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South America in widescreen

A visitor is exulted, humbled and soaked to the bone on a whirlwind trip to spectacular Iguacu Falls on the Argentina-Brazil border.

October 01, 2006|Scott Kraft | Times Staff Writer

Iguacu National Park, Brazil — WHEN we reached the elegant Hotel Tropical das Cataratas early one Saturday afternoon last fall, its charming pink facade was shrouded in a thick, soupy fog. More sensible travelers might have settled into the leather sofas in front of the Belvedere Room fireplace and waited out the weather with a tumbler of Scotch. I have to admit that was tempting.

But my two friends and I were on a very tight schedule; we had a long weekend, less than 80 hours, in South America. We couldn't let bad weather stop us.

We scrambled across the road to the edge of a cliff high above the Rio Iguacu, squinted into the misty curtain and prepared to be dazzled, like the first European explorers in 1541, by the majesty of Iguacu Falls.

The full-throated sound of rushing water was unmistakable and tantalizing. Yet we couldn't see a thing. Nothing.

So we did the only thing we could do: We began to laugh at our bad luck. We took turns posing for photographs in front of the curtain of mist, our camera flashes ricocheting back at us, capturing the irony of this invisible wonder of the world.

Then, slowly, the mist began to break. Clumps of clouds rolled past, offering glimpses of small waterfalls. As we began hiking along the cliff's edge, we saw ever-larger spans of the cascading water. It appeared as if the lush jungle plateau had suddenly sprung dozens of leaks: Water raced over and around mossy islands and leafy trees, leaping into the air before plunging deep into the gorge. Some of the chutes were gushing spigots just a few feet across; others spanned hundreds of feet.

I found myself wondering: Just how big was this thing?

A good case of wanderlust

TO get here, we had traveled 8,000 miles in just under 48 hours -- in taxis, buses and three planes.

But it wasn't as though we had planned this for months. The three of us -- all fathers of teenagers -- had mapped out the journey less than two weeks earlier, over wine and steak at a La Canada Flintridge restaurant.

This wasn't our first trip together. A year earlier, we had journeyed to Peru and, in only four days, roamed the ancient streets of Cuzco, explored the Inca ruins of Machu Picchu and sipped pisco sours on the terrace of Lima's spectacularly situated Huaca Pucllana restaurant, overlooking the excavation of a 1,500-year-old pyramid.

And a few months after the Iguacu Falls trip, we would be on the road again -- this time to Jordan, where in 3 1/2 days we explored the 2,000-year-old Nabatean settlement of Petra, waded into the Dead Sea at sunset, took in the promised land from Mt. Nebo and scrambled around the striking ruins of the Greco-Roman city of Jerash.

Our guidelines for these trips were pretty simple: The destination had to be exotic, and it had to include a visit to something none of us had seen before. It also had to be a place that our spouses didn't mind our visiting without them (Paris and London were out), and it had to be done quickly, so we were back before anyone knew we were gone.

My traveling companions were Richard Goetz and Steve Stathatos, lawyers and fellow La Canada Flintridge dads. Each of us has seen some of the world for business as well as pleasure, and we have serious cases of wanderlust. But it was the idea of traveling thousands of miles for what was essentially a long weekend that held a magical appeal.

The marvel of cellphones and BlackBerrys meant we were never far from the office, and we used spare moments to conduct business, sometimes with colleagues who never suspected we were a continent away. (And not just business: As we were driving through a sandstorm on our trip to Jordan a few months later, Rich interrupted the silence to announce that he had just used his BlackBerry to buy a sweater from L.L. Bean.)

These soccer dad escapes weren't "vacations" in the traditional sense, because we didn't kick back and relax in hopes of recharging our batteries. Rather, they were delicious journeys of discovery, taken at breakneck speed and stolen from busy work and home lives. In a way, too, they were proof that even middle-aged guys with sore knees and stiff backs can be as nimble as 20-year-old backpackers. (Well, almost as nimble, at least for short stretches.)

First stop: Buenos Aires

OUR journey to Iguacu Falls (or Iguazu, as it's known on the Argentina side) was planned for maximum adventure in minimum time.

Although we were somewhat price-conscious, we also knew we weren't going to be there long, so when faced with the choice of spending a little extra money to save time, we did it. We chose luxury hotels on the rationale that we'd be spending two nights on airplanes. We booked separate rooms for maximum comfort. We arranged for drivers to whisk us around. And the unwritten rule of our road was carry-on baggage only; we couldn't afford to waste precious minutes waiting for checked luggage or porters. (The final tab, including airfare, was about $2,500 apiece.)

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