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.
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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.
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.
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.
The proboscis-shaped territory of Misiones, in the extreme northeast of the country, is one of Argentina’s smallest, poorest but most beautiful provinces. Posadas, the relaxed capital, is usually bypassed by most travellers, but the province has a lot more to offer than the juggernaut that is Iguazú Falls, the only place most visitors ever see, zipping in and out by plane. What looks odd on the map makes perfect sense on the ground: Misiones’ borders are almost completely defined by the wide Paraná and Uruguay rivers and one can even imagine that the province’s sierras were formed by the land being compressed by neighbouring Brazil and Paraguay. The province’s distinctive iron-rich red earth ends abruptly just over the border with Corrientes, while the torrent of water that hurtles over the waterfalls at Iguazú must surely mark one of the world’s most dramatic and decisive frontiers. Along the Brazilian border, formed by the upper reaches of the Río Uruguay, you can see one of the world’s most unusual, if not most powerful, sets of cascades, the Saltos del Moconá, weather conditions permitting.
The territory was named for the Jesuit settlements that flourished in the region in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries; the most impressive mission on Argentine soil is the much-photographed ruins of San Ignacio Miní. Misiones became a centre of considerable immigration in the early twentieth century: mostly Ukrainians, Swedes, Japanese and Germans. The province’s wildlife-filled jungle and its emerald fields and orchards – pale tobacco, vivid lime trees, darker manioc and neatly clipped tea plantations, painting the landscape endless shades of green – are further attractions that make wandering off the beaten tracks that are the RN-12 and the RN-14 infinitely rewarding.
Away from Iguazú tourist facilities are few and far between, but a number of estancias and lodges make for some of the country’s most enjoyable accommodation experiences.
Guaraní: vestiges of indigenous culture in the Litoral
As in parts of neighbouring Corrientes Province, a strong Guaraní influence remains in Misiones (known as Tapé or Guayrá in the native tongue), thanks to small pre-European communities scattered throughout the territory, and this cross-cultural phenomenon is echoed above all in the speech of inhabitants in the more rural areas, where a mix of Guaraní and Spanish can frequently be heard. Throughout the Litoral, even in urban districts, Guaraní words are a common feature of speech: for example, you may hear a child referred to as a “gurí” or a woman as a “guaina”. Toponyms like San Ignacio Miní, Iguazú, Moconá and Teyú Cuaré are all Guaraní.
The Jesuit missions
After Iguazú Falls, the province’s major tourist attractions are the Jesuit missions, north of Posadas. The largest, San Ignacio Miní, is also the best preserved in the whole of the missions region, which extended beyond the Paraguay and Uruguay rivers to Paraguay and Brazil, and also into Corrientes Province. Far less well preserved – and much less visited – are the ruins of Santa Ana and Loreto, south of San Ignacio; these crumbling monuments, set amid thick jungle vegetation, are less dramatic but appealing if only because they attract fewer visitors. All three missions can be visited on a day-trip from Posadas, though it’s well worth spending a night in San Ignacio, visiting the ruins in the morning light – the best time for photographs, when the low light enhances the buildings’ deep reddish hues – and again at night. In addition to the attractive village, there’s a stunning area of forest with perhaps the finest stretch of river scenery in the whole region.
The Jesuits and their missions
The first Jesuit missions in Argentina were established in 1609, three decades after the order founded by San Ignacio de Loyola first arrived in the region. Though the Jesuits tried to evangelize other parts of the country over the next 150 years, it was in the subtropical Upper Paraná where they had their greatest success. Known in Spanish as reducciones, these missions were largely self-sufficient settlements of Guaraní Indians who lived and worked under the tutelage of a small number of Jesuit priests. Missions were initially established in three separate zones: the Guayrá, corresponding mainly to the modern Brazilian state of Paraná; the Tapé, corresponding to the southern Brazilian state of Río Grande do Sul, present-day Misiones Province and part of Corrientes Province; and the Itatín, lying between the Upper Paraná and the sierras to the north of the modern Paraguayan city of Concepción.
Enlightened slave drivers
If the Jesuits were essentially engaged in “civilizing” the natives, they did at least have a particularly enlightened approach to their task – a marked contrast to the harsh methods of procuring native labour practised elsewhere in Latin America. Work was organized on a cooperative basis, with those who could not work provided for by the rest of the community. Education and culture also played an important part in mission life, with Guaraní taught to read and write not only in Spanish but also in Latin and Guaraní, and music and artisanship actively encouraged; however, coercion and violence were not unknown, and epidemics periodically ravaged these communities.
