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Total solar eclipse: the power of the universe puts things into perspective

I’ve been putting off writing this up for some time. Why? Because everything I put down on paper feels empty compared to the actual experience, because each moment and emotion described feels shallower than the reality, an indignity, an untruth.

Sunrise, clear skies

Sunrise, clear skies

Yet, I was one of those fortunate enough to witness the universe lock in to a moment of perfection and the experience touched me. Deeply.

During the days following the event I did little other than describe it as ‘amazing’, which is pretty nondescript, bland even. I couldn’t come up with anything better. My senses were pricked and I was filled with awe for the universe, and yet I was somewhat dumbed.

So what happened? Time to start finding my words.

Wrapping up the pre-eclipse party just as dawn breaks

Wrapping up the pre-eclipse party just as dawn breaks

At around 5.30AM on 14th November 2012 I made my way from base camp at the Eclipse 2012 festival up in Far North Queensland Australia, back past music stages where I’d recently bounced to Fat Freddy’s Drop and later stomped about to a DJ I can’t recall, stages that were now winding down. It was the first break from beats we would have in a whole week of celebrations. Respect the moment and the magic. Instead, birdsong was the gathering call.

Ravers, families and a man dressed in a mask and gown gathered on the hill by the Moon Stage as the sun rose, warming the dusty ground and the bones of people who had not stayed up to party, sleepy bodies re-awaking for this unique moment in time. Against a pinky orange sky, a little girl of maybe two snuggled into her father’s cuddle whilst the man in the mask started to sing out in monotone. He raised his face and stretched out his arms to the rising golden orb.

People start to make their way to the viewing spots

People start to make their way to the viewing spots

Sun worshipper

Sun worshipper

Crowds start to gather for the eclipse

Crowds start to gather for the eclipse

And then came the moon, crossing in front of the sun, starting at the top left, a creeping blackness.

The first quarter passed quickly but then time slowed down and the moon seemed to stick on a partial cover up. I took off my glasses and looked around at everyone else. Hoards of people, crowded up against makeshift fencing, creating silhouettes on the hillside. A raft of upturned faces standing, sitting, lying on a sea of festival dust, eyes protected by paper solar safe shades. Some people headed away from the crowds in search of a private observation spot.

By now all festival stages had hushed, completely, and other than quieting birdsong, an occasional charged ‘whoop’ or a monotone ‘ooooh’ from the sun god worshipper, the world started to silence.

Each minute that the moon moved closer to total cover-up brought with it a drop in temperature. I shivered and wrapped myself up in a jumper. I put my safety glasses back on and stood still with this collective of people who all seemingly had the same intention to watch this process unfold. Occasionally someone shuffled about but mostly people, having found places to perch,  were still, some having resigned themselves to the fact that they would probably not be sharing the eclipse experience with their closest buddies. Finding anyone in these crowds would be a considerable mission, one that might take away from actually taking in the event. No, sit still, let things unfold. Observe. (And be glad that you weren’t one of the ones that woke up mid-morning and wondered ‘Have I missed the eclipse?’).

It became dark. The moon was now firmly between us and the sun and the birds fell silent.

And then, in a flash of sunny brilliance, it all locked into place.  Light shone out of the sides, bright rays crowning a ball of the deepest black. We took our glasses off.  I started with my limited ‘amazing’ exclamations and listened to equally immature and breathy responses that only awe can generate. And lots of cheering. This wasn’t a film, hell no! How does life do this? How is our world so damn beautiful?

Lock in

Lock in

I felt comforted by this vivid reminder that there are far bigger things going on in our world, forces that we try to understand yet still contain mystery, patterns that can be predicted but only up to a point, beauty that generates a moment of wonder shared, appreciated by a humanity hotchpotch.

So much was going through my mind – my life events, choices and hopes – passing through in a moment of clarity and understanding. It all made sense: it didn’t really matter. And, yet somehow, in relation to everything else and everyone else, it did.

Lie back, watch the sun re-emerge, choose whether to join the post-eclipse party or finally go to bed

Lie back… watch the sun re-emerge… choose whether to join the post-eclipse party or retreat to camp and finally go to sleep

Just over two minutes later and the moment of magic was broken as the sun and moon moved out of alignment, and we were back to reality. The light and warmth returned, the birds started to sing once again and the doof doof of the party started afresh.

