South America Trip Days 14+15 – Asuncion to Iguazu, Iguazu to Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

Reluctantly left Asuncion, this wonderful city stuck in a romantic time-warp dripping with some kind of romantic nostalgia, and caught the 11am bus in the nick of time to Foz de Igiazu in Brazil. We arrived at the border at night. I hate arriving anywhere at night. The bus dropped us off and left us at the mercy of the unmarked taxi drivers lurking ready to pick up the passengers. Alex and I couldn’t negotiate with these guys – we tried, but they weren’t having any of it, and anyway, they were are only way of getting into town – and they knew it. So, for an extortionate fee payable in US Dollars, we were taken through the border controls. Nobody checks when you leave Paraguay, so we had to tell the taxi driver to stop and let us go and get stamped out of Paraguay. Alex ran off to do that for me, leaving me with the bags and the hard-face driver who looked like he’d come straight from a drugs run in the favelas of Rio. I talked to him in Spanish, which he understood, and I engaged him in a chat about football. His face softened, the frown lifted, and suddenly we were best friends. Football. I don’t know how many times a conversation about football has improved a deteriorating situation. The sinister, dark and quiet night suddenly became light and full of Samba from the car stereo. Alex came back and we headed to the Brazilian border, where the taxi driver cheerfully helped us fill in the immigration forms which were entirely in Portuguese. It was late, and nobody seemed to be staffing the checkpoint. We got through to Brazil with minimum fuss. We were in Brazil now.

Brazil has always been a place I’ve associated with colour, vibrancy and exoticism. A place I first became acquainted with in the James Bond film Moonraker, where Bond and the villain Jaws clash time after time in Rio’s colourful streets, for Bond has a habit of arriving in places when they are at their best. In this movie, it was Carnival time, and Bond was roped in to it before being hounded away by Jaws. Another battle commenced on the cable car to Sugarloaf mountain, the views of Rio below nothing short of spectacular. I used to envy Bond and his frequent trips to exotic locations. Later, it was the Amazon and BBC Documentaries of the flora and fauna within that captivated me, and more recently, An Idiot Abroad, a documentary on a normal working class bloke visiting the 7 Wonders of the World created by British comedian Ricky Gervais. This has a slightly different take on the usual programmes on Brazil in that it’s honest. In this episode, the ‘idiot’, Carl Pilkington, stays with a gay chap from Rio in his house, visits a nudist beach, and finally sees Christo Redentor. It’s a fresh and honest take on Rio. He hates parts of it, embraces others. He’s not shy of giving his opinions. Of course, churrascaria restaurants, caipirinha’s, samba, capoeira and of course football have all given me a stereotype of Brazil that is very positive. I’ve had the pleasure of meeting many Brazilians, and have always felt a friendliness that feels genuine, which is something difficult to feel with other nationalities. And so I was looking forward to this part of the trip immensely. Perhaps we’d saved the best till last.

Foz De Iguazu didn’t feel like we had. Though it looked clean enough, it was a bit rough around the edges. It’s a border town, after all. There’s always something lawless about border towns. Groups of young locals were cruising up and down the main street, Av Brasil, in souped up cars, the music – an aggressive reggaeton sound – blaring out, advertising and promoting their tastes and their cars proudly. It was a bit like the scene from Fast and Furious 5. Alex and I checked into a big, soulless tour-group hotel which had a room – a very big room – for a reasonable enough price. We were only staying the night – we had a hotel booked for the next night in Rio. We headed out into the night and strolled up and down the main street, passing some nice looking restaurants and bars. Alex needed an ATM, and we tried to find one open for ages but to no avail. When we did, for some reason we set an alarm off that could be heard from miles around I imagine. We’d only pushed the door to the ATM machines a little bit. They were locked, but not very securely. We hurried away, fearing our first night in Brazil spent in a police cell, and found a nice-looking alfresco restaurant set in a garden to hide away and have a bottle of beer and something to eat. The meal was terrible, but the beer, Brahma, was good. We gave up the night early and went to the petrol station to get some water. While we were in there, the police launched a sting operation and rounded up gangs of youths on motorbikes and in cars who had gathered in the petrol station forecourt. They didn’t seem to have done anything wrong, and many of the youths had a ‘not again’ look on their faces. Alex and I strode purposefully back to the hotel. Though we were keen on sampling the local nightlife, we were also aware that tomorrow was going to be a long day. A morning around Iguazu Falls, an afternoon at the airport and a flight to Rio, and a Saturday night out in Rio. Now that’s a packed itinerary. Time for bed.

