VISITING THE IGUAÇU FALLS

One of the great natural wonders of the world and one of most well known and visited attractions in Latin America, the Iguazú Falls are not to be missed. If I am honest I was really only luke-warm about making the detour to visit the falls but in the end they turned out to be one of my greatest experiences in South America so far. Both sides exceeded my expectations massively. But let me just back up a little for those who are not yet dreaming of visiting these falls and perhaps don’t even know where they are.

The Iguazú Falls, or Iguaçu if you’re using the Portuguese name, as I am going to do from here on, sit on (or rather create) the border of the southern Brazilian state of Paraná and the north eastern Argentinian state of Misiones. While the Iguaçu river begins and runs predominantly on the Brazilian side, the majority of the falls (around 80%) break across the border in Argentina. The name Iguaçu actually came from the language of the indigenous people of the area, the Guaraní. In Guaraní “y”(i) means water and “ûasú”(wasu) means big, so Iguaçu translates to big water, and when you’re standing face to face with the Devil’s Throat (the main fall on the Brazilian side) you will understand why. The falls divide the Iguaçu river into upper and lower and the lower river goes on to connect with the mighty Paraná river that divides Brazil and Argentina from Paraguay.

People always ask the same old questions; “which side is better?” and “can I do both sides on one day?”. Most things I’ve read have given a diplomatic answer to the first question and said both sides are equally great in their own way. I’m not going to be diplomatic. I’m going to tell you that in my honest opinion the Argentinian side of the park is infinitely better, although I will maintain what everyone else says and that is that you still have to see it from both sides. You probably could manage to do both in day if you want to rush and miss things but I strongly advise against it. The Brazilian side you can do in half a day but the Argentinian side needs a minimum of one full day, and I spent two days on the Argentinian side alone.

The Argentinian side

As I said, I spent two days exploring the Argentinian side and it was a clear winner for me for a few reasons. The Iguazú National Park is 20km away from the town of Puerto Iguazú where you will most likely stay unless you have a big enough budget to the stay at the one hotel inside the national park. It’s easy and cheap to get a bus out to the national park and once inside there are little trains to move you to the various parts of the park. The difference between the two sides is that the Argentinian side provides a broader, more panoramic view of most of the falls (there are many) whereas on the Brazilian side you can get quite close up to the biggest fall, the Devil’s Throat. However, the Argentinian side has three main walking tracks so you get a lower view, an upper view and then you can also go all the way around the back of the falls to where a viewing deck sits level with the top of the Devil’s Throat fall. This is the reason why it’s important to do both sides as it provides the opportunity to see the falls from so many different view points. The primary reason I preferred the Argentinian side comes down to its sheer size. The park is huge and there are so many beautiful tracks that at times you may find yourself alone with nature to pause and take it all in (not at the main viewing decks unfortunately, those are always crowded). I spent the first day taking my time exploring the views and two lower tracks around the falls. I returned on day two to take the last track that goes behind the river and around to the Devil's Throat viewing platform and then to walk the Macuco trail, a 3km each way track in the park that takes you through the forest to another small waterfall. The highlight is the possibility of nature spotting along the way. We spotted 5 tarantulas (makes you think twice about wearing sandals), many coatis (a small mammal similar to a racoon) and two families of monkeys. There is a constant flutter of butterflies in the warm tropical air and very lucky people might spot a toucan or a jaguar. We weren’t so lucky but it was amazing to see the capuchin monkeys - we even saw babies!!! The Argentinian side was best for connecting with nature and it was a lot like being in a Timotei commercial. I loved it! It is possible to take a boat ride to get closer to the falls but I didn’t feel compelled and was happy to enjoy the amazing views from the extensive walk bridges. If you want to spread it over two days as I did make sure you get your ticket stamped on your way out to get 50% off the next day (your first day ticket is only valid for the one day). 

