Where Paraguay, Brazil, and Argentina now meet, lava flow stopped at a plateau’s end creating on the Iguazú River a concentration of from 150 to 300 waterfalls, so many that not all of them are named. They drop from 131 to 295 feet, depending on upriver rain, and throw up so much mist that on sunny days rainbows are ever-present.
The Falls are a beyond fantastic travel destination, and, when we were there, three major walks gave Ruth and me access to most of them along with unpredictable soaking opportunities from heavy spray. The Lower Circuit was a series of metal walkways with many stairs that afforded panoramic views of side by side cascades. The stairless Upper Walk stretched atop several cataracts and was about half as long as the Lower but twice as dramatic. At the end was a seating area where viewers sat staring at the rushing, tumbling tumult in trance like wonder. The Garganta del Diablo or The Devil’s Throat, my favorite, was accessible from Cataratas Station via a slow-moving, packed train. The trip was short, the crowd festive, and the reward spectacular. One brochure described Garganta as “the most powerful waterfall experience.” It’s impossible to conceive of a better one, even Niagara. Garganta’s approach increased anticipation with a series of catwalks crossing Rio Iguazú Superior just inches above its extraordinary flow, 229,500 cubic feet of water per second.
Iguazú National Park was established in 1934 but the walkways were a late 20th century addition, part of some general infrastructure improvements. The Visitors’ Center, also part of the facility redesign, gave access to a spread out village. The only accommodations in the Park is the Hotel das Cataratas.
Among the dining spots and souvenir stands was a very fine Interpretive Center where we learned a lot about local flora and fauna, including warnings not to feed the cute coatis scampering about. The rest of the Center was devoted to the human history of the area, especially the indigenous people, the Guarani.
The first non-native explorer to see these falls was Cabeza de Vaca in 1541. What dry history books in school didn’t tell me was that his name means head of a cow. Alvar’s exploratory journeys are detailed in a great book by Andrés Reséndez named A Land So Strange. He could also have called his book about Álvar A MAN so Strange.
Jesuits came in 1608 to evangelize and established 30 pueblo missions involving 100,000 local inhabitants. They developed corn, tobacco, and mandioca (bitter cassava) production but stirred controversy and were expelled in 1767. Tours to their missions/ruins are available from travel agents throughout the area.
We happened to be at Iguazú in November (late spring) after two days of intense downpour so the falls were in full flood. At its peak, Iguazú has the greatest annual flow of any waterfall system. The downside was that the little boats to the trails and waterfall views on San Martin Island were not in operation.
But I’m always happy when something isn’t working or we run out of time because this gives me an excuse to come back to, in this case, one of the great natural wonders of the world.