Argentina’s Iguassu Falls: Niagara’s Big Brother
By Sonja S. Stark
One hundred million years ago the product of a gigantic volcanic cataclysm created one of the world’s most beautiful sights in South America: Iguassu Falls. Straddled on the southern border between Brazil, Argentina and Paraguay, Iguassu is a traveler’s favorite eco-destination.
This place makes Niagara Falls looks like a puddle and Six Flags like a merry-go-round. That’s because the dazzling scenic beauty of 300 torrents and hundreds of acres of pristine habitat aren’t just for snapping photos. There are thrilling activities and much to be learned from the rushing waters that tumble over this ancient basalt plateau. Miss Marcy and I photographed the conflux while balancing crash courses in repelling, rafting and riding its rivers.
Dubbed by the Tupi-Guarani, Iguassu has two definitions, ‘Big Waters’ and ‘Singing Stones.’ While the latter refers to the rhythmic noise of the flow of water over the falls nobody argues that ‘Big Waters’ is a serious understatement.
In some areas, the Iguaçú river plunges more than 280 feet to meet the Paraná river below; that’s nearly double the height of Niagara Falls. In 1986, Iguassu National Park was declared an UNESCO Natural Heritage site preserving its rich biological diversity, bird species, mammals and fauna.
Since we were spending the night on the Argentinian side we began our adventures with an easy trek along the Upper and Lower Circuit trails. With this many waterfalls clumped together names like Floriano, Deodoro and Benjamin Constant (on Brazil’s side) and Santa Maria, Belgrano and Adam and Eve (on the Argentina’s side) help keep our bearings.
In a jungle so verdant and so wild, its a good idea that you shadow your tour guide closely. My high-energy Manhattan urbanite sprinted ahead of the pack and lost out on a train ride to the falls most fearsome precipice: Devil’s Throat.
Two thousand tons of water per second crash down in an apotheosis of rainbows and froth at Garganta del Diablo or Devils Throat. It’s even more breathtaking since it’s impossible to see into the abyss below.
Getting there takes several steel catwalks stretching from small island to small island. The anticipation builds with every step until it’s deafening roar and thundering views completely immerse you. With imagination, the sight resembles a gigantic vat or cauldron of mirky witches’ brew. It bumbles and hisses and spews humidity in all directions.
During a rare moment, the shutterbugs disperse and I’m left to reflect on how native tribes once worshipped this supernatural power. Our guide insists that a full-moon tour captures the mystery of the place more than in the day time. Absent of artificial halogens, the moon’s silver path illuminates the river from the banks up until everything dips to black over the edge.
Staying dry is a challenge aboard a rubber dinghy during a thrilling upstream boat tour on the La Gran Aventura Excursion. Donning life-preservers and a plastic bag for our cameras, Miss Marcy and I strip down to our bathing suits and contemplated where to sit.
The dinghy holds up to 50 passengers and the captain has a notorious reputation for soaking passengers. Sure enough, once the propellers are in motion, he aims for every wave, rapid and roil he can find. In some areas we’re tipped more than 45 degrees and then catapulted several feet into the air.
A rowdy group of 10 young boys howls in delight as Miss Marcy and I tear into each others arms for dear life. The last adrenaline rush comes when the captain plunges us under not one, but two thundering cascades. Drenched and exhausted, I can see the captain snickering in delight as we dock upriver from where we started. The setting sun does little to comfort the chills and goosebumps and our teeth chatter all the way to the top of the cliff.
The next day we conquer several optional activities that cost a little extra but are worth the thrill. This time we cross the border and take advantage of the wide panaramic vistas from the Brazilian side. A 30-minute unobstructed view aboard an eco-friendly electric vehicle on the Macuco Safari tells the story of the jungle.
Our guide is multi-lingual and stops to point out orchids, palm trees, and centenaria trees and mention several wild animals on the verge of extinction. We didn’t observe any pumas or monkeys but we took in several quati, a small raccoon-size animal with a large snout and overtly friendly disposition.
Quati can sniff out the smallest crumbs in personal belongings and have no fear of fighting you for food. They’ve been known to steal purses, handbags, wallets, cameras, virtually anything that they think might be edible. I tempted a few with an empty knapsack to score some close-up shots but generally this is not encouraged.
Already faint from the dizzying heights of Iguassu Miss Marcy decides against rappelling off a steel girder 185 feet above the rivers below. But not me. This is Campo de Iguaçu Canyon and besides rappelling, other adrenaline rushes include rockclimbing, canopy tour, zipline, cascading and rafting.
Hooked to a skinny rope with an equally trim Brazilian at my side, we ease our way down the side of the cliff to the shoreline. I’m hooked in with safety ties, locks and a tight harness around my bottom. In front of me is Iguassu Falls with a helicopter circling above. Like a bird caught in a thermal we hang suspended in midair as Mother Nature’s ‘pride and joy’ continues her show. A truly metaphysical feeling.
The Brazilian pro next to me knots his legs around his rope, arches backwards and lets go. “Look Ma, no hands!” he repeats in an adorable Portuguese accent. I wisely hold on for another 10 minutes until the descending is over and I’m back on terra firma.
A couple minutes later we’re getting a crash course in white water rafting. Terms like fast current, large waves and hypothermia are translated by my Spanish speaking counterparts. Unfortunately, our Brazilian guide does not speak English and I’m the only hapless soul without prior practice in Español.
Thankfully most of us have ridden white water before and I’m not risking anyone’s life. Nearly 20 people can fit into the inflatable yellow boats but with only 6 of us the craft is lighter and easier to tip.
We brace ourselves as we push off from the shore. We dig our paddles in and lunge forward into a steep eddy. The front of the raft gets tossed high into the air and I tumble backwards. I struggle to get up and resume position. Miss Marcy and the others have their front feet anchored under the seats in front of them; a trick I discovered after my last crash. The rapids come and go quickly leaving us a giant-size swimming hole calm enough to let the current carry us down.
Churning white noise echos in my head as I lay myself down to sleep at the Iguazú Grand Hotel Resort and Casino. Miss Marcy and I are completely exhausted and it wouldn’t matter where we zonked out but we’re staying at one of the finest hotels ever to offer accomodation to weary travelers.
It’s set in Puerto Iguazu, Misiones, Argentina only 10 minutes from the Falls; fancier and more luxurious than my low-maintenance lifestyle demands – fit for kings, queens, presidents and dignitaries.
And, by sheer coincidence, the next morning that’s exactly who arrive. All four Presidents and their entourages from Brazil, Argentina, Venezuela and Paraguay gathered in the Presidential Suite to discuss oil reserves and environmental issues. What a bonus for us to meet face-to-face the higher powers who control the growth of the area.
Later in the day I think I even ran into some of them at the Paradise Spa getting their own chocolate body and facial message.