Wednesday, February 27, 2013

The Enchanting Iguazu Falls

(Trip date: December, 2012) 

Having visited Angel Falls - the world’s tallest waterfall hidden deep in the Venezuelan jungle, and living so close to Niagara Falls - one of the world’s seven wonders surrounded by a mini Las Vegas, I wasn’t sure what to expect when visiting another one of the world’s famous falls: Iguazu Falls.
On our first day in Iguazu Falls we hopped on a bus and headed for the falls on the Brazilian side – the side we were staying on. We grabbed a map and had decided we were going to do a little hike before heading to the main falls, which are at the very end of the park. There is a bus that goes through the park since it’s so big and when we tried to get off to do the hike, the bus driver looked at us like we were insane and practically forced us back to our seats. Huffing and angry we sat back down, not knowing then what we learned later – that it takes an entire day to see all the falls of the park and there is absolutely no time to detour onto other hikes! Thank you Mr. Bus Driver and sorry for the dirty looks!
The park is so lush and green, you can’t help but feel relaxed and peaceful as you stroll up and down the trails. Then you suddenly turn the corner and in front of you are beautiful waterfalls in every direction! You ask yourself “is this the final waterfall view everybody talks about?” and as you walk another few minutes and come across another magnificent view of waterfalls you think to yourself “no way, THIS is way more beautiful than the last scene, this must be it”. And then you just keep doing that until you get to the grand finale and wonder how in the world you thought the first waterfall was so magnificent when this magical scene is right in front of you!
The final waterfall, the main part that everybody comes to Iguazu Falls to see, is beyond amazing. You take an elevator down to the bottom level and walk out onto a little lookout that stands in the middle of the falls and you are surrounded in every direction by the loud roar. You can’t help but feel so small and helpless standing as a little dot amongst one of Mother Nature’s grand treasures.  At the very end of the horseshoe of the waterfall is the Devil’s Throat on the Argentina side – on the agenda for the following day!
We decided to do the famous boat ride everybody talks about and both of us thought it would be something similar to the Maid of the Mist in Niagara Falls – wow, were we ever wrong! And wishing we had listened to the guy at our hostel who told us to wear our bathing suits. If you are reading this and plan to do the boat ride in Iguazu Falls: WEAR YOUR BATHING SUIT! Stepping onto the little raft and being the only tourists who didn’t speak English, we got thrown onto the front of the raft. This sounds more fun, right? Well it is, but also way more wet! We watched as our captains geared up in full waterproof gear from head-to-toe and wondered what we had gotten ourselves into as the boat went straight for one of the falls along the river (not the main falls, there’s way too much pressure to go near them on a boat). We couldn’t stop laughing as our captains took us right under the falls and each time we emerged and I wiped my eyes clean, our boat would turn around and go right back under! We did this about 20 times! Soaked doesn’t even begin to describe how wet we were after this adventure.
The next day we journeyed across the border to the Argentinean side of Iguazu Falls. Four buses, two border crossings and three hours later we made it to the park! The Argentinean side is very similar to the Brazilian side yet somehow has a much different vibe to it. It felt more like an amusement park as we hopped on a train that took us to the end of the park to see the Devil’s Throat. However it also seems to house a wide range of creatures and some of the world’s largest! In just one day in the Argentinean jungle we saw a group of cuatis (a South American raccoon) attack a man’s food bag, the largest ant I’ve ever seen, the world’s largest rat – the Capybara, exotic birds, lizards, mating stick bugs, a huge array of colourful butterflies, spiders the size of my hand a massive black fish that was half as tall as me. It was definitely an eventful trek on the way to see the Devil’s Throat!
We had to walk for about 30 minutes along a bridge in the open water to finally get to the Devil’s Throat. We were fascinated by the waterfalls as we were now standing behind the magnificent falls overlooking the Brazilian side, however we were also getting drenched from the mist. Wanting to save my cameras from the water, we didn’t spend much time here and headed back out onto the bridge. But what a better time for the thunder to roar and the skies to open up to a torrential downpour and lightning storm!? A VERY wet walk along the open waters made sure we were drenched for a second day in a row! Once the sun came out, we took a nice walk along one of the trails and marveled at more of the beautiful waterfalls along the river. Soaking up the sun while marveling at the roaring waters falling through mazes of lush greenery, I felt like I had just experienced magic as the feeling of peace and tranquility took over me.  

Before going to Iguazu Falls I had heard that the Brazilian side was the nicer side and there was no point going to the Argentinean side – my research was unanimous in this advice. But after seeing both sides I disagree with every word of that statement. If you’re going all the way to Iguazu Falls, you MUST see both sides! They are both magnificent and beautiful in very different ways. They are both magical and enchanting as you witness the roar of the falls like a lion protecting his jungle and experience the true power of Mother Nature.

