Saffron yellow butterflies the size of my fist drift past as I take another sip of Malbec on the shady wooden veranda of our hotel surrounded by lush, tropical vegetation. Somewhere close by, the shriek of a bird rises above the continual low hum of thousands of insects. It’s late afternoon, the sky is deep blue and the air is still; it’s about 28 degrees even in the shade. I have succumbed totally to the heat and humidity which stifles the desire to do anything much, creating a lethargy which is endemic in the tropics. I can’t say I’m the least bit perturbed, for I am languishing on a leather sofa soaking up the sights and sounds of the jungle and this glass of Malbec is really rather good.
I’m deep in the rainforest in the Argentinean province of Misiones, a long finger of land sandwiched between Paraguay and Brazil in the far northeast of the country. Like me, many people will doubtless be surprised to learn that Argentina has rainforest, equating it primarily with the mighty Amazon. This is the Paranaense subtropical rainforest, a part of the Interior Atlantic Forest which historically extended inland from the Brazilian coast to Northern Argentina and Uruguay, as well as Eastern Paraguay, covering over a million square kilometres. Sadly, the pressures of modern development means that over 95 per cent of it has been destroyed. One of the few remaining inland areas of forest biome lies in Misiones and the neighbouring state of Paraná across the border in Brazil. And this area is special for more than just its jungle: it is home to the Iguazú/Iguaçu Falls.
I cast my mind back to a time when I was about 19, watching the shocking opening scenes of The Mission in a Leicester Square cinema. A Jesuit priest tied deliberately to a wooden cross filled the silver screen, being swept along, semi-conscious, by a tempestuous torrent towards a watery death. I recall the thunderous sound of the waterfalls as the foaming, seething, enormous white wall of water greedily sucked his tiny body down into oblivion. ‘Where is this place?’ I whispered to my companion. ‘Somewhere in South America’, he replied. As the film unfolded, I resolved one day to see these incredible falls. Now, almost 30 years later, I’m about to do just that.
Darkness has fallen abruptly, the bottle of Malbec is empty, and the atmosphere is heavy and oppressive. A thick carpet of cloud blankets the sky blotting out the stars. Even the insects seem to fall silent as an impending storm breaks somewhere in the distance, illuminating the horizon with vivid sheets of lilac light. I imagine I hear a distant low rumble, barely audible, rather like a lazy drum roll. Not a leaf stirs in the shrubbery near the veranda, yet the atmosphere feels charged and expectant. Without warning the wind rises, large drops of rain begin to bounce off the waxy leaves nearby, and the pungent smell of ozone assails my nostrils.
Within minutes the nearby palm trees are sent into a demonic frenzy; the strident rasping of their dry leaves fill the air as they are bent almost double by the wind. Huge veils of rain lash the landscape which is periodically lit by lurid flashes of lightening; muddy pools form almost immediately, spilling little rivulets in all directions across the baked red soil and water cascades furiously off the roof of the veranda. The air, rent with the roar of thunder now right overhead, is pregnant with an earthy-musty scent.
Then, as quickly as it came, the storm departs, leaving everything dripping wet and glistening. A calm descends and the insects commence their droning chorus. One or two stars appear through breaks in the cloud holding out the promise of improved weather. Tomorrow I will see the falls.
Men are busy sweeping the streets of the leaves and branches brought down by last night’s storm as we walk along the road to the town of Iguazú, a haphazard settlement of dusty streets lined with umpteen souvenir shops and cheap cafes. It has a laid-back frontier-type feel, and is popular with backpackers with prices that reflect this. Although it’s not yet 9.00 am, I can already feel the sweat running down my spine. The sky is overcast and the air is heavily scented with a pleasant musky fragrance and thick with humidity from the drying earth.
We find the bus station and board a local bus that takes us right to the entrance of the Iguazú National Park. Declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1984 (and the contiguous Iguaçu National Park in Brazil in 1986), the park is famous for its massive waterfalls which are among the world’s most visually and acoustically stunning natural sites. Across a width of almost three kilometres, the Iguazú or Iguaçu River, drops vertically some 80 meters in a series of cataracts four times as wide as Canada and America’s Niagara Falls. What makes it so special is that it is not just one waterfall but a collection of 275 individual cascades that line a horseshoe-shaped gorge.
