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Smuggling Americans over the border

I don’t know if you’ve heard, but Brazil just recently implemented a new requirement whereby which Americans have to get fingerprinted and photographed at the border (since we are now making them, and everyone else applying for a visa, do the same upon entering America). On top of that, Americans need to pay $100 dollars to apply for a Brazilian visa (what we charge to apply for a visa in the US). You have to wait for a few days before getting your visa and then you’re golden – you can enter at will.

This was one of the reasons I didn’t get a chance to explore Brazil. Besides the fact that it’s huge and I would have to spend lots of time in buses (and not getting to know the country), it would set me back $100 bucks, so I opted to save it for another time. But…I still wanted to see the Iguazu Waterfalls from the Brazilian side of the country.

What are the Iguazu waterfalls, you may ask? Well, to start, they mark one of the coolest and most incredible things to see in South America. Nestled in a tropical rainforest, the waterfalls fall smack dab in the middle of the borders between Paraguay, Brazil and Argentina. The best viewing points are on the Brazilian side and the Argentinian side and you have to make special trips (and pay separate entry fees) to get to each. Each side has it’s unique attributes, as I had been told from other backpackers, and I really wanted to get a chance to see the falls from both vantage points.

But yeah…that whole visa thing. I didn’t have one. And I wasn’t going to apply for one. I had heard that sometimes they weren’t very strict with who they let cross (as long as you made it clear you were just going to see the falls for a few hours) but I had also heard that they turn people away occasionally. Was it worth the risk? Well, seeing as the bus ticket over the border cost me a whopping 45 cents – yeah, I think it would be worth trying.

So let’s back up a little bit. How did I get to Iguazu? Did anything interesting happen? I took a bus. And not really. (Why do you ask such stupid questions?). After exploring the Retiro area with Julio and bidding our goodbyes, I went back to the hostel and at some food – mentally preparing myself for the 18 hours of staring at some fat guy’s head in front of me that would invariably ensue shortly thereafter. I packed up my stuff, bought some food at the supermarket and began my journey to the bus station. It’s a pretty easy trip, seeing as there is a subway entrance right outside my hostel. But yeah, the heat. The damn heat. It was so incredibly hot that by the time I had carried my backpack into the subway, caught the train, got off, walked the short distance to the bus station and found the gate where my bus would eventually arrive – I was drenched in sweat. Completely drenched. I dug out a shirt from my bag and changed out of my wet one. Everyone watched. “God…he’s soooooo white!”, I could imagine them saying. Jealous. Of course, I only had to wait two more minutes to have drenched that shirt, as well, but not to the same degree. I hoped my bus would arrive soon. And it did.

I hopped on and took my seat on the second level up at the very front. Not too bad. I had room to rest my feet and I had the whole front window to look out. This wasn’t gonna be too bad. The really nice buses in South America are just that: really nice. They are two levels, with a bathroom, coffee machine, air conditioning for each seat, area to keep the meals warm (yes, there are meals – which are actually pretty tasty), TV’s every few rows for the movies (I ended up seeing 3 movies) and the chairs are really big and comfortable. I was in the “Coche cama” seat by myself (there is a column of single seats next to another column of double seats on the other side of the bus) which reclines back almost horizontally and had a thing that comes down for your feet to rest on (like a recliner leg rest). Although it’s still a pain to sleep in it, it’s still pretty nice. So yeah, I sat there for 18 hours listening to music, watching videos, eating and sleeping. But I didn’t sleep that well, as the conductor and his assistant kept talking unusually loudly the whole night and I could hear them over my earplugs, but I eventually got a few hours of sleep and woke up with the assistant guy poking me for breakfast. And then we arrived.

I was expecting it to be hotter, as that’s what everyone was telling me, but it wasn’t too bad. I got my stuff and hopped in a taxi to the hostel I had reserved the previous day – “Las Cabañas”. 5 pesos later I was there, checked in and getting my tour of the facilities. Not too shabby, I must say: they even had a pool. I asked the lady at the desk if I could go see the falls that day (I had my doubts as it was already 1:00 PM) and if so, how I would go about doing it. She informed me that there was a bus that came by the hostel and would take you to the bus station, where you could take another bus to the waterfalls.

But which side to go see first? Well, from all accounts, the Argentinian side was much better than the Brazilian side, and one should devote no less than 5-6 hours on the Argentine side, as opposed to maybe 2-3 to the Brazilian side. After doing the math, I decided that I could smuggle myself over the Brazilian border, see the falls and be back before the buses stopped. So I set off without any Brazilian currency and not knowing a lick of Portuguese. I got to the bus station, bought some food at the supermarket, and before I knew it, I was on my way to the border.

When we arrived, everyone got out and walked into the Border Control office. I nervously handed over my passport to the agent and told him that I was just going to be over for a few hours to see the falls. He nodded in approval and stamped my passport. I walked out and looked. Hmm…I have just been stamped out of Argentina. I got back on the bus and we took off. “No Brazilian office?”, I thought to myself? And then we stopped. Everyone looked around and I kind of looked towards the ground (God forbid some guy sees that an American is sneaking across). And then the bus started back up and we continued on – and I was in Brazil.

