Water pours off the vast ledge of the falls.

Visiting the Iguazu Falls on the Argentinian side. Photo © Aaron Epstein, licensed Creative Commons Attribution.

In the Guaraní language, iguazú means “big waters,” and the good news is that the thunderous surge of Iguazú Falls—perhaps the planet’s greatest chain of cascades—continues to plunge over an ancient lava flow some 20 kilometers east of the town of Puerto Iguazú. Its overwhelming natural assets, including the surrounding subtropical rain forest, have earned it recognition as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

According to Guaraní legend, a jealous serpent-god created Iguazú Falls by collapsing the riverbed in front of fleeing lovers Naipi and Caroba; Naipi plunged over the ensuing falls to become a rock at their base, while her lover Caroba became a tree condemned to see, but unable to touch, his beloved.

The bad news is that Argentina’s APN, the state entity charged with preserving and protecting this natural heritage, has buckled to rampant Disneyfication. The falls, its core attraction, have become a mass-tourism destination that might more accurately be called Parque Temático Iguazú—Iguazú Theme Park.

They’ve done something right in limiting automobile access—cars must park in a guarded lot, and visitors enter the park on foot—but the concessionaire has turned the area surrounding the falls into an area of manicured lawns, fastfood eateries, and souvenir stands connected by a cheesy narrow-gauge train. Maintenance crews use leaf-blowers to clean the concrete trails near the visitors center every morning.

Around the falls proper, clean-cut youths with walkie-talkies shunt hikers out by 6 p.m.—the perfect closing hour for a theme park—unless you’re a privileged guest at the Sheraton, the park’s only accommodations. The exception to the rule is the monthly full-moon tour, which is well worthwhile.

That’s not to say commercial greed has completely overrun nature—the park still has extensive subtropical rain forests, with colorfully abundant birdlife along with less conspicuous mammals and reptiles. All of these animals demand respect, but some more so than others—in 1997 a jaguar killed a park ranger’s infant son; pumas are even more common, and poisonous snakes are also present.

In 1541 Alvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca, one of colonial America’s most intrepid Spaniards, was the first European to see the falls. But in an area populated by tens of thousands of Guaraní Indians prior to the European invasion, he can hardly have discovered them, despite the assertions of a commemorative plaque.

The Natural Landscape

According to Guaraní legend, a jealous serpent-god created Iguazú Falls by collapsing the riverbed in front of fleeing lovers Naipi and Caroba; Naipi plunged over the ensuing falls to become a rock at their base, while her lover Caroba became a tree condemned to see, but unable to touch, his beloved.

A less fanciful explanation is that the languid Río Iguazú streams over a basalt plateau that ends where an ancient lava flow finally cooled; before reaching the lava’s end, small islands, large rocks, and unseen reefs split the river into multiple channels that become the individual waterfalls that, in sum, form the celebrated cataratas, some more than 70 meters in height.

At this point, in an area stretching more than two kilometers across the Argentine-Brazilian border, at least 1,500 cubic meters of water per second roar over the edge onto an older sedimentary landscape, but the volume can be far greater in flood. With the water’s unstoppable force, the falls are slowly but inexorably receding toward the east.

About 18 kilometers southeast of the town of Puerto Iguazú, and 1,280 kilometers north of Buenos Aires via RN 12, Parque Nacional Iguazú is a 67,000-hectare unit with a roughly 6,000-hectare Reserva Nacional—whose presence has led to rampant commercial development in the vicinity of the falls.

Flora and Fauna

Misiones’s high rainfall (about 2,000 mm per annum) and subtropical temperatures create a luxuriant forest flora on relatively poor soils. Unlike the midlatitudes, where fallen leaves and other plant litter become part of the soil, here they are almost immediately recycled to support a dense, multilevel flora with diverse faunal habitats. The roughly 2,000 identified plant species are home to almost innumerable insects, 448 bird species, 80 mammal species, and many reptiles and fish.

The tallest trees, such as the lapacho and palo rosa, reach 30 meters above the forest floor, while the guapoy (the appropriately named “strangler fig”) uses the larger trees for support and eventually kills them by asphyxiation. A variety of orchids use the large trees for support only.

Lesser trees and shrubs grow in the shade of the canopy, such as yerba mate, the holly relative that Argentines, Uruguayans, Paraguayans, and Brazilians consume as tea (grown mostly on plantations in Misiones and Corrientes). Ferns are also abundant in the shade thrown by the large trees.

For most visitors, the most conspicuous fauna will be colorful birds such as parakeets and parrots, the piping guan, the red-breasted toucan, and the lineated woodpecker in the trees, while tinamous scurry along the forest floor. The tufted capuchin monkey is a fruiteating tree-dweller.

