Following the Cup from Iguazu Falls, a South American Crossroads

Sunday, July 6, 2014 | Iguazu Falls, Brazil (map)

Guest author Gavin at Iguazu Falls: Living dangerously, or just trying to dry off in the sun?
For the past few weeks, guest blogger Gavin Lippman has been writing about his experiences at the 2014 World Cup in Brazil. Check out his ninth entry below, and follow all his posts here.

It was so tough to leave Rio de Janeiro, I almost didn't make it to Iguazu Falls. I wanted to explore more of the city, lounge on the beaches, and keep relaxing. After the USA qualified for the World Cup's Round of 16, however, I briefly considered returning to Salvador to see the match with my Naval Academy friends, but flights were crazy expensive and I had already lined up a visit to Iguazu. "How often do I get to see one of the largest waterfalls in the world?" I thought as I boarded the plane to continue my Brazilian journey further south.

After lounging on beaches in balmy summertime weather, it was easy to forget that I was in the Southern Hemisphere, where it is currently wintertime. But I was reminded when I arrived in Iguazu. I had heard it would be a little chilly so I had packed a light jacket in my backpack thinking that would be enough... boy was I wrong. The moment I stepped off the plane, I felt a biting cold wind. When I arrived at my hostel and found everyone there bundled up in sweaters and jackets, huddled in front of a TV watching the Costa Rica vs. Greece match, I knew that I had made my second error of the trip. (The first had been to think I could make a 2:30am flight after a 6:00pm USA match.) "No journey is without its challenges, but damn, this waterfall had better be worth it!" I thought as went to sleep that night.

* * *

It didn't help matters to wake the next morning with a bad cold, and more freezing weather outside. The hostel owner, Nick, greeted me with a warm hello but then put a damper on my plans. Because it had rained for ten days straight in Foz do Iguaçu town, he said, water levels were abnormally high. Therefore, not only was the Devil's Throat (the highest and deepest part of the falls) closed, but so were many of the trails on both the Brazilian and Argentine sides, as well as many of the usual outdoor activities like rappelling and zip-lining. "Well, gotta make the best of things," I thought as I layered up as much as my wardrobe would allow, and headed for the Brazilian side of the falls.

My first stop was in the gift shop to buy a fleece and beanie to keep warm. While I got some perplexed looks boarding the bus (by this point I was wearing two jackets over multiple shirts) I began to feel a bit better and was ready to see what I had traveled all the way down here for—the Iguazu Falls.

* * *
Iguazu Falls from below, with heavy spray
The first glimpse of the falls completely blew me away.

I vaguely remembered visiting Niagara Falls when I was 10, but Iguazu was clearly in another league. The amount of water—now brown from the rains—crashing into the Iguazu River and flowing at such insane rates was astonishing. While the Brazilian side had few trails open, it made up for it with wonderful vistas that provided for great pictures of the falls.

The Brazilian side was also where I was introduced to the quati (or coati), an animal native to the Iguazu Falls region that looks like a cross between a raccoon, with a furry striped tail and claws, and an anteater, with their slightly humpback shape and long snouts. These bad boys were both very curious and very aggressive; leave your backpack unattended and they would soon find a way in. While I enjoyed watching the quatis in their natural habitat, once the novelty of seeing animals in the wild wore off they started to get annoying. One followed me up a set of stairs, thinking the soda can I was drinking from might be food. While I respect the fact that it was their hood, they still needed to check themselves.

As I progressed on the trail toward the Devil's Throat, the mist intensified and it became apparent that I needed a poncho. The water was pouring over the falls and, combined with the wind, was drenching the platforms. An entire walkway out into the falls was destroyed. Reaching the end of the trail, I got a great glimpse of the top of the falls, but having seen plenty of views and still cold and under the weather, I soon high-tailed it back to the hostel, desperate for some rest and recuperation.

* * *
Quatis doing what quatis do. 
As we stepped out of the van and into Argentina the next day, the temperature was even colder. But no matter this time—I felt energized both from the medicine I managed to scrounge up and because the Argentina side was supposed to be a much better experience than the Brazilian side.

It did not disappoint. In Argentina, I was able to enter the forest, where you could feel the falls cascading alongside and above you. On this side of the falls, a poncho was not optional attire, it was definitely mandatory. It would also come in handy when most of our group opted to take a boat ride to receive our "baptism" by the legendary falls. Even without approaching the Devil's Throat, we still rode extremely close to some of these massive falls, and got properly soaked in the process.

As we continued exploring the park, the sun peaked through the clouds, treating us to some rainbows over the falls. We took a Jeep ride through the park to see the many native fruits and animals. Unfortunately we didn't get to see any Toucans or monkeys, just the occasional black vulture and even more quatis. I enjoyed discovering the small waterfalls tucked within every nook and cranny of the Argentine side of the park.

From the falls, we stopped to check out La Triple Frontera, which is the joint border between Argentina, Brazil, and Paraguay. Viewing this from the Argentine side, we could see where the Iguazu and Parana Rivers merge. While this was somewhat anti-climatic, I enjoyed it after having been in the depths of the Amazon, to Brazil's northern extremes in Natal, to three of the bigger cities (Rio, São Paulo, and Salvador), and now I was on the border of three countries in South America, at my trip's farthest point south.

* * *
Gavin got all suited up for his boat ride to get a "baptism" from the falls.
The day's final stop was to an Argentine market for some shopping, but we didn't do any shopping. Instead, we ate some wonderful Argentine sausages and olives at a bar while watching Argentina play Switzerland.

