Sabbatical 2012 [Days 17-18] Cataratas de Iguaçu

Travel

Traveling to Iguaçu was simple, but a bit of an experience. It was our first domestic flight in Brazil. We booked all of our travel on Gol airlines – a decent looking discount airline with a pretty new fleet and an orange color scheme. They seem to be relatively successful (unlike Pluna) and are definitely inexpensive. When we got in line for checking into the flight, the girl directing people to the appropriate line seemed kind of confused about our destination. Then she took our passports and disappeared for a bit behind the counter. Then she came out again with our passports (luckily) and told us we actually booked a Webjet flight.

Webjet was another discount airline that was recently acquired by Gol. Webjet has an awful lime green color scheme on everything, and their logo is the ‘@’ symbol. Get it? They’re technical. They understand the interwebs. Well, hopefully their brand disappears as fast as the .com failures.

The webjet plane was a relatively new 737 with an interior that looked like it was designed in the late 60’s. More puke green. The landing was a bit rough. Alex said people in the back of the plane clapped, happy to be alive. Still better than our Vivaaerobus landing.

We flew in to Foz de Iguaçu, on the Brazilian side. Rented a car from Avis – a small Chevy (Opel, really) with a stick shift, no airbags, no power steering, and no cupholders. Most Americans would die. How can you possibly drive if you have to exert force on the steering wheel and shift while holding a 64oz high fructosified Big Gulp at the same time? It drove like a go-cart.

Our hotel, Boutique Hotel de la Fonte, was actually located on the Argentine side of the falls, so we drove over to Argentina, blew through (the complete lack of) Brazilian customs, and quickly entered Argentina for the 3rd time, got our passports stamped again, and went through the small town of Iguazu to get to the hotel.

Accommodations

As soon as we entered the hotel, we were happily greeted by the owner, a very friendly older Italian lady who was very happy to receive us. I later found out that she spoke like 7 languages and has lived in several countries. Her assistant was also quite helpful. At the moment we got to the check-in counter, we were given two glasses of Champaign. Now that is how to treat a guest!

The hotel was really, really nice. Not terribly expensive for what we got. Basically, it was a small pousada with a swimming pool, a hot (well, warm, but better than anything previously) tub, a few log-cabin like buildings with high lofted ceilings and (in theory) one-way mirrored glass windows for privacy.

We made a dinner reservation, I booked a massage, and we were told that we should go see the Brazilian side of the falls first – which was contrary to our original plan. After thinking it over, we agreed that it made the most sense, though.

More travel. And Falls

So, off we went back to Brazil. The Argentine side of customs seemed pretty uninterested in anything other than stamping our passports again, but there was no line so we made it through quite quickly. Then on the Brazilian side… again, no customs, no immigration, no stamps. Is there even a border here? It must be nice to have Argentina as your southern neighbor – no arms or drug trafficking, no immigration problems. Just let ’em in. Nobody even checked our visas.

We drove on down to the falls park. From there you have to pay for your parking spot, get some entrance tickets, and then take a double-decker bus to slowly go on to the actual park where you can walk around.

After getting off the bus, we immediately saw some funny animals that kind of looked like a cross between an ant-eater and a racoon. They were really fast, though, and they were quite camera-shy. I must have taken 20 photos of them, and nearly all of them ended up being of their rear ends because by the time I hit the shutter, they were off in the other direction. Despite people being told numerous times against doing so, they fed them for attention and got close, even at risk of rabies. Oh well.

There were a decent amount of people, but it wasn’t overly crowded. We descended the pathway and started to hear the roaring of the falls. The mist became visible, and the temperature dropped from the evaporation. Then, they came into view for the first time and were spectacular. But that was only the beginning, the tail end of the falls. We kept walking, and walking, and there were more and more and more falls. It really put Niagara to shame in its vastness.

Brazil and Argentina both did a fantastic job at preserving the natural beauty and sanctity of the falls as well. There was not an ounce of commercialization on either side of the falls – apart from a few cafes (which were welcomed) and licensed people selling ponchos (also welcomed). Just two expansive parks with well-hidden walkways. You had to strain your eyes to see tourists or walkways on the other side of the border. Kudos to both countries for such preservation.

The falls were beautiful. The last part is where you get to walk out right in front, get your clothes soaked, and test your camera for its water resistance capabilities. Ours passed the stress test, luckily. Then you go up an elevator to get a nice big view of the falls as if you were in a helicopter.

