This is Part 4 of a series of trip reports on my November trip to Rio de Janeiro and Iguazu Falls.
In this post, I’ll cover my trip from Rio to Foz do Iguacu, and my stay on the Brazilian side of Iguazu Falls.
Note, there is no traffic at 7am from the city to Rio’s international airport (GIG). I learned this when I arrived at GIG at 7:30am for a 10:08am flight to Foz do Iguassu. Also note, there is no lounge for domestic departures, and when you’re actually supposed to go through security is completely unclear. The TAM check-in area at Terminal 2 was pretty crazy, with super long lines. The “preferential” check-in line only had the symbols for Oneworld Sapphire and Emerald status, but it is actually a published benefit for Oneworld Ruby as well, so I got on that short line. Although I was only second on line and there were three counters, I apparently was the only “preferential” passenger not traveling with significant amounts of oversized luggage. (The guy in front of me was an art dealer, and there was also a woman with some large pole. Hehe. Large pole.)
When giving me my boarding pass, the TAM agent said “at 9:08, go through the middle.” So I took this to mean that I couldn’t pass through security until 9:08 – which seemed late, but also seemed too early to be a boarding time for a 10:08 domestic flight (it did say “boarding time” on the boarding pass. There was a Starbucks pre-security (and little else), so I was able to get the breakfast I had craved the day before – a latte and a muffin. (As this was in the middle of red cup-gate at Starbucks here in the US, I was amused to see that Starbucks Brazil also only had solid red cups for the Christmas season. In the small concourse area, there was ample seating and free wifi, though no plugs – so not really significantly worse than most Priority Pass lounges. I should note though that the Rio airport is much smaller than you’d think, but that’s because Sao Paolo is used for more international flights, Terminal 1 handles a lot of international flights and all of Gol’s flights, and flights from Sao Paolo mostly fly into the domestic airport inside the city.
At around 9:00 I headed towards the security checkpoint, where I was let through though it wasn’t 9:08, and it was in fact the easiest security I’ve ever been through. No ID check, and the metal detector didn’t even go off though I had left some coins in my pocket. It was clear when I got to the gate area that my flight was not boarding at 9:08, so I checked out the small terminal area, then sat for a bit at one of the many power columns and charged my laptop. One clever design element of the gate area is its “reversible area” – a section with a McDonald’s and Domino’s and extra bathrooms that is separated by glass doors on either side, that could be connected to the Domestic side or the international side of the terminal. During the morning and afternoon, there are very few international departures, so it makes sense to have that space open for domestic passengers. In the evening, it flips.
Boarding took a long time, as a result of a combination of three things: (1) the unclear boarding time (it ended up being around 9:30; (2) the lack of any audible announcements in the gate area; and (3) LATAM’s silly way of boarding half the plane at a time. I was seated in the front half of the plane, which meant I was in the last group to board. But because people either are dumb or were playing dumb, tons of people in the front of the plane got in the line clearly marked “Rows 14 through 29.” Every time it seemed that line was done, some stragglers would walk up, making it seem like my line would never actually get to board. Finally, the sole gate agent closed off the Rows 14 through 29 line, and those of us in the front of the plane got to board (with an ID check).
The plane was an A320 like that I took from Santiago to Rio, but in a different configuration. There was no business cabin at all, and it felt like the pitch was even tighter. Lucky for me, though, there had been a woman with a lap child sitting in the bulkhead, and the cabin manager asked if I would swap my window seat for her aisle seat. Although this meant it would be a little harder to sleep and I wouldn’t get views, it was worth it.
After a long boarding process and a turbulent takeoff, we were airborne for the two hour flight. Shortly after takeoff, the crew began the snack service, which was a little package with a sponge-cake like thing and crackers and processed cheese. (They love their processed cheese on LATAM.) The flight had LATAM’s wifi-enabled entertainment system (though not internet), but I had not downloaded the software/app before taking off, so I just caught up (err, started catching up) on blogging. There was some trivia on the drop down screens, as well as episodes of The Middle and Modern Family. The flight was uneventful, and we landed twenty minutes early at Foz do Iguassu International Airport.
The airport is pretty tiny – reminding me of Santorini’s airport. Bags came fairly quickly, and I hopped into a metered taxi for the drive into town. (There’s a very cheap bus, which I took to the Falls, but I wouldn’t recommend it with luggage if you are staying downtown.)
