I’ve been to Niagara Falls and have been soaked by the wayward waters sweeping over the Maid of the Mist, so I thought I knew what to expect at Iguazu Falls. I was wrong.
Eleanor Roosevelt was absolutely correct when, upon seeing these Falls, she commented, “Poor Niagara!” The South American waterfalls, located at the convergence of three countries – Argentina, Brazil and Paraguay – are twice as large as their North American counterpart between the United States and Canada. Adding to the spellbinding intrigue of Iguazu Falls, which can best be accessed from the Argentinean and Brazilian shores of the Iguazu River, is the glimpse it provides into their surroundings of spectacular, unspoiled nature.
According to legend, the Falls were born when Caroba, a local Guarani warrior, fled with the lovely Naipi in his canoe down the Iguazu River. When a forest god, who was also in love with the fair maiden, saw this, he became angry and made the land under the river disappear, causing the canoe and Naipi to drop over the edge. She turned into a rock at the bottom of the Iguazu Falls and Caroba turned into a tree that overlooks this rock.
The reality of the falls is even more dynamic than the legend. Formed where the lush green Amazonian land falls sharply away from the jungle, like a giant’s footprint in the rainforest, the waters of the Iguazu River gush over countless precipices, and foam and boil at the bottom before continuing on to join with the waters of the Parana River, where the Argentina/Brazil border meets that of Paraguay.
My first glimpse of the falls is from the Argentinian side of the river. We arrive mid-morning and check into the Sheraton Hotel, a Starwood property and the only hotel in the Iguazu National Park. From the balcony of our room, we can hear a distant roar and see the dense spray rising above the trees beyond the hotel grounds.
For a closer look, we follow the signs along the eco-friendly walkways, where entire families marvel at the dense forests and rugged terrain that culminate with torrential vistas. Wherever the view is especially spectacular, informative graphics, some even in brail, explain the whys and hows of what we are looking at.
The upper circuit of the walkways cuts a path past numerous individual waterfalls, some picturesque pillars of water cascading through the trees to pools below, others wide, massive walls of water that thunder as they surge beyond the rim of a cliff, sending up a deluge of spray.
As we walk through the lush forest we see numerous varieties of toucans and parakeets, which are among the multitude of winged creatures that make the national park a prime destination for ornithologists.
Delicate lavender, pink, white and yellow flowers bloom in the trees and from crevices in rocks in the middle of streams trickling towards the massive falls. We see a sampling of the 4,000-plus varieties of exotic butterflies, their gentle fluttering of colour creating a serenity that contrasts sharply with the turbulent river, and watch flocks of Great Dusky swifts frolic in the mist below us, their nests hidden behind the great walls of water. Frisky coatis ignore the two-legged paparazzi who snap photos of their playful antics.
The lower circuit leads to the river’s edge, where the water crashes down, drenching everyone in the vicinity. My heavy-duty rain poncho provides only minimal protection, and even less when we board an open, high-powered boat that zooms in tight figure eights through the bucking currents, fighting against the potent water to take us right up to where the water crashes beside us – a thrilling adventure, even if I am soaked and cold by the end.
The next morning we ride the park train through the forest to the visitor’s centre that features an informative museum, making a stop at the most incredible of the three distinct circuits that loop around the falls.
The peaceful one-kilometre walk along a long pier over deceptively calm water takes visitors to the gigantic Garganta Del Diablo (the Devil’s Throat), the highest of approximately 280 separate falls. At 82 meters high, 150 meters wide and 700 meters long, it is the largest in the entire system. The vast volume of water and the intensity of its descent are overwhelmingly awe-inspiring, even after having experienced the falls from the other two circuits.
At this point I am convinced I have seen and experienced the ultimate waterfalls, and I know exactly why they have been named a Natural Wonder of the World and designated a UNESCO World Heritage site. I cannot imagine what could possibly be more spellbinding. But then we go to Brazil.
In less than two hours, including the time it takes us to cross the border between the two countries, we arrive at the Hotel das Cataratas, an Orient-Express hotel and the only lodging in the Iguassu National Park on the Brazilian side of the border. As an American, I was required to obtain a visa prior to leaving the US, a process that turned out to be less complicated than the Brazilian website had led me to believe, but still time-consuming and expensive. These pre-trip hassles proved to be well worth the effort.
The first indication that this leg of our adventure is going to be beyond the ordinary is the exceptionally knowledgeable driver who transports us from the entrance of the Park to the hotel. He informs us that from the Brazilian side, it is possible to see 75 percent of all the falls. I have no concept of what he was talking about until we check into our room.
The decor is colourful Portuguese-colonial, and the windows frame a view of the falls that seem to be only about 100 metres away. Within a few minutes we cross the manicured front lawn of the hotel to the footpath that leads to even more spectacularly impressive vistas, completely different from the view from the other side. From Argentina you can see many different falls, some so close you can almost touch them, but only one at a time. From the Brazilian side we see a vast panorama of multiple falls all at once. Here we are captivated by how the cascading streams of water relate to one another, pouring from the top level to a plateau, from where another series drops to a third level, where more converge into the river below, in effect creating three levels of spectacular waterfalls.
From here it’s possible to see the hotel we had stayed in the night before over the border in Argentina, emphasising how close, yet how far away we were from our first introduction to this natural wonder.
Yet, from here we realise that just around the bend from where we had been in the river boat, there is another universe of falls that you cannot see from Argentina. With each step along the catwalks over the raging river, more and more cascades come into sight. Once again, we get completely soaked, but by even more formidable waters than before. In spite of the wet cold of mid-September, the view and experience is worth it. At the end of the path we ascend to the top of the observation tower, where the height allows visitors to more fully grasp the magnitude, vastness and sheer numbers of the waterfalls.
After witnessing the power of the water, we enjoy a different type of energy in the night, in the form of the Rafain Churrascana and Folkloric show in downtown Foz do Iguassu. The multilingual MC takes visitors through a high-octane South American dance and music tour as they gorge on tasty Brazilian barbecue. Special effects and beautiful costuming makes this more like Las Vegas than a typical tourist show.
Unfortunately, we don’t have time to tour the rainforest with the hotel’s resident eco-guide, nor to view Iguazu by helicopter, go white-water rafting or abseil down the gorge, although we did hike along some of the trails into the forest where the wildlife took shelter from the rain.
Although tour information indicated that both sides of this awe-inspiring natural wonder could be seen in one day or a day and a half at most, I recommend at least two full days. Three would be even better. Rushing does not allow time to stare in awe and to allow the wonder and power of nature to envelope your entire being – and that is what makes these immense falls so mesmerising.
The golden book
Hotel das Cataratas
+55 45 2102 7000
Sheraton Iguazu Resort & Spa
+54 3757 491 800