Iguazu Falls

May 8, 2012 | 6 minute read | By Kevin Read

At 10:15PM on November 10th, 2009, TVs went blank, lights turned off and radios were silenced as the entire country of Paraguay suddenly lost its electricity supply. In Brazil, there was also chaos as the metro systems of Rio De Janeiro and Sao Paulo ground to a halt, leaving passengers stuck in darkness in the tunnels. Road accidents occurred all over the south of the country when street lights went black and traffic lights failed; millions of people went without power for several hours.

Although it wasn’t the largest power failure in history, the 2009 blackout was probably the largest electricity glitch to be caused by a single dam. Blocking the Parana river on the border of Brazil and Paraguay, the Itaipu hydroelectric plant supplies up to 90% of Paraguay’s electricity and 20% of Brazil’s. Paraguay gets all its domestic electricity from hydro-power, making it one of the greenest countries and largest electricity exporters on the planet (although poor investment in the energy infrastructure means that Paraguay’s abundance of power does not result in reliable service). Although the Three Gorges Dam in China has more capacity, the Itaipu Dam is used much more, making it the biggest hydroelectric plant in the world. When the malfunction in 2009 occurred, the electricity supply to 4 countries in South America was affected.

If that isn’t enough superlatives, here’s a more unhappy one: when Itaipu Dam was built in 1982, the resulting reservoir destroyed the largest waterfalls (by volume) in the world. Once one of the most popular sights in Brazil, Guaira Falls National Park was liquidated by Brazil and the whole area drowned by the Itaipu Reservoir. Tourists travelled from all over the world to see the falls one last time before they were submerged forever. They were very lucky to see it, because even if the dam were now removed, Guaira Falls would not reappear: the rocks which previously made up the falls were dynamited after they were flooded to make navigation of the lake easier

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I didn’t actually go to any of these places. Guaira Falls because it is gone, Itaipu Dam because I diidn’t have time, and Paraguay because the area around the border of Brazil and Argentina is mostly a seedy electronics market, where people from Buenos Aires and Sao Paulo go to save money on stereos and computers. However, this area just downriver of the dam is the second most visited tourist destination in the country (behind Rio), and everyone is there to see the same thing: Iguazu Falls.

7iguazufalls-5There’s no one statistic to describe Iguazu Falls (or make it a good pub trivia question). It’s not the tallest waterfall in the world, the biggest by volume, or the widest. It’s just incredibly impressive. Stretching for almost 2.5 kilometres on the border of Argentina and Brazil, the falls are situated in a tangle of jungle, preserved in national parks in both countries. The water doesn’t flow continuously along the long stretch of the falls, but is split into hundreds of smaller falls on many layers. During low water flow there are around 150, but near the end of the wet season the number reaches almost 300.

7iguazufalls-2The Brazil side offers the best panoramic views. There’s a point where a large set of falls occur in two stages, creating a large step halfway up, which you can cross on a small wooden pathway. In some ways it spoils the natural scene, but at the end you can stand a point and be surrounded by huge flows of water on 3 sides. I spent around four hours there, trying to get a panoramic picture of the whole scene, which is almost impossible because the spray from the water results in near-constant drizzle which coated my lens instantly, and the patchy weather means that the rainbows which form all around disappear when the sun goes behind a cloud. Given enough perseverance, layers of waterproof gear, and more patience than I usually have for standing in the rain on a slippery platform next to a cliff, it’s possible to find those moments when the sun comes out and the wind blows the spray away from the camera lens for long enough to get a few images to stitch. In the several hours I spent there, I did not see anyone else trying to do this.

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7iguazufalls-6If the Brazil side is for standing and staring (and getting wet and being frustrated), the Argentina side is for exploration. A network of paths lead you through the jungle to hidden falls among the trees and the occasional gap between them showing the amazing scenes across the river. Treading the miles of paths through the forest, you come across waterfalls which anywhere else would be the main attraction, but here are barely glanced at as people seek even more tall and violent falls around the next corner. You can walk on bridges above them, go out on platforms half way up to get drenched by the spray, catch a boat to explore the river below or above, and fly over them in a helicopter. There really are only so many things you can do in, around or on a waterfall and, between Brazil and Argentina, they have thought of pretty much all of them, and given each a price.

My third day in the park was in heavy rain (this area of South America is rainforest) and it was surprising how much more muddy the water was and how much quicker it was flowing. At Devil’s Throat, possibly the highlight of the park in Argentina, where a wide platform hangs over the edge of a deep chasm with water flowing on 3 sides, the violence of the water was so much clearer with its dark colour. Although this pair of national parks are built around a single, limited, theme, Iguazu Falls is constantly amazing and varied, from tranquil to raging, colourful to bleak. I hope one day I meet someone who did see Guaira to find out what we all missed.

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Practicalities:

There are two convenient airports at Iguazu Falls: one in Brazil and one in Argentina, and a town on each side too (Foz Do Iguacu in Brazil and Puerto Iguazu in Argentina). There’s a twice weekly flight from the Brazil side direct to Montevideo, but if you’re coming to or from Argentina it’s easier to go to the airport at Puerto Iguazu. For Brazil, fly to Foz do Iguacu. Both parks are a bus ride away from the towns: the one on the Brazil side has a route that goes: town – airport – park – airport – town.

You can visit the side of the falls in the opposite country to the one in which you’re staying within one day. There are plenty of easy buses to take you across the border and you can arrange excursions in either town, often from your hotel or hostel. Many nationalities need a visa for Brazil (including Canadians, Americans, and Australians, but not Brits) which can be arranged at the consulate in Puerto Iguazu (that takes a few days) but is better done before you arrive. When entering Brazil, it’s best to get an entry stamp: often the border guards waive taxis and buses through without checking passports, and when I tried to fly out of Brazil to Uruguay, they would not let me get on the plane without returning to the border to get an entry stamp (I missed the flight).

The parks both have opening hours that rule out being in them for sunset and sunrise, although if you’re very keen to do that, they have hotels (one in Brazil and two in Argentina) which will charge you a small fortune to stay in the park overnight. There’s also an entrance fee for each visit to the parks, at the time of writing it was about 22 USD for the Brazil side and 24USD for the Argentina side. If you get your ticket stamped on the way out on the Argentina side, you can go back the next day for half price.

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4 responses to “Iguazu Falls”

  1. Lindsey says:

    Amazing pictures, as per usual. I LOVE the fourth one! Absolutely breathtaking.

  2. Elizabeth says:

    I see now why Tap was so excited to visit Iguazu Falls. Gorgeous pics of some amazing sites!

  3. Richard says:

    “There really are only so many things you can do in, around or on a waterfall and, between Brazil and Argentina, they have thought of pretty much all of them, and given each a price.”

    This was a LoL! It’s funny how they do that 🙂

  4. Kevin Read says:

    Thanks for the comments. Unfortunately the internet is not so fast in Patagonia, which is kind of a relief given there’s almost nowhere left in the world where you can really feel that you are off the grid. I’m about 4 entries behind on the blog, but the day after tomorrow we have a 28 hour bus ride so I’ll be truly rambling by the end.

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