Nature power

Iguazú Falls, the Guaraní “big water,” will bewitch you.

Bonnie Tucker / FST
Even today, with all the tourist hoopla attached to Iguazú Falls, it is not hard to imagine what Spanish explorer Alvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca (1490-1560) felt when he stumbled upon the site in August 1541 while on his way from the Atlantic coast to assume the governorship of Asunción. His expedition through unmapped jungles and mountain ranges took five months. His guides were members of a Tupí Guaraní tribe who told him about the “big water” (uh-guasoo) they would encounter along the way. In his book Naufragios (Shipwrecks), in which he briefly outlined his incredible adventures in North and South America, he spoke of water that falls from heights “with great force,” kicking up impressive sheets of mist.
Nowadays, Iguazú Falls and the richly biodiverse jungle around it are protected by Argentine and Brazilian national parks that draw more than one million visitors per year. More than 70 percent of the ensemble of 275 cataracts on a horseshoe-shaped fault in the Iguazú River – and most of the experience of exploring them on walkways that pass over them or at their feet – are the domain of Argentina. The rest – one walkway and the panoramic views of the plunging, thundering waters – are on the Brazilian side of the river. The two parks, on either side of the river that marks the frontier between the countries, are run by concessionaires with lots of experience in catering to mass tourism.

The Argentine park, with the most waterfalls and opportunities for getting close to the falling water, is where the action is at. There are three walkways with viewing platforms on which you really live the experience of the waterfalls: the Lower Circuit in the jungle on a hillside and the Upper Circuit over the top of the falls, both near the entrance to the park; and the Devil’s Throat, which must be approached along a 1-km walkway over the river to the rims with the most powerful flow volume. You can do it all in a day, but you will have to run.
The concessionaire uses little trains to move tourists from the park entrance to the first two circuits and to the entrance to the walkway to the Devil's Throat. Use of the trains is included in the admission fee. However, they constitute a bottleneck when there are a lot of people in the park. You can save time by walking the half kilometer to the entrances to the first two circuits on the Green Trail. You can also walk to the Garganta (Devil's Throat) terminal. But in this case it's best to wait for the train and take it in both directions; the 3-km path beside the rails can be muddy, it is hot, it may rain and the train won't pick you up if you regret your decision to walk.
Don't feed the coati-mundis! Ignore them in the interest of your safety and that of others. Tourists have spoiled them by giving them food. They will get into your knapsack looking for it, and if you pretend to give them something and then don't, they may attack you.
If you decide to do the very steep climb to the three lookout points atop of San Martín Island, you will have to allow yourself extra time, and be in good shape. A motorboat takes you there without charge from a lower walkway landing. Boat arrivals at, and departures from, the island are not synchronized to the two hours that the walk takes, so if you go in the afternoon, be sure to return in time to catch the last boat back to the landing.
When the moon is full, you can join one of the three nightly walks out to the brink of the Devil’s Throat and top the experience off with a caipirinha when the train leaves you back in the park entrance compound.
You will need a second day if you want to take one of the boat excursions to the foot of the falls and walk the 3.6-km Macuco Trail to spot monkeys. If you walk the trail in the afternoon, allow yourself enough time to return before dark. And don’t forget the visitors’ center with its superb nature interpretation and cultural history displays.
If you wish to visit the park on two consecutive days, you get a 50% discount on the second day if you get your ticket stamped at the end of the first day.

You will have to make that three or four days if you do a specialized birding excursion or guided nature walk on secluded trails inside the park with Rainforest, or visit the Güira-Oga wild animals rehabilitation center, the Aripuca memorial to giant jungle trees that no longer exist, or the Fortín Mbororé Guaraní village on the outskirts of Puerto Iguazú with Cuenca.

The Brazilian park can be seen in two hours, if you don’t spend too much time in the very interesting bird park and natural history museum, or indulge in abseiling or a boat ride on the river. Tourist buses with slide-back roofs leave the park entrance every five minutes, driving a fixed route with stops at which passengers can get on or off at will.

The places for taking pictures are the overlook near the hotel across the river from the Sheraton, the observation tower facing the waterfalls in the canyon leading to the Devil’s Throat, an observation esplanade just above the river, and a short walkway over a waterfall that affords a distant view of the Devil’s Throat. The last stop on the bus route is the big Espacio Puerto Canoas restaurant that mars the view of the Devil’s Throat from the Argentine side of the river, but is too far from the rim to give diners a good view of the falls themselves.
Many tourists think they will save money seeing the Brazilian side of the falls by taking a regular passenger bus over the border to Foz de Iguaçu, and a taxi to the park from there, or a remise (chauffeured limo) from Puerto Iguazú to the park entrance and pay the driver to wait for them for two or three hours. Of course, it’s less of a hassle to book a tour in Puerto Iguazú and let the agency worry about the logistics. But make sure the tour will give you enough time in the places you want to see there. And if it includes lunch at a good restaurant in Foz, all the better.

For citizens of Argentina, other Mercosur countries, and most other South American countries, a national ID document is sufficient to gain entry to Brazil. Getting a visa in Buenos Aires takes three days, and travelers who are not from those countries had better look to acquiring one before setting out. You have to show them a return ticket to where you came from and an extract from your bank account as well as a 4cm x 4cm photo and a passport valid at least for the next six months. The cost depends on what Brazilians get charged to enter one’s home country as tourists. Americans have to pay the most, and even those who are legal residents of a Mercosur country are obliged to obtain a visa to enter Brazil, albeit for a couple of hours. See the requisites at
The best solution is to go from Puerto Iguazú with a tour group; the travel agency will get you a visa quickly if you comply with all the requirements. But check when booking.
Brazil recommends that you get a yellow fever vaccination 10 days before traveling to this part of its territory. If you come from a country where the disease is prevalent, an international vaccination certificate is a must. In Buenos Aires, you can get vaccinated at Ing. Huergo 690; for details, call 4343-1190.
The Brazilian dams
Tourists who travel all the way to this spot at the northwestern tip of the Argentine province of Misiones should try to see both sides of the falls before leaving. But they should ask about the volume of water in Iguazú Falls before setting out.

When it has rained a lot and the five Brazilian hydroelectric dams upriver see fit to open their floodgates, water thunders down all the 275 cataracts as it did in pre-dam days 30 years ago. But when there’s a drought on in the region and the dams are withholding water to attend their energy-producing needs, only three of those 275 – the Devil’s Throat on the border between the two countries, and the San Martín (our cover photo) and the Bossetti, both in Argentina – have enough water to be of interest. Needless to say, a trip to Brazil to get a panoramic view of the falls under those conditions is not really worth it.
And believe it or not, Brazil is forging ahead with the construction of a sixth dam on the Iguazú River. It is due to go on stream a mere 500 meters from the eastern end of the Brazilian national park in 2011.

The best chances of seeing a normal volume of water in the falls come during the rainy season, which usually extends from November to March.
PHOTO CREDITS: San Martín waterfall, Marcelo Imbellone. Tourist teasing coati-mundis with bag of food to get a photo, Bonnie Tucker. Train in Argentine park, Iguazú Argentina. Looking at animal tracks in Argentine park, Rainforest. Observation tower in Brazilian park, Marcelo Imbellone. Walkway over a waterfall in Brazilian park, Marcelo Imbellone. Map, Iguazú Jungle Explorer (Argentina). Bossetti waterfall, Marcelo Imbellone.