Composed of over 250 separate cascades, and straddling the border between Argentina and Brazil, the Iguazú Falls (or “Cataratas”, as they are known locally) are quite simply the world’s most dramatic waterfalls. Set among the exotic-looking subtropical forests of Parque Nacional Iguazú in Argentina, and Parque Nacional do Iguaçu in Brazil, the Falls tumble for a couple of kilometres over a complex set of cliffs from the Río Iguazú Superior to the Río Iguazú Inferior below. At their heart is the dizzying Garganta del Diablo, a powerhouse display of natural forces in which 1800 cubic metres of water per second hurtle over a 3km semicircle of rock into the boiling river canyon 70m below.
The first Europeans to encounter the Falls, in 1542, were members of a Spanish expedition led by Cabeza de Vaca, who named them the Saltos de Santa María. For nearly five hundred years, however, they remained practically forgotten in this remote corner of Argentina, and it wasn’t until the early twentieth century that tourism began to arrive, encouraged by the then governor of Misiones, Juan J. Lanusse. The first hotel was constructed in 1922, right by the Falls, and by the mid-twentieth century Iguazú was firmly on the tourist map. Today, the Falls are one of Latin America’s major tourist attractions, with around two million visitors each year.
The Argentine side
The vast majority of the Iguazú Falls lie on the Argentine side of the border, within the Parque Nacional Iguazú. This side offers the most extensive experience of the cataratas, thanks to its well-planned system of trails and catwalks taking you both below and above the waters – most notably to the Garganta del Diablo. The surrounding forest also offers excellent opportunities to view the region’s wildlife. The main settlement on this side, Puerto Iguazú, lies approximately 18km northwest of the park entrance with a slightly sleepy, villagey feel, though its popularity with backpackers has livened it up a bit in recent years.
Garganta del Diablo
To visit the Garganta del Diablo (“Devil’s Throat”), you must take the Tren de la selva (“Jungle Train”), which leaves regularly from Estación Cataratas, for the Estación Garganta del Diablo, 3km southeast (fare included in entrance fee). From here a catwalk with a small viewing platform takes you to within just a few metres of the staggering, sheer drop of water formed by the union of several immensely powerful waterfalls around a kind of horseshoe. As the water crashes over the edge, it plunges into a dazzling opaque whiteness in which it is impossible to distinguish mist from water. The vencejos often swirl around the waterfall in all directions, forming giant swarms that sometimes swoop up towards you and perform miraculous acrobatic twists and turns – quite a sight. If you’re bringing your camera, make sure you’ve an airtight bag to stash it in, as the platform is invariably showered with a fine spray.
The Brazilian side
To complete your trip to Iguazú, you should also try and visit the Brazilian side. You’ll only need a few hours but it’s worth crossing in order to take photos of the Falls – particularly in the morning – as it provides you with a superb panorama of the points you will have visited close up in Argentina, as well as its own close encounter with the Garganta del Diablo. Though it offers a more passive experience, the view is more panoramic and the photo opportunities are amazing. You can cross for the day but, if you want to stay in Brazil, the city of Foz do Iguaçu lies a good 20km northwest of the access to the park. Much larger than Puerto Iguazú and with a modern, urban feel, Foz is neither the most beautiful nor most exotic of Brazilian cities, but if you’ve been travelling in Argentina for a while it’ll give you the chance to hear another language, try some different food and sample some lively nightlife. Foz definitely feels less safe than its Argentine counterpart – a fact much exaggerated by Argentines, but nonetheless you should be on your guard in the city.
The forest around Iguazú
The forest around Iguazú
The Falls are not the only attraction in the parks. The surrounding subtropical forest – a dense, lush jungle – is packed with animals, birds and insects, and opportunities for spotting at least some of them are good. Even on the busy catwalks and paths that skirt the edges of the Falls you’ve a good chance of seeing gorgeously hued, bright blue butterflies as big as your hand (just one of over 250 varieties that live around the Falls) and – especially on the Brazilian side – you will undoubtedly be pestered for food by greedy coatis (a raccoon relative). For a real close-up encounter with the parks’ varied wildlife, though, head for the superb Sendero Macuco, a tranquil nature trail that winds through the forest on the Argentine side. Commonly spotted species along here include various species of toucan and shy capuchin monkeys.
Flora and fauna around the Falls
Flora and fauna around the Falls
Despite appearances, the jungle landscape around the Falls is not virgin forest. In fact, it is in a process of recuperation: advances in the navigation of the Upper Paraná – the section of the river that runs along the northern border of Corrientes and Misiones – in the early twentieth century allowed access to these previously impenetrable lands and economic exploitation of their valuable timber began. In the 1920s, the region was totally exploited and stripped of its best species and traversed by roads. Only since the creation of the park in 1943 has the forest been protected.
Today, the forest is composed of several layers of vegetation. Towering above the forest floor is the rare and imposing palo rosa, which can grow to 40m and is identifiable by its pale, straight trunk that divides into twisting branches higher up, topped by bushy foliage. At a lower level, various species of palm flourish, notably the pindó palm and the palmito, much coveted for its edible core, which often grows in the shade of the palo rosa. Epiphytes, which use the taller trees for support but are not parasitic, also abound as does the guaypoy, aptly known as the strangler fig, since it eventually asphyxiates the trees around which it grows. You will also see lianas, which hang from the trees in incredibly regular plaits and have apt popular names such as escalera de mono, or “monkey’s ladder”. Closer still to the ground there is a stratum of shrubs, some of them with edible fruit, such as the pitanga. Ground cover is dominated by various fern species.
The best time to spot wildlife is either early morning or late afternoon, when there are fewer visitors and the jungle’s numerous birds and mammals are at their most active: at times the screech of birds and monkeys can be almost cacophonic. At all times, you have the best chance of seeing wildlife by treading as silently as possible, and by scanning the surrounding trees for signs of movement. Your most likely reward will be groups of agile capuchin monkeys, with a distinctive black “cowl”, like that of the monks they are named after. Larger, lumbering black howler monkeys make for a rarer sight, though their deep growl can be heard for some distance. Along the ground, look out for the tiny corzuela deer. Unfortunately, you’ve little chance of seeing the park’s most dramatic wildlife, large cats such as the puma and the jaguar, or the tapir, a large-hoofed mammal with a short, flexible snout. Toucans, however, are commonly spotted; other birds that can be seen in the forest include the solitary Black cacique, which makes its nest in the pindó palm; various species of woodpecker and the striking Crested yacutinga. Of the forest’s many butterflies, the most striking are those of the Morphidae family, whose large wings are a dazzling metallic blue.