Written by Colin Barraclough
Chances are that only a few visitors understand the mathematics of fluid motion, yet just two minutes spent beside Iguazú’s tumultuous maelstrom are enough to convey the raw power of 1,750 cubic metres of water a second. The sound and fury created as the engorged Río Iguazú pours over 80-metre-high basalt ledges are overpowering, the visceral impact of up-close contact with one of South America’s most compelling experiences.
Visitors’ awe is only heightened by the falls’ setting, as they are surrounded by lush jungle that teems with colourful flora and fauna. Its inner reaches provide habitats for a spectacular array of wildlife from jaguars, tapirs, and capybara to toucans, vipers, and butterflies. Dense tracts of tropical cedar, earpod, and rosewood trees cluster close to each cascade. Enticing trails lace off into the steamy undergrowth, alive to the buzz of insects, and the cackle and caw of subtropical birds.
A century ago, Iguazú’s Paranaense forest spread over
a million square kilometres of Argentina, Brazil, and Paraguay, providing a home for Guaraní tribes, who hunted capybara
and peccary and fished for surubí and pacú in the Iguazú river and its tributaries. Today, just 6% of
the original forest remains, fragmented into isolated parcels along the banks of the Iguazú and Paraná rivers. National parks in Brazil and Argentina protect what remains, and the forest gives way abruptly at park boundaries to cultivated fields of banana, tobacco, and tea, and plantations of pino de Paraná, a type of monkey-puzzle tree. It’s worth viewing the falls from both sides
of the frontier. Visitors to Brazil’s national park are transported by
bus to lookout points that offer grand panoramas. Argentina’s national park offers a wider variety of trails and boat rides – and the freedom to walk between them.
As border paperwork is minimal for day trippers, most visit both sides, debating endlessly over which offers the better vantage points. From the entrance to Argentina’s Parque Nacional Iguazú, a near-silent, gas-powered train disgorges passengers at the Upper and Lower Circuits, each trail offering a variety of vistas from 14 lookouts stationed above, below, and beside dozens
of separate cascades. Watch closely and you’ll observe the great dusky swifts that nest behind the falls themselves as they dart precariously through the curtained walls of water at sunrise and dusk. Secondary trails that wind through the surrounding jungle are routed to introduce visitors to the jungle’s fauna.
Sign up for a motor launch excursion around Isla San Martín, and you’ll embark on a high-adrenaline run into the heart of
a blinding cloud of spray. Float by raft down the Río Iguazú and you’ll come within arm’s length of a yacaré caiman, a South American alligator. Gentler activities include photographic safaris on quiet
river tributaries and watching documentary videos on Guaraní culture. Visit during a full moon
and you can even approach the
falls by night, with dinner included in one of the park restaurants.
Leave until last the most exhilarating observation point, the Garganta del Diablo, a U-shaped cauldron of water of unimaginable power. On the Brazilian side, a catwalk leads out over the rainbow-kissed river
to a platform at the cascade’s base, from where clouds of vapour emanate from the cauldron’s heart. On the Argentine side, a kilometre-long gantry traverses a placid upstream portion of the Río Iguazú, the tranquillity heightening the impact as the visitor emerges at a lookout suspended immediately above the swirling vortex of water.
On both sides of the border, the park gates close before dusk, obliging visitors to return to hotels in Brazil’s Foz do IguaÇu or Argentina’s Puerto Iguazú. Those staying at Argentina’s Sheraton Hotel or Brazil’s elaborate, Portuguese colonial-style Hotel das Cataratas – the only hotels within park boundaries – enjoy exclusive after-hours access to the trails. Alone, it’s possible to observe night-herons, corzuela deer, and raccoon-like coatis bedding down for the night, and emerging the following morning amid the early sun’s
Accommodation options are
set to expand next year with the construction of nine hotels in Argentina’s Selva Iryapú, a re-zoned 600-hectare plot of former Guaraní tribal land just beyond the park boundary. The first hotel, Loi Suites Iguazú, has already opened, its low-impact, stone-built structure set amid mature earpod and rosewood trees.
Wherever you spend the night, Iguazú’s vibrant natural world will find a way to intervene. Opt to laze by a hotel pool and a family of agoutis – dumpy, oversized rodents – will emerge from the forest to breakfast on seeds. A flash of cream against a dark trunk will materialise as a blond-crested woodpecker’s showy head feathers; or a hummingbird will zip by on its constant search for nectar.
But you don’t need to be a twitcher or wildlife buff to enjoy Iguazú. You could quite happily do nothing – other
than laze by the pool to watch the hummingbirds, listen to the buzz of the crickets, or attune your inner ear
to the siren call of the falls.
World Wide Falls
Iguazú is rated by www.world-of-waterfalls.com as the number one waterfall in the world to visit: ‘Catwalks make it easy to get close-up, intimate views, and the rainforest surroundings make the scenery feel right for a natural attraction such as this. This falls tops our list of favourites.’ Here – with ranking – is a selection from the remainder on the website’s top ten list:
№2. VICTORIA FALLS
Between Zambia and Zimbabwe.
Seen from the Zambia side, Victoria Falls easily justifies its high rating. It is the largest singular waterfall in the world, 108m high, and spanning a width of 1.7km, with an average flow of one million litres per second! A UNESCO World Heritage site, the ‘smoke that thunders’ will render you humble and awestruck.
№3. NIAGARA FALLS
Ontario, Canada/ New York, USA
Easily one of the most famous attractions in North America, this powerful waterfall ranks as the biggest by volume, with a whopping average of 2.8 million litres per second! In addition to its raw power, the falls is one of the easiest to access and view from a variety of vantage points, and is beautifully lit at night.
№5. ANGEL FALLS
Plunging uninterrupted for 807m (with total drop of 979m) from a mystical tabletop mountain (te-puy), its existence defies logic as the source is nothing but the soggy cloud forest on the plateau of the tepuy. The adventure to even get to this so-called Lost World (Mundo Perdido) is sure to leave you with a lasting impression.
One of the more unusual waterfalls in the world, this wild and wide cataract tumbling on the Hvítá River in two tiers at an angle of 90˚ to each other is one of Iceland’s iconic natural attractions. In addition to the falls’ unique shape, and partially-frozen surround, you can see rainbows arcing over Gullfoss if your timing is right.