Saturday, July 20, 2013

Peru-Brazil 2013 – Day 33 – The Itaipú hydroelectric project

We did start reasonably early, but Iguaçú was still 150 km away, so we didn’t get there until 10 am. A helpful young man gave us directions as we entered the city, and also some brochures about hotels. Foolishly I thought maybe we should get the issue of lodging settled at the time, which made us lose valuable tourist time. After half an hour of futile confusion I came to my senses, and we headed to the Itaipú hydroelectric project. I must confess that the presence of this enormous hydroelectric dam was a total surprise to me, largely due to the fact that I had not read the travel guide. I am glad Annie did, for I would not have wanted to miss it.

The Itaipú dam is built across the Rio Paraná, which is the border between Paraguay and Brazil, about 20 km upriver from the cataracts. The dam, which is 8 km long, was built by a bi-national self-sustaining entity between 1973 and 1978 (with the actual construction accomplished in three years, between 1975 and 1978), for the sole purpose of generating 14,000 MW of electricity, which is split 50-50 between the two countries. In reality, Paraguay only uses about 10% of the output, and sells its other 40% to Brazil. The project meets 90% of the power needs of Paraguay, and about 20% of the power needs of Brazil, and is the ground reason for the prosperity of the Sao Paolo industrial powerhouse.

The dam complex is magnificent. The Paraná is one of the great rivers of South America, and the idea of building a dam across it was bold and ambitious. Yet, the project moved along at a fast pace, staring with the diversion of the river unto a side channel, so both the main body of the dam and the spillway complex could be built. I need to check my statistics, but in the peak of construction the crews were pouring enough cement every single day to build a couple of skyscrapers, every single day! The spillway has three enormous concrete dams through which the excess water of the Paraná is conveyed out of the reservoir, and they are active almost every day of the year. In full operation they have the capacity to move three times the average volume of the cataracts, and they look like white, roiling rivers on their own right.

When finished in 1978, with an installed capacity of 14,000 MW, the Itaipú project was the largest hydroelectric project in the world, a title it maintained until the Three Gorges dam came on line in the late 2010’s. In contrast with Three Gorges, however, the inundation are of Itaipú is a mere 1,300 km2, so the ratio of inundation area to power generation is a low 0.1 (in contrast to the common ratio values of 0.3 to 2 observed in other hydroelectric projects). An interesting factoid is that, when they were getting ready to fill the reservoir, they estimated it would take a good 60 days to fill (which must had been a small tourist catastrophe to the cataracts, which would have a reduced flow for nearly two months). As luck would have it, just as they were getting ready it started raining, the Paraná swelled up, and in less than two weeks the reservoir was full!

You can see from my description that we were very impressed by the Itaipú project. Annie still likes the elegance of Hoover dam better, but there is no question that Itaipú is one of the seven wonders of the modern world.

When we came back to Iguaçú it was time to tackle the hotel question. Now, I have mentioned before that my Honey has some difficulties making up her mind, but she has really improved as of late. This time it took her only two hours to settle on a place, and I only had to drive her to ten different hotels over town! At the end she harnessed the services of a travel agent to broaden her net, and we ended in a comfortable hotel on the outskirts of town. I am so glad she decided to come here. Had I decided, like it happened last night, I would have been treated to the cone of silence, the carita de caca, and the many other little ways my Honey has to show her displeasure.

Tonight we were in good spirits (even though it is chilly out in the open), and thought we could eat a cow, so we treated to a banquet at a famous churrascaría in town, O Bufalo Branco (or The White Bison). The way these restaurants work, is that there is a buffet of pasta, salad, and desserts, but the meat courses are brought to you by a swarm of waiters who carry choice morcels of beef, pork, lamb, or chicken, impaled on a sword! They certainly look like swords, but are really skewers that are kept rotating on a huge grill, to which the waiters go back from time to time to pick up a new delicacy. Leg of lamb, filet mignon, chicken hearts, broiled onions, hump stake, roasted pineapple, prime rib, toasted cheese, and pork ribs floated before our eyes, and we made our best to sample them all (we couldn’t, but you could at least feast your eyes and inhale deeply). It was fairly expensive, but was indeed a dining experience.

And know to sleep, because tomorrow we are spending the whole day at the cataracts!

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