

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The surrounding alpacas were pretty cool too.

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Our next stop was Banos, one of Ecuador’s most popular local tourism spots. The hot springs from where the town gets its name are an experience. Packed full of local families with a different idea of personal space and water predominantly a sludgy green colour we didn’t stay too long.

The highlight of Banos came from renting an off road buggy to drive down the valley past tens of waterfalls until we reached the crescendo of noise from the Pailon del Diablo. Not quite as good as a Honduran waterfall that you can walk under, although the approach right up to this one left me absolutely soaked through!

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Despite not visiting the Galapagos we wanted to see some wildlife so chose to visit the next best thing, Puerto Lopes, referred to as the Poor Man’s Galapagos. For just $20 we signed up to a whale watching tour on the way to Isla la Plata, home of the Blue Footed Boobies (feathered kind, not ladies with cold feet)!

The experience was incredible, for about an hour we saw several whales jumping right out of the water. Sadly each time I tried to snap a photo I seemed to miss. In the end it was almost better to watch, and thankfully Katrina got a great shot. Here’s my best effort.

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The whales may have been the highlight of the day but there was still great wildlife to come. We saw hundreds of boobies – incredibly strange birds with no fear of people walking within inches of them.

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To cap it off as we left green turtles circled the boat to see us off back to the mainland.

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After some time to chill out by the beach (literally – Puerto Lopes is hit by cold currents from Antarctica) we started to make our way to Peru via Guayaquil, the biggest city in Ecuador. Guayaquil was just a short stop but we couldn’t visit without seeing the so called Iguana Park – yes they have a whole park in the middle of the city filled with tame and curious Iguanas!

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In all we had an awesome time in Ecuador, and I could say so much more but these are my highlights and favourite Instagrams. Don’t just visit for the Galapagos, see a great country too!

I Forgive You Honduras

I’ve been pretty grumpy a lot of the time in Honduras. It was a long journey by boat and bus to get to La Ceiba from Belize and there were a few attempts to rip me off on the way. The places we’ve stayed in have been pretty crap so I’ve been short of sleep. I’ve been eaten alive by mosquitos to the extent I had 52 bites on one leg in one night. It’s also rained a lot here during the so called ‘dry season’.

But that I can live with. The worst part has been Katrina getting really ill and having to be sedated while an only Spanish speaking doctor shoved an endoscope down her throat. Not fun for her but it wasn’t great for me to worry about either. To top that off, I’ve had my wallet stolen and had to bribe a policeman to get some kinda of report to make an insurance claim.

That’s enough to make me fall out with a country, but Honduras has had a couple of redeeming features. Notably it’s total lack of Health and Safety meaning we’ve been zip lining and climbing around waterfalls. Epic fun!

First the zip lining. This was at Sambo Creek, near La Ceiba and involved taking a bent up pick up truck along a steep mountain track to then clip ourselves to a wire and throw ourselves back down the mountain. Incredible! There were 16 zip lines and with the help of two guides we were launched down them with a clip to hold us on and a pair of gardening gloves for brakes. On one line about 500m long they jumped up and down on the steel rope to make us bounce up and down. Katrina screamed many, many a profanity!

After this excitement the fun wasn’t over. Underneath our monkey antics were hot springs bursting boiling hot water down streams where it would meet cooler tributaries to form bath like pools. Bliss. After a soak in these was a massage and a rub down in sticky orange mud to leave us looking like a cast member of TOWIE. Katrina came away looking like Tony the Tiger. I’m not sure about me, make your own mind up.

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Looking like a right prat!

Then there’s the other ridiculous thing we’ve done here – climbing behind a waterfall nearly has high as Niagara Falls. We’d made our way down to a microbrewery in the middle of Honduras, Kat’s find when researching the trip. Sadly due to her ongoing throat problems she can’t drink the beer, all the more for me (he says quietly). Near said brewery is a waterfall called Pulapanzak (say then when you’re pished) which was frankly, incredible.

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With the help of a guide, you go through a barbed wire gate and start wading through pools of water beneath the falls. These gradually become deeper and the spray becomes heavier until the point when you can barely see where you’re going. With the guide you climb over a couple more boulders and dive into a cave underneath the falls with the roar of the falls above your head. I’m struggling to describe the noise and feeling of having made it to this point, so here’s a picture.

On the way back is the chance to leap off places you’ve already climbed into pools beneath. Suddenly the enthusiasm for travel that had waned from illness and bad experiences is racing back and you’re ready for the world again.

I’m sorry I held the grudge Honduras, all is forgiven. Cheers!