Hiking Argentina’s Iguacu Falls

The waterfalls at Brazil and Argentina's meeting point rush down.
The borders of Argentina and Brazil pour into each other.

 

The borders of Argentina and Brazil, where they meet up with Paraguay, literally pour into each other at a rate of 5,000 cubic meters (5,000 cubic meters) of water per second.The Iguacu Falls, a World Heritage Site which straddles the border of Argentina and Brazil, are the highlight of Iguacu National Park. Together, the falls on both sides span over 8,860 feet (2,700 m) and are about 262 feet (80 m) high. The National Park is a 385,000 square miles (997,000 km²) of ecological sanctuary and home to 2,000 species of plants, 450 bird species, more than 80 different types of mammals and so many insect species that they have yet to all be counted.It’s a busy place.

A Guarani Indian legend says that Iguacu Falls (which means “Great Waters” in their language) formed when a jealous forest god, enraged at a warrior escaping downriver with a contraband young girl in a canoe, caused the river’s bed to collapse in front of the lovers. The girl plunged over the edge and turned to stone. The warrior survived as a lovelorn tree overlooking his vanquished betrothed.

Geologically speaking, the story lacks the romanticism. The conflux of Brazil’s Rio Iguacu (Iguacu River) and Rio Parana (Parana River) tumbles over a basalt plateau, dividing into fingers, or cataratas, of water in such numbers and force that prevent any antediluvian purists remaining out there to deny gravity’s existence.

At the entrance to the park, the well-organized and helpful multilingual staff handed out pamphlets. Visitors were steered to museums and displays that provided a quick lay of the land. Afterwards, the first quest for water from this human divining rod began by boarding a Disneyland-like choo-choo that ran through the jungle. Along the way, flocks as big as 20 butterflies flittered and danced, playing and leaping like dry-land winged dolphins. Each flock matched brilliantly. One team was decorated primarily canary yellow with vermilion garnitures. Another was two-toned blue, sky and navy, and tastefully trimmed with a jot of white.

At the end of the line, a half-mile (800 m) walk over sturdy steel catwalks spanned benign murky rivers lined with more verdant jungle. Posted were picture signposts of “Don’t feed the monkeys,” “Stay clear of the snakes,” and “Beware of jaguars.”

As one drew nearer, the fall’s most fearsome precipice let out a few warnings. On the horizon, plumes of haze snorted through gaps between trees. A dull growl increased in decibels with each step. The sound was consistent, lacking bursts or drops. The humidity thickened. Steadily, the growl turned to a roar. A mushroom cloud of mist shot high, then dissipated in the wind. People could be seen turning for protection, moving back, and running away.

Finally, the source of all the fuss was in full view, and it was obvious that the forest god was somewhat jealous. The Garganta del Diablo, or Devil’s Throat, is a semi-circular bowl hundreds of yards across that deluges Noah-esque quantities of river 250 feet (76 m) into a cauldron of hissing mist so thick that a view of the bottom was only sporadically granted.

The volume of water was so great that some of it seemed too impatient to join the main push. Instead, it flanked to either side and found its own outlets over clusters of rock. Grasses that had grown tall at a drier time of year were helpless to the stampede of fluid. Billows of mist climbed high again and again, at times blowing back over all the expensive cameras. The shutterbugs had to turn away.

Occasionally, the sun peeked through on this cloudy day, permitting an angel to offer a rainbow deep in the larynx of the Devil, but he quickly grew testy and pulled the blind on the porthole. Milton endures. Beelzebub sneers, “Keep your olive branches.”

With Hydro-Hades implacable, a retreat to the train backtracked to Cataratas Station for a sandwich and the beginning of a walking tour to the remainder of the falls. Perhaps they would be more of a puppy.

A flat stroll along jungle paths was a delight. Three monkeys auditioned for a new Olympic sport ― tree gymnastics. The show lasted a couple of minutes, but humans proved frightfully boring creatures to the performers, so they decided another part of the jungle held greater allures and disappeared into the foliage.

Three barely visible ants were spotted making off with an unlikely carrion. Somehow they huffed and puffed and dragged a dead beetle on its back, surely 20 times higher in weight class, across the path to a chop shop for ants. This Volkswagen was too big to fit down any hole those tiny carjackers could dig. Squads of butterflies in full uniform ran security.

Catwalks branch off into the Upper Circuit and Lower Circuit. The Upper Circuit skirts along the top of Bosseti Falls and gives a top down view of the cataratas. Here, the water is more orderly. It queues and marches forward in step without fatigue or complaint, rather than the jailbreak rioting witnessed earlier. However, after falling nearly a football field in length, the finale is no less a meat grinder. Uncountable fingers of water string out across the horizon. Although the Bosseti Falls lacked the fearsome anger of the Devil’s Throat, they were no less awesome in their majesty.

A flock of seven budgies on growth hormones, colored with retina-burning lime green and bright red, circled towards the falls twice. From my vantage, they appeared suicidal, but somewhere in their view was a landing pad. On the third approach, six disappeared into the falls. The seventh, and smallest, tried following in but had to abort and power up as the deck crew cleared a space. After two failed attempts to set down, it finally succeeded on the third.

The amount of water that pours from the falls is immense.
The Garganta del Diablo, or Devil’s Throat, swallows unimaginable volumes of water each second.

The Lower Circuit requires climbing steps, occasionally a few slippery ones. These catwalks arrive at the base of Bosseti Falls, also Ramirez Falls, and a boat launch. Various tours were available by speedboats that take you and your Canon for the most spectacular views, even up the gut to laugh in the face of El Diablo. How close depends on water volumes. Landlubbers can knock the Tropic of Capricorn’s heat off by following one branch of catwalk directly into the spray of a huge catarata for a fun dousing.

A trip to the Argentine side of Iguacu Falls takes a full day. The Devil burns two hours, and the Upper and Lower Circuits consume an hour and a half each. Tack on the visitor center, rest, snacks and your own private time to gaze at this marvelous wonder.

The Brazilian side takes a couple of hours. It offers an opposite field angle of the Devil’s Throat, and the chance to get soaked by some of Satan’s cataratas. Arachnophiles can see a commonwealth of huge spiders sun-tanning as they net-fish for lunch. Long-snouted raccoons tamely hung out among the crowd. One adult we saw smelled food, and pulled a bag out of a lady’s hands, only to turn up its anteater nose at her baby’s food.

Iguacu Falls is a highlight-reel destination in South America. Visitors can stay in Puerto Iguacu in Argentina, or Foz do Iguacu in Brazil (where it’s cheaper), and only border-hop for the day in order to take in both sides, the customs formalities are minimal. Or there’s a Sheraton on the Argentine side with dashing views.

At vernal Iguacu National Park, the valves are wide open in a staggering demonstration of nature’s force. By mingling with her children as they live in eco-harmony, you’ll understand better why people’s passions get raised over her rainforests. You’ll see this, and much more. Hopefully, no jaguars, though.

If You Go

Argentina National Tourist Office

www.turismo.gov.ar

Brazilian National Office

www.embratur.gov.br

World Heritage Site: Iguacu Falls

www.worldheritagesite.org/sites/iguacunationalpark.html

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