The river, aptly named ‘great water’ by the indigenous Guaraní, forms a large bend in the heart of the two parks constituting the international border between Argentina and Brazil before it flows into the mighty Paraná River at the Three Frontiers, 23 kilometres downriver. Large clouds of spray permanently soak the surrounding riverine forests, creating an extremely humid micro-climate favouring lush and dense sub-tropical vegetation harbouring a diverse fauna.
We arrive to find the park entrance swarming with tourists disgorged from huge air conditioned coaches. Inside we pass by several expensive restaurants and souvenir shops, their windows prominently displaying lines of luridly decorated mate (pronounced mah-tay) pots. We join the front of a queue at the Estación Central for a ride on an eco-train that will take us to the most popular site: La Garganta del Diablo ‘the Devil’s Throat’.
After what seems like a long wait, we set off through flat scrubby bush then plunge into the jungle, enjoying the views from the open sided train. Our fellow passengers are noisy and excited and a passing train draws shrieks of laughter and loud cheers. It’s obvious to us that we will have no chance of seeing some of the shier animals in the park! We stop at the Estación Cataratas to change trains and soon catch our first glimpse of the river which flashes in and out of sight through the dense foliage. After about half an hour we arrive at Estación Garganta del Diablo, the final station, joining the sudden surge onto the platform as everyone jostles towards the exit.
From here it’s about a one kilometre walk to the Devil’s Throat along a series of raised metal and wooden walkways connecting various islands. Erected right over the Río Iguazú Superior, the walkway offers fine views of the silver expanses of water snaking through gaps in the emerald jungle. We spy catfish swimming in the shallows and turtles sunning themselves on exposed basalt boulders. A large broad-nosed caiman lying motionless on a muddy bank close to the water’s edge has drawn a crowd of curious onlookers, all eager to get that unforgettable holiday shot. Cheeky Plush Crested Jays sporting short fluffy black hairdos and electric blue facial markings congregate in nearby trees and seem to play to our cameras, fixing us intently with their beady yellow eyes. We spot the delightful Ochenta y Ocho butterfly, so named because of the distinctive black and white patterns resembling an 88 below its maroon wings, and a Pygas Eighty-eight, which actually lands on Martin’s finger, attracted by the salt generated by the sweat on his skin.
As the river widens and the vegetation thins, we notice huge columns of mist churning in the air. We are now nearing the gorge and the musical murmur of the falls has become a guttural growl; the skeletal remains of a former walkway, twisted and smashed by a former flood, reminds us of the awesome power of this river. The viewing platform above which the Argentine flag hangs limply from its pole is literally thronged with people. All around us the water is fast flowing and swirling inexorably towards the nearby chasm where it abruptly disappears.
Every second around 12,700 cubic metres of water charges over these basalt cliffs which makes a sound that you feel as much as hear. I stand in awe before this enormous cascading curtain of white water, its power belied by the reverberations passing through the platform and up into my body. I think of the opening scenes of The Mission and the hapless Jesuit priest.
I am struck by how flat the surrounding land is, just rainforest and water for as far as the eye can see; it’s the very flatness that makes the falls the more dramatic, as if a giant fist has smashed into the river’s path leaving an 80-metre deep abyss. The sky is leaden with clouds that contrast with the foaming white falls and the air is perfectly still save for the updrafts of mist laden air that create delicate rainbows which shimmer near the edges of the gorge. I am mesmerised by the kaleidoscopic lacy patterns and showers of crystal water drops created as the water plunges over the edge. Across the gorge we can see people swarming like ants on a viewing platform running along the Brazilian side of the falls.
Having taken our fill of the gut-churning tumult, we head back to catch the train. Luckily there was no wind at the Devil’s Throat so we were damp, but not drenched, and with temperatures in the high 20s, we dry off in minutes! We disembark once more at Estación Cataratas and head to a nearby cafe for a quick lunch. The food is expensive and the reheated empanadas just about edible. Each mouthful we take is watched by a trio of Plush Crested Jays who pounce on every stray crumb. It is here that we first catch sight of the coatí, a playful and inquisitive racoon-like creature with a long pointed snout and a black and white striped tail. These have a keen interest in the nearby waste bin and it is hilarious to see one hop in and hang onto the bin’s rim with its long hind claws with its tail dangling out as it rummages through the waste!
