Legend has it that the vast waterfalls here were the work of the god who inhabited the waters of the Iguazu River. Enraged when a warrior rescued the Guarani maiden he had been promised as a sacrifice and the couple fled together, the river god created the natural barrier to stop their escape by canoe. Legend also tells that the great trees that guard either side of the falls are, in fact, the two lovers, condemned to live eternally apart, although they manage to reach out to each other through the rainbows that frequently stretch from bank to bank.
In the Guarani language, Iguazu means "Great Water", which is a very appropriate name for the river that, after a journey of 1,300 miles through Brazil, spills over into thundering Falls in the middle of the jungle, marking the boundary between the Brazilian state of Parana and the Argentine province of Misiones, close to the boundaries of both countries with Paraguay.
Formed 200,000 years ago at the point where the Iguazu River merges with the Parana, over the centuries, the Falls have receded some twenty metres, due to erosion. The first European to see the natural marvel - four times wider than Niagara - was the Spanish Conquistador, Alvar Nunez Cabeza de Vaca, who came across the Falls in 1541 on an expedition to the south of what we now know as Brazil.
Almost 300 separate cascades form a half-moon nearly three kilometres wide and up to 70 metres high. The breathtaking natural spectacle can be admired on foot from a network of footbridges and viewpoints that border the Falls, or from small boats that venture into the waters below and allow visitors to approach close to the unquestionable highlight: la Garganta del Diablo - "the Devil's Throat". This is the cascade with the greatest flow of water, where the air echoes with a shattering thunder and a curtain of mist pierces to the bone.
The larger part of the falls is in Argentinean territory, though some of the most spectacular views can only be seen from the Brazilian side, so it is best to view both sides. It is perfectly possible to travel from one country to the other in a single day, crossing from the town of Puerto Iguazu in Argentina to Brazil's Foz do Iguaçu.
Both the waterfalls and the surrounding subtropical forest are designated as national parks, one Argentinean and one Brazilian. The area is home to more than 400 different kinds of birds, almost 2,000 plant species and several kinds of monkeys and snakes, as well as caimans, tapirs and even jaguars.
Countless paths, including the unmissable Macuco trail, lead through the lush jungle, offering spectacular panoramas of the different cascades, and islands such as San Martin, which served as the unforgettable setting for the movie The Mission, winner of an Academy Award for the best photography, and featuring masterful performances by Robert De Niro and Jeremy Irons.
The visit to the Falls
Although it's possible to view the Falls from both the Argentinean and Brazilian banks in a single day, it's a good idea to allow a couple of extra days to explore the national parks and perhaps to visit the ruins of the Jesuit missions in the area. If you arrive as early in the day as possible, there will be fewer people; however, it's not until a couple of hours after sunrise that the sun is high enough to illuminate right to the bottom of the cascades and display the Falls in all their glory. On the Argentinean bank, there is a small train that links the most spectacular points, and on both the Argentinean and Brazilian sides there are walkways and viewing platforms from which to admire the spectacle. On both sides, boat trips are available allowing visitors to approach the foot of the waterfall, and there are marked trails for exploring the area on foot. Activities such as rafting are available, and off-road excursions in the national parks; there are even helicopter flights over the Falls, although these have many critics who argue that they disturb the peace and natural environment of the birds.
Where to stay
Near the Falls, both countries offer hotels and hostels for all budgets. Among the best is the Sheraton Iguazu Resort & Spa, the only hotel on the Argentinean side within the limits of the national park, with views of the Falls from many of its 180 rooms. The Orient Express group recently acquired the legendary Hotel das Cataratas, the only hotel within the national park on the Brazilian bank. Some thirty kilometres away, in the heart of the Argentinean jungle, the Posada Puerto Bemberg offers charming, high-class accommodation in a splendid mansion, providing the perfect setting to spend a few days in touch with nature and away from the tourist bustle closer to the Falls.
In Puerto Iguazu, on the Argentinean side, the restaurant El Quincho del Tio Querido is a classic, with twenty years experience serving parilladas - fine local beef cooked on the traditional Argentinean barbecue grill - and fresh fish from the Iguazu River, such as dorado and surubi, and offering tango and folk displays in the evenings. More expensive is the elegant Garganta del Diablo restaurant at the Sheraton Iguazu, which overlooks the famous waterfall and makes a perfect setting for a romantic evening. In Foz do Iguaçu, on the Brazilian side, you could try the fish, seafood, and local speciality stews such as moquecas and caldeiradas served at Trapiche, or the fine grilled meats at Bufalo Branco Churrascaria.
If the Falls are awe-inspiring in daylight, imagine what they must be like by moonlight! On nights when the moon is full, nocturnal tours are organised, so if your trip coincides, make sure you don't miss out. And don't forget to visit the San Ignacio Jesuit ruins, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and one of the first Christian settlements in the Americas.