Getting a Brazilian visa in Puerto Iguazú

This is an especially boring advice post, even by my standards, but I’m putting it up in the hope it saves someone some trouble figuring out what they need to do in order to travel to Brazil – or, better yet, that it convinces someone that actually it’s not so hard to get the visa which would allow them to include Brazil on their South American tour after all.  Unfortunately, that means it’ll be largely useless and uninteresting to most people.  C’est la vie.

Another Iguazú Falls photo.  Just because.

Another Iguazú Falls photo. Just because.

Brazil is one of only two countries on this entire round-the-world trip for which my passport has needed a visa stuck in it before I turned up to immigration.  Brazil doesn’t work that way for many passports – for example if I’d managed to get around to realising that I’m theoretically entitled to a New Zealand one many years ago, instead of, say, in the middle of last December, then I would never have needed to discover the information below, since I would have been waltzing across the border visa- (and fee-) free.

But for us Aussies, as for the Canadians and Yanks out there (and obviously some other countries as well), a pre-arranged visa is required.  This is slightly annoying, as a quick bout of Googling will reveal that Brazilian embassies around the world (much like their population in general) do not have a fantastic reputation for getting the necessaries done quick-smart.

My initial expectation was that I should try to organise the visa while back in Australia last December – but the timeframes didn’t really seem likely to work out given that I was already replacing my passport at the time, and given that Christmas holidays were involved.  I don’t know whether Brazilians are big on Christmas or not, but I kind of assume that the existence of any sort of holiday period is unlikely to encourage speed and diligence.

So instead I got my Brazilian visa in Argentina.  I expected that this would be easiest to do in Buenos Aires – the point of my bothering with this post, though, is that that expectation turned out to be wrong.  Much easier – at least in my case – to sort it out in Puerto Iguazú.

Apparently the Consulate-General in Buenos Aires is actually not bad for visa turnarounds:  two to four days, instead of the multiple weeks typical of embassies elsewhere in the world.  But as it happened, there was a public holiday in the way when we would be in Argentina’s capital, so I looked for other options.  Thus to the rescue the embassy in Puerto Iguazú, which turned out to be faster in any case, and also happens to have a reputation for involving a bit less hassle.

(If nothing else, getting a visa from Buenos Aires is more hassle because you have to have an appointment to go submit your documents.  There’s a nice handy online appointment tool to schedule this for you, thankfully, but it has a minor drawback:  it flat-out doesn’t work.  To get yourself an appointment, phone or email the Consulate-General.)

Obviously I’m not the authoritative source for what’s required when you apply for your visa – you can find what the Brazilian government says about the matter here.  But in addition to the filled-out and signed form, the 2”x2” passport photo, the proof of travel to/from Brazil (telling them I planned take a taxi or bus from Puerto Iguazú seemed sufficient for “proof of travel to” in my case), proof of a hotel/hostel reservation, bank statement from the last ninety days, photocopy of a credit card and fee in exact change, be aware that you will be required to provide a phone number at which you can theoretically be contacted while your visa is processed, or they will turn you away.  So I suggest you bring the phone number of your hotel or hostel’s front desk.

The Puerto Iguazú embassy is at Avenida Córdoba #264, and it opens at 8am in the morning each weekday.  Get in early – right when it opens, if not before, to get in line.  They only accept applications in the morning, apparently;  you can’t turn up even at 1pm to try to get yourself sorted out.  Once you drop off your application and passport, you’ll still have plenty of time to visit the Argentine side of the Falls for the day, before you enjoy a relaxed final evening in Argentina and then return to pick up your visa whenever you’re told to return (sometime the next morning).  Then cross the border, visit the Falls from the other side, and head on into Brazil.

Easy.

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Iguazú Falls

The Iguazú Falls, seen from near the boat launch on the Argentine side

The Iguazú Falls. Devil’s Throat on the left, Isla San Martin in the middle-right, and some other miscellaneous cascades on the right.

According to this perhaps disturbingly inevitable Wikipedia page, the Iguazú Falls are the third biggest non-submerged waterfall by mean annual flow rate.

(In case you, like me, are wondering “what the hell is a submerged waterfall anyway?!”, from what I can tell it means “it used to be a waterfall but then we built a lake over it, so actually it’s not in any way a waterfall any more, but I just want to put it on this here list of waterfalls on Wikipedia because it makes me feel clever”.  Mystery solved.)

More to the point, as far as lists people care about, there are three truly great waterfalls that seem to pop up on people’s lists of must-see sites around the world.  Niagara Falls, between Canada and the US (duh);  Iguazú Falls, between Brazil and Argentina;  and Victoria Falls, between Zimbabwe and Zambia.  Weird – it’d never occurred to me before that they’re all on country borders.  Guess the fact that they’re all necessarily on decent-sized rivers kind of makes that reasonably more likely.

