Parque Nacional Iguazú
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.
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, fast-food 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.
By default, almost everyone will stay in or near Puerto Iguazú—the park’s only option is the behemoth Sheraton Iguazú Resort & Spa (tel. 03757/49-1800, www.sheraton.com/iguazu, US$265–455 s or d), an incongruously sited building whose ungainly exterior has a certain Soviet-style presence (in fairness, Sheraton took over an existing hotel here). The more expensive rooms have views of the falls.
The hotel has several restaurants, but anyone not eating there will have to settle for the fast-food clones, a pizzeria, and the odd parrilla on the park grounds. Better food is available in Puerto Iguazú.
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 (www.iguazuargentina.com) 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.
© Wayne Bernhardson from Moon Argentina, 3rd edition