Days later I still carried the magic with me, and months later the memory can still evoke a stomach flip and an utterance of ‘amazing’. Because it truly was amazing. Even the dismissiveness of a self-proclaimed eclipse king has done little to dampen my wonder.

And so I may yet become an eclipse chaser. But, would I get that same sense of awe, that absolute natural high from repeating the experience in another setting? Would it not, like any repeat experience, lack the magic of the first time? I’m hesitant.

The next total solar eclipse takes place in 2015 and is visible from Iceland, Europe, North Africa and Northern Asia whereas if I’m still Oz-side, I’ll have to wait until 2028. Might I see you there?

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Art, consciousness and a whole lot of doof at Eclipse 2012 festival

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Recycling the eclipse

In my sheltered world, hippies and trancers don’t live harmoniously side by side. In my stereotyped view, people who dance to trance are off their heads on party drugs that sustain them through hours and days of dancing to a repetitive beat. In my head hippies are natural and flowing and mix with creative crowds, preferring didgeridoos to synthesizers. In my world, hippies don’t attend trance parties, or doofs (if you’re an Australian partyer). At least, this is what I used to believe.

The Eclipse 2012 festival would show me otherwise.

The event will host a huge music lineup of the world’s leading musicians and DJ’s, outstanding artists and decor crews, a dedicated workshops and intentional healing space, extensive food and market stalls and a perfect viewing platform only a short distance away from the eclipse centre line of totality path. Link

My world started to expand and any preconceived ideas about 24/7 beats and dancing, about everyone being cocktailed to the highest high, about being disconnected from the world in order to appreciate the world started to shift. I knew it would happen. Why else was I here?

Apart from the total solar eclipse itself. Oh yeah. That was the real reason.

But if it was just about being present at the total solar eclipse then I could have instead nestled in amongst astronomers from around the world on purpose built viewing platforms somewhere else, somewhere close.

No, from the moment I’d heard about the festival I’d been determined to go. I wanted to fling out my arms and dance uninhibited at whatever time of the day I pleased, I wanted to be filled with thoughts and ideas about the future direction of the world, I wanted to immerse myself in a new experience and surround myself with beauty in all its forms. What an indulgence.

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DJ set backdrop on the Sun Stage

The Eclipse 2012 festival ticket and website were the first giveaways to something beyond a primitive party, making reference to a ‘spiritual’ festival, to ‘healing spaces’, to consciousness raising, to an array of workshops and speakers and films designed to inspire change and open the mind.

And why else do we travel?

The music itself was not the catalyst for me to part with AU$350. Despite there being six stages, I barely recognised any names in the line-up, other than the likes of Fat Freddy’s Drop and Tijuana Cartel, both on the Earth Stage, the only truly live stage at the festival. If I’d ever been into the trance scene or had stood longer on Australian ground, I’d probably have been aware of the reputation of some of the other acts, but it was all new to me. No bad thing.

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Inspiration

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Flowertime

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Food and relax stops

Getting involved in yoga and craft classes, lounging out listening to learned folk discuss current thinking in relation to the upcoming cosmic and spiritual shift (including the impending end of the Mayan calendar), dancing under the sweet kiss of sprinkling water, of being surrounded by sculptures and murals and living art, that is what convinced me to join thousands of people for a week of celebrations rather than huddle quietly with the odd cluster of scientists and astronomers for one night only.

And so the days went by and people stomped and bounced day in, day out, taking moments to refresh themselves with fruit juices and wholesome, fair priced curries, to solar shower away a thick caking of dust, to chat and catch-up with friends, new and familiar.

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Daytime Sun Stage raving

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Sprinkler dancing @ the Sky Stage

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Doofer in training

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Beach feel flake out

Polka dot dresses and exaggerated face paints, tutus and lederhosen, basking on the branches of living art, taking dips in crocodile cleared waters, window shopping the work of artisans more concerned with their craft than making a sale, catching a ride on a motorised sofa, relaxing in the women’s shelter, watching fire art, learning to hula-hoop, re-gathering at camp for water refills and sustaining snacks.

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Daytime lazing

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Sun, shade and crocodile warnings

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Tutus and wobbles

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Doctor dress-up

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Parasols, fishnets and boat sails

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Brace dancing

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Sofa riding

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Art branch moments

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Face painting

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Base camp catch-ups

And sleeping. It’s amazing how one learns to sleep through a constant beat.