We follow the signposts for the 650 metre long Circuito Superior which traverses a boardwalk taking in several viewing platforms above a semicircle of falls, each one creating an entrancing misty veil of water. The grey clouds have passed, the sun is now shining and everything appears in glorious Technicolor: a deep blue sky dotted with fluffy white clouds; exotic foliage in myriad shades of vibrant green; basalt cliffs glowing rust red; and scores of rainbows shimmering in the mist above the cascades. Opposite is the luxuriantly vegetated Isla San Martín framed by tall palm trees. This landscape looks just like a tropical paradise should. We spot Amazon Lava Lizards sunning themselves on rocks away from the spray and a pair of Black Vultures holding court on a craggy outcrop high above the river.
After stopping to satiate our thirst, we are treated yet again to the antics of more bin-raiding coatís while a small knot of people has gathered only a few feet from my chair, where someone has spotted a coiled rattlesnake lurking in the leaf litter. The sight of the diamond patterned snake unsettles me and we set off swiftly to tackle the Circuito Inferior. This route is simply delightful, offering a shady riverside walk with a spectacular upriver panorama of the Devil’s Throat, the Isla San Martín with its orange sandy beach, and the semicircle of falls we had just walked above.
We suddenly spot a rib boat surging through the rapids on the river, headed straight for the Salto San Martín. We can hear the shrieks from the passengers as the captain carefully manoeuvres the boat right underneath the surging cascade. It disappears into the mist for several seconds before emerging with its passengers drenched and cheering, hands raised aloft. This looks like lots of fun and we agree to give it a go the next day, as the afternoon is almost gone.
As we walk right up to the cliffs below the falls, the vegetation becomes more luxuriant with walls dripping with emerald moss. Clumps of cerise pink and white impatiens grow like weeds by the side of the path and begonias with showers of small pink flowers creep up the sides of the nearby trees. The crowds have now thinned and we are delighted to find ourselves alone by a deep turquoise pool. The urge to strip off and plunge into the water is overwhelming! The strident hiss of cascading water fills the air and the sun, now low in the sky, casts long shafts of light down over the falls illuminating the mist which moves in languid circles. We savour this timeless and special moment.
Reluctantly, we make our way towards the park entrance as the heat of the day subsides. The manicured lawns close to the entrance building are a playground for several South American Guinea Pigs, who gambol in the fading sun, sharing the limelight with Southern Lapwings whose chicks resemble cute balls of brown and white fluff. A noisy colony of Red-rumped Cacique in a grove of nearby palm trees seem to toast us as we satiate our thirst with a cool beer before boarding a bus back to Iguazú, exhausted after a memorable day’s sightseeing.
Iguaçu National Park, Brazil
Our taxi arrives at 9.00 am prompt at our hotel reception. It’s sunny and a lot less humid than yesterday and I have a spring in my step as I enter the car, excited to be finally going to the Samba nation! There's a bit of a queue on the Argentinean side of the border and we have to stop to get our passports stamped. Before long we are speeding across a concrete bridge over the mighty Río Iguazú, passing through the Brazilian checkpoint without stopping. The taxi driver drops us at the entrance to the Iguaçu National Park and promises to return to collect us at closing time.
We are instantly struck by how much more busy and commercialised the Brazilian side feels. Unfortunately, the cash machine inside the park entrance is out of order so we cannot withdraw any Brazilian reals, meaning we have to pay by debit card or in pesos. We soon discover that paying in pesos hikes up the price, which is already more for foreign tourists, making everything stupidly expensive. We board a double-decker park bus with audio in Portuguese, Spanish and English, that leaves from the Visitor Centre. This takes us past the sugar pink colonial edifice of the grand Hotel das Cataratas to the start of the Path of the Falls, a 1,200 metre trail which ultimately brings us face-to-face with the spectacular 80 metre drop of the Devil’s Throat.
The picturesque trail meanders parallel to the river and slowly descends the side of the gorge. It’s popularity means it’s literally teeming with visitors fawning over the full frontal and panoramic views of the cascades on the Argentine side. We quickly learn that all the honey pot vantage points are crammed with people trying to get the perfect holiday snap. It’s impossible to avoid the crowds and you simply have to accept that there is little chance of any peace or solitude. Trying our best to ignore the tide of fellow visitors, we wait patiently for our turn to photograph the spectacular views. Particularly impressive is the shimmering sweep of the falls where the Río Iguazú Superior plunges downwards beyond the Isla San Martín and the sight of two circling Black Vultures silhouetted against the misty backdrop of the Salto Bossetti.
