Buenos Aires and Iguazu Falls

story and photos by Carrie Toomey

A  few days after Christmas last year, I settled down for the over-eleven-hour direct Air Canada flight to Buenos Aires.   It’s a long flight, but it’s good not to have to change anywhere.   I was setting out to meet my husband, who would be getting off Holland America’s cruise ship Amsterdam, upon which he had been acting as the Ice Pilot.

I had obtained some Argentinian money at Toronto’s Pearson airport ‘just in case’, but on arrival I found plenty of ATMs and also booths where English was spoken.  A taxi shuttle service cost 115 pesos (about C$33) for a long ride into town and convenient delivery right to the door of the Hotel Colon.  I had booked the room via Travelocity at a price of C$96.72 per night and found that price unbeatable.  The Hotel Colon is a pleasant property situated just a block from the Obelisk, which is the centre of Buenos Aires.  The hotel is comfortable and an extensive buffet breakfast was included.  I had a rather quirky corner room overlooking Avenida Julio 9 with windows on two sides and an excellent large bathroom.

My husband wouldn’t be arriving until the following day, but as I had been in Buenos Aires before and feel very comfortable there, I went out for a walk and dined by myself.  The city looks prosperous, although the downtown pedestrian area is constantly under repair with holes, pieces missing, partial repairs and sidewalks patched with earth and broken concrete.  And there are children and adults trying to sell small objects by placing the items on your table if you are sitting outside at a café.  If you ignore them the item is later removed.  I was very amused by one boy who spent his waiting time looking at himself in the bar mirror of one café.  Once my husband arrived on the following day, we set off walking around the downtown area looking for a travel agent.  We had already booked our Iguazu Falls adventure but wished to add a day trip to Colonia del Sacremento, in Uruguay, when we returned from the Falls.  As it was 30 December, the sidewalks and trees were littered with torn paper showering down from office buildings in a constant white blizzard.  The tradition is that old papers are jettisoned to make room for the new in the coming year and I have to admit the small white pieces of paper showering down looked almost as pretty as snow!

A lighthouse built on the foundation of an old church, Colonia del Sacramento, Uruguay

We found a travel agent and booked our trip for 7 January, opting for the fast ferry (rapido) at a cost of 310 pesos (C$90.50) each which included a walking tour and lunch.  We were asked to pay cash and needed our passport numbers.

We then enjoyed a few more days in Buenos Aires, spending them exploring the city both on foot and using the metro which is easy to use and cheap … only 90 centaves (26¢) per trip.  We visited the Botanical Gardens, walked in the parks, looked at statues (including one of Little Red Riding Hood with a very benign-looking wolf), found marvelous eateries – restaurants and workmen’s cafes – all of which served excellent food.  Everywhere we went the food was good.  We also discovered a few internet cafes where the staff were helpful and the price of 2.25 pesos for half an hours very reasonable.     At no time were we concerned about our safety and we found using a small Spanish phrase book a great help.

We had booked our Iguazu Falls adventure through Buenos Aires Private Tours, www.baprivatetours.com, dealing with Esteban Buffagni at [email protected]  He had booked our flights through Caracol to and from Iguazu, three nights in the Hotel Cataratas with breakfast, and the shuttle between Iguazu Airport and the hotel, all at a cost of US$750.  Rather expensive, but worth every penny.

Everything went very smoothly.  The two-hour flight was with Aerolineas Argentinas and a van was waiting at the airport to take us to the hotel.  The Hotel Cataratas was an excellent choice: a large property with big, comfortable rooms and bathrooms, a swimming pool, exercise area, free computer terminals and a small, sweet-tempered dog who seemed to be a ‘resident stay’ who made no attempt to enter the hotel and was tolerated and petted by tourists and taxi drivers alike.  There are horses for hire close by, but I wandered on foot up a dirt road looking at the countryside and a house or two.  There is also a 1 km forest walk on the property, where we spied an elusive huge blue butterfly and other smaller species.

