These are just words. But the waterfalls of the Iguazú river are all those things and more.
It was a rainy, cold day when we left Buenos Aires. We were actually glad because it meant that any ash in the sky from the volcano in Chile would be washed away and our flight would depart relatively on time. That was important because our schedule only allowed two days to explore the National Park at Iguazú. We had a later engagement further in the jungle that we were not willing to miss.
We were flying to a part of Argentina that shares a border with Brazil and Paraguay.
Our arrival was uneventful. It was evening and almost dark when we arrived and our host from Casa Yaguarate was waiting to take us to the small bed and breakfast that I had found online. This was my first time making all my own travel arrangements in Argentina, so I breathed a quiet sigh of relief that everything was turning out as it should.
We stayed in the outskirts of the main town, in a quiet portion recently dedicated by the city to growth of the tourist industry. Instead of hotels, they were encouraging smaller posadas and B&B's to spur small business in the area. We woke to the sounds of chickens and cars on the wet dirt road. My youngest and I were out just as dawn was breaking and were welcomed by the silhouettes of three grand toucans in a tall tree with bare branches. The sighting was a good auspice for our trip.
On arrival at the park, we were met with out first lines. Don't imagine Yosemite or Yellowstone. This park is set up more like Disneyland. You arrive and park your car. Then you head to the park entrance and stand in line to purchase your tickets. Locals get in free. Residents of Argentina get a discount. Foreign tourists pay a premium price. Entrance for the day cost us about US$25 a piece, my youngest who is only 12 got a discount. Entrance includes access to all of the trails and the train out to La Garganta del Diablo. Anything else costs extra.
Just like Disneyland, you enter the park near the support buildings - stores for purchasing trinkets, coffee shops, restaurants, and a small visitors center.
The front of the park is also where you find the concessions selling the extras. Several companies run trips to the base of the falls. You and your closest friends (about 25 folks in all) load onto a motorized raft, place all your belongings into drybags, and race across the rapids to the base of the falls. My boys had heard from friends that this was the best part of the whole day.
The lower falls are the way to access the boats heading out on the water, so that is where headed first. The trail took us through the damp jungle and we got glimpses of streams and cascades and occasional views of the Iguazú River itself.
The day was misty and cool and our first view of the falls was striking. Iguazú means big water in the language of the local Guarani language. It is well named. The river is huge and the falls are copious. They literally seem to go on forever. It was incredibly hard to tell where the mist in air stopped and the water from the falls began.
My husband uttered the words, "It's like The Lost World by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle." And he was right. And there were waterfalls behind waterfalls behind waterfalls. The view was mysterious and otherworldly and you could imagine searching for the hidden path that would lead to the unknown lands beyond.
It also made the legend about the falls seem plausible:
The legend of the falls has it that the Caigangue Indians, who lived on the bank of the Iguazu River, believed that the world was ruled by a god in the shape of a serpent named M'Boy. As the story goes, the tribal chieftain had a beautiful daughter named Naipi who was said to have been able to still the river just by gazing upon her own reflection. Naipi was promised to the god M'Boy, but fell in love with a tribal warrior named Taroba.
The day that the betrothal was to take place, Taroba stole the beautiful Naipi away, and escaped down the river. When the god M'Boy found the betrayal, he furiously drove his twisting serpant body into the ground, producing a large gorge that created the waterfalls. The eloping lovers were deluged with water and disappeared forever.
The path meandered through several small falls and we paused to get views of the river and views of different waterfalls. Although we had read about the area before coming and even watched the movie, The Mission, to prepare us, we didn't expect the massive amounts of water pouring out of every pore of the subtropical jungle. Everywhere we looked, there was more water. It was unbelievable.
We arrived at the boats before there were long lines, probably because it was still a little cold and the sun was not going to creep out from behind the clouds anytime soon. We were handed drybags for our gear, including our cameras, and told to take off our shoes and socks once in the boat and store them as well. We were in for the wettest rides of our lives.
The 'host' gave us a quick rundown of the do's and don'ts of the trip... mainly that all cameras should be stowed when he says so and that if we would like a memory of our trip, we could purchase a copy of the video they would produce. Luckily, my husband's small camera is waterproof so we are able to provide you with up close and personal pictures of the falls. Enjoy them... they are actually better than what I could see myself. With so much water in my face, I found it very hard to keep my eyes open. I had even traded contact lenses for my regular glasses in anticipation.
The driver hit every wave possible to add to the excitement of the ride. Their goal was to get us as wet as they possibly could... my goal would have been a more calm and peaceful look at the falls. I don't even know if that would have been possible. The churning of the water created a cacophony of sound not unlike screaming soccer fans at the Copa America.
I was sliding around my seat with every twist and turn of the boat and wishing that I would have worn a bathing suit instead of my all-weather jacket. Although it attempted to keep me dry, it didn't prevent water from sloshing down the my neck. When all was said and done, all four of us looked like we had come fresh out of the shower, fully dressed.
My boys were ready to go again! I was ready to be warm and dry.
The sun was just trying to peek out a little bit among the clouds. Encouraged by the weak rays of sunlight, a lizard camouflaged himself on a nearby rock, hoping to evade tourist/naturalists like ourselves. We managed to snap a photo of him before he gave up and ran back to the shadows.
We decided that the next stop would have to La Garganta del Diablo, or The Devil's Throat. The journey took multiple steps. First, we had to walk to the train, back in the direction that we had come. The trail was well designed and we didn't double track on all of the trail, only some. The circular passage was great as the crowds were beginning to get thicker and those places with two way traffic complicated matters.
