Travel is a primer for independence and self-sufficiency. Things will go wrong – you’ll miss your train or get on the wrong bus, and need to figure out how to get back on track. No where did I learn that more than my March 2016 trip from Rio de Janeiro through Iguazu Falls to Buenos Aires.
This blog won’t be about why you should go to Iguazu Falls – it’s assumed you will want to visit one of the natural wonders of the world. Although these places are very well traveled, not a lot of Americans citizens visited both Brazil and Argentina on one trip due to the cost of reciprocity fees*, so I didn’t find clear guides online from an American perspective (I was worried about travel visas). In addition, our transit relied a lot on public buses, and many transit routes were not posted online. When my friend Joanna and I arrived to Foz do Iguaçu, we actually had no idea how we’d get to Argentina. This is a blog recounting my transit experience, with some tips on how to navigate transportation when you don’t know what you’re doing!
(* Because the U.S. charged Argentinean and Brazilian citizens a large fee for visiting the U.S., the South American countries also charged American citizens fees ($160 each). Good news! Argentina eliminated the fee after negotiating visa waivers with the Obama Administration.)
Fly into Foz do Iguaçu
Did you know Brazil is the fifth largest country in the world? Unless you happen to already be close to the city, you will likely need to fly to Foz do Iguaçu or take a Very Long Bus. In addition to many large Brazilian cities, the Foz do Iguaçu/Cataratas International Airport (IGU) also services Lima and Santiago. Joanna and I flew from Rio de Janeiro to IGU on LAN Airlines. We bought the tickets a few weeks before our trip, so it cost more than average at $175 each.
Let’s take a pause here to discuss something really important:
IGU and IGR are not the same airport.
IGU = Foz do Iguaçu/Cataratas International Airport = Brazil
IGR = Cataratas del Iguazú International Airport = Argentina
Yes, their airport codes and airport names are really similar. Yes, they’re only about 20 miles or 31 km from each other. If you stay in Puerto Iguazú, you’re actually closer to IGU than IGR. And yes, if you land in the wrong airport and don’t have enter or visa on arrival privileges, you will be sent back to your original departure airport.
If you missed the error when booking your flight, you have an (almost) failsafe. Airline check-in counter attendants are required to ensure you have a passport or visa that will allow you into your country of destination. However, it’s all down to human error and if you confused IGU and IGR, they may too. And yes, I personally know someone who accidentally flew into IGU and had to fly back and pay for a flight to Argentina.
My phonetic tip for remembering is IGR –> I-G-“arg” –> “Arg”entina.
Take the bus into the city
Joanna and I booked a pousada (lodge, inn) on Airbnb in the city of Foz do Iguaçu. We stayed close to the Centro neighborhood, where we could walk to touristy restaurants, pharmacies, and – most importantly – the bus. We could not find bus timetables online, but our Airbnb host told us which bus number to take. We guessed which intersection we’d get off at, and saved a screenshot to our phones so we knew what streets or businesses to look for before getting ready to get off.
Tip: When you only have a vague idea of a transit experience, you might feel anxious. It’s helpful to look at a map beforehand and come up with a timeline of sights. I didn’t know how long or which route the bus would take, but I knew we’d drive a lot through the country before entering the city, and it put me at ease.
The bus from the airport to the city center is only about $1 USD (3 or 4 BRL). We already had reals from being in Rio, but if you don’t, you can get money from an ATM and buy something at an airport cafe for change. We saw the bus driver give change, but not for big bills.
The bus terminals are located across the street from the airport exit. The bus filled up quickly; the buses were not super frequent so people from multiple flights queued up before the first bus arrived.
Tip: When you aren’t sure where your bus stop is, find a business, cross street or monument 15 or so minutes walking from an estimated stop and signal to stop when you pass it. You will likely get off at your intended stop or 1-2 stops before. It’s better to risk getting off early and walking more, than getting off too late because the bus’s next stop may be a long way’s away. This happened in Rio to Joanna and me; we signaled to stop too late and the bus drove for another 15 minutes through a tunnel and on the freeway to the other side of the city.
Leave your luggage at Iguazu Falls
We got on the same city bus (route #120) to go to the Brazilian side of the falls. Most buses that leave the airport end up at the falls – you can see this on the bus marquee or the printed timesheet at some stops. You will likely be able to pick up the correct bus where you got off the bus from the airport. You will have plenty of opportunities to get a tourist map with transit markings, from the airport or from your lodging host. Don’t be afraid to ask for directions – a lot of people visit Iguazu Falls so locals know how to best help you.
Joanna and I carried our backpacker backpacks to the falls, where there were cheap lockers of varying sizes at the park entrance; we could fit both backpacks into one. This was beyond useful for us because we could head straight to Argentina from the falls, rather than take another 1.5 hour round trip to go back to Foz do Iguaçu and back to the falls before continuing to Argentina.
Take the bus to Puerto Iguazú
Back in early 2016, Joanna and I had a hard time researching this info online and honestly did not know which bus we were gonna take. We figured in the worst case scenario, we could split a taxi – when you’re trying to cross a border, your number one priority isn’t finding the cheapest option.
Remember earlier in this blog when I said “locals know how to best help you”? Yup, Joanna and I almost got on the wrong bus twice. We wanted to go to the Puerto Iguazú city center (main bus station), not to Iguazú Falls. Thankfully, the wonderful park rangers instinctively knew where we needed to go and directed us to wait for the Río Uruguay bus, which does a round trip from the Argentinian and Brazilian sides of the falls, stopping at immigration on both sides and the main Puerto Iguazú bus station. At the crosspoint, we got off the bus to get our immigration stamp.