We checked out and had a buffet breakfast, then got a bus that went to Parque National do Iguacu.. Handily, huge lockers are provided at the entrance to the falls, obviously for people in a hurry with places to go and little time to dawdle like Alex and I. In went our suitcases. Then we lined up to buy our tickets. As well as lockers, there are ATMs, souvenir shops, parking facilities….it’s incredibly well-organised. It felt like queuing up to get into a concert, or maybe a zoo. Huge well-marked maps of the falls are everywhere. Designated paths have been built all around and wooden platforms. There’s no ‘off-piste’ here. It’s more like a theme-park attraction, with ice-cream stalls, toilets, restaurants and bars all around. I remembered visiting Angel Falls in Venezuela, a place so isolated it receives barely a trickle of the number of tourists Iguazu receives. Getting to Angel Falls requires an Indiana Jones style adventure of hiking, tractor rides, canoeing, climbing and more hiking. Nothing save a tiny wooden sign pointing the way in the jungle to tell you where you are. I like that. But then, Iguazu is much, much wider, and deserves to be appreciated by everyone. The Brazil side is the best – you see the falls head on. We got in and boarded the fun bus to the first stop, the ‘Trilha das Cataratas’ – the 1200m Waterfall trail, which follows the shore of the Iguacu river. You know you’re here because a loud recording on the bus announces it, and a huge sign at the bus stop has a map of it. You can hear the falls before you can see them. A distant roar that gets the hairs on the back of the neck standing up to attention like meerkats. Then I saw them, or some of them. They were quite far away, across the river, and the cascading water seemed frozen in time. It wasn’t just the huge number of massive falls as far as I could see that was impressive, it was the spectacular rain forest setting, that feeling of nature’s raw power and beauty. Alex had been here once before, and gazed at the falls with a distant look in his eyes. For him, there was no excitement, just a renewed appreciation perhaps. Various openings in the foliage along the trail offered more spectacular views, but the Chinese photography mafia were out in force today, and their 2 metre long F1 photographer cameras were being swung around dangerously, the whirring click of a hundred shots louder than the falls. “Move away” one of the more polite Chinese men commanded me as I was slouched over a railing taking in a wonderful rainbow that had suddenly sprung up from the river. “Move away”, he repeated. “You. Move away.” He didn’t need to demand again, his impatient family had already muscled in to my spot and clearly didn’t want a foreign presence in their photograph. I left and marched ahead quickly so I’d get more time at another nice spot. Such is the the problem with visiting a famous place. Or any place now, I suppose. There are still spots where you’re almost alone though. Many parts of Africa, most of Indonesia, most of the Philippines and most of the Middle East are where to go if you don’t want to battle for position in front of something beautiful, man-made or otherwise. If you want to truly appreciate it.

At the end of the trail we came to the Garganta do Diablo, where a man-made walkway has been built right out into the river. An enterprising local was selling plastic macs to keep you dry – and doing a roaring trade. Alex and I just got wet. Drowned, actually. Here, in the middle of the river, is where you get up close to some of the most powerful falls, and the sheer volume of water and the speed of the current is breathtaking. Alex, trying hard to relive the glory days of his youth, asked me to take a photo of him recreating a picture he took in the same place 10 years ago – of him sitting on the railing, hands in the air. Dangerous, as one slip would mean certain death. I tried taking the photo, but alas the spray in the camera lens led to poor results, and unfortunately, like most things Alex did and places he visited on this trip, it seemed to fall short of his original experience. “Should never go back…” he muttered with a dry smile. The sun kept coming out and going back in, and whenever it came out, rainbows would appear, which brightened Alex up and made for some lovely scenes. We took the panoramic elevator to get views of the falls from above, which was nothing short of magnificent. I ran out of superlatives, so kept quiet and just enjoyed the view.

