Despite the fact that the Itaipu dam is one of the seven wonders of the modern world, many travellers have never even heard of it. Perhaps it is overshadowed by its natural-wonder neighbour the Iguazu Falls, or maybe it just doesn’t get the publicity it deserves.
The Itaipu dam straddles the Paraná River between Brazil and Paraguay, not far from the cities of Foz do Iguaçu (Brazil) and Ciudad del Este (Paraguay), the border towns at the triple border that is also shared by Argentina. Most visitors to the area are there to visit the Iguazu Falls, but those who make the trip to the dam find it worth their while.
The dam was a joint effort between Brazil and Paraguay, and the electricity generated by its hydroelectric power plant is enough to provide 89% of Paraguay’s electricity needs and 19% of Brazil’s. It’s estimated that the plant produces enough power in a year to power the entire world for two days.
Travellers can visit the dam from both sides; we had the chance to go as an optional extra to our Intrepid tour when we were staying in Foz do Iguaçu. There were two tour options, one of which was more expensive and took you into the workings of the dam. We chose not to go then, mostly because we just didn’t have enough time, but also because it seemed a little expensive.
Not so on the Paraguayan side. Sure, getting into the country wasn’t cheap, with visas costing US$75 each, but after that prices got a lot more reasonable. A bus to the dam from the centre of Ciudad del Este, for example, costs 3,000 guaranis, about US$0.75 or one New Zealand dollar. And entrance to the dam is free.
An important point to note is that the visitor centre only runs four tours Monday to Friday, with five on Saturday and just three on Sunday. We showed up at about 3:20, which was luckily just in time to hop on the last coach of the day out to the dam. We had, however, missed the preceding video, as we realised when we stopped to pick up an information brochure on the way out. After explaining what had happened to the staff, a kind receptionist took us upstairs to a small cinema and put the video on just for us. Ah… Suddenly what we had seen on the coach had some significance.
You can visit the Itaipu dam as part of an organised tour, but visiting independently is cheap and easy. From the Ciudad del Este urban bus terminal, hop on any bus marked Hernandarias and get off where the road splits towards Hernandarias and Itaipu. The conductor will tell you where to get off if you ask him to, and the entrance to the dam complex is a three-minute walk from the bus stop. Most of your time will be spent crossing the road — it’s quite a busy highway and there’s no pedestrian crossing.
Make sure to time your arrival with one of the documentary showings: at 8am, 9:30am, 2pm and 3pm Monday to Friday, with an extra showing at 10:30am on Saturdays as well as the other times. On Sunday your only options are morning ones: 8am, 9:30am and 10:30am. The movie is about 20 minutes long and is followed by a coach trip out to the dam. If planning your trip, the bus ride from Ciudad del Este is 15-20 minutes long, so make sure you get to the bus terminal at least half an hour before the start of the documentary.
The movie is short, informative and in Spanish. Don’t worry if you don’t understand, most of the information is statistics displayed as fancy graphics set to emotive music. And it’s quite an emotive thing really, that Paraguay and Brazil managed to work together to construct this awesome piece of machinery, and that they continue to work together to keep it going.
The coach trip apparently used to involve three stops, but they’ve cut it down to just one, at the main lookout. Here, you get a panoramic view of the floodgates and the main dam structure, as well as being able to see the Paraná River flowing off into the distance. After ten minutes or so at the lookout, the coach drives across the dam itself and up onto the wall, from where you can see the huge dam lake as well as the long cables stretching from the dam to the cluster of electricity pylons. Then, it’s back along the access road to the reception.
An independent trip to the Itaipu dam is an easy, cheap day out from Ciudad del Este using the public bus system — much more fun than an organised tour would be!
For more on Paraguay, check out our Paraguay country page.