Parque Nacional do Iguaçu

Even though the country is massive, most travelers to Brazil end up hitting three popular destinations in the south, Rio de Janeiro (for the beauty and the beaches), São Paulo (for business and industry), or the Parque Nacional do Iguaçu (for the spectacular natural wonder located within the state of Paraná).  Iguassu Falls, the main attraction of Parque Nacional do Iguaçu, is also known as Cataratas do Iguaçu in Portuguese or Cataratas del Iguazú in Spanish.  Why the two different languages?  Quite simple, the falls are actually located on the border of Portuguese-speaking Brazil and Spanish-speaking Argentina, with the country of Paraguay just a hop, skip and a jump away! 

Iguassu falls has been dubbed "one of the seven forgotten natural wonders of the world," and with the flooding of the nearby Guaíra falls in 1982, Iguazu currently has the greatest average annual flow of any waterfall in the world!  (Trust us, one glance at its power and, um, girth will amaze even the most jaded world traveler.)  The falls and the surrounding park are an official UNESCO World Heritage Site.  This means that in exchange for protection of the ecological and natural beauty that exist here, the park must provide education and recreation for all who visit.  No problem there.  Besides the astounding Cataratas do Iguaçu, the Parque Nacional do Iguaçu also features water rafting, jungle jeep tours, and a cavalcade of intriguing hiking trails that reveal some pretty impressive flora and fauna.

A stunning tiled pool is located just outside the entrance to the park.  Though it was not being utilized in this fashion on the day that we visited, we would assume it was good for cooling off on those hot summer days of January, February and March.  An illustration of a bizarre striped animal looms above.   What is this strange thing?  Oh, we don't want to ruin the surprise just yet, so let's go inside, shall we?

Exploring the falls was number one on our list. As you enter the park, you first are led through a Exhibition Hall and Visitor Center where you can book a variety of tours.  Make sure you pick up a Visitor’s Map from here so that you know where you are once you have ventured inside. 

Eventually, you will be queued into a line for one of the park’s double-decker buses.  Since there are a few different vantage points to see the falls, you can take the trail that runs alongside the river in different segments.  Thanks to the bus that picks up and drops off at a number of spots within the park, you can even skip sections all together depending on your energy level.  We opted to take the complete trail, and from stop #10 (“Campo de Desafios”), walked down a long paved trail that leads to the “Trilha das Cataratas” (waterfall path) which hugs the side of the river.

From this entrance, you will spot a few breathtaking “peek-a-boo views” of the falls, but it is not for several hundred more meters, as the sheer noise of the roaring water increases in decibels, that you will be hit with the first “Ka-BAM!” vantage point, where the converging waterfalls from all sides amaze you with their shock and awe!  The falls cleverly divide the river into the Upper and Lower Iguazu.  We were somewhat dumbfounded as to how it all works, but legend explains the falls rather simply.  According to lore, once upon a Brazilian time, a god planned to marry a beautiful aborigine named "Naipí."  Unfortunately, she fled in a canoe with her mortal lover "Arobá."  In rage, the god sliced the river they traversed down, creating the waterfalls and thus, condemning the lovers to an eternal fall!  How pleasant.  Equally as disturbing perhaps was the warning sign along the trail with a diagram depicting a rock avalanche falling on top of a visitor!  Not very reassuring I am afraid!

The Parque Nacional do Iguaçu is home to an abundance of wildlife, including pumas, cheetahs, and monkeys.  We experienced first hand that diversity as a gaggle of “What The $#@&*^%” creatures scurried underfoot along the Trilha das Cataratas.

Somewhat resembling that stylized illustration we had seen at the park’s entrance, we were not quite sure what to think of the little furry runts that sauntered between our legs as though they were heading home during rush hour after a long work week of difficult waterfall sightseeing.  Were they looking for food?  Did they want to be picked up? Yikes! Another signpost educated us that these cute little rugrats were a family of coati (or "quati" in Portuguese).  Members of the raccoon family, the coati is also known as the "hog-nosed coon," and sometimes even the "Brazilian aardvark.”  These little sweet things are native to south, central and even southwestern North America, although we had never seen one before that day!  At any rate, get your cameras ready!  The nimble critters are fast, and after a few disappointed minutes of not getting any food out of us, they disappeared back into the brush.

