Falling in love with Iguazu

Published : Jul 01, 2005 00:00 IST

The waterfalls that hyphenate Argentina and Brazil offer the visitor an intimate encounter with the stunning forces of nature.

Text and Photographs TEJAS EWING

THE Iguazu falls represent one of the most breathtaking sights in the natural world. However, the site is little known outside South America. Over one million people visit Iguazu each year, but 90 per cent of them are Argentine and Brazilian citizens. Being a Canadian, I had always been given the impression that the Niagara Falls, the most well-known and visited waterfall in the world, was the best of its kind. My view changed after a visit to Iguazu. After viewing the falls, the First Lady of the United States at the time, Eleanor Roosevelt, was said to the have exclaimed: "Poor Niagara!" In fact, a comparison of the managements of Niagara and Iguazu is a study in contrast. Niagara is over-commercialised and over-developed whereas Iguazu shows to the world how environmental tourism can be managed to the benefit of local economies without destroying the natural beauty of the area.

Along the border between Brazil and Argentina, the Iguazu falls are among the largest in the world in terms of the number of falls, width and sheer volume of water in one place. There are approximately 275 separate cascades spread over a 3 km crack in the earth along the Iguazu river. The falls are fed by the huge Iguazu river basin, spread over some 62,000 sq km. The river rises up in the hills near Curitiba and flows 1,300 km across the Parana Plateau, receiving on its journey the waters from about 30 tributaries. In fact, Iguazu means "great water" in the native Guarani language. The Guarani Indians believe that the falls were created when the God of the Iguazu river ripped out the gorge in a fit of anger, after his bride-to-be was stolen away by a villager. Geologists suggest that the huge gorge over which the water flows was created by a volcanic eruption approximately 100 million years ago, leaving the water plunging 80 metres down.

However, statistics do not do justice to the falls, declared a World Heritage site by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO). Their real allure is the location, in virgin rainforest that allows safe and secure viewing from a number of amazing angles. With this natural advantage, the area has been developed and managed in such a way that a large number of viewpoints, trails, boardwalks, as well as boat, train and ferry rides provide easy access to almost every part of the falls without marring their beauty or that of the surrounding habitat. The unspoilt semi-tropical rainforest is a unique pocket of lush greenery among drier surroundings. Normally in a rainforest, a downpour can be expected at any time, and there is no true dry season. However, at Iguazu, the forest is sustained by the spray of the waterfall, which enables tourists to appreciate this special habitat even while seasonal variations eliminate the possibility of rain.

That being said, the dry summer season (April to June) is not the ideal time to visit. It provides blue skies, but also uncomfortably hot and humid weather, as well as the risk of less water and unspectacular falls. In the rainy season of December-February, the falls are at full force. However, certain areas of the park are closed owing to damage caused by heavy flows on certain falls. And all the 275 falls are no longer visible individually because their boundaries blend into one another due to the sheer volume of water.

November proved to be a very lucky time for my father and me. Just weeks prior to our arrival, the area had experienced heavy rainfall, resulting in near-record volumes of water. However, since it was not rainy season, we experienced no risk of further downpour hampering our viewing. August-September as well as March also provide a decent compromise between wet and dry seasons, with a chance of similar good luck.

With the site spread across the Brazil-Argentina border, it is imperative to spend at least two days there to experience both sides which are surprisingly different. The Argentine side of the national park, which is twice as large as the Brazilian side, has more attractions in terms of trails and viewpoints. Inside, numerous trails explore the lush rainforest around the falls. Here, you can see over 400 species of birds, including five members of the toucan family and the rare Green Ibis, as well as over 100 species of butterflies, and numerous bromeliads and orchids. There are metal walkways along the side of flowing cascades and viewpoints that take you almost underneath a flowing veil of water. There is a train that connects the areas. There is a speedboat trip under one of the falls, a boat trip to the edge of the falls, helicopter rides, and a ferry to a small island in the river. In short, this side of the falls provides the most varied experience for the tourist.

The appeal on the Argentine side is an intimate encounter with the stunning forces of nature, the single most spectacular sight being Devil's Throat, or garganta del diablo. Here, fourteen falls drop over 80 metres with such force that there is always a 100-foot cloud of spray overhead. During the rainy season, the rate of flow here can reach over 17,750 cubic metres per second, making it the single most powerful waterfall on earth. Amazingly, a steel walkway takes tourists right to the edge of this awesome surge, allowing views over the edge. Here, the roar of the water is deafening, and the spray obscures your view, allowing you to revel in the sheer force of the water, and get soaked in the process. Somehow, despite the might of the water, you can see Great Dusky swifts flitting into the falls, and through them, to find their nests on the other side, protected from predators by the falls. On return from the edge, a testament to this power still stands. Next to the new steel walkway, the remains of an old concrete construction still stand. Most of it was washed away in a powerful torrent of water caused by record rainfall.

IF such close-up viewing characterises what the Argentine side has to offer, then the smaller Brazilian side is an exercise in contrast - yet no less worthwhile. The Brazilian side has only one trail to see, and an interpretation centre, all of which can be done in half a day. However, the experience is unique. Rather than taking you along, above or under the falls, the trail here provides you panoramic vistas of up to 12 falls at a time, most of which cannot even be seen from the Argentine side. Furthermore, Devil's Throat can be appreciated from a distance, which rather than being overwhelming, provides much-needed perspective. Without its spray obscuring everything, you can see its immense size in full.

The views on the Brazilian side are so varied and spectacular that you will find yourself stopping at every turn, and wanting to revisit each viewpoint at sunset. At the end of the 2-km trail, there are a series of ever-higher platforms that allow you to view both the bottom and top of a waterfall, as well as a view of the entire 3 km span of the falls. The entire area is carefully managed, so that private vehicles are not necessary. A good system of park shuttle buses takes tourists anywhere they would need to go.

Wildlife is more accessible on this side of the park, with a number of families of Coatis, a native racoon-like creature constantly visible. These animals have grown up so used to the presence of tourists that they run alongside you on the manmade trails, with their babies following along. I had the good fortune of seeing a mother suckling her young ones right next to the trail. As long as these animals are not fed by the tourists, their presence proves how well tourism and environmental protection can coexist, if the area is well managed.

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