Anyway, regardless of how the lists all stack up, you have to admit once you’re actually at Iguazú:  there is a serious amount of water tumbling over those cliffs, and it’s fascinating and worth the effort to go see.  Even if it is a slightly unfortunate poo-brown sort of colour.  (That, I’m assured, is entirely due to sediment and not do to any unsanitary conditions upstream.  Apparently a decade or so ago it was quite different, and the water quite clear and blue and pretty.)

Quite a lot of water in this picture, no?  Especially given that this picture doesn’t even include the main part of the falls – the Devil’s Throat.

Quite a lot of water in this picture, no? Especially given that this picture doesn’t even include the main part of the falls – the Devil’s Throat.

So, a visit to Iguazú Falls is one of the staples of many a trip to South America, and we figured that as soon as we were done wandering around Patagonia, we’d head on up, on our way into Brazil.

And thus it was that we found ourselves spending a couple of days – one on each side of the border – wandering around the various vantage points to get a good thorough look at this truly stupendous barrage of falling water.  (Again we were incredibly lucky with the weather:  the two days that we visited the Falls were largely blue skies and sunshine, with just enough clouds to take the heat out and to make for some more interesting skies in our pretty photos.  The day in between – the day I picked up my visa and we crossed the border – it rained.)

There are lots of recommendations plastered all over the internet telling you which side you should see first, and how you should do this bit and then that bit and get the best photos from over there.  Personally, I don’t think it matters much.  We did the Argentinian side first because we were coming from Buenos Aires and heading into Brazil after – and also because it was while I was waiting for the local embassy to process my Brazilian visa.

The Falls from the Brazilian side – the Devil’s Throat is in amongst the spray in the middle

The Falls from the Brazilian side – the Devil’s Throat is in amongst the spray in the middle …

The Brazilian side gets you a better overview of the Devil’s Throat – the biggest, most impressive part of the falls.  I guess if pressed I’d say the Brazilian side’s better, and if you’ve only got time to see one, see that one.  But the Brazilian side consists of only a single path running up to the Devil’s Throat, so you don’t get quite so much variety.  (And of course it’s that much more maddening because a single path is that much easier for the inconsiderate hoards of large – both as in numerous and as in obese – tourist groups to block!)  The Argentinian side lets you get up a lot closer, and has you wandering past a lot of the smaller cascades nearby where the river has split off to find a variety of different paths from top to bottom.

The Falls from the Brazilian side – the Devil’s Throat is in amongst the spray off to the left

… of course, it’s difficult to get a good sense of that from photographs, because as you get anywhere near the Devil’s Throat there’s just too much spray to see clearly from a camera.

From both sides, though, you can see perhaps the Falls’ most impressive feature:  the incredible amount of spray it throws up.  And you can marvel at the pretty rainbows everywhere that the constant presence of temporarily airborne water droplets creates.

Tada!  Rainbows!

Tada! Rainbows!

Both sides do boat trips to get you right up to the bottom of some of the cascades – we did the one from the Argentinian side, having heard it was a little better.  It was an entertaining ride, and you do get to see quite a different angle on the Falls from the water, but the point seemed more to get you as drenched as possible by the spray than to get the best view:  basically it consisted of the boat driver shoving the boat right up as close to the bottom of a couple of different falls as he could.  Gotta admit, the guy’s got a pretty fun job!

An overview of all of the Iguazú Falls from a helicopter

An overview of all of the Iguazú Falls from a helicopter. The Devil’s Throat is to the left, largely obscured by all the spray that it kicks up into the sky and into clouds. Yup, everything from the middle of the photo on over to the right is basically a pretty sideshow. Impressive, no?

The highlight of the whole experience, though, was the helicopter ride from the Brazilian side.  It was short – only around ten minutes – and expensive, at roughly a hundred US dollars each.  But it gives you by far the best vantage point of all to see the whole of the Falls at once.  And probably the most amazing aspect:  seeing how the spectacular mist cloud that the Devil’s Throat throws up into the air is actually a big enough generator of water droplets in the air that it powers a permanent cloud formation over the Falls.  We loved the whole experience, and so did the friendly American couple we’d met on the bus out to the Falls and convinced to join us for the ride.