The early growth of the missions was impressive, but in 1660 bandeirantes, slave traders from São Paulo, attacked, destroying many of the missions, and carrying off their inhabitants, leading the Jesuits to seek more sheltered areas to the west, away from the Guayrá region in particular. The mission population soon recouped – and then surpassed – its former numbers, and also developed a strong standing army, making it one of the most powerful military forces in the region. Their most important crop proved to be yerba mate, which had previously been gathered from the wild but was now grown on plantations for export; other products sold by the missions included cattle and their hides, sugar, cotton, tobacco, textiles, ceramics and timber. They also exported musical instruments, notably harps and organs from the Reducción de Trinidad in Paraguay.
Decline and fall
By the end of the seventeenth century, the reducciones were among the most populous and successful areas of Argentina. By the 1730s, the larger missions such as Loreto had over six thousand inhabitants – second only to Buenos Aires. Nonetheless, the mission enterprise was beginning to show cracks: a rising number of epidemics depleted the population, and the Jesuits were becoming the subject of political resentment. Settlers in Paraguay and Corrientes were increasingly bitter at the Jesuit hold over the “supply” of Guaraní labour and domination of the market for yerba mate and tobacco. Simultaneously, the previous climate of Crown tolerance towards the missions’ almost complete autonomy also began to change, with the Jesuits’ power and loyalty questioned. Local enemies of the missions took advantage of this, claiming that the Jesuits were hiding valuable silver mines and that foreign Jesuit priests were agents of Spain’s enemies. In 1750, an exchange treaty between Spain and Portugal was proposed, according to which Spain would give up its most easterly mission. The Jesuits and Guaraní put up considerable military resistance and the treaty was abandoned. The victory proved a double-edged sword, however; the resistance against the Crown only reinforced their image as dangerous rebels and, following earlier expulsions in France, Portugal and Brazil, the Jesuits were expelled from Argentina in 1767. Their magnificent buildings fell into disuse – lumps of stone were used for other constructions and the jungle did the rest – resulting in the ruins that can be visited today.
The ruins of Loreto are even wilder than those of Santa Ana. This site, founded in 1632, was one of the most important of all the Jesuit missions, housing six thousand Guaraní by 1733 and noted not only for its production of cloth and yerba mate but also for having the missions’ first printing press. Like Santa Ana, Loreto has a small visitors’ centre at its entrance, reached via a 6km stretch of unsealed road (impassable after heavy rain), which branches off the RN-12. Restoration work is being carried out with the assistance of the Spanish government. When you head out from the visitors’ centre to the reducción itself, it’s actually difficult at first to work out where the buildings are. After a while, though, you begin to see the walls and foundations of the settlement, heavily camouflaged by vegetation and lichen, on which tall palms have managed, fantastically, to root themselves.
San Ignacio Miní
The most famous of all the reducciones, San Ignacio Miní was originally founded in 1610 in the Guayrá region, in what is now Brazil. After the bandeirantes attacked the mission in 1631, the Jesuits moved thousands of miles southwards through the jungle, stopping several times en route at various temporary settlements before finally re-establishing the reducción at its present site in 1696.
The ruins occupy six blocks at the northeastern end of the village of San Ignacio: from the bus stop head east along Avenida Sarmiento for two blocks and turn left onto Rivadavia. Follow Rivadavia, which skirts around the ruins, for six blocks and then turn right onto Alberdi, where you’ll find the entrance to the site. At the entrance, there’s a small but worthwhile museum with a series of themed rooms depicting various aspects of Guaraní and mission life, plus a detailed maquette of the entire reducción. The site itself is dotted with panels lending context to the ruins, with audio provided in various languages, including English. Free, more detailed tours in rapid-fire Spanish depart regularly from the museum. There are also popular sound and light shows each evening.
