Never-Ending Curtains of Water

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South America » Argentina » Misiones » Iguazú National Park
September 15th 2010
Published: September 30th 2010
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Tiny towns: Puerto Iguasu from San Ignacio

Iguazu Falls

The water in the languid Iguazu River started to pick up speed, prance, then dance, and then in a thunderous roar, leap hundreds of feet over the suddenly-opened precipice into the invisible, mist-shrouded abyss below.

275 waterfalls cascade over 2 miles on both sides of a gorge opened up by a fault in the earth’s crust. At the apex of the gorge, the basalt plateau on which the river had been traveling, drops off so that water plunges down in a roiling, semicircle maelstrom that is the Devil’s Throat--La Gargarta del Diablo, a highlight of Iguazu Falls.

The Lonely Planet recommended waiting for a sunny day to go to the falls to catch rainbows in the curtains of water, but for over two weeks in Misiones State, the sky had been filled with gray, lung-choking smoke. Some was from local leaf-burning fires on every block (mulching is unheard of here) and some from huge, rainforest-destroying slash and burn fires in Brazil and Paraguay.

I thought there would be fewer fires on Sunday since it might be a day of rest for workers--wrong. It just meant that there would be loads of big, slow, loud tour groups that would allow me to practice deep breathing, patience and acceptance on the narrow walkways. Fortunately, I was able to spend a couple of more peaceful days there later that week.

Eschewing the packed tourist tram, I bee-lined it a few kilometers along a red-dirt path to my first stop, the dramatic Garganta. The book recommended seeing it last, but I’m one of those who likes my dessert first. Accompanying me was the roar of the falls and then closer, a spray rising high above the river. My pace quickened and my excitement rose as I stepped onto the kilometer-long catwalk that would take me over the Iguazu River and to the edge of the awesome Garganta.

Though I’ve been graced to stand on glaciers and the peaks of mountains, run the rapids of the Grand Canyon, travel the Sahara on a camel and more, nothing prepared me for the visceral, soul-cleansing experience of the Garganta.

My jaw dropped, and I was frozen as my mind and cells tried to take in this awesome force of nature. Iguazu, which means Great Water in the indigenous Guarani language, will, hopefully and deservedly, soon be named one of the new Seven Wonders of the World.

Many of the walkways to and above the falls are made of metal mesh, so that the rivers and falls beneath your feet are visible. Sometimes, I felt as if I were flying above the water; other times, I was walking on it. Admirably, the Garganta path and the upper trail were both handicapped accessible and lots of elderly, portly and wheelchaired people enjoyed the panoramic views. My favorite places, though, were along the lower path which climbed up and down the rock, and where I was soaked by the spray of the falls.

One of these great soaking places was San Martin Island, in front of a long line of waterfalls as the gorge opened into a wide canyon. One day, the water level was low enough that I could putt out in a little boat and clamor up steep, jungle-clad stone steps to a rocky viewpoint jutting out over the gushing torrent of San Martin Waterfall (named after Argentina’s liberator). Drenched by the wafting-angel spray rising from the water crashing below, I stood transfixed, meditating on the ever-changing pattern of life as exhibited in the curtains of water passing before me.

The second day in the park, wearing my heavy-duty rain poncho from Amsterdam, I took a thrilling speedboat ride, screaming as we bounced over the water into the spray of San Martin and under smaller falls. For once, my glasses were a boon, for when we were under the less turbulent falls, I could look up with my eyes protected and watch the water fall directly into my face. Truly fab!

For three days, sometimes alone, sometimes with others I met along the way--a couple of guys from Boston and then a couple of young women from Paris--I followed the trails, mesmerized by their variety. Just as there were an infinite number of greens in the surrounding subtropical forest, so were there an infinite number of ways that the water let go and fell, plunged, charged, drizzled, and avalanched over the basalt riverbed.

Iguazu Falls is located in a finger of Argentina that juts up between Paraguay and Brazil near the junction of the Iguazu and Parana Rivers. Its 275 discreet falls are separated by little islands of basalt covered with clumping, bright green grasses resembling those in Japanese gardens. It’s quite unusual for plants to grow so close to crashing water which makes these falls lushly unique.

Water isn’t the only magic. The falls are surrounded by the largest subtropical rain forest in South America. The humidity of the area coupled with the mist from the falls results in a rich variety of life. Bamboo, begonia, impatiens, all sorts of ferns, orchids, bromiliades and other epiphytes grow amidst palms and pine. How fantastic to see so many of our Santa Barbara shade plants growing wild in their native soil!

South America is a paradise for birds. Swifts and kites filled the air of the falls and amazingly, build their nests behind the cascades. Among the 350 species of birds in the park, I also saw various kinds of egrets, heron and other river birds, a huge colony of black vultures on San Martin Island, hummingbirds and tanagers in jewel tones, toucans, parolets (small parrots) and very cheeky, yellow-breasted, crested jays.

Even cheekier than the jays are the adorable, fur-balls, the coati--long-nosed relatives of raccoons and with the same sharp teeth and claws. They crawl all over the picnic tables and beg from tourists who too-often ignore the strictures not to feed them. Traveling in bands, they screech and swing through the trees like monkeys and walk along the jungle floor and the walkway handrails with their tails jauntily held high. Totally comical, but also dangerous.