Devil’s Throat as seen from a helicopter, generating its own clouds

Devil’s Throat as seen from a helicopter, generating its own clouds

Some other minor recommendations if you’re going:

  • Both sides are easy to get to on local buses from the towns on each side of the border (Puerto Iguazú on the Argentinian side and Foz do Iguaçu on the Brazilian side).  There’s really no need to take an organized tour to get you there.  Nor, for that matter, do you need a guide once you’re there.  If you can’t figure out what it is that you’re looking at when standing in front of a giant waterfall, well, I can’t imagine there’s much that a guide can tell you that would help solve that particular problem.
  • The Argentinian side has the Inferior Circuit, the Superior Circuit, and the path to the Devil’s Throat – you can easily wander them all and have plenty of time to spare in the day.  There’s a train to get to the Devil’s Throat, and it goes about every twenty minutes and often has a long line.  Or you can just walk beside the train tracks, taking about twenty minutes and therefore quite possibly beating those waiting in line.  At the very least, you’ll probably not arrive at the other end at the same time as a hundred or so of your closest friends, so I’d recommend walking.
  • Speaking of the Devil’s Throat and the train, the last train out there goes a while before the park closes, at some time which I can’t remember but which is clearly marked at the train stop.  If you go out there around that time, apparently there are vastly fewer other tourists around.  Given that there’s quite a crush out there most of the time (I’m told), I’d recommend doing that so long as the weather looks like it’ll hold.
  • There’s a path out to another, smaller cascade on the Argentinian side:  the path is the Macuco Trail, and the cascade Salto Arrechea.  Much to our annoyance, we discovered at around 3.30pm that they won’t let you start wandering out there after 3pm, on the theory that you wouldn’t be back before the park closes.  But when we subsequently spied Salto Arrechea from the Brazilian side a couple of days later, I really don’t think we missed much by not doing that trail.
  • There’s a restaurant out the end of the Brazilian side with an all-you-can-eat buffet lunch which is actually really good.  The waiter told me the price was R$45, but when we then hesitated a bit and answered ‘no’ when he asked if we had a guide, he offered it to us for R$38.  It was actually really good, and I guarantee I ate my R$38 worth!
  • On the Argentinian side, there’s also a Bird Park near the entrance to the Falls.  Here, for a not too ridiculous entry fee, you too can wander through and take way, way too many photos of toucans and macaws.  I’m told it’s not worth bothering to visit if you’re going to be heading out to the Pantanal anyway, since you’ll see all the birds in their natural habitat out there.  But if, like us, you don’t have time to visit that area of Brazil, this is a pretty reasonable alternative.
A toucan in the Bird Park, looking remarkably like it just got out of bed and isn’t happy about it!

A toucan in the Bird Park, looking remarkably like it just got out of bed and isn’t happy about it!

Hummingbirds in the Bird Park, feeding out of an artificial feeder

Hummingbirds in the Bird Park, feeding out of an artificial feeder. Surprisingly difficult to get a good photo of these little buggers!

Busing Argentina in style

After Patagonia, we turned our attention to one of Argentina’s other famous natural wonders – the Iguazú Falls.  Of course, since they’re at completely the other end of the country, we had to get there first…

We ended our time down south by flying back up to Buenos Aires at some truly unreasonable hour of the morning (seriously, our flight left at like 3am or something – no doubt that was the reason we could afford the tickets).  We arrived to OK-looking weather which quickly turned into a torrential downpour as soon as we were out wandering around in it.  (This seemed grossly unfair – after all, we were only out seeking a café near the airport to get us some coffee to get us through the morning, knowing that we had a full day’s wait until our overnight bus.  At the very least the weather could have given us a break for some espresso, no?)

So we gave up on the café idea, flagged down the nearest taxi, dropped our bags in a locker at the bus station, and proceeded to find a café near the bus station instead.  And once we were done marvelling at the sheer magnitude of Buenos Aires’s main bus station, an uneventful day of waiting passed.  You get pretty good at whiling the time away patiently after a year or so over travelling.  Then we got on our bus.

And what a bus…

Buses are a big deal in Argentina.  It’s a big country, but South America in general doesn’t have a lot of cheap air travel, and Argentina is no exception.  Nonetheless, Argentina has always been one of South America’s wealthier nations, and its European-descent population, very much like middle classes the world over, likes to travel.  Driving is definitely popular – from what we could tell, there’s nothing a motorised Argentine likes more than to attempt to dispel the myth that Ayrton Senna was the only South American with balls at high speed – and so the long distances are not necessarily a problem for our speed-limit-plus-at-least-50% friends.  Still, Argentina is not so rich, and lots of long-distance car trips can get expensive.  Enter the bus.

I gather it’s only recently, with rising fuel prices driving up long-distance bus fares, that flying has become even vaguely competitive in cost on any routes – and on plenty, including up to Iguazú, the bus is still considerably cheaper.  So the bus has had a few decades to cement its place as the chosen mode of transport for many an Argentine adventure.