The Brazilian side

Now I’ve already confessed this wasn’t my favourite side but that’s not to say it wasn’t amazing. Again, the Parque Nacional do Iguaçu is a small distance from the town of Foz do Iguaçu on the Brazilian side but again, it is cheap and easy to get a bus and a lot of hotels can arrange transfers too. Like the Argentinian side, there is one hotel inside the park but it is of course a lot more expensive. I may have preferred the park on the Argentinian side but the city on the Brazilian side is much better (bigger with more facilities) and has great hotels for half the price of those in Puerto Iguazú (also the food in Brazil is sooooo much better than Argentina!). The annoying thing about the Brazilian park is that the actual falls and viewing points are far away from the entrance where you purchase your ticket so you have to take a bus to get there (bonus - I saw a toucan from on the bus as we drove past). What this means is that people arrive in busloads rather than in dribs and drabs and as the Brazilian side is quite small it feels very crowded. It’s pretty impossible to relax and be at one with nature when there’s nothing but a constant hustle and bustle of people taking selfies. This was a pivotal moment when I realised just how much I f*&^ing loathe selfies and selfie sticks. It was rare to see anyone just stopping to admire the falls through their naked eyes. They were either facing the wrong way so they could take a selfie with the falls or looking only through the lens. My experience on the Argentinian side allowed for a better connection with nature. To be fair, I am a sour introvert who wouldn’t mind a bit of time on a deserted island (crowds are not my favourite thing!). BUT gripes aside, the view from the Brazilian side is absolutely spectacular and you can get very close to the mammoth and fierce dumping of water that is the Devil’s Throat (you WILL get wet). The rainbows are bright and appear to curve all the way around. One highlight was admiring the clever swallows that make their nests in the rocks behind by the falls. They can easily fly through the gaps in the water but good luck to any predator trying to go after their nests! Because the Brazilian side is considerably smaller it only took an hour or two so afterwards we popped next door to the Parque das Aves, a bird park working hard to breed and release endangered bird species such as the red and blue macaw as well as many others. It’s a great park and I recommend a visit. They have the largest toucan collection in the world although the thrill of spotting them is much less when in captivity. If you behave you might even get to pat a friendly boa constrictor.

We spent a few days in Foz do Iguaçu so we’d have time to go and visit Itaipu Binacional. This is an extremely impressive hydroelectric dam built on the mighty Paraná river between Brazil and Paraguay. It was a huge project undertaken by the military governments of both nations in partnership between 1972 and 1985. It is a fabulous example of forward planning by those governments. This hydroelectric power plant provides 80 percent of Paraguay’s electricity needs and they often sell power back to Brazil which obviously has a much higher need. All the Brazilian power is sent up to national distributors in Sao Paulo and Rio de Janeiro. The costs incurred and job opportunities created by the immense project were shared equally by both countries and the land it occupies is considered neutral territory, neither Brazil nor Paraguay. You can take a tour of the plant and also visit a biological reserve where they are attempting to undo some of the damage to the eco system created by the dam. I won’t go into a lot of detail here but I highly recommend visiting it as it was very interesting.

Ciudad del Este

The other touristy thing to do from Foz do Iguaçu is to make a trip across the bridge to the Paraguayan city of Ciudad del Este but I can’t say I particularly recommend it or would go back again. Don’t go if you are looking for a taste of Paraguayan culture, you’ll only feel sad (if you look on Trip Advisor's Top 10 Restaurants for Ciudad del Este you’ll find Burger King in the top 2, competing with a mall food court). It’s nothing but shopping which is why Brazilians and Argentinians flock there. Cheap clothing, cheap electronics etc. There are malls with brand name stores but the main street is lined with stalls selling anything and everything. Both the Brazilian and Argentinian governments tax imported goods very steeply making shopping at home an expensive pastime. Over the border it’s cheaper but it is also a huge market of counterfeit goods and cheap crap. If you don’t mind your Nikes having the tick facing the wrong way then by all means go ahead. I just found the whole place a bit depressing and full of all of my least favourite things like poverty, hyper-consumerism and the mass production of cheap crap that doesn’t last and quickly finds its way to landfill to fester for thousands of years to come. Then another voice in my conscience questions my writing something that may deter a reader from going and spending in an economy of people desperate to make ends meet. But the social, environmental and ethical disasters that accompany the counterfeit goods industry are a serious problem and I one for one don’t want to be involved where I can avoid it. For cheaper shopping I recommend Chile and to enjoy Paraguay and get to know their culture I would head over to Asunción.

So what are you waiting for?

The Iguaçu falls are an absolute must do item on any trip to South America. Both sides have airports and you can easily taxi from one side to the other. It’s a very popular attraction with locals and foreigners alike and everything is in place to make it easy for tourists to enjoy. Go and book that flight I tell ya!