When Eleanor Roosevelt saw Iguassu Falls, she reportedly said, “Oh, poor Niagara!” I can just picture her there in the steamy subtropical jungle with her good wool suit, sensible shoes, gartered hose and pith helmet. In fact, Iguassu Falls is spectacular. The 275 cascades tumble down through black basalt and deep green jungle around a 1.7 mile horseshoe gorge. You can usually spot monkeys, coatis, and capybaras. You can hike through the jungle, ride on the river, and march out over the falls. And everywhere, it is so loud!
Like Niagara, you can visit the falls from two different sides from two different countries. The Sheraton is on the Argentine side and many people go there for the view of the top of the falls and because it is especially convenient when coming from Buenos Aires. But if you really want to get the feel of an old-school visit to the falls, stay at the Belmond Hotel das Cataratas inside the Iguacu National Park on the Brazilian side. I don’t have an aerial view, but here is one from the hotel website:
At one time, the lovely pink Cataratas had a beautiful view of the falls. Trees doing what they will, the view is now obscured from the building, but you can see it if you just walk across the driveway. Even without the direct view, the hotel is beautiful with Portuguese Colonial architecture, carved wooden door frames, a gorgeous pool, a Paraguayan band, and lots of local coati.
The restaurants in the hotel—one more elegant, the Itaipu, and one that’s casual, the Ipe Grill, by the pool—are excellent. It’s a good thing they are since there is absolutely nowhere else to go. In fact, visitors are warned to avoid stepping too far out of the perimeter during the nighttime because, after all, the hotel is nestled in the jungle full of jaguars, pumas, snakes, and stinging insects. We were there for the full moon, but as it happened, also a full rainstorm, so the full moon night viewing of the falls usually offered by the hotel was canceled. A major advantage of staying at the Cataratas is that you can visit the falls early. By the time the tour buses arrive, you are sitting by the pool drinking out of a coconut.
HERE ARE THINGS TO DO ON THE BRAZILIAN SIDE in addition to enjoying the Cataratas:
HIKE DOWN THE PATH OF THE FALLS TRAIL to see the Devil’s Throat falls from the base in all their glory. This is magnificent. You can walk out over the water on a narrow wooden walkway
and feel the river rushing underneath you, around you, almost over you.
This is the very best view of the falls. Conveniently, if you need it there is an elevator to go back up. This trail is open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily and there is an admission fee.
TAKE A RIDE IN A RIB—a rigid inflatable boat with twin outboard motors. You have to hike down a trail through the jungle to the river, an interesting walk in itself punctuated by sightings of giant butterflies. Once at the river’s edge, you don your life preserver and board the boat.
Then you go on a very wild ride. The drivers are very skilled because they must maneuver the RIBs upstream over river rocks against a churning 20+ knot current. The boats are not allowed within a certain distance of the main falls, but that doesn’t mean they don’t go to the smaller falls and dunk you under the cascading water. And dunk you again. And dunk you again.
VISIT THE BIRD PARK (PARQUE DAS AVES).
All those birds you’ve wondered about turn out to be real. You know that old postcard of the Degas painting from the 1988 Met show of a woman with the two startling cadmium red ibises perching on her wrist and shoulder? They’re there! Where on Earth did Degas find them? And they really are exactly cadmium red, that color so favored by Degas for its dependable surprise.
At the park, look up! The roseate spoonbills balance above you.
The toucan is right there, too, just posing. “Stand closer, honey. Closer. Get closer.” Ouch! (Hint: If you want to photograph your child with a toucan, don’t have her stand too close or she might get beaked in the head.)
VISIT ITAIPU DAM. If you are a fan of engineering, you can visit Itaipu Dam. You watch a movie about so many happy birds and picnicking humans that it makes you think, “Wow, this must be some big environmental disaster.” Well, it is, but still it is impressive. You ride a bus out around the dam and even visit Paraguay in the course of the tour. This was our reaction, however.
ON THE ARGENTINA SIDE:
From Brazil, you can drive across to Argentina. Although the backup at the border can be long, private guides seem to have a way of bypassing much of the line. The Argentina Iguazu National Park is open from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. and admission is charged. Once you enter the park, take the Jungle Train to a network of upper and lower circuit trails covering many elevations and waterfalls. The lower circuit is thought to offer the best views. From the bottom of the Salto Bossetti, you can walk down some stairs to catch a free ferry to San Martin Island. We didn’t do that on our visit because the weather prevented the ferry from operating.
After the hike, you can take the train to the main event: “La Garganta del Diablo” — The Devil’s Throat.
We huddled under our plastic rainwear and made another terrifying crossing of a very long walkway over the rushing river to the viewing platform built out over the top of the falls. (How do they build these things anyway? Turn off the falls?) Arching over the railing to see and feel the falls rushing down is a dramatic, powerful, and vertiginous experience.
Shouting over the din of the falls, you realize why this UNESCO World Heritage site is noted, in part, for being “acoustically stunning.”
You can’t really photograph it without a helicopter.
Soaked to the bone, on our way out of the park past the Visitors Center and cafe, we spotted some cute capybaras. Alas, I wasn’t quick enough getting my camera out from under my raingear.
There are ways to enjoy Iguassu Falls without being fit, but if you have the chance, go while your knees are still with you.