The name, “Iguaçu” in Brazil and Iguazú in Argentina, comes from the Guarani words “y“, meaning “water”, and “ûasú“, meaning “big”. Literally “Big Water”. Not quite as poetic as Mosi-oa-Tunya the name given to the Victoria Falls by the local peoples there. (This translates as The Smoke that Thunders.) But it does do what is says on the tin. In English, the name is more usually written as the Iguazu Falls.
But the big question was, would they be more impressive than the Victoria Falls?
Legend has it that a deity planned to marry a beautiful woman named Naipí, who fled with her mortal lover Tarobá in a canoe. In a rage, the deity sliced the river, creating the waterfalls and condemning the lovers to an eternal fall.
The Iguazu Falls are located on the border of Argentina and Brazil. Paraguay is only a stones throw away, but it doesn’t have any of the falls within its border.
They consist of (about) 257 individual falls, spanning over 2.7 km (1.7 miles). Chosen as one of the “New Natural Seven Wonders of the World”, the falls are considered the biggest waterfall system in the world. They are both longer and higher than Victoria Falls (although the Angel Falls in Venezuela are way higher still). In addition, they have a greater volume of water plummeting over the edge. A staggering 1,756 cubic meters per second. That’s the average flow over a whole year! (Niagra Falls actually has a higher yearly average flow rate but lower peak flow.)
I can’t even imagine what that looks like in terms of a static body of water. Assuming that you use about 50 litres to take a shower, that’s about enough water for nearly one hundred people to shower every day for a year. In just one second.
The highest ever flow recorded was 45,700 m3/s. That’s 45,700,000 l/s! In seasons of drought however, the falls dwindle to what seems a small stream. They can very nearly stop altogether, with trickles replacing the thunderous cascades that normally plunge into the 80m canyon.
In the mid 1980s, the Iguazu Falls were designated a ‘UNESCO World Heritage Site‘. They are ‘staircase falls, comprising two ‘steps’ as the water cascades from the top down into the canyon below. Straddling the border between Brazil and Argentina, you can visit the falls from either country. Via Foz do Iguaçu in Brazil or Puerto Iguazú in Argentina. Brazil actually has 95% of the Iguaçu River basin in its territory, but only just over 20% of the actual cascades. The remainder, almost 80%, sit in Argentina.
There is much rivalry between the two countries as to who has the better parts of the falls, and who has the most spectacular view. We visited both sides, and the experience is very different from each country.
Both sides of the Iguazu Falls are national parks, comprising lush jungle with the added opportunity for seeing toucans, caymans, turtles and other tropical creates. What we actually saw most of though were butterflies. Spectacular in colour, some were massive, bigger than your hand, others tiny. And they were everywhere.
It’s also fair to say that the general set up at Iguazu is much better than at Victoria Falls. In Zimbabwe, safety and barriers were sketchy at best and non existent at times. Both Brazil and Argentina have constructed walkways to guide visitors to some spectacular view points. These are both at the top of the falls, and lower down at the level of the step.
The Brazilian Side of the Iguazu Falls.
First we visited the Brazilian side. In fact we went straight there after having dropped off our bags after the overnight bus trip.
The top of the walkway on this side is notable for two things. A massive colonial style hotel, the only one in the park and no doubt with a massive price tag to accompany it. The other, more annoying creatures encouraged by uneducated tourists feeding them. They are coati, racoon like creatures that are as brazen as anything and not scared one iota. Even when knocked off the hand rails they used to flit between potential meals they just come back for more.
The walkway takes you down to the level of the step in the falls and whereas in Zimbabwe you just get to see the falls from the cliff top opposite, here you get up much more close and personal.
Initially you get a panoramic and very spectacular view of the falls on the Argentinian side as almost 80% of the falls are facing you. As you drop down into the canyon and progress up toward the main falls the noise, not quiet to start with just seems to grow in intensity. Then you get to the main walkway.
It’s not long, but it snakes out, over the river (at the step level so you are 30 to 40 m below the top of the falls and ends on a small platform actually over the falls themselves as they plunge from the step downward. This is the lower base of Deil’s Throat, a long narrow chasm 80 to 90 m wide and 70 to 80 m deep that channels about half the river’s flow. And it’s wet. Spray from below and from above, propelled by the wind created by the power of the water itself ensures you receive a fair soaking. The Chinese tourists for once get good use from their raincoats that normally only provide protection from the sun!