There are coatís everywhere and they are not the least bit perturbed by the crowds, actually running along the pathway between people’s feet! We spot a female foraging in the leaf litter who is suddenly joined by about eight cubs. They are simply adorable, mini versions of their mother, some brown and some black, and all holding their stripped tails erect like little aerials! Further along the trail we pause to allow some people to pass and hear a faint rustling. To our delight, two black and white stripped and spotty Golden Tegi Lizards emerge from dense foliage into a bright pool of sunlight. We get great close up views of these leathery diminutive dinosaurs flicking their pink tongues as they taste the air, before they amble off into some nearby bushes.
As we progress along the trail, we pass the Salto Tres Mosqueteros (The Three Musketeers) rampaging over steep cliffs into the shimmering misty void below the point where the river flows over the flat top of the Isla San Martín, having just cascaded down the Salto Rivadavia, which provides a stunning backdrop. A number of rib boats collect at the foot of some falls close to the Salto Tres Mosqueteros, each waiting its turn to dunk its shrieking passengers under the torrent. The Devil’s Throat at the head of the narrow gorge is now visible, throwing up vast columns of mist and spray into a cloudless blue sky full of circling Black Vultures. The vista from each viewing platform becomes ever more picture postcard prefect, heightening the sense of drama and expectation, until the pièce de résistance is met with at the end of the trail.
We descend a steep flight of steps that brings us to the beginning of a raised board walk which traverses a flat shelf of rock between two sets of falls. This is indeed a liquid landscape, for there is water absolutely everywhere and we are soon soaked to the skin by the immense volumes of spray thrown up all around us. The board walk takes us right to the very edge of the gorge where we get dizzying views of the river below and peer through the spray and shimmering rainbows right into the seething, foaming Devil’s Throat. I am humbled by the sheer power and majesty of nature; it’s almost impossible to comprehend the immense volume of water that pours down into this gorge every single second. An enormous rainbow arches above the raging river, the noise is thunderous and the view wondrous, undoubtedly the best in both parks.
As if your senses haven’t already been overloaded by the magnificent boardwalk vistas, there is a special viewing platform atop a tower which is reached by stairs or an elevator, providing a final breathtaking bird’s eye panorama. The flat rainforest landscape stretches out into infinity below a deep blue sky studded with fluffy clouds that recede into the distance and everywhere, the Río Iguazú Superior cascades down ruddy red cliffs to create myriad falls in this watery paradise.
We hop back on the tourist bus and head to the point in the park where we can sign up for the Macuco Safari. Although this is a tad on the expensive side, it provides an electric cart ride through a trail in the jungle, then a 600 metre boardwalk to the river where visitors clamber aboard a rib boat for an unforgettable high speed trip up the river. As we wait for the trip to depart, we have an al fresco lunch on a shady café veranda. Thousands of butterflies are swarming just feet from us. They crowd the air and flutter about the ground in an endlessly moving psychedelic swirl of colour and patterns. I have never seen as many butterflies in one place and it is with difficulty that I pull myself away to join the safari.
We set off down a shady dirt track with about 20 other people on an electric cart, the forest canopy tracing delicate lacy patterns high above our heads. As we cruise along, the guide points out many things of interest: brilliant orchids, the occasional croak of toucans and shrieks of howler monkeys. The butterflies seem to have followed us and we pass through swarms of bright yellow Broad-banded Swallowtails.
We disembark the cart and with instructions not to touch anything, set off along a 600 metre boardwalk through a tangle of vegetation, passing curtains of vines and lianas, orchids, palm trees and various exotic flowers. The insects keep up a deafening background chorus, crystal clear streams form shady pools mottled with sunlight and the sibilant hiss of numerous small cascades serenade us as we pass. Butterflies in every conceivable shade adorn the ground and the momentary flash of a giant orange beak betrays the presence of a toucan in a nearby tree.
