Through the jungle with a violet umbrella: Iguazu Falls

When I saw the plume of spray erupting from the knobbly, broccoli-headed swathe of trees as the plane came into land, like steam pouring from a boiling kettle, I knew that Iguazu Falls (the cataratas) were going to be spectacular. It’s hard to describe them without lapsing into trite descriptions: their sheer enormity is overwhelming. Once I’d checked into the surprisingly luxurious (well, in my private room anyway) Hostel Inn Iguazu, complete with pool and poolside bar, I hotfooted it out to the falls. Actually I stood in the red dust at the side of the baking hot road in front of the hostel for quite some time waiting for the bus to take me there, so it was hardly a speedy transfer, but it allowed my anticipation to mount to boiling point. I was very impressed with the Iguazu National Park that surrounds the falls. There are kilometres of wooden trails through the jungle to, over and around the waterfalls (begging the question of how they were actually constructed, right in the midst of the thundering power of the falls) and a sweet little train (Tren de la Selva), to ferry visitors around the various points of the park. There’s also an informative museum with details of the history of the park and its flora and fauna – I skipped it that first afternoon in my eagerness to see the main event but it was a welcome respite the next morning when the jungle rain came down with drenching force.

The big attraction is El Garganta del Diablo (Devil’s Throat), a great bowl of rock on the Argentinian-Brazilian border, with tonnes of water pouring and frothing over it in a whole spread of separate falls, with a single crashing sound track. This was the roiling cauldron I’d seen from the air and on that first day the heaving, brown-tinged water captured glowing arcs of rainbows during its descent. Astonishingly, fleet-winged swifts whisked in and out of the spray and behind the falls themselves, where they nest. As I watched, mesmerized, a tropical thunderstorm brewed, and the cracks of thunder that rumbled the steamy air and the purple flashes of lightning that ripped across the suddenly sullen grey sky gave the whole place a primeval tinge. Just marvellous. To flesh this out with some statistics, the falls tumble over a 74m precipice there are 275 separate falls across a total distance of 2470m and the water gushes over at 1750 cubic metres per second. This rises to a mind-blowing, eardrum-blasting 12,750 cubic metres per second in the rainy season, which was when I visited. In fact there was so much water that the island of San Martin, which you can usually visit by boat, was closed due to the water level being too high. (Figures courtesy of my Footprint Guide to South America)

The next day it rained on and off the whole time, in torrential sheets of water, which I guess is not unexpected in a rain forest. As well as revisiting the various walks to see the falls (the upper and lower circuits, as well as the Devil´s Throat), I wanted to walk the wildlife trail (Sendero Verde), which I’d heard was a mecca for the interesting wildlife that lives in the park: the birds, the butterflies, the monkeys, the extremely irritating coatis that roam around scavenging for food – one leapt onto my table when I stopped for a coffee, and made off with my sugar sachets, tearing them open greedily with its scarily sharp claws. Just as well I don’t take sugar. I sought advice from a jovial park ranger. Amidst jokes about the hungry jaguar being able to tell I was a tourist from my blonde hair (not being a natural blonde, I was taken aback at first by this second reference to my hair, the first being in the police station in La Boca, but compliments to Mark, my hair colourist!) and about sending out smoke signals if I was attacked, he assured me that the rain would not diminish the beauty of the trail. How wrong he was.

To start with the trail resembled a river more than a path. I always find that the hood on my waterproof clouds both my vision and my hearing, so I picked my way through the jungle holding aloft the violet umbrella I’d bought on my last day in Buenos Aires, when I’d got thoroughly wet as I roamed round shopping, to replace all the things that had been stolen the day before. There was no wind, and the violet umbrella worked surprisingly well. Peeping beneath its purple canopy, there was a distinct lack of wildlife to be seen, though every now and again I’d sniff an acrid flash of animal scent, as though I’d just missed a strolling jaguar by the whisk of a furry tail (rangers’ jokes aside, they do live in the park: they are rarely sighted while alive though unfortunately several are killed every year by traffic on the park’s road, so I guess the rangers see them dead every now and again). There were very few other tourists around, so the main sign of life was the swarms of blood sucking insects that descended from the trees every time I paused. It was a relief to complete the ‘scenic wildlife trail’ and get back onto the main walks, where I saw luminous blue butterflies, big brooding birds, huge lizards and of course, those pesky coatis.

The Devil´s Throat was completely different today, with a heavy grey sky squashing the horizon into a thin white line and clouds of mist blowing in across the rails of the viewing platform. I also found a mirador (viewpoint) that I’d missed the day before, where you can walk to the end and view one of the falls from beneath – as well as the gigantic Devil´s Throat, there are several other enormous cascades, that alone would be worth the trip. As you approach the end of the walkway the spray becomes a deluge and you get drenched. I waited patiently behind a school group who whooped and scampered and posed for pictures, and when they’d left, a small group of middle aged Argentinian tourists took their place, and suddenly started leaping around with their arms raised, in a bizarre evocation of a rain dance.

After I was thoroughly soaked I took the boat trip to the foot of the San Martin falls, to see if I could get even more wet (I could). The captain steers right into the bottom of the falls, a churning curtain of water, and just as you think you can´t move any closer without being crushed, he edges in just a little bit more. John-Robert, my Austrian friend from Montevideo, had advised me to make sure I sat right at the front, which I did, next to a fun-loving middle-aged woman from Tucuman, northern Argentina, who’d visited Iguazu six times, she loved it so much. We sat and screamed and laughed together with the sheer, soaking exhilaration of it as the water churned all around us. It’s hard to sing the praises of Iguazu Falls enough: as Eleanor Roosevelt is reported to have said when she saw them: ‘Poor Niagra’. Since further description fails me, take a look at the photos (there’s even a video in there).

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2 thoughts on “Through the jungle with a violet umbrella: Iguazu Falls

  1. Liz!! Just wanted to say how amazing I think you are, and to wish you a very Merry Christmas!! Can’t wait to catch up properly some time x have a marvellous time, loads love Gina xxxxx

  2. Iguazu looks just as amazing now as when I was there nearly 20 years ago .. and the coatis clearly haven’t changed, if anything have learned some new tricks. How wonderful, I still get goosebumps thinking about how beautiful and breathtaking it is there. Glad to see you are having fun.

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