A Tour-Guide-Free Waterfall Adventure—Thanks to Spanish

When I first moved from the U.S. to Uruguay, I didn’t speak Spanish. And while some English-speaking expats get by without learning any Spanish, my experience is, the more Spanish I learn the richer my expat experience becomes.

It took just a little study to learn to greet people and show respect. Now, after a little more study and practice I can express my needs and wants and I’m starting to build rapport with my Uruguayan neighbors. More and more, it feels like I’m getting ready to take off my Spanish “training wheels” and learning to communicate like a local.

This week my Spanish, though still at a basic level, very much came in handy on an excursion I took to Iguazú Falls.

These 200-to 250-feet high falls, located in a jungle on the Iguazú River that runs between Argentina and Brazil, are considered a natural wonder. They are surrounded with national parks on both the Argentina and Brazil sides of the river, which together include more than half-a-million acres.

I went to Iguazú Falls just days ago with close friends from college who are vacationing in Argentina and Uruguay to celebrate their 25th wedding anniversary. After meeting them in Buenos Aires, Argentina, just across the Rio de la Plata (River of Silver) from Uruguay, we flew together, 680 miles north, to the Argentina-side of Iguazú Falls.

It was when we arrived at the Iguazú Falls airport and took a taxi to our hotel that my Spanish skills really came in useful. My friends speak very little Spanish, and our taxi driver, Mauro, speaks almost no English. But fortunately, my basic Spanish enabled me to understand Mauro and translate for my friends.

On the way to our hotel, in Spanish, Mauro told us about the area: about the local wildlife, and about a waterfall called Garganta del Diablo (The Devil’s Throat).

I listened eagerly, translating for my friends, and the next morning we hiked the trails near our hotel to view the falls. From there we took a small train to metal footbridges that cross over the top of the river to a platform near the Devil’s Throat. It’s certainly an impressive sight. Though the Iguazú Falls are comprised of between 150 and 300 waterfalls, half of the water volume of all the Iguazú Falls is at the Devil’s Throat.

After our day at the Falls and having built up a rapport with Mauro, we decided to hire him again to drive us into the nearby town of Puerto Iguazú for dinner and to take us to the airport for our departure the following morning.

Taxi rates in the Iguazú area are fixed from point to point—but still Mauro accommodated us with several side trips and stops.

He gave us a driving tour of Puerto Iguazú, the clean and prosperous town of 82,000 where he lives. From a riverbank in Puerto Iguazú, he showed us where the Iguazú and Paraná Rivers come together forming the triple border of Brazil, Paraguay, and Argentina.

He also stopped his taxi to provide us with photo opportunities, including a stop to take pictures of a large toucan he spotted in a roadside treetop.

My friends and I were so grateful to Mauro for being so generous with his time and local knowledge.

And I realize without my basic Spanish, as imperfect as it is, we wouldn’t have been able to communicate with Mauro, a Spanish-speaking local, beyond indicating where to drive us.

For me, making my way on this trip without being part of a tour group or hiring a bilingual guide is like taking the training wheels off my Spanish usage. Even though I may wobble and fall over once in a while, I love the challenge of staying upright as I move forward in the Spanish-speaking world on two wheels.

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