Through life and travelling I have had the good luck to meet and share time with a real range of people – a spectrum so broad that my mind should find no space for stereotypes. Yet I still have my assumptions, my preconceived ideas based on everyone I’ve previously met and everything I know. And of course it’s limited.

Stereotypes have some basis and function, maybe to act as a compass to enable us to find ‘our type’ and fellow ‘types’, maybe to guide the un-established personality and set them off in a specific direction. Maybe they offer some tribal comfort? I guess the only real danger is not being able to see beyond them.

At Eclipse 2012, stereotypes loomed large, on an ocular level. If you wanted to see society’s versions of a dreadlocked, grungy hippy, a dancing nymph dressed in floaty tie-dyed skirt, a yogi in lotus meditation, they appeared. If you looked for the sweaty, gurning raver clutching a water bottle and repeating moves in their own little world or sporting Day-Glo, hot panted outfits, they too existed. The Japanese wedding in a fusion flurry of traditional-clubbing kitsch, the self-important eco-speaker, the meticulously costumed regular festival goer, the wise old earth mother. They were all at Eclipse 2012.

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Temples (and makeshift church)

But sometimes hippies chewed their faces up. And sometimes pig-tailed raver chicks needed no more than the music to get high.

Stereotypes flipped, were stretched and distorted. Earth mother surprised me with her mushroom journeys. Famous drummer intrigued me with his gentle nature. Dreamy types brought considerate, well-behaved children to basket weaving classes. And the raver sat with a stranger during a bad trip, talking them through some crazy moments until a place of relative calm was reached.

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Morning at the Moon Stage

More often than not, the festival was a whole lot more wholesome than one might expect. Good food. Good company. Good support. Good dancing. Beyond good.

Of course the craziness existed. As with many a party, a continuum of personalities coloured and enriched the event. But it’s what most those people did that made the event; they spoke, they performed, they danced, they painted, they played; they – an army of artisans and thought-leaders and revelers – created a beautiful visual and sensual feast of celebration.

If you believe this random mix of humanity, of intention, of consciousness, cannot exist side by side, then Eclipse 2012 was a great example that we can.

Let’s dance.

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Chill out and kick back stage

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Live creativity

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Light, sound and DJs

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Accessorising

 

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Three weeks of Pacific sunrises

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Somehow I got lucky and landed the sunrise watch.

Me and early mornings have a love-hate relationship but in this situation, where I had to be up anyway to do my boat duty as we crossed the South Pacific Ocean, I just had to get on with it. Getting to sit in on sunrise every morning was incentive enough for me to crawl out of bed without too heavy a head.

I looked forward to my watch.

There is something so quiet and magical about watching the sky shift from total darkness to a soft, peachy hue as the sun rises and pushes through horizon morning mist. On some days, lines of light – God lights – streak out from behind a cloud glowing bright golden; other times her appearance is more gradual and gentle, a soft glow building in luminosity until the sky is aflame with pinks and oranges and a ball of warmth.

How often do you get to sit in an empty ocean completely by yourself watching day break whilst other souls sleep below deck? I decided to photograph my sunrise moments and share them with you.

On Day 1 I was given time to adjust to life on the boat so I hadn’t yet started my watches. Day 2 I sat in on and observed other people’s watches, so it was only on Day 3 that I started this little project. Enjoy.

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Journey into the strangest landscapes

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Approaching Los Tuneles

Despite first impressions of an inhospitable, aggressive and alien landscape, these dry, spiky islands were also strangely fragile and elegant, composed of narrow passageways, slim archways and slender pillars dipping into lightly rippled lagoons of clear, turquoise waters.

I was on a trip out to Los Tuneles and typically I had failed to do any research other than listening in on a couple of travellers debrief the outing. I knew, then, that it involved tunnels and snorkelling in waters with a selection of our sea life friends And I heard sharks were involved. I was both strangely drawn in and totally terrified.

So I set off with expectations of big, fat tunnels where we’d sail into the depth of darkness and take to the water, and splash and snorkel around in a flash-lit womb. I guess I was thinking about caves, or maybe I still had the tunnel experience at El Chato at the forefront of my mind.

