According to this perhaps disturbingly inevitable Wikipedia page, the Iguazú Falls are the third biggest non-submerged waterfall by mean annual flow rate.
(In case you, like me, are wondering “what the hell is a submerged waterfall anyway?!”, from what I can tell it means “it used to be a waterfall but then we built a lake over it, so actually it’s not in any way a waterfall any more, but I just want to put it on this here list of waterfalls on Wikipedia because it makes me feel clever”. Mystery solved.)
More to the point, as far as lists people care about, there are three truly great waterfalls that seem to pop up on people’s lists of must-see sites around the world. Niagara Falls, between Canada and the US (duh); Iguazú Falls, between Brazil and Argentina; and Victoria Falls, between Zimbabwe and Zambia. Weird – it’d never occurred to me before that they’re all on country borders. Guess the fact that they’re all necessarily on decent-sized rivers kind of makes that reasonably more likely.
Anyway, regardless of how the lists all stack up, you have to admit once you’re actually at Iguazú: there is a serious amount of water tumbling over those cliffs, and it’s fascinating and worth the effort to go see. Even if it is a slightly unfortunate poo-brown sort of colour. (That, I’m assured, is entirely due to sediment and not do to any unsanitary conditions upstream. Apparently a decade or so ago it was quite different, and the water quite clear and blue and pretty.)
So, a visit to Iguazú Falls is one of the staples of many a trip to South America, and we figured that as soon as we were done wandering around Patagonia, we’d head on up, on our way into Brazil.
And thus it was that we found ourselves spending a couple of days – one on each side of the border – wandering around the various vantage points to get a good thorough look at this truly stupendous barrage of falling water. (Again we were incredibly lucky with the weather: the two days that we visited the Falls were largely blue skies and sunshine, with just enough clouds to take the heat out and to make for some more interesting skies in our pretty photos. The day in between – the day I picked up my visa and we crossed the border – it rained.)
There are lots of recommendations plastered all over the internet telling you which side you should see first, and how you should do this bit and then that bit and get the best photos from over there. Personally, I don’t think it matters much. We did the Argentinian side first because we were coming from Buenos Aires and heading into Brazil after – and also because it was while I was waiting for the local embassy to process my Brazilian visa.
The Brazilian side gets you a better overview of the Devil’s Throat – the biggest, most impressive part of the falls. I guess if pressed I’d say the Brazilian side’s better, and if you’ve only got time to see one, see that one. But the Brazilian side consists of only a single path running up to the Devil’s Throat, so you don’t get quite so much variety. (And of course it’s that much more maddening because a single path is that much easier for the inconsiderate hoards of large – both as in numerous and as in obese – tourist groups to block!) The Argentinian side lets you get up a lot closer, and has you wandering past a lot of the smaller cascades nearby where the river has split off to find a variety of different paths from top to bottom.
From both sides, though, you can see perhaps the Falls’ most impressive feature: the incredible amount of spray it throws up. And you can marvel at the pretty rainbows everywhere that the constant presence of temporarily airborne water droplets creates.
Both sides do boat trips to get you right up to the bottom of some of the cascades – we did the one from the Argentinian side, having heard it was a little better. It was an entertaining ride, and you do get to see quite a different angle on the Falls from the water, but the point seemed more to get you as drenched as possible by the spray than to get the best view: basically it consisted of the boat driver shoving the boat right up as close to the bottom of a couple of different falls as he could. Gotta admit, the guy’s got a pretty fun job!
The highlight of the whole experience, though, was the helicopter ride from the Brazilian side. It was short – only around ten minutes – and expensive, at roughly a hundred US dollars each. But it gives you by far the best vantage point of all to see the whole of the Falls at once. And probably the most amazing aspect: seeing how the spectacular mist cloud that the Devil’s Throat throws up into the air is actually a big enough generator of water droplets in the air that it powers a permanent cloud formation over the Falls. We loved the whole experience, and so did the friendly American couple we’d met on the bus out to the Falls and convinced to join us for the ride.
Some other minor recommendations if you’re going:
- Both sides are easy to get to on local buses from the towns on each side of the border (Puerto Iguazú on the Argentinian side and Foz do Iguaçu on the Brazilian side). There’s really no need to take an organized tour to get you there. Nor, for that matter, do you need a guide once you’re there. If you can’t figure out what it is that you’re looking at when standing in front of a giant waterfall, well, I can’t imagine there’s much that a guide can tell you that would help solve that particular problem.
- The Argentinian side has the Inferior Circuit, the Superior Circuit, and the path to the Devil’s Throat – you can easily wander them all and have plenty of time to spare in the day. There’s a train to get to the Devil’s Throat, and it goes about every twenty minutes and often has a long line. Or you can just walk beside the train tracks, taking about twenty minutes and therefore quite possibly beating those waiting in line. At the very least, you’ll probably not arrive at the other end at the same time as a hundred or so of your closest friends, so I’d recommend walking.
- Speaking of the Devil’s Throat and the train, the last train out there goes a while before the park closes, at some time which I can’t remember but which is clearly marked at the train stop. If you go out there around that time, apparently there are vastly fewer other tourists around. Given that there’s quite a crush out there most of the time (I’m told), I’d recommend doing that so long as the weather looks like it’ll hold.
- There’s a path out to another, smaller cascade on the Argentinian side: the path is the Macuco Trail, and the cascade Salto Arrechea. Much to our annoyance, we discovered at around 3.30pm that they won’t let you start wandering out there after 3pm, on the theory that you wouldn’t be back before the park closes. But when we subsequently spied Salto Arrechea from the Brazilian side a couple of days later, I really don’t think we missed much by not doing that trail.
- There’s a restaurant out the end of the Brazilian side with an all-you-can-eat buffet lunch which is actually really good. The waiter told me the price was R$45, but when we then hesitated a bit and answered ‘no’ when he asked if we had a guide, he offered it to us for R$38. It was actually really good, and I guarantee I ate my R$38 worth!
- On the Argentinian side, there’s also a Bird Park near the entrance to the Falls. Here, for a not too ridiculous entry fee, you too can wander through and take way, way too many photos of toucans and macaws. I’m told it’s not worth bothering to visit if you’re going to be heading out to the Pantanal anyway, since you’ll see all the birds in their natural habitat out there. But if, like us, you don’t have time to visit that area of Brazil, this is a pretty reasonable alternative.