Millions upon millions of years ago, when the defining characteristics of this planet were still being established, an event took place that was so powerful yet so slow that it is incomprehensible for the human mind to grasp its magnitude. Comparable to an unstoppable force meeting an immovable object, the South American plate began diverging from present-day Africa, drifting across the surface of the planet and forming the Atlantic Ocean. As it came upon the Nazca plate, the tremendous land mass subducted and formed the Andes mountains.
This gargantuan line of volcanoes and snow-capped peaks served as the backdrop and defining force behind the imperceptibly slow formation of the Amazon rainforest, a naturalist’s dream of biodiversity. Comprising 40% of South America and a swath of land larger than the contiguous 48 states, the Amazon and its corresponding species exist solely because of the power of water.
In the Northern sector of these inhospitable wetlands, the aptly named Amazon river is the dominating force of water; in the Southern half, the basin drains primarily into the Parana, a river whose watershed stretches across an incredible five countries. As water flows down the Eastern side of the Andes or gets deposited directly into the Southern Amazon, it starts working its way Southeast towards the Parana river and its tributaries, which spread out like the roots of a tree to capture and transport every last drop.
These tiny droplets work together at a magnificent scale to reach a crescendo at Iguazu falls, which lies 23 kilometers upriver from the Iguazu river’s confluence with the Parana. As the upriver plateau gives way to the lowlands on which the water will continue its journey East towards the sea, the wide, winding river is funneled into a 2.7 kilometer wide stretch which abruptly gives way, forming a waterfall almost twice as high as Niagra and unrivaled in the world.
It was on the edge of these falls that I found myself after 10 months of travel through South America, thinking I had “seen it all” yet unprepared for the power and inspiration that nature still had in store. Stefje and I started our excursion with a trip to the Argentine side, which requires a full day to take in all the different views and a good pair of walking shoes to traverse all the walkways precariously built over the flowing water.
Our introduction to the falls wasn’t visual but rather auditory, as just a few minutes after entering the adult amusement park, the deafening roar of the series of cascades began capturing our imagination and drowning out the sounds and thoughts of the outside world.
Our first panorama viewpoint was a jaw-dropping stunner. A long, curved line of frothy water spilled violently over the calm plateau into unseen depths below, the chain only broken by tiny islands abundant with flora from the constant mist.
Merely comprehending the flow of water was a futile act. Where could it all come from? How did it flow with such force continuously? We were dazzled by the view, yet naive in our appreciation; somehow this viewpoint took in only a third of the falls.
Onwards through the sweltering jungle we went, along a walkway that allowed us to peer down from fantastic heights to see the falls progress along a series of plateaus. The entire Argentine experience was a showcase of wildlife, as the walk yielded dozens of coatis, - a type of Amazonian aardvark - spiders spinning webs across our path, and dizzying flocks of butterflies that landed on our sweaty shoulders and flew around our heads.
At the next viewpoint we had an improved angle of the mist-filled basin, where water violently gushed and overflowed into deep chasms.
From the trail’s endpoint we could grasp just a taste for the water’s origin, as the deceptively placed waters progressed rapidly towards their first precipice. The water gushed as it picked up steam and then disappeared over the cliff, never to be seen again.
Although the upper trail was a good taste for the overall scope of the falls, we were eager to head down to the lower trail to get a chance to feel their power firsthand. Starting slowly along a pair of falls with bridges above and below, the trial eventually turned towards the centerpiece of the park.
Upon finally seeing the view from eye level, we were awed by its enormity. On the left was La Garganta del Diablo (The Devil’s Throat), a horseshoe shaped semi-circle which unbelievably captures 50% of the water and send mist clouds 1.5 kilometers into the sky.
Yet we would save our close up for later, instead zooming towards the portion of the walkway where visitors guarded their cameras and adorned ponchos as the water came directly overhead. Instead of buttoning up I stripped down, opting for just a bathing suit and basking in the spray after a long morning of sweating profusely in the jungle humidity.