As we got closer and closer to the falls, the views got even more dramatic.  Along the trail, you can enjoy the expansive scenery via a series of the viewing platforms.  At one point you can even stand on a catwalk that juts out over the river, giving you an extraordinary 360-degree view of the waterfalls!  And while our cleverly-cropped photos may suggest otherwise, we surely were not the only ones interested in participating in that experience.  Yes, it’s true, swarms of tourists are everywhere, and taking a photo that eliminates them completely is challenging to say the least!  Set of Drifters tip:  When surrounding yourself completely with powerful waterfalls - on purpose - you will undoubtedly get wet.  We recommend bringing a plastic bag and some sort of cloth to wipe your camera lens.  Otherwise, the misty spray that comes at you from all sides could be a surefire way to ruin your camera!

Viewing platforms located at even higher levels offer crazy bird's eye views of the falls below.  There’s nothing quite like grabbing lunch (coxinha time!) and staring down into the Garganta del Diablo (“devil's throat”).  The Garganta del Diablo is a U-shaped cliff which marks the border between Argentina and Brazil.  From here, you can look to the left and see the flat portion of the river and surrounding jungle before it drops off into the insanity to your right.  Directly in front of you and across the great divide is Argentina, marked rather conspicuously with a large blue and white flag.  From here, the views just go on and on...  You will not be disappointed, though you may be wet.

Parque Nacional do Iguaçu is open Mondays to Sundays from 9:00 AM to 5:00 PM, with the cafe at Garganta del Diablo only open from 12:00 noon to 4:00 PM.  Entrance to the park is R$37,70 for adults (about USD $24) and R$6,70 for children aged 2-11 (about USD $4.25), but keep in mind there are many more hiking and walking trails that you can participate in without spending any more money.  Set of Drifters tip:  For a totally different experience, you may want to check out the park from the Argentinean side, a fully functioning tourist apparatus of its own.  From Argentina, you can view the falls from an array of alternate viewing decks and vantage points.

Parque Nacional do Iguaçu - Rodovia BR 469 (KM 18), Foz do Iguaçu, Paraná, 011 (55) 45 3521-4400

Parque das Aves

Now, just because Foz do Iguaçu is a small town does not mean that there is not a lot to see and do.  There are shows to attend (we didn't go), neighboring countries to explore (we didn't make it), and local creatures to gawk at... which brings us to the Parque das Aves.

Located just across the way from the entrance to the Parque Nacional do Iguaçu is the lesser-known Parque das Aves.  Spotted only a tiny blip on the neighboring national park’s souvenir map, Parque das Aves opened in 1994 as a labor of love for couple Dennis and Anna Croukamp.  In the years since, it has become the largest park devoted to birds in all of Latin America.   We weren't really sure what to expect, but with entrance tickets only USD $12 (recently upped to USD $15), the chance was easily taken.

Thankfully, the Parque das Aves was not nearly as overwhelmingly busy as its competition across the highway, and thus, we were able to stroll through the dense jungle inside at our leisure.  First impressions?  The foliage inside the bird park was simply out of control, but in a good way!  Set of Drifter Brady was surely in heaven (again), surrounded by the lush green canopy of leafage and low-swinging vines.  (Unfortunately at home our garden does not grow as dense.)  Taking a closer look at the weird, yet aptly named, "Parrot’s Flowers" (Heliconia velloziana) located throughout the park, you may be lucky enough to see little jungle ants doing their day's work.  Overall, the insects roaming all over the park looked decidedly crunchy, and dare we say it, almost good enough to eat.  These Parque das Aves birds must be having a field day!

Perhaps not tantalizing are the resident tarantulas!  Now don't get too excited... While tarantulas are big enough to harm and kill birds, mice and lizards, most species are completely harmless to humans.  As a nice contrast, the hairy critters were paired up with hundreds of yellow lovelies inside the “butterfly sanctuary,” a section of the park gated off by plastic chains that prohibit the butterfly population from circulating through the rest of the park. 

The Parque das Aves grounds also featured some typical koi swimming in a clime that resembled Yoda's home from Star Wars, only more cheery.  (There may have been some monkeys and alligators looming around somewhere as well, though we did not see them).   Of course, we did not come to the Parque das Aves to see insects or fish, or even monkeys; we came to see the birds!

