By Kathleen Kemsley, © 2021
I’ve seen a lot of waterfalls in my life. Tall ones, wide ones, powerful and awe-inspiring ones: some of the best are Yosemite, Niagara, Juneau Falls in Alaska and Basaseachik in Mexico. But all those waterfalls take a back seat to Iguazú Falls on the Argentina-Brazil border. As the Prince song says, “Nothing Compares 2 U.”
I built the whole itinerary for our trip to Argentina around Iguazú Falls. From Buenos Aires, we could either ride a bus for 20 hours to get there, or take a two-hour flight. My niece, who had lived in Argentina for a few months when she was in her twenties, had braved the bus ride. When I asked for her advice, she heartily recommended flying in to the jungle, rather than doing an all-nighter on a bumpy, noisy bus.
So I booked the four of us on a flight to Puerto Iguazú, on the Paraná River, and reserved a three-night stay at the Iguazú Jungle Lodge. In preparation for the journey, I had seen pictures of the falls, studied maps, and read about them (“One of the planet’s most awe-inspiring sights,” according to the Lonely Planet guidebook). I was so excited to experience the place in person that I hardly slept that night. The next morning, we boarded a van for the half-hour ride to the entrance of Iguazú National Park.
The Iguazú Falls did not disappoint. We hiked first toward the Lower Trail, following the route backwards from most of the other people, so that the Rio Iguazú was on our left. When we came around a corner, suddenly, there was the panorama of the falls. Stunning, overpowering, thundering with millions of gallons of water. Seized with awe and gratitude to witness this wonder of the world, my eyes flooded with tears as I stared at the view.
We went around alongside the river, stopping frequently as every mirador gave a different vantage on the massive falls. The lower loop path ventured quite close to the bottom of the falls, so that a visitor could be cooled off by the spray. After completing the lower loop, we then moved to the upper loop, joining a “conga line,” as the guidebook called it, of people walking on a narrow trail along the top of the falls. We leaned over the guard rails and shouted to each other over the roar of water.
Finally, we rode a little train out to the end of the line, then walked another half mile to reach the climax of the day: Garganta del Diablo, or the Devil’s Throat. Here, an enormously powerful waterfall plunged off a cliff below the viewing platform. The sound of water crashing was deafening; the mist was so thick that I could not see to the bottom of the fall.
The question that immediately came to my mind was, has anyone ever fallen in to the water here? I was able to ask someone at the park later, and they assured me that yes, quite a few people have gone in, and most were never heard from again.
As I explored all the pathways around the falls I wondered: how did these falls get here? The geological explanation was pretty straightforward. An ancient lava flow ended abruptly here, so the Rio Iguazú ran off the edge of the lava, plunged down to the sedimentary layer, then flowed into the Rio Paraná, another river draining the jungle interior.
The local indigenous people had a more colorful story, which involved an angry god and a brave young warrior pursuing a beautiful maiden. The maidens in these tales are always beautiful, with long black hair cascading like, well, a waterfall. In this case her name was Naipur. When her lover spirited her away from the jealous god in a canoe, the god caused the riverbed to collapse. The canoe plunged over the falls, and Naipur was turned into a rock.
The falls were located on the border between Argentina and Brazil. Theoretically, it was possible to visit both sides of the falls. You had to plan ahead to get a visa, required for Americans to enter Brazil. People also flew over the falls in helicopters, kayaked in the churning Rio Iguazú, and rode in motorboats to the base of the falls – and even motored behind them. But I did not feel the urge to partake in these adrenalin-fueled jaunts. I was perfectly happy to stay on the ground and feel the spray of the falls close-up on the Argentine side.
Iguazú Falls National Park was set in a jungle – overgrown, steamy, humid, and full of plant and animal life. Along the trail we spotted toucans, capuchin monkeys, and coatis. The pesky raccoon-like coatis looked cute, but became aggressive if food was offered. We watched as other tourists tried to feed some coatis a cracker, only to get scratched as the animals fought over the snack.
It took a full day to walk all the loops of the park, but one full day was not quite enough for me to get my fill. So I talked my friends into returning for a second day. It helped that the park service discounted your entrance fee by 50 percent if you came back two days in a row. The second day, we got there quite early in the morning, before the hoards of tour busses showed up, so that we could walk the metal grate and stone paths around the lower loop by ourselves, minus the crowds.
At one point when no one was looking, I put some of my late husband’s ashes into one of the falls. He would have loved to see these falls. Now, he is a part of them.
It’s always hard to tell from reading a guide book or looking at a website, exactly what kind of a hotel you are selecting. But the Iguazú Jungle Lodge turned out to be a pleasant surprise. Located on a spur road away from the center of the town of Puerto Iguazú, the lodge consisted of a bunch of wooden cabin-like apartments arranged in a circular pattern. In the center of the circle was a big pool, a game room, and a five-star restaurant. Each “family style apartment” had a living room, a/c that sort of worked, a bathroom with jacuzzi that really didn’t work, a refrigerator, and a porch with a peek-a-boo view of the Rio Paraná. Quiet, secluded, and safe, for $65 per person per night.
During an early morning run through the town, I noticed plenty of lodging choices, from cheap hostels to extravagant hotels much fancier than ours. There wasn’t much to the town other than the lodging and a scattering of restaurants. Colorful murals decorated the building walls. Small parks with green grass and towering trees dotted the quiet streets. A group of young people gathered in one park to drink wine, while music blared from their car – it appeared this was one of those towns stuck in the hinterlands where all the kids couldn’t wait to move to Buenos Aires. If not for the tourists arriving to see the falls, the town would probably not even exist.
Oh, but the falls were so incredibly stunning. It was definitely worth the effort and expense to make a detour from Buenos Aires to the tropical northern border of Argentina. I was awed, inspired, astounded…name your adjective. Dazzled. Overwhelmed. Changed. Humbled by the power of Iguazú Falls.