Before long we arrive at the top of a steep descent leading down from the rim of the gorge to a pontoon set up on the river’s edge. Alongside it bobs a bright orange inflatable rib boat. My excitement grows as we remove our sandals and stow our cameras and personal items in lockers before making our way down to the pontoon. I find it hard to walk down the basalt steps which are frying the soles of my feet! It is well over 35 degrees and as we arrive on the rubber pontoon, it is imperative to keep moving as the surface is absolutely grilling. I pass an uncomfortable few minutes as I’m fitted with a life jacket and am relieved when I eventually take my place in the boat and thankfully plunge the soles of my protesting feet into a puddle of cooling water!
The rib boat ventures forward, instantly picking up speed and surging into the full force of the river, bumping its way over the restless surface, showering us with spray. The Brazilian lady next to me grabs my arm in unbridled delight and we laugh like crazy as the boat lurches this way and that through a series of rapids, below steep rocky cliffs and secluded sandy beaches. Suddenly, we are level with the semicircle of cascades beyond the Isla San Martín. The boat slows and we can see the reflection of the falls, the clouds and the blue sky in the river’s surface. It’s like a scene straight out of The Mission. We float here for what seems like several minutes in reverence to this wondrous view, before moving off rapidly up river past a vicious looking eddy. Straight ahead we can see the snarling and foaming Devil’s Throat, but it’s far too dangerous to approach the head of the gorge due to the power of the river and submerged rocks.
The grey-green water of the river sucks menacingly at our boat as we line up opposite one of a series of falls constituting the Salto Tres Mosqueteros, awaiting our turn for total immersion in the raging cascade. The captain of the boat seems to tease us as he circles and sidles up to the falls several times. The anticipation is tremendous and we see our fate as boat loads of laughing, cheering people emerge through the mist gleaming wet in the bright sunlight. It’s almost impossible to anticipate the full fury of the falls. First, a disorientating spray descends with a strident hiss, sucking away the sun, enveloping everything in whiteness. Then the water hits me like a sledge hammer, forcing me down into my seat, pummelling the breath from my body. People around me are gasping and screaming; instinctively, I grip the seat in front, lower my head and screw my eyes shut.
The experience, which lasts only a few minutes, is terrifying and exhilarating in equal measure. Shrieks give way to cheers and rueful laughter as we emerge from the torrent absolutely drenched! My Brazilian companion looks at me, grabs my arm, throws her head back and laughs with relief as we speed off down the river in the warm afternoon air towards the pontoon. All too soon, our amazing river trip comes to an end and we reluctantly disembark to retrieve our belongings and hop aboard a jeep that takes us back to where we started the tour.
As we have just under two hours left before the taxi returns to collect us outside the centre, we catch the tourist bus to the park exit and head for the nearby Bird Park. As foreign tourists have to pay more to enter attractions in Brazil and Argentina, we change some pesos into reals at a nearby bureau de change to avoid being well and truly ripped off. Inside the park we join scores of other tourists on a route that recreates the jungle environment. The park is imaginatively designed and beautifully maintained, with lots of native plants and flowers.
We pass in and out of various gated enclosures where we get close up views of some of the region’s endemic species, including several varieties of comical looking toucans with their oversized beaks who eye us warily as we approach. There are also a wide array of colourful parrots from across the South American continent who squawk nosily as we enter their enclosures, and a number of hard to spot hummingbirds, some no larger than a human thumb, who flit on their iridescent wings to and from showers of tropical flowers seeking nectar with their long, needle-like beaks. Other species include game birds, waders and raptors from across the world.
We leave the park just as it is closing and return to the Iguaçu National Park entrance to find our taxi driver waiting for us. We pass though the Brazilian border once more without stopping (you do not get a stamp in your passport) but at the Argentinean side we have to pass through immigration control and receive an entry stamp. We have time to take a shower and enjoy a cool beer on the hotel veranda as the sun sets in an orange sky before the taxi driver returns to collect us once more.
Underneath the Moonlight
Our visit has happily coincided with the full moon, and not long after our arrival we decided to go for broke and booked a moonlight tour at the bus station in Iguazú. There are three trips each evening and we are on the second. We arrive at the now eerily deserted park entrance and make our way to a designated restaurant where we show our tickets and are escorted to our table for the buffet dinner. The array of food is quite superb with mountains of fresh salad and fruit and the parilla (grill) is simply excellent. With a waiter overseeing our every need, we gorge ourselves on huge ribs of succulent pork and hearty beef steaks, washed down with yet another bottle of excellent Malbec.