The first section of the park was very standard, simply just a bunch of cages filled with brightly-colored birds.  Once beyond this somewhat depressing environment, the park opened up rather well into many different unexpected exhibits.  (There was even a Sub-Saharan African section... in the middle of the invading Brazilian jungle!)   The narcissist pink plumed creatures in the flamingo den, set up with giant mirrors surrounding their sanctuary, were quite entertaining.  They were loving all of their own attention!

Elsewhere in the park, another team of birds were clamoring for visitors.  The loud and boisterous macaw sanctuary featured a sign on the front of the door that read "enter at your own risk!"  After only a few minutes inside, we understood why the sign was required reading. One little @#%&*$ macaw clearly did not like your “Set of Drifters.”  The little bugger kept running after us to peck at our feet.  (Oh, what we will endure for a good photo!)  The macaw sanctuary was somewhat like entering the Enchanted Tiki Room at Disneyland, yet without all of the terrible puns, and even though Doug ultimately wanted one of these loud things as a pet, he was out of luck!  When we got back home, a poster hanging up near US Customs showed a picture of a vibrantly colored macaw with the following parrot plea:  "Don't take me home, I might have Avian Bird Flu."  This led us to wonder... how would one smuggle a macaw back to America in their luggage?

While walking through the Parque das Aves, we soon began to notice how friendly the local toucans were.  In fact, they were easily the best attraction of the looping trail.  The family of toucans includes five genera and about forty different species with the name “toucan” derived from the same Tupi language that brought us quati.  The colorful bill of the toucan, which in some large species measures more than half the length of the toucan's body, is their trademark.  Yet despite its size, the bills are very light, being composed of bone struts with little solid material between them.  Why the toucan's bill is so large and brightly colored is still under debate.  It has been theorized that the bill may intimidate smaller birds so that the toucan may plunder nests undisturbed, and yet they seemed so friendly!

Toucans primarily eat local fruits (hence the famed cereal "Froot Loops?"), but they have been known to take prey such as insects and small lizards!  While getting further acquainted with these friendly little guys, make sure you look out for the their weird orange tongues that may jut out at any moment, but specifically when you are feeding them from your palm!  How cute are these guys?  Now, if you're lucky, you may even witness a nocturnal coruja shooting the breeze during the daytime!  The coruja (owl) ended up being an inside joke of ours during the entire trip to Brazil, and we were thrilled to see them in the faux wild, despite their overuse in today’s ironic design aesthetic.

After checking out the birds, it was time to go back to the resort and relax by the pool.  After a full day at the Parque Nacional do Iguaçu and Parque das Aves, and an evening of South American stargazing poolside, we were left with a wonder of how nature can be so unusual, and yet so exacting. 

Parque das Aves is open daily from 8:30 AM to 5:30 PM with ticket prices currently R$22,00 (about USD $15).  Set of Drfiters tip:  Please proceed with caution, and watch your head, as some of these wild animals may need to heed mother nature's call.  Oh, and heed this warning as well... don't ever get too close to an ostrich!

Parque das Aves - Rodovia BR 469 (KM 17), Foz do Iguaçu - Paraná, 011 (55) 45 3529-8282 ‎

Macuco Safari Boat Trip

Next on our list while visiting the Parque Nacional do Iguaçu was an added excursion that would take us down to the river basin, at level with the falls itself.  Get ready to get wet!

Our Macuco Safari Boat Trip had three parts to it.  First up was a tram ride through the dense Brazilian jungle.  Our tour guide, Vittorio, pointed out the local flora and fauna, which included some sort of miniature pink pineapple (??)  Even though Brazilian rainforests are ravaged each and every day, the country still has are over 772,200 square miles of frontier forest, among the largest amount of any country worldwide.  After only a few twists and turns of the jungle tram, I was ready to move right in, pointing out different tree and vine contortions which might make for a nice hammock where I could sit and read the morning paper!

Of course, nothing is ever perfect!  The trees all around us were full of spiderwebs and giant arachnids that dangled only inches from our heads as we bumped on by.  For some reason, I half expected to see Ewoks emerging from the many mossed caves and overturned tree trunks along the way.  This was doubtful however since we were in puma country!  In fact, the second part of our safari, a walking tour through the jungle, began with rather terse instructions begging us not to wander off the carefully selected path.   Trust me, no one wants to encounter a cheetah while dressed in a colorful “Yo Gabba Gabba” T-shirt!