Directly above me was the most impressive sheer wall of water we had seen yet, a curtain of force demolishing everything in its path. We stayed here for as long as possible, darting in and out of the intense close-up to regroup and dry off before diving back in, eager for another taste.
Adding to the parallel between Iguana National Park and an amusement park is the train which transports tourists North towards The Devil’s Throat. We hopped in the open air car and chugged slowly to the station, where a team of brave construction workers had built a walkway directly to the mouth of the falls. We had saved the best for last: by far this was the most impressive part of the park.
We were still hundreds of yards from the view when the mist began hitting us in the face. As we approached, clouds of spray flung from the water hitting rocks far below ensconced the platform, leaving everything constantly deluged. Yet whenever the winds shifted and the views cleared, the result was a visceral experience. For 270 of the 360 degrees around us the falls dominated, dropping 1.5 cubic tons of water every second.
In the distance stood Brazil, with a long unbroken chain of waterfalls sloping towards the platform and winding back into a deep half-circle.
Right in front of us was a violent cauldron, a small drop into the first plateau where the water foamed and roared in anticipation of the steep fall into the abyss. Our wonder we heightened by this view straight down; we had no sense of how deep the drop was because spray obscured the bottom, yet a beautiful rainbow graced the scene to enhance the already incredible beauty.
Sufficiently soaked and utterly amazed, we took in the gut-wrenching drop for a half hour, observing not just the water but also the ebb and flow of human traffic all around us. Finally we determined the view had made an indelible print on our minds and we wished the Argentine side of the falls farewell, silently reflecting on the display of nature’s power.
Less than 24 hours later we were back in the park yet stepping foot in a different country. The Brazilian side of the falls is significantly smaller than its Argentine sibling, yet it packs a wallop and attracts an equal number of visitors. As such, the walkways were overcrowded with eager tourists toting selfie-sticks and positioning themselves for the best shots.
The coatis also got the memo that it’s a popular spot to steal some food, as upon arrival at the first viewpoint a whole family was eagerly waiting for some handouts.
Right above the railing was our introduction to Brazil's Iguazu: a splended panorama of the long chain of waterfalls we had grown closely acquainted with the day before.
The trail here led us along a path of increasing beauty, jutting outwards over the steep cliffs for ridiculous views of the violent rushing water.
With perfect weather and blue skies dotted with picturesque fluffy white clouds, we kept our eyes on the expanse of natural beauty in lieu of the mess of humanity unfolding in increasing chaos around us. Lines 15 or 20 people deep formed in some places to take a precious selfie at the perfect angle, but we circumvented the hordes and prowled for quiet spots. By leaning my head over the railing, I discovered only the roaring sounds of turbulent water could penetrate my eardrums. However, the navigation among the crowd was entirely worth it - these views were divine!
The dominant colors where the foamy white waters, endless green foliage, and perfect blue skies, but of course every now and then the sunlight captured the mist at the perfect angle to project an arching rainbow across our view.
As we walked, we again came closer and closer to The Devil’s Throat, this time approaching from a lower angle and preparing to get soaked. The walkway traversed over the water and suddenly the view and spray simultaneously blew us away.
Again we were surrounded on all sides by the ferocious falling water, but this time we had to peer upwards to see the starting point, ensuring we had no trouble understanding the scale of this monstrosity.
Water overrode all of our senses: fogging our vision, soaking our skin, spraying into our noses, dropping into our throats, and pounding our eardrums. This is the ultimate taste of Iguazu, and stepping out onto the platform was undoubtedly intense.
Mist clouds came and went like passing thunderstorms, but the fantastic flow of water was the constant, inspiring us with its volume again and again. By the time we reached the edge of the platform it was the best view yet: peering directly into the fury of The Devil’s Throat was a gut-wrenching experience.
We basked in the scene for as long as time would allow then slowly retreated across the path, literally soaking in one last view at every turn.