Outside we join over fifty other people and listen as a park ranger informs us about the ecology of the park and its nocturnal fauna. There isn’t a cloud in the indigo sky which is brightly studded with stars and the landscape is shrouded in a silvery glow cast by the rising moon. We are incredibly lucky as the storm that greeted us on arrival led to the cancellation of the tours scheduled for that night, and the previous night was cloudy.
We set off on the eco-train to the Estación Garganta del Diablo. The group is large and very noisy, and despite being asked not to take photos with a flash so as not to spoil the ambience of the trip for others, many people have simply ignored this request and every few minutes we were blinded. It’s highly unlikely that we will see or hear anything with this cacophony, but that is mass tourism for you!
As soon as the train pulls into the station we head briskly for the exit so as to get to the Garganta del Diablo to grab a few moments of quietness before the bulk of our fellow travellers descend. The moon is now rising well above the landscape, and the subtropical vegetation spreads out in monochrome magic for as far as the eye can see. My eyes are not yet used to this shadowy world but my ears seem to compensate for the lack of light.
I find the sounds of the night jungle strange yet intriguing: the jarring symphony of low booms and metallic chirps of frogs and toads as we pass by a marshy area; the occasional shriek of a monkey; the ever constant roar of water; and the incessant background chorus of insects. In the warm, humid night-time air, smells and scents seem to be amplified: the mustiness of the soil and the sickly-sweet scent of decaying vegetation; the sharp almost pungent odour of the water; and the incredible fragrance of a creamy-white trumpet-shaped flower that only blooms at night.
We pass people from the first moonlight tour making their way back to the train and before long we can hear the pounding tumult of the falls. As we approach the viewing deck we enter a cloud of billowing mist illuminated by the silvery light of the moon which is being blown over us by the faintest of breezes. There are just a few stragglers from the first group there, their pallid faces etched in the moonlight and we are able to take in unhindered views of the falls and enjoy several minutes of relative solitude before other people begin to arrive.
At night the vista of the falls is totally different, softened from the adrenalin-fuelled face-slapping panorama of daytime into something far more elusive, mystical and slightly melancholic. The river is transformed by the moon into liquid mercury that races downwards into the gorge collapsing in on itself in a seething, eerie whiteout. Staring down into the all consuming abyss, you face-off with your own mortality. And every so often the faintest glimmer of a moonbow shimmers above the misty falls as if teasing those with cameras to try and capture it. It’s been a true multi-sensory experience which will remain indelibly etched in my memory.
The following day we have some spare time before our flight to visit the Tri Border Area. This is colloquially known as The TBA, where Paraguay, Argentina and Brazil meet at the convergence of the mighty Iguazú and Paraná Rivers. In sweltering humidity we walk to the Hito Argentina, about a kilometre west of town, which is marked by an obelisk decorated in the colours of the Argentinean flag. A couple of ancient vendors manning little stands make half hearted attempts to sell us tacky souvenirs and shoddy handmade crafts.
Across the Iguazú River we spot the equivalent green and yellow Brazilian obelisk and then the red, white and blue adorned one for Paraguay. The tower blocks of Ciudad del Este, Paraguay’s border city which has something of a reputation for crime and squalor, look so incongruous poking up above the jungle canopy. At the bottom of the hill below the Hito Argentina is a ferry which goes to this tax free concrete jungle, and warning signs about contraband and tax evasion are on prominent display everywhere. We had no interest in staying in either Foz do Iguaçu in Brazil, or Ciudad del Este, preferring the quiet, safe, slightly down-at-heel frontier town of Iguazú.
We end our trip with some cool beers on a shady downtown veranda watching the world pass slowly by, reflecting on the fabulous few days we have spent in this remarkable part of the world. The sight of the piercing white mist that rises from the depths of the Devil’s Throat crowned by shimmering ethereal rainbows is unforgettable. Like the crucified Jesuit priest in The Mission who looked so tiny as he was consumed by the river’s fury, so too did I feel small and insignificant in the face of the majesty and brute force unleashed by nature. I shall carry these memories to the ghats.