We signed up for two tours, the first to the Brazilian side of the falls which I would highly recommend.  The guide deals with all the border formalities and there were two stops on the way … one to an amazing chocolate emporium and another for an excellent barbecue lunch (an extra 30 pesos or about C$9 each).  However, the guided tour to the Argentinian side is totally unnecessary as the guide’s role seems to be merely shepherding people around with no real guiding required at all.  It is very easy to take a taxi or bus to the Iguazu Falls Park (admission 60 pesos) and wander at will.  Trails are well sign-posted with notices urging tourists to stay on the paths and the snakes to stay in the bush!  There’s a Sheraton Hotel actually in the Park, which would also be a good choice of accommodation.

What can one say about these Falls, all 275 of them spread over several miles?  They are amazing and awesome from both the Brazilian and Argentinian sides.  On the Argentinian side there is a long metal walkway out to the top of the falls, leading to the Garganta del Diablo or Devil’s Throat.  There are far more tourists here than on the Brazilian walkways which are at a lower level and consequently a lot wetter. The lush green surrounding forest provides a beautiful setting for what seem like the endless falls.  Swallows dart, black vultures circle overhead, a cayman lay quietly and inquisitive coati mundis come out of the woods to inspect people walking by, not doubt hoping for something extra to eat.

Having decided that being guided on the Argentinian side was totally unnecessary, we went for lunch at a restaurant in the Park and then continued exploring on our own,  There are some souvenir shops inside the Park close to the entry gates and several gem stores, while independent entrepreneurs had items spread on blankets on the ground beside the gate.

Our days at the Falls had been wonderful, but all too soon we found ourselves back at the airport, where we had to listen carefully as the announcements were in Spanish only. As we flew away, it was fascinating looking down on the forests, red ochre tracks, fields and the smoke from the burning of old crops.

Back in Buenos Aires we waited in line for one of the yellow and black taxis which swarm all over the city.  However, when our turn came we found ourselves faced with a much older taxi driven by a short-sighted woman who spoken no English at all and didn’t know the hotel. The trunk and front passenger door didn’t open, so our luggage had to be pushed through an open window, seat belts didn’t exist but the benefit was that the woman drove slowly, allowing us time to thumb through our phrase book and give directions to our hotel … the Gran Hotel Argentino this time.

The hotel was adequate once the air conditioning got going and once we were settled in we set out for the harbour area, Puerto Madero.  All the old warehouses there have been renovated and made into expensive restaurants and coffee shops, but we were delighted to find two old museum ships in the harbour – the frigate Uruguay with free entry, all beautiful old wood, brass and copper, plus the President Sarmiento which cost only 2 pesos to board.  Both are well worth a visit, as is the whole area.

Puerto Madero, Buenos Aires, and the museum ship Uruguay

The following day we took a taxi to the Buquebus, the fast 40-minute ferry across the Rio de la Plata to Colonia del Sacremento in Uruguay, now a UNESCO World Heritage site.   Upon arrival a bus awaited us with an English-speaking guide.  We spent the morning enjoying a walking tour around the old town – or Barrio Historic – with its cobbled streets, old houses and a lighthouse built on the base of an old church.  In the middle of our walking tour we paused for an excellent buffet lunch at the Restaurant Lo de Renata, part of the Hotel Esperanza.

The town was fought over by the Spanish and Portuguese for many years and has a fascinating history.  There are several museums and interesting shops in the area, and we made sure we purchased a couple of bottles of the local Tannat wine, which is unique to Uruguay, before we left on the fast ferry back to Buenos Aires and our last night.

The whole trip was delightful and I would certainly recommend using Air Canada’s direct flight, pre-booking the Iguazu Falls trip through B.A. Private Tours and Hotel Catgaratas, plus the Hotel Colon in Buenos Aires through Travelo-city and taking the side trip to Colonia del Sacramento. Exploring Buenos Aires is really easy and only on Avenida Florida does one have to contend with crowds and be more careful of personal pro-perty.  There’s plenty to see and do and a full range of excellent eating places.  Altogether a lovely trip.