When you have a waterfall that borders three countries, it's not surprising they can't even agree on how to spell it. Just remember that the stress is on the final syllable...
Visiting Iguazu was a very late addition to my Grand Tour. I was supposed to be making two trips, one to the Galápagos Islands and the other to Antarctica, but a travel agent suggested I link everything together, so that's what I did. My final itinerary was therefore London - Miami - Quito - Galápagos - Quito - Lima - Buenos Aires - Ushuaia - Falklands - South Georgia - Antarctica - Ushuaia - Buenos Aires - São Paulo - London. Phew...!
Iguazu is the first airport I've ever landed at without knowing which country I was in! Iguazu Falls are in Paraguay, Argentina and Brazil, andeach country has built a separate airport on its own side of the border. Welcome to South America...
My guide Felix picked me up from the airport and took me to the San Martin hotel, explaining how I could get to the falls along the way.
Room service was limited to four sandwiches I could get in London, so I had dinner in the restaurant, hoping to taste one of the famous Argentine steaks that are supposed to be so tender. It would make a nice change after a week of buffets in the Galapagos! I ordered the filet mignon in puff pastry and a glass of cab sav, but the steak was disappointing. Maybe it was from Brazil rather than Argentina - after all, the hotel was at least a couple of hundred yards from the border! It became slightly less disappointing when I looked up the exchange rate and found that, even though I'd chosen the most expensive thing on the menu, it still cost less than a tenner!
The next day, I woke up early (as I always do), had breakfast and walked up the road to see the dawn sky, which was spectacular. Felix and the hotel disagreed on the park opening times, but there was no sign...obviously!
My plan was to take a helicopter ride over the falls, then walk round and perhaps take the boat ride or go to the bird sanctuary in the afternoon, but the it was quite cloudy, so I took the shuttle bus to the falls instead. They say 'Argentina puts on the show and Brazil enjoys the view', and it was certainly exhilarating to walk down and see the falls for the very first time. After that, it was just a case of trying to take the best possible pictures I could. It was quite quiet early on, so I took my time. The only problem was my equipment. I was trying to slow down my shutter speed to make the water smooth and creamy, but I'd stupidly left my Big Stopper neutral density filter at home, and my polarising filter wasn't dark enough - even before it got soaked by the spray! I was so focused on the Galapagos and the Antarctic that I just hadn't thought about what I'd need at Iguazu. Too bad...
Anyway, I finished the prescribed route and - despite an annoying park ranger trying to move me on as it got busier - I managed to take a few good shots.
By this time, the sun was shining, so I took the shuttle bus back to the entrance and went to the helicopter booking office. I arrived just as a tour bus spilled out seven tourists, and I was just too late to get in before the tour guide. However, they needed a singleton to fill the very next chopper, so I didn't have to wait more than five minutes. It was $100 for a nine-minute flight over the falls. We didn't get very low, and it was so short I almost decided to go up again straight away, but it wasn't a bad place to take my very first trip in a helicopter! A staff member had told me I wasn't allowed to take pictures out of the window, but the pilot was on the other side of the cockpit, and he didn't say anything when I opened the window and started shooting. What the eye doesn't see, the heart doesn't grieve over. I was slightly disappointed in my photos, but I guess that's what you have to put up with when you have no communication with the pilot or control over the flight path.
Afterwards, I was given the usual sales spiel to try and persuade me to buy a commemorative DVD. Normally, I'd have walked straight past, but I know some of my friends want to see pictures of me, so I shelled out the extra $100 and bought a copy. It was only when I watched it later that I realised the video only covered the passengers getting into the helicopter - there was no footage from over the falls at all! Hey ho...
It was now one o'clock, and I abandoned the plan to take the boat ride. I wasn't sure if get the chance to take many pictures with so much spray at the foot of the falls, and I didn't rate my chances of getting any decent shots with my waterproof camera, so I went across the road to a bird park I'd seen on the way in. It was quite a big place, and it took a good few hours to go round. They had the usual cages, of course, which are tricky for a photographer, but the wire mesh was wide enough for me to take pictures with my lens right up against it, and there were even a few walk-through aviaries, which were just perfect. The birds were very tame, and they were almost as happy to pose for me as the marine iguanas and sea lions in the Galapagos. I particularly liked this shot of a Chilean flamingo:
I did get attacked a couple of times by a couple of rather territorial parrots and toucans, but it was a small price to pay for such a collection of exotic birds and butterflies. The highlight was the butterfly house, where I spent a good couple of hours trying to capture hummingbirds in flight. Apart from dragonflies, they must be the hardest things to take a picture of, as they're constantly moving about. You hardly have time for the autofocus to work before the bird has zipped off somewhere else and disappeared from the viewfinder. I did manage one shot of a black jacobin hummingbird, but the beautiful iridescent green one was beyond me - except when it was perched in a tree, which is not the same at all!
It was thirsty work in the heat, so I stopped at the café half-way through for a fruit juice to quench my thirst. That was where I noticed a few amusing 'Branglish' signs, such as the one that said 'You're half way trough'! Many a true word is spoken in jest...
At around five, the sun went in and the light was too dim to use low enough ISO settings, so I walked back to the hotel and ordered a beer at the bar. Nothing like a pint of Skol and room service after a hard day's shooting!
The next day, I woke up early to work on my pictures and then went to the aviary again. I only had a couple of hours, so I rushed round in an effort to spend a bit more time with the hummingbirds. They were still too jumpy for me, so I walked back to my hotel and packed my bags.
Felix was due to arrive at 11 o'clock to take me to the Argentine side of the falls. Sure enough, he arrived outside on time and took me to the border. He then asked for my passport and disappeared into the office for a couple of minutes to sort out my passage across the border from Brazil. All I had to do was wait in the car! It was the easiest border crossing I've ever had. We did the same on the Argentine side just down the road, and then it was only a few minutes to the national park.
The actual falls are mostly on the Argentine side of the border, which means you rarely see the foot of any of the cataracts. However, it also means that you're a lot closer, so, when you do get to a point that has a full view of one of the waterfalls, you get a much better viewpoint. Felix was a very patient guide, and he'd been to the falls so many times that he just waited for me at the exit to each viewing platform. To be honest, it doesn't take long to take pictures of a waterfall when you've been advised that it's such a long hike that you can't take your tripod (!), so I thought we were making good time. Felix even asked if I wanted a snack and a drink at one of the cafés. While I ordered a chicken sandwich and sat down at one of the tables, he left me to go and get 'some beans'. Unfortunately, he took so long that I started to get worried. I had a flight to catch, so I checked my watch. Oh, my God! It was only 90 minutes before my flight, and we still had to walk back to the car and drive to the airport! I thought guides were supposed to manage that kind of thing. I sent him a text and tried to call him, but his phone didn't work in Argentina! When he finally came back, I asked him what time we needed to get to the airport. "Two hours before." What?! We were in trouble. All I can think is that he must have got his time zones confused when we crossed the border, although he wouldn't admit it - and he obviously refused to apologise... The speed bumps on the main road to the airport didn't help, and nor did the fact that the airline's system went down, which meant that they had to do everything manually! Fortunately, the flight was delayed by 50 minutes, so I was safe. I chatted to a couple of other passengers in the check-in queue, as the scheduled flight time ticked past, and all I could say was: welcome to South America!