Even in this remote Argentine town we could definitely feel the World Cup fever. We arrived just as over-time began, and the Argentines were on the edges of their seats, nervous at the looming possibility of elimination. The Swiss team put their heads down and continued to battle, playing very disciplined and organized. It would take something special to break them, and that's what happened. Leo Messi drove through the Swiss defense and slid the ball at the last minute to midfielder Angel Di Maria, who rolled it into the back of the net, 1-0 to the Albiceleste.

As seems to be the norm this World Cup for any South American team's fans, when their team scored the Argentines went absolutely mental. But their way of celebrating involved a lot more intense fireworks than the Brazilians'. One girl stood in the middle of the street holding a launcher above her head, shooting fireworks continuously, only stopping to reload. There were also pre-staged fireworks set up along the street—including one right behind us—that were lit when the Argentines scored.

Yet the game was still going on, and the Swiss very nearly equalized, hitting the post off a free kick. I found myself wanting the Swiss to score, just to see what the Argentines would do now that they had already commenced celebrating. It wasn't to be, as Argentina won 1-0 and we made our way back over to Brazil after a long, wet, and fun day.

* * *
Iguazu Falls with rainbow
We had a nightcap though: watching USA vs. Belgium.

From our hostel, a group of us made our way to a local bar downtown, where we found a sizable group of USA fans. Along with some new friends from England and Colombia I had met at the falls, we were all ready for a cracking game. The Belgians had won all their games in the group stage while failing to really impress. Their lineup is as talented as you'll see at the World Cup—with leading players from the Premier League, Bundesliga, and La Liga—but you could sense that they hadn't yet gelled as a team. My English friend Tony asked me if I was nervous about this match. I explained that while yes I was nervous, I felt that this was a match the USA could win. Like most Americans, I wasn't ready for this ride to end.

Within a minute of the opening whistle, Tim Howard was already called on to make a vital save in goal. "Small blip," I thought. Little did I know that this would be the recurring theme of the match: Tim Howard coming up big as the Belgians tore our defense to shreds. Every time they attacked, they did so with pace and numbers. We couldn't keep up, but stayed alive with last-minute interceptions and blocks. After the Belgian spoiled each American spell of possession and half-chances and began their counter-attack, I held my breath. But when the defense was breached, Tim Howard kept coming up with amazing save after amazing save. No matter what the Belgians tried, they could not put the ball in the net. His heroics galvanized the team, who continued to work harder and gradually came more into the game.

At the 90th minute, I was praying that we would make it to extra time. Then a US player pumped the ball into the box, Clint Dempsey flicked it on to Chris Wondolowski, all alone facing the goal. I jumped up, sensing that this was the moment and... he put it over the bar. The entire bar screamed together in despair: "WONDO!!!!!!" There went our chance for the smash and grab victory.

Three minutes into extra time, Belgian substitute Romelu Lukaku shrugged off Matt Besler and laid the ball off to Kevin DeBruyne, who finally beat Tim Howard with a perfect shot: 1-0 to Belgium. The Belgian fans (or anti-USA fans, I couldn't figure out which they were) went nuts. Smelling blood, the Belgians continued to pour forward and at the end of the first extra time. Lukaku latched onto a long ball, shook Besler off again and beat Tim Howard: 2-0 with 15 minutes to go.

We USA fans kept the faith, but those were two tough goals to stomach. Plus, outside of Wondo's golden missed chance, we hadn't posed a significant threat all night. We started to come to the realization that our World Cup dream might be over. Tony gave me his analysis: "You guys are well organized, clearly in good shape, very disciplined, and everyone is working hard for the team. But you don't have that match-winner, the guy who can get you those goals." As I begrudgingly agreed, the substitution board popped up and 19-year-old starlet Julian Green came on for the USA. We all applauded the move. If we were going down, it was going to be fighting.

Two minutes in, the move paid off as Green connected with a beautiful chip from Michael Bradley, sending it into the back of the net. We finally had our moment to celebrate. We cheered, but quickly implored the team to get back quickly and re-start. While we had momentum on our side, the Belgians looked exhausted. They had gone 107 minutes, dominated the match, but had to work incredibly hard for their two goals. They now knew that for the last 15 minutes, the USA was going to come at them with a final onslaught, desperate to equalize. Yedlin and Green were flying down the flanks, pumping balls into the box. Jones and Bradley were winning everything in the midfield, pushing our guys forward. We very nearly got the equalizer as a perfectly executed free kick play resulted in Clint Dempsey getting put through, one-on-one, with the Belgian keeper, who denied him with an amazing save.

Finally, the whistle came, and the USA were eliminated 2-1. While I was extremely sad, I was so proud of the American team. We gave everything that we had for 120 minutes, and almost pulled it off. Overmatched by talent, we made up for it with heart, courage, and teamwork. Tim Howard made a World Cup record 16 saves and was rightly the man of the match. Howard and the team would receive much-deserved international recognition after the match. "The future is bright," I told my new friends, "We will be back and we will be better."

* * *
Superfan Gavin even represented the red, white, and blue while getting pelted at Iguazu Falls.
While my Iguazu trip didn't start off with much flare, I truly did enjoy myself and was glad that I got to see such an amazing wonder of nature. Through our hostel, I also met a great group with whom I explored both the Falls and Foz do Iguaçu town. Some of these guys actually slept in a van in the hostel's parking lot!

As others left to continue their journeys back to Rio and São Paulo, or further South into Argentina and Chile, my trip was wrapping up. Ahead, I had two full days of flying to get back to Germany. But Iguazu Falls was the perfect way to wind finish up my travels. I have seen the many beautiful cities, landmarks, nightlife, culture, and vistas that Brazil has to offer, and I ended it with a true wonder of nature.

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