A little wet, a little cold, and definitely tired after a full day of travel and walking, we headed back onto the bus to the car, crossed into Argentina for the 4th time where they actually asked for my car papers this time and seemed a little disappointed that everything was in order.

My massage was delayed due to a miss-communication. But it was quite relaxing. Dinner was pretty great – I tried a local river fish that was seared quite nicely. I had some nice dessert too, but can’t remember what it was.

Argentine Side

The next morning we woke up decently early, got ready, had some breakfast at the hotel, hung out with their pet bird, and headed over to the Argentine side of the falls. The experience was quite different in many ways. First of all, you pretty much drive right up to the park. No bus involved. Second of all….

Money Problems

Argentina makes it nearly as difficult as they possibly can to give them your money. This has been the case throughout the country. I have no idea why they make life so hard on tourists with foreign bank accounts, but they do.

Unlike the Brazilian side of the falls, the Argentine park doesn’t take any form of credit or debit card payment for the roughly $26 entrance fee. Hundreds (maybe thousands?) of people come to this park every day, and you don’t take credit cards? Are you kidding me? This wouldn’t be a problem, of course, if we had enough Argentine Pesos left over, but considering that we were hours from leaving the country for the last time, we had avoided pulling out more cash from the ATM.

No problem – we’ll just get more money from an ATM. Except for one thing – there is just a single ATM. It is located within the park, past the entrance. So, if you need money to get in, you have to somehow magically get into the park without a ticket first. Does nobody see a problem with this?

I explain to the ticket collector guys, and they let just me in, while Alex has to sit and wait. The ATM is in one of about 20 unmarked buildings. It is about 300m from the entrance. So I have to walk roughly ½ a mile round trip just to get money, wait behind some old guy who has never experienced technology before to trade stocks or save the world economy on the ATM for 5 minutes until I can finally pull out money, hike back, and buy my stupid ticket. Of course they don’t give you any coins for change, either, because I guess they just don’t make those in Argentina anymore. Good luck taking the bus!

The Falls. Finally

After the whole money/ticket fiasco which set us back some time, we had to kind of book it through the park at a rapid pace. When you are walking behind hoards of field-tripping school children, that pace gets slowed down substantially. In Brazil, the trails were mostly paved. In Argentina, they were nearly all elevated metal grating walkways – which at times could become quite slick when wet.

There was one particular moment where we were leaving a viewing deck, and Alex stopped to tie his shoe. As he started to do so, this huge group of excited, slow-moving school children began advancing our way, blocking any hope of passage should we fall behind them. Panic ensued, and I was encouraging Alex to tie faster. His eyes widened, his hands in a panic frenzy. It was like a scene from Indiana Jones, worried that you’re going to get hit by the giant rolling boulder or locked in a tomb forever. We ran away just in the nick of time, and continued our high-speed photo-shutter run through the park.

At some point I made a little friend on our hike. A butterfly (or moth?) landed on my finger and just felt like it was the perfect place to hang out for a good 15 or 20 minutes. I walked around with my new pet, and lots of people noticed it, pointing it out to their children. It made for some interesting photos, too. Thanks, lil guy.

The view from Argentina was quite nice, as we were pretty much walking over the falls themselves. It had good close-up views as well. Unlike the Brazilian side, when you got up to a point where you’re about to get soaked, there was no convenient poncho-seller trying to get your money for something you actually want. Because Argentina makes it difficult to give them your money. Instead, we had to suffice for a poncho that Alex somehow ended up with from China. It worked… kinda.

Despedida

With the clock ticking towards our flight – which left from the other side of the border – we decided it was time to head back to the car. In the parking lot, I just had to…

 

The deep red soil which covered all the roads and sidewalks in Iguazu made it too easy.

We left the park with enough time to get our bags from the hotel, cross the border into Brazil (another Argentine stamp, another passage into Brazil without the slightest of glances), grab some food at a little stand along the road, refill the rental with gasoline and use up the remnants of my Argentine Pesos (of which I could do without ever seeing again), and head on our way to São Paulo.

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Sabbatical 2012 [Day 12] Buenos Aires – Level Up

Thanks to Pluna – we really didn’t have many options for flying out of Montevideo to get to Rio de Janeiro. So, we had to return by boat to Buenos Aires. This was not by any means a bad thing, as Buenos Aires was an awesome city. We were also excited to stay at a different part of the city – Palermo.

