There is an amazing place in South America where the Iguaçu and Parana rivers converge in a spectacular explosion of cascading walls of water that seems to form a 360° panoramic marvel of deafening, crashing, and churning foam everywhere you turn. This is Iguaçu Falls and it doubles as the borders between Brazil, Argentina, and Paraguay a little farther down river. Standing before such a phenomenon of nature was like being in the heart of an Imax movie: a non-stop live action screen towering above our craning necks.
After six months in Brazil, the reality of “bureaucracydome” came to bear upon us. It was time for us to cross a border, get our passports stamped as officially having left the country, and thus re-enter Brazil with a clean slate, good for another six-month stint. Since we were in Florianopolis in southern Brazil at the time, this put us within easy reach of Paraguay, the most accessible point to enter and leave Brazil for a day. We thought that combining a little sight-seeing on a road trip to Iguaçu Falls near the Paraguayan border should fit the bill.
Off we went in a rented VW Beetle, loaded up with diapers for Brendan and warm clothes for us all since we were in the throes of the southern hemisphere’s early transitional fickle spring weather. Heading north from Florianopolis to Curitiba, and finally west to the town of Foz do Iguaçu, we plied some backroads, byways, and the hinterland of some of Brazil’s southern back country. I love road trips. It’s the best way to discover the soul of a place and it’s people, and we were well served in this respect on this adventure.
Just coming off historic flooding in the area, and Michel’s participation in local rescue efforts in nearby Blumenau, we encountered very soggy conditions. The rich, deep red earth was saturated and the car became caked in it. It was difficult to avoid tracking it everywhere. It was a drive back in time as we carved our way into the lush semi-tropical interior. Very few roads were paved and we encountered considerable poverty in this back country. Somewhat distant and isolated from the more prosperous coastal cities, the underdevelopment and neglect was starkly obvious as we drove by primitive shoddy wooden shacks clinging to muddy hillsides that lacked indoor plumbing and modern conveniences.
It was a rustic land populated by a downtrodden and a noticeably white and blonde-haired population of Germanic descent—so different from the northern mixed race and mulatto descendants borne of the mix of the black slave trade, Europeans, and local native Indian tribes. In one particular encounter while waiting in line for a very primitive “ferry boat” to cross a river (which in itself was quite surprising: literally a large crude wooden raft-like barge for only a handful of cars and pedestrians that loaded from the dirt riverbank), a very pregnant blond-haired woman cradling an infant in her arms and surrounded by several equally blonde-haired and dirty, disheveled barefoot children, seemed to be somewhat associated with the river crossing station. It was a scene reminiscent of a West Virginia Appalachian hinterland. Elsewhere we passed farmers on the road in wooden carts while others were plowing their fields with oxen and hand plows—in 1983!
Upon arriving in Foz do Iguaçu, we settled in for the night, trying to contain our excitement for the visit to the falls the next day. We were not disappointed. They were truly magnificent and spectacular, an immense semicircular vista of water falling all over itself on several levels everywhere we looked; each view was more amazing than the other. At a total height of over 200 ft. for a span of almost two miles, Iguaçu Falls was named one of the 193 Unesco’s World Heritage natural sites in 1984.
There was so much mist from all the spray that we couldn’t stay dry. Never having been to Niagara Falls myself, Michel affirmed that they could not compare to Iguaçu. Other accounts I have read since also insist that Iguaçu Falls should rank as perhaps the most majestic and amazing of the seven natural wonders of the world, and even most recently as 2011 the falls were ranked the top spot in the Lonely Planet’s Reader’s Picks of the New Seven Natural Wonders of the World.
The falls themselves are part of the Iguaçu National Park, a preserved pristine and lush rainforest teeming with over 2,000 species of plants, 450 species of birds, and populated by truly wild exotic animals including tapirs, giant anteaters, howler monkeys, ocelots, jaguars, and caymans. The recent flooding in southern Brazil had wrought damage here as well as the waters ran unusually high and more powerful than their norm. An iron pedestrian walkway passageway on the Argentine side lay destroyed in twisted ruins, having been engulfed and subdued by the raging waters.