Thursday, February 7, 2013

There Really is Ice in Iceland

(Trip date: July/August, 2012)

“Why would you go to Iceland?” was what everybody said to me when I told them where my next vacation destination was. Why would I not go to Iceland was what I was thinking in my head!  The beautiful and rustic land way up by the Arctic Circle, full of lush greenery and midnight sun, the land of fire and ice….

As I awoke on the plane just as we were landing, the first thought that came to my head was “are we landing on the moon?”  The land below was like nothing I’d ever seen before, a field of soft green and brown craters - what I later learned were lava fields. From the airport I went straight to my hostel, then off to explore the city of Reykjavik, as I waited for Kat to arrive. It was a beautiful sunny Saturday afternoon and all the locals were out and about enjoying the city. When I say it was beautiful, it was about 16 degrees, which is considered a nice summer day in Iceland!

 I walked through the streets, just me and my SLR, admiring the quaint city with its colourful buildings and peaceful lake, soaking up the smell of the ocean and sound of the seagulls. The air doesn’t get much fresher when you’re this far from civilization! Although I was a bit on the cold side coming from summer back home, the people of Reykjavik were all out sitting on the patios and chilling in the lawn chairs scattered throughout the city. I decided to do as the locals do and plopped myself onto a lawn chair and as the warm afternoon sun began to beat down on my skin, I feel into a peaceful nap amongst the many other nappers around me.  
It was an exciting reunion as my friend, Kat, from London, England met me at our hostel later that evening as we hadn’t seen each other in years. We hung out in our awesome hostel bar at Kex Hostel (I highly recommend this hostel), a place that even the locals come to hang out (Russell Crowe made an appearance the week before!) and we were both shocked when we looked at our watches to see that it was 10:30pm but the sun was still high in the sky! Your whole food and sleep clock gets confused in Iceland as the sun barely sets in the summer and you never know when it’s bedtime and when it’s mealtime. But it’s amazing to walk the streets at 10:30pm on any given night of the week and see the sun high in the sky and people out and about like it was just 6pm.
We did the Golden Circle tour, a must-see trip that takes you to the Eldborg Crater – a beautiful blue pool of water deep in the ground, the geysir – where the ground was hot and steaming and a huge geysir shoots water high into the sky every 3-4 minutes, then to the fantastic Gullfoss Falls – where we were lucky enough to see a vibrant rainbow frame the majestic waterfall. The tour gives you a perfect taste of the beautiful and rustic land.
The next day we did a whale watching tour. We were given special suits to keep us warm as we headed out into the choppy ocean to see the famous creatures of the sea. We were very lucky and saw hundreds of whales! Some came close to our boat, some were far away, it was a special site to see these magnificent creatures in their own habitat. Later that day we went to the famous Blue Lagoon spa, where we relaxed and bathed in the hot springs, enjoying the warm waters, steam rooms, massaging waterfall and all the wonderful amenities this place of tranquility has to offer.
We decided to rent a car on our last day and drive to Jökulsárlón, where the ice in Iceland is actually found! It was a stunning drive and a day I will never forget. We drove for five hours each way through some of the most amazing landscapes I have ever seen. The landscape kept changing from green hillsides, to lava fields, to volcanoes, to snowcapped mountains, and then finally to glaciers and icebergs. The land is so rustic and raw and it feels like it’s just you and the land as we saw maybe five cars drive by every hour. There is only ONE stop to get gas (and we almost ran out!) and about TWO restaurants in the small “town” of Vic on the way to Jökulsárlón – so fuel your car and your stomach when you can! We even stopped to see the famous volcano that halted European air traffic in 2010, Eyjafjallajökull - can you pronounce it? I sure can’t! As we rounded the corner approaching Jökulsárlón, we were speechless – from the land of greenery out came the glacier lagoon with its spectacular icebergs jutting out of the water. We took a raft through the lagoon where the icebergs were like skyscrapers in a city of glaciers and snow, each one unique in size and shape.

Iceland is so unique in so many ways. As I browsed through the many shops I realized that there are no name brands! They are all local boutiques, there’s no GAP or H&M or Zara. It’s also the first place I’ve ever been to that has no McDonalds (seriously, not one!) or Starbucks! It’s truly refreshing to see a modern society that is completely uninfluenced by the Western world. As for the food, it consists of a lot of cured, smoked and pickled fish, rye bread (we even had rye ice cream) and meat soups – all served in jars. Oh ya, and you can eat whale and puffin too  - no thanks.
I had never been to a place like Iceland before. I had never felt so connected to a landscape, like the land and I were one. I had never seen the sun shine at midnight. I had never seen lava fields. I had never seen a ground that is hot and steamy yet cold and icy. I had never seen icebergs that change shape every day. So now when people ask me why I went to Iceland, I just show them my pictures and I get a very different response than I did before: “I can’t wait to go to Iceland one day!”