FOZ DO IGUAÇU, Nov 1 — When she first saw the Iguazu Falls, former United States First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt was so impressed she supposedly exclaimed, “Poor Niagara!” One can understand her astonishment as the South American Iguazu Falls — 82 metres at its longest drop — is nearly twice as high as the Niagara Falls, utterly dwarfing its northern rival.
Also known as Cataratas do Iguaçu in Brazil and Cataratas del Iguazú in Argentina, Iguazu Falls is a marvel of Mother Nature that has to be witnessed first-hand in order to truly appreciate its majesty. Named one of the New Seven Wonders of Nature in 2011, it draws more than one million visitors every year. There’s no other waterfall like it on earth.
In reality, Iguazu Falls isn’t a single waterfall but comprises 275 waterfalls or cataracts. Spanning 2.7 kilometres, these waterfalls of the Iguazu River border the Brazilian state of Paraná and the Argentine province of Misiones. The name “Iguazu” is supposedly derived from the native Guarani words for “water” (y-) and “big” (ûasú).
According to myths, there was once a beauty named Naipí who was the object of a deity’s affection. Fearful, Naipí eloped with her lover Tarobá. As they escaped in a canoe, the spurned deity split the river into two and condemned the two lovers to fall for eternity.
Judging by the massive size of the powerful Iguazu waterfalls, the furious deity must not have taken rejection very well.
The best way to experience Iguazu Falls is to see it from both the Brazilian and Argentinian sides, as each has its own unique character. Start with Cataratas do Iguaçu in Brazil; the nearest town is Foz do Iguaçu, a mere 12 kilometres or so from the falls.
The shape of Iguazu Falls is not unlike a reversed letter “J”. On the right bank is the Brazilian side, which has the most astounding panoramic views of the falls. The highest of these waterfalls is called the Devil’s Throat. This is Iguazu’s largest water curtain and consists of 14 separate but connected waterfalls. Imagine an 82-metre drop into a giant cloud of mist, and you may have some idea of the vision that awaits you.
That’s the sight that greeted Spanish conquistador Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca, the first European to record the existence of the falls, in 1541. He must have thought he had found the gateway to the heavens, so awe-inspiring was the effect of the falls.
Today, you can stroll along a walkway across the canyon that extends to the lower end of Devil’s Throat. The walkway isn’t for those afraid of heights and may seem frighteningly precarious (but is quite safe). Alternatively, you may opt for a helicopter ride to get an unparalleled aerial view of the falls.
You’ll stay dry with the second method, but there’s really nothing like feeling the crashing cascade of the waterfalls and getting drenched by the never-ending mist. While on average, the rate of water flow is about 1,500 cubic metres of water flows every second, this can increase dramatically to as much as 13,000 cubic metres per second during the rainy months of November to March.
The next day, head to Puerto Iguazú, the nearest Argentine town to the falls. You don’t even have to change hotels; just take a taxi and cross the border in less than half an hour. While the Brazilian side has the grandeur and the scale, the Argentine side offers an opportunity to get up close to Iguazu Falls.
Once you enter the Iguazú National Park (which, together with Brazil’s Iguaçu National Park, is a UNESCO World Heritage Site), you get to the falls by taking a Rainforest Ecological Train. The train takes you across the Atlantic rainforest, one of the few remaining inland rainforests in South America.
This verdant, sub-tropical national park is home to thousands of plant species and hundreds of bird species. There are at least 80 types of mammals and innumerable species of insects. It’s a wildlife haven. If you’re lucky, you may encounter toucans, peregrine falcons, plush-crested jays and parakeets. There are howler monkeys, coatis, capybaras and jaguars too. (That last one you might want to stay away from...)
The Rainforest Ecological Train will drop you off at the Argentine entrance of the Devil’s Throat. Here you may hike along the Paseo Garganta del Diablo, a one-kilometre-long trail that leads you directly over the magnificent cascades of the Devil’s Throat.
There are other trails that will bring you across the entire Argentine stretch of Iguazu Falls, before finally taking to the boats to San Martin Island in the middle of the falls. You may also take a speedboat ride that takes you right into the falls.
That’s correct — you go right into the falls themselves!
There’s no better way to get a closer look at the falls... and get absolutely soaked in the process. Having the thunderous cascades of water hitting you from the above is simultaneously a terrifying and exhilarating experience.
These are the two faces of Iguazu Falls: one showcases the raw beauty and stunning vistas; the other a more intimate yet thrilling experience. You’ll leave with memories that last a lifetime.