Featured in several movies, Iguaçu Falls are unmistakable viewed on screen. As I had seen many years later in the film The Mission with Robert de Niro and Jeremy Irons, the spectacular scenery is in a class of its own, and today we still feel privileged to have experienced such a stunning and imposing natural monument.
While we were there, we also learned of another “must see” in the area, the then-under-construction, monumental Paraguayan-Brazilian hydroelectric venture, the Itaipu Dam. The largest such dam in the world at the time, it is compared today to that of China’s Three Gorges Dam in size and generating power. It was indeed a colossal undertaking. The guided tour we took at the time (the only possible way to visit the site) recounted how the course of the Parana River was rerouted along with the relocation of approximately 40,000 people and numerous species of birds and animals. Itaipu Dam became operational just a little over a year after we visited the site, and in 1994 was voted one of the seven modern wonders of the world by the American Society of Civil Engineers.
Our tourism cravings fulfilled, it was time to concentrate on the business at hand, and our initial reason for the trip in the first place: crossing the border into Paraguay so we could return anew as tourists to Brazil. We drove to the border at the Friendship Bridge that crosses the Rio Parana, parked the car, and loaded Brendan papoose style into his baby backpack. With some trepidation as to what may ensue, the four of us left Brazil on foot proceeding to the Paraguayan border checkpoint on the far side of the bridge. Hopefully nothing would go wrong and we could get back into Brazil. Our whole life was on Cowabunga, back in Florianopolis.
Border towns, of course, are not always the best example of what a country has to offer and the scene at the bridge checkpoint was probably not Paraguay at its best, although indeed comical. At the time, Paraguay was governed by the well-entrenched dictator, General Stroessner, one of the last holdouts of the breed of South American dictators of that era. This isolated, innocuous far-flung outpost apparently seemed to be their ideal spot for would-be government 007 agents to flex their muscle, dutifully executing their undercover skills to ferret out smugglers, evil-doers, and potential anti-government agents bent on overthrow. It felt as if we walked into a comic strip!
Probably well over 50% of those milling around were disguised “incognito” in stereotypical spy garb (trench coats, dark slacks, shiny black shoes, sunglasses, slicked down black hair, 60s era hats, Latin mustaches), and busying themselves by indulging in self-aggrandizing and indiscriminate car and body searches. The icing on the cake was a tall on-duty military officer surveying the scene from his regal perch atop a large planter. Framed by his crisp, bright green uniform, a shiny black patent-leather brimmed cap, striking Latin features, the requisite aviator sunglasses, and drawing lengthy breaths from his long cigarette, he struck quite a haughty pose as a native Indian incessantly shined his already high-gloss black, patent leather knee-high boots. The portrait was too tempting to ignore and we really wanted a snapshot of this officer. Sensing, however, that this might be ill-advised given the surrounding scene, Michel approached the officer to ask his permission and the response was a curt “no.”
Amusement aside, we made our way into the border office where our passports were duly stamped, admitting us to Paraguay. This formality was sufficient for Michel and the boys to re-enter Brazil under their French passports. However, for me as an American, I needed an additional visa, so off we trekked further into this gritty border town of Puerto Stroessner, seeking the U.S. Consulate, while garnering the usual curious stares from the locals as Brendan bounced in his backpack. The town was teeming with street life as a multitude of “duty-free” hovels leaned upon each other, Indians hawked wares and trinkets dangling from their backs and hands, odors abounded from food stalls, and we dodged what we could from the dirty sidewalks and gutters.
It had been a full day when we re-entered Brazil at Foz do Iguaçu again that evening, hitting the road again back to Florianopolis the next day. We relished the trip yet were eager to be back on the boat, heading to our next port. Yet, here deep in the interior of Brazil, along the fluid borders cut by the Iguaçu and Parana rivers, we found these frontiers just as adventuresome as the next sail away.