Iguazu Falls lies at the intersection of three countries: Paraguay, Brazil, and Argentina. The falls themselves are in both Brazil and Argentina. The reputation is that the Argentine side has more to do but the views themselves are more stunning from the Brazilian side. As such, everyone recommends doing both if you have time. Since I had 2 days, and since my flight was landing on the Brazil side, I did. Initially I was going to spend both nights in the city on the Brazilian side, Foz Do Iguassu, since it was cheap and I had an early flight out Sunday morning. But when the schedule changed for my flight and I had nearly a full extra day, I decided I’d spurge and stay in the park one night. The hotel on the Brazilian side is nicer, a Belmond luxury property – but outside my price range. On the Argentine side, though, is a Sheraton, which isn’t that fancy but still charges a lot. Thankfully, they had a cash and points rate, which knocked down the price to a reasonable $110 plus 6,000 points.
So my first night on the I got a room at the Wyndham Golden Foz Suites for about $55, right in the heart of “downtown” Foz do Iguassu. On the drive into town from the airport, you pass several the “resort” hotels of various vintage, as well as tourist traps like a wax museum, and tons of billboards advertising shopping over the border in Paraguay. Some of the resorts had looked appealing (and were also cheap), and if I was traveling with others and/or rented a car, I would have considered it, but didn’t want to be trapped at the hotel so much.
When I pulled up to the hotel, it wasn’t the friendliest staff in the world at check in, but that may have been a language issue. The hotel is pretty large—23 floors of suites. My room was on the 4th floor- which is the lowest floor of the hotel with rooms – so the view was a little bit of Paraguay, but mostly the roof of the building next door. The suite was quite large though – especially for $55. It wasn’t the fanciest, but it was large and newly renovated, with good air conditioning, a kitchen, living room, and separate bedroom.
The city of Foz was a lot more pleasant than I’d imagined, full of trees and fairly clean. There wasn’t a ton to do, though. It was mostly hotels, some small shops, and restaurants – particularly Arab ones and Brazilian BBQ restaurants. After checking in, I followed up on the advice of Jamison of the currently inert blog Points Summary, and headed to a local supermarket, Muffato. From 2012 through 2015, the “legal” exchange rate for Argentine pesos had been artificially inflated by the government, leading to a secondary illegal, though widely allowed market that exchanged pesos for the “blue rate,” a much better rate for dollar-holders. Using a credit card or ATM you’d be stuck at the legal rate, but some shops and cambios on the street would exchange at the Blue Rate. The Muffato supermarket has an exchange in it, and they exchanged my dollars to Argentine pesos at the blue rate (of 14 to 1 as opposed to 9 to 1), which effectively was a 25% discount on everything I bought in Argentina, including my Sheraton stay. I also picked up some snacks, and hit the in-store restaurant, which was hot “per kilo” buffet. It wasn’t fancy, but I got a meal of tasty roast beef, chicken, and fish for 15 BRL – about 4 dollars.
The walk wasn’t that long, but it was insanely hot, and sweat was pouring off me. I passed a bank that had a sign showing a temperature of 38 degrees (100 in Fahrenheit), which seemed actually too low. But I made it back to the Wyndham, dropped off my purchases, and then walked back to the bus station or the public bus to the park on the Brazilian side of the Falls.
I wasn’t sure if I would have enough time there, as I didn’t get on the bus until 2:55pm, but it turned out to be fine. Warning, the bus is not air conditioned, and makes a lot of stops on the 35 minute ride (including at the airport). Although my guidebook had said the park closed at 5, though, it actually was open until 6:30.
The bus dropped me off at the Visitors Center, where I bought my ticket for around $15, and then proceeded to a second bus which goes around the park itself. Most of the buses into the park are doubledecker, but mine was an enclosed, single-deck air conditioned one. A bus was pulling out as I got there, so my bus waited a while for more people to arrive… which didnt happen since very few people were entering the park at that hour, and we took off with only 3 passengers. (Also for an unknown reason, the other 2 passengers on the empty double accordion bus decided to sit right in front of me in the middle of the bus.)
