Las Cataratas

9 Oct

In 2011, South America scored handsomely when the world’s new natural wonders were announced, grabbing almost a third of the coveted spots. One of those was Iguazú, an area well supplied with waterfalls, claimed equally by Argentina and Brazil. For Argentina though, it didn’t exactly move the needle; Iguazú was already its most visited destination, outside the city of Buenos Aires.

Located in the northeastern province of Misiones, the Argentine city of Puerto Iguazú is well served by flights from BA (90-minutes, with prices averaging $300 for a round trip), and has accommodation options to suit most budgets. If you find yourself in the country with a lot of time on hand, you could also consider doing it on the cheap and taking the bus. But given that it’s an 18-hour slog from BA, you’re probably better off flying.

Parque Nacional Iguazú lies 17-km (11-miles) from the town of Puerto Iguazú, and although you’ll come across several eager cabbies offering their services, you can save your $$ by hopping onto one of the frequent shuttles that run from the city center to the park. Once at the park, you’ll have a choice of trails to choose from. Circuito Inferior (lower trail) is the one to pick. Up to that point, you’re all set. What you probably will not be prepared for though, is your first sighting of Las Cataratas

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Measuring about a mile in all, the lower trail should be your number one choice for two reasons – it gives you a first glimpse of the falls, revealing a slightly larger vista, one overlook at a time; and also provides you access to the little dock on the lower Iguazú, the launching point for Aventura Náutica, an absolute must-do…

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It costs 270 Pesos (~$30), lasts about 30-minutes, and the memories are guaranteed to linger for a whole lot longer. Don’t be afraid to scream out loud, for this ride is every bit scream-worthy! And you needn’t be self-conscious either – everything you emit, expletives included, are sure to be drowned out as soon as they emerge from your vocal chords. Between the deafening noise from the plunging falls, to the blinding blast from the surf, you’ll also experience some serious chop. If all your senses haven’t been sufficiently rattled by the end of it, then you’re probably a good candidate for doing it all over again.

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Aventura Náutica is also the first thing you’ll want to do, for it will go a long way in cooling you down, as temperatures climb steadily past the 90s (32C and up), average for this part of the country.

The heat and humidity can be a problem for some, of course, but really the biggest annoyance here are the Coatíes, pesky members of the raccoon clan, of which Iguazú has more than its fair share. Sure they’re cute to look at, but they’re also some of the most vicious creatures you’re likely to encounter. There are signs (some of them quite graphic) posted all over the park, warning visitors not to pet or feed them, but people choose to ignore that, only to be rudely surprised by a posse of Coatíes, who will unabashedly ransack the very table they’re eating at. You’ve been warned. That, and selfie sticks!

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The national park is well laid out and thoughtfully designed, with all the facilities one would need, conveniently located at the start of each trail. Visitors from the States take heart, for the only hotel within the parks boundary happens to be a Sheraton, and Subway is the concessionaire of choice across all food plazas. Thankfully, and for those with slightly more discerning taste, local chain El Noble serves up empanadas alongside. Food choices are therefore limited and somewhat overpriced, once you’re in the park.

But there are a few freebies that go a long way in saving you some Pesos, or USD, as the case may be. For starters, be sure to get your ticket validated on the way out, and your next day’s entry will be half off. Agua potable, essential on any trip to Iguazú, is freely available too, and will save you a great deal on overpriced bottled water. Then there’s the boat to Isla San Martin, also free. And the only way your getting to Devils Throat, the waterfall of choice at Iguazú, is on the “ecological train”, which, as it happens, is included in the price of your admission…

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The name Iguazú means “big water”, and chances are, when the Guaraní people (the original inhabitants of these parts) stumbled upon it, they probably did so at Garganta del Diablo or Devils Throat. Appropriately named, this U-shaped waterfall is a staggering 150-meters wide, plunging 82-meters to the bottom of the canyon. The border between Argentina and Brazil runs through it, as does half the flow of the upper Iguazú. Devils Throat is, in every respect, the pièce de résistance at Iguazú.

It’s no wonder then that the observation platform here is the most crowded of all. Here’s a tip: Sundays, for some reason, are a lot quieter than Saturdays. Regardless, you should expect a bit of a wait – till the selfie-brigade is completely satiated i.e., or till such time the rising mist has them scurrying for cover…

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The Guaraní‘s obviously knew a thing or two about navigating the upper Iguazú, but for us city-slickers, none of this up-close action, and resultant selfie-moments would have been possible, had it not been for the extensive network of carefully positioned and perfectly executed walkways that exist at Parque Nacional Iguazú. It’s something, I’m told, the Argentines seem to excel at. And it’s this very access that sets Iguazú apart from its only real rival, the Victoria Falls.

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The walkways don’t just provide you with vistas of the falls, but also take you right through the heart of the Paranaense rainforest, an area replete with birds, reptiles, mammals and amphibians; the most bio-diverse region in all of Argentina. Spotting a toucan or an aquatic turtle is par for the course here, and you would do well paying heed to the signs warning of snakes. Savor your walks along those pathways, cause you never know what you might find…

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Probably the best place to appreciate the beauty of this unspoiled forest is on Isla de San Martín, an island on the Argentine side of Iguazú, surrounded almost entirely by the falls. Access to the island is dependent on river levels, so it’s a good idea to check on that every day of your visit. A single day can make all the difference, as it did for me.

The boats take no more than 18 passengers at a time, don’t sail that often, and just the fact that the island may not be open every day, keeps the majority of park visitors at bay. So with a little effort (there are about 200 steps to climb), and some perseverance, the inviting forest paths, dramatic views, and an abundance of mystic mist are yours to relish…

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The national park is made up of ~275 distinct waterfalls, spread over an area almost 2-miles long. In the driest months, that number can drop to about 150. Eighty percent of these falls lie on the Argentine side of the park, giving visitors on the Brazilian side a panoramic view of the cascades.  The closest you’ll get to such sweeping vistas on the Argentine side is on Circuito Superior or the upper trail. About the same length as the lower trail, Circuito Superior rides the very edge of these waterfalls, giving one a unique top-down perspective. It also happens to be one of the most underrated trails in the park, which is actually a great thing for anyone looking to escape the hordes.

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On your visit, you’ll probably end up staying somewhere in town or just outside of it, unless of course you can cough up enough for the Sheraton. You’ll probably also end up eating a meal or two in town (La Vitrina and La Rueda are good options), but other than that, Puerto Iguazú has very little to sustain one’s interest.

There’s one thing you should do though – head to the northwest corner of town and pay homage to Marca de Tres Fronteras. It’s where a gentler-flowing Iguazú meets the Paraná, shaping a common border between Argentina, Brazil and Paraguay…

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A full set of pics from my visit to Iguazú can be seen on my Flickr.

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