Totally beautiful and not at all dangerous were the jewel-like butterflies. My favorite was one with iridescent lapis on the inside of the wings and brown-on-white infinity symbols on the outside. Attracted by my sweet and salty-sweaty skin, butterflies and bees often landed on me and stayed as I walked.

After I photographed a red butterfly who stayed on my hand for about a kilometer, the zoom on my brand-new, ultracompact Panasonic died. Now, to capture close ups, I’ll have to really get close up. Hopefully, when I return to Buenos Aires, I’ll find someone to repair it, unlike in the States, where labor is so expensive that tiny cameras are rarely bothered with.

Puerto Iguazu

The first European to see the falls was Alvar Nunez Cabeza de Vaca (Cow’s Head, for you non-Spanish speakers) in 1542. Incidentally, a fantastic and slightly surreal 1991 Mexican art film, "Cabeza de Vaca," recounts the conquistador’s travels and encounters with Native Americans across North America. Only a few other Europeans, Jesuit missionaries and slave traders, were to venture this far into the jungle until the 20th century.

In 1901, the first tourists to visit, sailed up the Iguazu River in a steamship, landing at what would later become Puerto Iguazu. One of them was the wealthy philanthropist, Victoria Aguirre, from Buenos Aires. After enduring the hardship of traipsing 22 kilometers overland through the jungle to reach the falls, she donated the money to build a road connecting the port and the falls and also to construct the first hotel. Today, the principle street in the town commemorates her though for a time, the town was also named after her. Oddly enough, the town was briefly also called Eva Peron.

Victoria Aguirre also donated the money for the local hospital which was named for Marta Schwartz , the “Angel of the Jungle,” the first and only doctor to minister to this primitive community in the early and middle parts of the 20th century.

Today, the town’s 32,000 inhabitants cater primarily to the international tourist trade coming to the falls. Additionally, a street of upscale shops selling leather goods, cashmere sweaters and boutique food items caters to the Brazilians coming over to cheaper Argentina to shop. Ten years ago, prosperous Argentinians went over to poorer Brazil and Chile to shop, but this has been reversed.

The only tourist on the bus from San Ignacio, I was fair game for the touts from the plethora of hostels in Puerto Iguazu. Yet on the recommendation of another backpacker, I headed to the sweet, funky La Esquina del Bambu, a hostel Sandra and Carlos had built up from nothing.

While there are lots of chains of hostels, I prefer the smaller, homegrown ones, partly because I always like to support local, and also because they tend not to be party hostels. This one was brilliant with tropical flowers they’d transplanted from the surrounding jungle. Also, since this isn’t such a busy season, I usually had only one other person in the dorm, and sometimes even had it to myself--a luxurious treat. Since the hostel was only 25 pesos a night/$6.25, I took the time to write of my travels and figure out how to post to this blog.

The Brazilian Side

After spending 3 days on the Argentine side of the falls, as
A Long Way DownA Long Way DownA Long Way Down

Walkway at Right Center
well as visiting the Hito Tres Fronteras where Argentina, Brazil and Paraguay come together at the confluence of the Iguazu and Parana Rivers, I bit the bullet and got my $140 Brazilian visa.

Many South American countries charge Americans $140 for a visa, though generally, it’s only when flying in. This is a reciprocal charge and reflects what we charge them to enter our country--fair enough. I just think it’s a shame that we hit up potential visitors from poorer, non-European countries with such a steep fee to visit us. I know we are afraid they’re going to melt into our pot and stay, but the world is shrinking, and the more we get to know each other through travel, the better.

With my Brazilian visa in hand, I took three different buses and a couple of hours to go the 20 kilometers to arrive at the Brazilian side of the falls. While this side offered only one trail, it had fantastic panoramas of the falls and a couple of opportunities to get close enough to feel a bit of the spray. I stayed, staring in wonder much longer than the two hours most others give it.

I then visited the fabulous, nearby Bird Park with birds from this area, the Pantanal wetlands and the Amazon. Large aviaries allowed the birds to fly around and visitors to enter. One toucan was especially friendly and curious and nipped at my bag. In another aviary, red, blue and green parrots squabbled and filled the air with their screeches.

Many people grouse about the Brazilian side, particularly when comparing it to the much larger Argentine side. Yet comparisons only lead to dissatisfaction and feeling either inferior or superior. Taken on its own, it was a great experience. However, it would not have been worth paying for a $140 visa, in addition to the steep entrance fees just to see both sides of the falls. Since I’m soon off to Brazil, it was a great day and well worth the investment.

I’ve been speaking only Spanish for this Argentine month and a half. Now I’m off to Brazil where my Portuguese is nonexistent. When traveling in Portugal a few years ago, everyone wanted to practice their English, which was fine with me. No such luck in Brazil--wish me luck!

Additional photos below
Photos: 30, Displayed: 29


Meeting of 3 Countries & Two RiversMeeting of 3 Countries & Two Rivers
Meeting of 3 Countries & Two Rivers

From Argentina, Paraguay at left, Brazil right. Igauazu and Parana Rivers flow together.
Big Flock of VulturesBig Flock of Vultures
Big Flock of Vultures

at bottom of photo

30th September 2010

Fantastic Journey!
Tara, your blog entries are absolutely wonderful. I look forward to following along and enjoying your fantastic journey.
2nd October 2010

good photos
You've set this blog up vey nicely altho i have to admit this is the first blog i've actually read. great photos.

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