As usual, time was against us. We had a flight to catch. We headed back to the entrance and got a taxi to the airport, and hopped on a flight to Rio. Rio. I couldn’t be going to Rio, surely? The place every man dreams of. Rio de Janeiro. Spectacular landscape, gorgeous beaches, warm and friendly Cariocas (people from Rio) and joie de vivre in spades. I could hardly believe I was going there. James Bond has been there.

Alex I got a taxi from the airport in Rio to out hotel, the Atlantis Copacabana. On the drive in, I could make out Christo Redentor glowing at the top of the mountain in the night. Indeed, I could make out mountains all around, and see dull lights from the many houses crammed onto the slopes that make up the city’s favelas. We checked into the hotel, and discovered they had a rooftop pool/jacuzzi. It was a chilly evening, but we had to make use of it, and so we headed up with a can of Antarctica beer and a bag of crisps. The views were of the Pacific Ocean one way, and of the favelas and mountains on the other. It was lovely, the breeze refreshing, and, despite our long day, we were ready to go out and hit the town. We’d only ever have one Saturday night in Rio. That was tonight.

We started with a fantastic feast at a traditional churrascaria restaurant. The salad buffet was exceptional, and the meat that the waiters kept bringing to the table mercilessly, even with our little ‘Stop’ sign turned around, was juicy, fresh and a fantastic advertisement for the best of Brazilian food. All washed down with a couple of ice-cold Brahma beers. Just the ticket. Full, we headed out and thought about heading to the Irish bar next door, but decided against it. We weren’t really sure where to go, though we heard Lapa was the place to go for samba. We got talking to three young ladies – students – outside the Irish bar. They spoke English well, and were very friendly. They were heading to a place called Fois de Box for a special night called Chocolate, with DJ Christ Redentor. They invited us along. Soon, Alex and I were on the subway train to God-knows-where, holding court with the young Caricocas, learning more and more about Rio.

We arrived at the venue, which wasn’t open yet (it opened at midnight) and had a beer in a dirt-cheap place next to the club first. We weren’t the only ones, hordes of young clubbers were doing the same, getting loaded up before heading into the club. Alex and I were introduced to plenty of people, and quickly made friends in the queue. As we were queuing, Jesus himself came out complete with white robe and crown of thorns, carrying a tray full of strong chocolate-infused shooters to get everyone in the mood. Before I was allowed to drink my shot, Jesus blessed it, with complete seriousness, then went back inside. Bizarre. Everyone was in great spirits. I remember how friendly and happy everyone seemed.

The club had 2 floors and played Indie Rock classics on the first floor, with hard electronica down below. I got a round of extra-strong caipirinhas in. The dancefloor was a naughty, dirty, sexy dancefloor, full of bump n grind, girls snogging girls, guys snogging guys, guys snogging girls, ladyboys snogging guys and girls, open, fun….a million miles away from the conservative clubs of Asia I’ve spent most of the last 10 years in. It was such a good night that Alex and I stayed right until the end, which was almost 6am. We got a taxi back. The meter went on without asking. Rio seemed to have cleaned up a lot. Of course, the Olympics are being held here in 2016, and matches for the World Cup in 2014. Things are going to get a lot better, cleaner and safer in Rio, that’s for sure. Alex and I had walked nearly 4 blocks to get a taxi, unchallenged. We’d had an amazing first night in Rio. It had certainly lived up to it’s expectations so far.

Author: Neil

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