Iguazu Falls Trip
Iguazu Falls, on the Paraná river, straddles the border between Argentina and Brazil. The word Iguazu means ‘big water’ in Guarani, one of the indigenous languages of the area. The falls (or cataratas) are 1.7 miles wide and are made up of between 250 and 300 individual cascades (or saltos), depending on the annual flow of the river. The various falls are between 200 and 270 feet high, beating Niagara which is only 165 feet. Iguazu is also wider than Victoria falls in Zambia/Zimbabwe, although Victoria has the largest solid curtain of water at 1,600 feet wide. About half the volume of the river pours over the U-shaped Devil’s Throat (or Garganta del Diablo) – so much water that you can never see the bottom of the falls due to the amount of water vapor created. Iguazu strikingly beautiful especially because about half a mile of the width of the falls does not have water flowing over it, creating a patchwork of lush multi-leveled forest islands seemingly sprouting up from the middle of the river. In 2011, Iguazu was named one of the New Seven Wonders of the World.
Nearby is the Itaipu Dam, the largest dam in the world in terms of energy generation (often compared to the Three Gorges Dam on the Yangtze River in China). In 2009 there was a transmission failure that left the entire country of Paraguay without power for 15 minutes!
I took a bus to Puerto Iguazu from Buenos Aires, which is a 17-hour ride, made comfortable by the high quality of Argentine long-haul buses (US$75 one-way for multiple meals, booze, TV, and fully reclining seats). Arriving at around 9am, I wandered down the street from the bus station to the nearest hostel, which turned out to be quite nice (Timbo Hostel, Av Misiones 147). Relatively clean rooms, pool, hammocks, and good breakfast, and they were great at helping me figure out the buses to the falls.
Day 1 – Argentine Side (Monday)
You can visit the falls on both the Argentine side and the Brazilian side. The park on the Argentine side is much bigger (around 135k acres), and allows you to crisscross many of the falls on bridges and get right up to the edge, including at the Devil’s Throat. You can also do truck tours through the jungle or take a boat right up to the falls. I only ended up needing one day to do the Argentine side, although many people do two days. I elected to do the Argentine side first so I would have a second chance if the weather turned bad.
To get to the falls from Puerto Iguazu (which is the main town on the Argentine side), you take a bus from the main terminal in town (US$8), which takes about 30 minutes to cover the 11-mile ride to the falls. I arrived around 11am, and found that I had more than enough time to see what I wanted to in the park, which closes at 6:30 (park entrance fee is US$17).
There’s a little jungle train that will take you to most of the cool spots in the park, but I found it easier just to walk everywhere, given that you have a whole day and it’s not that big. There are two main routes for viewing the falls, the Lower Circuit and the Upper Circuit. The Lower Circuit (less than a mile long) takes you a bit more through the jungle and up to the bases of some of the falls, where you can get soaked from the spray if you want. I recommend doing this one first, as it tends to be less crowded in the morning and is also just a tad more strenuous and has more steps, which thankfully keeps some of the super-slow tourists away. That said, being at the park during the week was pretty great, as I have to imagine it would be more crowded on the weekend. The small Alvar Nuñez falls on this circuit are particularly beautiful, and have a great view of the Brazilian jungle across the river. You can also get up close and personal with the Ramirez falls, where you’ll get soaked.
There are a number of Jungle Tours available inside the park (no need to book ahead of time). I ended up doing the Nautical Adventure for US$18, which leaves from the Lower Circuit and takes you up to the base of a few of the falls in a rubber boat. They’ll give you a dry bag to put your backpack and shoes in which is great (pro-tip: bring a bathing suit and flip-flops, which I forgot). You will get completely soaked no matter what, so don’t waste your time bringing a poncho. Getting up to the base of the falls was epic – you can’t see a thing and it is freaking loud, and totally awe-inspiring (video here).