After making our way back up the trail, and taking a few more photos, we decided it was time for lunch. When traveling to places like amusement parks, we tend to be pretty frugal and skip restaurants that cater to hungry tourists. We had bought rolls, lunchmeat and cheese and filled our bottles with fresh spring water at the B&B. Throw in a package of Pringles and some alfajores (Argentine cookies sandwiches filled with dulce de leche), and we were set. Unfortunately, there was not a picnic table to be found, nor even a park bench, so we made do with a set of stairs at the water tower.
We escaped the hungry coatis and saw a well camoflauged moth instead. By the time the wasps decided to show up, we were ready to be done and headed on our way... we had a train to catch.
All I can figure is that the designers of this huge park wanted a way to move thousands of visitors around the park in a single day. If tourists had to walk to all of the points of interest, it would never happen. So someone added trains. Of course, with all the crowds, by the time we were finished standing in the incredibly long line for the trains, we could have walked to the same place in less time.
We learned that after the train left and we saw people walking the dirt road next to the tracks. We took advantage of that same trail the next day. We had loved the Devil's Throat so much and wanted to see it again with fewer people, that it became our first stop on day 2. And the walk, about 20 minutes, provided ample opportunity to see more butterlies and flowers. If we were ever to visit again, I would skip the train. Not worth the time of day.
Once you arrive at the train's destination, the walk to the Devil's Throat is another kilometer on metal bridges that cross multiple branches of the Iguazú River. At each pause on an island, we had the opportunity to see birds and butterflies. The most common bird, a type of jay, had no fear of tourists and they were further encouraged by illegal feeding. We saw these same birds in the wilds of the jungle a few days later and they were much harder to see, much more wary of us.
As we got closer to the actual falls, the crowds got tighter. In the distance, we could see what looked like clouds rising from the island. I learned as we got closer that we had been looking at the mist from the waterfalls.
The viewing platform stood directly over the falls and the view of the Devil's Throat was immediate.
I had read that there are actually 14 waterfalls converging in this one location. I am sure it depends on how the rainfall each year how many of them you can actually see. We were so close to them that I could feel the roar of the water in my chest, like great big Japanese drums but with a more insistent beat.
Tour guides stood on ladders and encouraged their crews of tourists to pile together for photos in front of the largest drop. Many held umbrellas to protect themselves from the near constant fall of water. The mist never dissipated and the rhythm of the falls seemed to include a huge updraft of air that brought with it the water from the bottom back up to the top. A huge gust of wind would then push the returning water across the viewing platform and we would be met with a wall of water. This happened every few minutes.
Professional photographers had their cameras protected in special water proof cases. Smart tourists had raincoats that were unzipped enough to hide and protect their electronic gear. I can only imagine the cameras that refused to work later that day from moisture in their gears. I had to remove my own filter several times that day to allow the moisture between it and the lens to dry. And I had put mine away for the worst of the wet.
For the trip back to Disney Centra, we took a raft. We were hoping to see lots of wildlife. We did see three caiman and a few birds. We also enjoyed the peace and quiet of the river and our guide shared some naturalist information with us. It was better than riding the train and waiting in the long, long line.
Our second day out at the Devil's Throat was better for every reason. There were fewer tourists (though still a lot) and the sun came out. Having the sun shine on the water made all the difference in the world. It also meant that we saw more butterflies. Ironically, we saw less birds.
On day two, after the Devil's Throat, we headed to the "Superior Walk." It takes you along a path across the tops of several waterfalls while sharing different vistas of falls in the distance. The photography opportunities were amazing. The sun shone through the mist in several locations and we found rainbows galor! That little bit of sun also encouraged a few lizards to venture out of winter hibernation.
Again, by afternoon, the crowds were abominable. Fortunately, this trail allowed for large tour groups and we could speed or slow our own passage to allow ourselves some distance from the most crowded spaces. It was actually fun taking pictures of them from across the water while we were standing in less crowded conditions. Lesson learned... I would never sign up for a tour at these waterfalls. It would only inhibit your enjoyment. I can't even imagine you can hear half of what the guide had to say in the first place.
The Superior Trails reminded me of our own national parks more than any of the rest of the park. We found interpretive signs in both English and Spanish explaining some science of the rainfalls - why there was sometimes no water and why the water was such a murky red-brown.
I was also surprised to see how science had been manipulated by government employees when I read that dams upstream were actually helping prevent sediment from reaching the falls and the water clarity was slightly improved because of them. In reality, the damns are causing other issues for fish, wildlife, and local indigenous populations. The increased farming, especially soy fields but also yerba maté, are not helping. The subtropical jungle is disappearing and those places where it has been converted to farm land contribute to the sediment in the river. I will have more on this in a later diary describing our trip into the subtropical jungle.
By the time we had finished hiking the Superior Trail, we were very tired of people. We headed to a much smaller and less used trail through the jungle. We had hoped to see some animal life but only saw ants and lots of plants and trees. But it was pleasant and much less crowded. It was a nice end to our stay.
If you happen to make it to Argentina, everyone will recommend that you come and see the Cataratas del Iguazú. They are well worth the trip. If you come between April and July, there should be lots of water but just remember that Argentines take their winter break the last two weeks in July and the crowds will be at their height. Better to wait until the first week or two in August, if you have the choice. You can also visit during the Argentine summer, January through March. Kids are out of school December through February, so more crowds should be expected as well. You will see more wildlife - lizards and snakes - but the heat will also join you.
In the next couple of weeks, I should have a couple of travel diaries up about the rest of our trip - a description of Puerto Iguazu and the B&B where we stayed, and great photos from our stay in the jungle itself at a small lodge in a Nature Reserve.