Waterfalls hold some strange power over humans. Around the world people flock to stare at them, sail beneath them, fly above them, and wonder about those who have fallen over them. (Come on…admit it.) I personally have made my family travel thousands of miles, spend hundreds of dollars, and endure the pain of yellow fever shots to visit them first in Africa and now in South America. Tom thought I was crazy, but I refused to waiver in my pledge. We traversed Botswana and the Zambezi to get to Livingstone, Zambia, site of Victoria Falls, and braved an 18-hour bus ride from Buenos Aires to reach Puerto Iguazu, home of Iguazu Falls.
For this relentless dedication, I have been duly rewarded. Victoria Falls were vast and powerful. Known to locals as Mosi-oa-Tunya, or “the smoke that thunders,” one cannot stand at their edge and fail to grasp the brute force of nature. Likewise, Niagara Falls, which Tom and I viewed on our honeymoon (we had $100 in the bank and Yale football camp 4 days later so Bali was out), dazzled us with its picturesque horseshoe and reminded us that beauty can be found everywhere…even in upstate New York. Nothing, however, prepared us for the splendor that is Iguazu. While some Vic Falls fans will no doubt disagree, I contend the Iguazu Falls, which sit between the sultry subtropical forests of southern Brazil and northern Argentina, are of a higher order–magical, mystical, mythic, miraculous. While neither the tallest (that’s Angel Falls in Venezuela) nor the largest by volume (VIc Falls take that particular prize), they are the widest, with 270 distinct falls and islands spanning some 8900 feet, or almost 1 3/4 miles. But this alone is not the reason for their glory. The waterfall competition in my mind is one not of quantity but quality. Falls are not just so many gallons of water gushing over the edge of the earth, they’re an experience, a tete a tete between man and nature, a suspended encounter with the powers of the universe. And as far as experiences go, Iguazu blew us away.
The time we spent at each falls provides a clue to our fascination. As I recall, Tom and I spent the better part of 2 hours at Niagara in 1990, and all of us spent about 3 hours at Vic Falls in March. We spent 3 days at Iguazu. To be fair to Victoria, there was little to see from the ground since we were there during the rainy season and the chasm was filled with the spray. We declined the pricey helicopter rides and the Zambezi was raging so violently, all boat and river rafting operations had beens suspended. It is high water season at Iguazu as well, but even with mist visible from miles away, the views are abundant and breathtaking. We spent three days wandering the trails around the winding falls and still couldn’t take them all in. Had we crossed to the Brazil side (which we didn’t because doing so required a $100 visa for each of us–ouch), we could have easily spent 5 days in this most captivating of places.
Our experience with Iguazu began when we arrived at the Sheraton. Never has there been a time when we’ve been more grateful to be Starwood Preferred Guests. The only hotel in the national park, the Sheraton affords spectacular views of the Falls. Guidebooks recommend park visitors stop at the hotel just to sit in the cafe and savor the scenery, and here we were with a private 24-hour view from the top floor. Even with this most favorable of settings, my inner pessimist kicked in when I saw the forecast: cloudy skies for the next three days. I knew waterfalls continue to flow come rain or shine, but I’d heard tale that Iguazu was otherworldly in the sunlight–rainbows, butterflies, and magic. As the sun set behind a thick layer of clouds, I prayed for sunshine the next day.
I took my spiritual comeuppance as I woke to clouds the next morning. When a sliver of sunlight sliced through, I darted to the balcony and called for Tom to take my picture.
We vowed to make the most of the gloomy day and boarded the tiny tourist train to Garganta del Diablo, the Devil’s Throat. An intricate system of metal catwalks led us to the infamous Garganta. Along the way signs and debris indicated the spots where previous cement pathways had once stood only to be washed away by raging floodwaters. Sunshine or not, the Devil’s Throat was awe-inspiring. Millions of gallons of water crashing, bubbling, and plummeting over land’s end every few seconds from not one but three directions, hence the throat. We snapped a few pictures but could not bring ourselves to leave. The lure of the Falls was too strong. As we gazed toward the Brazilian side Tom noticed that the skies to the east were clearing. The clouds were not moving, but seemingly dissolving into the atmosphere. My heart skipped a beat as I realized I might get my sunny day after all.
Tom and I pondered the possibility and agreed we should stick around to wait for the impending weather change. Unfortunately, three of the six needed to make a pit stop. We were a good half mile from the restrooms but knew when nature calls, parents must hearken. We walked about halfway back on the temporarily deserted catwalks and those with the proper anatomy created their own momentary waterfalls. A few minutes later we were back on the viewing platform in full sunlight. Sublime.
After a surprisingly tasty and affordable lunch at the park’s Jaguar Cafe, we took the Paseo Inferior or Lower Trail, a 1.4 kilometer pathway that descends through the dense forest and along the base of the falls. The kids entertained themselves by playing with the coatis, a kind of weasel-raccoon mix, and throwing figs and sticks over the various falls.
After about 20 minutes we rounded a bend in the trail and gasped. We were greeted by one of the most magnificent views we’ve ever encountered. From this vantage point we could see almost the entire expanse of the falls as they wound their way through the landscape.
Weak in the knees, we continued along the trail and each time we rounded a corner the vista was more miraculous than the last. At the last overlook we were greeted by the view below. Like the cherry on top of an ice cream sundae, a rainbow arced from the island below, over the river, and across to the Brazilian side. The most gifted of artists couldn’t have conceived anything more beautiful. Surely this was paradise.
The kids, not quite as enamored as their parents, were eager to get back to the hotel and cause some mayhem. I made them bust a pyramid at the lighthouse at the top of the trail before turning them loose on the Sheraton grounds. It had been a long day of waterfall savoring and they deserved a break.
We woke the next morning to sunshine. Rather than being content with our viewing from the previous day, we were determined to check out the falls in this new lighting. Would there be more rainbows today? How high would the spray be? Would the platforms be in light or in shade? Would the butterflies be hiding in the trees or magically descending from on high? And this is the story of Iguazu. A single viewing does not sate. It only sparks the addiction. Every view, every angle, every nuance, every inch of bordering forest begs repeat exploration. When the sun sets, you find yourself wondering how the falls look under the cloak of darkness. You can hear them thundering in the distance but must imagine what the park gates and the law prevent you from seeing. When the sun rises, you want to somehow be in every spot at every moment to grasp the enormity of their splendor.
With a tinge of regret, we boarded our bus for San Ignacio after three transcendent days at Iguazu. The Falls catapulted onto our Top 6 Natural Wonders list and earned a permanent place in our hearts. Sigh…
(If you think I’m alone in my obsession, one of Tom’s friends is so smitten with Iguazu he uses the word as his personal email address.)