At the end of the nature walk, we came to our final destination, the lower portion of the Iguassu River itself.  It was time to board our water-rafting boat!  Most travelers had come prepared, dressed in bathing suits and flip-flops prior to disembarkment.  (Just what exactly were we in for??)  Since we had not planned on going on this excursion until we were inside the park, we were considerably less equipped.  And while Doug was determined to get some use out of the plastic “capa de chuva” he had acquired in Rio, I was a bit more optimistic.  It turns out that I should not have been, especially after seeing everyone who came off the boat before completely drenched!

Out of concern, others on our “jungle safari” made alternate arrangements.  A hairy Italian dude decided it would be best to strip down to his white underwear rather than get his clothes soaked...  You should have seen him on his way off the boat, or rather, you shouldn't have!

Heading out onto the calm waters of Iguaçu in our skiff reminded me of that wilderness film from the mid-1990's starring Meryl Streep.  And just like that film, things were about to get much more choppy.  Still, as we headed toward the falls, the dangerous currents suggested that we would not really get that close to them.  Again, I was wrong.  Completely paranoid about not getting my camera wet, I still found it next to impossible to put the thing away; the views from the river were too beautiful to pass up!  Eventually, however, it seemed there was no turning back!  We were headed straight for the backside of a waterfall, and believe me after a trip through the falls and back, we got soaked twice over!  Of course, for a price, you could purchase a DVD of the boat ride afterward (probably the real reason the boat’s captain implored us to put away our cameras completely at a certain point in the journey). 

After a bumpy jeep ride that returned us to the top level of Parque Nacional do Iguaçu, we eventually headed back to the hotel, and (possibly) just in time for the caipirinhas that would give us both some serious stomach troubles for the rest of the trip.  (Didn't we have enough of falling water already that day?)

Ultimately, the day could not have been more perfect.  Reviewing the hurried photographic images from the boat tour, I found odd birds, butterflies and people in the background that I had not noticed in person!  It was just like a story out of Fantasy Island but without the rug being pulled out from under us!

The adventure-filled Macuco Safari Boat Trip was highly educational and, even at a cost of R$300,00 for the two of us (about USD $94 each), was well worth the price.  (One thing is for sure, we will never have to ride the “Jungle Cruise” at Disneyland ever again!)  We would have loved to have spent a few more days exploring the other aspects of the park, so keep that in mind if you are making the trek down to Foz do Iguaçu.  Set of Drifters tip:  If you are interested in any of the extra tour options, book them from the Visitor Center at the front of the park.  While you can still shop around between the different excursion tour operators, rates seem to generally be better from the Visitor Center as opposed to other stands within the park.

Macuco Safari Boat Trip (inside the Parque Nacional do Iguaçu) - Rodovia BR 469 (KM 18), Foz do Iguaçu, Paraná/ office location - 123 Adelaide Valle Budel Street, Foz do Iguaçu, Paraná, 011 (55) 45 9104-7001   

wandering the back roads

We’ve said it before, and we’ll say it again.  While tracking down the items on your “To Do List,” make sure you take some time out to simply wander through a neighborhood or two (even if it is just in search of a convenience store to buy some bottled water or a chocolate bar!)  Of course, you should still be sensible.  Don’t go anywhere that you do not feel safe, and with many of the local homes featuring rather harrowing examples of home security, apparently even some natives do not feel entirely comfortable!

Visitors to Brazil will notice that there is a huge disparity between those with, and those without.  This void is perhaps most obvious when taking a closer look at the different types of abodes that make up a neighborhood.  Here, new construction starts with a simple brick and cement skeleton.  Sadly, many of the buildings in the favelas of Rio de Janeiro and beyond never make it past this first stage.  We saw many of these “shanty town” buildings during our time in Foz do Iguaçu.  And though their prevalence may tug on your heart-strings after awhile, what a shame it would be to miss out on the true pulse of Foz do Iguaçu by ignoring them.

What else would we have missed had we not taken a random walk through town?  How about a cane sugar crop burning, or a charming nearby street vendor selling the end product of "caldo do cana?"  And then of course there was that gaggle of Brazilian Jesuit monks passing by in full regalia!  We were not really sure what was going on there, but it certainly made for a nice photo! In this part of the world, the colors are truly amazing.  The sky is the bluest blue, the jungles are the greenest green, and the dirt, oddly a strange reddish color!  So what are you waiting for?  Go out and soak it all in while you can!