Falling For Iguazu

Spanning the borders of three countries, Iguazu Falls is an outstanding feat of nature on a continent bursting with surreal landscapes and natural wonders. The Iguazu River tumbles over the Parana Plateau in an enormous, crashing cascade a few kilometres from where the two rivers merge. If you’re in the Southern Cone, the stunning and staggering falls are a must-see for the unbelievable raw power of the gushing water and the scale of it all — and for an added bonus, it’s also one of the easiest border crossings in the area! The most common and lauded route to see them is to start in Brazil, then move to Argentina and skip Paraguay as it has very little of the actual territory. I personally began in Argentina and crossed to Brazil, ignoring poor old Paraguay for time’s sake, and I wouldn’t have had it any other way.

© Tara Kergon

After the 17-hour bus journey from Buenos Aires, I was relieved to find Puerto Iguazu was a small, sleepy town, with almost everything within walking distance from the bus station. I was soon to discover it’s just a gateway to the falls and aside from a few restaurants, cafes, and shops, the town itself has little to offer. One worthwhile detour, however, is a trip out to San Ignacio; the leftover Jesuit ruins are interesting and, if you’re into Latin American literature, you can follow a trail to the isolated dwelling of writer Horacio Quiroga. Nonetheless, the falls are undisputedly the reason for touching down in Puerto Iguazu, and thankfully they’ve made it easily accessible by cheap, frequent buses (every 20 minutes or so, the Argentines aren’t known for their punctuality!) from the small bus terminal.

Arriving at the falls, it appears to be a total tourist trap as the hordes queue at all hours to get inside. Yes, it’s a major bucket list destination, but for me the beauty of the Argentine cataratas is that the national park is huge, with two main trails and plenty of side attractions which help it feel less crowded while you explore. The two main trails are both worth wandering: the lower walk takes you along the edge of the river, crossing over smaller waterfalls, following the water’s roar to bring you to a surreal panorama of the Devil’s Throat and San Martin Island. The higher trail draws you through the wilderness, across the rush of the Parana Plateau, along a wooden platform to stand close enough to the dramatic Garganta del Diablo to feel the water on your skin. I stared for at least half an hour at the fantastic crashing cascade, marvelling at the unparalleled force of nature, and even returned the next day to gaze one more time at one of nature’s undisputed wonders of the world.

As well as the falls themselves, there’s the chance to cross to San Martin Island and be surrounded by the numerous waterfalls, a nature trail in safari jeeps, and a calm boat ride through the trees overhanging the river. The best side attraction, however, is the chance to take a speed boat under the falls (or as close as it’s safely possible to get without the weight and power of the water crushing your spine) — it’s an adrenaline rush, a pure feeling of being alive and simultaneously terrified that’s better than any theme park rollercoaster. A final bonus of this side is that when you validate your ticket upon leaving, you get half price entry for the next day so there’s no excuse to miss anything.

The Brazilian side of the falls was easy to reach by taking a bus across the border (it even stops at both immigration posts, but sometimes won’t wait for you so you have to hold on for the next bus), settling in the slightly bigger town of Foz do Iguaçu, and then another bus from their small bus terminal. It’s easy to see why most people take this side as the starting point, since it is a smaller park with just one real trail which gives a grand overview of the entire, breathtaking waterfall in all its glory. It is, however, the most immersive of experiences as the trail leads up to what I remember as the splash zone: a platform takes you out in front of the Devil’s Throat, not quite inside the crashing water but exhilaratingly close. Bring a rain poncho, or you and your cameras will get soaked, and you’re going to need them — even though a photo can never capture the rush, the tranquillity, the force and the power of Iguazu.

© Tara Kergon

The real downside of this side is how concentrated the tourists are in one spot; I felt slightly rushed and crowded as I was herded onto a bus with all the other arriving tourists, and left to fight my way through them to snap the perfect picture from the front of the viewpoints along the trail. Once I got to that singularly beautiful view, however, I lost myself in nature and was able to block out the others. There is also a bit more to do around Foz do Iguaçu, since the park itself takes half a day at most. The Parque dos Aves (Bird Park) across the road from the entrance to the waterfalls is home to an entertaining variety of exotic birds and well worth a visit. There’s also the vast Itaipu Dam, known for its amazing view, which is a popular afternoon trip, and the spot at the edge of three borders is also a pretty cool novelty.

It takes at least two days to appreciate the raw natural beauty of Iguazu, but to do it without the rush and add in some other activities, allow three or more. While the Argentine side is most popular, and the usual climax to the visit, allow time for Foz do Iguaçu — I finished with the wide panorama and immersive view of the Brazilian side and wouldn’t have it any other way. To explore the falls in detail and then not only get close and personal with the rush of the Devil’s Throat, but see the overview of my previous exploration was the perfect farewell to such a phenomenon. Either way, both the Argentine and Brazilian national parks are unmissable. If you want to visit Paraguay then go first of all, or the smaller access point may be a disappointment. If Iguazu is not on your bucket list, add it immediately and allow yourself to be blown away.