Foz do Iguaçu, Brazil – Travel Review
Brazil, land of carnival and samba, beaches and mountains, rainforest and waterfalls. This huge country takes up around half of South America and is home to nearly 210 million people. Helen Johnston explored three of its diverse locations. Here, Foz do Iguaçu…
Standing on an iron walkway in the middle of the Iguaçu Falls, being buffeted by wind and spray, the roar of thundering, rushing water all around me, I was literally lost for words. If someone had asked me there and then to describe the experience, I would have been unable to.
Breathtaking, astonishing, stunning, astounding – take your pick from any of the above.
These are the biggest collection of waterfalls in the world and yet most people back home have never heard of them. In many ways that’s a good thing because they haven’t been spoilt by commercialism in the same way as Niagara Falls.
Here there is a sense of adventure and discovery as you get off the bus inside Iguaçu National Park (no cars are allowed in) to be greeted by quatis, south American raccoons, scampering around your feet. Then walking the trail through rainforest until suddenly the falls come into view, a perfectly placed rainbow arching over them adding to their magnificence.
There are various viewing platforms and at one point I was standing in what seemed like touching distance of an enormous curtain of water crashing relentlessly down into the river below. It was frightening in its intensity. Nature was showing off its power and its glory.
It was cold here in July with a wind coming down from the Andes, but the sky was a clear cobalt blue and the sun shone. It was the kind of day when nature showers you (quite literally in this case) with all its gifts. It was an invigorating, unforgettable experience.
“Three borders and two rivers meet”
We dried off at the park’s restaurant where we sampled the traditional Brazilian feijoada, a delicious stew of meat and black beans. The trend in this part of Brazil is for help-yourself buffets with the price based on the weight of the food on your plate.
From the restaurant you can gaze across the Iguaçu river to Argentina on the opposite bank. Indeed, close by at Foz do Iguaçu is where the borders of Brazil, Argentina and Paraguay meet, along with the rivers Iguaçu and Paraná – the only place in the world where three borders and two rivers meet.
This is marked on the Brazil side by the Marco Das Três Frontieras attraction with an exhibition telling the history of the indigenous people and their European conquerors. There is also a fountain, a restaurant, entertainment and of course a ‘three borders’ sign where people were queuing for a photo.
Back at the Falls the adventurous can take to the water by boat and go right under one of them as part of the Macuco Safari. For the less adventurous, or if you don’t fancy getting drenched in cold water on a chilly day (like me), you can hop on to a golf buggy to go into the Atlantic rainforest for a guided walk.
Conservation is key at the park (a UNESCO world heritage site) and human activities are designed around protecting the rich biodiversity of animals and plants. On the walk it’s possible to just stand in silence and listen to the subtle movements of the forest and maybe spy a jaguar. World Wildlife Foundation-Brazil has been working with its partners in Argentina and Paraguay to protect these big cats whose numbers have been decimated by deforestation and other human pursuits. Project organisers were able to celebrate the birth of three new cubs last year and there has been an education programme designed to engage locals and visitors in protecting them.
Another conservation effort is underway at the excellent Parque das Aves which is a sanctuary for mistreated and trafficked birds and gave us the chance to get up close to multi-coloured parrots, owls, flamingos and a beautiful toucan whose vivid colours seemed unreal. The park also has the one of the largest collections of flying macaws in Latin America.
Man’s attempts to harness the forces of nature are nowhere more evident than at the mighty Itaipu Dam which is at the forefront of renewable energy production. The dam opened 35 years ago on the Paraná river, a joint enterprise of the Brazilian and Paraguayan governments, and is the world’s largest hydro-electric plant in terms of electricity generation. It provides 75% of Paraguay’s electricity and 17% of Brazil’s.
Forty thousand workers were brought to Foz do Iguaçu to build the dam and villages were created to house them and are still there now, having a huge impact on the town. The company operating the dam Itaipu Binacional is part of the community with an impressive line-up of sustainability projects and youth programmes. It has also tapped into the tourism market by offering guided tours of the dam and reservoir.
It’s an amazing feat of engineering, the height of a 65-storey building, and when they open the spillway the water powering through is equivalent to 40 Iguaçu Falls. A short bus ride takes us across the dam, passing capybaras and their babies grazing at the side of the road, to the reservoir created when the dam was built. This huge expanse of calm water is now a leisure facility with artificial beaches, fishing, catamarans and boats.
Tourism chiefs in Foz do Iguaçu are keen to promote the place as more than just a two-night destination to see the Falls and there is plenty going on to achieve this. The town is home to the Rafain Steakhouse with its entertaining Latino Americano show featuring singers and dancers from across Latin America. The restaurant seats 5,000 and serves an array of barbecued meats as part of a large self-service buffet. I’m not usually a fan of steak but I was persuaded to try the picana and it was delicious. They know how to barbecue in this part of Brazil.
The show is a riot of Latin American flamboyance with a talented array of dancers and acrobats performing extraordinary feats on stage and earning enthusiastic clapping and cheering from the audience, sitting in hats and coats to guard against the winter chill. This part of the world ranges from warm to extremely hot for most of the year so heating isn’t seen as a necessity for the short time it is cold.
If you want to get really cold then you could try the Ice Bar next door to the Dreamland Wax Museum where the temperature is a face-numbing -12C. We were supplied with thick jackets and gloves before entering what looks like an igloo and being invited to choose a drink, served in tumblers made of ice, while loud music played. I imagine it’s a fun place to cool down when the mercury goes above 40C in the summer months.
It wasn’t always apparent who the waxwork models were supposed to be (luckily, they had name tags) but the Queen was there in all her regal glory alongside an out-dated Prince William still sporting a full head of hair. On the same site is the Valley of the Dinosaurs where animatronics bring the ancient reptiles to life along a trail through a forest setting. A great attraction for young kids who were fascinated by the huge creatures.
While in Foz it’s an experience to pop across the border into either Paraguay or Argentina, if for no other reason than to be able to say you’ve been. We headed over the bridge into Paraguay where Brazilians go for tax-free shopping. There is a border control but our taxi was waved through without us having to show passports. The town was an odd mix of scruffy streets with bundles of electric wires hanging off every telegraph pole, and modern, clean shopping malls offering all the latest electronic gadgets. The biggest store was called Shopping in China. Enough said.
Driving in Iguaçu is made more fun by the street entertainers who spring up at red traffic lights, juggling, fire-eating, doing keepy-uppys with a football… anything to raise a smile and persuade drivers to part with some change.
Foz do Iguaçu provides a taste of Brazilian life away from the big cities, with wide streets and low-rise buildings. It feels like a town on a mission to stamp its place firmly on the tourist map while still conserving the natural treasures on its doorstep. Just make sure you pack a coat and hat if you visit in winter.
As part of Helen’s Brazilian itinerary she also visited Salvador and Rio de Janeiro
With thanks to Jandira Cordeiro at Foz do Iguaçu tourism office for hosting Helen’s trip.
For more information about places to visit go to iguassu.com.br or fozdoiguacudestinodomundo.com.br