Igauzú Falls – a roar to remember

Its 275 waterfalls – spanning the Argentina-Brazil border – create a raging rush as water plummets more than 200 feet off cliffs.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

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    Iguazú Falls along the border between Argentina and Brazil is among the world's largest and most impressive waterfalls.
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    Spectacular: Tourists admire Iguazú Falls near the town of Foz do Iguazú, Brazil. Depending on the weather, it's comprised of up to 275 individual cascades.
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We had spent an hour silently walking along a boardwalk straddling the river at Iguazú Falls, with only the glimmer of the moon to light the passage. It was so difficult to discern anything in the distance – there was the outline of a palm tree here, the bubble of the river there – that I had trouble understanding what all the hype was about.

The moment I landed in Puerto Iguazú, Argentina, earlier that afternoon, the chatter about the moon's cycle started: There was a full moon! The nighttime treks in this national park spanning the border of Argentina and Brazil are offered only five times each month, and bad weather can easily get in the way. This day was clear and promised to turn into a balmy evening. I'm generally thrilled about any activity that involves moonlight and nature in the same breath, so I signed up.

But now I was thinking, "What's the point?" Full moon or not, it wasn't easy to see. Still, I was enjoying the sweet scent of the evening air, so refreshing after the smog-filled life in my current home, Mexico City. I walked along with my group almost in a meditative state, when all of a sudden a raging roar, which seemed to come from nowhere, startled us. Welcome to "Devil's Throat," the fiercest cascade in the park. It was then that I realized this tour is not about sight, it is about sound – the gush of thousands and thousands of cubic feet of water per second plummeting down a 250-foot abyss.

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Iguazú National Park sits on a massive plateau formed about 150 million years ago by basaltic lava. The river flows from mountains hundreds of miles to the east until it drops off into a series of some 275 falls, depending on the season, that form a semicircle spanning about 1-1/2 miles. Most of it sits in Argentina; Brazil also claims a share of this wonder.

When we finally approached the viewing platform, the cascade crashed down into what seemed like a black hole, with only the shimmer of spray visible. But it was sound that stole the show. I wondered whether in daylight it would seem as awesome.

I spent the entire next day at the park, booking an all-inclusive package that entailed a jungle tour, a boat tour, a hike along the rails beside the river, and a raft trip back to the starting point.

I'm not a big fan of tours, and even less one of waterfalls. I've been to Niagara Falls one too many times, the last time taking a three-hour detour on a trip from New York to Pittsburgh with my Spanish husband who'd heard about the falls his whole life and couldn't wait to see them in person. We arrived, spent an unexciting hour amid a throng of tourists, and wearily continued on. Despite the hype of Iguazú Falls, my expectations weren't high.

I was, however, looking forward to the drive through the jungle, where 2,000 species of plants share space with toucans, howler monkeys, tapirs, and even pumas. I wanted to experience firsthand the setting of "The Mission," the 1986 movie filmed here.

The first leg was disappointing. The jungle tour turned out to be a jeep ride down a dirt path cut in the middle of the forest. There wasn't a single animal in sight.

Everyone in my group remained cheerful, though – we were about to board an inflatable speedboat, which is what people really come to do. We were told to wrap our cameras tightly in plastic bags. I had done my research and knew what was coming. Iguazú is among the widest waterfalls in the world, about four times wider than Niagara Falls. Those who have visited Victoria Falls between Zambia and Zimbabwe say that only that cascade compares to this. But I wasn't convinced this would be anything more than a run-of-the-mill tourist attraction.

Then our boat cut forward. Small cascades poured from varying heights over the cliffs around us. It was if we were white-water rafting, surrounded by some of the most spectacular scenery one can imagine.

Our boat stopped, idling in front of a massive curtain of water on our left. I knew the highlight of the tour was to drive right into it, but at this moment, it didn't seem possible. Then the driver gunned the engine. I lost my breath; I may have even gasped. We veered around. We were going for it again. The second time it was no less scary – or exhilarating.

One thing that makes a visit to Iguazú National Park unique is how close you can get to the attraction itself. The catwalks, which border and top the water at every angle, seem to be an extension of the surroundings, not an artificial construction that takes away from nature.

Tourism in Argentina has exploded recently, mostly because the economic crisis in 2001-02 caused a steep fall in the currency. It is something to keep in mind: I had trouble booking a flight even three weeks in advance. A travel agent helping me said that on the weekends, it can be impossible to get a seat at the last minute. The same is true of hotels. I arrived without a reservation because I couldn't find one available online. (In the end, there was a cancellation, and I settled into the lovely and moderately priced Hotel Saint George.) The tour operators seem somewhat overwhelmed, too. My "full moon" tour left without me – 15 minutes before the scheduled departure. I joined another group, whose tour arrived 30 minutes late.

But somehow the crush of people doesn't seem to overwhelm the park. Maybe it's because it's so vast. I spent the rest of the day leisurely walking, spending a good deal of the journey alone without anyone in sight.

Many people from the Guarani indigenous communities that dot Misiones, the state in which the park lies, sell their arts and crafts here. The tribal head, or cacique, told me that the falls, whose name means "great water" in Guarani, are a blessing and a dilemma. He worries that outside influence is destroying their culture, even though they are dependent on income generated by tourists.

One thing that hasn't been lost is their legends: They believe the falls were formed when a god fell in love with a beautiful woman, who rejected him and fled with her lover in a canoe. In retaliation, the god cleaved the river, condemning the two to eternal separation.

At the falls itself, Devil's Throat is the most popular spot, and most visitors save it as a finale to a day spent among dozens of cascades of various heights, widths, and power. At the Cataratas Station, I jumped aboard the Ecological Jungle Train, which runs to the pathway that leads to the falls. As I walked along the boardwalk, I took full advantage of the light of day, inspecting the fish swimming in the water and the way the sun played off the trees. In fact, I was so distracted by my ability to see that this time I couldn't remember the instant the roar of the falls became perceptible. I rushed to the platform to find a space to lean over the rail and enjoy gusts of warm spray. Birds flapped in and out of the fury.

Most travelers opt to take the tram back to the main visitors' center, but I chose a 20-minute raft trip and yet another promise of a glimpse of jungle life. The operator paddled along the shores, avoiding the roots of massive trees that tower over the river's banks. The serenity of placid water was a welcome retreat from a day filled with the thunder and tumult of rushing water. I saw no wildlife, not even an interesting bird. But I still had the sense, at the end of the day, that I'd experienced a part of this tropical corner in its natural glory.

Or maybe I've just lived in the city too long.

If you go:

• Hotel St. George, www.hotelsaintgeorge.com; Telephone: 0-11-54 (3757) 420633.

• Airport: Cataratas del Iguazú International Airport in Misiones Province, Argentina. Daily flights with LAN Argentina and Aerolíneas Argentinas.

• Full tour at Iguazú National Park, including jungle tour and boat ride: about $32. You can sign up at the park. Full moon tour: about $20, advance purchase at most hotels.

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