São Paulo

We arrived into São Paulo after taking a long overnight bus from Foz do Iguaçu. It took about 17 hours but luckily was pretty cosy and we managed to sleep quite a bit.

São Paulo is huge—the population of the city is 12 million and including the suburbs it is 22 million. Taking a trip to the top floor of the Martinelli building—São Paulo’s first skyscraper—this number seemed unsurprising, as towering blocks of flats could be seen in every direction up to the horizon. What is notable is the speed at which the city’s population has increased. In 1900, the population was 240,000, but by 1950, the population had reached 2 million. The following 60 years saw an additional rise of 20 million.

We were staying in the arty part of São Paulo called Vila Madalena. Our first proper city since leaving Paraguay, we were instantly surprised by Brasil. São Paulo is much more advanced and modern than other parts of South America we have been. One of the benefits of this was a very smart tube system, which luckily we got the hang of pretty quickly.

The hostel receptionist recommended that we visit the financial part of the city on Sunday as the main road is closed and people walk, cycle and roller blade down it. There are also lots of street sellers and performers—it was lovely and had a really good atmosphere.

One of the interesting things about the city is that it is home to largest Japanese population outside of Japan. Very excited at the possibility of some Asian food, it didn’t take us long to find a ramen restaurant near our hostel!

We also visited the main park in the city where the Afro-Brasil museum is located. The museum was interesting and had lots of art to explain historical events, but sadly without anything written in English we didn’t stay too long.

As São Paulo lacks many obvious sights to visit, we decided to go on a free walking tour. Points of interest included São Paulo cathedral, the monastery of São Bento, the stock exchange, the town hall and Pátio do Colégio—the site where the city was founded in 1554. We also learned that many of the city’s traffic lights feature silhouettes of nearby landmarks rather than the usual green or red man.

Having had our fill of a big city, we were looking forward to visiting Brasil’s coastline.

Iguazu falls

The Iguazu falls are the largest system of waterfalls in the world. Situated on the Iguazu River on the border of the Argentine province of Misiones and the Brazilian state of Paraná, they separate the river into the upper and lower Iguazu.

We were staying in the city of Foz do Iguaçu in Brasil, having crossed the border from Paraguay in the morning. Foz do Iguaçu is the Brasilian gateway to the falls and so easily accessible by public transport. Stepping off the bus we were blown away at the vista in front of us, a panoramic view of waterfalls spanning from left to right as far as the eye could see. It’s not surprising that it was recently voted one of the new seven wonders of nature.

Throughout the trip we have heard differing views on whether it is better to visit the falls from the Brasilian or Argentinian side. Having enjoyed visiting them in Brasil so much we decided to see them from Argentina the following day. While Argentina lacked the panoramic view of the Brasilian side, it allowed you to get much closer to the action, with walkways of different heights right up to, and in some cases on top of, the falls. A particular highlight was being perched above the Garganta del Diablo (Devil’s throat), the largest of the falls at 82 x 150 x 700 metres, which funnels around half of the river’s flow. With around 1,500 cubic metres of water flowing over the falls every second, the seemingly endless stream of water creates a momentous roaring and permanent mist that looms over the abyss, broken only by the occasional darting of some rather daring swallows.

From Foz do Iguaçu we also visited Parque das Aves, the largest bird park in Latin America, with more than 1,320 birds from about 143 different species. Housed in 16.5 hectares of rainforest next to the falls, the birds are predominantly rescued and rehabilitated before being released back into the wild. One of our favourite things about the park was the number of walk-in cages, where you could see many of the birds up close, including a huge cage housing around 30 varieties of parrot and parquet . The sea of colour flying over your head was incredible.

