Top 10 Travel Stories #9: Iguazu Falls – Where It All Began

Dramatic, magnificent Iguazu
Dramatic, magnificent Iguazu: the Garganta del Diablo in the distance, with zodiac boats in the foreground

It is either ironic, or a higher power’s intention, that I should be faced with writing this entry with a heavy heart because it is about a time I felt such great joy—joy that is the last thing on my mind at the moment. So if I succeed in conveying to you a mere fraction of my highs at the time I experienced the majesty of Iguazu Falls, I will consider it a victory.

I had originally planned a day trip from Buenos Aires: going early in the morning and returning in the evening. Instead I missed my morning flight after a night out on the town with my hosts Michael and Natalia. I would have made it had I not forgotten my wallet on my bedside table and stepped out the auto-lock apartment door and shut it behind me. I knew what I had done the instant I heard the click, but it was too late. To steal a cliche, this turned out to be a blessing in disguise.

The waters near the Garganta del Diablo, biggest of the 270 waterfalls, are surprisingly calm
The waters near the Garganta del Diablo, biggest of the 270 waterfalls, are surprisingly calm
I rebooked my flight and had to pay up for business class on Aerolineas Argentinas, the national airline, in order to get to Iguazu that afternoon. I checked in at the Sheraton, the closest hotel to the falls on the Argentine side (there is also a Brazilian side–and Paraguayan, actually)  in the early evening. Too late to go to the falls that day and unwilling to go into the town itself, I watched a bit of TV and opened the balcony door, but kept the screen door shut to keep out the bugs. I left the door that way when I went to dinner, and when I returned, I walked into a cloud of midges. A large, black cloud. I crawled on the floor to get to my stuff and dragged it out of the room, it was that bad. It seems these midges are so small the screen door is useless. Although the hotel was full that night, through the SPG desk I managed to secure myself a new room. Thank goodness for that. My balcony door remained shut and locked until I left.
A zodiac boat heads for a dip under the falls
A zodiac boat heads for a dip under the falls
Early the next morning I set out for the falls under a glorious blue sky. Above me soared a lone toucan, easily identifiable by its beak—the first I’d ever seen in the wild—and put a smile on my face. I walked to the shuttle train bound for the main viewing platform of the biggest of the falls, the Garganta del Diablo (Devil’s Throat). On my way, I encountered the gregarious, raccoon-like coati hunting around for offerings from tourists who ignored the signs prohibiting the feeding of animals.
I disembarked from the train and walked along a remarkably modern, metallic boardwalk for about half a kilometer. As I approached, the waters were so calm and flat it was hard to imagine that one of the world’s three great waterfalls was so close. However, a low, ominous rumble gave away its presence. The platform was spectacular, sitting right on the edge of the horseshoe-shaped falls, the mist so powerful I was soaked instantaneously. When the wind shifted, the falls would reveal themselves ever so briefly before disappearing again behind a wall of spray.
The Garganta del Diablo
The Garganta del Diablo
I spent the next few hours exploring various different spots to take in the various views of the 270-odd distinct falls carving out their place in the magnificent, lush landscape. There are viewing platforms and paths everywhere, making the falls very accessible to everyone.
Condemned to walk the plank: Tourists about to board the zodiacs at Iguazu
Condemned to walk the plank: Tourists about to board the zodiacs at Iguazu
I then donned my full rain gear, top and bottom, and boarded a zodiac boat, and having observed where the action was from atop a hill, made sure to grab a seat on the port side bow (left, front in plain English!). My fellow passengers lined up on the steps leading down to the boat, red life vests on and full of trepidation, as if  they were being sentenced to walk the plank. Nearly all were underdressed, some shockingly so. Jeans and a blouse and nice shoes just seemed like a terrible choice even beforehand, and I wasn’t wrong!
The zodiac pulled up to the edge of one of the larger falls (but not the Garganta for obvious reasons) and stuck its nose in, port side first. I stood up, fully zipped up, and raised my arms into the air and screamed at the top of my lungs into the plunging water. The force of the falls was enough to keep me from being able to open my eyelids, and my shout of exultation was completely drowned out. Yet I kept on shouting, kept my clenched fists in the air like Rocky atop his steps.
Arms raised, in we go, my shoutout to being alive drowned out at Iguazu
Arms raised, in we go, my shoutout to being alive drowned out at Iguazu
It was the first time in my entire life that I felt what it was to be alive.
When I look back on that moment and why it unfolded the way it did, it’s clear to me now, but at the time it was as hard to see as the falls behind the mist. I had experienced some troubled times since my teenage years, and I’d gone off to Tokyo straight out of school (I defended my thesis in Vancouver on a Thursday and was at work in Tokyo on the following Tuesday, and I lost a day by flying to Asia to boot!). I was finally a little more worldly then, having traveled more throughout Asia, becoming a VP at a major bank at 24, thus having a lot of responsibilities for someone of my age and experience, and having friends and relationships with people all over the world. But my 14-country, 2-month, solo ‘Round-the-world trip was really the first time I discovered a lot about myself: who I am, where I came from, and what was important to me.  Until then, I had worked so hard at everything: my career, my education, my family, my relationships, overcoming difficult circumstances and tragedies, biases (I was a History major in a world of MBAs and Commerce Majors and Engineers)— essentially proving myself to everybody. My trip didn’t end with having found my purpose in life, or some other great epiphany. But it did push me down a different road: a road of self discovery, which continues today. I still don’t know my purpose in life, but I began to ask the right questions at that moment. And the first of them was: “Why had I never felt alive before, and what could I do to experience that feeling again?”
This is an overarching principle of what it means to me to be a “gentleman backpacker.”  The backpacker portion suggests a freeness of spirit, a willingness to take the unbeaten path. The gentleman aspect implies a desire to better oneself—and as it happens I am a man, but a “lady backpacker” would be a similar proposition. We seek not the meaning in life, but we seek to ask the questions that lead us closer to it, for to steal another cliche: it’s not about the destination; it’s the journey that counts.

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