Instead, we motored along south from Puerto Vilamil on the island of Isabela, Galapagos for forty minutes until we reached a splattering of mini lava islands. Nazca and blue footed-boobies sat king-of-the-castle on top of black, chunky rocks as we wound our way further into a thickening maze.

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Getting closer

The skipper manoeuvred through narrow passes and shallow spots, finally dropping anchor in a more sheltered lagoon. Here was a network of lava archways and strips that joined islands into a bigger formation. Cacti and a few piles of rockiness gave some height to this floating land.

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In amongst it

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Moored up in an alien landscape

‘Give me your camera’, said a French tourist. On our way out to Los Tuneles we’d picked him and his family up from a yacht moored a little off Isabela. ‘Come, I take a photo of you here’. I posed awkwardly and then went off on a little solo wander. It was crunchy underfoot and I nearly lost my grip. But no! If you’re going to fall, don’t grab out! There is nothing to hold on to apart from cacti.

I sat on the edge of an archway and looked into one of the lagoons. Here, the water was less rippled and the sun pierced right through to the bottom. A sea-lion swam along, hitting the surface and then diving down again. A turtle glided past, a little beneath the surface. Another woman joined me and shouted over to the others, but the show continued only for a little while longer.

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Sea lion taking a dip

Within fifteen minutes we clambered back on board our little boat. As we headed away from the main bulk of lava mass we passed by some penguins and pulled over for a closer look. It wasn’t long before they leapt into the sea. You humans are all the same! Such voyeurs! Can’t a penguin socialise without you guys hanging around like a bad smell?

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Pose? Nah, let’s get out of here

And what about the snorkelling? Ah, yeah. It turns out that the snorkelling was to come later and was totally separate to the tunnels or archways or whatever you want to call them. Someone mentioned something about swimming and snorkelling not being allowed in Los Tuneles anymore. What was I thinking? Silly me.

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I paid $60 for the tour through Tropical Adventures in Puerto Vilamil.  The tour included a trip out to Los Tuneles, a basic pack lunch and snorkeling in another spot in the afternoon.

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Iguazu Falls: Brazil, Argentina or both?

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The Devil’s Throat, Iguazu Falls, Argentina

Some people I met tried to tell me Iguazu wasn’t worth it. Give it a miss, they said. I’m glad I didn’t listen to them. And I’m equally as glad that I went to both the Brazilian side and the Argentinian side of Iguazu Falls.

I was staying in HI Paudimar Falls in Foz do Iguaçu, Brazil, a great set-up of a hostel with a social, laid back vibe, friendly staff (once you got past the newly arrived stage), excellent facilities, the luxury of a swimming pool and a little bar serving mean caipirinhas for R$4.

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Views from The Devil’s Throat over to the Brazilian side, Iguazu Falls, Argentina

The hostel arranged everything for my visit to the Argentinian side of the falls, including the option to do a boat trip depending on what I decided when I was actually there. Costing R$75 (£27.27), this trip included speedy transits through border crossings and entry to Parque Nacional de Iguazu. Additional costs were the boat rides into the waterfalls, starting at R$50 (£18.18).

Exploring the Argentinian side took the full day and I didn’t get to complete all of the mapped trails. It was an amazing day full of walks, boat rides and the feeling of being right in amongst the powerful rush of the falls. It all felt close and loud and immediate. The ground smelt damp and earthy and the air was thick with humidity and spray.

A trip out to the Brazilian side of the falls, if you’re based in Foz do Iguaçu, is easy to organise by yourself. Catch the No. 120 bus from Avenida Jorge Schimmelpfeng to the Parque National do Iguaçu, costing R$2.60 (£0.95) each way. Entrance is R$41.10 (£14.95) for foreigners and includes a short bus ride to the start.

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Iguazu Falls, Brazil

I jumped off at the first viewpoint with a small crowd of others. Something very noticeable was the lack of people compared to overcrowding on the Argentinian side. No bad thing. Together with a friend I walked along the pathway, stopping at various miradors to take in the scenery.

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The Devil’s Throat in the distance, Iguazu Falls, Brazil

Here on the Brazilian side the sound was less intense and the views of the waterfalls were more distant; wide and open they allowed you to get a sense of scale and perspective.

