The Patter of Tiny Feet, Marching As to War

Trip Start Nov 16, 2007
Trip End Aug 2008

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Flag of Paraguay  ,
Sunday, November 25, 2007

The sheer scale of Brazil and South America doesn´t hit you until you travel through the vast wilderness that separates cities, only broken up by countless tiny farming towns and villages. The Parana is one of the more populated regions, but even there you may pass through many valleys before seeing any signs of human life. Grass covered hills and valleys have replaced the previous coastal rainforest, which is now 6% of its former size, a far larger percentage drop than the Amazon. Conservation of the remaining chunks appears committed, but any resurrection seems unlikely.

After 16 hours or so, we arrived at Foz do Iguaçu on the border with Paraguay and Argentina. A small city which acts as both a conduit for trade and a tourism mecca. On its doorstep lie the two great features of south west Brazil, both dependent on the mighty Parana river; the Iguaçu Falls (Cataratas) and the Itaipu dam.

First up I headed for the Argentine side of the falls. It is a short bus ride to Puerto Iguaçu. The local services are set up to handle the regular crossings with everyone jumping on and off the equivalent of the 29 bus to get their appropriate stamps. Another bus then takes you the 20km to the falls themselves. Located in a protection zone for the remaining rainforest, a small train takes you to the beginning of a series of catwalks over the various riverlets leading into the falls.

After a series of relatively gentle rapids and eddies, you are suddenly standing over a 100m drop, with water plummeting towards the bubbling cauldron beneath. As far as the eye can see there are waterfalls of all sizes and heights, and at multiple levels. On the catwalk you are standing by the largest, Garganta del Diablo (the Devil´s throat).

As you proceed round the rest of the park, you get many chances to see the rest of the falls from different heights and distances. At times you are drenched by the spray, which was quite a relief given the 40C heat on this day. Everywhere you look there are rainbows created by the perpetual mist and the constant roar fills you ears.

The rest of the park continues in this way, also giving you an opportunity to see many of the animals and plants that call the jungle home. After finishing the routes, I went back to town and had some dinner at one of the anonymous Rodizio joints that fill the border towns.

The next day I visited the Itaipu dam and the Brazilian side of the falls. Itaipu Binacional is an international partnership between Paraguay and Brazil to build a dam over the Parana river and use it to generate electricity for the two countries. Work began in the mid-70s, construction of the dam was completed in the early 90s, with the final generator going online earlier this year. The tour starts with a 30 mins description of the project`s history and the good work they are doing for the region. They fail to mention the $25bn price tag, but it does seem a grand solution to the diminishing `traditional´ power supplies. Currently the dam produces almost all of Paraguay´s electricity and around 25% of Brazil´s.

The bus ride over the dam itself is the highlight. More than 8 km of concrete and rock banks make for an inspiring sight and the lake formed behind stretching for over 150 km takes the breath away.It is so large, you can clearly see the curvature of the Earth, with only the wind to whip up little choppy waves.

I returned to Foz, and caught the bus out to the Brazilian side of the falls. Again the view is incredible, but without the close contact of the Argentine side. At a distance you do get a better idea of the scale, especially an elevated platform which allows you to see the falls in their entirety. It is definitely worth seeing the falls from both sides if you get the chance.

Time to move again, this time over the border into Paraguay. After negotiating the disaster zone that is Ciudad del Este (imagine Tottenham Court Road shops making up every part of a small city, crammed into any space available), I headed for the capital of Asuncion. The countryside of Paraguay is similar to that in Brazil, however the wealth is obviously not there. No tractor dealerships or 4WD showrooms, just little towns providing basic services to the surrounding farms. The bus stops every so often to let people on and off, some vending bread or drinks, some carrying livestock.

At first glance, Asuncion is no different to any of the towns. As you pass through the endless clumps of semi-rural brick and corrugated iron dwellings, you see how most of the 1.2 m inhabitants live. It is only in the central couple of km that the built up heart and government buildings start. Nothing big or grand like Rio, Sao or even Foz, just small, colonial style buildings, most with a number of soldiers standing outside.

The hotel was pleasant enough and ridiculously cheap like everything in Paraguay. After a good meal (steak again, there really is no escaping it) I turn in with the ever present rumble of the beloved Paraguayan  car and truck.

Wandering round the compact centre, there really isn´t much there apart from a very grand Governor´s mansion, the former home of one of the despotic and insane dictators. The cathedral is small and quite charming. Mass is in full swing on a Sunday and the place is packed. I wander up to the Monument to the Heroes, a grand white monument which houses the tombs of the aforementioned crazed dictators who shaped much of Paraguay´s history. Also included is the `Tomb of the Unknown Child Soldiers´, a monument to when children as young as 12, often only armed with farming implements, were drafted into a war with Brazil, Argentina and Uruguay which Paraguay started! By the end, the population had halved and only a quarter were men. An uneventful evening, only broken by screaming school children. Off to Argentina next.

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