The most commonly seen mammal, though, is the coatimundi, a raccoon relative that thrives around humans (do not feed it); the largest is the rarely seen tapir, distantly related to the horse. Like the tapir, the puma and yaguareté (jaguar) avoid human contact, preferring the forest’s denser, more remote areas; barely a dozen-plus jaguars remain.

The most common reptile is the innocuous iguana; venomous snakes, while they generally avoid humans, deserve respect in their forest habitat.

Sights in Parque Nacional Iguazú

The earliest written record came from Cabeza de Vaca, who saw the falls as an obstacle to his downstream progress and reported, with apparent irritation, that “It was necessary…to take the canoes out of the water and carry them by hand past the cataract for half a league with great labor.” Still, he could not help but be impressed by the noise and mist:

The current of the Yguazú was so strong that the canoes were carried furiously down the river, for near this spot there is a considerable fall, and the noise made by the water leaping down some high rocks into a chasm may be heard a great distance off, and the spray rises two spears high and more over the fall.

Most visitors come to see the falls, and rightly so, but try to arrive early to avoid the crush of tour buses from Puerto Iguazú and Brazil. The sole exception to the Disneyland entry hours are the monthly full-moon hikes, guided by park rangers.

Visitors pay the entrance fee at the Portal Cataratas, the gate to the slickly managed complex of fast-food restaurants, souvenir stands, and tour operators. The most worthwhile sight here is the park service’s Centro de Interpretación.

Traditionally, park visitors walk along three major circuits on mostly paved trails and pasarelas (catwalks) that zigzag among the islands and outcrops to make their way to overlooks of the falls. The Circuito Superior (Upper Circuit) is a 650-meter route with the best panoramas of the Argentine side of the falls, while the 1,700-meter Circuito Inferior (Lower Circuit) offers better views of individual falls and also provides launch access to Isla San Martín for exceptional perspectives on the amphitheatrical Garganta del Diablo (Devil’s Throat), Iguazú’s single most breathtaking cataract.

Most visitors take the Tren de la Selva, the narrow-gauge railway, to reach the trailhead for the 1,130-meter catwalk to the overlook for the Garganta del Diablo; this means an unavoidable soaking while watching the vencejo de tormenta (ashy-tailed swift) dart through the booming waters to and from nesting sites beneath the falls. The view almost defies description, though the spray can obscure the base of the falls and even on the hottest days can chill sightseers—bring light raingear, plastic bags to protect cameras and other valuables, and perhaps even a small towel.

Far fewer visitors explore forest trails than the pasarelas, except for the 20-minute Sendero Verde, a short forest walk leading to a small wetland that’s home to birds and butterflies. The six-kilometer Sendero Macuco, a nature trail that starts near the train station, is the likeliest place to spot or hear the tufted capuchin monkey. Mostly level, it drops to the Salto Arrechea, a small waterfall, via a steep, muddy, and slippery segment. Mosquito repellent is desirable.

Tours and Recreation

Above the falls, the Río Iguazú itself is suitable for canoeing, kayaking, and other water sports; it should go without saying that there’s serious danger in getting too close to the falls. Below the falls there are additional opportunities.

The principal tour operator is Iguazú Jungle Explorer (tel. 03757/42-1600, ext. 582, tel./fax 03757/42-1696), which has an office in the Sheraton and kiosks at the Portal Cataratas and at the Garganta del Diablo trailhead. Offerings include a 30-minute Paseo Ecológico (US$9) through the gallery forests and islands above the falls; a 15-minute Aventura Naútica (US$20) that approaches the Garganta del Diablo from below; and the Gran Aventura (US$40) that includes an eight-kilometer forest excursion by 4WD vehicle, a motorized descent of the lower Iguazú including two kilometers of rapids; and visits to the various falls.

Explorador Expediciones (Perito Moreno 217, Puerto Iguazú, tel. 03757/42-1632) has similar excursions and some more active offerings, such as whitewater rafting and rappelling. It also has offices at the Sheraton (tel. 03757/42-1922) and a kiosk near the park entrance.

Other Practicalities

Panels at the APN’s Centro de Interpretación (tel. 03757/49-1444, 7:30 a.m.–6:15 p.m. daily spring and summer, 8 a.m.–5:45 p.m. daily the rest of the year) give vivid explanations of the park’s environment, ecology, ethnology, and history; there are also helpful personnel on duty.

For foreigners, the admission charge of US$16, payable in Argentine pesos only, is one of the most expensive to any Argentine national park; if you return the next day, your ticket is half price. Provincial residents pay US$2, other Argentines US$5, and residents of other Mercosur countries US$8. Entry fees include the Tren de la Selva and launch access to Isla San Martín. The concessionaire Iguazú Argentina has a useful website in Spanish, Portuguese, and English. From the Puerto Iguazú bus terminal, El Práctico buses (US$1.50) operate frequently between 7:15 a.m. and 8 p.m., taking 45 minutes to or from the park.

Excerpted from the Third Edition of Moon Argentina.