“That was easy…”, I thought as I waited for another surprise. But as it turned out, I was in the clear. I made it. Hell yeah! I examined Brazil from my window.

Portuese is very similar to Spanish and I could understand most of the signs and billboards as we passed by them. Everything else though looked a lot like Bolivia, actually. It was interesting. And before I knew it, we were at the bus station and I hopped out, looking for a bus to the waterfalls. I was approached by a guy who spoke perfect English and he told me everything I had to do.

“You pay here, and hop on bus 120, and then your there. Easy as that”, he told me.

“Wow…you speak perfect English! Did you study in the US?”

“Yeah, I spent a few years there. Hacienda Heights”.

He even knew where Riverside was. That’s a first. So I hopped on the bus and took my seat and this pretty cute Brazilian girl in exercise clothes came and sat next to me. She spoke portañol (portugues + español – which is almost a new language in itself) and we could both understand each other more or less. She was a Arabic music dancer and gave me a brochure on which she then wrote her email.

“Are you going to be staying here? Where? You should come out with me! Ah, only a few hours in Brazil, eh? Hm, well, we can still talk on email!”

Yeah babe, sorry. Your not gonna get into America that easy. I was reminded of Omar in Bolivia (Omar Spechar) who told me that I should just go into a club with my passport and wave it around.

“Dude, you’re sure to get laid.”

Such power.

So anyways, we said goodbye and I was soon at the waterfalls. I paid my $20 pesos and started exploring the park. I walked along the catwalks and explored the various viewing points of the falls. It was pretty cool, but nothing spectacular. Or at least, not what it had been hyped up to be. On the Brazil side, you get to see everything from a distance – in a panoramic sense. It’s not very intimate and you get really ripped off in the exchange rate if your paying in Argentinian pesos. It was also insanely hot and humid. I couldn’t believe it. I wanted to just die. Well, not die, but at least get to a room with air conditioning. I saw everything there was to see, then hopped on the bus back to base of the park. Then caught the bus back to the bus station and then walked around looking for the bus to get back to Argentina. A guy told me it had just left and another would come in about 40 minutes. So I sat and waited with a French couple and before I knew it, we were on the bus back to Puerto Iguazu. I was exhausted and had to fight to keep from falling asleep. I made it back, checked my email, got something to eat and went back to the hostel. I slept really really well.

I woke up early (7:00 AM) though to see the falls on the Argentina side. I went to bed at 12:00 so I was running on little sleep, plus the little rest I got from the bus trip, but I was sure I could do it. I got breakfast and then headed to the bus station. I was able to get a ticket back to Buenos Aires for that very day (after getting back to the falls) so I was happy that I wouldn’t have to waste an extra day (and pay another 23 pesos for the night) in Iguazu. I bought some food and was on my way to the waterfalls.

The Argentina side was much more nature based, so it seemed. They had a lot of trails to explore, where you could see wild animals (this whole thing, is in the middle of a rainforest, after all) and a train that would take you to the different viewing points around the falls. I spent the day wandering around in awe. Yes sir, the Argentina side was definitely better than the Brazilian side. It was incredible. Many more waterfalls to see up close and there was even an island to which you could catch a free boat. The views were spectacular and the whole thing was finished off with a trip to the top of the waterfalls to see “La Garganta del Diablo”, which is where a bunch of falls all crash into each other in an dazzling display of force and energy. I really don’t think the pictures I took do justice, but check them out. They are incredible. I even have a video which is definitely worth checking out.

After looking at my watch and realizing I had to go, I hopped on the train back to the base of the park. A butterfly accompanied me for about 25 minutes while it licked my backpack (don’t ask me why). It was pretty funny. And yes, butterflies do lick.

At the entrance of the park, I waited for the bus and met an Australian girl named Bill who was just finishing a year long trip through Europe, Cuba and South America. We chatted about our travels and I realized…I’m six months into my trip and it seems like it’s been a week. I’m going to be in her place in another year and a half, which although is kind of a lot, but if it goes as fast as these 6 months have gone by, will be gone before I know it. And she had a boy’s name and I have a girl’s name. The similarities were uncanny.

So anyways, we said goodbye, I went to the hostel, took a shower, bought some food for the bus trip and sat around at the bus terminal waiting for my bus. A really cute girl came and sat really close to me, which was strange, seeing as she had been sitting next to her friend across the way before that. Her friend watched and smiled. I guess I was expected to talk to her. And I did. She was from Holland and we chatted about South America and what we were doing for about 5 minutes. But she was leaving for Brazil. And me? Buenos Aires. Our respective buses arrived and we said goodbye. Too bad. She, I don’t think, wasn’t after my passport. It would have been cool to get to know her better.

And so after another 18 hours in a bus, next to the toilette (god it smelled so bad), I am back in Buenos Aires. I got an email from Simon (who I met in Bolivia) and he and his girlfriend are renting a car in New Zealand and they invited me to come. Sounds good to me.

The agenda for tomorrow? A quick stop over to Uruguay and then back to Buenos Aires. This too sounds good to me. Or maybe I’ll save that for the next day. I don’t know. The important thing, however, is that I go take a shower right now. I stink.