There’s an elevator that takes you back up to the top, and as you stand at the platform at the bottom of it it feels as though you could just reach out and touch the thundering wall of water just a few meters away.
That was a pretty impressive experience. The Argentinian side will have to be good to better (or even equal this).
The Argentinian Side of the Iguazu Falls.
Our local guide had us up and out early the next day. We need to be early to beat the crowds and get the best views to ourselves he told us. So crossing the border again we enter Argentina for the third time and head to their national park.
As the Argentinian side of the Iguazu falls are much more extensive, there is a small diesel train that you hop aboard to take you a mile or so around the top of the falls to the main viewpoint on this side. The top of Devil’s Throat that we glimpsed from below on the Brazilian side.
Once you get of the train there is another trail, the Paseo Garganta del Diablo, which is about 1 km long and again ends in a viewing platform.
This time however it is directly over Devil’s Throat. If you thought it was wet on the Brazilian side you’ve a real treat in store. Even we put on rainwear for this one. The walkway snakes out over a calm expense of river, across a couple of little islets and ends up actually over the main falls as around 900 m3 of water per second descends into the chasm.
The proximity to the falls really is something the defies belief. The sound is deafening, it’s wet (soaking wet), there is an almost constant gale blowing and you are right next to and above one of the most awe inspiring sights I’ve ever seen.
There are really no words to describe it adequately. It still makes the hair stand up on the back of my neck just thinking about it.
And incredibly, swooping around, are flocks of dusky swift that not only live and feed around the falls but actually nest on the rock faces behind the curtains of water. They dart in and out through gaps in the cascade. How they can even stay airborne in such conditions seems incredible to me.
Leaving the Devil’s Throat and heading back on the train you can get off to continue exploring on yet more marked trails. This time along the top of the falls to get more up close encounters with the cascades around the 1 to 2 km of the falls in Argentina. Impressive still, but not quite the same as the experience from earlier.
The Icing on the Cake.
Wow. How do you top that?
If you want to get even more wet you can take a trip on a giant rib from a little way down river. The pilots take you up through the rapids to get a view of the falls from river level.
The general advice is this;
- Wear swimming shorts
- Take a towel and a change of clothes
- Put everything of value inside the supplied dry sack
- Take a seat on board
- Prepare to get very wet!
There were, in practice, two schools of thought though. Sit back, enjoy and get wet. The other, to don rainwear and plastic capes to try to keep the water out. I can well imagine that the latter tactic was not a complete success.
The guide on the boat actually says it’s OK to keep cameras out to start with. He’ll tell us when to put everything away he says. So we zoom up the river, past jungle and small falls cascading down the rocks until we get to the base of the main falls.
We were incredibly lucky with the weather. Again. It was a blue sky day, and due to the positions of us, and the sun, rainbows stretched right across the river. Stunning.
And then the call comes to put cameras, phones and anything not waterproof away.
We’re going in. Literally into the base of the falls themselves, another first. The force of the water and wind combination is indescribable. You can’t see anything, you can’t hear anything and you can barely breathe.
I was wearing contact lenses and I couldn’t open my eyes. In fact I thought the lenses would just be blasted out or around the back of my eyeballs! It wasn’t cold though. At least I don’t think it was, if I’m honest I didn’t really notice. My brain, I think, was overwhelmed by sensory overload from all the other things going on to register temperature.
It was a great buzz though. Did we want to go in again? You bet. So around for another soaking we went.
Finally, heading back down the river the pilot heads for the bigger parts of the rapids to add a little excitement to the end of the trip. Another day this would be exciting in itself. But today, while we get tossed about over the faster running parts of the river, it all seems a little tame, compared to being subjected to the biggest power shower in the world that is!
Whilst you won’t get the complete experience, the following video might give you an idea of what we endured.
So Which is Best, Iguazu or Victoria Falls?
In fairness both Victoria Falls and Iguazu Falls are impressive.
I will always have a soft spot for Victoria Falls. It was the first stop on our trip, and at the time I’d not seen anything like them. We also took the helicopter flight which was really special. I can still picture my first real sight of the water, and I can still recall being amazed at the raw power of nature.
But the Iguazu Falls are definitely more impressive. Not only are the falls themselves bigger, but because of the way the Brazilians and Argentinians have built viewing platforms so close you actually get that much closer. Which means you experience even more of the power. And the two sides of the falls are not better than one another, they just just offer a different experience.
If you go, you should visit both sides. And if you don’t mind getting wet go on the boat trip, you won’t forget (or regret) it.