The ferry ride from Montevideo is quite a bit longer than Buenos Aires to Colonia, as it is basically at the opposite end of the bay. The ferry is also a lot smaller than the Colonia ferry, but also quite fast. Rest assured, despite its smaller size, it too has a duty-free store and also smells like perfume. It also has a small cafe where I discovered that you can buy the most disgusting tortilla (as in Tortilla Española) with spinach and about 1 cup of salt, pre-packaged in a plastic container left to sit in its sulfery awfulness. Two bites of that and I threw it away.

We get back to Buenos Aires. Ah, so familiar. Cab it to Palermo… wait. What is this place? Its completely different from Recoleta, and any of the parts we had walked through. Really, it is like we just arrived at a new city.

Palermo, unlike its above-ground-cemetery and walking-zombie-lady neighboring borough, has much shorter buildings that seem to be kept in very good shape. The streets are much more quaint, and have lots of interesting little cafes and restaurants – which is of course expected at this point from Buenos Aires. But they’re just a bit more chic – a bit more quaint, and the clientel is a LOT more attractive. Money and beauty may be synonymous in some places. But, maybe Palermo just attracts a different kind of person than Recoleta – like the kind of person who… doesn’t like living by a huge creepy cemetery.

Our hotel, “Five Cool Rooms” – which sounds less like a hotel and more like a sequel to a Tarantino film – was substantially nicer than the Ayres Recoleta in every regard. It was hard to spot from the street because its only facade was a door and a small sign. Once inside, it opened up to a nice, chic glass-enclosed courtyard, with no street-facing rooms. It was quiet. It smelled amazing. The beds were the most comfortable we’ve had yet on the trip. Shame, really, that we didn’t stay there to begin with. They did outright lie to us about the hot tub working, though.

Not having good food on the boat, we were both quite hungry and grabbed some food at a cool café.

Palermo even has bars in their stores. Now that is how to shop!

We walked around Palermo, realized that we needed more money from an ATM, and thought we’d go find a bank for an ATM. Simple, right? We’re in a major, well-off part of town. No, not simple. We walk to the main drag, and there are no banks. Turn around and walk further down, no banks. It was baffling. I don’t even remember when we found a bank, but it took us nearly 30 minutes of walking to find a bank, and another 10 to find one which would accept foreign cards.

Time to spend that money on drinks. On a terrace. With a nice view of a square. Complete with obnoxiously slow service that we’d come to expect at this point.

Lesson learned. Next time, stay in Palermo. A nice way to end our 2nd visit to Argentina. But bring money.

Don’t cry for me, Argentina, we’ll be back in Iguazu in just a few days after hitting up Rio de Janeiro.

H&R Block Online Fail #2

I decided it was time to switch to TurboTax – which I was much happier with. Just to verify the numbers, I wanted to check against H&R block and found a rather significant discrepency. When researching the Sales Tax deduction allowed by the IRS – it seemed that H&R block’s amount was significantly higher than the IRS & TurboTax calculations. Congratulations, H&R Block users – you just earned yourself an audit! Hopefully they have fixed this issue. I certainly notified them as soon as I found it.

As I expected – if their software isn’t written well enough to give me a proper error message – it probably isn’t written well enough to accurately calculate my tax return either.

Never again.

BRIAN SAGHY: Hello
Lucas S.: Hello BRIAN, welcome to H&R Block’s At Home Live Chat Support! How can we assist you today?
BRIAN SAGHY: I’d like to report a potentially serious bug
Lucas S.: I see, what is the precise error?
BRIAN SAGHY: Under the State & Local tax payments section in particular. When I choose to use the “IRS standard” amount from the IRS sales tax table, the value returned is MUCH higher than that returned by the IRS website.
BRIAN SAGHY: The IRS provides a calculator here: http://apps.irs.gov/app/stdc/
Lucas S.: I see, that does sound serious. Would you like me to put in a word to my superiors?
BRIAN SAGHY: In my particular case, H&R block says that my standard sales tax deduction is $1,619, the IRS website says $921.36
BRIAN SAGHY: Yes, I highly recommend it or you guys are going to have a lot of audits on your hands
BRIAN SAGHY: Also – I didn’t even know that I qualified for such a deduction. Once this error is resolved – you may want to suggest looking into making this more prominent. TurboTax showed it to me right away and ended up with a much better tax return by default.
Lucas S.: I see, I’ll be sure to let them know that as well
BRIAN SAGHY: Thanks
Lucas S.: Is there anything else that you would like for me to do for you this evening?
BRIAN SAGHY: Thats all.
Lucas S.: I thank you kindly for this feedback and I will be sure to send this up to the proper authorities.