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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.

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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.

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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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