I wrote “Chasing Waterfalls” for the December 2014 issue of Miami Living. I was living back in Peru for a bit after leaving Miami, when my dad and I took a trip to the breathtaking Iguaçu National Park, which separates Brazil and Argentina. Afterward, I detailed how and why Miamians should follow suit and think about going south in my chronicle for the magazine, which I am now sharing here, in slightly edited, updated form
There are quite a few places on this Earth that we can visit when we feel like we need to recharge, aren’t there? We can go…downtown, of course, or, y’ know, where everybody knows our name (for a stiff drink or two or seven). We can go for a walk to the park, to a National Park, or to the beach….
I should trust it is obvious by now but there is no going back to the way things were – why would we even want that, anyway? We will have to think and act local more than ever moving forward, but eventually, we will be able to dream about fun international travel and about seeing and honoring foreign lands, and meeting our brothers and sisters from around the world. So when gettin’ to thinking ’bout som’in’ special, think south. Way south. South as in South America.
The Iguaçu National Park – a UNESCO World Heritage Site and one the New7Wonders of Nature named in 2011 – is located near the Triple Frontier, the tri-border area
about which Ben Affleck made a Netflix movie along Brazil, Argentina, and Paraguay, where the Iguazú and Paraná rivers converge. You can see where the rivers meets, but needless to say, it’s a tourist trap, and the vantage points for observation and cute pics are limited. But back to the park.
Its waterfalls (275 drops in all) draw in thousands of visitors from all around the world on the daily, and as you can see in the photos here, they are a beyond-breathtaking surrounded-by-subtropical-rainforest natural wonder to behold, alright. This is the largest waterfall system on the planet. Legit. The water’s energy and power are palpable. Trust, you won’t be admiring of feeling anything remotely like it at no Disney theme park, OK. No shade, but Mother Nature FTW. Get this: The semicircular waterfall at the heart of the lush greenery is about 263 feet tall and approximately 1.7 miles in diameter.
It. Is. Some drama. Simply spectacular.
A little history
The falls were discovered in 1542 by the Spaniard Alvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca. The conquistador was on a journey between the Atlantic coast and Asunción, the Paraguayan capital. Upon encountering ’em, he promptly dubbed ’em the Saltos de Santa María.
By the end of the 19th century, the finer Brazilian and Argentinean gentlemen had begun visiting the falls. They had started to recognize the value and importance of protecting such beauty. At the turn of the 20th century, two national parks were founded for precisely this task: the first – something like 212 square miles – became the purview of Argentina in 1934; the second – about 656 square miles – that of Brazil in five years later.
The UNESCO (the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, for the uninitiated) designated the parks World Heritage sites in ’84 and ’86, respectively. A common watercourse, the Iguazú River, unites them. Each is home to a wide biodiversity, much of it threatened by man, including some 2,000 plant species, 400 bird species (the vinaceous-breasted Amazon parrot comes to mind) and as many as 80 mammals (like the jaguar and the ocelot).
“Iguazú,” btw, means “big water.” The word, naturally, comes from the language spoken by the actual first inhabitants of the area, the Caingangues Indians, who were disrupted by the Tupí-Guaraní – but that’s a history lesson for another time.
How to get there
We flew into Foz do Iguaçu, Brazil, from Lima, Peru. It was an almost-four-hour flight, super-easy, no big whoop. My trip was very conveniently packaged, though: airfare, comfortable (not luxurious) accommodations with breakfasts, and all transportation to and from the airport and to the parks. But here’s the basic 411.
A trip to Foz do Iguaçu will probably require a visa (even for you, Americans), a layover (probably in Rio). The strength of your currency will depend on when you wanna go.
You might want to research flying into Lima and then, to Foz do Iguaçu, check for any of the travel packages that are constantly offered in Peru. For us it was a $650-$700-per-person sitch.
General admission tickets to Iguazú – to the Argentinean side (you have to visit both parks to marvel at the entire scene) – must be paid in pesos. General admission to the Brazilian side, as of November 2014, was about R$50, with the exchange being 40 cents per Brazilian real.
When to go
Consider the seasons.
The seasons in North America? Opposite of South America.
The falls are in a subtropical area, so rain will be a thing. Do bring a poncho. Ziploc your passport and your valuables, and keep it all in a water-resistant backpack. Remember the insect repellent while you’re at it, and don’t forget an extra T-shirt. One way or another, you are getting wet.
December through February, that’s the summer, rainier months. Sure, the more water the falls get, the mightier they’ll look, but the trails may be hard to walk if you have heavy rain pouring down on ya; the Argentinean side, for one, features many winding two-way pathways and catwalks that lead visitors above or below the cascades. Tight quarters is one things, slippery tight quarters quite another. And taking a boat to, say, the Isla San Martín, may be nixed for safety.
I suggest South American fall or spring for a visit. You may get rain, but you’d be hard-pressed to get rained in at your hotel. We went in September, and had rainy weather, but nothing prohibitive.
The majority of the falls are on the Argentinean side – you absolutely will want to check in on the Brazilian side, too, for it offers the better vistas. Conversely, in the Argentinean side you will find an upper trail and a lower trail, the aforementioned Isla San Martín and its trail, and the famed Devil’s Throat trail, which, unfortunately, was closed for repairs when I visited (water damage here is real).
One day for each will be all you’ll need.
What about Paraguay?
We visited the Triple Frontier for the falls, so what’s Paraguay got to offer for when you go chasing the Iguaçu waterfalls?
Duty free shopping, but more impressively, there’s the Itaipu hydroelectric dam on the Paraná River.
A binational joint endeavor of Brazil and Paraguay that officially opened in 1984 after 11 years of construction, the $19.6 billion dam is appreciated as one of the Seven Wonders of the Modern World. It supplies about three quarters of Paraguay’s electricity and offsets about 17 percent of Brazil’s.
Worth a visit. The more you learn and all.