Getting Up Close and Personal with Iguazu Falls

28 Feb

To describe Iguazu Falls without blatant and unashamed flattery is an impossible task. They are some of the most beautiful and majestic falls man has ever encountered. With an incredible 275 cascades set in dense tropical rainforest, Iguazu is considered to be one of the Seven Natural Wonders of the World. Many such celebrated destinations don’t live up to the hype but Iguazu Falls packs a punch and left us open-mouthed and starry-eyed. We were in good company as even the late United States First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt was lost for words upon first viewing Iguazu and simply gasped “Poor Niagara!”

The indigenous Guaraní name, translates as “Big Water” and is something of an understatement. These falls are huge! Enormous! Quite frankly, on a mammoth scale! The falls span 2.7 kilometres through pristine tropical rainforest forming the widest set of cascades anywhere in the world. Hundreds of waterfalls stretch out in all directions, with more appearing in the wet season.  They range from tiny, graceful trickles to huge, forceful flows – all are nothing short of inspiring.

Sitting on the border of Argentina and Brazil, the falls are actually split into two parks – Iguazú National Park (Argentina) and Iguaçu National Park (Brazil).  Both parks became UNESCO World Heritage Sites in 1984 and 1987 respectfully and they are now considered to be one of South America’s prime tourist destinations, receiving more than one million visitors per year.

The city of Foz do Iguaçu, in the state of Parana, is Brazil’s gateway to their portion of the falls, while the city of Puerto Iguazu in the province of Misiones, offers Argentina’s access to the Park. These isolated cities can be reached by flights from the major metropolis in both countries, or more commonly by long bus journeys of all comfort levels and costs (from Sao Paulo 22 hours $80 USD and from Buenos Aires 20 hours $40 USD).

The falls are unequally split with Argentina owning around 80% compared to Brazil’s 20% but both offer very different and unique experiences – the Argentine side has a larger variety of nature trails and lets you get up close and personal to the falls, whereas, the Brazilian side offers the grand overview and panoramas to die for.

It is possible to see the falls and surrounding area in a whirlwind trip but it is better to plan at least two days – one on the Brazilian side and one on the Argentine side. Remember to carry your passport when crossing the border and to arrange any necessary visas before hand.

THE GRAND OVERVIEW

Our first day at the Falls was spent on the Brazilian side. While the Brazilian side doesn’t take you so close to the action, it does offer the most incredible panoramic views and a deep appreciation of the sheer scale and grandeur of the falls.

We stayed at Hostel Bambu (Rua Edmundo de Barros) located centrally in Foz do Iguaçu – with top marks from us for its large swimming pool, relaxing communal areas and complimentary breakfast! Regular buses travel from Foz do Iguaçu city (25 minutes) and deposit passengers at the park entrance. Once the entrance fee is paid, double decker buses transport passengers to Hotel das Cataratas, where a 1,200m pathway runs along the right bank of the Iguazu river offering uninterrupted views down the  canyon to Iguazu’s splendour.

The Atlantic rainforest surrounding the falls has been beautifully preserved by both Brazil and Argentina and is overflowing with more than 2,000 plant species, 400 bird species, 80 types of mammals and countless insects. Some of the stars of the show are colourful toucans, cheeky monkeys and ring-tailed coatis (a raccoon-like animal). Butterflies danced and fluttered around us as we wandered along the trails, settling on our skin, looking for minerals.

A stunning catwalk on the Brazilian side snakes out over the falls towards the tallest and most spectacular waterfall in the park – the 80 metre high, 150 meter wide, horse-shoe shaped El Garganta del Diablo, or the Devil’s Throat. Venturing along this walkway will undeniably leave you soaked to the skin but the rewards are an intimate insight into the full and brutal force of the flowing water.

From the end of the main walkway, a lift zooms visitors to the top of a cliff and deposits them to one side of the Devil’s Throat. Once you’ve reached this point neither words or photographs can do the falls justice, so simply close your eyes, hold onto the railings and let your senses do the rest!

The falls were literally electrifying, making our hair stand on end. We were in a fantastic mood, filled with energy and smiles stretching from ear to ear. Science has proved that waterfalls can have a euphoric effect on us all. The air surrounding waterfalls is charged with negative ions, produced as churning water breaks apart molecules in the air, and these ions encourage increased levels of serotonin (the mood enhancing chemical) in the body. So, as you stand admiring this incredible force of nature, remember to breathe in all those negative ions and enjoy that natural high!