On entering the settlement itself, you’ll come first to rows of simple viviendas, or living quarters, a series of six to ten adjoining one-roomed structures, each of which housed a Guaraní family. Like all the mission settlements, these are constructed in a mixture of basaltic rock and sandstone. Passing between the viviendas, you arrive at the spacious Plaza de Armas, whose emerald grass provides a stunning contrast with the rich red hues of the sandstone. At the southern end of the plaza, and dominating the entire site, stands the magnificent facade of San Ignacio’s church, designed, like Santa Ana’s, by the Italian architect Brazanelli. The roof and much of the interior have long since crumbled away, but two large chunks of wall on either side of the entrance remain, rising out of the ruins like two great Baroque wings. Though somewhat eroded, many fine details can still be made out: two columns flank either side of the doorway and much of the walls’ surface is covered with decorative bas-relief sculpture executed by Guaraní craftsmen. Most striking are the pair of angels that face each other high up on either side of the entrance, while a more austere touch is added by the prominent insignia of the Jesuit order on the right-hand side of the entrance.
To the left of the main entrance, you can wander around the cloisters and priests’ quarters, where a number of other fine doorways and carvings remain. Particularly striking is the doorway connecting the cloisters with the church baptistry, flanked by ribbed columns with heavily moulded bases and still retaining a triangular pediment over the arched doorway.
Heading northeast from Posadas along the RN-12, the first mission site you come to is Santa Ana. A signposted, unsealed road just south of Santa Ana village leads to the mission entrance and a small visitors’ centre. Originally founded in the Tapé region in 1633, Santa Ana was refounded, with a population of two thousand Guaraní, on its present site after the bandeirante attacks of 1660.
Like all the reducciones, Santa Ana is centred on a large square, to the south of which stand the crumbling walls of what was once one of the finest of all Jesuit churches, built by the Italian architect Brazanelli, whose body was buried underneath the high altar. A lot of work has been carried out on the site, yet the roots and branches of trees are still entangled in the reddish sandstone of the buildings around the plaza, offering a glimpse of the way the ruins must have appeared when they were rediscovered in the late nineteenth century. North of the church, on the site of the original orchard, you can still make out the channels from the reducción’s sophisticated irrigation system.
Regional food specialities
The food you find around Argentina is remarkably homogeneous for such a huge country. However, there are regional variations that reflect the culinary influence of neighbouring nations more than most Argentines realize or care to admit. The most notable of these cross-border gastronomic influences can be found in the northern reaches bordering Paraguay. In the Chaco, northern Corrientes and much of Misiones you will find dishes that are part of the staple diet in Asunción and the rest of Paraguay. Chipás – savoury cheese-flavoured lumps of manioc-flour dough – are extremely popular snacks sold on the street, served in restaurants instead of bread and cooked in people’s homes. Sopa paraguaya is actually not a soup at all, but a hearty maize and cheese dish, said to have been invented during the War of the Triple Alliance, when the beleaguered Paraguayan soldiers needed more sustenance than was provided by their traditional chicken broth, so army cooks thickened it with corn flour. Borí borí, on the other hand, is a soup, made from chicken, with little balls of maize and cheese floating in it. Last but not least, tereré, or cold mate, made with iced water or orange juice, is hugely popular in Paraguay, but can also be tasted in the borderlands of northeast Argentina, and is wonderfully refreshing on a hot summer’s day.
The Saltos del Moconá
The quiet village of El Soberbio lies in one of Missiones Province’s most striking areas, with some of the finest scenery in the whole region; at this border Brazil and Argentina sit like plumped-up cushions on either side of the curvaceous Río Uruguay. The village is the point of access for the Saltos de Moconá, an unusual but decidedly uncooperative set of waterfalls. One of Argentina’s strangest sights, the Saltos del Moconá are made up of nearly 3km of immensely powerful waterfalls which spill down the middle of the Río Uruguay, tumbling from a raised riverbed in Argentina into a 90m river canyon in Brazil.
The split-level waterfalls – the longest of their kind in the world – are formed by the meeting of the Uruguay and Pepirí-Guazú rivers just upstream of a dramatic gorge. As the waters encounter this geological quirk, they “split” once again, with one branch flowing downstream along the western side of the gorge and the other plunging down into it. This phenomenon is visible only under certain conditions: if water levels are low, all the water is diverted into the gorge, while if water levels are high the river evens itself out. At a critical point in between, however, the Saltos magically emerge, as water from the higher level cascades down into the gorge running alongside, creating a curtain of rushing water between three and thirteen metres high. The incredible force of the water as it hurtles over the edge of the gorge before continuing downstream explains its Guaraní name – moconá means “he who swallows everything”.