You will be in awe of the magnificence of Iguassu Falls, truly a nature lover’s highlight on South American tours.
Eleanor Roosevelt supposedly said just two words on catching her first glimpse of Iguassu Falls.
While some claim that oft-retold story to be apocryphal, it’s hard not to share the sentiment as our car pulls up at the entrance to the Brazilian walking track, and we first see the dozen or more curtains of white water cascading over the verdant cliffs that mark the edge of Argentina.
“You like the small falls?” asks our guide.
Somehow tearing our eyes and cameras away, we turn to him with stupid grins before realizing, “Oh yeah. These are the small falls.”
Best thought of as two national parks rather than a single attraction, Iguassu Falls is arguably the most impressive single system of waterfalls in the world, where approximately 275 (it varies according to the season) falls carry around 1000 cubic meters of water over the edge every second. Just ten percent of the Falls are located in Brazil, meaning the platforms on the Brazilian side offer the best panoramic view, and for my money, best first impression of the falls you can get. Following the Path of the Falls, which hugs the cliff face from the luxurious Belmond Hotel das Cataratas to the Devil’s Throat Elevator, we hear the steadily building roar of the garganta del diablo, the Devil’s Throat.
So…these would be the “big” falls, then?
The Devil’s Throat is actually a convergence of a whopping fourteen falls. Together, they send enough water over their 350 feet drop to create a permanent 100 foot cloud of mist. The walkway to the foot of the “Throat” gives the falls a wide berth, but it’s not enough to avoid being soaked by the cool mist – not at all unwelcome in the tropical heat! With that said, I’ve never held onto a camera phone so tightly in my life, so bringing a good neck or wrist strap isn’t a bad idea, particularly during high season when the walkways are busy.
Soaked to the skin but deliriously happy, we make our way back to the elevator that returns visitors (via a gift shop, of course!) to the top of the cliff, where our guide, who’s stayed high and dry, is waiting. The Path of the Falls can be comfortably done in an hour or two, including leisurely photo stops. Those wishing to linger on the Brazilian side can opt for a popular safari adventure that combines a trip through the jungle with a boat ride. They can also opt to visit a local bird park, dedicated to nurturing and preserving native species, or even take a helicopter ride for the ultimate view of the falls. But a half day is usually enough, allowing time for one of these activities as well.
Drying off quickly in the heat, we’re dropped off at our hotel on the outskirts of Foz do Iguacu, the town which supports the bulk of tourism in the region. Larger and more developed than Puerto Iguazu on the Argentinean side of the river, Foz do Iguacu offers a greater choice of hotels, shops, and restaurants than its counterpart. This includes a truly spectacular Brazilian churrascaria, which sends us back to the hotel (via complimentary shuttle) in a state of meat coma-induced joy. With that said, some visitors prefer the homelier, more relaxed (and somewhat safer) pace of Puerto Iguazu. So if you’re visiting both sides of the falls, where to lay your head is really a question of personal preference.
What the Brazilian side can’t offer is Argentina’s up close and personal views of the Falls. With a memory card full of awe-inspiring wide shots, our second day is all about seeing those “small falls” up close. But not before taking the train to see a very different view of the Devil’s Throat. Catching the first train of the day, we weave our way up through the rainforest to a lengthy series of walkways that stretch out over the Iguassu River (or Iguazu, as we’re now in Argentina). Though my Portuguese is weak and my Spanish worse, I’m pretty sure there are no words in either language – much less in English – that quite describe being just a few feet from the edge of waterfalls this powerful. Watching flocks of birds fly through the mist, in and out of the largest falls, we’re unable to even see the walkway that took us to the lower viewing point on the Brazilian side. Our guide tells us that birds nest behind the falls, just one more secret nature hides in this incredible landscape.
The elevated trail out to the Devil’s Throat is one of several walking trails accessible on the Argentinean side. Two more take you to see the smaller falls up close, and both are well worth doing. The lower track is typically less crowded, and takes you to more viewing points and great photo spots, particularly at the base of the small falls. The upper track is dominated by a series of walkways over the river, which take us to the thresholds of the small falls.
I can’t help but notice the skeletons of walkways past, which stretch over the river as tattered reminders of its awesome power. The last major flooding incident occurred in 2014, when water flowed over the falls at 33 times the usual rate, tearing walkways and bridges to shreds. Fortunately, the depth of the Parana River’s gorge (well below both Foz do Iguacu and Puerto Iguazu) and ample warning time mean these rare floods pose little threat to human life. Still, they’ve played havoc with tourist infrastructure over the years, leaving several generations of ruined bridges in their wake. Those ruins are just another reminder that we are nature’s guests in this spectacular place.
Iguassu Falls is a great year-round destination to explore on South American tours. Still, being all about water flow, the experience varies considerably from season to season. Our trip took place in high summer, right at the tail end of Brazil’s Carnival season. While this brought a higher volume of tourists, frequent rains mean a much higher flow rate, and arguably more impressive falls. In winter, between the months of June to September, water levels can be much, much lower. As with many other destinations around the world, spring and fall are perhaps the best seasons to go.
One potential source of Globetrotter confusion is the border crossing between Brazil and Argentina. Simply put, yes, both countries’ entry requirements apply if you plan to visit both sides of the falls. For Canadians entering Argentina, this is as simple as paying a reciprocity fee online prior to arrival, while Americans can currently enter the country without a visa. Brazil however, currently requires both Americans and Canadians to obtain a tourist visa before arrival on South American tours. This requirement unfortunately deters many, particularly Americans who think seeing the Argentinean side “will be enough.” As impressive as the Argentinean side of the falls is, the best views are still to be had from Brazil, making the visa process well worth the effort, particularly if combined with a longer Brazil vacation. Domestic flights in Brazil are often quite cheap, so consider going on to beautiful Rio, underrated and cosmopolitan Sao Paulo, lively Salvador, or the beautiful northern beach cities.