Rubber boats called Zodiacs from the Argentinian side of the falls stream in and out of a small dock, carrying passengers along a path of falls which increase in size right up to the thunderous Devil’s Throat. The boat’s skipper wears a full length waterproof suit and requests cameras and shoes to be placed in waterproof bags – ready for the inevitable drenching!

In a matter of minutes we could see everyone on board was soaked to the skin. Their screams carried across the water and only seemed to encourage the skipper to take them closer, infact almost under the falls. Comically clinging to their ponchos, the passengers took a cold shower courtesy of nature.

THE ART OF INTAMACY

If the Brazilian side is for viewing the falls, the Argentine side is for experiencing the falls. A small train carries visitors from the gate to the falls and an extensive series of boardwalks takes visitors very close to the action. With around two-thirds of the waterfalls located here, there’s plenty of opportunity to get intimate with the falls and get soaked in the process.

    

There are two circuits on the Argentine side – the Passeios Inferiores or ‘lower circuit’ which takes visitors through forested trails to the base of the falls, where the might of the thundering water will drench you with spray, and the Passeios Superiores or ‘upper circuit’, a series of walkways and bridges set on top of the waterfalls edge allows visitors vertical views from the top.

The lower circuit is at the heart of the park. Featuring eight different viewing places along 1.7km of boardwalks it’s easy to spend a couple of hours in this section.

The first part of the trail passes through dense tropical rainforest where you’ll first encounter Dos Hermanas, Chico and Ramírez Waterfalls. Closer to the river’s edge, free boats depart every 15 minutes to Isla San Martin to take in views along Iguazu canyon, with dramatic glimpses of the Devil’s Throat when the spray lifts.

One of the lower circuits highlights is a metal footbridge allowing visitors to experience the explosive power of Bosetti Waterfall. Screams of joy were silenced by the noise of crashing water and we were consumed by fine clouds of mist as we edged closer, to within touching distance of the foaming torrents, for the ultimate action shot.

The upper circuit offers the opposite of the experience available on the Brazilian side. From above watch the dramatic cascade of water from hundreds of falls. The first vista is one of the most stunning along the upper circuit with the semi-circular chain of falls stretching out in front of you and into the distance.

Hundreds of swallows nest behind the falls and we watched in awe as they appeared from behind the walls of crashing water to hunt for insects to feed their young, and returned at full speed, tilting their wings as they disappeared into the foaming curtain of water as if by magic.

The upper trail follows this arc, with numerous stops offering different angles and views to take your breath away. The trail crosses the wide Iguazú River to reach the edge of the second largest falls in the park: the San Martin Waterfall. Vistas from the balcony take in the whole Park whilst all around you powerful jets of water thunder past and smash on the rocks below.

For dramatic effect and to avoid the morning tour bus traffic we’d recommend leaving El Garganta del Diablo, or the Devil’s Throat to last. It truly is a special encounter and one worth waiting for!

The walkway leading to this spectacle, Passeio Garganta do Diablo, floats on top of the wide and calm upper part of the Iguazu River. In contrast to what lies in wait, this broad stretch of river is remarkably peaceful with large catfish grazing in the shallows.

As you approach the Devil’s Throat, the earth begins to rumble. The river quickens and the bubbling water surges over a precipice, disappearing into a deep gorge creating endless clouds of mist. The sound is deafening – like the devil himself gurgling with water.

The tight semi-circular curtain of water is actually made up of 14 waterfalls. The amount of water pouring from these falls to the Iguazu River is staggering – on average, about 1,500 cubic meters of water flows over the precipice every second. During the rainy months of November to March, when we were lucky enough to be there, the rate can increase to as much as 13,000 cubic meters – enough to fill 5 Olympic swimming pools every second.

We were almost afraid to walk too close to the edge and look down but we couldn’t back out of this multi-sensory experience. As we walked closer, we were deafened by the roar of the crashing water. We were soaked by the spray. We are hypnotised by the rainbow arches forming above our heads. We felt the child-like urge to raise our arms in the air and shout out towards the falls.

We’d seen other great waterfalls but Iguazu Falls took first prize. The sheer size and scale of the parks blew our minds – it was like nothing we’d seen before.  This was nature at its greatest – most intense and loud. The sheer power, noise and energy of the falls will live on in our memory forever.

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