Iguacu Falls: somewhere over the rainbow
| 23 January 2020
A profusion of rainbows, butterflies and waterfalls awaits travellers to Latin America’s Iguacu National Park. A beautiful force of nature straddling the border between Brazil and Argentina, the vast horse-shoe of falls tumbling into the Iguacu River are cloaked in tropical forest, so that you hear the thunder long before you see it.
And when you see it, you’ll scarcely believe your eyes. Former US first lady Eleanor Roosevelt exclaimed ‘Oh Poor Niagara!’ when she visited.
The falls bisect one of the last remaining tracts of Great Atlantic Rainforest on the frontier with Argentina, Brazil and Paraguay, with friendly rivalry between the Brazilians and Argentines about who’s side of the park is the best.
On first impressions, Brazil’s Iguacu looks like Jurassic Park, but once off the straight concrete road and tour bus that ferries visitors inside, the experience is much more rustic. Treading the walkways to the foot of the falls, I’m met first by the rambunctious coatimundis, similar to racoons with pointier noses and tails.
Shaded trails fluttering with butterflies slope down the river bank framing the cascades from different viewpoints and culminating in a metal walkway that stretches out into the boulder-strewn river at the base of the Devil’s Throat. After a few moments, I’m drenched in spray – a welcome shower in the equatorial heat.
In-park tour operator Macuco Safari offers guided nature trails down to the jetty where speedboats take visitors on ‘wet’ and ‘dry’ tours along the Iguacu River that either go underneath the cascades or just cruise by. Those who – like me – opt for the wet tour get absolutely soaked, and leaving the park at 5pm when the sun has lost its power, I shiver all the way back to the hotel.
The Macuco Safari has electric jeeps available for those who don’t wish to tread the muddy sloping trails through the jungle to see rare flora and fauna such as the funny little flightless macuco bird and the True Love Tree that only blossoms for three weeks a year. My guide Beatrix tells me there are around 35 jaguars roaming the park, but they are famously elusive and usually nocturnal – she has never seen one in five years working there, but we do spot some paw-prints in the sand at the edge of the river’s shore.
Falls from grace
Having crossed the border from Brazil at dawn, I arrived just as the Argentine slice of the park opened. Most of park’s handful of trails and walkways lead through the jungle and wetlands to enormous show-stopping cascades such as The Devil’s Throat and the Two Sisters, but I was saving those for later.
The Macuco Trail – named after a rare flightless bird – cuts through the grasslands and rainforest to an enchanting grotto in a forested grove where a graceful single-drop waterfall plunges 20 metres over a rocky ledge into a pool that’s perfect for swimming.
I hit the trail to the waterfall early in the hope I would have it all to myself and could achieve a childhood dream of swimming beneath a waterfall in a tropical rainforest. After an hour’s walk through the forest, stopping to moon at giant blue butterflies, a troop of capuchins in the trees, and a vole wrestling with a giant spider, I could see the chasm of the Iguacu River below. I scrambled over boulders, trickling streams and a tangle of branches and roots to find a spot beside the plunge pool, and took a dip in the cool water, climbing up the water-blasted rocks for a free hydro-massage beneath the cascade.
By midday I was back at the park’s main hub – a little electric train station where carriages ferry visitors to Iguacu’s Upper and Lower Trails. At the farthest reaches of the park, I took aim at the Devil’s Throat, treading the park’s Upper Trail across the catfish and otter-haunted river to its most dramatic viewpoint. Conjured from the mists, rainbows arch into the chasm, disappearing into the rushing depths 80 metres below.
Overnights and flights
Due to its location in deepest South America, flying is pretty much the only feasible way to get in and out of Iguacu, and it makes sense to stay overnight – or two nights for those visiting both sides of the park in Argentina and Brazil.
I jetted into Brazil’s Fos do Iguacu airport on a one-hour domestic LATAM flight from Sao Paulo – the Latin American carrier flies the route around three times per day. A five-minute taxi ride took me to smart eco-retreat San Martin Cataratas Eco Resort, very close to the gates of Brazil’s Iguacu National Park.
From the hotel’s reception you can organise very reasonably priced trips over the border into Argentina’s side of the park. The hotel even has its own nature trails swerving through a rainforest buzzing with resident capuchins, hummingbirds and butterflies to a viewing point above the pea-green Parana River.
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