Iguazu, Iguassu, Iguaçu... however you spell their name, these awe-inspiring waterfalls on the border of Brazil and Argentina can justifiably claim to be the most spectacular in the world
Travel almost anywhere on the South American continent, and a trip to the spectacular, awe-inspiring Iguazu Falls should occupy top spot on the must-see list of any serious traveller. The falls lie on the border of the Brazilian state of Paraná and the Argentine province of Misiones and split the Igauazu River. Consisting of 275 separate falls - some incredibly high and powerful, while others are not much more than a trickle - collectively they form an awesome spectacle along a stretch of more than one and a half miles of white, roaring water.
Face to face with the falls
You really have to view them from both the Brazilian and Argentinian sides. On the Brazilian side, the panoramic view of the falls, most of which are on their neighbour's side of the river, is as spectacular as is it beautiful. There are walkways extending out over the river, offering the visitor a chance to get a different perspective on the falls and stunning photographic opportunities.
Take a trip to the Argentinian side, and the experience is completely different. Here, you are right on top of the falls and the most spectacular, the Garganta del Diablo, or Devil's Throat, is pretty impressive at more than 270ft in height. From the park entrance, a narrow gauge railway transports visitors through the thick forest to a small station quite near the Devil's Throat. As you alight from the train, you can hear the roar in the distance.
A metal walkway stretches out across the river and, with a few twists and turns, leads visitors toward the Devil's Throat. The roar of a million or so gallons of water a second plummeting over a sheer drop gets louder and louder and the excitement and sense of anticipation grows the closer you get. Reaching the lip of the falls is a mind-blowing, heart-stopping experience and one you will never forget. This is nature at its wildest and most untamed. No wonder Hollywood directors have used the falls as a backdrop for so many blockbuster movies.
In fact, the falls are so impressive they are often referred to as Niagara’s big brother, and local tour guides and hotel staff are quick to point out that a visiting senior Canadian politician commented that poor Niagara is 'a dripping faucet in comparison'. Having visited both, I have to agree.
Wildlife and wheelbarrows
The falls lie within UNESCO World Heritage Site national parks on both side of the border, and the Argentinians and Brazilians have done a fantastic job of maintaining the forest and protecting the ecosystem to ensure the sheer number of visitors does not have an adverse effect on the fragile environment. The jungle, despite being around 90 per cent smaller now than it was a few centuries ago, before conservation took hold, still supports an incredible number of bird and butterfly species. You can't help but notice the large numbers of butterflies that gather in massive groups on the forest floor.
However, don't be fooled: the wildlife isn't all pretty. On the walkway over the river heading back from the Devil's Throat, we spotted a huge cayman crocodile lying in a shady shallow pool, snapping turtles sun themselves on rocks protruding from the river, and there are some frighteningly big lizards to be seen as you walk about.
The jungle surrounding the little Argentinian town of Puerto Iguazu and its bigger Brazilian cousin, Foz do Iguassu, is also well worth exploring. In fact, you can stand in three countries at once at the point where Argentina, Brazil and Paraguay converge, just a few kilometres or so downstream from the falls.
Other highlights in the region include the ruins of the San Ignacio Jesuit Mission, the Itaipu Dam, on the border of Brazil and Paraguay and one of the wonders of the modern world according to the American Society of Civil Engineers, and the bustling Paraguayan town of Ciudad del Este, where everything, particularly electrical goods, comes incredibly cheap. The town is reached by crossing a bridge from Brazil and you can expect to see Brazilians and Argentinians crossing back to Brazil pushing wheelbarrows stacked high with a few dozen CD players or a couple of TV sets. However, beware: Ciudad del Este is not the safest place and should not be visited alone.
Visit the Iguazu Falls once and you will long to return, such is their spectacular beauty and awe-inspiring power. I generally never visit a place twice - there is simply so much of the world I have yet to see, and not enough time to see it - but the one exception I have made is the truly wonderful Iguazu Falls. This is a place I will definitely return to.
Where to stay
We stayed in the wonderful Hotel Das Cataratas, in Brazil’s Parque Nacional de Iguassu, which is the only hotel actually sited within the national park. This is a huge advantage, as it means guests can enjoy the falls in peace before the park opens to the general public and the first coaches packed with tourists arrive.
The hotel is a grand old colonial building, with large guest rooms with high ceilings. There were plenty of nice touches, too, including a surprise basket of fresh fruit delivered to our room. The evening meal is either buffet-style or from a more expensive à la carte menu. Breakfast is served on a terrace overlooking some of the falls. The large outdoor pool at the rear of the hotel is set in beautifully maintained gardens and offers a welcome relief after a hard day of exploring. However, families with children should beware, as the pool shelves away steeply to quite a depth at one end.
This is certainly a beautiful, well-managed hotel, set in a spectacular location, and while it may be a little expensive compared to the lodgings on offer in either Puerto Iguazu or Foz do Iguassu, you do have that quiet time before the hordes of tourists arrive, and there is no park entrance fee to pay or travel costs to and from town.
Getting to and from either Puerto Iguazu or Foz do Iguassu is pretty easy, as both towns have their own airports with daily flights from Buenos Aires, Rio and Sao Paulo and a more infrequent service from further afield.