Where three countries meet: Igua'u, world's widest waterfall

When you walk down the path along legendary Igua'u Falls, keep one eye peeled for butterflies. The Igua'u Falls stretch along one side of a long valley, with the Igua'u River frothing away at the bottom and a series of wide easy paths and stairs for the convenience of tourists on the opposite bank. The butterflies -- basic orange, otherworldly blue-green, snappy black-and-white with red dots -- are all friendly little creatures that pose obligingly on the railing and follow you as you rubberneck your way past some 200-odd individual cataracts.

The falls are an eyeful. As if one level weren't spectacular enough, in many places the great white plumes of foam cascade down two levels. Some cataracts form a thin white streak against the dark rock; others are fat mini-Niagaras. Any one by itself would be a tourist attraction where I come from.

And this is before you even get to the main falls, at the far end of the valley and called, of course, Garganta do Diablo, or Devil's Gorge. Niagara beats Igua'u for volume of water (Igua'u's averages a mere 107,000 cubic feet per second, compared with Niagara's 200,000 cubic feet per second). Still, when you get closer to the falls, the air is white with spray that soaks you as you pass, and a half-rainbow is a continuous presence in front.

Igua'u stretches out over 21/2 miles -- which makes it the widest waterfall in the world. There's a lot to see; it took me an hour to walk from one end to the other and back.

The falls are on the tiny border between Brazil and Argentina, right where they join with Paraguay. A young woman from El Salvador told me she had enjoyed experiencing the falls from the Argentine side (an Argentine visa is required for this). ``From here, it's the view,'' she said. ``From Argentina, you feel the [water's] force.''

You can get a different perspective from a helicopter (an eight-minute flight costs $25 for a minimum of two passengers). The falls are in Igua'u National Park, 500,000 acres of which is in Brazil, 110,000 acres in Argentina. As the helicopter lifts up it's all green treetops as far as you can see.

The tour takes you up one side of the trench and down the other; the highlight is when the pilot noses the copter right down almost into the Devil's Gorge caldron, and all you can see is raging foam.

For $100 (minimum of two people) you can take a copter to nearby Itaipu Dam, built in 1974 on the Paran'a River. The dam, by generating a lot of business, put this whole area on the map, according to Claudio Neumann, the genial manager of the Hotel das Cataratas, which is right next to the falls. ``Before, Igua'u was a very little town,'' he says. ``It had 4,000 inhabitants; now we have 160,000.'' He highly recommends the dam as a side trip. Incidentally, it can also be done by bus.

April through June is the time of lowest volume of water for the falls, while November through January is the highest. ``I will tell you that the best time to come is during the spring,'' Mr. Neumann says, ``because during the spring all is new -- leaves on the trees -- it's like new life.''

But remember, spring here means September to November. It's a time of pleasant, 70-degree F. temperatures, as in April and May. The average temperature in June and July here is 41 F.; November through February, 108 to 110 F.

Inspiring as the falls are -- ``I was stunned,'' was the review of a woman from South Africa -- one cannot stare at them indefinitely and may look for other sites to explore. Conveniently, the Hotel das Cataratas has its own tour service, which offers a number of interesting day trips for travelers.

Besides the three excursions already mentioned, there is the ``jungle safari'' for the hardier, more athletic traveler. At a cost of $8, for a minimum of four people, it takes you into a restricted area of the national park for a look at local wildlife.

They can be pretty exotic. Even just around the hotel, I saw some coati-mundis taking a stroll and a wild ostrich making free with the big garden, peering in hotel doors and windows. But more is possible. Tour guide Alex Schorsch, a Chicago native who has lived here for the past 14 years, showed me his pictures of golden tangly jungles, wild boar, and toucans. He said you can also see capuchin and howler monkeys, orchids (in October-November), and some of the area's 3,000 species of moths and butt erflies.

Also, according to Mr. Schorsch, the Igua'u and Paran'a Rivers are among the best places for game fishing in South America.

The tour that was available the afternoon I was in Igua'u was the trip over to Puerto President Stroessner in Paraguay (no visa is required). Puerto Stroessner is a cross between Tijuana, Mexico, and a giant K mart. Stores -- Casa Ipanema, Casa Luiz, Casa Snoopy, and so on line the wide boulevard. Inside, one finds an odd miscellany of things for sale; shampoo, for instance, is a big item. Cheap plastic fans and watches sit next to Yves Saint Laurent sunglasses. Other desig ner names are frequently invoked.

It's an odd place in other ways. Groups of men who seem to have nothing to do hang around in the wide street. There was a crowd around two men slowly playing checkers with bottle caps for pieces, on a battered wooden board.

I detected a definite hierarchy among the entrepreneurs in the town. At the top were the shop owners. Next came the men who, although out on the sidewalk, possessed the dignity of a pocket calculator, a chair, and an old wooden folding table covered with a worn red cloth. Most of these were hawking a strange assortment of manufactured goods. Tiny bottles of Paco Rabanne and Chanel No. 5 perfume were common.

At the bottom of the scale were the Indians, selling things they had made themselves. One man had his goods -- necklaces made of carved and colored seeds -- displayed on a clothesline. Having caught my attention, he patiently untied one after another until I had half his stock in my unwilling hands. In the next block, some Indian women were sitting on the sidewalk on well-used pieces of cardboard, weaving belts, which they secured by anchoring one end to a big toe.

On the middle strip of the boulevard, there were stands where people sold leather goods. I saw one nice suitcase in natural leather for $15. Most of the purses were crudely made and dated in style.

The Casa Pacaral, specializing in local handmade items, turned out to be the best place for souvenirs; I bought a charming handmade doll there for $5. I didn't think much of a wooden carving of an oxcart I saw, until our bus passed the real thing on the way back to Igua'u. Practical information:

Varig, Transbrasil, and Vaspe Airlines fly into Igua'u from Rio de Janeiro. It's about a three-hour flight. Round-trip fare is around $230. Most visitors stay overnight; the Hotel das Cataratas ($42 to $58.50 per room, plus 10 percent service charge), is very nice.

If you think you might want to fly to other cities besides Igua'u, Varig's Brazilpass is a terrific bargain. For $250 you can fly to four cities in addition to your first destination (14-day validity); for $330 you get unlimited travel in Brazil for 21 days.

You can buy a weekend tour of Igua'u through Varig. $78 per person double occupancy gives you a room for 3 days and 2 nights at the Hotel das Cataratas, transfers, breakfast and one other meal, the jungle safari, and several other tours. A similar Tuesday-through-Thursday program is $69.

The tours described here can be booked through Varig in major US cities, or through a travel agent. If you are interested in a particular tour, make arrangements in advance, especially if your time is limited.

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