After drying off in the sun a bit I headed back to the main series of trials, grabbed a few empanadas and fought off some coatis (seriously – those raccoon-looking guys will come right up to your table and try to bandit your lunch, and I’ve heard the Capuchin monkeys will do the same), and then headed up to the Upper Circuit. This is where you start to really get a sense of how giant the falls are. Everywhere you look there is water that seems to be just tumbling randomly out of the jungle. There are viewing platforms on top of most of the larger falls, although they tend to be a bit crowded. Also there are butterflies everywhere, so if photography is your thing this place is great.
Finally I took the train up to the Devil’s Throat (you can walk but it was a bit of a hike and pretty hot at this point, plus the train is pretty cool). It’s tough to describe what it’s like to see half of one of the world’s largest rivers just tumbling off the side of a cliff into nothingness, and the fact that the falls are U-shaped makes it seem like you’re literally watching a giant sinkhole of water just open up underneath you. I spent a good 30 minutes staring off the edge, listening to the water and the birds and kids in the background.
Eventually I made my way back to the main park and wandered around the Lower Circuit a bit more. Again, I felt like one day was enough, but maybe if you do some of the other jungle adventures you could spend more time in the park (there’s a truck tour in the jungle and a relaxing ecological river tour in small rubber boat). I headed back to town and grabbed dinner at a restaurant called Bambu, then hung out at Freddo downing Irish coffees for the rest of the night.
Day 2 – Brazilian Side (Tuesday)
Tuesday I took a bus to Foz de Iguazu, which is the town on the Brazilian side. You can get a bus directly to the falls on the Brazilian side from Puerto Iguazu, but there’s a trick for avoiding Brazil’s visa fee for U.S. citizens (assuming you just want to see the falls…if you want to wander around Brazil illegally you’re on your own). You leave Argentina by going to Foz de Iguazu and then only Argentine customs stamps your passport. Not having the Brazilian entrance stamp is key – on the bus ride back (direct to Puerto Iguazu in Argentina this time, no need to go back through Foz de Iguazu in Brazil), just don’t give your passport to the bus driver when he stops at Brazilian customs or don’t volunteer your passport at customs if you have to leave the bus. They won’t care and won’t notice you – this is what Brazilian citizens do all the time.
Anyway, the Brazilian side of the falls was beautiful – lots of lizards and great views of Devil’s Throat, and you see a ton of falls farther back on the Brazilian side and on San Martin island that you can’t see and don’t even really know exist when you’re on the Argentine side. The falls just on go on and on! I finally made it to Devil’s Throat, where you can walk out on a platform right up to some of the larger falls and get soaked. I ended the tour by heading up an elevator to a giant viewing platform where you can take in the whole scene, which was awesome. Overall very majestic views and worth the trip, but being on the Argentine side right up against Devil’s Throat is more awe-inspiring. I grabbed the bus back and hung out at Freddo for a while before dinner at Nae pizza.
Day 3 – Canopying and Rappelling (Wednesday)
Wednesday I got up early and bummed around town, ending up at a new cafe called Jack Buck’s Coffee and Friends, which was awesome. Only open two weeks, run by two Brazilian guys who I hung out with for a while, very very cool, told them they needed to visit San Francisco ASAP. Great coffee and cold matte drinks, as well as the best chicken empanadas I’ve had. Weather was bad in the morning but cleared later so I ended up going on an Iguazu Forest Jungle Tour in the afternoon, which involved canopying (zip lining), hiking through the forest, and rappelling down a waterfall. Very cool and relaxing, definitely would go again although I would go in the morning so as to not waste the whole day. The tour was with a big group of international Rotary kids and was only US$33, which took me down to literally my last peso. The company also has ATVing but apparently they weren’t doing it that day, so check to see which activities are actually on the docket. Finally made my way back and caught the micro back to Buenos Aires at 7pm after one last stop at Jack Buck’s. Bus back was only $60, amazing as usual.
Overall Iguazu is a great short trip to do from Buenos Aires. My only regret is that San Martin island, an island at the base of the falls you can get to via boat that has a great beach, is apparently closed and won’t be re-opening for a while (I assume they’re doing reforestation or something like that). One day on each side of the falls was definitely enough for me, although if I were to do it again I might tack on a day to go check out Itaipu Dam.