With a fairly extensive network of far-flung destinations (bus trips of 24 hours or more run on daily schedules on multiple different bus lines on a good handful of routes around the country), with substantial competition, and with Argentines liking nothing if not to travel in style and comfort, the buses are not just convenient – they’re also exceptionally well-appointed.  There are a variety of fares available – with government regulation ensuring that each seat sold is precisely categorised into a set of standardised classes, so you know exactly how comfortable you can expect to be.

The most comfortable standard class is ‘cama ejecutivo’, and you can expect a fair bit:  leg room and a leg rest, a seriously impressive level of seat recline-ability, blankets, food, etc.  It’s pretty good.  Hell, even the ‘semi-cama’ ordinary class is better than what you’ll get on any bus in most other countries.

But apparently it’s not good enough.  Because some companies have introduced their own super-luxury seats.  And, well, on the way up to Iguazú, after a long day and a long night, why the hell not?

‘Tutto Letto’ on Via Bariloche

Tutto Letto’ on Via Bariloche

So it was that we found ourselves on the Via Bariloche ‘Tutto Letto’ bus.  In seats one and two, on the top of a double-decker bus, above the driver, looking out in the pouring rain that had once again descended on Buenos Aires.  (Actually when we got to Puerto Iguazú we felt a little bad that we’d complained about getting wet while in search of coffee:  it turned out that by the time we arrived at our destination, half of La Plata – basically the poor side of the greater Buenos Aires area – was under water.)

Not only were our seats especially comfortable.  Not only did we get a privacy curtain to wall ourselves off from the other guests and from each other.  Not only did we get a little 175mL bottle of wine with our TV dinners.  And not only did we get our own personal TV sets.  (Much of those you get with the other classes too, by the way.)  But when it was heading towards nap time, the nice man who’d brought the dinner and wine asked if we wanted a whiskey nightcap before sleep – and promptly poured me a Styrofoam cup full of Jamesons.

I’m not really sure, if I’m honest, where I’m going with this blog post.  But it seemed like the unreasonably high standard of comfort that you get out of your blue-dollar-funded bus travel deserved at least some mention.  This particular 16 hour bus trip cost us a whopping AR$530 each, or around $US95 at the official exchange rate, or less than $US80 at the blue dollar rate.  (The blue dollar, since I haven’t written about it here yet, is a reference to the US dollar exchange rate you’ll get from illegal street money-changers, evading dollar capital controls to get their hands on dollars, for which they’ll pay much more than the official exchange rate.  More on that later.)

So, point and purpose aside, if you’re going to be bussing around Argentina, here are some handy tips:

  • You can book your tickets online at Plataforma 10 – it’s kind of like Argentina’s Kayak.com for bus tickets.  Alternatively, obviously you can buy them from the bus company offices at the bus station.  Even if you’re doing that, Plataforma 10 is still worth a visit to check routes and times – it seems pretty universally accurate.
  • The main bus station in Buenos Aires is called Retiro – that’s the source/destination you’ll want when you’re searching timetables and fares to and from the capital.
  • We went with Via Bariloche twice – once to Iguazú in their luxury ‘Tutto Letto’, and once from Mendoza to Buenos Aires in ‘semi-cama’.  They were great and very comfortable both times.  There are tonnes of companies, and generally you get what you pay for, but I also found it quite helpful to search TripAdvisor for advice on the company we were looking at booking before I hit the ‘purchase’ button.

Also, no matter what you get, bussing around any other country will never be the same.

Hiatus

Keeps you busy, this whole travelling business.

The keen-eyed among you may have noticed that other than one or two recent schedule disturbances, I’ve been doing a pretty good Kellogg’s-All-Bran-would-be-proud job of posting here fairly regularly this year.

There’s one good thing about being several months behind on the blogging front (the last post, about El Chaltén, related experiences we had in late March):  it helps even out the writing schedule.  If we have a lot of downtime, I can write lots of posts in advance and schedule them for busier periods.  If we don’t have a lot of time because we’re madly running from place to place, then I have a bit of a backlog from whenever we last had some downtime.

Unfortunately (though there’s been nothing unfortunate about it, actually), recent travel has been busy for a while – enough so that even when it hasn’t, I’ve needed some relaxation time and haven’t used it for storing up more posts.  Backlog exhausted.

Combine that with the fact that tomorrow I get on a plane for Cuba, land of many things but not internet, and…

So, there’ll be a bit of a hiatus on the blog for the next two weeks or so while I go and turn communist or whatever it is that the US government is afraid would happen to its citizens if they were allowed to travel there.

Sorry about the interruption.  Hope you can find other places on the internets to keep you entertained in the meantime.