The white, thundering jets of water crashed all around us, and everyone in the boat was soaked to the bone. With a wicked smile, the captain steered us straight under the pounding, freezing torrents until everyone aboard could feel the mighty, wet wrath of Garganta del Diablo–The Devil’s Throat–one of the largest waterfalls on Earth. As the boat finally pulled away from the icy spray, we shivered in our orange life vests and gaped in awe of the power and splendor of Iguassu Falls.
Located on a basaltic line spanning the border between Argentina and Brazil, Iguassu Falls is the largest waterfalls system in the world. The falls are part of the Iguassu River, which forms the boundary between the two countries. The name “Iguassu” comes from the language of the native Guarani people, who called it “great waters,” and for good reason! Consisting of 275 individual cascades, Iguassu Falls is considered by many to be the most spectacular waterfalls in the world and was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1984. I was lucky enough to experience–and get drenched under–these mighty falls earlier this month.
My journey began after a short flight from Buenos Aires. I arrived at night at the Iguassu Falls Airport where I was met by my friendly Argentine host. We drove down a dark road through the jungle until we reached the Brazilian border. After passports were stamped, we made our way to the Belmond Hotel das Cataratas–Hotel of Waterfalls. This sprawling, pastel pink hotel is incredibly charming with an attractive Portuguese Colonial design.
After a night’s rest, I set out for the falls the following morning. Fortunately, this wasn’t too daunting of a trek because the Belmond happens to be just across the road from the waterfalls, which can actually be admired right from the hotel’s front deck.
Once I reached the path overlooking the waterfalls, I was met by my guide, another friendly Argentine. Almost immediately, he reached into the large, cylinder-shaped satchel at his side and whipped out a thermos and a wooden gourd. He then expertly prepared a serving of mate, a caffeine-rich infused drink, popular in many regions of South America, and especially revered among Argentines. Mate gourd in hand, we walked to the handrail and took in the spectacular view below.
The Brazilian side of Iguassu offers jaw-dropping panoramic views of the waterfalls. One can watch for hours as the massive cascades produce vast sprays of water in a dazzling array of roaring white foam and rainbows. Famously, when Eleanor Roosevelt first visited Iguassu, she exclaimed “Poor Niagara!” After seeing the falls for myself, I could see what Mrs. Roosevelt meant. The falls of Iguassu are up to 60 feet higher than Niagara, and three times wider.
I followed my intrepid guide down the path along the waterfalls. Located within the subtropical rainforest, this area was lush with verdant trees and colorful orchids. Butterflies the size of small birds fluttered past, and toucans with candy-colored beaks perched in the leafy trees high above. However, the most prevalent inhabitants (other than the scores of tourists posing for selfies) were the coaties. These furry little critters are members of the racoon family, and like their masked cousins, they scurry about in constant search of food–namely leftovers from people. At one point, one little guy rushed right past me to dive nose deep into the ultimate delicacy, a garbage bin.
Along with the toucans and coaties, the rainforest surrounding the falls has richly diverse wildlife. The region has more than 2,000 species of vascular plants and is home to a wide variety of birds, insects and mammals, including the tapir, giant anteater, howling monkey, ocelot and jaguar. Unfortunately–or maybe fortunately in the case of the jaguars–I wasn’t able to spot any of these larger, more well-hidden animals during my trip.
After a long day at the falls, I returned to the Belmond to relax by the pool and sip fruity Brazilian cocktails. Late at night, guests of the hotel were invited to return to the path overlooking the waterfalls to see the Silver Rainbow–a soaring silver band of light that arches all the way across the waterfalls below the full moon.
The next morning, I rendezvoused with my guide and we hopped into a car to cross the border back into Argentina. The Argentine side of Iguassu offers a much more up close and personal view of the waterfalls. Countless bridges and catwalks snake across the tops of the falls and most of the walkways are grated at the bottom, so you can see the water rushing below your feet. From here, visitors have the vertigo-inducing opportunity to stare straight over the edge of the falls and watch the water crash into dissipating mist far, far below.
Around noon, it was time to get in the water. I climbed down a steep stairway to the edge of the river below, strapped on a life vest, and took a seat on the open-air Zodiac boat among a couple dozen other nervous passengers. According to my guide, the first half of this boat ride had been coined “The Washing Machine.” As the driver cranked up the speed of the boat and blasted us straight into the spray of the roaring waterfalls, I quickly learned why. The second half of the ride was called the “The Dryer”: the boat sped across the Iguassu River and every drenched person aboard was soon blown dry (for the most part) by the warm, whipping wind.
As this awesome journey came to an end, I can say without a doubt that I’ve fallen for Iguassu.