It started raining, but it was a short sunshower. The bus makes a number of stops and each is described and announced in Portuguese and English – though it’s very hard to hear over the bus. I knew I was supposed to get off at the third stop, as the first two are for the optional activities (boats, safari, etc.), which I was saving for my longer day in Argentina. The third stop has the gorgeous Belmond do Cataratas hotel on one side and the entrance to the main trail on the other.
The trail was more crowded than I’d expected, as tour groups can go directly to the stop on tourbuses. I was stuck behind groups of Russians and indeterminate South Americans, all who were very intent on getting every picture they wanted everywhere they wanted. But the views looking onto the Argentine side were spectacular. It was still very hot though, and at the first kiosk en route I bought a Gatorade which I guzzled in one gulp, followed by a bottle of water.
From there, the hike continued down into Devil’s Throat, essentially in the middle of the falls. You get wet, but it’s beautiful and amazing (and I was wet anyway from sweat, and almost dry by the time I got back to the visitors center). There are a few more platforms that allow views of Devil’s Throat for some more photo ops. And I got an overpriced ice cream that cost almost as much as my lunch.
It really was breathtaking, though people made it less so. But isn’t that always the case. The whole trail is easily walkable, paved and with wide steps. I got back to the Visitors Center around 5:15, and I’m a fast walker. So if you’re going to do just the trail, I’d allow 2 hours.
I was completely beat by then after a long day with only 6 hours sleep, so I decided I deserved a taxi ride back to town. So I went to the ATM at the Visitors Center and of course my card was rejected, saying I needed to contact my bank, at each of the 4 ATMs on site. When I got back to town, after calling Charles Schwab, there turned out to be no issue with the card—just the ATMs. Unfortunately, I didn’t have enough Reaks or the taxi (I didn’t want to bother with the Argentine pesos and us dollars I had in my wallet, though I’m sure they would have worked one way or another.) But a bus came and I definitely had 3,40 reals for the bus. It was quicker on the return, with fewer stops, and I got off at a stop closer to my hotel, getting back at 6pm.
I had thought about going to Ciudad del Este in Paraguay (from talking to friends and investigating online it seemed you don’t really need a visa if you just walk across the bridge), if only to visit Paraguay. But I was tired and there really isn’t much to do there but see insane shopping. So instead I napped and showered, and then headed to dinner.
I was deciding between two restaurants near the hotel. One was buffet and one wasn’t, so I was leaning towards the latter – until I discovered it was not air conditioned. So the Churrasca Gaucho, a traditional churrascaria was it. It was supposedly the less touristy of the two churrascarias near my house. Not the most relaxing but it was traditional Brazilian, cheap, and something I hadn’t done in Brazil yet. The food was tasty, and I ate my 29 reals worth (8 dollars) of meat and then some.
I had a quiet night, catching up in emails and going to bed. One downside of the hotel was that the air conditioning only worked with the keycard in the door (and it had to be the specific key from that hotel), so it took a while for the room to cool down. But I slept through the night.
I woke up and it was a gray day. My plan was to go to the gym and then hit the included breakfast before taking a taxi over to the Argentine side of the park and dropping my bags at the Sheraton and dropping my bags, before heading into the Argentine side of the park. The fitness center was one of the odder fitness centers I’ve ever been to in that it seemed to have completely random equipment: very light hand weights, a leg extension machine, a pec fly, and 2 treadmills. Well, at least I tried.
Breakfast was in a huge dining area and very nicely presented. No pictures as I was trying (and failing) to charge my phone at the time. (Since there was no outlet in the bedroom, and the other outlets only worked when the key was in the slot by the door, so I had a complicated system of trying to charge my external battery when I was sleeping and in the room and then use it to charge my phone when I was out of the room.) Contentwise, though, it was pretty much a standard continental breakfast with just eggs and some traditional hot items. It did the trick though.
And then came the rain. And by rain I mean thunder lightning and hail. I wasn’t going to go for an international taxi ride in that weather, so I decided going back to bed was a good use of time. Plus, Argentina is an hour behind Brazil anyway. So around 11, I headed down to check out. Check out took a while, and then for some reason the bellman thought I needed a German speaking taxi driver, so he called one. Of course he was trilingual, but English wasn’t one of them. But Spanish worked, and it was a simple enough trip. I’m pretty sure I could’ve gotten by if he only spoke Portuguese. So finally at 11:15, I was on my first international taxi ride! Stay tuned for the details and a dispatch from the Argentinian side.