I think this photo looks like a postcard---it isn't....I got lucky with timing and light :) Iguazu Falls isn't one set of falls, it is more than 275 falls all located in one area on the border between Argentina and Brazil. I was shocked to see that there is only 1 non-stop flight per day to Iguazu from Rio and it is at a terrible time (late at night). Since the falls were one of the reasons I made the trip, I did the 1-stop flight. I arrived to Iguazu (the Brazilian side since I left from Rio) and was met by my driver. Most the hotels on the Brazilian (and Argentinian side) are outside of the park and you need to drive to get to the park. At the welcome center, you purchase an entry ticket and board a bus. Private cars are not allowed to drive in the park. I was staying at the one hotel in the park (on the Brazilian side). The Belmond Cataratas is a beautiful, historic building (that is pink) and guests can be driven through the park in a private car on arrival and departure. The hotel is literally steps from the falls and you can hear them when you arrive. The main perk of staying here is that you can experience the falls once the park closes to visitors---you are only sharing the large national park with the guests staying at Belmond. That exclusive access makes a huge difference!
I went to the falls as soon as I arrived---around noon----and there were people everywhere. The observation walkway was one big traffic jam and you had to take a photo quickly in between people walking. Not very peaceful at all. I went back again that evening and saw more lizards than people. My second morning was even better---I had the park to myself for probably 15 minutes and only saw maybe 8 or 9 people in total. I will remember that experience and that tranquility forever. That is how I got the photo above (and others) with so few people in them. In the slideshow below, you see if with the typical crowds.
Iguazu Falls isn’t one big waterfall---like I mentioned it is up to 275 separate waterfalls that change by the season. I found they changed even from morning to night, depending on how much rain fell at the falls or upstream. The whole Iguazu Falls area is large and really is spectacular. I love being in nature and this location did not disappoint. I stayed 2 nights and I think that was probably enough---one more night, however, would have given me a chance to visit the Argentinian side or go on an excursion.
This was my first trip to Brazil and I sort of had an image of what I thought at least Rio would look like based on watching the Olympics and other TV shows. My perception was pretty far off. Rio surprised me---I was expecting more grit, more poverty and I guess more people in little bathing suits :) Yes, Rio has some grit, but it is also a beautiful city with forests and mountains and gorgeous views.
I began my trip with a quick stop in Rio to see the main highlights---Sugarloaf Mountain (by cable car) and the Christ The Redeemer Statue. I also saw Santa Teresa---a cool little neighborhood not to far from the statue and had my first Acai. The drive up to see the statue was far more picturesque than I was expecting. Once we left the hustle of the city, the drive up was through a beautiful forest. We were maybe 25 minutes away from Copacabana Beach. Once you arrive at the welcome center for the statue (aka huge gift shop), the view overlooking Rio is beautiful…but once you take the bus ride up to the Statue itself the view is absolutely amazing and you have views in all directions. I knew the statue would be large as it seems so prominent in photos, but I was impressed by the massive size. This is for sure one attraction that lives up to the anticipation. You can’t really do anything at the statue other than admire the view, so the visit is pretty quick. They occasionally hold mass at the statue and have other special events….including rare opportunities to go inside the statue.
We stopped in Santa Teresa on the way to Sugarloaf and it had a nice, artsy neighborhood vibe. You can see favelas on the hillsides, but this neighborhood has been gentrified. The favelas are also starting to improve with the addition of roofs on the structures and many times electricity and running water---still not adequate living conditions as most of us are used to, but they have improved in recent years. My guide took me to a little window and ordered me an Acai---the berry is grown in Brazil and is very fresh---most places don’t add anything to the berry---they just mash it.
One of many reasons to hire a private guide is flexibility. We were able to tailor the day to my schedule and I could see exactly what I wanted to see. The other benefit is they know the pulse of the city…..and the work arounds when you have lines that are miles long. We arrived at the Sugarloaf cable car station and there were easily hundreds of people in line. My guide walked me to the ticket office and said something in Portuguese. Apparently, there is an “off menu” VIP option---I looked at the posted sign after getting the VIP ticket and it isn’t listed anywhere. Normal admission is roughly $20 and for $40 you go up a special set of stairs into a lounge with A/C to wait for the next cable car. You jump the entire line. There are 2 segments of the cable car going up and 2 coming down----you also skip those lines. That was probably the best use of $20 ever!
I saw the sunset over Sugarloaf and was ready for dinner and bed. I had arrived from the States at 1pm that day, started the tour at 2pm and it was 8pm. I asked to go somewhere I could do take out as I had to leave for the airport at 4am. The restaurant did one better and delivered food to my hotel. Portuguese food in pajamas. Crazy day, but well worth it.
The next morning I flew to Iguazu Falls (there is a blog post just on that). After the falls I headed back for one more night in Rio. I got up the next morning and walked the length of Copacabana beach all the way to Ipanema. It took around a hour of leisurely walking to make it to Ipanema. I was hot and sweaty, and I knew as the morning progressed it would only get warmer, so I took an Uber back to my hotel. The vibe of the 2 beaches is very different and for some reason I thought Copacabana would be more touristy than Ipanema, but I found the opposite to be true. It seemed like more locals (some with their dogs) were on Copacabana and it seemed to be mostly tourists (with plenty of vendors) on Ipanema. I would say it is worth checking both out.
Tracey is the owner of Unraveled Travel and has traveled to every continent (thanks to the recent visit to Antarctica!