Now, you may read online that since many locals use the same bus to commute, they stay on the bus while tourists get off for the immigration checks. Some people recommend staying on the bus and getting away with not having a visa.
Yeah, that’s bullshit.
Not only should you not mess around with immigration – especially in a foreign country in an area where it’s unlikely you have a home country consulate nearby – but the bus operators need to check. They collected our passports for a quick minute and an immigration official actually came on board.
And, even if by some miracle you make it through without a visa, you still will need to leave the country at some point. The immigration officials then will check to see when you entered and see no record of a visa. That’s a situation no one ever wants to be in.
Even though there were a queue of buses, vans and cars waiting to cross the border, this process was pretty smooth and fast.
From the Puerto Iguazú bus station, we took a $4 USD taxi to our hotel, about 10 minutes away. We took the taxi on the recommendation of the hotel owner, but we ended up walking to the city center during our few days there.
Split a taxi to Iguazu Falls, and to the airport
We intended to go to Argentina’s side of Iguazu Falls for the full day before our flight, but there was a torrential downpour. We were prepared for rain, but not this almost Southeast Asia in typhoon season weather. So, we stayed in Puerto Iguazú. The day of our flight, with travel, we only had slightly less than 3 hours to enjoy the park. We had come all this way, and so decided to just make it work. (And we’re very glad we did! We got on a super fun waterfall cruise and got splashed!) The Argentinean side of the falls also has luggage lockers at the park entrance, making it easier for us to go to the airport later.
In order to save about 1 hour of time, instead of waiting for and taking the bus, we split a taxi.
Tip: You will always find tourists looking to save money. The taxi from the Puerto Iguazú city center to the falls cost us about $25 USD, but if you split it 4 ways (4 guest seats in a regular taxi), that’s only $6.25 per person. Go to the bus stop, where there’s likely a queue of tourists waiting, and just ask if anyone wants to fill up a taxi with you.
We split the taxi from the falls to the airport, about $20, with a complete stranger, also.
Joanna and I took an Aerolíneas Argentinas flight to Buenos Aires. The cheapest flight option took us to the smaller, international (more like regional) airport in Buenos Aires called Aeroparque Jorge Newbery (AEP).
This leads me to the most important part of transit – money. You will encounter transit mishaps, and having the money to pay for a taxi, or another mode of transit, is important. For normally cheaper transit, like city buses, or taxi companies without card readers, that money usually needs to be in cash.
Not being able to get money in Argentina
When traveling, it’s always good to have different methods of getting local currency. I did all three for my Brazil and Argentina trip: I ordered a few hundred dollars in BRL and ARS (Argentinean Pesos) in advance from my bank, had a $100 bill I could exchange just in case, and an ATM card to get money directly from my account. Depending on your bank card provider and exchange rates, either one of these can be the most or least expensive option.
Despite all of this, in Argentina, Joanna and I could not get paper money for two days. In Spanish, paying in cash is usually referred to as en efectivo, which makes sense since the English cognate is “effective”. For almost two days, our ATM and credit cards were ineffective and without cash, we could not spend any money.
Joanna and I had both traveled separately across the world, ending up in rural villages and countries experiencing economic crises in Africa, Asia, Europe, and Central America. The world is capitalist and greedy, even in communist countries. So in places without running water or dependable electricity, we have always, always been able to use our ATM card or exchange U.S. dollars to get money somewhere. We took this for granted and arrived at AEP with little ARS thinking we could go to the ATM. That didn’t work. Read this article on Argentina’s Black Market for money exchange for more context on why this happened.
Let’s flash back to our last night in Puerto Iguazú. We were running out of cash on hand and went to a Santander ATM. Although I had used the ATM successfully twice before, it rejected my card three times. My partner, Carl, was on a separate trip throughout Argentina and had met us in Puerto Iguazú. He tried his card next and the machine ate it! This was Wednesday night, and due to the ATM service schedule, he could not get his card back until Friday morning. Since Joanna and I were leaving Thursday night, she didn’t risk trying her card.
In hindsight, we should have tried to exchange my $100 USD in Puerto Iguazú, since you shouldn’t travel far without cash on hand, but we assumed we’d be able to get a more reliable ATM at the Buenos Aires airport.
Joanna’s and my cash fund depleted when we took the two taxis in Puerto Iguazú. Landing in AEP, we found two ATMs in the airport. Between the two of us, we tried to unsuccessfully take out money 7 times. Finally, a porteño (Buenos Aires local) arrived and tried to take out money – he failed too! He explained to us that the ATMs were out of cash.
Joanna and I resigned ourselves to get a bad exchange deal and went to trade my $100 at the airport currency counter. Guess. What. There was no money at the counter, and the attendant told us we’d have to wait 2 hours before more came. It was nearing 8pm.
We still had about 150 ARS, which was not enough to get us to our Airbnb in the Palermo neighborhood, even on the bus. We decided to get in a taxi and see how far 150 ARS could take us toward the city center, where we expected to be able to walk to banks with cash and take another taxi. When explaining the situation to our taxi driver, he offered to take us to a Citibank that served expats and would probably have money. One of us would wait in the cab with him while the other took out cash. Finally! We were able to get paper money!
After arriving in Palermo, our taxi ride ended up costing two and a half times as much as a direct airport to Palermo ride. Looking at the city map later, we think our driver took some liberties with his route, but we can’t hate. That taxi driver literally brought us to financial security.
The more you travel, the more mishaps you’ll face, especially in transit. I hope my story helps prepare you to face and get yourself out of those mishaps!