Ciudad del Este

Ciudad del Este—literally translating as the city of the east—sits on the triple border with Brasil and Argentina. It is a peculiar place, with a strange border that you can cross without having to go through immigration. As a result, it is well known as a gateway for all sorts of contraband. We had heard that it was a hectic, dirty and altogether horrid place to be. Never-the-less, we had to go there in order to cross into Brasil and so tried to make the most of it. As we had time to spare, we visited the biggest tourist attraction possibly in Paraguay: the Itaipu hydroelectric dam, situated on the river that divides Brasil and Paraguay. The second largest dam in the world—having been overtaken by the Three Gorges dam in China in 2012—it generates enough power for 75% of Paraguay and 15% of Brasil. It is over 7 km wide and almost 200 m tall. A remarkable feat of human engineering, it offered an interesting contrast to our next stop—Iguazu falls.

El Roble—a touch of paradise in Paraguay

El Roble has probably been our favourite place so far. Run by an East German who made his way to Paraguay after the fall of the Berlin wall, it translates as the oak—Germany’s national tree. After a few years of “interesting” jobs in Paraguay, he bought a plot of land just outside the northern city of Concepción that was dry, difficult to farm and had no running water. One of the first things he planted was an oak tree, from seeds that his mother brought over from Germany.

Fast forward 20 years and he has gradually turned a desolate piece of land into a thriving paradise, with copious amounts of trees, plants and wildlife. After building a number of simple jungle lodges, he started to have guests to stay. I (Rose) managed to find out about it by one of my frequent and very random google searches. Usually they are quite fruitless; however, this was quite the opposite!

We arrived at El Roble on a Tuesday evening. We got out of the taxi after a long and hot bus journey and were pretty gobsmacked by how stunning the place was. The sun had just gone down, so we couldn’t soak up too much that evening, but immediately the farm had a relaxed, friendly atmosphere.

Having met Peter—the owner—and another couple of travellers, we shared a well-earned beer and supper with them. It felt like a real treat after travelling a lot over the last 7 or so days.

We went to sleep to the sound of frogs all around us. We were sleeping in a little cabin, but luckily it had air conditioning. This was something we were thrilled about as Paraguay’s temperature regularly hits the mid-forties.

Waking up the next day was really exciting. We both woke quite early, probably as we were excited to explore. At breakfast we got a real feel what the farm was about: home-baked bread, home-made cheese, cream, and home-cured and reared bacon, along with freshly laid eggs.

The garden has an incredible diversity of plants, trees and flowers. There is so much to look at: 40 foot bamboo, orchids growing on top of trees, numerous succulents and a wild flower bed to top it off!

Staying at El Roble was pretty inspiring, from their almost self-sufficiency to their bio-filtered water system. Not only this, but Peter is an extraordinary person. Having told us numerous stories, it was amazing to hear how he grew up up with so many restrictions but always strived for freedom.

We enjoyed El Roble so much that we stayed for 8 nights, the longest we have stayed anywhere yet.

Asunción

Asunción was our first stop in Paraguay; we crossed the border on a bus. We were slightly nervous in doing so as we were the only tourists on the bus and had to go through immigration unlike everyone else. We crossed the border in the evening, which normally would have been fine but there was a power cut which meant we were shuffled along and got our passports stamped in the almost pitch black.

Arriving at a lovely hostel in the evening we instantly felt relaxed in Paraguay’s capital city. The people were very friendly and chatty, the city was energetic but not overwhelming. We went to a restaurant for food—we were both thrilled as they had IPA on tap and hefeweizen beer. While at the hostel we were able to get our clothes properly washed at a launderette—the first time in a while.

The next day we ventured out and soon realised that the weather was not ideal. Close to 40 degrees with high humidity, we had to return to the hostel a couple of times for cold showers! Although there is little in the way of sights in Asunción besides the Government palace and a few museums, the city has a much more laid back atmosphere than Buenos Aires.

Taking it easy any enjoying the relaxed way of life in Paraguay, we decided to go out to a bar that evening which felt more like Berlin than a city in South America. Already we had a really good feeling about Paraguay and were excited to move on to our next destination, Concepción!