Towards the end was the one opportunity to get closer to the water; to get a little damp from the spray and take in an undisturbed view of El Garganta del Diablo – The Devil’s Throat. Yes, overall it felt more removed than the Argentinian side but it actually allowed one to appreciate the place as a whole.

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Iguazu Falls, Brazil

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I was glad to have visited both sides in order to get a broader, fuller picture of the place. The Brazilian side was a short trip out, needing no more than a few hours whereas visiting the Argentinian side of Iguazu required a full day.

If I had to suggest an order it would be to do the Brazilian side first and build up to the Argentinian side. And if you only get the opportunity to do one? Go for Argentina. It’s a powerful experience.

On the Brazilian side there are also options to do rafting and rappelling (at extra cost) and close by is a bird park that I didn’t visit but fellow backpackers highly recommended.

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Ignorance at Iguazu Falls (but a whole lot of energy too)

I don’t know whether to cry or slap him. A casual flick and the cigarette butt tumbles into the wide jungle river. He saunters off. I think I shouted ‘no!’, but maybe I just thought it. Precious nature, one of the world’s natural wonders, contaminated by an ignorant man.

I’m at Iguazu Falls (ak.a. Iguassu Falls or Iguaçu Falls) on the Argentinian side. Paying R$75 through the hostel has turned out to be a good option with quicker, stress-free border crossings from Brazil and easy entry to the park.

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Catching the train to the Devil's Throat at Iguazu Falls, Argentina

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Whiskered fish in the jungle river at Iguazu Falls, Argentina

Once through the turnstiles, a two train trip takes me towards the Garganta del Diablo – the Devil’s Throat – where I wander along springy, metal walkways over an extensive jungle and river landscape, stopping only to watch black whiskered fish on a feeding frenzy, two foot masses competing for crumbs thrown in by rule-breaking visitors. And then I see the guy and witness the cigarette incident, and I’m upset.

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The Devil's Throat, Iguazu Falls, Argentina

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Feel the spray at The Devil's Throat, Iguazu Falls, Argentina

But time to appreciate what else is going on. The roar, no, the constant pounding of water is all-consuming. As it falls, lines and shapes in the stream mutate and tumble downwards with force, only to be bounced back up as puffs of cloudy spray.

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Views away from The Devil's Throat at Iguazu Falls, Argentina

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Views away from The Devil's Throat in Iguazu Falls, Argentina

I take some photos and then put away my camera. I squeeze myself into a gap, shut out the crowds and turn my face to be kissed by misty wetness, and I allow myself to be calmed by nature’s rumble.

And I stand and stare. In the truest sense of the word, it is awesome. If I was a believer, I’d have thanked God at this point. Instead I thank life (and my ticket company for reversing my flight back to South America so easily).

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By the bottom of Bossetti Falls at Iguazu Falls, Argentina

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San Martin Island and The Devil's Throat, Iguazu Falls in Argentina (Brazil land on the left)

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The beach on La Isla San Martin at Iguazu Falls, Argentina

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San Martin Falls and surrounding waterfalls at Iguazu Falls, Argentina

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San Martin Falls at Iguazu Falls, Argentina

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Mbigua and Gpque Bernabe Mendez Falls at Iguazu Falls, Argentina

I take a short, free ferry ride and eat a picnic lunch on the little island of San Martin, a place with a mini sandy beach and a steep, stepped climb to vistas of the San Martin Falls. I have a voucher for the boat ride into the falls that I can choose to use or return later to the hostel. At R$50, I’m weighing up cost over experience. Should I just go for it?

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A taster soaking at a smaller waterfall en route to The Devil's Throat at Iguazu Falls

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More of a soaking in the heavy spray of San Martin Falls at Iguazu Falls

Experience wins. Absolutely worth it. The only disappointment is that we don’t go in as far as I would hope beneath the rush of the Devil’s Throat, but we do still all get a good soaking and the thrill of the being so close to the power and force of the water is indescribable.

And it’s a blessing to get wet; the sun has been shining with such ferocity. Not that I’m complaining. It has been a perfect day to visit Iguazu.

Less than fifteen minutes later and I’m back on land. I sit on a rock to dry off and take in the scenery. I’ve forgotten about the man and his cigarette. I am just here, in the now, drinking in the beauty and energy of this amazing place. A precious moment.

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Drying off and taking in the views at Iguazu Falls

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