Composed of over 250 separate cascades, and straddling the border between Argentina and Brazil, the Iguazú Falls 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 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 walkways 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.
Just under 300km northeast of Posadas, sitting high above the meeting of the Paraná and Iguazú rivers, at the most northern extremity of Misiones Province, Puerto Iguazú is a strange place. Originally a rather dull, backwater town, its popularity with Falls visitors has increasingly given it the feel of a lively resort in recent years, and, though it has little in the way of notable architecture, it has a certain simple charm that can grow on you. Its tropical vegetation and quiet streets seem more in keeping with the region than the high-rise concrete of the Brazilian city of Foz, and of the three border towns (the commercial settlement of Ciudad del Este in Paraguay, notoriously unsavoury and unsafe, is definitely best avoided), Puerto Iguazú is the only one to have a really secure and accessible riverfront area from which you can take in the surrounding panorama.
The town is bisected diagonally by Avenida Victoria Aguirre, which runs from Puerto Iguazú’s modest port out towards RN-12 and the national park. From the centre the Avenida Tres Fronteras runs west for 1.5km to the Hito Argentino de las Tres Fronteras, a vantage point over the rivers with views over to Brazil and Paraguay that is marked by an obelisk painted in the colours of the Argentine flag. An alternative route is via Avenida Aguirre, which forks right just before the town’s triangular grassy central square, Plaza San Martín. From here, Avenida Aguirre snakes down through a thickly wooded area of town to the port area; you can then follow the pleasant Costanera (Av Río Iguazú), popular with joggers and cyclists, left uphill towards the Hito.
The bizarre attraction of La Aripuca lies on the outskirts of Puerto Iguazú, just over 4km along RN-12 towards the national park. An aripuca is an indigenous wooden trap used in the region to catch birds; La Aripuca is a giant replica of such a trap, standing over 10m high and constructed out of 29 species of trees native to Misiones Province (all obtained through unavoidable felling or from victims of thunderstorms) – it looks like a giant wooden temple. Above all, La Aripuca is a kind of eco-symbol: the friendly German- and English-speaking family who constructed the strange monument hope to change visitors’ conscience about the environment through tours designed to explain the value and significance of these trees. Some very good crafts are on sale – mostly made of tropical wood – and you can snack, have a drink or try mate-flavoured ice cream.
Aeropuerto Internacional de las Cataratas del Iguazú lies 7km from the Falls and 20km from Puerto Iguazú on RN-12. There are regular flights to Buenos Aires with Aerolíneas Argentinas, Austral (who also fly to Salta), LATAM and Andes. Taxis run to the Falls or into town according to fixed rates (at least $700 to Puerto Iguazú and $1400 to Foz do Iguaçu). Four Tourist Travel runs a shuttle bus (at least $200 one-way), which meets all flights (though you’ll often have a long wait), and will drop off at your accommodation in town (not Brazil). Book the return trip 24hr before departure.
The Terminal de Ómnibus is at Córdoba and Misiones, and has a restaurant and a left-luggage service. There are frequent buses to/from the Argentine Falls – buy tickets at the terminal booth. Buses also run to/from the Brazilian Falls and to Foz do Iguaçu. Buses stop at Rua Mem de Sá (at Rua Taroba), the street just north of the Terminal de Transporte Urbano (the local bus station in the centre of Foz), where there are local buses to the Brazilian Falls.
Puerto Iguazú’s tourist office is at Av Aguirre 337.
Puerto Iguazú’s budget accommodation tends to be located in town, while the more upmarket places are set back among jungle vegetation on the road to the park and in the surrounding area. Note that camping inside the national parks is forbidden.
In Puerto Iguazú itself, there’s a handful of bars-cum-nightclubs on Avenida Brasil close to the junction with Avenida Aguirre, though many locals head across the river to Brazil for a big night out.
As you get off the bus at the Parque Nacional Iguazú, you’re greeted by the sound of rushing water from the Falls, the first of which lies just a few hundred metres away. There’s a visitors’ centre to the left of the bus stop, where you can pick up maps and information leaflets. There’s also a small but interesting museum here with photographs and stuffed examples of the park’s wildlife.
Guided tours into the forest are organized at the offices of Iguazú Jungle, located at the Circuito Inferior. A typical trip lasts one and a half hours, and involves being driven in the back of a truck along a rough 8km road through the forest, a walk down a narrow trail to the river, and a wild 6km boat ride down some rapids towards the Garganta del Diablo. Don’t expect to see any wildlife (much of which is nocturnal), but guides may point out some of the flora. You can also just opt for a jet-boat ride.
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. The city of Foz do Iguaçu lies a good 20km northwest of the Brazilian Falls; much larger than Puerto Iguazú, Foz boasts little in the way of sights and the relative strength of the Brazilian real usually makes it expensive compared with Argentina – you can easily visit the Brazilian Falls on a day-trip in any case.
The Brazilian Falls are protected within the Parque Nacional do Iguaçu. Buses and taxis can go no further than the visitors’ centre by the entrance, where you pay the entrance fee and transfer onto a shuttle bus. After passing drop-off points for boat and trail tours, these buses stop at the head of the waterfalls trail (bus stop #5, the “Path of the Falls Stop”), just opposite the Hotel das Cataratas. From here a walkway takes you high along the side of the river; it is punctuated by various viewing platforms from where you can take in most of the Argentine Falls, the river canyon and Isla San Martín. The 1.2km path culminates in a spectacular walkway offering fantastic views of the Garganta del Diablo and of the Brazilian Santo Salto Maria, beneath the viewing platform and surrounded by an almost continuous rainbow created by myriad water droplets. You are likely to get soaked here – enterprising locals sell ponchos, for what they’re worth; carry a plastic bag to protect your camera. At the end of the walkway, you can take a lift to the top of a cliff for more good views. A little further along, the Porto Canoas complex has a shuttle bus stop, souvenir stores and restaurants, often plagued by stripe-tailed coatis that accost visitors, begging for food.
Iguaçu Falls has become a major adventure sports hotspot in Brazil, with a bewildering range of activities available. Martin Travel, at Travessa Goiás 200 in Foz, is a reliable local Brazilian tour agency that specializes in ecotourism and puts together groups to go canoeing, rafting or mountain biking along forest trails.
Helisul operates helicopter rides from just outside the park’s entrance (Av das Cataratas Km16.5), across from the Parque das Aves, offering 10min flights over the Falls (minimum 3 people); sensational views, but controversial thanks to the noise pollution (which scares wildlife).
Macuco Safari at its own dedicated bus stop in the park, operates a jet-boat ride through white water right up to and into the Falls. Macuco also runs various guided boat tours along Paraná and Iguazú rivers, and can arrange guided hikes, rafting or fishing trips.
You will need to enter Brazil via the Puente Internacional Tancredo Neves, the bridge that crosses the Río Iguazú between the two countries and where immigration formalities take place. Certain nationalities – US and Canadian, for example – need visas to enter Brazil (even for one day), which can be obtained online or at the consulate in Puerto Iguazú; check beforehand.
When returning to Argentina, make sure you have enough days to continue your journey, as passport control often gives only thirty days here – though you can ask for the normal ninety. You must stop at both the Brazilian and Argentine immigration posts in both directions, even if your bus appears to be driving straight through (tell the driver you need to pass through Immigration). Wait times are rarely more than a few minutes, but if you don’t get a Brazilian stamp going in, you will be fined up to US$200 when you try and leave. Taxi drivers will wait for you while you clear immigration, but buses may not; keep your ticket and take the next one coming through.
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 walkways 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.
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 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.
Top image: Iguazu Falls, Argentina © sharptoyou/Shutterstock