The Itaipu Dam

In 1994 the American Society of Civil Engineers forwarded their nominations for the seven Wonders of the Modern World. Amongst the myriad of intriguing and awe-inspiring engineering undertakings that range from such iconic feats of the 20th century as the trans-channel tunnel between London and Paris and San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge, the Itaipu Dam was the name that made everyone curious.

Like so much of Paraguay, it seemed as if this monstrous engineering project had too slipped the attention of the global consciousness, and even today the Itaipu Dam remains something of an obscurity to those who haven’t visited the country or its near neighbour, Brazil. However, when it comes to proving its place on the Wonders list, there is no question that it’s an epithet Itaipu very much has claim to.

The Itaipu Dam sits at a border juncture on the Parana River between Brazil and Paraguay. It’s currently hailed as the world’s largest power plant and its second largest hydroelectric dam, and has a yearly output that has exceeded even the colossal Three Gorges Dam on the Yangtze in China. Visitors flock to wonder at the ingenuity of the joint Brazilian and Paraguayan project, which not only saw the construction of a dam wall of just under 200 metres high, but also the redirection of the entire Parana river, and the installation of twenty separate generating units that pump considerable amounts of power into both countries alike.

Construction of the dam began in the early 1970s following a joint energy treaty signed by both the Paraguayan and Brazilian governments. By the late 70s a contract for construction of the dam had been awarded to a consortium of American and European companies, and the colossal undertaking of rerouting the Parana River had begun. This allowed engineers to finalise and initiate plans for construction of the dam itself, and in the dried out riverbed the project was finally completed in mid-October 1983, when the reservoir was first allowed to swell.

For many Paraguayans the construction of the Itaipu marked a watershed of national traditionalism, which saw big business taking precedent over the indigenous inhabitants of the Parana valley. What’s more, environmentalists were quick to protest to the loss of the world’s largest waterfall by volume. The Guaíra Falls which had straddled the border river between Brazil and Paraguay for thousands of years were completely submerged during construction and subsequently exploded by the Paraguayan government to enhance the navigable shipping routes in the reservoir build-up of the Parana.

However, many argue that the benefits of the dam have far outweighed any losses. Today the dam satisfies up to 90% of Paraguay’s electrical demand annually, while by lines out of Paraguay transfer energy to the major super-cities in Brazil; Rio de Janeiro, Sao Paulo and others. What’s more, in 2007 the dam underwent a major expansion which saw the final completion of two more generation turbines. This increased the dam’s capacity even more and allowed 90% of the dam’s electricalgeneration capabilities to remain active continuously.

For tourists in Paraguay who’s journey will take them close to the Brazil border country in the east, the Itaipu Dam really is a ‘must see’. Superlative statistics aside, the Parana River basin is a veritable hot spot of natural beauty in itself. From atop the dam panoramas abound, and most day tours to the Itaipu power station will incorporate some aspect of sight-seeing for tourists looking for that ubiquitous photo opportunity.

Usually trips will depart from nearby Foz do Iguaçu in Brazil, but it’s also possible to get pickups from inside of Paraguay. For those with a car, it’s also possible to arrange tours at the power station itself, and these will usually include a guided insight into both the history and working of the dam since its completion in the 1980s. Visitors will also be treated to a walk through tour of the dam’s actual operation room, where technicians operate the generators 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.

Organised tours in the dam last between 2 and 3 hours and every visit includes a screening of a documentary on Itaipu in the dam’s cinema room. For safety reasons, the minimum age limit on any Itaipu tour is 14 years and suitable clothing is compulsory. Flip flops, miniskirts and high-heels are all prohibited and those thinking about visiting should prepare for wet conditions in an industrial environment. Tours begin several times every day, starting at 8am with final entry at 4 in the afternoon. It’s possible to book tickets to Itaipu online in advance, or over the phone.